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Looking for the ImprovDr “Game Library”? Then go here.

Or looking for the ImprovDr “A to Z of Improv”? Then go here.

Hello! Let me take a moment to introduce myself and welcome you to ImprovDr.com. I’m David and I’ve been an improvisational practitioner for about 30 years now. I’ve spent the bulk of my professional and academic life writing about, dreaming about, and figuring out different ways to use improv in my teaching, directing and on the stage as a performer.

Take a look around the website to learn a little more about me and my various experiences and projects. I’ve called my blog “The Short and the Long of it” as I’m one of those improvisers who likes to play on both sides on the fence, and as many do, believes that skills learnt in one style truly make you stronger in the other (are there still (m)any folks out there who don’t agree that these are really two parts of the same thing despite any posturing to the contrary?).

A little about my journey: I was introduced to improvisation through Theatresports in my home nation of New Zealand during the late 1980’s and those lessons have deeply shaped my view and approach to the craft. (Shout out to Logan Park High School and Stripy Socks where the passion began – more on that in an upcoming post!) During the early 90’s I came to the United States to study theatre and was a financially poor but artistically enriched student at Roosevelt University in Chicago. While I played with Comedysportz and later studied at the Players Workshop of the Second City, I now kick myself looking back on those days that I didn’t have the time and money to fully take advantage of all the amazing things that were happening at that special time in that dynamic place.

And then, as I often joke, I followed the Mississippi river (loosely) to Western Illinois University in Macomb for my MFA and then to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for my PhD. Because, of course, nothing makes more sense that someone committed to improv leaving Chicago in the mid 1990’s… These new locations, needless-to-say, had much less access to improv, and so like many have done before me and will continue to do so now, I made as many opportunities as I could, creating shows and organizing troupes as there wasn’t anything ready-made, all the while reading up on anything I could get my hands on to further expand my own horizons.

In 2003, my doctorate fresh in hand, I relocated to the Orlando area in Florida to accept a teaching position at Rollins College, where the improv continued and I had the good fortune to quickly connect with SAK Comedy Lab. This venue has been my professional improv home for about 17 years now minus a hiatus of 18 months or so when I was in the company of Walt Disney World’s now sadly defunct Comedy Warehouse. In the early 2000’s there was little in the way of long-form in the area, and I’ve been doing my part to push that envelope whenever and wherever I can: on my home campus of Rollins, at SAK Comedy Lab, and in other Florida venues when they’ve let me onto their stages! This website includes some images and descriptions of the fruits (fresh or otherwise) of these improvisational long-form labors, and you’ll also see that I’ve never strayed far from being an active short-form player at the same time.

So, that’s the short and the long of it (this was probably more on the long side than I intended, but if you become a frequent visitor you’ll quickly learn that I love words and am as verbose on the page as I am on the stage despite my best efforts to the contrary)! I’m going to strive to make weekly posts about games or techniques that I’m currently working with or musing on, and I also welcome you to pose any questions or conundrums that you might have in regards to this art-form that consumes so many of us so wonderfully and so completely. Maybe I’ll have a few thoughts that can help you unlock something in a new way.

Wishing you all sanity and safety during these challenging times. As I write this, I realize this might be the longest I’ve gone without improvising in front of a live audience in about 17 years. What are you doing to satisfy your improv cravings?

Cheers, David Charles.
improvdr.com
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Game Library: “Gibberish Job Mime”

Few dynamics more fully manifest the import of Complementary Actions than endowing games, and Gibberish Job Mime stands as a helpful example that clearly makes this point. This iteration primarily functions as warm-up or skills-building exercise, but it’s closely related to games like Occupation Endowments if you’re looking for a version more suited to public performance.

The Basics

Players work simultaneously in pairs scattered throughout the workshop space and pre-determine who will assume the role of Player A and Player B. Player A will go first and is instructed to privately select an occupation that they must endow onto Player B so that by the end of the short vignette B will ideally understand their intended role. In the scene that follows, Player A must only use complementary actions as interactive clues, all-the-while using Gibberish and physical choices to communicate. Player B should respond in English (or the language you are working in) throughout the exploration as they endeavor to ascertain their identity in relation to Player A. If they feel they have a strong sense of the “solution” they should test their theory in a pointed line of dialogue: “Well, as your doctor, I think you’re going to need some significant bed rest for a full recovery.” If they are, indeed, successful, Player A can signal as such and button the scene. If their assumption is incorrect or incomplete, Player A should continue to offer scenic clues. Once successful or a time limit has been reached, players exchanges roles.

Example

Without indicating their secret choice to their partner, Player A decides upon the occupation of waiter as their endowment. Player B stands to the side as A begins by standing patiently and checking their watch.

Player B: (entering) “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting.”

Player A: (slightly irritated) “Dashka bellah tahkackney…”

Player B: “Of course.”

Player A enters the space with confidence and gestures to a chair.

Player B: “That would be great.”

Player A sits, and unfolds a mimed “menu”

Player A: (inquiring) “Lea shatahly kanoogzy?”

Player B: “You’re right. That magazine is terribly old. Let me get you another one…”

The Focus

The critical rule and focus for Gibberish Job Mime is that the endower (Player A in the example above) cannot become or embody the desired occupation as this would serve as a parallel action thereby showing the endowee (Player B) what they should do. Only complementary actions can be deployed as these create more complex relationships between the two characters. In this manner, in our efforts to help Player B understand that they are a waiter we could act as a customer, a food critic, a head chef, a restaurant manager, a busser…, or if you really want to make it challenging, a devoted spouse helping them de-stress after a long shift. You can essentially be anything other than another waiter.

Traps and Tips

1.) Challenge each other. It’s more than appropriate when first approaching this dynamic to select broad job categories, such as doctor or professor, but as players become comfortable encourage more complex or specific choices, such as a phlebotomist or high school substitute math teacher. This not only makes the exercise more demanding by requiring more thoughtful complements and endowments, but typically increases the fun and risk as well. It’s fine if the endowee doesn’t ultimately get the exact intended nuance, as long as all involved were sharpening their skills in the process.

2.) Avoid empty language. When performing in the endower position (Player A) there can be a tendency to nervously fill empty space with nonsensical Gibberish rather than carefully using this language substitute to convey a definitive intent. It can quickly feel overwhelming as Player B if you’re faced with an unbroken wall of sound. Instead, strive to use small bite-sized Gibberish phrases and then allow your partner sufficient space to return the “improv ball” so you can get a stronger sense of what they are and are not understanding. Ultimately, it’s not your Gibberish alone that will help them, but rather your inflection, body language, subtext, gestures, staging and use of the environment.

3.) Avoid empty responses. There is a similar trap in the endowee (or Player B) position. Although this player is using their own language, the fear of misunderstanding A’s Gibberish can make them stall and wimp as opposed to bravely play along. Avoid asking questions, “What is that you’re holding?” in lieu of making assumptions, “Sure, I’d love an ice cream.” Remember that the conceit is that both characters are having a conversation: they just happen to be doing so in two completely different languages! Don’t let each scene degrade into a blatant guessing game or you’ll quickly lose interest. This is particularly problematic if Player B essentially just names a list of possible occupations. It’s generally more helpful to hold off on doing this explicitly until you feel you have a strong sense of the intention.

4.) Break it down. While players are focusing on the product of correctly solving the mystery of the occupation, they shouldn’t lose sight of the equally important (if not more so) process of creating a scene and story. Once Player A has selected a suitable hidden occupation and their initial complementary relationship, they should bring Player B into their world gradually and lovingly. Fully utilize core improv principles such as CROW to construct your narrative. Where are these two characters likely to meet or need each other? Are you inside or outside? Are there any significant props or furniture pieces that Player B will need to conduct their profession? What is the history or relationship between the two players? Is either character wearing anything in particular that defines them? If you try to answer all of these questions at once you’ll undoubtedly overwhelm the scene and your partner. Rather, make one foundational choice, let them respond, and then weave their reaction into a next step.

In performance

In addition to sharpening Gibberish, endowing, justifications and non-verbal communication skills, Gibberish Job Mime serves as an excellent reminder to focus on the process of creation. Yes, the stated intent of the exercise is to communicate an unknown profession to your scene partner, but scenes are often wildly joyful, entertaining and successful in spite of the outcome (hence my encouragement not to diminish the challenge once you understand the underlying principles). Encourage players to make sure they are not slipping into parallel actions (they want “B” to serve as a mechanic, so they also become a mechanic). Pantomiming or “teaching” components of the intended job is similarly problematic (“A” grabs a drill and models putting it in their mouth to show “B” that they should now be a dentist). Exploring the power and fun of complementary actions can often prove quite liberating as players unlock the myriad of ways they can create and communicate relationships on stage.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Concept: Complementary Action

“C” is for “Complementary Action”

“Contact improvisation stems from the idea that each body is unique. Dance is spontaneously created by the impulsive interaction of two different bodies […] Dance partners sustain physical contact and rely upon mutual trust and support. It is process, not product, which counts in contact improvisation dance.”

Roberta Mock, “Contact Improvisation  Dance Uses Touch to Achieve Perfect Harmony Between Mind and Body.” The Independent (London) 27 June 1994: 20.

Definition

I love how this quote focuses on the unique relationship of bodies moving together in space. This dynamic strikes me as a core component of Complementary Action, a term used to describe the way in which characters or elements of the scene are related or connected. The companion (somewhat oppositional) concept of Parallel Action is a little easier to define as it typically refers to choices that are essentially mirroring or replicating each other. If someone enters the stage as a confident high school student reveling in their popularity, a parallel action would be to join the scene as another confident high school student, thereby supporting, elevating and giving volume to the prior choice and any inherent games.

A Complementary Action is marked by the contrast or difference it adds to those energies already present in the scene. It is still firmly connected to the established world and given circumstances, but it is likely by design to add or emphasize a new facet or relationship. The confident high school student might be joined by an overwhelmed principal, authoritarian janitor, utterly perplexed new student, or disinterested former lover. Whereas Parallel Actions encourage us to think same, Complementary Actions invite us to think different but connected. For this reason, Complementary Actions are particularly critical in endowment games and exercises where improvisers endeavor to bestow predetermined suggestions on an unwitting recipient. When it comes to endowing, showing the desired elements (an equivalent to assuming a parallel role) would be considered particularly egregious in most improv circles. Subsequently, players must actively seek more creative ways (or complements) in order to guide their fellow improviser into the desired territory.

Example

Two slightly-out-of-shape runners and close friends (Players A and B) are in the midst of their first marathon race. It is clear that neither was quite prepared for this test of endurance, but neither wants to let the other one down. Their movements are pained and laborious, and each time they speak there is a clear sense of exhaustion and impending collapse.

A third player (C) enters…

How to Get the Most Out of Your Complements

1.) Think emotion or energy. Third or later entrances into a scene can prove challenging for improvisers as it can be easy to inadvertently jerk the focus away from the established elements of the scene that were proving engaging and dynamic. In such instances it can prove helpful to offer a complementary energy that maintains some core elements of the status quo. If Player C enters as a fellow runner (a parallel at first glance) but is in much better shape, and so is having a delightful marathon experience, this can maintain the current game and activity, but heighten the scenic energy by providing an emotional contrast. Perhaps the first two runners assume a façade so as not to loose face in front of their newly arrived friend, only to drop back into increased exhaustion once more as Player C sprints off effortlessly into the distance.

2.) Think action or staging. A complementary mindset can also help add interest and dynamism to the physical components of the scene. Returning to our marathon runners, their movements may have degraded due to exhaustion with every step clearly proving to be challenging and highly deliberate. Player C, perhaps a rival runner this time, might pounce onto the stage with highly exaggerated gymnastic finesse, literally or figuratively running circles around their opponents. Here I’ve elected again to maintain a relatively parallel character choice, but even greater staging freedom opens up if the character also assumes a more complementary role such as a reporter on the back of a motorcycle trying to conduct an interview, or a marathon worker clearing up the race course just feet behind these last two runners.

3.) Think status or power. I’m of the mindset that almost any scene can be improved with a careful consideration and application of status. Our marathon runners appear to be relatively equal in terms of status during this phase of the scenario. A new character (or perhaps a discovered tilt between the current two characters) can breathe fresh life into the scene by adjusting or questioning this status relationship. Player C might join as a fellow runner who signed up these two friends to help raise money for a personal and highly worthwhile cause. This new character could be feeling remorse at the obvious pain they have inflicted on their ill-equipped friends (thereby assuming a lower status position), or embarrassed that their friends clearly did not train as much as they had stated (thereby assuming a higher status position). Once more the central action and dynamic of the scene has remained unquestioned, but a complementary status has introduced some new spice.

4.) Think relationship or occupation. And sometimes the running just isn’t landing or has grown stale or generic and the scene would benefit from the infusion of a more dynamic complementary character. When I introduce this core concept in the classroom, I tend to start at this level as it is the most readily understood and appreciated. When we unlock the gifts of a complementary character or relationship, the potentials of the scene tend to multiply exponentially. Character C could be A’s lover and is seizing this opportunity to break up with them. Or they could be a marathon worker that Player B accidentally hit with a discarded water cup that is out for revenge. Or they could be a former tennis partner trying to win their friend back to the ways of the racket. Or they could be an photo-snapping pedestrian who was a former crush from high school (who used to confidently revel in their popularity…)

Final Thought

While there is a somewhat oppositional relationship between Complementary and Parallel Actions, I am hesitant to identify these terms as opposites per se as they both necessitate and reflect a close consideration of the choices and energies already in play. A truly oppositional choice to a Parallel Action would strike me as random or disconnected completely to the established given circumstances: our confident high school student, for example, might be joined by a time-travelling Franciscan monk. Some improv schools certainly voice a preference for one approach over the other, but most improvisers would agree that both techniques have their time and place. I tend to prefer Complementary Actions in small cast or expansive long-form pieces as thinking different will typically open up more dynamics and story potentials than an over-abundance of same. On the other hand, if you’re inclined towards exploring the “game” of the scene, Parallels can certainly help sustain and elevate choices already in play while a mistimed Complement will likely puncture or disrupt the momentum. See Commandment #7 (“When in doubt, break the routine”) if you want to further explore this interesting tension.

Related Entries: Breaking Routines, Commandment #7, Endowing, Parallel Action, Tilts Antonyms: Over-Originality

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Gibberish Job Mime

Game Library: “Act Harder”

Admittedly this is a slightly whimsical choice to partner with the concept of Commitment but Act Harder is a joyful short-form game that utilizes the audience to playfully push the company to higher levels of attack. I consider it one of my improv guilty pleasures! Feel free to indulge as well!

The Basics

A scenic premise is obtained and the audience (or a portion thereof) is instructed that they have the power to make the performers “act harder” if they appear to under-sell a choice or moment. As the scene progresses, it is interrupted sporadically by these calls. The actor currently in focus immediately applies this prodding feedback by repeating or embellishing their earlier contribution with added gusto and flare.

Example

Two friends are driving through a heavy snowstorm. Player A is at the steering wheel while Player B wrestles with the GPS system as the scene begins.

Player A: (anxiously) “I still can’t see practically anything. Is it still not working?”

Player B: (irritated) “I’m not a GPS expert. It might be the storm messing with the reception.”

Player A: “I really think we should’ve pulled in at that rest stop.”

Player B: “I know. You’ve said that twice already.”

Audience: “Act Harder”

Player B: (pointed) “That’s the THIRD time you’ve told me that. I’m SORRY that I didn’t agree sooner.”

Player A: “The wipers aren’t doing practically anything.”

Player B: “Just keep the car ahead in your sight.”

Player A: “What do you think I’ve been doing, Shannon?!”

Audience: “Act Harder”

Player A: (with exaggeration) “What else could I possibly do in this ridiculous storm, SHANNON?!?!”

Audience: “Act Harder”

Player A: (on the edge of panic) “Don’t you think that I know THAT CAR AHEAD OF US IS OUR LIFE LINE…!”

The Focus

Vanilla or under-sold choices will rarely survive the delightful lambasting that is Act Harder! It can prove invigorating (and challenging) to receive such immediate feedback. Be sure to accept these nudges with cheerful grace and good faith while working to elevate and navigate the central premise. It can difficult to sustain a strong story amidst the audience cries so strive to craft a sound foundation and CROW quickly.

Traps and Tips

1.) Coach your audience. A playful audience will honor how you set up the game so you’ll want to make your expectations clear. I’ve rarely seen the game excel when anyone in the audience is empowered to yell the prompt – especially right from the get-go – as this tends to push the scene quickly to chaos. Alternatively, consider selecting a handful of representatives from various parts of the auditorium so that you’re not immediately hit with a relentless wall of sound screaming “Act Harder!” (Experience would suggest that you’ll always get a few self-nominated callers so err on the side of a smaller number!) When we use this format in Gorilla Theatre we’ve often had the scene director bring a volunteer to sit beside them at the coaching microphone to make the pertinent calls, which works really well overall. If you have someone in the role of host or facilitator, you can gradually scale up the dynamic beginning with one to two callers at first, and then signaling that others can join as the scene progresses. It’s also helpful to instruct any designated audience callers to give the scene some time to get started. This can be done with a signal, “When I raise my hand you can start coaching…” Once the audience discovers the fun and torture of the calls it’s hard to dial them back, so it’s better to start modestly!

2.) Start smaller but connected. There can be a tendency to almost fish for the “Act Harder” calls which I’d consider a trap of the game. Yes, you’ll certainly want to begin the scene in a way that gives you somewhere to go emotionally and dramatically, but avoid deliberately deadpan or under-energized choices, especially at the top of the scene. I ardently believe that most audiences can spot when we’re undermining a stated contract: if we announce we’re giving them control to raise the heat, then we should truly give them that control. Deliberately poorly delivered choices that almost demand an “Act Harder” feel like needless pandering. There should be something interesting at stake (although a panicked snow storm drive certainly offers a heightened starting point that will require some careful pacing!) Consider starting your journey connected but small, contained but not lackluster in your delivery.

3.) Craft the escalation. These scenes will burn very quickly and brightly if you’re not careful, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem if you’re looking for a quick energy hit, but generally will hamstring you from building anything of substance. The energy of four improvisers all “acting harder” will likely feel climatic, so work up to this configuration. There is also a tendency to adjust your commitment from 10 to 100 in one step if you’re not patient and extremely self aware. The scene is heading towards 100 but probably shouldn’t arrive at that station in the first 30 seconds. To this end, challenge yourself to explore different ways to amp up the dynamic other than merely more volume and chaotic movement. Acting harder needn’t be synonymous with just acting louder!

4.) Focus is your friend. As a called game, albeit of a slightly different ilk as these calls are coming from the audience, Act Harder demands strong focus discipline in order to thrive. A great deal of the fun of the game comes from being the recipient of the titular cue: if everyone is scrambling to get their moment in the sun, however, you tend to get rather clumsy scene work. It’s important to diligently move focus between the onstage characters if for no other reason than to clearly know who is the intended recipient of the prompt. Meandering dialogue, crowded scenes and a tendency to interrupt or talk over each other all conspire against this greater goal. If you are skillfully crafting clear gives and takes you’re more likely to maintain the story thread through the ensuing chaos while also giving audience callers clearer windows to play as well. (It’s always poor form to invite the audience to play and then make it unnecessarily difficult for them to do so.) Furthermore, don’t overlook the delight and camaraderie of generously setting each other up for moments to play. As is generally the case, when players compete to individually shine, they rarely do so and the scene invariably dims instead.

In performance

The results of this game tend to be unabashedly silly, leaning towards the melodramatic in a way that thoroughly wins over the audience. There’s a real value in this sense of elevated play and abandon, and on a larger level this speaks to the value of giving full commitment to our scene work. I will confess, however, that I’m also intrigued by the potentials Act Harder may hold for a more earnest or sincere style of play with the audience nudges becoming more synonymous with gentle side-coachings towards truth and honesty rather than magnified intensity (although that would perhaps be called Act Better!)

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo

Connected Concept: Commitment

“C” is for “Commitment”

“…the actor must be willing to let experiences occur without the full cognizance of where they are leading […] There must be respect for the fact that solutions will evolve from the doing: commitment is essential to the technique.”

Libby Appel, Mask Characterization: An Acting Process. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1982. p.xiv

Definition

The concept of Commitment can serve as a stand-in for a multitude of important improvisational approaches and energies. A committed improviser might be viewed as passionate, present and prepared, ready and willing at any moment to leap to the aid of a scene and their fellow players. A lack of commitment, on the other hand, could be marked by lethargy, hesitance and inconsistent attention. An improviser that routinely embodies these latter traits is likely to serve as a source of frustration as they sap the excitement and attack from the collaborative creative endeavor. Those that give 100% of themselves to the process and journey, however, are likely to emerge as audience (and fellow company) favorites, bringing energy and joy to the stage. While we all have bad days and shows, commitment to our craft and companies is an essential ingredient in the spontaneous soupe du jour that is improvisation.

Commitments Worth Pursuing

Here are some facets of commitment that are worthy of attention:

1.) Focus. Both on and off the stage, focus is critical as a performer (see Commandment #2). If we only passively give the work and our fellow players our attention, it is highly likely that rich gifts will be missed or misunderstood. There is truly no “time off” in an improv performance as we never know when our contribution may be most needed. It is embarrassing, to say the least, when you are the only person in the performance space who does not understand what is unfolding or required because your mind has drifted elsewhere. Commitment or energy without focus and direction may prove equally as destructive. If your mind is too fraught or busy to offer such unfettered attention, perhaps consider taking the show off.

2.) Energy. I don’t believe I’m unique in believing that improv is both energy draining and energy creating all at the same time. Especially in long-form modalities, it can be exhausting to give your all for the entire duration of the performance, but withholding your energy and excitement is unlikely to leave you with additional reserves at the completion of the show. I’ve found the more I give to the stage in terms of energy, the more I acquire through the resulting performance: holding back provides less energy but also, oddly, seems to cost you no less in the long-run as you don’t get to fully draw from the generative vitality of the work either. And what’s more, minimizing your energy contribution is likely to dramatically reduce the oomph available to others on the stage. (In my opinion, blocking and commenting are often the result of players choosing to withhold their energy.) If you’re having one of those days when your reserves have truly been expended, perhaps consider taking the show off.

3.) Trust. Every time we step on an improv stage we need to actively re-commit to trust ourselves and the other members of the company. If we hold onto past injuries or ill will, play with a sense of leeriness or hesitation, or approach the event fearfully as we nervously await for others’ bad habits to reappear, we have largely lost the improv battle before it has begun. Trust is certainly more easily lost than regained, hence the import of dealing with any breaches in a timely manner during postmortems after the show. Similarly, it is equally important that we exude a healthy trust towards our own work and choices, and do not needlessly carry the burden of our judges on our shoulders. If this essential trust is frayed in your performance group, or you are struggling to emerge joyfully from the injuries of thwarted self-expectation, perhaps consider taking some time off.

4.) Discipline. Improvisation blends process and product in a dynamic and powerful manner, inviting our audience into the very moment of creation with all its splendor and clumsiness. There are few artistic pursuits that demand such an ongoing commitment to growth and discovery. To become complacent, overly comfortable or inclined to rehash old territory with little effort to ignite new embers or potentials is anathema to the improvisational spirit. It unquestionably requires discipline to maintain this vigilance in our craft as improvisers, especially if we are working in more commercial enterprises that (seemingly) demand a certain level of repetition or predictability in an effort to win and maintain audiences. Stagnation, however, is the enemy of creativity, and it’s important that we continually seek to challenge ourselves and our collaborators. To improvise is to grow. If you find yourself lethargically meandering through stale “bits” and recycled choices, perhaps consider taking some time off or enriching your work with additional training or experiences.

5.) Passion. Related to the above, those of us who have been in the industry for a while can experience waxing and waning in terms of our passion and commitment. Improvisers who are fortunate enough to perform frequently are more likely to struggle with this dynamic than those who are fighting just to make it to the stage once or twice a month. Improvisational theatre has the allure than every performance is an opening night, a quality that scripted theatre must fight to mimic. It is foreseeable and understandable that if you’re wandering into the same building every night for long periods of time, that your passion for the craft may suffer. Noting that passion need not be manic or over-the-top (neophyte performers can often struggle shaping and controlling newfound passion for the craft) it is important that we bring joy and excitement to our stages and audiences. If the play of improv has felt like work for a protracted period of time, perhaps consider exploring a new project or stepping away for a while to recharge.

Final Thought

I’ve often co-facilitated an “Improv for Business” seminar with my home troupe, Sak Comedy Lab, where we’ll posit the question, “What are you committed to as a worker or employee?” If, as a player, you are committed to creating community, this will likely show and infuse your work. If you are committed to growing as an improviser and developing your skill set, this will probably encourage you to push your boundaries as a player and encourage your teammates to do the same. If you are committed to challenging or representing the audience in sincere and dynamic ways, this will open up new ways to sharpen and utilize your craft. If you are committed to just getting through another show, then you may well become the albatross hanging around the neck of your company. No one commitment is necessarily or inherently better than any other, but knowing where our commitments lie (and what we are willing to give or sacrifice in order to realize them) is an important focus and compass for our work in the field.

Related Entries: Abandon, Freshness Antonyms: Cartooning, Commenting Synonyms: Professionalism

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Act Harder

Game Library: “Gibberish Scene”

I have very fond memories of my first coaches and mentors skillfully playing Gibberish Scene during my high school improv days. There are certainly many approaches to this particular frame (you could just do an open scene with a traditional prompt, for example) but I appreciate the more biographical approach that gives the game a little more of a narrative long-form feel. This variant also has the added advantage of making it less likely improvisers will fall into the trap of Commenting.

The Basics

Gibberish Scene generally launches from a brief audience story rather than a single suggestion, and might be prompted by something along the lines of “Who had a pleasant surprise this week,” “Has anyone faced a challenging decision,” or “Who recently celebrated an accomplishment?” A player (or perhaps the host) briefly interviews the selected audience member, ascertaining the basic CROW elements and a general sense of the story arc. If the audience member is willing and your performance space can accommodate, you can bring the audience speaker to the stage, but it also can work well having them remain seated in the audience. At the completion of the interview, the team announces that it will now replay this day or moment but with a twist. The story is then performed, with players substituting English (or your national language) with that of make believe Gibberish.

Example

An audience member shares the story of a high pressure work presentation that nearly went terrible wrong. There was a power outage the night before and so their alarm didn’t go off. They and their partner both overslept, and so they arrived at work just barely presentable and merely moments before the big pitch. When they connected their laptop they discovered that the most up-to-date PowerPoint was actually on their home computer and they hadn’t shared it to the Cloud, so had to present without any of the detailed notes, fighting the urge to vomit the whole time. Ultimately, their coworkers (and more importantly, boss) were really receptive to the pitch for a new HR payroll process, and didn’t notice the shambles around the event (nor that the speaker ducked out of the room discretely to throw up).

The Players thanks the audience member and the lights transition. We see two players (A and B) luxuriously and obliviously sleeping, deeply, accompanied by similarly peaceful music.

Our protagonist’s partner (Player B) is the first to open their eyes. They glance over at the alarm clock to check the time. It’s embodied by another player (C) who uses their fingers in a repetitive flashing motion: there has been a power outage. Player B sits up with a startled fright and utters…

Player B: “Ooo dashka…”

Player B rolls over and shakes Player A awake…

Player A: (muttering) “Kabba noonah shakeelie…”

Player B: (with rising panic) “Dahbeela! Dahbeela…!”

The Focus

As the audience is “in the know” in terms of the basic story arc, the focus of this game is not so much on what happens as it is on how the details are creatively portrayed. If you obtain a truly epic story it is probably advisable to select your moments carefully, perhaps leaping into the middle of the story arc, especially if you are playing under time restraints.

Traps and Tips

1.) A good interview is critical. Conducting a playful and successful audience interview is a particular skill, so it’s worth spending some time on this part of the game. (If you’re not familiar with Playback Theatre, this tradition relies heavily on this device and is worth a look for pointers.) You’ll want to place the audience member at ease while also framing and guiding their responses. Be sure to seek specifics about important characters, locations and story elements. It can be helpful to repeat back each significant choice as the story is offered: this has the dual benefit of making sure you have understood the gist of their narrative while also giving fellow players and audience members a chance to catch anything they may have missed. I’ve also seen players quickly recap the story as a whole prior to the reenactment (often with some judicious editing) which can discretely offer a perceived starting point or focus. If you’d like players can then invite the audience member to select who they would like to perform their role from the available actor bank. All of this takes time, so this isn’t a good addition to the show if you’re in a crunch. A good interview will often take as long, if not longer, than the resulting scene.

2.) Talk less, act more. It’s a given that it is much harder to effectively communicate through the language of Gibberish, so accept the invitation to embrace greater physicality and emotionalism in the scene. Talking Heads (just standing and uttering fast-paced verbal nonsense at each other) is a particular trap of the scene. Move as much of the story as you can into action. It would ultimately be less successful and theatrical, for example, to merely “talk” about your alarm clock not working than actually seeing this moment unfold on stage. When you are talking remember that, by design, you can no longer expect your language to convey the bulk of your meaning: you have to fully commit to your choices or they are likely to go by unnoticed or misunderstood. Which brings me to…

3.) Explore effective Gibberish. Suffice it to say that Gibberish deserves a full entry all of its own, so here I will just cover some basics. Gibberish in our scenes ceases to be effective or interesting when it is not truly operating as a language and devolves into just an array of random sounds. Speaking in Gibberish should obey the same basic rules for speaking in our native tongues: your character has something that they need to communicate in order to achieve something that they want. Make every Gibberish word count. Infuse it with specific meaning. Etch it with sharpened context. Polish it with heart-felt emotion and body language. It’s improv magic when we fully understand the intent and desires of a character’s dialogue even when we don’t understand a single word of what they’re saying. This game has the considerable added advantage that the audience knows the foundational story, so take a breath and paint with detailed strokes rather than unnecessarily broad or panicked approximations.

4.) Explore dynamic staging. Gibberish Scene (and Gibberish scenes in general) also invite a more aggressive and creative physical style of play. It needn’t become pantomimic per se, but generally scenes will benefit from a more imaginative and patient approach. Invest in each object you grab, imbuing it with interest and dynamism. Honor staging patterns and specifics crafted by your teammates. Challenge yourself to think a little outside the box in terms of what you can be or do. Becoming the alarm clock in the vignette above serves as an example of adding to the scene in a novel and unexpected way. Why not embody inanimate objects, or become the manifestation of an energy, mood or theme? Again, such choices can belong in any of our improv scenes, but they seem particularly well-suited to Gibberish enterprises. (I’ve mentioned Playback Theatre above: it often has a delightfully metaphoric style of play which offers a strong glimpse into the power of a non-literal performance approach.) Short-form shows, in particular, can start to feel very same-ish if every scene is essentially a variant of realism, so why not push the envelope a little?!

In performance

If you’re familiar with the game Audience Story you’ll see a lot of similarities in the details and, in fact, this version of Gibberish Scene can be used as a handle to shake up the reenactment. I also love nightmare and dream variations or replaying the audience story with a musical or stylistic layover. Gibberish scenes and dynamics are such a good way to discourage commenting if this habit is undermining your work, largely because commenting in such scenes is generally pretty ineffective! With our language habits interrupted through the incorporation of Gibberish, you really have to fully accept and elevate each others’ choices for the scene to soar.

A Final Consideration: Eliciting full stories from an audience member can be fraught with unexpected challenges. You might get inappropriate material or a story that leans into heavy or challenging subject matter that might trigger someone else in attendance. These tensions are less likely to occur when your typical ask-for tradition is a simple word or phrase. Such issues may prove infrequent in an overtly comically framed event as opposed to modalities that seek or invite more messy human moments, but none-the-less, it’s probably worthwhile considering carefully what parameters you might want to set so that your ensemble is all on the same page.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo

Connected Concept: Commenting

“C” is for “Commenting”

“Students should not tell their partners how to act or react, repeat something said earlier to stall, or make a comment on the action at hand since that doesn’t allow for emotional response.”

Christian Toto, “Improvisation Takes Practice.” The Washington Times 30 March 2002: D01.

Definition

Commenting is another improv habit that improvisers lean on to keep the unfolding action at a distance. Generally it takes the form of remarking (perhaps wryly) on the scene or choices of your partners rather than fully investing and committing emotionally to the story at hand. Some improv companies and schools look less favorably on this peccadillo than others, and it’s certainly a “technique” that you may see seasoned improvisers deploying. Such a tool reminds me of scripted traditions like English pantomime that revel in a thin distinction between character and actor, and will often puncture the fourth wall with direct audience interplay. In general, however, I’d categorize commenting in improv as a fear-based reaction that doesn’t add energy or dynamism to the dramatic action; instead, it can tend to deflate your scene partner’s offers in a way that necessitates that they assume the burden of keeping the action alive. Commenting suspends the theatrical conceit and contract, often just for the sake of a witticism or observation that needlessly deflects an intended gift.

Example

Player A is waiting at a bus stop as Player B, clearly flustered, races into the space.

Player B: “I think that apartment building’s on fire and there’s a woman screaming for help from a third floor window. We have to help…”

Player A: (dispassionately) “Well, that was some well-delivered exposition…”

OR

Player A: (without moving) “So I guess we won’t be doing my idea then…”

OR

Player A: (to the audience) “Do I look like the fire-fighting type to you…?”

OR

Player A: (sarcastically) “I’m not sure how we’re going to make that happen on this tiny stage…”

Some Commentary on Commenting

Consider reading my earlier entry on Cartooning here for strategies that can help you bring that “Third Dimension to Your Scene Work” which will, in turn, tend to diminish the likelihood of this related trend. I’d like to use this entry to consider some of the reasons commenting can inadvertently sneak into our work.

1.) We’re often rewarded by a disproportionate audience response. There is no denying that a well-delivered and carefully-timed rug-pulling comment on the action can elicit a thunderous audience reaction, but we must remain cognizant that not all laughter is created equal. If such a technique is ingrained in your company culture, the damage may appear minimal, but these types of choices can quickly become frustrating to your partner, especially if they have fully committed to the current premise. The audience may certainly enjoy watching this moment of improvisational squirming, but it is highly likely that our partners will not.

2.) We can maintain the safety of our position as a scenic observer. As is often the case with less-than-laudable improv habits, commenting allows the offending player to dispassionately stand outside the action of the scene. When we don the hat of the “observer,” we are less prone to explore emotion, vulnerability and connection to our character and their world. If the scene is moving into territory that invites culpability or emotional investment, commenting can allow us to retain the “safety” of distance – but at what expense? If you’re prone to deadpan characters, this may be masking a fear of really joining the ebbs and flows of the action.

3.) It buys us some time to process a new choice before committing to it. It is not uncommon to truly be surprised by choices that emerge on the improv stage. Assuming a commenting stance can also be a postponing strategy. If we take a moment to literally describe the choice in a removed fashion, this also buys us time to contemplate what we might want to add next. This is certainly a human and understandable response to the incredible uncertainty of the improvisational endeavor, but it also minimizes the very risk and adventure at the core of the genre. If you are truly surprised by a scenic development, chances are your character will be as well so why not just embrace this honest reaction?

4.) It provides the impression of tension or conflict. Conflict is a topic for another day, but assuming the stance of a commentator can provide the appearance of conflict, especially if we embody a contrarian nature. This version of conflict, however, strikes me as a relative of good old fashioned blocking in that it isn’t an organic tension between the characters so much as a disagreement or struggle between the improvisers and how they perceive the rules of play. Commenting dryly on the action might pose an obstacle of sorts, but it is rarely filtered through the world of the scene and so tends to stall embodied action in favor of conversation about potential action.

5.) Commenting on a choice is often easier than building on it. Action and momentum are so important and can be notoriously challenging to foster and build. Commenting will rarely assist in this scenic endeavor. Remarking on the choice of another player, or musing on perceived flaws, strikes me as low-hanging fruit in the meadow of spontaneity. It is riskier, more exciting, and ultimately more rewarding to climb that proverbial tree rather than merely stand beside it and assess whether or not it is a good idea for the tree to exist in the first place.

Final Thought

If a moment of commenting is going to happen in a scene, my personal preference is that it does so without suspending the point of view of the character entirely; that is, almost in a Brechtian manner, the statement offers the performer’s and character’s reality simultaneously. To use the example above, Player A might respond “I’m really not sure what someone of my stature can do… but count me in!” This can also be a way of playfully “calling your shot” as an improviser. Such a comment followed by a physically brave and adept pantomimic sequence would surely delight. If a story arc has arrived at a complex climax that requires considerable finesse to solve, a character noting, “I really don’t know how we’re going to solve this” could similarly add to the joyfulness of the moment, especially if it is then accompanied by the first step towards a solution. In my opinion, commenting is most thwarting when it is offered in lieu of a “Yes, and…” rather than as a cheeky or playful bridge to the next brave scenic move.

Another variant of commenting is Speaking Your Truth (or Calling it Onstage) where players provide important information to their teammates so as to address unhelpful patterns or habits. In this way a player might note (as the character and the player) “Gee, I’d really like a chance to speak here…” While this may appear similar to commenting on the surface, the intent and spirit are markedly different as this is not a fear-based move designed to stall the action but rather a tool of empowerment and address.

Related Entries: Approval, Cartooning, Commandment #4, Mugging, Speaking Your Truth Antonyms: Commitment Synonyms: Corpsing, Gagging

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Gibberish Scene

Game Library: “Demonstration Video”

While the name of this game reveals its age (and mine!), Demonstration Video still provides a strong example for crafting our comedic improv to a particular end. This short-form game enables a parody of instructional or “how to” videos that are now as likely to populate a YouTube channel as they are to accompany a recently acquired product. (Let alone on a VHS tape!) This format certainly leans heavily towards Comedy, but there is ample room to craft a nuanced target, and I have seen the frame skillfully sharpened towards an insightful political or social end.

The Basics

Common ask-fors or prompts for this scene include “something you’ve bought that needed instructions,” “an item that you struggled to use,” or “a phobia that you’d like to overcome.” One player typically self-nominates as the scenic narrator, an embodied voice that will take the viewer through the various stages of learning a new skill or life hack. This player will often start the scene with an introduction followed by a series of vignettes (performed by other team members) who demonstrate different strategies – helpful or otherwise! The narrator typically deploys a “remote control” device to stop, pause or rewind the action, to further assist the viewer on their journey towards knowledge.

Example

Arachnophobia serves as the scenic prompt and Player A volunteers to step into the position of narrator. As the scene begins, they step center stage holding an imaginary microphone and addressing the “home audience” directly.

Player A: “You’ve made the first, most difficult choice, and that is admitting you have a problem! Welcome, to ‘Face Your Fears,” an online series of videos designed to make you… the best you. Today we’re looking at spiders – although not literally – at least, not quite yet…”

Player A steps to the side as Player B and C take the stage as characters.

Player B: (with nervousness) “I know it’s going to be in there. I saw it last night when I went to the bathroom…”

Player C: (attempting to calm them) “That was a long time ago, and you can’t tell me that you’re never going to go to the bathroom again because of one little spider.”

Player B: “That is seriously what I’m saying. I don’t know how you can be so calm!”

Player C: “Look, Taylor, I was once as scared as you. But you can’t let an irrational fear rule your life.”

Player B: “There is nothing irrational about this fear…”

Player A steps back into the frame of the scene and with a gesture says…

Player A: “And pause… Do you recognize yourself in this moment? Are you a ‘Taylor’ letting a fear of spiders stop you from being your best possible self? Are you ‘holding it in” for fear of facing your enemy?”

Player B playfully squirms in the background.

Player A: “It looks like it’s time for us to tell this Taylor to ‘Face Your Fears’! It all starts with one small step (in our ten step program), and that is realizing that you’re not alone…”

Player A steps to the side once more with a gesture for the scene to continue…

Player C: “Look, Taylor, I’m right here with you. We can do this together. Just gently push open the bathroom door…”

The Focus

There are unquestionably a pocketful of tropes and devices you can draw from – when you’re engaged in parody this is part of the contract in fact – but be cautious of only playing the style of the game. There is still ample room within the stylistic gimmicks of narrators, direct address, and stops and starts for developing a story and following one or more characters on a journey. As you would in any other scene, strive to honor each others’ choices so that you can build a coherent narrative that the parody augments rather than eclipses.

Traps and Tips

1.) Balance the work. If you’re new to this game, it’s a common trap for the narrator to take on a lot of the heavy lifting as they have the power to shape and direct the unfolding action. This may be a necessary exploratory phase as the style is examined and polished, but in performance there should be a stronger balance between the narrator and those performing the roles of the demonstration actors. Be wary of an attitude of “waiting” until the narrator tells you what they want, as in most cases they don’t know what they want until it shows up in the scene! If you are playing as the actors, come to the stage with strong given circumstances so that there is something for the narrator to tinker with and shape. If you are playing as the narrator, be sure to leave room for your fellow players to surprise you and drive the action, using your function as the editor judiciously and with care. It’s fine to preamble a vignette so as to offer up something you’d like to see, but it’s inherently more dangerous and delightful to be open to the unexpected so also provide open lead-ins for your team to exploit. It’s the difference between “Now let’s watch Taylor destroy the huge spider with a baseball bat” and “Let’s see what Taylor does next…”

2.) Embrace the style. This is one of those games that has some inherited wisdoms in terms of structure and technique. It’s generally helpful for a narrator to provide the in and the out of the game, establishing the clear given circumstances of the product or service and perhaps the intended consumer. While there is no absolute need to utilize a “remote control” function to adjust the scene or move to new vignettes, it’s certainly a helpful way to quickly forward the scene. Similarly, direct address from the narrator through the “fourth wall” to the viewer at home offers a nice touch. Providing a number of steps that will be covered (even if you only ultimately get to a couple) provides another helpful framing device. At it’s core, this is designed to help you successfully and happily utilize a product or new life strategy. Before creatively messing with or subverting this core function, it’s helpful to workshop and understand its constituent elements.

3.) Attack the acting. I will confess this suggestion might fall under the “personal preference” heading, but I’m not a big fan of deliberately bad or cheesy acting on the part of the demonstrators. This can tend to undermine any scenic potential if everyone wears their choices lightly and predominantly comments on the action rather than actually invests in what’s unfolding. Bad acting will also greatly diminish the power and potential of choices coming from the actor bench, thereby throwing more of the work onto the shoulders of the narrator and causing the imbalance noted above. Instead, I love the stark contrast of moving between highly realistic acting to the more presentational energy of the narrator. If anything, I would encourage the demonstrators to over commit to the offered reality. If they are having trouble operating the photocopier, they are really having trouble to the point they may lose their job. If they don’t know how to use the new coffee maker, they are having the worst day ever and they can’t survive without their caffeine fix now. If they are afraid of spiders, then they are traumatized by even the thought of being in the same room as one. Deadpan characters or nonchalant choices can quickly sap away the playfulness of the scene and leave you nowhere to go.

4.) Unlock the potential. Once you have a strong sense of the stylistic and structural basics, this scene can prove surprisingly flexible and resilient in terms of how you use it. The obvious comedic target is that of parody, mocking the very genre of instructional videos themselves. Exploring truly trivial tasks or phobias can provide joyful results. Through the use of mapping (substituting the language and tropes of one situation for another) or selecting more overtly socio-political topics, the comedy can become more nuanced and perhaps move into the realms of farce or satire. For example, you could craft a Demonstration Video for the dubious goal of suppressing your individuality before starting high school, or how to handle a family dinner when your relatives have radically different political views, or ways to address microaggressions in the workplace… At a surface level, the game may first appear a little simplistic or kitsch, but played at the top of your intelligence, it can provide a robust and familiar frame to help you organize some complex and important issues or tensions.

In performance

If you are performing in a short-form modality, Demonstration Video provides an interesting narrative-driven piece to provide some variety in your lineup. There are different lessons and challenges depending on whether you take on the role of the narrator or one of the demonstrator actors, so I’d strongly advise that you experiment in both capacities. Doing so also gives you a greater appreciation for the import of making sure offers are coming freely from all quarters.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Scott Cook

Connected Concept: Comedy

“C” is for “Comedy”

“Because the improvisational actor is trained, against his every acculturated impulse, to relax in the moment onstage without knowing what will happen next, the comedy that emanated from improvisational theatre was one of behavior, not jokes.”

Janet Coleman, The Compass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. p.280

Definition

It would seem that for many art-lovers the concepts of improvisation and comedy are almost interchangeable. While there are clearly modes of spontaneous performance that have more serious, earnest or avowedly political ends (such as Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre-in-Education and Sociodramatic modes), a great deal of contemporary improv deliberately positions itself as an innately comedic enterprise. This inclination towards the comedic has historically cast a shadow over the value and efficacy of improv: humorous performance, until quite recently, has often been dismissed or undervalued as popular, low or pedestrian as opposed to the elevated art of tragic or serious scripted work. Consider, for example, that Aristotle’s work on the tragic form survived the sands of time whereas his companion piece on comedy did not fare so favorably.

Acknowledging that improv is not inherently nor exclusively comedic in nature, it is also possible that we do not consider the multitudinous ways in which Comedy and improv intersect; comedy, after all, is not one static thing but rather a collection of ways in which art may elicit audience laughter towards an equally varied array of ends. All laughter is not made equally in the improv theatre. Laughter may serve as a sign of recognition (“I see myself in that moment”), appreciation (“I saw that connection coming”), surprise (“I didn’t see that connection coming”), admiration (“I’d never feel comfortable doing that”), acknowledgement (“That was a masterfully crafted witticism”) alongside a plethora of other dynamics and energies flowing between the stage and the audience.

When we start to think of comedy as monolithic or “just one thing” we can simultaneously diminish the dormant and considerable powers of our improvisational craft. Comedy can certainly prove visceral and perhaps even inexplicable: most improvisers have had the experience of an earnest choice unexpectedly bringing the house down while other more deliberate efforts have resulted in deafening silence. But we can also be highly deliberate and skillful in our application of the comedic spirit, providing our audience with an escape one minute, only to playfully challenge their assumptions the next.

Example

A customer walks into a shop… (to be continued below)

Equipping Our Comedic Tool Belt

1.) Physical comedy. If we’re not careful, improv can become for many a rather intellectual affair and it’s good to remember that the way in which we use our bodies in the theatrical space can open up whole new comedic vistas. Is our character physically adept, or relentlessly clumsy? Does the environment work in our favor, or does it consistently impose new obstacles and barriers that thwart us in our intents? Does our physicality align helpfully with our objectives and desires as a character, or are there inherent contradictions or contrasts that unlock comedic juxtapositions? If we rely solely on our physical dexterity as performers, this can become pantomime, clowning or slapstick, which may not be within everyone’s reach (or everyone’s cup of tea), but increasing our comfort in this area will most certainly also unlock new comedic pathways in our work.

A customer walks into a shop… and is so surprised by the jingle of the bell above the door that they trip over their own feet and try their best to recover with some sense of dignity…

2.) Wit and word-play. While gagging is rightly discouraged on most improv stages, this is not to say that verbal-based comedy isn’t a mainstay of the genre. We must be wary of derailing a scene in order to throw in “that joke” that we have prepared, but wit, irony and word play can all add to the joy and playfulness of the unfolding scene when they are offered in a constructive (rather than destructive) fashion. I would distinguish this type of comedy from the practice of joke-telling as offers should still, ideally, provide scenic momentum, color and detail, in addition to revealing and enriching the lives of the characters from which they emerge. Style scenes, in particular, can thrive with expertly crafted verbal exchanges that tap into theatre’s rich poetic history.

A customer walks into a highly specific shop… and makes a witty observation based on the store’s highly specific name… “Could you point me in the direction of your ‘beyond’ section please?”

3.) Parody. Comedy has a long-standing tradition of joyfully poking fun of other works of art, pop culture, television phenomena and theatrical trends or indulgences. Whether you’re working in a short-form improvisational format, or constructing a collection of sketches, a parodic scene can offer a fruitful shift of gears and an opportunity to explore a completely new energy. All comedy is highly dependent upon the company and audience sharing foundational reference points, and this is most certainly the case when it comes to parodies. Without at least a general sense of the base material, a parody can quickly lose its relevance and charm, so it’s important to know your audience well.

A television reality “star” walks into a shop… followed by their entourage… and a film crew…

4.) Farce. Definitions of comedic sub-genres can tend to be moving targets as modern comedians are far less concerned with generic purity than our ancestors, but I tend to think of farce as comedy that explicitly considers some aspect of the human experience and holds it up for playful ridicule or examination. Farce will often deploy the comedic “curve of absurdity” that starts with familiar behavior that gradually escalates to the point of plausible implausibility. Exaggeration is often the hallmark of this comedic approach that may also contain broad physical comedy and slapstick. While we might recognize the art products or source material in a parody, we are more likely to recognize ourselves and our kin in a farce.

A customer walks into a shop… after attempting unsuccessfully to make a small purchase with an array of complex digital, online and cell phone-related apps, they finally give up and offer cash

5.) Satire. This comedic approach rightly feels more overtly political as it tends to hold up human institutions for scrutiny. These institutions can be literal brick and mortar organizations such as big banks, the stock market, or the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), but can also be common experiences and human-made practices such as marriage, religion or electioneering. Historically, much of the power and danger of comedy (and even more specifically, unscripted comedy) has belonged to this realm where it can threaten systems of power, hierarchy and oppression. Subsequently, governments have attempted to ban such work or limit its scope through forbidding the portrayal of clergy, the use of actresses, or creating unflattering depictions of the crown (or even wearing specific regal colors of fabric). It is certainly possible for satire to be used to “punch down,” but this generally feels mean-spirited and politically “conservative” (in that in doing so it is seeking to maintain rather than question the “conserve” or status quo). Punching Up towards formidable and powerful targets more typically serve as the norm.

A hungry working-class customer walks into an effete shop filled with wildly expensive and ultimately useless gadgets that can in no way help them with their current needs…

Final Thought

This is just a smattering of different comedic lenses and focal points: laughter undoubtedly can assume many exciting functions and guises. This brief list is primarily intended to encourage a reconsideration of the full range of improvisational performance that can tend to be homogenized under the banner of comedy. I fear our own community often needlessly limits itself or under-estimates the innate potential of comedy to encourage and instigate questioning and change. I’m indebted to my summer studies with the Players Workshop of the Second City many years ago with Eric Forsberg who first elucidated this scope for me. Over twenty-five years later, I still utilize a similar approach in my own introductory improv sequence.

Related Entries: Commandment #4, Commandment #9 Antonyms: Drama Synonyms: Punching Up

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Demonstration Video

Game Library: “Player Interview”

Deceptively simple but surprising rich with lessons, Player Interview explores effortlessness in our choices and narrative, which, in turn, serves as a helpful antidote if striving towards Cleverness is hampering your progress on stage.

The Basics

Players work in pairs, find their own spot in the space, and determine who will serve as Player A and Player B respectively. Player A will perform as the first interviewer with B acting as their guest. Prior to the interview, Player B should self-select an area of interest or expertise, something that they truly have some knowledge about. It may be a hobby, passion, or even just about a period of their own life. This topic is shared with the interviewer, and the scene begins. Interviewers are responsible for keeping the conversation lively and engaged for five or six minutes as they inquire about B’s area of expertise. At the conclusion of the first interview (which are typically performed simultaneously around the space and timed by a facilitator or instructor), players may take a quick moment to share their experiences before the roles are reversed: A is now the expert and B is the interviewer.

Example

Player B has shared the topic of “Shakespeare” for the interview.

Player A: “Thanks for letting me ask you a few questions. A lot of people first encounter Shakespeare in high school. Was this your experience?

Player B: “Yes, it was actually. My first memory was reading some passages aloud in an English class and realizing that I wasn’t very good at it! The language was so loaded and complex…”

Player A: “I can relate! Do you remember the play?”

Player B: “I think it was Twelfth Night, or in any case, that was the play I ended up working on for a class assignment. I remember trying to get to the bottom of some of the play’s references and allusions.”

Player A: “Anything in particular that still resonates for you?”

Player B: “Malvolio, the steward in the play, references a case of a lady of the day marrying her servant, which gives his passions fire and was probably a pretty well known scandal for Shakespeare’s audience. But I think I was most intrigued by the play’s setting, Illyria, which was a unique and pretty interesting location.”

Player A: “How so…?”

The Focus

Strive for ease, comfort and active listening during the exercise. When you are truly in the moment, the next avenue of exploration tends to open up more readily than if you are a prisoner of your improv mind scrambling to construct a next step while your partner talks in the background. Novice improvisers can find the thought of filling a scene with material as oppressive; on a simple level, this exercise reveals that material can emerge without stress when you are present in the moment.

Traps and Tips

1.) Style tips. There can be a tendency, especially in the role of the interviewer, to add a more performative frame to the exercise by assuming a smarmy persona, addressing a studio audience, or holding a mimed microphone. While there is nothing innately “wrong” with such choices, and you certainly could explore this activity with more of a polished veneer, the exercise does not need these additions. There is something quite powerful (and perhaps vulnerable) about just being yourself. In the interviewer position, don’t feel the need to feign interest: actually follow the story or information that you find appealing or enlightening. As the expert, don’t feel you need to become “a character” or overly inventive: it’s okay not to know an answer. This game really invites us to just be ourselves.

2.) Interviewer tips. Remember that the focus of the exercise should generally remain squarely on the expert. If you find yourself engaging in lengthy set-ups or voluminous flights of fancy, you might want to address this. (It’s good to get into the habit of knowing where the focus of any given scene or game resides, and leaning into this.) Questions that require a simple “yes” or “no” as answer are less likely ultimately to inspire the narrative. If you meander into such a moment accidentally, seek a follow up question that is more likely to inspire. Whenever possible, privilege the emerging story and help the expert get the needed facts and details out. It’s your job to make them comfortable and look good. If you share knowledge on their subject, feel free to use it in a supportive fashion; if you know nothing about their topic, feel equally free to ask foundational questions to help you find your footing.

3.) Expert tips. The exercise can take on quite a different tone and journey if you select a topic that isn’t really in your wheelhouse, so unapologetically choose a subject that you really enjoy. As noted above, it is more than appropriate for this to be something quite personal, such as raising a pet, your hometown, or an international experience you had on vacation. Strive to include specifics: it can be challenging for the interviewer if they have to keep interrupting the flow of your narrative to learn basics such as a character’s name, or the setting for your story. While I’d discourage inventiveness or unabashed falsehoods – it’s okay, after all, to say you don’t know the answer to a question – it’s generally helpful to assume the mantel of an expert and make good faith assumptions or assertions if material strays a little away from your area of interest.

4.) Story tips. The exercise will feel less joyful or successful if the expert asks a series of disconnected questions in a buckshot fashion. While it is foreseeable that you might need a few general questions initially to find a thread of interest to explore, this simple conceit is a great way to practice and deploy your story-telling skills: look for the next step forward by examining what has already been established and discussed; repeat any details of interest and be sure to incorporate them into follow up questions; balance a sense of advancing (moving onto the next organic moment of the story) with extending (mining for more descriptive specifics). If a line of questioning dries up, generally it’s a fruitful technique to look backwards for a prior story thread that you didn’t have time to pursue earlier.

In performance

This is strong icebreaker if you are developing rapport among a group or class that are still taking their first steps together. In these cases, I’ll strategically mix up and assign the pairs to avoid known cliques, or simply ask players to self-select someone with whom they have never worked before. This exercise typically reveals that we can easily craft dynamic and engaging material when we are just ourselves, exploring topics of interest together, and allowing our innate charm or wit to emerge.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo

Connected Concept: Cleverness

“C” is for “Cleverness”

“The most direct path to disaster in improvisation is trying to make jokes.”

Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.26

Definition

The concept of cleverness and the dangers contained therein receives some attention in an earlier “Commandment” post you can access here. Generally, Cleverness is viewed as a problematic habit where improvisers retreat into their heads while searching for a witty or “original” contribution or punchline. As this very action takes us away from the here and now of the scene and our fellow improvisers on the stage, it has a tendency to disrupt more organic energies and flows, prioritizing the success of the individual over the discovered journey of the ensemble. Most would consider it’s antithesis (and a more desirable approach to the craft) as being Obvious in our work – bringing our own innate and unique reactions and observations to our characters and scenes. Ironically, such an obvious approach may, in fact, result in very clever and original work, but this is a delightful byproduct rather than a consuming internally-focused goal. Wit and astuteness certainly have a place on the improv stage, but an all-consuming desire to craft that perfect joke is likely to prove troublesome in most improv settings that are committed to nuanced story telling.

Example

The suggestion of “haunted house” inspires the scene.

Three friends, holding flashlights, gingerly make their way onto the stage.

Player A: “I should never have let you persuade me to do this! I don’t care about the bragging rights any more. This place is terrifying.”

Player B: “Just hold my hand. We’ll get through this. We just have to get something from the second story library as proof we were here.”

Player A: “OK. There’s the staircase ahead. Don’t let go of me.”

Player B: “I’ve got you.”

Player C: “You think this is scary… [insert topical reference here]”

Signs That Your Cleverness May Be Getting the Better of You (and Your Scenes)

1.) You are still formulating a great retort for that line that happened 30 seconds ago. We’ve all had that moment when the words didn’t quite come when we wanted them to, but if you have a tendency towards cleverness you’re likely to formulate that response and offer it up later regardless of where the scene is now. The price of such a tendency is not only the disruption that you’re probably causing, but also your loss of all the details that were brought to the stage while you stood obliviously formulating that witticism in your head.

Player C: “…you should see the asking price on that sign we were talking about a few minutes ago when we were approaching the door.”

2.) You are waiting for an opportunity to insert that zinger you thought about in the car on the way to the performance. There are always exceptions to the rules, and I’ve certainly worked with players whose stand-up or sketch-writing chops have allowed them to provide perfectly-timed and well-crafted additions to the scene, but there is certainly a trap in having material “at the ready” that you are actively seeking to insert in the action. Often you’ll miss the nuances of your partners’ offers if you are primarily waiting for a helpful “set-up.” Depending on the style of your home venue, pre-planned material can also taste oddly different to an audience than humor that is honestly discovered in the moment. A similar trap awaits when we have a tendency to blindly recycle bits and punchlines that have worked in prior shows regardless of what might be uniquely occurring in this performance (or co-opting a line that you’ve seen another player use in the past that you haven’t earnt in the present).

Player C: “…you should see the national debt figures just reported in The Times that are ballooning as we speak.”

3.) You have a tendency to hold back until you’ve had sufficient time in the wings to fully figure out and script your angle. Few would encourage rushing to the improv stage completely clueless as to what is transpiring or how you can best contribute, but stubbornly waiting in the wings until you have it “all figured out” is an equally problematic approach, especially if it is at the expense of joining the scene when your energy and appearance is most needed. I won’t deride a thoughtful well-formed entrance, but there is also a true value in a well-timed entrance that contains a fitting and dynamic seed of an idea that invites others to play along. Improv erodes the gap between the moment of creation and performance, and you may not be fully capitalizing on the promise and potentials of the form if your instinct is to do all the work cerebrally and alone before joining your fellow players onstage.

Player C: “…you should see what’s downstairs in the basement. I was reading in the newspaper that there have been a series of abductions. We should really do that instead… what were you two saying anyway?”

4.) You overly rely on your verbal gifts as an improviser and tend to comment on rather than participate in scenes. This is a common theme that I explore in several other entries, so suffice it to say that unnecessary cleverness often pulls the offending player out of the physical reality and flow of the scene. Don’t overlook the value and import of truly being a fellow teammate by throwing yourself physically and emotionally into the action alongside your peers. Don’t mistake commenting on the action as being the same thing as contributing to the action.

Player C: “…you should both see yourselves in the mirror. Those outfits are so last year. I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing that color palate. I’m just going to wait here.”

5.) You often “know” the next five steps of the scene rather than discover one step at a time along with your character. We can think of cleverness as being synonymous with gagging, but it also is a trap for the planner (a fact I personally know all too well). If you have been hard at work intellectually “solving” the riddle of the scene, willingly or no, you are likely now invested in seeing the action unfold in the manner your cleverness has envisioned. Such a stance can make a “clever” improviser prone to bulldozing or becoming bulletproof as you work to see the scene move towards a specific end rather than engaging in the multifaceted potentials of the moment.

Player C: “…it could only get worse if we go into the library and find an ancient cursed book that, when we read from it, reanimates all the dead animals that are buried in the backyard, and then we accidentally drop the book out of the window and so have to go and find it to learn how to reverse the spell…”

Final Thought

There is an important distinction between being informed and allowing your knowledge base to infuse your work organically, and privileging a cleverness in which you elevate internal mental gymnastics over embodied collaborative participation. There are certainly necessitated improv skills – such as target rhyming, punchline games or clue-based endowing – that demand that we balance an active intellectual process alongside our onstage presence. However, in general, there seems to be strong consensus that this should not become a standard way of playing as it can quickly erode other elements – such as story building, characterization and emotional honesty – that will ultimately serve the improv stage more in the long run. Allow your organic cleverness to infuse your process rather than wield it as a tool that dominates your actions and those of others.

Related Entries: Commandment #4, Commandment #9 Antonyms: Obvious Synonyms: Gagging, Over-Originality

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Player Interview