Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dynamic Relationships in Improv

Nothing is more interesting to watch than relationships. Let me qualify that--dynamic relationships. Here's a few tips:

  • 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

There's nothing you won't do...

Many people with acting experience find themselves at odds in improv. Some things are a little different in improv than they are in scripted plays.

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

The 3 R's

Here are the 3 R's of improv.

1. Receive
2. Remember
3. Recycle

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:
  • Relax
  • 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
Recycle--This is another 'R' word. It's not just my attempt to make improv green, but it's the heart of improv humor. Recycling ideas is funny. Comics sometimes refer to this as the callback.

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

Making Funny Scenes

This post is not funny, mainly because I'm explaining what makes things funny (and that usually kills it).

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


The great game of Freeze.

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.
Variations on the theme: Try these great variations to mix things up.
  • 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.