The Second Day of Class for Improv 101
Class began with a review of some of the basic, core improv terms.
- Block: When you say “No!” to someone’s offer. This is generally bad form in improv.
- Endowing: Give other person character or plot. Can be good or bad. Offering someone with something, or can be presenting self into a scene as a character.
- Offer: Give someone an object, idea, emotion, status, character, or anything else really.
- Wimping: Being vague, now endowing your offer with properties.
- Shelving: Putting someone’s ideas to the side, not empowering the other person.
Five blocks of basic scene structure:
- Plot / Problem
- Raise Stakes
Number One Rule of Improv: Accepting
Warmed up with some cross-circle variants of Zoom! Screech! Zap!, then moved into Freeze Tag, Power Ball, and Word Association Firing Line.
Freeze-Tag: Start with two people, everyone else in a line. The two people begin a scene, something basic probably on a suggestion from Pearce, and mime out what they can. When Pearce yells, “Freeze!” someone from the front of the line steps forward and taps one of the two players out, then adopts the tapped out person’s position and stance. When the scene resumes the new player must change the context of the scene and redefine the mime currently under way. When people get tapped out, they leave the scene and move to the back of the line.
Power Ball: Stand in a circle. One person makes the mime and sound effects for a massive ball of energy, then pretends to pass / shoot / compress and slingshot / etc. the energy at someone else n the circle. The recipient must “catch” the energy, make as big a show of the size / mass / weight / impact / damage / near miss of the energy as possible, then retool / refashion the energy into something else, say an arrow or atomic missile or commemorative statuette of liberty, and then hurl it on / at / into / around someone else in the circle. Hilarity and sprained spleens ensues.
Firing Line: The aforementioned one versus three word association game.
Character Creation, Tableau, and Tips:
- So important to establish a distinct and clear character, this will make the character easier to know, to speak as, and to represent
- Know and communicate the gender, age, disposition
o Is this character predator, prey, outgoing, shy?
· Ask questions – why are you or they doing something, what are you adding with your character choice?
· When entering a scene, you should be a complimentary character, there to make an offer and add to the scene as a whole
o Parallel characters coming into a scene seem like Xerox and add little, no tension or drama
· Opposites work better in comedy & drama, a contrasting character is likely going to be more beneficial to a scene
How and what to choose about a character:
- Physicality and physical nature; how do they walk, move, carry themselves through and otherwise occupy space
o play with your voice,
o play with how you talk,
o the speed,
o the volume,
o the inflections,
o the accents,
o the pitch,
o keywords or catchphrases to repeat
- Archetypes and stereotypes can make for easy shorthand when communicating a legible character to an audience quickly
o Predator or prey?
o What is their motivation?
o Shy or outgoing?
o Stoner or uptight?
o Chaste or cougar?
o Status is relative
o Customer, boss, client, servant, victim?
o Authority, officer?
o High and Low status
o Power balance
- High Status:
o Open, take up more space, confident, head up, not fidgeting or wandering, solid on the ground.
o Voice is strong and clear.
o Eye contact, very powerful.
o Disposition, don’t have to be unfriendly or mean to be high status
o Avoid always coming in high status, as those often drive the scenes
- Low Status:
o Body language is closed, slumped, a dead spider
o Little or no eye contact
o Muffled voice
o Fidgety, not grounded
o Shy, coward, prey
Thing about setting to ground characters. Characters in a vacuum are largely without context for the audience. Two accountants would be one thing. Two accountants on a beach another. Two accountants at a race track, something else again.
Use what you know. Pearce gave the example of getting a suggestion from the audience to be a teacher. As he knows more about science from college than history or romantic languages, he would default to a science teacher, just to have some nuggets of truth from his knowledge of the subject matter to fall back on or infuse into his fictional character to give it life and validity.
Use your physicality. If you’re a big fella, shape your characters around that. For example, if playing a sheriff and fortunate enough to appear to have paid for the proverbial keg over the six pack, perhaps play the role as a beer swilling sheriff like from a Paul Newman film. Or use your physique to add irony, such as the buxom ballerina should such circumstantial opportunity arrive, like those hippos and alligators in Fantasia.
In a setting, chose your role. An undefined role will appear unformed and vague and ultimately confuse or disengage the audience.
Second to the Chair Status Game: Stand as close as you can to the chair without touching it and prove to all comers that you are the highest status on the stage other than the magnificently mighty chair.
Vending Machine versus Customer Game: Variations include high status vending machine vs. high status customer, low status vending machine vs. low status customer, low status vending machine vs. high status customer, and high status vending machine vs. low status customer who totally wasn’t worthy of the Tom Cruise Meets U2 Producing Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark Money Pit Majesty of the Diamond Age Platinum Plated High Status Vending Machine.
Having explored status, we moved on to dip a toe into the pulsating pool that is scene work. The ground rules were simple sounding enough; suggest an activity, agree to it, and do it. Further, keep the scene moving, both the plot and the action within space. Don’t plant and stay anchored to a solitary spot, move around the stage exploring / playing with your character in the scene, helping to convey it to the audience through your discoveries playing within it.
Improv isn’t all about comedy, it’s about acting and creation and motivation. The comedy is emergent from ideas to generate scene, problems, and resolutions as they arise / arrive.
Animal Mannerisms Game: Receive an environmental setting, situation / problem, and an animal your character will have affectations of. Play out the scene demonstrating identifiable animal characteristics while resolving the dilemma of the situation within the confines of the assigned setting.
Pearce repeatedly reminds players to avoid for resolving scenes with deus ex machina solutions, like having Superman show up with an EKG machine to save the day, or aliens, or gods, unless the scene were already about super heroes, extraterrestrials, or divine deities.
The Animal Mannerism Games entailed teams of three. First up a moose, a butterfly, and a lizard tasked with trying to design a commercial barn for mass production. The comedy and hard won lessons were immediately apparent as each player tried to shape their mannerisms and body postures and gestures around their associated animal, all the while receiving notes and corrections from Pearce. The next group, asked to stuff a thanksgiving turkey, contained a parrot, a cricket / grasshopper, and a camel. Initially the group discovered that they needed to better establish who their character was to give the audience a context for the scene; not just the animal aspects, also the social associations, who was family, and in what station, etc. Also learned that talking on top of one another more often adds confusion than comedy. The player playing as a parrot type person kept insisting on adding more pine nuts with a high pitched urgency, much like wanting a cracker, and got great laughs.
After the turkey stuffing, an antelope, deer, and ostrich opened and operated a hair salon, learning along the way that use of props is great to ground a scene, however the setting must be maintained as though actually there, not just offhandedly referenced, else the audience’s suspension of disbelief will evaporate, or worse, spectators will become confused and detached. The use of the cubed grounded the sketch, the scene setting, and if actors respect the setting they’ve empowered, those same cubes could be pretty much anything you say they represent.
After that came a snake, dolphin, and orangutan trying to decorate a holiday tree. While the dolphin player kept hopping around squeaking observations and the orangutan meandered and flailed along waiting to be told what to do, the snake player sent the others for more tinsel and using the time alone to steal away all the presents from beneath the tree. Early in the sketch Pearce made a note that the quiet player in a scene runs the risk of being “Snowballed”, shut out of the scene due to a lack of creative input or clear vocalization.
Last up were my group, a worm, a Labrador dog, and a penguin played admittedly poorly by me. We were tasked with building an IKEA shelving unit. I stalled, fell to using my normal voice and just walking like a wobbling cane. My only idea was to sit on the crate we’d put forward as our IKEA box, thinking of the way penguin males all sit on the eggs during the harse winters ala March of the Penguins or Happy Feet. Not once did I think of Burgeous Meredith or Danny DeVito. Pearce interject very quickly and asked why I wasn’t doing anything to emulate or insinuate a penguin-esque presence into the scene. Clearly my egg sitting bit had been confusing or simply inane. I struggled trying to channel classic Batman villains for the remainder of the time on stage, while acutely aware of the rubber-bones dexterity of the fellow emoting worm-itude into every facet of his performance, really killer work secondary only to his performance as a male leader of a cheerleading squad with a nasty fungal toe infection on the big trials day the following class.
Empower Game: Two lines, one side says they have a package for… and comes up with a name that the person from the other line must bring to life, something Monty Python absurd like Ms. Lampbottom or Mr. Leadfish, and the latter person enact the role / character they’ve been empowered / endowed with as they cross the stage and receive their package, declare perhaps what the package actually contains, and react accordingly.
I did poorly with the Empower Game, chiefly for over thinking it, trying too hard to come up with a name that got a laugh from get go. The error with this intention is that I’m thinking about myself, and essentially being selfish. I’m trying to get the laugh. And maybe if I hadn’t over thought things and stumped myself in the critical moments, I would have gotten away with it. However, by blowing it a couple times, I realized the error of my ways ran deeper than just choking or failing to be crotch grabbing pee leaking funny. The real mistake I’d made stemmed from blowing off a core tenant of improv, the rule about striving to make others look good, and more importantly, to never cause another player to look bad.
So standing there waiting my turn to offer a package to someone with the name I’d make up, trying to make up the most brilliant of names, I thought I need a pronoun and an adverb or adjective, and then wait, it’s my turn, and instead of delivering a solution, I choke, and fail to even get gender correct. I say, “I have your parcel, Mr. Abject Pronoun.” And then I can feel my face lock into a freeze for fear of revealing my shock over the words that have just sprung from my mouth and pronounced me via subtext loud and clear and absolute asshat. I see the player across from me with the seasonal real life name reacting with surprise, confusion, and a fair degree of warranted annoyance, though remaining good spirited. I offer a new name as an alternative, and still stinging from my own lackluster performance as an aquatic fowl, amend my offer and endowment with a quick, “Sorry, I mean, I have your package, Ms. Penguin!” What I should have said to save face for all involved, other than not saying “Abject Prounoun” in the first place, could have been, “Oh, my apologies, I see I’ve completely read the logo wrong. Allow me to amend, this parcel is indeed for a Misses Beaverpastry.”
Next time my turn came around to give someone a name I did only slightly better with “Mr. Shower Trowel.” Clearly concerns about patching up my relationship with my fellow actors bled through into my stage life.
Some finishing notes on Blocking. A Block is just a “No”. A Block is not a Conflict. A Conflict is a “No, and but…” or a “No, I was once…” You just feel a Block, it tastes sour, and is clearly not an acceptance, instead a denial and can kill a scene without providing any alternative direction. Conflict is pitting things against once another to progress or evolve the situation, to build drama, present problems, raise stakes, and strive towards resolutions.
Over-Acceptance Game: An exercise of everything ending with “Yes, and…” to get creative juices flowing while crushing any opportunity or option to block.
Bus Stop / Park Bench Game: Long lineup of all players. Start with one player on the bench, happened to be me pretending to read a paper and projecting more or less with the same amount of resentment as I would normally feel about awaiting public transit. The next player along the line moves to sit down on the bench, projecting posture, mannerisms, and character that incorporate what we’ve learned about stature, recognizable traits, and mentioning details as clues for other players and presumably the audience to pick up on and relate too.
I fared better with this game, quickly off the bench as first man and ready to play once my turn came around again. One of the Canadian actors had adopted a very television land over the top US - of F*&k Yeah! – A style redneck American, and while she’d done a fine job, being from the South where those dueling banjos stereotypes come from (technically Deliverance reflected an aspect South Carolina and Georgia, and where I’m from in East Tennessee rather jabs right into that aromatic armpit if you squint enough at a map), and also being a fan of banjo players like Steve Martin and Grandpa Jones, I elected to play my next turn as a banjo plucking and strumming, East Tennessee (though sounding more like Lexington Kentucky, really) sincere southerner that said absurd things with a syrupy smile and sincere smirk. I made a point to play to the other actor, let them set the lines up and play through with whatever sprang to mind, not trying to be funny, or trying too hard to be anything except sincere within the character I’d designed, and I ended up getting a few laughs and guffaws. I suspect my gentleman redneck routine might have mixed messages for some folks, however having grown up around folks like that, felt like an honest choice to make, though perhaps I could have pushed it more, better established the character, like the guy running for governor or the Cyclops in O Brother Where Art Thou.
The blue ribbon, had I one to give, that day would have gone to the fellow that made the clever choice to show up on the park bench as an astronaut who repeatedly required the assistance of the other players to keep from floating away in his reality of zero G. Shout out as well to the cat that decided to channel Jeff Goldblum, and the pair of actresses that brought a Yaletown patio conversation to the stage with laser precision. Have I mentioned the class is full of very talented, clever people?