improv

PHIT 201 – Class #1

I feel sticky.

I’m standing outside a closed green door in a hot windowless hallway in central Philadelphia, listening to voices on the other side of the door go through a three-line scene exercise, and skimming old class notes on my phone. I have done zero improv in three months. No shows, no books, no classes, no practices, no nothing.

I’m nervous and fidgety but strangely fearless.

I moved to Philly six months ago, and this is my first time in the local improv community. There are no expectations from anyone. I have nothing to prove, nothing to lose.

The first class goes off with minimal hitches. I’m definitely rusty, but it’s more like… my finer points have rusted off. I feel like I’m making generally good choices. There are lines where I blather on longer than I should. There are scenes where I get too emotional too quickly. There are scenes where my emotional state flip-flops, where I lose my commitment and forget things I’d said three lines earlier. But the basic instincts are still there.

The class seems a little shy and scared and low-energy. Nick Kanellis once mentioned that you can pump energy into a low-energy room by being loud (he meant a low-energy audience, but c’est la vie), so… I’m being my loudest and most energetic and most outgoing in hopes that it’ll rub off on everyone else. It’s a little exhausting, but that’s show biz, or something, right?

Here, apparently they do a montage for their 101 show, and it seems like there are no beats, just a sequence of scenes. I’m not sure how the scenes are supposed to be interrelated yet. (Guess I need to go watch a 101 show!) But that’s what we do instead of warm-up scenes.

We warmed up with Pass the Face, and a dance-in-the-middle game, and Loserball. We worked on our initiation ideas with A-to-C-ing, and we played New Choice to address specificity and bad habits, and we did some montages. And a variation on crazy eights, which I NAILED [preen preen].

I don’t feel out of place. I don’t feel way ahead of anyone, and I don’t feel way behind. There are some really strong talents in my class, and I’m excited to play with them more in coming weeks.

Yay! The improv-shaped hole in my heart is being refilled!

Hitting branches

On Sunday, my mono-scene class had its last show (at the Magnet, Level 4 and up get four shows, ‘cos you get to be a better performer by performing). It wasn’t great. When our instructor gave us notes afterwards, one of my classmates started apologizing, and the instructor broke to give us a quick pep talk instead:

Mistakes are part of this. We all want to be perfect improvisers, and we will NEVER be perfect improvisers, none of us. No matter how long you do it, you will ALWAYS be messing up. We’re all trying to climb this impossibly tall unclimbable tree, and all we can do is try to hit a few branches on the way down so we don’t land quite so badly. That’s all improv training is, is learning how to hit branches during our inevitable fall.

Style

Back line podcast, #16: 13:44

When I think about… troupes with 4 people in them… it seems like there’s always

  1. an oaf, someone who’s falling down, bringing the lights, a clown, almost;
  2. there’s usually one person who’s very sardonic, who’s kind of a cynic, taking a look at scenarios and pointing out how dumb they are;
  3. there’s usually someone who… is just funny; they just say and do funny things; maybe this is through characters… they have a natural essence that the audience just loves, they’re very charming;
  4. and then the last one is somebody who kinda holds the show together, acts as the “improv dad” or the narrator… pushes the show forward, kind of brings an energy to it.

I think that’s pretty consistent for most 4-person troupes.

And it’s interesting to see teams that have two of those people on their team. Either they get along very very well, or there’s a non-spoken conflict, and eventually one of those people leave.

 

This is interesting to me less because I have plans of creating a four-person team, but more because it’s never occurred to me that you can boil (all? most?) improvisers’ styles down to such clearly-defined labels.

A comparison:

I’ve taken art classes. One of the first things an Art 101 instructor has to do is get all these pretentious art students to put aside their preexisting “styles”— which have usually grown out of avoiding whichever art skills they struggle with— and learn how to draw like everyone else. Style will come later. For now, learn the rules… then you can break them, consciously & intentionally, instead of breaking them because you’re incapable of following them.

My improv training feels similar. I don’t think I have a specific intentional style yet, but (like all improvisers) I do have a tendency to use the skills I’m better at more often, and ignore the ones I’m bad at. Bad habits + proclivities ≠ style.

 

……….

My first thought when I heard the quote above was, “I don’t have a style yet; I wonder which style I’d fall into.”

My next thought, after scribbling it down and rereading it, was, “…huh. no, if I were to form a four-person troupe tomorrow, I’d totally be the cynic.”

Calling out the crazy is something I can usually rely on for laughs, but several of my instructors have told me that I’ve erred on the side of “commenting” on the scene, of tearing my partners down, of saying no instead of yes. They’ve also praised me for “calling it out” and “saying the thing,” so I’m not totally doing the wrong thing— I just have trouble seeing that line and recognizing when I’ve crossed it.

…I’m digressing.

POINT: I’m not good enough to have a style yet. I don’t think my cynicism is entirely a style choice; it’s a scared improviser clinging to what seems to work.

But on the other hand… are “charisma” and “improv dad” conscious style choices? Or are they just… what people’s personalities lead them to be good at, and what they unintentionally fall into doing?

 

Shake it off

Lately I’ve realized that a lot of really good improvisers shake onstage. I noticed a house-team guy do it once, and now I’ve started to specifically look for it. I don’t bring it up to be cruel; rather, it’s comforting to find out that I’m not alone in being scared as hell onstage, and comforting that you can still be amazing even if you are scared as hell.

Dress for success

The Upright Citizens Brigade believes that new, unproven ensembles should dress in a manner comparable to “business casual.” This will lend an air of professionalism to your show.

In a practical sense, it is important that you always dress so that you are ready to perform. If you are wearing a pair of pants that you’re afraid of getting dirty onstage… [or] wearing a miniskirt that is liable to show off more than you want in certain positions, you may be unwilling to make physical choices that would best serve your scenes. Since you are going to want to be free of restraint, dress to be active. Dress to play. [UCB Manual, pp. 380-381]

 

To me, “business casual” and “dress to be active” are mutually exclusive. That’s why workout clothes don’t in any way resemble work clothes. I always err on the side of “dress to be active” (and as such, I dress like a slob for my office job, too).

Blazers constrict your arms, button-front shirts can gape, fancy shoes deter you from jumping and editing, ladylike blouses are prone to every kind of reveal, long sleeves in general are too hot for the stage. And so I always come back to a men’s t-shirt, loose jeans, and running shoes. I look like a 14-year-old boy. But at least I can move.

July Magnet Mixer (I'm the lady in the t-shirt)

Is there an upscale designer business casual t-shirt out there I should look into, one that doesn’t have a tuxedo printed on it? What do you wear to perform?

Fixing a downhill scene

Something I’ve been running into for a while— you’re doing a scene, and you realize it’s going down a problematic path. Maybe it’s a transactional scene, or a teaching scene, or an attacking/fight scene, or a plot-heavy scene, or you’re talking about the thing and not about each other, or whatever. But you notice that the scene is having some structural issues.

Now what? How do you fix it?

Thinking onstage is hard. I often resort to very, very heavy-handed approaches that don’t even work— like if the scene is getting plot-heavy, I will literally say, “This is getting a little plot-heavy. Why don’t we talk about something else?”

Or if we’re talking about the thing, I will say, “But this isn’t what matters. What matters is… you.” (Which doesn’t make sense, so I’ll follow up with some desperately clumsy description of either (a) how we’re secretly in love, or (b) how mad I am because of something he/she did.)

I can’t think fast enough to A to C to come up with a graceful segue to shift the tone of the scene in a more favorable direction. Is that a skill that can come with time? I feel like I’ve been handling downhill scenes this same way for a year or so. Are there exercises I can do to work on this specific skill?

 

 

A to C

What’s “A to C-ing it?”

From the UCB Manual, pp. 225-226:

If [a suggestion] is the A, the improviser went right to their B, or first thought. When you go from A to B, you often end up just listing synonyms for the suggestion or a subset of elements that belong in the category represented by the suggestion…. Making these A to B moves is natural. The way you can learn to make less obvious moves is to manually go through the process of “going A to C.” You could also think of this process as “going to your next thought.”

…Hearing “sand” might first make you think of “rock.” …Forcing yourself to go from A to C means not saying “rock,” but instead going to your next thought. …So, “sand” was A, “rock” was B, and “Rolling Stones” was C. When you manually go A to C, you keep your B in your head and say your C out loud.

 

Words are hard for me. The first time my team tried this pattern game as a warm-up exercise, I kept freezing up. It took me a second or two just to come up with a “B”; within another couple seconds, the pressure of ‘Oh god everyone’s staring at me! Quick, say something smart! WHY AREN’T YOU COMING UP WITH ANYTHING?!’ paralyzed me to the point where I couldn’t think of anything, B or C or otherwise.

After a couple rounds of this, my teammate told me, “Look, your B might be someone else’s C. What’s obvious to you isn’t necessarily obvious to everyone else.

These days, I believe A to C-ing is a good skill to have, especially when coming up with a series of first beat scenes, but I believe even more strongly that doing an obvious B is way better than doing nothing because you can’t think of a clever C. Just getting out there and jumping on the bomb, saying something, doing anything, even if it’s obvious, will serve you better than hanging back and getting scared in your head.

My $0.02, as ever.

 

Squirrel in the garage

Guest post on People and Chairs: The Squirrel in the Garage

Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.

The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)

The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.

…Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.

 

There are sooooo many things I love about this article. Go read the whole thing.

Special

Mike Birbiglia describes love in Sleepwalk with Me:

Deep down, our whole lives, no matter how low our self-esteem gets, we think, ‘I have a special skill that no one knows about and if they knew they’d be amazed.’ And then eventually we meet someone who says, “You have a secret special skill.” And you’re like, “I know! So do you!” And they’re like, “I know!”

Isn’t that basically the improv community, too?

In one of the recent Magnet Theater Podcasts, Sebastian Conelli and Louis Kornfeld discussed the ego’s role in improv. (“Um”s, “like”s, and “ya know”s removed from quotes below.)

LOUIS: You need an ego to be a good performer. Because on a certain level, whether you’re a stand-up or… an improviser… there’s a part of you that feels like, ‘there’s something special about me.’ And sharing that out with people… gratifies this sense of ‘I’m a special person.’ …I think it’s a lie to not accept that… it’s sort of very much at the core of performing anything… you feel like you have something worthwhile in you that other people should be exposed to.

SEBASTIAN: Yes. 100%. …Anyone that’s signing up for Level 2, Level 3, Level 4, HAS to feel that inside them. There’s no way. I mean, I understand there are people that do it for fun, because they wanna let loose, but at some point inside of them, they have to feel that.

Also this:

LOUIS: On my more honest days, it’s definitely like, ‘I’m a special guy.’ …If you lie about it to yourself, and you kinda surround it with false modesty… all you really end up doing is creating this grotesquely arrogant shadow part of your personality that secretly feels like it’s better than everybody. And it feeds all this ugly gnarly shit into your behavior over time that erodes… at… you acting like a decent person. But owning up to it and risking coming across a little bit egotistical, but acknowledging that… ‘I have an ego, I’m a special guy… and that’s sort of the battery that’s running the stuff that I do,’ I think in a lot of ways, actually makes it a lot easier to not build false superiority. If anything, it makes you accept your humilities in a much more honest way.

 

Let’s review.

Q: Why am I doing improv?

A: Good question.

Here’s my most recent take:

I want honest approval. I want someone to tell me I’m doing a good job. I want to be liked. I want to learn this secret special skill, and whip it out and show it to non-improvisers and accept their laudations of ‘what a secret special skill you’ve got there!’

(Probably other reasons too, but first let’s own up to wanting to feel special.)

 

Q: Why perform?

A: Good question.

I’m not sure.

Because I am more likely to get the approval I crave when I am in a comfortable low-stakes environment, I’m happy to limit my comedy to practice rooms + drinks with friends, and avoid the stress and heartbreak and disapproval of going onstage.

So maybe I can coax myself onstage like this:

The more people who sing my praises, the better. To achieve the highest level of approval, I’ll show off my secret special skill for lots of people, a whole AUDIENCE of people, and get SO MUCH approval all in one go.

That’d be cool, right? But performing isn’t easy. Very few people kill their first time. And the way you increase your odds of having a performance like that is to do lots of them, until you start hitting the mark more often. So you’ve gotta keep on truckin’. Yeah, performances kinda suck right now, but they won’t always.

‘Cos how great would it be to have an ENTIRE ROOM in stitches?

Is something like that even in me? Can I do that?

Yes!

Yes, I think I can!

I’ve already done it! Remember “dead presidents?” Maybe it wasn’t “good improv,” but wasn’t it a thrill?

You can’t make everyone like you, but with time and dedication and hard work, you can make a large percentage of them like you for half an hour.