Category Archives for Improv/Theatre
At rehearsal last night I was called sexist. Not just by one person, but by most of the cast all at the same time. This was particularly hurting as I consider myself a fairly rabid feminist, more so than most women apparently, or least according to the few women who’ve known me well.
I was about to start a two person scene, and my female scene partner asked the rest of the cast for a relationship and assign the roles to each of us. Asking for a relationship is a classic ask for in Sydney, but has always seemed odd to me. What they’re really asking for is a social relationship. There are lots of other types and aspects of relationship aside from the social relationship, but this seems to be the one we prefer to get. My guess is that by getting a social relationship (e.g. boss and worker, therapist and client, mother and daughter), there is an implied interpersonal relationship and status.
Interpersonal relationships (often referred to in improv classes as “the five relationships”) define the degree of intimacy, openness or vulnerability between two people. And the more open and vulnerable people are to each other, the stronger the emotion, the potentially higher the stakes, and the more engaging the scene. I guess players learn subconsciously that getting “a relationship between two people” more often leads to better scenes, because you no longer have to find the interpersonal relationship at the top of the scene. And of course the more you reduce scene metapragmatics, the better.
The relationship suggested last night was “a lawyer and another guy who is the criminal”. At this point I cut in and said something along the lines of “we’ll make the criminal a girl, because…” and motioned toward my scene partner. I didn’t point at her, but I did a kind of introductory sweeping motion with my hand. At this point everyone yelled out “how sexist”, with the director even saying “what, only a man can be a lawyer?!”
So let me go through my thought process. When I’m about to improvise, often my prefrontal cortex is either turned off or sitting at idle, I’m almost as present as I am while improvising. Another of my scene partners recently joked about this to an audience, the fact that when I get a suggestion for a scene, it’s not uncommon for my subconscious to kick in and start visualising the scene in my head, at which point I have to consciously notice it and stop it from doing so, at which point it starts another scene, and so on until I actually start the scene for real. I usually need an ask for, the second before I start improvising, otherwise I’ve done a bunch of scenes in my head already before we get anywhere. This isn’t me thinking, it’s me being too present at the wrong time.
Not thinking isn’t a good argument though, because you could say that without my filters and judgement, I’ve said what I really know to be true deep down, and so I actually am sexist.
What actually happened was that I heard the first few words “a lawyer”, and I straight away started seeing a lawyer in a scene in my head. By the time I heard “and another guy”, I’d already become the lawyer, and therefore I assigned the other guy to my scene partner, all without consciously choosing to do so. And before I even spoke, I’d weighed up that choice and figured that my scene partner would have more fun playing that character anyway, and a female criminal sounds much more interesting than a female lawyer to a male criminal. So that’s when I said “we’ll make the criminal a girl…” without thinking.
Now I don’t usually play high status characters, and a lawyer more often than not conjures up high status, although obviously they don’t have to be. I don’t usually play high status partly because I’m more of a low status kind of guy personally, so that’s my wheelhouse. The fact that this didn’t affect my decision is significant, because if I was consciously assigning characters to each of us, my gut would probably have given my scene partner the lawyer, and I’d have taken the criminal.
In the end I initiated that we were brother and sister criminals, which just seemed to come out in reaction to the sexist claim, but in the end was a much better choice anyway. Mum turned up mid-scene, and she was the lawyer, so suck on that sexist conspiracists!
The brain is an amazing thing, and while we still don’t know exactly how it works, the most popular theories implicate an amazing amount of subconscious input into what eventually becomes part of our conscious. And as improvisors, the more present we are, the more we draw upon the subconscious to add dynamics and depth to our scenes. You can never really tell where everything we improvise comes from, there are clues and some things seem more obvious than others, but you never really and truly know.
For more information on how improvisation works and how to improve your play, come and do one of my Sydney based courses or workshops through Academy of Improvisation, or just wait for my upcoming book — Inside Improvisation.
Oh, and I’m not sexist.
You memories are not perfect, but the interpreter can help to fill in details which are plausible. Evidence of this is seen from how people who have suffered trauma that eliminates some of their real memories, will confabulate things to fill in the gaps, in a way to make a consistent narrative. We do this all the time, and if you memories are complete enough, and your understanding of the context good enough, this confabulation works in your favor.
Musical hot spot is an improv warm up game, which used to to also be performed on stage an iO in Chicago. The version we use in Australia a botched version of the original, which supposedly gets you in the moment, out of your head and in a good happy mood. The problem is that not only doesn’t it work, but it can also have a negative affect and actually get people into their heads.
The game starts with everyone in a circle. Either a word suggestion is given as an offer, or someone just thinks of a song, but one person then jumps into the middle and starts singing and dancing to a song. Everyone in the circle then sings and dances along. If you don’t know the song, you still commit to singing and dancing by either copying or doing your own thing, but the point is to support the person in the middle. When anyone in the circle is reminded of a different song by one of the words being already sung, then they jump into the middle singing and dancing to the new song. The previous person in the middle rejoins the circle and the circle now sings and dances along with the new person in the middle. And so on ad infinitum, or often ad tedium. There’s also a bunch of other notes given about supporting the person in the middle etc but basically that’s the game.
I remember being in a musical hot spot many years ago which was like an audition for Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and Bette Midler impersonators. I didn’t know most of the songs, and I hated the ones I did. In fact I thought we’d invented punk so we didn’t have to listen to crap like that. It was not a fun warm up, in fact I hated it, especially since I had to spend the whole game pretending that I was enjoying myself, and it just served to make me even more pissed off and in my head.
The problem is that the game assumes that everyone likes all styles of music, particularly pop music. Don’t get me wrong, I love music, in fact my passion for music usually exceeds most people I’ve improvised with, and the styles of music I like are definitely more wide and varied than most people. It’s just that the songs chosen in musical hot spot are usually popular crap that reflect the average age group and interests of those playing the game, regardless whether anyone likes or even knows them.
Of course people can always jump in the middle and sing a song they do know and like, and I guess it encourages prople to keep jumping into the middle. But what generally happens then is that the people who picked all the crappy pop songs then rarely support the obscure ones because they’re not use to doing so, and the person with the exception can end up being externalised from the group because they don’t seem to be working with the group’s choices.
The Australian version of Musical hot spot is a bad improv warm up game. It assumes people have a certain popular and mundane musical taste, rewarding those who do, and punishing those who don’t. You can’t fake being in the moment, and there is no place in improv for warm up games which encourage you to do so.
In 2010 I started a monthly improv show called A Night at the Improv, consisting of two troupes per show, each doing a 45 minute Chicago style improv set. The first show was to include the return of our 8 player “Backstreet Stories” troupe after a six month break, with our format of the same name, but only two of us were available to rehearse, so we pulled in a guest player and did three rehearsals as a trio in order to come up with a new format we could use for the show. Trios are fun because they lend themselves to having three protagonists, one for each player, which leads to those classic A/B, B/C, A/C, and A/B/C scene combinations. We ended up devising three trio formats throughout the year, and each with a different trio of players. Because we only played them a few times, the audience typically didn’t realise that we were playing a format, which is a shame because each of us have great memories of the rehearsals and the formats.
So here they are. Feel free to use and adapt them without requiring permission or royalties, but I’d love an email from you describing how it went if you end up using any of them. Note that these were designed for Chicago style scenic long form, and may not work exactly as described if played in Keith Johnstone style.
Most character narrative formats use one of three forms: inside out, where we meet the protagonists who know each other at the beginning and we keep meeting new characters through outward connections; outside in, where we meet seemingly unconnected protagonists in various scenes and by the end the connections have been discovered; or linear, where we meet the protagonists who know each other at the beginning, other characters may come and go, but the main protagonists are still there at the end. Outside in is the most difficult, as the structure can negatively affect the show if the players are actively looking for the connections, yet it can be the most rewarding for the audience if done right. The first two formats ahere to outside in and inside out respectively, and the third is open to interpretation.
Jonathan, my wife Louise, and myself devised a trio format called “Psyched” or “Spotlight”, depending on who you ask, which we played several times before Louise had to stop playing because our toddler wouldn’t let us go out of the house together.
The format is an outside in form, mostly with open play and involves the interactions of three protagonists who are each gradually introduced via a therapy session with a psychologist.
The show opens with each player accepting a different type of ask-for from the audience. The first scene then begins with a character (protagonist #1) in an actual spotlight if you have the lighting option available, preferably sitting on a stool or chair, speaking with an invisible psychologist in the audience. We only hear the character’s responses, and silence is left for the psychologist’s voice, during which the character can be seen to be listening and reacting. The second scene is a typical open scene with protagonist #1 and a bit player, using some of the information which came out about them in the first scene. The third scene is a new protagonist (protagonist #2) (not in either of the first two scenes) with a psychologist, much the same as the first scene, followed by two open scenes which can be between any of the characters introduced so far, or a new character, but each scene must contain one of the two protagonists introduced so far. Scene six is a third psychologist scene, introducing the final protagonist (protagonist #3). At this point the audience should be familiar with most of the characters, and each of the three protagonists have been introduced via a psychologist scene and the first two also in an open scene. Play is then open for the rest of the show.
The structure of the first six scenes doesn’t have to be fixed as PSYCH1, OPEN1, PSYCH2, OPEN2, OPEN1, PSYCH3, you can play around with it, but if you do follow that initial structure then you should reach a good balance between two many opening psychologist scenes in a row, and the audience forgetting the early protagonists because they haven’t returned in open scenes for a while. Protagonists should come back to the psychologist every so often to get additional information about their character, and to summarise events from the open scenes, or whatever you think the audience wants. At least 2-3 psychologist scenes per character throughout the show seems about right.
As play progresses, connections between the three seemingly disconnected protagonists may appear, or they may not. It is common to have two protagonists eventually know each other and the third to have an isolated narrative, perhaps with connections between bit players, but there doesn’t need to be any. What comes out, will come out.
Every scene in the show must contain at least one protagonist, as the show is about them and their journey of self discovery. You can play with time as well if you wish, through flashbacks or flashforwards as entire scenes, but the psychologist scenes must be in the now, as they’re a reflection of what happens to the protagonists. Tagouts etc. aren’t used, but at least try them and see if they work for you. Scene transitions are simple jump in replacements, which may feel clunky at first if you’re new to smaller troupes, but works better than sweeps or other transitions as they don’t pull focus.
Each of the three protagonists is played by one of the three players. For newer players it’s recommended that each player looks after their own protagonist’s character development, else they could flounder in the solo psychologist scenes.
The show can end at any time the players feel is right. Perhaps some of the protagonists have addressed their problems discovered with the psychologist, perhaps others are destined to simply repeat their mistakes. It’s up to you and the audience on the night.
The format sounds a little too structured, but once you play with it a little, it’s not really. Think of it as an open format, but with the psychologist scenes as an additional tool for developing characters.
The key skills are solo monologue like scenes with missing two character dialog; an understanding of therapy question and answer (do your research on how therapy works); and the ability to find or at least identify narrative and character connections.
When Louise left the trio, Backstreet Stories player Emily joined Jonathan and I, and we devised a format which was never named, but we kept calling it “that format with Duncan in it”, so let’s call it “Duncan”. We played it a half dozen times (and maybe 20-40 times in rehearsal). It’s a lot of fun and you spend a lot of time on stage, especially in a trio.
The format is an inside out form where the show leads up to scenes of increasing numbers of returning characters at or near the end of the show. Typically we follow one of two protagonists who finds themself meeting friends and family of the other protagonist, and shows the interactions and personal discoveries of each as that person is potentially integrated into that social circle. An example would be where a girl brings her new boyfriend home to the family farm, and he meets the mother and father, brothers and sisters, ex-boy and girl friends, and anything else that could be thrown into the mix, and then the girl meets her old town boyfriend and tentions form between the two protagonists. You can probably think of other examples where various acquaintances are forced together in an uncomfortable environment.
The fun begins when the characters are mixed into varying scenes where they discover new things about each other and their relationships, and usually ends with a situation where most of the characters are present, like family dinner, a meeting, an exhibition, or a community group etc. This involves the three players switching characters throughout the scene, even providing back and forth dialog between two characters they’re playing, or dialog with invisible characters, depending on what you’re trying to get out of the dialog and the emotional reactions to it. It’s fast paced and fun to play, and teaches you interesting skills for normal improv such as being able to quickly see and respond to different character perspectives.
Like most small cast shows, the differences between the character voices and mannerisms are important so the audience can tell the difference between them. The largest group scene is usually played near the end, so there’s a build up to it and the audience and players are very familiar with all the characters being played. You can also do a few half-cast scenes in the middle of the show to give the audience some ooh ahh moments before raising the stakes in the larger scene. Alternatively, the large scene can be in the middle of the show, and the second half is about the fall out from it, with possibly another one at the end if you feel you need.
The end of the show tends to leave the first protagonist stuck in the middle of all these other characters with their issues, with only some kind of radical way out, if indeed there is a resolution. If the large scene is in the middle of the show, then the second half can be like a runaway train, as the players will be reacting faster than normal, having just done lot’s of character switching in the larger scene.
Players can switch to any character they wish at any time, there’s no character ownership by the players. If two character that one player started meet each other, then another player should jump in as one of them, taking on the voice and mannerisms of the character. You can also get an ask for at the top of the show if you need one.
The key skills are the ability to play multiple characters at once, including dialog for each, or solo dialog with an invisible player; and to be able create notably different characters and impersonate those created by other players.
In late 2010, Emily went overseas, so Peter joined Jonathan and I, and we devised a format called “What If”.
The format follows no particular structure, you can either set that beforehand, or just play the show and see what comes out organically. We usually introduce the show with the line “What if… something wasn’t quite right with the world…”, and the key is to be strict on believability (not reality) and then introduce a single off the wall “reality tilt” mid-way through the first scene. Play continues believably, but there are real world consequences based on the reality tilt being acceptable and believable fact. The audience goes through an “ah ha” moment as it tilts, with some catching on early, and others a little later. For audiences used to the Johnstone style with its absurdity curve and parody, they tend to find in it a fascinating realism, but with some of the weirdness they’re used to. Some examples might help… 🙂
A boy and his father are fixing his bicycle in the garage, with talk about when the father was a boy and he did the same with his father. After a few minutes, the father drops a short yet obvious reality tilt into the scene, for example “Yeah, my dad was pretty angry whenever I crashed my bike. It took me ages before I got my flying bicycle license.” From then on the reality is that bicycles can fly, you need a license and you can potentially get them when you’re fairly young. The play continues believably, and is about the father/son relationship, but anything the reality tilt affects also becomes reality, such as what clothes you wear while riding, whether the boy’s friends have licenses, whether you need to be a qualified bicycle technician and the boy and father are breaking the law, whether other vehicles fly, and how did bicycles first start to fly were they endowed by other beings or is there a scientific explanation. Another example from one of our rehearsals…
A scene in a bar between two people, and several minutes in another player enters saying “OK that’s enough, shutdown the simulation please Ted.” Turns out they’re in a virtual reality and didn’t know it, at which point the scene dissolves to a black boxed room. The supervisor and technician enter, and something out of the ordinary has happened. The show is about how any scene could be virtual reality, and most times when the on stage scenes change, we eventually find that the scene is in virtual reality. When the scene dissolves, the story of the real world continues. There’s effectively two story lines, one inside and one outside of the virtual reality.
It’s important that the reality tilt and consequences aren’t the focus, they’re just the background in which the characters interact as they would in a normal show. It’s also important that the play has believability, and that the characters respond and act believably, not realistically, but believably, something key to the Chicago style, but not in the Sydney (where we’re based) variation of the Keith Johnstone style. So this needs to be drilled into the players.
Once the reality tilt has been given, the other player identifies it, accepts it and responds to it, which makes it more significant in the scene, and let’s the first player know that they’ve recognised the tilt. In the flying bicycle example, the boy might then respond “Well times have changed dad, flight licenses are pretty easy to get these days. You can even get them on the black market.” Once the reality tilt is given, that’s it, there’s no further attempt if you don’t like what’s offered, and no further tilts are given in the show, it’s just the one offer and its consequences.
Reality tilts tend to be one of three types, something special about the person (e.g. can see the future, can breath underwater, came from a parallel reality), something special about the world (e.g. there’s no gravity, there’s a big brother hierarchy amongst humans, only men can have children), or in rare cases the audience’s perception of reality or structure is changed (e.g. time travels backwards but the characters don’t know it, scenes repeat themselves, one character is really two characters in different time periods). Note that the reality tilt is discovered in the opening scene, it’s not preplanned or taken from an ask-for.
What If is the most difficult of the three above forms to get right, and involves a lot of rehearsal of opening scenes. You can also get an ask-for to begin the show if you wish, but it must be mundane and simply used to generate an idea for the first few seconds of the opening scene.
All of the rehearsals and shows we’ve done for “What If” have turned out as what is commonly known as classic science fiction. Not the parody and film cliches used in Theatresports or most “science fiction” shows, but real science fiction as you would read in science fiction novels. There may well be exceptions, but we’ve done 20-30 runs of this format and they could all be classified as science fiction to varying degrees, if they were a novel. See if you can do otherwise. But also a warning, once you’ve seen this work, you’ll begin to look condescendingly at those traditional Theatresports sci-fi genre parodies.
The first “What If” we did in front of an audience, which was about an unemployed youth trying to emulate his father and do him proud, with the backdrop of it only ever raining on certain days because we’ve engineered it to in order to deal with how badly we’ve looked after the planet, is still one of my favourites shows.
Enjoy, and have fun!
Learning to improvise properly in Sydney is difficult. The training is mostly by rote drilling of sometimes inexplicably contradictory “rules”, which have been passed down over the last 30 years as gospel, with advancement usually based on how funny you are, not how well you can improvise. Since figuring that out, I’ve spent the last 3 years questioning everything I’d learned and knew about improv, and radically reinvented my approach and technique. It also led me away from Keith, to Del, but some of the answers came from neither, and were some odd non-improv sources.
I’ve been reading Jurgen Appelo’s book Management 3.0, a complex systems’ perspective on, and guide to agile management, which is basically about managing software development, but I’ve been surprised how much of his writing also applies to improv.
In Sydney we don’t normally embrace the idea of a troupe, we’re a Keith Johnstone Theatresports town, and most shows are very much the rock up and play type, where you play with different people in each show. There’s a lot wrong with this idea, but as a consequence there’s few if any regular troupes who rehearse and play together. I’ve been one of the lucky few, in that I’ve spent the last 3 years rehearsing with various troupes pretty much weekly, and had the opportunity to really explore with some likeminded people.
One of the things I questioned was the term group mind, the idea that a group of players as a whole can think likemindly as a single being. To overly simplify, some of the defnitions of group mind have included: you and your scene partner think the same way; you and your scene partner both know what should or does happen next; we all think the same way at the same time; we can count to 20 without surprising ourselves; and, knowing what your scene partner is about to do. To me these all seem like bad things, and the antithesis of what it means to improvise.
And then there’s the mystical definition, that something inexplicably magical happens to the group. I’d put this more down to coincidence and wishful thinking, a side effect of having worked with the same players for a while, which has good and bad facets to it. To come at it from a different perspective, how often does your troupe not have something magical happen? Coincidence is like that, it’s an exception masquerading as a rule.
Management 3.0 on the other hand has some good insights into what I think is really happening when we have those group mind moments.
The idea that a system can be better than a some of the parts, is born out of systems theory. Complex adaptive systems are called such because they are diverse and made up of multiple interconnected elements, and have the capacity to change and learn from experience. An improv troupe is a complex adaptive system, especially if there’s no clear directorial leader, and is at least a sum of its parts, the players.
Emergence is the idea that complex systems produce emergent resultants, results and effects caused by the sum of the parts and not attributable to any clearly traceable part. Emergence, or strong emergence when applied to a creative team like an improv troupe, causes the troupe to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The amount of emergence is commonly based upon the number of components and their interactions, which in the case of improv will increase over time. Many of the interactions may be negligible, not useful or may create noise that prevents emergence, however rehearsal and performance allow the troupe to refine and better their group play, the amount of emergence.
You can optimise emergence in several ways. Firstly, the system must be self regulating and self organising, not merely directed via hierarchy or by a single component of the system. This is also my experience in working with troupes. Creativity, capability and skill all improve when the group builds together, so long as the players are experienced and at a similar level of ability.
The diversity of a complex system is also important, as it increases flexibility by making it resilient to environmental changes, and feeds innovation due to the varying combinations and interactions between the component parts. This is particularly true of an improv troupe, including Theatresports teams with the old 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th player categorisations.
So what is group mind? I think it’s emergence, a team of creative people building something greater than the players themselves, but tempered with the coincidence that comes from working with the same people for a while.
Management 3.0 has many more great insights into improving creative teams, and while it would probably be a hard slog for an improviser not involved in software development, I’d certainly recommend a skim through it on Amazon or in a technical library if you can find one.
I’m an improv nut. For the last five years on average, I’ve played in two shows a week. I went to other peoples’ shows when I could, some multiple times, and much of the time just out of support, not because they’re great shows or anything. I’ve also put on (directed, produced, whatever) more shows/seasons than I can remember, and yet, I still can’t get people along to see my most innovative shows.
You could say, “well maybe you’re just shit.” I’m not, but there’s an old improv saying “you’re only as good as the last show I saw you in”, so maybe the last time people saw me was many many years ago? Still, some of my friends don’t even come, even the players who I’ve played with recently, so its not like they’re over seeing Richard do yet another improv show. Its like they consciously just don’t want to come and see something new that I’m in.
Initially I thought it might be because they weren’t cast in the show, maybe they’re just jealous they’re not in it, so they refuse to come. That can’t be the case, because I don’t believe my friends, or even players, would be that petty. And anyway, its just one show of many, so big deal. When I first started, I would go and see every show I could, even the ones I wasn’t interested in. Some of these I would have liked to be in, but that’s just life, even if you’re the best improvisor in town, the group mind is more important in a cast than how skilled you are. Successful shows, even if you’re not in them, mean more shows to play in, and that’s just good for everyone.
Then I thought maybe its the “well, you didn’t come and see mine”, but that’s also petty. If I didn’t see their show, then its probably because I was just plain couldn’t make it, and I usually try to apologise for that anyway.
Maybe players just don’t want to see different types of improv beyond Sydney’s formulaic short form. I can understand that from some, that’s all they play. But there are a lot of Sydney people who’ve recently got the long form bug, yet few of those come to my shows either.
So finally I figure maybe its just that I’m not good at publicity. I’m not a professional publicist, and my shows are pretty niche so can’t cost justify one, but I know for sure that with the publicity we do that the Sydney improv community well and truly know when my shows are on.
I don’t know. It makes you want to stop doing shows, both innovating and playing. It would be so easy to just revert back to playing in regular Theatresports shows and be done with it. In fact its probably easier to just move away altogether and back into film and radio.
Improv is all about making others look good, being supportive, and not having an ego. Maybe a lot of Sydney players need to learn a thing or two. Or maybe I just need to play better short form.
Or maybe not.
Its just weird, I can’t figure it out…
Well finally the first episode of Bonny & Clyde is out. Please take a look and send me some feedback. We value your input.
It is “improvisor”. Even though both Google and Answers.com say otherwise.
From the following site: The Un-Scripted Theater – Company Store. Although, they need to think about how to spell theatre.
‘-or’ and ‘-er’ are noun suffixes denoting an agent or doer; as in auditor, one who hears; donor, one who gives; obligor; elevator. It is correlative to ‘-ee’. In general ‘-or’ is appended to words of Latin, and ‘-er’ to those of English, origin.
French ‘improvisor’, from Italian ‘improvvisare’, from ‘improvviso’, unforeseen, from Latin ‘imprvisus’ : in-, not; see in+ ‘provisus’, past participle of ‘providere’, to foresee.
Therefore, to ‘improvise’, from the Latin ‘improvidus’, would thus dictate the use of the Latin ‘-or’ suffix, and thus make those who practice the art of improvisation improvisors!