Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fine Art of an Improvised Bomb: Class Four


Improv 101
The Fourth Day of Class
This final class is about putting everything we’ve learned together. Receipts for the class are handed out, which is when I learned the cost of my birthday present. Clearly my wife must adore me, as now the immersive and intensive quality of the course makes sense, as it isn’t cheap.

We got warmed up, ran through a few exercises like Zoom! And Word Association Zoom!, followed by the Experts Game wherein I helped to discuss & divulge the history and cultural impacts of Floss and Tuques. Did you know the Tuna Tuque of Tahiti is still used today with certain classical wedding rituals to represent fertility and casting a wide net? So far I’ve been a cohort collaborative with three other student actors and have been fortunate all three were clever as hell and thereupon made me look really, really good sitting there nodding and agreeing and expanding with the ever present, “Yes, and…”

We double lined up for a few rounds of the Johnson File, adding twists once the class had all had a turn as giver and recipient. One twist where the instructor, Pearce, told the recipients their character or context, and another where he told both giver and recipient to exist within a certain cinematic genre; therein learning that I really have no clue how to exist within an afterschool special teen drama, although replicating how I used to write peoples’ papers for fun and profit, and often had to haggle over the sliding scale of higher grades costing more, seemed to supply enough knowing honesty that we managed to garner a couple chuckles.

After we’d warmed up, we dropping into a new game called Slide Show and the variant Film Review Show.

Slide / Film Review Show: four actors, two as commentators as though on a TV talk show, the other two as actors posing as “slides” or acting out “clips” from fictional films. The commentators essentially set up the content of the slide or clip, then react to and explain what the actors in the slide or clip construct or present. Each side presents offers that potentially raise the stakes, and certainly that natural tension got a few laughs for each of the groups of actors.

I got to play in one of the slides version games as one of the two slide posing models with a talented lady recently moved to Vancouver from Dawson City up in the Yukon, where they like their comedy physical since it’s so damn hard to stay warm. The commentators warmly set us up with opportunities to be inventive, instead of being specific about what we were doing, affording us some great creative choices for being utterly obnoxious. Framed as a nature travel show like the one by Mutual of Omaha, the hosts would set up seeing the hyenas, where upon we posed a slide of my riding one while my cohort tried to catch up. And our hosts mentioned enjoying the moonlit beaches, and so naturally we posed as a couple swooning romantically. The hosts took that offer in stride and remarked on how the trip had really brought them together a team. Brilliant, albeit a touch lowbrow, stuff. And of course that simply meant the next slide show with male slide show actors and female talk show hosts would involve male strippers, a bachelorette party gone sideways, and genital warts on the bride-to-be’s tongue that fortunately could be cured by a medicinal lollipop prescribed by a doctor MD that looked suspiciously like the male stripper from the night before. Women really can go lowbrow much better than men when they want too, I’m only saying.

After the slides we switched to the film clip format, and despite my soggy suggestion of “Swallowing Sharks” as a film title, the student actors managed to rock out with some great offers and adaptations. The tricky part of the film clip format seemed to be finding the right balance of supplying too much plot from the show hosts, risking really boxing the clip actors into a celluloid corner, or inversely not being specific enough and seeing the scene go sideways as the clip actors have to create something with too little foundational structure.

After that exercise we moved on to another new game called Typewriter.

Typewriter: One actor takes a bench off to the side as the narrator of the scene, a sort of benign voice of god that sets the scene, defines the characters and environments, introduces problems, raises stakes, and suggests resolutions. The narrator is effectively, as Pearce described it, a training wheel to ensure the scene keeps moving and stays remotely on track. At the same time, the narrator must listen and indulge whatever bubbles up from the ideas and choices the other actors bring to or introduce into the scene.

My group during this exercise chose to ask the audience for a suggestion for and environment. Someone said restaurant, while someone else said dinner theater. Pearce pointed out that by being more specific about the location and context, the scene is better empowered. We went with dinner theater, and as narrator, I framed that as a murder mystery type of dinner theater, having recently seen Psychoville season one, which more or less kicks off around a murder mystery dinner theater evening gone horribly sideways.

The other actors made my choices easy and apparent. The nervous, deer in headlights choices of first male actor described his characters as low status despite being an actor in the play. Seeing that, I put the strong female actor into a role of an annoyed, aggressive, angry wife that had been dragged to this stupid dinner theater play and wasn’t buying the shtick for one second. She naturally came off as high status, and she ran with that notion so well the natural conflict had the audience engaged. I interject to tap the third actor, a tall fellow able to rubber-face on a dime from cheer-leading captain to lounge singer extraordinaire to game warden super cop, as the manager / director of the play that sensed the conflict as a threat to his dinner theater production and wanted to intercede, however he would step into the fray not as manager or director, instead he would step in as a new character for the play.  This detailed description made the role for that actor a touch more challenging, as it suggested he’d come to save the day, but could not do so as a simpering manager of low, groveling must appease the always correct customer. Rather, by stepping into the scene as a character within the bounds of the play itself, the manager came forward with status, effectively balancing out the bitchy wife character.

Sensing the need to both raise stakes and push for a resolution, I as narrator pointed out that just then the bitchy wife noticed the nuts in her Waldorf salad, nuts she happened to be deathly allergic too. As the female actor clutched her throat and dropped writhing to the stage, gasping and asking for help, the male actors made even better choices than I’d hoped, both showing confusion and alarm that the woman had fallen to the floor, while doing loud stage whisper asides between themselves pointing out what a great actor the woman was, Oscar worthy, conveying their character’s mistaken belief that the woman had been a plant, an actress in the show, after all. They’re of course wrong, and the audience knows this, and as she goes still, there were laughs a plenty.

After a break for lunch wherein I consumed a wrap from a coffee shop after discovering the horde scale lineups around the Market were procurable prohibitive, I returned to the Improv theater and had some time sit out front and chit chat with some of the other actors before being allowed back inside. Helped me to better appreciate how different our respective backgrounds happen to be. No other game designers, no other digital artists, no other toy collectors. Fair enough, and groovy, however also really enjoy the rich diversity of backgrounds among the student actors. Like a burgeoning film maker & currently employed film editor. Like someone from the courthouse with a civil reputation to protect. Like someone breaking bad from the business world. Like a aquatic mechanical engineer, or an actor that’s been in films with animal stars, and not one but three stand up comedians including a grandmother that’s clearly had to maintain a healthy sense of humor, or someone that has drunk a sour mash shot that included, nigh, featured kissing a severed & pickled human toe – the Yukon’s equivalent to the cod cheek / screech / tack thing in Newfoundland – while getting egged on by a row of retired gold mining grannies. Everyone there had a different background, and that meant a wealth of unexpected and wonderful things to draw upon and bring into the scenes, choices, and offers each of us made on the day upon the stage.

After we were let back into the building, we got our swagger back with some One Word.

One Word: A mime scene where through the course of the sketch each actor may only choose and say one word, and that word a single time, to like a smart bomb in the games of yon, behest thee to make thine word countest most bestest. Making sound effects with your mouth is allowed, though beware the slippery slope into yabbering gibberish in [place of words like Mr. Bean, as that is unacceptable and such play shall be flagged. The scene should have an environment, verily though might it be audience suggested, and defined characters, that they too might perchance arise from such things as the audience might yowl, and should attempt to introduce conflict, and attempt if can some sort of resolution.

I would venture to say the three actors that assembled a car salesman versus car salesman rivalry trying to sway a young, impressionable woman buyer over with value versus speed made the most of the exercise, however all embarkations had solid moments to them. From the car salesman scene specifically we learned the term “Mortar”, the through-line that holds a scene together. For that scene it had been the inherent competition between rival salesmen, who would get the sale?

After this exercise we moved boldly into a “wheels off” scene. No narrator. No quirky constraints. Just tie everything we’ve learned together and compose a scene from suggestions of character, setting / environment / time period, and a problem. Can get all of that from suggestions, or just one thing and introduce the rest from whatever bubbles up from your playing inside the environment.  

Wheels Off: We can talk, can use “cut too” to change location, and can use “so many hours later” to change time frame. We’re encouraged to take our time, to not rush, to swim / play in our environments, savor our characters, to better bubble up offers and ideas while all the more setting and selling the scene to the audience. We’re intended to establish / empower an environment, and then characters, then present a problem, raise the stakes, and find a resolution. Each actor should emerge into the scene one at a time, to ensure no collisions as two try to simultaneously deliver new, potentially conflicting offers or elements.

Side note, generally improv scenes on average go for around 5 minutes. Anything longer starts to lose steam.

My team had a tough scene suggested from the audience and never quite found our alienment in it. The pretext suggested involved one roommate cheating with the other roommate’s fiancé.

Epic fail number one: I played the bad roommate, and made the choice of trying to be something like Jack Tripper from Three’s Company meets Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, all “Show me with your mouth and money is on the dresser” sort of douchebaggery, yet within a sitcom punch line cadence. My ill defined character choice proved immediately too complicated, and I began playing the rest of the scene reactively to the other actors, who I’d effectively left marooned on islands of self-discovery as I scuttled my own character craft.

Epic fail number two: difficult to convey and fellow actors did not pick up on it, thus did not make complimentary choices, and why should they, straddling such distinctly incongruent archetypes demonstrated a lack of commitment to a particular character, and instead of playing in my scene and environment, I’d tried to tack it, and effectively my fellow actors, into place as though with a ball peen hammer.

Epic fail number three: Left an actor stranded. Not just to define her character, she did that fine. However plot-wise I’d gotten her to hide in a closet, or more specifically, between / behind the stage flat with a cityscape painted on it. I didn’t define if the closet door were open or closed, or if even had one. And after my roommate arrived into the scene and we discussed his declaration of love for this woman and how he’d like to marry her, I have stalled completely unsure how to bring her back into scene. Sure, she could have brought herself in, yet as the one that put her there, surely I’d had some plan for how to get her out again? Nope. Couple my inaction with the tension the audience had definitely begun to feel, the one that seemed funny at first, then awkward, then strangely unfulfilling like soppy sandpaper, and you could hear crickets, or at least, the instructor’s molars begin to work together.

Epic fail number four: asynchronous tones, meaning, after the inevitable, awkwardly handled reveal of the soiled lady in the room that’d been hiding in plain view behind the never described or accounted for imaginary closet door, my male counterpart made choices that followed commitment to his character, make note that unlike myself, he’d actually defined one and stuck with it beautifully. So from the rosy heights of elated adorations exclaimed he plummet with a sharp intake of horrified hiss into fiery display of disgust, betrayal, and dismissal as he stormed away somberly, leaving the stage. I became so enthralled with his performance I felt I had actually stolen my best friend’s one true love for a night of knavishly nasty nookie. I felt ugly, ashamed, and completely unsure how to react. I tried to fall back on the tattered remains of my ill defined Jack Tripper / Harvey Keitel hybrid, and  managed to glibly, hollowly offer a solution to get the lady and I off that stag as soon as humanly possible. Something wicked or dark might have worked if I’d sold my character that way from the get go, yet I hadn’t, and couldn’t swerve into that ditch now. He’d played it sober, I’d tried to play it sitcom, and not one of the three of us had managed to fully sort out our intrepid scene. The scene had sadly been failure to launch from the first words out of my mouth, and I will be need to be damn sure I know what / who I am as a character, and commit to that, before I ever try storming into a scene again, particularly as first man. Or at least, allow myself a base template, something that can percolate and evolve and grow as I play with others, yet have enough structural integrity to fall back on however the scene’s ante’s get raised.

The Wheels Off scene I think best delivered on all cylinders that day would have to be the scene set in a soda shop in the 50’s wherein two teen girls and a soda jerk preparing a steady stream of one and two scoop Coke floats discuss their options when one girl reveals she’s pregnant, just sure of it, after getting busy with a Greaser in the back of his Black Lightning the night before. Environment: 50’s soda shop. Check. Characters: from mannerisms to poodle skirt references and swapping in, “Oh, poodle skirts!” for proper swearing to displaying laugh out loud naivety in the age of sanitized TV and idealized Americana. Check. Problem, teen pregnancy by someone from different social strata. Check. Raising stakes, prom is coming and won’t fit in brand new yellow dress. Check. Solution, praying. Check.  Functionally sound, had several offers that could have been mined for gold along the way like the prom dress, or the impending prom period, yet held up, hit all the key aspects the class has been trying to teach, and got a slew of laughs along the way for good measure. If the Wheels Off scenes were final exams, that one would have screwed the grading curve.

After the Wheels Off scenes, we went into a fine round of Freeze Tag, replete with impromptu musical numbers, two even, and several strange orifice extraction elements. During this Pearce called each student into the hallway to let them know if they could continue on to the 200 level of the course if they would like too, and additionally offer some notes about key areas to focus on for improvement.

When summoned, I stepped into the hallway with some tightening in my chest. I really worried I’d bombed too much and wouldn’t have “passed” enough to get into the next level of training. Instead of solving the mystery, Pearce asked if started a lot of projects I didn’t finish. I felt pinned like a butterfly and smoked like a bee. Three novels sit half finished on my laptop. A half dozen barley to marginally contrived comic book stories litter the hallways of my past and across dozens of papers and pages stuffed in my office spaces. I haven’t been diving since last October. I’ve still never gotten to be the driving creative vision for a video game project, despite all honorable intentions and professional efforts. I’ve been divorced and had several breakups painful enough might well as have been legally binding. I joined the Navy and ended up never really serving any active duty time after all that submarine hunting training. I have a tattoo design sitting with an artist for my leg that I’ve never bothered to get around too. And all this flashed though my head as I wondered how this man had seen through me so well. I believe my jaw must have dropped open because my tongue went dry.

He looked surprised, perhaps because I did, and revised, saying that he felt I appeared to have ADD. Meaning, I changed my mind a lot, and that had several times gotten in the way of committing to character. By not making up my mind, or second guessing myself, or trying to do too much, I ended up undeserving everything, rather than selecting something manageable and committing to it to see where it lead too.

He said that I have clever ideas and insights, however I need to commit to my characters, make them real and let them breathe. This might well explain why I do well as a narrator type, yet flounder when trying to be the hero, villain, or circus elephant.

I’m debating now about the 200 level classes. Part of me wants to do it, continue to learn more, if only about myself as I have immensely so far. Part of me is afraid he’s right, and that I will never learn how to settle down, pick something, and follow through with it. And for the expense of the course, as with running, writing, drawing, diving, or any of the other things I have thrust myself into yet never followed through with, i want to pause and consider before committing myself. Somewhat for cost of the class and the Saturdays I’ll be giving up. More though for the time I’ll miss from my family, and knowing that I can make a full commitment to contributing to the new class and everyone in it, eyes wide open and all that.

We’ll see what I decide. For now I’m just happy to have had the opportunity, appreciate the gift from my Wife and all the things I’ve learned and experiences shared with my classmates and instructor, Pearce.
 Now a couple snaps of the mini-after party where we went next door for a pint to celebrate completeing the class. Noice!

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