Taught by Pearce Visser from 10 am to 4 pm for 4 consecutive Saturdays on the dates of September 3, 10, 17, & 24 in the year of her majesty, 2011 at the Improv Centre on Granville Island.
I’d been a longstanding fan of improv without knowing that those shows and sketches came about as a product of improv; or at least, the comedians and actors accountable for providing so much entertainment and inspiration were themselves products of the improve syndicates.
The British Who’s Line Is It Anyway initially gave me the term. I wouldn’t fully appreciate what improv truly consists of until seeing it live with my Wife, the same gal that got me into this class as a grand birthday gift, when we went on a whim to see Theater Sports on Granville Island one balmy evening many years ago.
We procured tickets for the first show, found out tickets to subsequent shows would be cheap should we elect to stick around, and ended up staying through all three. We particularly enjoyed the third show, which is the notoriously “blue” show, since no minors are allowed to that one.
The live show is a simple revelation. Seeing actors react to the crowd, to crowd suggestions and reactions, removes a sense of detachment, of disbelief. Watching Who’s Line Is It Anyway is impressive, and you get a sense that the folks in front of the camera are quick witted, yet commercial breaks remind you that you’re suspending your disbelief, that the final edit might have cut around all the times actors guffawed, all the times bits went pear shaped, every time the audience might have yawned or gags have bombed. The live show is live, and while not everything works, the mistakes can add value and challenge, all about the strengths and quality elements of the players.
Since then I’ve learned that the sketch comedy I enjoyed as a youth of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade is a result of an improv group of the same name, and some of the same members, like Amy Poehler. Second City spawned Colbert, Tina Fey, and dozens of others peppered throughout Canadian and US television productions. SCTV, SNL, Vacant Lot, The State, Exit 57, Strangers with Candy, both versions of Who’s Line is it Anyway, the Drew Cary Show, Parks & Recreation, 32 Rock, and dozens of other programs have their roots in improv troops and companies in NYC, Chicago, Toronto, LA, and even Vancouver, where both Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie have roots, and both helped found the company that today owns and operates the Improv Centre and local incarnation of Theater Sports. And that teached the course my wife has enrolled me into.
As a kid I used to watch SNL every Saturday night on a tiny black and white TV I’d pulled into bed with me on my bottom bunk of the bunk bed I shared with my brother. While my brother snored away overhead I watched and listened as the Dennis Miller era cast rambled through skits and sketches, thinking to myself that someday my cadre of extras rolls in all the high school productions would set me up on the long road to playing the stage of SNL. Sure, I wasn’t funny yet, or particularly good looking. I didn’t even have a menagerie of goofy slapstick characters to fall back on when bully push came to grumpy audience shove. What I did have was a penchant for pretending to be shot by heavy gauge firearms (I’d also wanted to be a Hollywood stunt man), and a deep affinity for absurdest comedy. Dan Aykroyd, Steve Martin, Richard Pryer, even Bill Cosby, all the people whose records I’d listened too over and over that one long, lovely summer in Pennsylvania between 6th and 7th grade, when I also read all the Sherlock Holmes mysteries while hidden away in my hay bale fort in the rafters of the cattle barn, and when the local library had no reservations about lending out an unfiltered selection of comedy records to a kid with an ample appetite for the art form.
Call it mid-life crisis, call it a need for affirmation, or at least confirmation, that I did the right thing becoming a game designer instead of learning to play the banjo and tie balloon animals and regale audiences with anecdotes about being clever, crafty, or an affable idiot. Perhaps it’s just a hope for conquering the social awkwardness I have with speaking in front of people, especially when they aren’t strangers or obliged to be polite due to my being their manager.
Perhaps it’s just for the hell of it, to maybe learn something and have fun along the way. Frankly, that’s enough, and so far, learned quite a bit, and now allow me to share some of the better baubles of brilliance with you.
The First Day of Class
Pearce Visser has been an actor and improvisational comedian for over twenty years, heralding back to his university years in Alberta. I recognize him from nearly every Theater Sports show I’ve ever attended, immediately filling me with both confidence that he knows his stuff and dread that I will never be able to live up to the bar his performances I’ve seen have set.
Pearce began by stating his expectations: for us to be kids, to play, and to reach for pure creativity.
Improv is something that can be used every day, not just about making up crap, it’s about confidence. And building the confidence to make up crap. Improv is about guts and balls.
One of people’s biggest fears is public speaking. Having people look directly at you is inherently predatory. Improv in the face of that attention is something somewhat spiritual – humanistic. Improv is inherently about accepting, making offerings, sharing. Improv is about bending, flowing, and adapting. Improv is about collaboratively telling a good story, being engaged, listening, sharing, and asking for details. Improv is about becoming an active, engaged listener. Improv is about not judging.
The first day of improv class would be about mentally exhausting, and despite breaks and lunch, despite being able to duck out for the bathroom without hand raising whenever you need, the exercises and attempts of day one to teach everyone to override their logic and let their creativity flow would be exhausting. We’d be warned.
Improve is about improvement. Commit to the exercise because you must have commitment to create something meaningful and entertaining from improv. Standing around shuffling your feet and having your hands half hanging out of your pockets, unless part of an intentional character, is half-assed. If you can’t commit to a character on stage among your fellow actors, why would an audience bother to commit to believing your character from off stage? If anything, you need to over sell the character your creating / embodying / choosing.
You must flow back and forth with the audience. They know you’re making it up. Most people in the audience want you to succeed, and moreover, to entertain them.
The audience projects onto you, asks you questions. What’s he going to do? What would I do in this situation? What is or will be the gag or punch line or twist?
The audience is adapting with each new bit of detail, information, and will interpret what’s happening on the fly. Your actions define who you are as a character / entity on stage, and as such everything must be clear. Vague elements or characterizations or premises can’t be built on.
In improv, things change and move. Things get reinterpreted. Things may even seem insane or stupid to the casual observer, yet there is a method to the madness.
You must commit or risk losing your connection with the audience and scene. If committed, you won’t fail, further, you likely can’t fail because the audience is right there in it with you no matter how absurd your scene or situation is becoming. The audience wants to see you really try, and if you commit you can’t fail, because instead of worrying about failure, realize mistakes add humor. Commit and don’t worry or judge. Just take the punch and keep going.
Rules of Comedy:
- Recognition – things the audience identify with will build empathy, empathy will get the laugh
- Surprise – something no one would have thought of
- Repetition – introduce something, repeat it so the audience picks up on a pattern, and repeat it again for a laugh, or deviate from expectation for surprise to get a laugh
- A lot of fear works into comedy – surprise to relief to release
- Laughter is a very powerful tool
- Blocking – refusing an offer or suggestion from others
- Wimping – accepting offers and then failing to do anything with them
- Corpsing – breaking character to laugh or react outside the character your committed too
- Gregarious – living in a group, or flock; being a joiner without adding contrast or conflict to a scene
We’re all different levels and background. Improv helps to break down barriers and build camaraderie as though going through hell together.
Rules of the class include getting called on any lack of commitment and called on blocking others. Blocking is refusing to accept suggestions or offers from others. The biggest rule of improv is to accept, to never block others, to condition yourself to not block as a reflex. You must remove your bubble, refuse to say no, not have any negative bubble around yourself others’ ideas might bounce off of and fail to flourish or be facilitated.
Further, don’t try to control reality. Say yes to offers from others, to their suggestions and ideas, and allow for emergence and spontaneous absurdity. Allow your role to change if someone endows you with a new role; though be aware that by endowing someone else with a new role you may catch them off guard and force / compel them to discard something they might have just worked up in the wings before stepping into the fray on stage. If endowed, have to let the role go and take on role from others.
In our normal lives we need to be logical constantly. Being creative? Not so much. For improv, let creativity guide us.
In improv, as well as being committed to character, we must tune in and stay on scene.
Pearce encouraged us to look up Doug Henning for some educational examples. He then moved the class into games and exercises.
Zoom – Screech – Zap: A warm up game to get the blood flowing. A person says “Zoom!” to the person next to him, that person passes the “Zoom!” on around the circle of people by turning to the next person and saying “Zoom!” and so on. The “Zoom!” passes around the circle unhendered until someone responds to the person telling them “Zoom!” with “Screech!”, where upon the person that said “Zoom!” now has to reverse the flow and turn to the person on their other side and say “Zoom!”, and the direction of flow has now been officially reversed. To add another layer, anyone at any time upon receiving a “Zoom!” may lock eyes with anyone in the circle and send the love their way with a “Zap!” accompanied by a point, hand slap, or both. At that point the recipient of the “Zap!” can chose to send a “Zoom!” to either direction by turning to the person on either side of them, or reject the “Zap!” with a “Screech!” and force the initiating “Zap!” sender to pick a new target.
Knee Slap – Clap – Snap: An associative word game wherein you have to coordinate slapping your knees, clapping, then snapping one hand, and then the other, with listening to what the person before you said and timing your response to that with your finger snaps. So when the person before you says, “Thunder Struck!” while snapping once to each word; you then have top slap your knees, clap, and associate a new word to add to the last word said by the person before you, such as, “Struck Gold!” snapping once to each word. Definitely harder than it sounds.
Johnson File: Split the group into two lines. A person from one line steps forward and offers up the “Johnson File”. A person from the other line steps forward and accepts, creating a characterization the first person must then adapt too. Each recipient tries to receive the file differently, and in so doing afford a context and role for the person offering the file beyond simply offering up a folder with a name on it. After this each person goes to the back of the opposite line that they might cycle through both roles afforded by the exercise at least once.
Bring Bring: Two lines again. First person says, “Bring! Bring!” emulating a phone ringing. Second person answers with apparent caller ID, and identifies the caller. First person must adopt the role prescribed to them, and suggest what they might be calling about. Second person responds to the suggestion without blocking. At least, that’s how I remember it, should’ve written down more details. Notes on this exercise were to remain accepting and be precise, not add on a bunch of extraneous detail that’s difficult to convey or support within the scene.
Experts: Groups of four, two as audience and two as experts. Audience suggests a topic, and the experts must riff on that topic as experts for a little while, making offers to one another to grow and develop the topic without blocking or stepping out of area of expertise. Of our four people, I first was part of the audience while two fellows waxed on eloquently about the evolution of hair, from its emergence as a evolutionary armor against small animals in the 40’s, particularly on our heads since we all walked on our hands then, to the later development of balding as a result of our walking on our feet and no longer needed that defense against brush birds and thicket squirrels. Next up, my partner and I received the topic of juice, something fortunately we both happen to be experts on, and we discussed and reminisced jovially with our studio audience about the discovery of juice as the inexhaustible fuel source of the future, and the variances of results versus fuel sources, from the disappointing side effects of lettuce extracts to the explosive results of creaming beans. A real hoot had by all.
Tableau Game: Two groups again. One person from a group begins making a sound and motion that suits the theme Pearce gave, such as angry or sleepy or gleeful. Once set, that person must continue to repeat this sound and motion until the whole team has joined in. One by one each member of the group joins the machine, each with a unique complimentary sound and motion that adds to and builds on the overall machine, attempting to create a range of elevations, pitches, and stage depths to organically create a holistic mechanization.
Misname Things Game: This is a solo exercise wherein each person walks around the stage and auditorium space pointing to things and identifying them incorrectly. For instance, point at a light fixture and declare it an elephant tusk with the certainty of an enlightened anthropologist. Harder than it sounds, and definitely begins to grate on a person’s natural predisposition towards being logical and cognitively buttoned down.
What Are You Doing?: Pair off into two person teams. One person begins doing a mime and sound FX as though perhaps shooting hoops or beachcombing for coins, and the second person asks what they’re doing. This is the tricky part. The first person then makes something up that is completely not what they are miming, like shaving cats or gelding giraffes, and the second person begins doing that. Then the first person asks the second person what they’re doing, and the second person says something new, like rolling dough or hitchhiking with aliens, and the first person adopts that behavior through mime. Essentially the exercise is about accepting suggestions and assigning / endowing behaviors / roles. It’s definitely a fun and extremely physical, game!
My notes mention a Brainwashing game as well; however it clearly worked, as I cannot recall what the rules of that were. I do remember we did a couple small group exercises with word association variations, most difficult being the one where one person faces a firing squad of three and has to respond with the first word to come to mind to each of people in the firing squad, an interesting dynamic that proved easier for the people that didn’t have to work to have words ready when their turns came around.
Summary notes at the end of the day were…
Three aspects of a scene are:
Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, and if you choose to draw attention to it, nurture it and allow it to blossom, may well become one of the best parts of the show simply because it wasn’t planned and got a chance to creatively evolve.