Monday, June 28, 2010

Trying Too Hard

Success in improvisation can be hindered by trying too hard. There is a law of diminishing returns in comedy, and effort does not always equal audience approval. It's an unfortunate fact for the good-hearted/ambitious souls that desperately want laughter, only to sabotage their own efforts by trying too hard.

Of course what I'm calling "trying too hard" is really another way of saying, "trying to take a short-cut," because that's really what it is. If you find yourself "trying" in improv, or if you see another performer who really looks like he's "trying," rest assured you or that person is really attempting to push things in a direction they're not going.

I recently saw a show where a guy was really pushing jokes hard, trying to sell them, resurrecting cliche characters that must have garnished laughter from friends in some living-room setting once, but now seemed stale on stage. The audience didn't laugh much, and when they did it seemed nervous, like they were laughing at how hard he was trying.

Of course, none of us would ever do that...

But what if we did? What are signs that we might be trying too hard?
  • An uncomfortable feeling that things aren't moving fast enough on stage, and I alone need to spice them up. Usually this feeling results in actions that either admit the absurd into the scene, or rocket the scene forward into a pace and place that is akin to jumping to the last page of a novel. And, the usual result is a scene that ends prematurely. Geez, now bad improv is starting to sound like bad sex...
  • Cliche characters. I already touched on this one, but when we're trying to get a reaction we often rely on methods we "know" work. But, comedy is always evolving, and what was funny 10 years ago in your living room isn't necessarily funny today. If you find yourself relying on 2 accents alone to make other people laugh, it's time to expand your horizons. This blog might be a good start.
  • Lots of jokes, and little scene development. If this is you on stage, you need to be aware that this is telling the other members of your team that you are insecure on stage and care more about how you look than whether or not your team looks good. This is akin to the basketball player who shoots all the time to pad his stats, but allows the team to lose game after game. 
I used to play basketball every day at noon in college, and we started to notice that this one guy named David (that is his real name) would not pass the ball to people who were wide open. He would chose to shoot long jump-shots when other people were under the basketball hoop open. It got to be kind of ridiculous because he was just an average shooter. 

Apart from making every team he played on lose, people began to wonder what the hell was wrong with this guy. I asked him why he didn't pass to me when I was underneath the hoop, and this was his response, "I just think that the probability of me making a three-pointer is better than you making a lay-up." Douche. Bag. Am I right?

Here's what happened to David. It took about 2 days for people to start talking about him, and by the 4th day one guy stepped up and told him he wasn't welcome to play with them anymore, to go find other people. We all agreed. Now, this had never happened in the entire 3 years I played basketball (I mean these guys let everybody play), so it was a good lesson to learn at somebody else's expense! You've got to pass the ball!
If it's one thing that seasoned improvisers understand is that improvisation is a team sport. If team sports are not your thing, you should do stand-up, or one-woman shows, or something that you can have complete control over. Team sports require several things, but trying too hard is not one of them. And, if you have a story about a team member (or yourself) who you saw trying too hard, I'd love to hear it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Getting Unstuck, Part II

Okay, here's some exercises that you can do with your group to help get unstuck. The best thing to do is always make sure you're warmed up. Yes, that means doing all those team-building exercises that don't seem to have a point. But, they do, and the point is to get people on the same page, in the present moment, and paying attention instead of judging. Here's 6 quick exercises. There's tons more, but these are a good start!

  • Suicide Freeze--This game is a version of freeze tag where instead of yelling freeze yourself, you stand in a line. The first person turns around so they can't see what's happening, and the director yells freeze, signaling the first person in line to go in and start creating a new scene. In another version which I call "Anything Goes Freeze," anyone can yell freeze, but has to shout out somebody else's name. Also, they can order them to do things, and this version can also include long-form techniques such as time-jumping, and wiping entire scenes out.
  • Da, da, da, da--In a circle, one person says a word. Any word. The next person says that word and immediately following the first word that pops in their head. Then everybody says, da-da-da-da. This is done in rhythm and speeds up. You can also do elimination if people hesitate.
  • Gibberish scene--words trip people up, so do an entire scene in gibberish. If you want to involve more people, let freeze tag be part of this.
  • What are you doing? Two people face off. The first person says, "what are you doing?" The second person answers, something like, "washing my car." The first person mimes what the 2nd person said. Then, the 2nd person asks the person, "what are you doing?" and the 1st person has to say anything other than what she is miming, e.g. "painting my nails." The 2nd person then starts miming painting her nails, and the game repeats until people hesitate.
  • No you didn't-- This game gets people to rapidly think of new offers/not get stuck with typical offers. Two people start a scene. Whenever anyone says something, the director says, "no you didn't." The person has to think of a different offer. The director can keep bugging them if they're getting stuck, or she can let them continue. It's up to her.
  • Third offer, Darn Bell--a two person scene. The director rings the bell after a line of dialogue he chooses. The actor responds by saying another offer. The director rings the bell again, and the actor responds with another offer. The director rings the bell a third time. New offer. Scene continues until the director does it again, and again, and again...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting Unstuck, part 1

Okay, I got a great comment the other day from someone wondering how to get unstuck. So, how do you get unstuck? Here's the first installment to answer that question... But, I'd love to hear your personal techniques that help you!

Improv has lots of moments when you feel like you're stuck. Part 1 will be mostly about the mental part of feeling stuck, and how to work through it. In part 2 I'll offer a few exercises that can help a team get over these sorts of situations.

But, without any further ado, here's some thoughts on getting stuck. Some of them are a little random, but I hope they make sense to you.

1. You're never stuck. Unless you literally die on stage, there are always things you can do to pull out of a situation and make it better. Improvisation means always looking forward, and always believing that there is something that you can do in this present moment to make things better. Even if a scene starts out horribly with tons of blocking and bad improv, doing the fundamentals of improv will move things forward.

2. You have partners and collaborators who should help you out. You're not an island on the improv stage. If you feel like you're blowing it because you're not coming up with witty things, and the scene is going nowhere, make sure that you've got partners you can trust. They should help you out. And, if they consistently don't help you out, then it's time to do some team-building exercises, or at least ask them why they aren't helping you.

3. Maybe you're not stuck, maybe your personal standards are too high. It's true, the bane of improv is that the material is not scripted and/or market tested. So, there's lots of uncertainty about how the audience might respond, and conscientious people want everything they do to be a success. The truth is that improvisers need to figure out ways to take the pressure off, so they can enter a state where they're playing on stage. Del Close used to say, "F@#$ it" right before he got on stage. It sounds weird, but that's the attitude that usually gets people in the right mindset for great performance.

I once took a jazz masterclass with a piano professional who told me, "don't think, just play. Eventually, the notes you want will start coming out." It's actually pretty true, but this is easier said than done. Most of us have been trained to be analytical/critical. Time to unlearn that for improv.

4. Embrace the awkward moments. There will be many, and they can be comedic gold. Lean into them and let yourself feel it. And, they're suddenly not that scary. Usually what improvisers consider to be long awkward pauses, the audience thinks are set-ups, and usually aren't really that long. Unless you normally move at the speed of a dead turtle, pauses are a good thing. Some of the best moments I've seen were prompted by real awkwardness when it was clear the improvisers were temporarily lost.

5. Utilize other resources than words. Too often we get stuck because we can't think of the right words. But, words are just a small part of improvising, and movement uses a totally different part of our brain than thinking up witty sentences, so you really don't need to think about it. Just MOVE!

What other resources can you use? Emotions like anger, fear, surprise using your face, physical characteristics like limps, hunching your shoulders, posture, all sorts of actions like drinking, digging, writing, sawing, exploring your environment, being silenct, falling down, etc.

6. Work the process, and don't block each other. What's the improv process? It goes something like this: One person says something and does something. The other person believes it, and says or does something that adds to what the first person did. The process continues.

7. Give up control. Chances are the audience will like you. They paid money and cognitive dissonance theory states that most people will justify their decision to go out and spend money on improv rather than bitch about it. That's good, so you don't need to control scenes and make them end the way you would if you were writing a screenplay. Instead, just enjoy the process, experience each moment, and see what happens.