Thursday, December 4, 2008
Check out this link for some videos on some stuff they've done:
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
There's this social psychology term called the "Chameleon Effect," which refers to people's natural ability to mimic each other. Maybe you've seen this with people you've got good rapport with--you naturally mimic each others' speech inflection, body language, etc. Interestingly, the most likable people tend to mimic the most. And, that's why likable people are often really good at improv--because they get in sync with the rest of the team.
Anyway, that was a little digression. There's a funny game where people respond to a question at the same time, saying the exact same thing. It might sound impossible, but with a little practice, and if you're on your teammate's wavelength, it gets easier.
Here's a funny example. There's 2 rotund improvisers who are answering at the same time, and they're even wearing a single shirt, which makes it even better.
2 Headed FAT Man Improv Comedy - Click here for funny video clips
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
- Draw from your own life/failures. Sure, this is risky. But, true comedy is. Also, chances are these faults of yours will be the most authentic, funny, and resonating with an audience.
- Pick a pain and go with it. Be it emotional, social, physical. Pick something and take it with you in the scene.
- Cause pain. Be a bully, overtly or subtly. Try it.
- Remember the addage--"hurting people hurt people." That means that people who are hurting themselves, tend to hurt others. If you're a bully, that means it'll be funny if you reveal what hurt has caused you to be a bully. And, if you're suffering, it's funny if you end up causing other people to suffer too.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Improv Comedy Games: Accepting Circle -- powered by eHow.com
Simple exercises like this are great for teams. It's easy enough that everybody can do it, but it also shows you pretty quickly who's got an eye for imitating, and who's not really paying attention!
Friday, November 28, 2008
Persistence really applies on and off stage. But, don't take my word for it... read this article:
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Anyone who's ever had a boss or been a boss knows all about status. Better yet, anybody who's ever been in a pack of wolves really gets it.
Quick wolf summary: The highest status wolf is the alpha male. He acts like the king. His wish is the other wolves' command. He establishes his high status through body language, and aggression if needed. The next in line is the beta wolf. He is the next in command, a high status wolf, but still takes orders from the big guy. At the bottom of the ladder is the omega wolf. He is basically the one who gets picked on, gets the last scraps of food, and if he wants may leave the pack to go elsewhere.
The basic idea of status is pretty basic--some people are high, some are low, and some are in-between. High status characters in improv tend to have lots of self confidence, speak with authority, and make lots of offers. Low status characters are viewed as weaker, do high status characters' bidding, and in comedy--are waiting for an opportunity to take those high status bastards down.
Typical high status characters you'd think of might be:
- the lover that loves the least (think about that a little bit)
- tough guys
- business people
Experimenting with status, and seeing what it takes to play both high and low status characters can be really fun, and also challenging (especially if you're only used to one type of status in real life).
And, of course, nothing is better than seeing status change as a scene continues--people love seeing the haughty stumble and fall, and the little guy win.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Trying to make people laugh doesn't work.
Let me explain. Something about trying to make people laugh means that there's an insecurity somewhere in there; an insecurity that says, "please laugh at me, please, please." I'm reminded of a roommate I had once who laughed after everything he said, and most of it wasn't funny. But, because he was nervously laughing, I felt obliged to laugh. I never really felt good after being forced to laugh.
Trying to make people laugh in improv comedy is kind of like laughing after your own jokes--it's pretty obvious what you're trying to do, and even though people might laugh, they'll feel kind of weird about it.
Let me be clear. I'm not saying improvisers can't:
- be funny
- be clever
- do funny things
- be weird
Thursday, October 30, 2008
What is a merely transactional relationship? A relationship that involves nothing more than a transaction of some sort. Examples: store clerk and person buying something, beggar and giver, etc.
What is the thing most transactional relationships have in common? The people are usually strangers, and so the scene always involves a process of getting to know each other from scratch. This can be a problem. Sure, sometimes that's interesting. But, usually strangers have WAY less interesting interactions than people who know each other.
To dis MAD TV a little bit, lots of their bits involve this transactional scenario: 2 strangers, 1 is crazy, 1 is normal. Seriously, just watch a few sketches and you'll see this pattern develop... quickly.
There are a lot of interesting directions existing relationships can go. For one, it makes more sense for these people to be in a scene together in the first place. Secondly, the scene flows more naturally, rather than every justification being about why the normal person should go along with the crazy stranger's idea.
Every scene starts with some assumptions. Here's 3 good ones. Assume:
- The characters already know each other
- The characters choose to do something together (even if they don't enjoy it)
- The characters have some history, and will have some future (even if it's not happy)
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Some people are wordsmiths, focusing on linguistic excellence.
Other people are physical, relying on their facial expressions and large sweeping movements.
Still others are emotional, relying on big changes in emotion to get the job done.
Whatever your style, it's a good thing you're unique. And, your personality adds to the team; however, sometimes things can get into a rut.
Wordsmiths can become talking heads.
Physical players can become clowns.
Emotional players can become gimmicks.
It's important to work off your strengths, but to keep pushing them. If you're physical, keep it up. But, start adding other dimensions. Nothing is better than a physical player who can employ emotions and interesting words to their performance (think Chris Farley in the motivational speaker).
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Joe starts doing a motion. (maybe he's pretending to flip burgers)
Patty comments on what he's doing. (she makes a comment like, "you're flipping burgers again.")
In improv, that seems like a pretty normal thing to do. Someone's miming something, might as well let everyone know what they're doing. Although, this isn't the right thing to do because it's not what normal people do when they're interacting, and it's bad drama.
Unless your name is Captain Obvious, you don't usually come into a room and point out exactly what's going on. How many times when you enter the kitchen, do you say, "looks like you're cooking?" Not too often. This bad habit of improv, let's call it "Captain Obvious," makes a pretty good gag (remember Rob Schneider's copy man on SNL.... "Joe, Joe-arino... makin' copies. The copy-meister...etc."), but a pretty lame start to a scene.
Instead, a better thing to do is to allow the movements you and your partner make to inform the scene---namely as to the environment, what sort of character your partner might be, etc. Pointing out the "obviousness" (don't know if that's a word, so it's quoted) doesn't move the scene along, except to nail down that in fact, that person is doing something... now what?
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
But, here's the rub. You're doing it collaboratively with other people--and those people have just as much say in what happens to the story as you do. That's a big difference.
The creative artist in us wants to take control, and figure out where everything is going. Solo artistic work primes us for that. But, improv is different. Thinking too far ahead actually hurts the scene because it keeps us mentally unavailable to the twists and turns our teammates are throwing our way.
So, the metaphor of an author crafting a story doesn't really work unless this improv author has multiple-personality disorder. But, that just sounds strange.
A better metaphor is this: driving down an unknown country road at night. This is more like it. The road is going somewhere, but you can't see very far ahead. In fact, if you think you know where the road is going, those sudden turns in the road will take you by surprise. But, if you commit to being in the moment, taking it as fast or as slow as you feel comfortable, and realizing you'll get somewhere eventually--it'll all work out.
Improv requires a retraining of our overly westernized minds, which have been taught to plan, set goals, and systematically reach them. This is a new way of thinking and interacting with people--being attentive to the present moment, accepting what happens, and making a contribution (which although it might be small, can affect the entire scene).
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
- Define the relationship- Remember back to high school when you had to have the DTR talk (when you'd define the relationship as either friends, dating, or steady dating)? Well, improv is sort of like a big DTR talk--you're defining a stage relationship. Is this person a friend, a lover, an enemy, a teammate, a professional whose services you're using, neighbor, boss, jailor? Don't just show the audience what character each person is... a relationship answers the question, "who is that person to me?"
- Don't block your teammate's ideas- You might have a preconceived notion of the fact that the relationship on stage is a Father-Son deal, but as soon as your teammate says he's your mother, he is your mother.
- Assume your partner's backstory, but be prepared for it to change- you don't have to talk about the time in 3rd grade when Janice ate all the ice cream you had saved for your birthday party (although you can), but assume past events happened, and endow her with feelings, motives, characteristics. Always keep in mind, what actually happens on stage trumps any cool ideas you might have had...
- Use complementary physicality--People are notoriously transparent in their non-verbal characteristics. Use appropriate physical postures that match the relationship you're engaged in. Ex. If your relationship is strained, show closed posture.
- Raise the Stakes--Answer this question. How can we take this relationship to the next level? Answer, incorporate something unexpected. Are you a couple who's been trying to have a baby for the last 4 years? Answer, yes--and the problem is we still haven't consummated the marriage yet. That's raising the stakes.
- Change the relationship. Once the relationship's been established, a great way of raising the stakes is to change the relationship.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
For instance, characters.
In scripted plays, a character (if it's written well) says and does things that always stay in character. An actor "gets" into character, and stays in his/her character. And, the play moves forward.
In improv, a character is not finalized the moment a scene starts. The other actors in the scene can affect your character. Example. If Joe comes on stage, and decides he's going to be playing an angry old man, but Sally makes a remark about the fact that Joe's 6 years old... well, Joe has to abandon his original idea, or else he's guilty of violating the fundamental rule of improv--agreement.
In improv, there is nothing your character won't do to move a scene forward. Lives are at stake. Not really. But, if you develop a reputation as a good character actor who doesn't adapt to make a scene work, chances are people won't recognize you as a good improviser (or someone they want to play with).
In college, I had a friend who would get into character (not on the improv stage, but in real life), and he'd keep up Dracula or a scary hunchback for 10 minutes or more. It was impressive. Impressively creepy. He'd eventually stop, and we wouldn't talk about what just happened.
Developing good characters is important, but agreeing with fellow actors, and advancing a scene trump that.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Receive--This is an 'R' word for listen. Take in what is going on around you. Too often, improvisers get caught up in thinking up what they're going to do next/what they're going to say next. Improvising with them is like talking to people who don't hear what you're saying, but are only thinking about what they're going to say next.
Receiving means listening, accepting the gifts that you're fellow improvisers are giving you, and making sure you actually are taking things in with your senses--not just turned inward into your own thoughts.
Remember--This is an 'R' word for remember. Crap, that's redundant. Some people have a hard time remembering what happened in a scene because they weren't "receiving" to begin with. But, remembering is crucial to good improv, especially since improv humor is often drawn more from making connections to past material than flipping up one-liner jokes.
The best way to set yourself up to remember well is to:
- Cultivate an attitude that other people/their ideas are as interesting, if not more interesting, than yours
- Focus on specifics, they stick in your mind better
Like an aluminum can, you can only recycle an idea so many times--before it's essentially useless. But, if you just throw it away, you're missing a huge opportunity--and producing comic waste. And, to push this metaphor to its limits, when you recycle material-you have to add other material to it--so, what you end up with once you've recycled resembles past material, but changes enough that it's slightly different.
The first 2 R's (receive and remember) are the necessary steps to this final idea. Obviously, you can't recycle material if you didn't receive it or remember it.
The recycle step is where creativity happens. Recycling well requires good comedic timing, adding a little something extra, and synthesizing material together.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
In improvisational scenes there are usually 4 options:
1. Unusual characters in unusual situations.
2. Normal characters in normal situations.
3. Unusual characters in normal situations.
4. Normal characters in unusual situations.
Which do you think usually make for funny? If you guessed 3 & 4, you'd be correct.
Abnormality in and of itself does not do much to make people laugh. Something abnormal has to be juxtoposed next to something normal in order to resonate with people. Let's see how this works.
1. Unusual characters in unusual situations. Not usually funny, usually surreal. Unless you're Salvador Dali or Stanley Kubrick--and your audience is expecting something avante garde, this is not the best choice. Think about it--unusual characters are unusual enough to be funny, so when you put them in an unusual situation--it almost makes the scene more normal!
2. Normal characters in normal situations. Some improv troupes emphasize reality--show the truth about the world. I agree, good concept. But, in theater--often the only way to show how something is normal or abnormal--is by showing its opposite. So, normal characters in a normal situation might be a great journal entry, but probably not something that will be remembered.
3. Unusual characters in normal situations. This is bread and butter of lots of comedy. Think up a strange character--like Mr. Bean, anyone from Mad TV, Leslie Nielson, etc.--and put them in a normal situation, and watch others react.
Key for doing this well is having a comedic foil, aka the straight man. Too many unusual characters, and you've got an acid trip, not comedy. But, have normal people reacting to unusual people--and, you've got something funny.
4. Normal characters in unusual situations. This one is harder to invent, but can be smart comedy. Why would normal people be in such a strange situation? That's the fun. Often with improv where audiences provide the suggestions, the situations are naturally bizarre and off the wall.
Often, playing characters straight heightens the tension, the abnormality of life--and results in comedy. And, when the situation is unusual, allowing characters to react in unusual ways heightens the tension with what the audience expects.
Well, now that I've sucked the life out of comedic scenes by analysis, hope you have a great day.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Some call it Freeze Tag, or Tag. I like to just call it Freeze out of habit.
The game works like this. 2 people start a scene until another player yells "freeze." Instantly, the two players on stage freeze their positions. The person who yelled "freeze" tags one of the players out, and starts a completely different scene.
Why I like this game:
- Freeze is a great warm-up exercise to get creative juices flowing.
- Freeze emphasizes quick thinking, and ready, fire, aim mentality
- Freeze rewards active scenes, and punishes "talking heads."
- Freeze is also performance worthy; great for the Ridilin generation.
- Blind Freeze-- the team stands with their back to the action, and freezes in.. but, they don't know what scene they're going into until they turn around. Great for breaking team members of the "I have to know where everything is going before I act" mentality.
- Assassin Freeze-- the team can only freeze other players in, not themselves. Ex. Tim yells, "Freeze, Jack," and Jack has to go in and start a new scene. (This is especially funny if the scene has a really compromising position, and you make somebody else go in).
- Gibberish Freeze--It's the same game, only people can only speak gibberish sounds... good for teaching team to use their actions, since there's really no other choice.
- Timed Freeze--Have the team in a line. Set a timer to ring the bell every 15 seconds. Whenever the bell rings, the first person in line freezes in and starts a new scene.
- Alphabet Freeze--The game is played like The Alphabet Game, as players must continue with the next letter of the alphabet, even when they freeze in.
- Adding Freeze--Instead of tagging people out, you can also add a character to the scene when you yell freeze.
- Anything Goes Freeze--Play Freeze with all the above variations, and feel free to direct/add any other rules you can make up as you go along.
Monday, June 30, 2008
The following are called "The Rules," or the "Boarding House Rules," or the "Westminster Place Kitchen Rules" which Elaine May and Ted Flicker developed at the St. Louis Compass (a predecessor to Second City).
1. Never Deny Reality. If another actor establishes something as real, the other actors cannot negate it.
2. Take the active choice. Whenever an actor is faced with a decision during a scene or a game, the actor should always choose the one that will lead to more actions.
3. It is the actor's business to justify whatever happens onstage. An actor cannot invent a character that can deny the reality of the scene by claiming "it is out of character." In improvisation, your character is actually you, but with a few additional characteristics.
(Taken from THE FUNNIEST ONE IN THE ROOM, p. 52-53)
Take a moment to let those babies sink in. We'll talk more on each later.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Most improvisers who have stuck with it are intelligent, and being intelligent people they can often be highly critical of themselves and others. They have a tendency to examine what they're doing, and this is a good thing. Aristotle said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Good point Aristotle.
But, an improviser will also note, “the examined life needs to wait until you’re off the stage.”
Nothing is worse than (forgive the cliche) analysis paralysis--the tendency to choke under pressure because your mind is going one million miles an hour. I'm no good, I'm not going to be funny, Dad was right--I should have died instead of my older brother, etc. (you don't know what crazy thoughts will come out when the self-doubt monster strikes).
So, how do you turn off those critical voices in your head and perform to the best of your abilities?
Cultivate an attitude of "there's nothing to lose." The truth is, you're going to mess up sometimes. You're going to do scenes that nobody likes (not even your mother). You're going to occasionally choke, or wimp, or waffle, or go big and nobody laughs. The good news is, you're also likely to have moments of brilliance and exceptional comedy if you stay loose.
The best performers/players are either a) so confident in their abilities that they don't think it's possible to lose (that can cause problems on a team), or b) consciously put on the "there's nothing to lose" attitude to suit their needs, when appropriate.
I found this quote in a biography of Del Close. He cultivated the "there's nothing to lose" attitude whenever he went onstage (and, if you read about his crazy life, he lived that way offstage too):
“Just before going onstage, he (Del) would say ‘f$%^ it,’ and then maintain that attitude the entire time he was onstage. Self-judgment and self-criticism were not allowed until after he was offstage (p. 142, The Funniest One in the Room by Kim “Howard Johnson).
This is good advice. Say whatever you need to convince yourself that what you're about to do doesn't really matter --and, paradoxically you'll free yourself up to produce something that maybe does.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I learned this the hard way in high school. I was the husband in an Agatha Christie play. My wife had just been murdered, and I was supposed to yell, "she's dead!" in anguish. What came out of my mouth was a deadpan, emotionless, "she's dead." My friends, thought my deadpan interpretation was hilarious, and they started laughing hysterically at the most emotional/touching part of the play. That ended my attempts at drama.
But on a lighter note, here are a few games that help explore the humor in playing scenes straight. There are some built in gags, which make these funny, and they have to be set up right by the MC.
1. Scene without expressions. The idea here is to get a really emotionally charged scene from the audience, and then the actors aren't allowed to show any facial expressions. Usually this looks like something between robots trying to act and Asperger's Syndrome. Either way, it's golden.
2. Serious Theater. The idea behind this game is that the actors have to try to play a serious scene without making the audience or any other member of the team laugh. If someone is caught trying to be funny, or makes someone else laugh, they're replaced in the scene with a more serious actor. Usually the tension in the audience or on the team makes laughter erupt. About, the only way for this game to fail is if somebody tries to be a clown because it instantly dissolves any good tension in the room.
Tension can be a wonderful thing in comedy. And, playing it real serious helps.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
- not being funny
- making others uncomfortable
- getting that sick feeling in your stomach
Think about the following people who you KNOW, beyond a shadow of a doubt, are trying to make you laugh:
- your father/grandfather/old neighbor who loves puns
- the guy at the office who laughs nervously after everything he says
People don't like the sense that they're being pushed or forced into laughter. It makes them uncomfortable.
The best comedy doesn't push people to laugh, but pulls them into a funny situation. Setting up an interesting scene naturally engages people, and then as you're pulling them along, you take them someplace unexpected.... that's where laughter happens.
There's a few basic steps to making this happen:
- Start with a somewhat believable premise; this allows the audience to think ahead and feel like they know where this is all going
- Draw people in with interesting characters/scene movement
- Give the audience something they're not expecting; to upset their expectation that they knew where this was going
- Get a situation that lends itself to humor/incongruous characters.
- Make those characters interact
- strange things happen; studio audience laughs; people at home laugh
This has to be a reason for so many recent comedy flops. Movie makers don't trust the audience's attention span enough, so they can't set up a good situation that will result in some well-crafted comedy; they make movies that repeat and retell the old flatuation, defecation, and fornication jokes--only making them more disgusting and making them happen more often.
But really, where do you go from there?
Friday, June 13, 2008
Here's the link, and below is the snippet of the article:
Denial is trashing what somebody else has set up or is trying to set up. There are many forms:
Mime Denial: Somebody spends five minutes setting the dining room table, another character walks right through it. This will make the audience squirm and gasp and have a general sicky feeling.
Character Denial: Not letting the other person be what she wants to be.
--Hi, I'm your Dentist.
--No you're not. You're my gastroenterologist!
Location Denial: Contradicting setting information someone else established.
--What are you talking about? We're in a helicopter!
The denying actor is not reacting to the presented information. Denial makes audience and cast uncomfortable. All denial can be rectified with Justification, but it's a real skill.
People advanced in improv can tell the difference between bad denial and comedic denial. In the latter, denial can make sense within in the logic of the scene: i.e., if Don Quixote were the helicopter pilot, he may say "periscope down" and need to be corrected by his straight-person assistant. However, it requires a lot of respect (the opposite of denial) to get to the point where the audience understands that the captain is a Don Quixote.
Furthermore, experienced actors may appear to deny each other when playing games of one-upsmanship, but, upon closer inspection, they are accepting the information the other presents, then adding to it and raising the stakes. For example:
--Now you shall die by my sword, certified to be the sharpest in the land. Schiiing.
--Sharpest in the land! You mean you don't import your swords? Scha-schiiing.
The response accepts what was stated, and one-ups it by finding a way to beat it without denying it. A denying response would be, "Well, your certificate lies. Shluuung". Accept and justify the information that others provide. It makes the scenes flow easier, and is simply less aggressive than denying what your fellow actors have created.
Two exercises can help people overcome the denying urge. One is playing the denial game (i. e., playing out scenes where every line denies the other character's previous line) to make one another conscious of the bad habit. Another rehearsal exercise, just for beginners helps to point out each others denials in scenes: simply respond to your fellow actor's denials with "there's no denying that!".
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Why? Good question. The common viewpoints are:
- Questions force other improvisers to make offers, rather than giving them offers
- Questions don't add to the scene
- Questions make for talking head scenes (scenes where people talk instead of act)
- Who are you?
- What should we do next?
- Why did you do that?
- Where are we?
- How could you possibly have killed your brother last weekend?
- Why on earth would a beautiful girl like you need to wash her face again?
- Why do you always have to chew with your mouth full?
- What on earth am I doing with a controlling friend like you?
- Why am I still with you after all these years?
- What do I look like, an idiot?
- Oh, do you think you should go over there and apologize?
Interestingly, few people use this questioning technique in real-life conflict--usually the response is justifying their own behavior, making comments about other people, etc. --in another irony, those are the very things that make for good improv endowments.
Monday, June 2, 2008
That's now what this is about, sadly. Engaging is important to improv. It means interacting in an interesting/interested way with the people and environment around you. Engaging implies that you are actively seeking out ways to know, change, and learn from your environment.
In many scenes, actors want to see what other people are doing before they venture forth and begin to interact with the scene. For example, one character might be screwing in something, and another actor will wait and try to figure out what that person's doing before saying or doing anything. That's not engaging. That's being a passive observer, which is fine if your character is a passive observer, but not too interesting.
Engaging requires a ready, fire, aim mentality. The idea is that you shoot first and ask questions later (not literally though, since questions aren't usually good for improv). So, somebody's screwing in something (as in our example above)... instead of watching, start doing an action of your own, or contributing to his action, or endowing the "screwer" with some characteristic or objective.
Friday, May 30, 2008
You might have a killer idea, or a punchline, or even a killer facial expression that the greek god of inspiration (whoever he/she is) shot down to you in a lightening bolt right before your scene. You may be so witty and awesome that you know what you're about to do or say will cause 10 people to have heart attacks due to its raw comedic power.
Good for you.
Wait for the right time. And please, don't force it.
I have a strange philosophy that in improv it's better to stand there and do nothing than force an idea down fellow scene-builders' throats. (Obviously it's better still to contribute to the scene). Forcing your ideas in a scene is the equivalent of shooting every time you have the ball in basketball. Although this is great if you're Michael Jordan (and some people believe they are), even Michael Jordan realized he had to pass the ball more often if he wanted to win a championship (or 6).
Same applies to improv. Understanding timing is largely intuitive, but there are some important things to consider. Here's some basics:
- The best jokes have a proper set-up. The best moments in a scene work the same way. The entire scene can't be funny punchlines, goofy movements--that's more akin to clowning than improv. Large percentages will be setting the scene up for awkward or interesting moments.
- Pause before big moments. Nothing ruins a good tension like running right into its resolution. Great orators made decent sized pauses before and after big moments. They were essentially setting up one-man dramas.
- Don't make every reaction instantly verbal. This helps slow things down, which allows the audience and your teammates time to process. Most often they're physical first, then verbal. This will help with good timing.
- Vary the timing in your speech. Say some words slow, other words fast (as it applies to the scene). I knew a girl in high school who spoke as fast as the micromachines guy (see video below). Although I was continually impressed with how fast her mind worked, to keep up with her mouth, there was no drama to her speech--no ups and downs, it was all just really fast.
- Beware of talking too much or too little. Of course, you're going to play some characters that are virtually silent, or motor-mouths. But, by and large it's a good starting rule to think about saying one to two sentences, and then allowing other scene partners to add something.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Too often improvisers think they need to spend every second of their scene with words, words, words... but, the truth is...
...people often pause to think before responding.
Try this exercise. Do a scene. Now, do it over again, with pauses. See the difference?
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Setting up an improv scene is not unlike writing a news article. There are some basic questions you're trying to answer to provide a well-rounded picture of what's going on. You could sum up CROW with the questions Who, What, and Where, but I think CROW is a better acronym.
You want to develop a specific character, and help develop your scene partners' characters as well. In order to do this you will need to make some initial choices about how you physically present yourself--what do you look like when you stand, move, speak, etc. And, as a character--the first few sentences instantly define something about who you are. Character is the flesh of the scene--the thing that makes it unique and specific.
If scenes don't establish relationships, they don't touch any sort of human core--and, therefore don't do much of anything. I personally think establishing relationships is what makes things interesting, but it's really just one piece of the puzzle. Establishing relationships requires physical gestures--do you give the person personal space, are you showing open postures or closed postures, are your facial expressions friendly, do you make eye contact? Establish relationships also needs words, and your first few sentences can not only define the relationship, but show what your objective might be in the relationship. Relationship is the central nervous system of the scene--it makes connections and provides meaning, otherwise actors are just robots doing saying things to each other in particular places.
We are not Buddhist monks. Improvisers are not trying to eliminate all desires and act from a blank slate of enlightenment--because that's not interesting to watch. Every character needs some motivation for a given scene. It can be specific like trying to get a good deal on his car insurance, or more subtle like trying to finally feel secure by bragging about all her accomplishments. You decide, but you need some objective--and, the clash or synergy of different characters' motives is the blood of the scene.
Everything happens somewhere. Sometimes it doesn't matter exactly where, but sometimes place is the very thing that causes tension with characters, and provides objective. Ex. You can have a group of gangsters arguing over directions. But, if these gangsters are camping in upstate New York as part of a forced rehabilitation program--hijinks ensue.
Those are the basics. A great exercise would be to set up mini scenes--15-20 seconds, to see if you can incorporate all 4 aspects quickly. Also, be sure to attempt to convey some of these elements through physical actions, rather than being a talking head/narrator (ex. "I am now in the woods, and am an angry man").
Friday, May 2, 2008
The core foundational principle for improvisational theater, and not a bad concept for day to day living, is something called YES, And...which is such a foundational principle of improvisation that people have written books, hosted websites, and named comedy groups after it. What is this amazing concept that gets so much leverage in improvisational circles, but virtually none in other arenas? For being so simple, it requires surprising amounts of discipline and practice.
YES, And... simply means this: Accept and Build. Let's break this down a little bit into its two component parts, so you can see how it works.
YES. Saying YES means accepting the reality that is presented to you. It sounds redundant, but most people don't do it because it requires listening and awareness. In improvisational theater, saying YES means that you've not only heard what a fellow improviser has said, but also have observed the reality they're trying to express. Saying YES means you're actively engaged in understanding the environment, relationship, and direction of a scene.
For example, if an improviser beginning a scene says, "I'm building it to be really strong," and she's making a hammering motion-saying YES to her means that you accept what she doing and saying. You would acknowledge that she is indeed building something, and that she believes it will be "really strong." Now, this seems absurdly natural, and you might think, "I do that all the time," but the truth is that most people are only concerned with their own ideas, so they never hear or observe what other people are creating. On stage, only a seasoned improviser would accept the building theme presented and go with it-a novice might ignore it and go with an idea he's individually trying to develop.
So, where does this intersect with your life? Saying YES in your life means you accept the reality presented to you as the environment you will actively engage. Accepting does not mean you have to like everything that happens to you, or like where you find yourself being, but YES is a conscious decision that the present reality is the material you're going to work with. Sounds pretty simple, right? Here's a couple of counter-examples to YES, And..., showing the NO, Because...
Counter-example 1. You find yourself in an auto shop getting an oil change, but rather than accepting this here and now reality, you find yourself thinking about past hurts, or worrying about the future. You don't even notice the color of the walls or the different people in the store, and you drive home pissed that you had to waste an hour and a half in the stupid shop. You have decided to say No, Because... No, I'm not really going to accept the auto shop reality because I don't want to be here. With that attitude there's no chance that the auto shop will be an interesting scene in your life.
Counter-example 2. You and your wife are arguing about finances. She keeps talking about how she wants to spend more time with you, but you keep repeating that you need to make money for the family to survive. 30 minutes later you both walk away dejected, frustrated, and sad. You have just said No...Because to your wife's reality by ignoring her feeling of loneliness, and explaining why her reality isn't true. The scene between the two of you couldn't progress because neither one would say YES, fearing it would ruin the direction of the scene he was trying to create.
YES means accepting the reality that a person or environment offers. It means accepting that somebody feels lonely, or accepting that you are really in an auto shop, or accepting that somebody really does think George Bush is the best president ever, or accepting that somebody thinks they're a vampire. You don't have to agree the George Bush IS the best president ever, but you do have to accept that somebody does feel that way. In other words, Yes means accepting the reality you experience as well as the reality other people experience.
Let's move onto And... First, of all, And... must be combined with YES to be effective. Rest assured that if you only said YES, never saying And... you might still have an interesting life, and probably be well-liked, but you wouldn't be an improviser, you'd be a follower. So, now that you've accepted the reality presented you with your awesome listening and awareness skills, saying And... means you're ready to move forward and build the scene. If the YES is passive, the And... is active. It does at least two things for your scene.
1. It allows you to play with options.
2. It gives you power to begin setting the direction for a scene.
3. It ensures you're collaborating in the process of moving the scene forward.
And... means building on the reality you just accepted. Okay, I'm in an auto shop, and...(now what?). The And... means that you're deciding to be a player in the scene. Right or wrong, what you say or do after the and is what you're building. A good scene on stage (or in your life) will consist of numerous YES, Ands... This might be a little hard to wrap your mind around until you see examples, so let's go there next.
What happens to our negative counter-examples above if both parties says YES, And...?
Example 1. You're in an auto shop getting your oil changed. You don't want to be in the auto shop, but you realize you're here, and decide to make the best of it. You just said YES, and now consciously decided to say And... and start playing with options, building something to the scene. You casually stroll around the office and read the signs on the wall. You ask the sales clerk about them, and he tells you about brake pads. After a couple of minutes you find out that he's a struggling community college student who just got his girlfriend pregnant. The scene continues...far more interesting than the person who said NO, Because...
Example 2. You and your wife are arguing about finances. She tells you she wants you to spend more time her. You tell her you understand that, and begin talking about what that would look like and how it could work. You decide to go for a walk to discuss this further. The scene continues with productive dialog, and maybe even the basis for a real decision. YES, And... just saved your marriage.
In improvisation, saying YES, but not saying And... is called wimping. A person who wimps doesn't disagree, but doesn't contribute either. So, Saying And... is virtually as important as saying YES--if you want an interesting scene.
Fred: I liked that movie. It made me want to join the army.
Great job Ted (sarcasm). Where's the scene going to go? Probably nowhere unless Fred keeps talking about the army.
For a formal exercise that you can do on your own without other people around, try to brainstorm something you'd like to do. It can be something you'd like to do tonight, a week from now, or a huge life goal. For the purpose of the exercise, it doesn't matter--the form is what is important. Start with a piece of paper (or a word processing program) and fill in the following sentence: I would like to _________________. Now, begin the YES, And... process. Skip a line and write the Words YES, And..., and then begin building off of your first sentence. Continue YES, Anding until you've done it about 5-10 times.
Example. I'd like to buy a Nintendo Wii.
Yes, And... then I could have some friends over and we'd play Wii Tennis.
Yes, And... then we could maybe even have a Wii tournament with our apartment complex.
Yes, And... that would be a great way to meet new neighbors
Yes, And... I'd ever be lonely again on a Friday night.
Yes, And... I could be the most popular man in St. Louis.
Get a little carried away if you want to. Remember to accept and build in process. That's the basic building block of improvisation. Even with the basic concept of YES, And... in your mind, the real work will be figuring out how to implement it into your daily life. Most Americans find the YES part of the equation difficult because we equate being an individual with being independent, and it is tough to acknowledge that people and places exist outside of our own skin. But, the And... part of the equation is where creativity begins to play out, and that's where it gets exciting. Most people think that with their spoken And... they need to know how the scene ends, but the And... merely acknowledge that you're beginning to build the scene. You are in process.
And, that is the most important part of improvisation, being in process. Making the best of the current situation can't happen any other way.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Peter: That's quite a farm cat you've got there.
Daryl: Yup, sure is.
Yes, Daryl's the wimper in this scenario. His answer doesn't do much to progress the scene. Now, Peter is the person who needs to continue making offers until Daryl does something with it.
Peter's given Daryl an improv gift, but noting that Daryl's got a farm cat in his hands. Daryl's accepted that gift, but not returned the favor. He's got infinite possibilities now, with that suggestion, and he chose to merely agree.
Wimping is not as bad as blocking. Blocking rejects and offer. Wimping takes the offer and does nothing with it. In other words, wimping is the passive aggressive cousin of blocking.
Possible outcomes of the scenario mentioned above, that don't wimp, but add to Peter's offer:
Peter: That's quite a farm cat you've got there.
1) Yeah, (breaks cat neck) and it's a shame he's got a club foot.
2) Yup, he's got the most amazing sense of smell.
3) He's an Arabian Mancoon. They're known for their anger and fierce appetite.
You see, where this is going. Merely agreeing isn't enough in improv. You have to continually add to the scene.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
- Interrupting each other: this is a) tough for audience to pay attention to for longer than 20 seconds, b) annoying, c) hard on scene-development--how can you yes,and somebody when you didn't hear their offer.
- Long stretches of speech: Sometimes an improviser gets on a ramble. Although this might be funny, it also forces an epic amount of listening from the other members of the team, and gives multiple offers to choose from. Which offer do I choose?
- The one-sided conversation--when one improviser dominates and the other more-or-less listens. A lot like real life, but it doesn't progress the scene (or the real-life relationship?).
Friday, March 28, 2008
-things will go differently than you think they will.
This is bad news for controlling people (and chances are, if you're human, you're at least a little bit controlling). But, the good news is this--scenes are never limited to what you can come up with on your own.
A lot of times, in life, things seem to be static. The boss is always grumpy. The husband never helps out. There's never enough money. The kids are always ungrateful. Etc. Etc. Etc. Life never seems to change.
Improv reminds us that that attitude is wrong-headed. Things do change, sometimes drastically and sometimes subtly, but things are always changing--and, sometimes the littlest catalyst can make it all start happening.
A good rule of thumb for improv is this: expect the unexpected, and learn to like it. When a fellow improviser takes your "heart to heart" father-son talk into an outer space adventure you can either a) lament the loss of your Tony Award-winning scene idea, or b) get over it quickly, and start working on making the outer space thing work, or c) passively aggressively make everyone on your team feel like crap because you're a misunderstood genius.
I strongly recommend taking option B. Not only will it lighten up those around you, giving them reason to trust you, but it will make you a better/more flexible person. And, it will remind you to expect the unexpected. You may even learn to like it.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Because improv involves collaboration with other people, shutting other people down is a sure way to make sure that your team never advances apart from monumental single-handed efforts.
"Yes, And" means doing two things:
Both these concepts are important. Saying yes to a teammate means you accept the small portion of reality that they are creating. Here's an example of what not to do:
Person 1: Look at that spaceship, it's heading for earth!
Person 2: That's not a spaceship, you must be high.
Although, Person 2 might get a quick laugh from an audience because he said something unexpected and mentioned drug use, chances are--he took the scene off course from where person 1 intended it to go, and now Person 2 is controlling the scene, not collaborating. Perhaps a better example might have been:
Person 1: Look at that spaceship, it's heading for earth!
Person 2: Oh God, I hope they don't probe me again like they did the last time. We're going to need help.
In this example, Person 2 accepted Person 1's reality. But, he also did something else. He added to Person 1's suggestion and set a direction for the scene--to find help for the probing aliens.
Here's what happens in some of the possible scenarios, and why "Yes, And" is superior to anything else...
No, but -- an improviser rejects the given reality and talks about reasons why another improviser is wrong. Now, the scene is necessarily some sort of argument, unless the less blocking improviser over-adapts to the "No-butter."
Yes, but-- an improviser accepts the given reality, but passively tries to steer the scene in his direction. This is the same thing as no-but, only it's more passive aggressive.
No, And--an improviser rejects the reality, but tries to add to a scene. This is kind of rare, and extremely confusing. Kid of a mixed signal that makes absolutley no sense. I've only known one improviser who regularly did this, and she was really weird. She eventually quit.
Yes, And--an improviser accepts the given reality, and collaboratively builds a scene with other members. What an amazing idea?!!!
If you're troupe's new and not used to scene work, you can use a game called, ironically enough, "Yes, And" to learn this concept. Every time somebody talks he/she must start with the words "Yes, And."
This can be done as a scene, or as a group exercise where people stand in a circle and try to develop an idea--answering some question like, where should we go on vacation, or what product should we make, or what should I look for in a good husband, etc.
You'll be amazed at how easy it is especially say "yes, but" instead of "yes, and." That's because you, like me, are probably a selfish bastard. But, don't worry, it'll get better.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
This is an excellent first book on improv to read, if you're new to improv or even just wondering whether or not improv might be for you. And, this is also a great book to read if you've done improv from years, and want to see how improv might apply to other facets of your life.
Patricia masterfully ties together fundamental improv concepts, and shows how the wisdom of improv applies to the rest of your life. It's a pretty cool idea once you start getting down to the nuts and bolts of it. Concepts like "yes, and" take on a whole new meaning when you start to realize... hmm, the reason this works on stage is because it's really how people are supposed to live.
I highly recommend checking this book out, and reading through the basic concepts. If nothing else, you'll have a few resources to de-stress your life, as Patricia has probably lived these concepts out in her own life, and speaks from experience.
There are a lot of high-level books out there about how to manage an improv troupe, to how to perform Harolds, to how to be funny. This book isn't overly intellectual, and broad enough to apply to whatever form of improvisation you do--whether that's serious dramas, short form comedy, or making presentations to your sales force.
Check it out.
You have to take turns telling jokes in this general formula--
185 bicycles walk into a bar. The bartender says, we don't serve your kind.
That's okay, the bikes say, we're two-tired anyway.
It's complete old man humor, and it elicits groans instead of laughter. But, there's a couple reasons it's good:
1. It forces players to be confident, even though what they're saying isn't necessarily funny.
2. It allows players to think in a totally different way from most improv games.
3. The crowd gets a break from laughing, and starts to feel empathy for the team; the same way that you do for your dad when he's making extremely lame jokes at any family gathering.
So, next time you've got a performance, try putting 2-5 minutes of 185's into the middle of a performance. Ask for 3-5 occupations/nouns, and see where it goes!
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
1 person sits on a bench, physically developing a character for a few seconds. The director rings a bell to signify that the bus has come. A new character comes onto the scene, and the 2 characters begin to interact.
After about 30-45 seconds, the bell rings again--signaling that the bus has come again. Every time the bus comes, one character leaves, and another comes on.
This is a great exercise because it allows people to develop numerous characters, and see how they interact with different personalities. For example, my "gangster" character had a hard time interacting with older pushy people because I held back from killing them when they didn't give me their money.
Now I know, if I'm going to up the ante and utilize such a high status character, I better be ready to back it up.
Although I prefer this game as an exercise, I suppose it could make a decent performance game if the scenes were kept moving. Still, a certain level of gag seems necessary, as most realistic bus stops I've been to mostly involved standing around, ignoring each other.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Yes, it's true. Your life isn't scripted. I don't care how anal you are, there are times when you can't plan things out. Even if you could, you're still have to improvise how you spend your planning sessions, right? (I guess you could spend one planning session going over how to plan all your upcoming planning sessions--but sometime way back before you began planning your planning sessions, you had to improvise something.)
Here's some things you improvise every day:
1. Driving. Sure, you might have an idea of where you're going, and what route to take. But, because the world around you is rapidly changing, you can't plan that total jerk who just cut you off, and you can't plan to swerve. You've got to improvise. Or you die.
2. Eating. Yes, I had a friend in high school who planned out how he'd physically chew each bite of food. First the left side, 7 bites, then the right side, 8 bites. Swallow. He ate tater tots in order of size. He ordered 2 milks, drank them according to plan. (In case you're wondering, no, he did not have a girlfriend). Unless you're him, you probably improvise eating.
3. Sex. Please, say you improvise at least part of that, or else your partner may be planning a break-up as you read this.
4. Conversation. Self-explanatory, I hope. Unless you're a telemarketer with a script, you have to expect the unexpected. (Beware telemarketers, you'll need to improvise too. Check this out).
5. Pretty much everything else.
This is pretty simple. Your life is one big improvisation, so you better get used to things not going to plan--it's how it's meant to be.
You'll be on "stage" for only so long, and then the curtain drops. The question won't be--did you plan everything right? Nope. The question will be, how did you react to what got thrown your way?
So, the take-away: for one day, focus on reacting well, rather than planning well. Just see how it goes. I'd be interested in finding out.