Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sentence by Sentence

This is a really basic concept, so we won't dwell on it. Improvisers need to take turns speaking. Here are a few common trappings:

  • 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?).
A simple way to avoid these 3 problems is to practice exercises where improvisers take turn saying 1 sentence, developing a scene that way. Another helpful exercise is one where improvisers finish each others' sentences, which forces them to listen and help develop each other's offers.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Expect the unexpected, and like it...

Throwing in multiple people into a scene where everybody contributes to the success of that scene means one thing for certain:

-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

The Power of Yes, And

One of the most basic and important concepts of improv is the concept of Yes, And.

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"

"Yes, And" means doing two things:

1. Accepting
2. Adding

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

Recommended Resource, Improv Wisdom

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson

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.


185's is one of my favorite games because it's a change-up pitch in the improv world. Here's the game:

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

Bus Stop

A great game/exercise to learn character development is Bus Stop. Here's how it works:

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

Life is Improvisation

Beware of people who paint with big strokes, such as "life is improvisation." They don't know what they're talking about. Beware of them unless, of course, you hate little strokes, and prefer getting the gist of things, rather than wading through academic waters to meticulously research the minutia required for a reasonable proof of your idea, of which a) only other academics read, b) only academics take the time to understand. With that said, please continue if you're not already bored.

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.