Friday, 25 May 2018

Walk On By: The Subtle Art of Walking On and Walking Off Again

This topic came up as a recent discussion on everyone's favourite data-mining site, facebook. It set my brain off so here's some of its thoughts on the subject.

Before I start properly, I will state that my brain can't decide whether it likes "walk-on" or "walk on." (It already objected to “walkon.”) I'm going for the former as this seems more widely accepted and is clearer in some circumstances. If I offend any grammarians, then I'm am sorry.

I'll start this piece by defining what I mean by the term "walk-on." A walk-on is where an actor goes on stage during a scene and interacts with the scene (usually in a way that adds something) and then leaves. This can either be as a character who enters the scene or as a "director" pointing something out (scene painting, explaining, etc).

"Waiter, there's an extra person in my scene!"
It seems simple enough but it's fraught with danger and it can easily become something else. For example, if the actor doesn't leave, it is not a walk-on, they are adding a character. If they walk on and somehow take too much focus from an already established story that didn't require it, this is stealing focus. Walking on to edit a scene I do not consider a walk-on as we are discussing here, it is it's own separate thing.

There is also a walk-through, which is slightly different, but in the same ball park. It's where, for example a couple of characters cross the stage not interacting with the scene itself, although possibly referencing it. Once they actors have crossed the stage, that bit is over. It's like an INSERT in a movie.


Walk-on: Or a short flashback on Family Guy!
Again if the actors start a walk-through, but stay on stage, it becomes a split screen.
Walk-on: Oh, the jargon!
99% of the time in a walk-on, the actor physically enters the stage (usually by walking, but not exclusively), but, a voice from off-stage adding some details is also technically a walk-on.

"Sire, I bring you good news from off stage."
There are several reasons why walk-ons can be a good thing. They mostly come from the fact that actors on the side can have a better overview of the scene / story than the actors in the scene. They can usually better see what a scene needs or what the actors want.
Walk-on: So let's hear some.
Some reasons to do a walk-on:
  • Clear up confusions; explain things.
  • Add a helpful detail to enrich the scene, characters, atmosphere, etc.
  • Further a game.
  • Raise the stakes.
  • Highlight an offer that is more important than the actors in the scene realise.
  • Solve a problem which is distracting the players.
  • Helping the story along when it's time to do so.
  • Add some element of fun.
  • To throw in a joke, make a call-back or add a counter-point.
  • Ending a scene. Although this is almost a separate subject, but if you come on and add a line that gives the scene a good end (or "button"), then this is also a specific kind of walk-on.
Again these things can all be done, but should only be done if they are needed. If you are not sure they are needed, they are probably not. Keep watching the scene and see if something feels missing or needed.
Walk-on: You will spend a lot of your time in improv standing on the sides and watching.
Now a lot of people are wary of walk-ons for some good reasons. Here are some of the pitfalls...
  • Sometimes the actor providing the walk-on doesn't leave, either because the actor thinks there is more to add or the other actors took this walk-on as another character - this can especially happen when the actors in the scene feel it is going badly and latch onto anything they can and are horrified that this new character might leave them alone.
  • The offer brought by the walk-on steers the scene unnecessarily in a direction it wasn't going. Walk-ons can nudge a story on track, most notably when the actors on the side can clearly see this is a story about one character's desire for revenge but somehow they characters are getting bogged down making coffee. But sometimes the actor on the side wasn't paying full attention or is obsessed with an earlier offer they think the story should be about.
  • The scene starts to be about the walk-on character when this isn't necessary.
  • The walk-on comes on as a character that the audience loves and this takes the focus. In general, come on for a walk-on as a minor character, do what you have to do and leave, but sometimes, you hit upon a great, funny character and they audience responds well to it. My advice here is still leave. Still serve that scene and help it. Because you can almost always bring that character back later in the show, which will probably have more impact, anyway.
  • The walk-on was to do a joke which ruins the atmosphere or takes away from what's happening on stage. A lot of  judgement is needed as to whether this is the time for a funny walk on. Sometimes the funny gets in the way of the story and although you might have a great gag that you know would get a laugh, if this is a touching moment, it might not be right at all, as you'll stamp all over the story and ruin a chance for improv to be more than just a bunch of joking nods to the audience and call-backs. Sometimes you can save it for the right moment (a touching scene followed by a great, funny line is good comedy) and sometimes you have to let that little birdie go (there will be other jokes, trust me).
  • An actor just wants to be on stage. I think we have all cringed at shows where there is one actor who somehow manages to be in every scene whether they are needed or not. And many of us have cringed when we have realised that actor was us that evening.
Walk-on: Hi everyone!

As with all these things, we can analyse them until we are blue in the face, but they only way to really learn the parameters is to do them. Rehearse with your team, practice walk-ons: do a montage-type longform and say beforehand, “we will do as many walk-ons as possible and then see / feel which ones work.” Play games where, say, only new information can be added by players outside the scene. There are more exercises, I'm sure.

And don't be afraid to evaluate and discuss after. "When you walked on during the egg scene, I didn't understand what you were bringing." Don't be afraid to ask yourself or fellow players, "was that needed?" Understand that it is hard to lean the balance of when to go on and when to not, and we will go too far sometimes in our enthusiasm, but that's how we learn. And sometimes it is a matter of opinion. As long as we are open to questioning ourselves and learning we can find that perfect balance point where we only enter a scene when it truly needs it and then, if this is a walk-on, we get the bejesus back off stage.

Quiz for the keen: There were several walk-ons during this piece. Can you determine which were the helpful ones and which were not? There will be a follow-up post with some examples soon.
Walk-on: As ever feel free to comment.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Gotta get down on Friday

On Friday I took a workshop on hip hop improv because one should always push oneself. Plus it’s a workshop with a beatboxer in it, and pretty much anything without a beatboxer is lame. I won’t even go shopping these days without someone beside me laying down some dope beats.

The night started with Friend Friend, where two friends, Amy and Anna, channel their love for each other to portray a heart-warming array of characters. There is so much charm and calm joy on display here. You get drawn into the worlds they are themselves discovering and feel you’ve just watched a show of two people giving each other lovely gifts.

I'll Be There For You. (Photo by Marwan Youssef)
The second show was Stuck in the middle. In this show, one of the players is selected to be “stuck in the middle” which means they are on the stage the whole time and it’s up to the other players to start scenes with you, to look after you, and to mess with you. I was blessed enough that day to be the one selected.

You know that feeling when you are in a toy store and one of the staff comes up and says “here’s a large scale millenium falcon, play with this” and then when you’ve had a little fun another comes up and says “here’s a lego castle, play with this” and shortly after another appears and says “here’s an classic Atari console fully loaded with Ms Pacman…” (Let me know if my references are dated at all.) Anyway if you can understand the concept of this then you understand what it’s like to be the chosen one in this format. A gang of talented performers give you a selection of awesome gifts and the main thing you have to do is react  I’m still a little hyper from it all.

We'll be there for you (Photo by Marwan Youssef)
After all this fun, there was more fun. A choice of fun. There was The Final Gig, a duo show showing the final concert of a legendary, nonexistent musical pairing, with great singing and high emotions.
The other show was Decibel, a Franco-Finno trio who combine mime and acrobatics with their improvisation. And I really do mean acrobatics, I’ve never seen a group, climb, carry each other and tumble with such ease. They also do the one of the seemingly most difficult improvisational skills: not speaking. Also they had beatboxers guesting because, well, if you can you really really should.

This is the last time we'll be here.


Monday, 29 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - T to the hursday

Tonight there was an extra early show from the Brazilian mime group doing their living statues show. There are not many improv shows where you get painted from head to toe before you go on stage.

The main presentation got started with Dogville. This is an improvised adaptation of the movie by Lars von Trier. It's the one where the set budget only stretched to some chalk. Also the actors had no trailers and had to be on set the whole time even in scenes not about them. The original movie is in the genre of harsh drama; This was definitely lighter.

Downward Facing Dogville. (Photo by Mathieu vd Berk)
As far as I'm aware this is the only Lars von Trier movie to have inspired improv shows. I’m still keenly waiting for the formats Nymphomaniac and Antichrist.

After the break, North Coast from New York took the stage. North Coast do a thing called hip hop improv. It's exactly what it sounds like it is. The energy they bring to the stage, the rhythmicality, the sheer scale of commitment is exhilarating. They do scenes and games that lead into or somehow involve music. They are not only versatile within the reasonably broad category of rap / hip hop but also jump into other styles too. What really sets them apart from other improv groups who may do music is that they bring with them two world-class beatboxers. What Kaila and Mark can do with their voices will blow your mind. At this moment, I can’t imagine doing a show without a beatboxer in it.

Northcoast in the Haunted House (Photo by Mathieu vd Berk)
Tonight the late night shows were The Ghost Sheep from Brussels with The Fortune Teller where an audience member has their future predicted / improvised; and the sensitive Dutch men from Broos. The Ghost Sheep told the future of one of the beatboxers because, well, every show needs a beatboxer.

The Ghost Sheep Need Ewe!
Broos - the brooding bass-backed boys of improv.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Tales from the Garage

Flicker is a format by Katie and Chris of Project2 and one I was lucky enough to be in. The simple explanation is that half the scenes are played in the dark and the other half in the light. The scenes without light force you to use sound to create radio plays or soundscapes. They also hopefully remind you to be more physical in the scenes where people can see you. It certainly produced some fun scenes and made for a show with a strong visual identity.

Scene with the lights on (Photo by John Mabey)

The second half was given over to Dad’s Garage. Dad’s Garage are a theatre with a good reputation based in Atlanta in the US. What do they make in Dad’s Garage? Well, lots of things, but tonight two of them showed us Working Title, which is an improvised Hollywood movie. Using the language of movie scripts to help paint and link the scenes, they get a description of a hero from the audience and two very different locations and launch themselves into if. Our hero then somehow gets from the first location to the second one, far from home and what he knows. They hit all of the beats of a good script and clearly know their movie structure. So the show has a well-structured story with some action, a little romance, camera pans and a satisfying end where everyone feels good. But it’s all done with a ton of confidence and a lot of fun, discovering the story as they go and following the twists to their conclusion.
Lights on, cameras on, actions (photo by John Mabey)
After the main shows, there were 2 options as previously:

In one room, most of the cast of the main stage shows ganged up and threw down a show. It was basically a talented bunch of friends putting on a show simply for the joy of what they do.

In the other room, BAFNI from Scooby Doo, I mean BAFNI the Vampire Slayer, I mean BAFNI from The Czech Republic performed. They took stories from themselves and the audience to inspire them in all directions.

I know I promised lots of gossip, but I think everyone is too sleep deprived to cause scandal, or I’m too sleep deprived to notice it. All I can say is that in the green room there is a teddy bear groupie that partied way too hard this week.

Fight's on! (photo by John Mabey)

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Mardi

Tuesday night began with The Ghost of Love, a format where 4 couples go on 4 very different romantic journeys. For each couple, two “ghosts” control them, mock them, add atmosphere, emotions and plot points. The ghosts leave the actors free to play the characters and situations and not worry too much (or anything) about the story, which is always helpful for an actor.

Ghosts, Actually. (photo by Robin Straaijer)

The resulting show was somehow very cinematic, touching and filled with metaphor and symbolism. The fact that all 4 paths were very different made this feel like a written piece. The paths were not just a new couple getting together, but an established couple getting over a rocky patch and a couple who has always been together who never experienced a bump, but were still a joy to watch. The fourth couple got together, but it didn’t work out, and this, more than anything, made it a well-rounded show. None of this, four neat, happy endings mulch. And seeing the characters in their couples (or not) in the final moments, dampened many a nasolacrimal duct.

L'Action (photo by Robin Straaijer)
From the joy and heartache of love, we moved on to the joy of joy. La Carpe Haute are from Strasbourg in the bit of France everyone thinks is in Germany. They do physical theatre with a ton of mime, clowning and plenty of heart and soul. If there is an object needed, they will not hesitate to demonstrate or be that object - whatever it is to make sure you know what that object is. There is never doubt. And even that object, no matter what it is, exudes joy. They love to play, they clearly love each other and they commit to whatever they discover about 104%.

To cap off the evening, there was a choice between two solo shows:

Las Vegas I Gave You My Heart (Photo by John Mabey)
The Laser Comedy Show by Chris Fair is comic book drawn right in front of you with the addition of sound. You’ll find comic books pretty lame after this.

The alternative was Trudy Carmichael Presents: The Improvised One-Woman Show, in which Robin Rothman plays a Las Vegas legend telling the improvised story of her life and career in between songs.

Lasers or divas, sometimes in life you have to choose between the two.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Opening night

Festivals should begin with a bang. That is unless you running The International Festival of Slow Fades, or Disappointed! The Festival for Mismanaged Expectations. (Both of which are great festivals, but I’ll discuss them another time I absolutely promise. Honest.) But this festival went for the tradition of bangular openings.

This show is the first chance for the general public to really see the ensemble cast. For this first show, everyone performed in their original teams. Each team has a show of their own later in the week. Except the Dutch who were only assembled as a team for this festival and are merely along for the ride. It's a kind of taster for the whole week.

(Also there is another team with a main-stage show that is not part of the ensemble, but I won’t mention that now to keep from confusing you. It’s Dad’s Garage.)

Each team showed off a bit of their style and were then given a second challenge to pay homage to another team, which got Americans being Australians, Australians being Dutch and the Dutch rapping. What could possibly go wrong?

Ouestern!

The second half of the show was given over to Project2 an English duo who improvise in the style of science fiction. It is fair to say they kicked the ball straight out of the stratosphere. A lot of improvised science fiction is goofy, soulless, gadget-obsessed parody. (Actually a fair few movies are too.) Katie and Chris (who are the current incarnation of Project2) are doing this out of love and respect. They know their science fiction. They might mock it, but they do it with love. They can find the funny, but they are not afraid to be truthful and their commitment cannot be questioned. The stories they weave and eventually manage to tie together contain so much human truth, that the end was a veritable burst of joy.

And all this with a superbly atmospheric live soundtrack by one half of noughties electronica duo Lemon Jelly.
Zombie vs Sentry Drone

Night at the Museum of Stories
After most of the shows this week, there is a choice of 2 late night shows. Firstly, there were Brazilian living statues with Museum of Stories. Yes those actual living statues you find in most big cities on the streets near the most touristy of spots were brought into theatres to be both statues and actors in scenes. Any improviser who has ever had to try and be still on stage for more than 1 minute can learn a lot from these guys.

And secondly there was some “playback theatre” from local group, Wordt Vervolgd (which means To Be Continued). Playback theatre is where the audience tells their stories and these are then recreated or interpreted on stage for fun or therapy.

In all a great official first night. Well up there with the opening night of Bangfest IV: The Bangening.



Tuesday, 23 January 2018

IMPRO Amsterdam 2018 - Secret Preshow

A festival the size of IMPRO Amsterdam doesn’t just happen because of the efforts of one person. There are scores of people who help make the magic happen. From the artistic team who decide which teams come to the people who wash the dishes after the performers have eaten. (Yes, this festival provides food for the performers. I know, right!)

As many of these volunteers as can fit in the chosen venue (about 50) are rewarded with an extra free show where they get to see the newly assembled team show what they can do. It’s a very nice pre-actual festival show. A time to really play with your new friends but without the pressure of a show in a 220-seater theatre.

And house spirit makes three.
The players were divided into two groups, spreading each of the national teams as evenly as possible between them. Each group played for 40 or so minutes. Showing off the mixed skills, styles, heights and accents of the cast. It’s hard to remember scenes in shows you were in, but from what I recall there were scenes about how accommodating French hairdressers can be to uncomprehending foreigners; haunted hotels where you can probably never leave; the difficulty of finding pets that will stick around; waiters caught between a hard chef and a gang of customers; the complexities and absurdities of negotiating a shoe shine; and the importance of light-switch positioning when taunting light-fearing demons. All very valuable lessons in life.

You actually can'r even check out anytime you want.
There was definitely a lot of not just playing well together but the joy of playing together on display. It all ended with a huge dance number including much of the audience, which, being almost entirely made up of improvisers, was more than will to join in.

It’s already uberfun and it’s not officially started.

Megajazzhands