Category Archives for My upcoming improv book
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.
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.
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…