learning

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?

 

Talking + object work: Focusing on multiple things

I find it hard to talk while doing object work. It’s like patting my head and rubbing my tummy— I have trouble focusing on both, especially if the object work is complex. (I think every time I’ve frozen onstage, it’s been a brain overload while doing object work.) So I asked after class yesterday, since most of our exercises required “doing an activity” and I was havin’ a helluva time:

  • It will get easier, in general. Keep on truckin’.
  • It’s easier to do object work you’re familiar with, because some of the actions are automatic and it doesn’t take nearly as much brainpower.
  • So: go home and practice different object workings, so they’ll be familiar and take less brainpower.
  • The object work is there to give you a reason for being there, and give you something to go back to when you’re not the focus. If it’s distracting you, give it a rest.
  • People get distracted in life, too. You can say “what?” if you were so immersed in your object work that you missed what your partner said!
  • Don’t worry about getting the object work perfect. (Me and my ambiguous object work? Way ahead of you.)

Abridged notes from Monoscene class #3

Nuggets:

  • Don’t try to solve the problem. When someone says “this is my problem,” you should respond “shit, yeah, that sure is a problem,” instead of “okay, well, if you do THIS, you can fix it, it’s not so bad.”
  • When you get a location, the first thing you’ll think is to be interacting with it as a visitor/patron/customer. Instead try to place yourself as someone who works there, behind the scenes, day in day out.
  • Even a loose monoscene has a similar structure/rules to a Harold:
    • Series of two-person scenes: even when there are lots of characters onstage, what matters is the individual relationships between pairs of characters. These are the two-person scenes that you’d have in a Harold.
    • First beat, second beat, third beat. We haven’t covered this yet, specifically, but I’m pretty sure we will.
    • Giving focus: just like you wouldn’t yell over each other in a group game, give focus and take focus where it’s needed.
    • Know each other: (especially in the beginning of the monoscene.) It helps move the scene, it helps the audience give a damn (‘cos if YOU don’t care, how can they?). The characters should somehow care about each other.

 

More notes about walk-ons:

They don’t have to be brilliant– just be someone who’d flesh out the universe. The conversation you have with one or both characters SHOULDN’T be directly related to what the characters were discussing before you came on, so don’t feel stuck! (In fact, I bet I could brainstorm a bunch of announcements/ conversation starters beforehand, and have ’em available as backup when I need ’em– kind of like I did/still do with “relationships”. Or a bunch of three-person relationships– boyfriend, girlfriend, boyfriend’s roommate, for example)

Feedback

Freakonomics once discussed whether positive feedback or negative feedback was more valuable. The gist of it was:

  • Positive feedback is best when you’re new and starting out, and you need some encouragement to keep up morale while you struggle through being new and bad;
  • Negative feedback is best after you’ve been in it a while, and you actually want critical feedback so you can get better.

 

—–

 

Today, at a drop-in class, I helped build what I believe might be the best-received (and therefore most successful?) scene I’ve ever done. Uproars. Wild applause. My scene partner and I received high fives from classmates as we made our way back to our seats.

THAT was a trip.

I’d read a chapter from Mick Napier’s Improvise in the morning:

I’ve seen soooo many instructors watch a bad scene and chalk it up to “too many questions” or “talking in the future.” I’ve seen as many, after a good scene, say (with a half-laugh), “Great, that’s how it’s done, two more.” (p. 13)

Thankfully, our drop-in instructor didn’t do that. We took a moment to analyze why the scene went so well… and my ego was stoked for that much longer.

Positive feedback. Go me, good job.

 

—–

 

Overall, I like drop-in classes.

The thing is— the drop-ins draw a lot of people who are very new to improv. Not a bad thing, just a thing.

An upside is— I tend to be one of the more skilled improvisers in the class (whaaa? wasn’t I the worst improviser in NYC just a few months ago?), so it’s a good ego boost for me. Which sounds selfish and dumb, but it helps me play more fearlessly.

A downside is— I want some good juicy criticism*, not just positive ego-stoking, and it’s hard to make that happen at a drop-in class.

(* Not too juicy. But at least some variation of, “Good! [You did this thing very well.] [It would be even better if you worked on this other thing.] But good job!”)

 

—–

 

Something I read a while back:

The most common complaint about a lot of teachers is that they don’t give enough personal notes…. But, I ask you this: were you really doing anything in class that warranted a note? …My guess is that if you’re not getting enough personal notes, you’re playing it safe.

(Christy L. Bonstell, 15 ways to be a better improv student, via Second City Network)

 

I don’t feel like I’m getting as many personal notes as I’d like, especially negative ones. I’m not 100% sure what I need to do to be riskier. More verbal initiations, perhaps?

 

 

—–

 

Because fear has been such a massive hindrance to my improv for so long, merely jumping onstage and doing my best to be fearless still feels sort of crazy and risky.

Now that I’m addressing it, I’m a little lost what else I need to work on in the classroom*.

I know there are things that separate me from good improvisers, but I’m unclear exactly what those things are— or at least the biggest, most important things that I should tackle first.

I’m making a personal list— ‘try emoting slowly and quietly, like a normal person, instead of my usual spastic melodramatic self’; ‘initiate more’; ‘work on agreeing/matching more’ (I was picking fights again for a little while)— but I have no idea if those are the things that experts would have me focus on.

 

* “what else I need to work on in the classroom”: I still need to address fear onstage. That is my big pink elephant. I need to find stages and get on them, especially if the stages have higher stakes than a single-scene jam or a low-pressure class show.

 

—–

 

So that’s it. I’m reaching the point where I’m craving some negative feedback. Cushioned in positivity, of course, because my ego is always going to be a delicate flower, but I want some more “hey, keep doing what you’re doing, but challenge yourself to also do this.” Boom. Improved improv.

 

 

 

 

Salt and pepper

Salt and pepper - Macroscopic Solutions

Our substitute practice coach gave us a metaphor this past week.

 

—–

There is a lot of salt in the world. It’s a mineral. It’s in the earth, it’s in the water, it’s easy to come by, it’s cheap, and it’s necessary for life (to some extent).

Mounds of salt in Lac Retba, Senegal - herr_hartmann

 

 

There is not so much pepper in the world. It has to be grown from a plant, cultivated, watered, tended, harvested. It’s comparatively expensive and harder to come by.

Peppercorn rows, Phu Quoc - Katie Yaeger Rotramel

 

When you’re cooking, usually you’ll use more salt than pepper.

They are both important for adding flavor, but the salt sort of functions as a base grounding for the flavors in the dish, while the pepper adds a little bit of kick.

Salt & pepper pork chops - hermitsmoores

 

You can think of improv scenes this way, too. The base reality, the grounding, the basic human nature and relationships of your scene— that’s the salt. That comes first. Unusual things, weird shit, crazyness— they’re the pepper. They work best for an additional punch of flavor after you’ve set up your base grounding of salt reality.

Salt and pepper - Charles Haynes

 

If you only use one or the other, the dish won’t taste right, but together, and in the correct proportions, you can make beautiful meals.

Salt and pepper, beautiful together! - Jeannine St. Amand

Salt and pepper, beautiful together!


(All photos here are hyperlinked back to their Flickr pages and shared with Creative Commons licenses)

Successful actors freeze, too

http://www.backstage.com/news/study-shows-stage-fright-is-common-among-working-actors/

(From 2011: Study Shows Stage Fright is Common Among Working Actors)

84 percent [of 136 successful professional actors surveyed] reported experiencing stage fright at least once in their careers. [Goodman] described the condition as freezing or choking and said it is usually represented by a performance’s sudden collapse, rather than a gradual decline. Anxiety is particularly debilitating to actors, because fear of the future occurs in the same part of the brain where imagination lives, Goodman explained. He likened it to an overloaded computer: It will freeze if it has too many programs open while trying to process something complicated. “Imagination,” he said, “is a limited space.”

 

“All of a sudden I really got stage fright,” [Bailit] said. “I couldn’t figure it out, and I remember looking out, and everyone had a stunned look.” She almost walked off the stage, a move that would have haunted her career, she said. One thing kept her onstage. “I was frozen,” she said.

More-positive thoughts quickly took hold, she said, and she remembered her training: Concentrate on what you’re saying; get in the moment; connect with someone.

 

Experience and success are no guard against [stage fright]. Actors such as Meryl Streep, Ian Holm, and Barbra Streisand also suffered from it after they had established their careers.

 

(I froze in class this past week. Upside: I didn’t break the fourth wall like I usually do. Downside: I froze, what the FUCK, I should be past this by now, why am I not. Other downside: it was our first level 3 class, and I’m ALSO obsessing that my classmates all judged me. Great first impression, right?

So instead of wallowing in self-loathing, I’m trying to figure out: what went wrong? How can I prevent this from happening in the future? Can I prevent it from happening in the future? If I can’t, how can I manage the symptoms? If I can’t, is it a total waste of time to pursue a stage-based hobby?)

Stop fighting!

An observation about one of the many improv things I struggle with— If you come at me with an accusation, I will always, always fight.

I mean, I’ll accept the reality of the situation, that I did the thing you’re accusing me of, but I’ll be damned if you’re gonna tell me that’s WRONG. I had a TOTALLY valid reason for crashing that commercial jet, and fuck you for saying otherwise.

The problem is: fights rarely make good improv. The scene never goes anywhere– no new information gets added to the scene, you just dive deeper and deeper into the dumb little factoids you started with. It becomes about the facts (which are MADE UP! how can you strive win a fight based on make-believe facts?!) instead of about the relationship between the characters.

The problems for me, why I have so much trouble not fighting, are:

  1. I wouldn’t say I like arguing, but… uh, I like being right. So I’m usually having so much… fun?… trying to one-up my opponent that I don’t even realize I’m doing a terrible scene until like 2 minutes after it ends.
  2. It’s my honest reaction. That’s honestly how I’d handle an accusation in reality. And you’re supposed to react honestly, right?

I’ve got a short fuse. I never thought I’d be able to hold a job as long as I have; I always envisioned myself telling a boss to go fuck himself and quitting/getting fired in a spectacular tantrum. (I’ve come close! Oh did my manager and I have a talk last week. But I digress.)

Lately, I’ve had some opportunities to get screamingly rageful in scenes, and that usually goes over well because “strong emotion” and all, but I’m just like, wince, guys, I have anger issues, please don’t validate them.

Back to the point: ideally, I guess you avoid confrontational initiations, but once it’s out there… maybe I need to learn to just… accept that I was wrong, that I’m the lower status character here. At least sometimes.

Is there a way to do this without being either (a) remorseful (“I’m so sorry, I’m a terrible person for crashing that jet”) or (b) incompetent/clueless (“You’re not s’posed to shut off the engines in flight? Golly, I didn’t know that!”)? Or is one of those two options how you’re supposed to navigate the situation?

Or should I hold on to my “fuck you, I’m right” point of view (thus maintaining the “honest reaction” thing), but steer the conversation away from the subject we’re fighting about?

…I have no idea how to do that, though (in improv or reality).

So how do you handle accusations (in improv or reality)?

 

 

(Oh hey, also, this is my 69th post, hurr hurr hurrrrr.)