Friday, 6 May 2016

Yes And Action! Improv in Movies

Many of us are used to considering improv as a thing in itself. So much so, that we often forget that it can be a part of something rather than the whole thing. TV and movies don’t generally have a great relationship with improv. Both forms like predictability, and in fact need it to be able to secure a budget. There have been some improv TV shows, but not many, and the results tend to be patchy partly because improv tends to be a live medium that thrives on an audience knowing you are making it all up, which is hard to convince a TV audience of. Especially because as a TV viewer, you do not get to see the scenes that didn’t work. And I’ve even seen them reshoot ends they didn’t like, and seamlessly edit it on so in fact the final result is actually not your pure improv.

Is it that you are, in some manner, directing your conversation in my general direction?

But as part of the the process of developing the characters or story or for creating that spark in specific scenes within that story, it does have a place in movies especially. Still a very small part in the bigger picture (no pun intended). Although it depends upon the director. Some use lots of it, some use none.

Here is a well done video from the Now You See It channel that talks about the use of improv in movies. There’s also a chance to see a clip of the very attractive and articulate Dave Morris (you should watch his TEDx talk in full, even if you have already done so a hundred times). Key and Peele are also a good choice to feature because they both come from the improv world. Actors who developed their acting and knowledge of comedy scenes as improvisers but now work in the (mostly) scripted world.

Watch the video and feel free to share any feelings below.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Two Shades of Funny

There are two sorts of funny in improv: Constructive and destructive.

Constructive comedy comes directly from the situations, characters. It comes from within the scene. It emerges from making natural connections with the information we have. It is discovered in following the story and the progression of the characters. Constructive laughs sweep the audience along with the story, make them connect with the characters more and make them understand a little more.

Destructive comedy comes from outside the scene. It comes from the ego of the actor and a desire to be the funny one. It comes from ideas and references that are being forced where they are not wanted. Destructive laughs, make the actors stop and following the story and characters. It makes the whole edifice constructed in the brain of the audience member to start to crumble, and in some cases become destroyed completely. It makes us care less about the characters.

Stand-up can embrace both forms much better than improv, because it is about the laughter. Comedic plays or films almost never have the destructive type unless they are absurdist or “screwball.”

Improv, as ever, falls somewhere between these two mediums. In fact one possible definition for short form and long form could be to which end of the standup-theatre line people are trying for. And of course, short form can take destructive comedy. Whatever you are doing it’ll be over in a couple of minutes, nobody is emotionally invested, so why not gag the hell out of what you (or someone else) started.

But if you are trying to do something longer, and want to bring the audience along with you, you don’t want to be destroying what you’ve set up. Because if you are fine with destroying it, why should the audience care anything about it? They won’t. You don’t care, they don’t care.

Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
And believe me, you are not reducing the comedy by not going for the destructive humour, not at all. Comic plays and movies are still funny. Not destroying the scene means you allow yourself the chance to find the constructive comedy. You allow characters to develop that allows you to find deeper comedy traits than simply a catchphrase or silly walk. It allows comic situations develop that are funny because they came about organically rather than just being contrived and forced on a scene. They allow us to find comedy in moments that are not inherently comic and still remain true to the predominant emotions in the scene.

In fact, I deliberately emphasised the destructive term because it really is that. It shuts of so many doors for things that would take a show from being merely funny to being amazing.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Opening Other Doors

I recently attended the Amsterdam premiere of Another One Opens, a movie made in Vienna by The English Lovers, a widely-respected English-language improv group there.

It’s a fully improvised movie. Or, at least, as fully improvised as a movie can be, which is quite a lot in this case.

Improvising in movies isn’t new, but it’s usually very limited and rarely part of the greater process. There is a growing trend for allowing actors to improvise lines in comedies, but this was always the norm for Christopher Guest’s awesome mockumentaries. Certain directors of drama and social realism have used improvisation to discover the specifics of the characters and to generate naturalistic dialogue. In the case of comedies, it allows the actors to come up with funny lines organically, which can really work when you have a cast of great comedians.

Another One Opens began as a concept with a set of locations and seven actors and the story came about through things that happened during the preparation and process itself as well as during the scenes. It harks back to the days where a movie was made by pointing a camera at a park bench and a policeman, and having Charlie Chaplin come along and try to sit down.

Still from
The result is interesting. It is a great-looking movie, nicely acted and professionally made. Maybe because it has its roots in improvised long forms, the genre seemed to veer about a bit. It was basically a “coming of middle age drama” but with some comic interludes and an element of magical mystery. The characterisation was good, but didn’t feel deep enough, somehow. I think movie goers are used to getting more back story and psychological insight into the changes rather than in improv where, as long as a character commits to the change, we’ll buy almost any reason.

Clearly improvisation is only a major tool of the movie as not everything on screen can be improvised in the sense that it’s used in improv. Scenes often require multiple takes, for example. Also some scenes were, by necessity, shot out of sequence, which is really difficult when you don’t already know the story. It means a lot of scenes didn’t make the final cut, but then that’s true of movies shot with lots of planning. Plus many of the scenes with moments of character discovery did not make the final movie. This however, mirrors the work of directors such as Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes who use and used a lot of improvisation to find out about the characters.

The story, which is usually pretty darn fixed in a movie, was one area where the improvisation method was followed. The story not really being set until near the end of filming, but being worked bit by but out after the end of that day’s filming. Very much how in a long form, it’s only after a scene you can see where a story is heading and use this to decide what needs to happen next or at least who needs be the focus.

Still from
The talk after was very interesting and brought up one of the important things about improvisation: improvisation is a process. It is an alternative method of putting on a show (or in this case, making a film) to writing a script and rehearsing it. Now this has many implications: One is that the expectations from improv is that it won’t create as good a result as the other process. And in general, I would agree.

Much of the enjoyment people get from an improv show is because the audience is in on the fact the actors are making it up. The audience is much easier on them. Improv audiences are much more accepting than theatre audiences and certainly more than stand-up audiences. The same joke for example does way better if it happens during an improv show than if it is part of a stand-up routine or a scripted play. In fact, I would go a lot further and say that much of the laughter in an improv show comes from the process being visible to the audience. An actor being momentarily lost for words, a mistake being pointed out as a mistake rather than made part of the world, a gag that breaks the reality, that look many actors give to the audience to show them they are just mucking about and not taking any of this seriously… all of these contribute to much of the comedy in an improv show. It’s easy to think that this sort of thing are part and parcel of improv comedy rather than the crutches many improvisers find make sure it’s funny no matter what. It makes it harder to (a) use improv for anything other than comedy and (b) take the craft to the next level.

I do believe a cast of actors fully in tune, really working towards the goal of creating a great theatre piece (or whatever they intend to create) can create something as good as many scripted efforts. But I think that is the goal if you want to take the art further than it is. Until that is the focus of enough troupes, improv will always be treated like the lazy step-child of theatre and stand-up.

Still from
And although it seems the effort to create an improvised show is much less than to create a scripted one, it’s more that the efforts are placed differently. The build-up is not focused in a short period on a specific show but over a longer period on the process in general and on the building of the team. Plus an improviser capable of improvising a whole play-like structure needs to have had more stage-time than most actors need to be able to play a role effectively, because there’s a lot more going on, in my humble opinion. Not to take away from the craft of acting, which is a skill often lacking in improvisers and the reason believably is often not seen as a big requirement of improv shows.

This “improvisation as theatrical process” approach is definitely the one of The English Lovers as can be seen in their commitment to making a movie and the quality of the movie they made. A movie that more than proves the concept that a movie can be made this way if you have the belief and are willing to take the risk. Because, like everything improvised, there is a risk, and a movie is a much more expensive risk than most you are likely to take. And the more it is tried, the more chance that it might become a respected way to make low budget, reality-based movies.

More details of Another One Opens can be found on the website and IMDB.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

5 James Bond Villains and 2 Henchmen You’ll Meet in Improv

The murky yet glossy world of James Bond might seem a long way from the world of improvised comedy, but is it really? There is a lot of making the rules up as you go along, taking big risks, and using what you have there and then to make the best situation. And just occasionally someone has a dastardly plot to take over the scene. So here are a few of the Bond villains and henchmen you’ll meet at improv workshops and shows.

Auric Goldfinger

Goldfinger is obsessed with gold. Every scene will have something about gold in it. Everything he has is made of gold. People he doesn’t like will be killed using gold. You might think he’ll get bored with all that gold, but nope.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld

It’s always good being physical, and a great way to avoid being static is to have something to do to avoid just standing there with your arms by your side or in your pockets. Blofeld has a built-in go-to activity. In the quiet scenes, which is all of them except when he’s running around in a panic, he will be stroking his imaginary cat.

Dr No

Dr No will block any effort in your mission to have a great scene. He’ll block you no matter what you try. And he’ll get clever at it (he’s a Dr after all) so that you are not even aware he’s blocking you, but somehow the scene goes nowhere.

Francisco Scaramanga

If you have a magical weapon, surely you should use it whenever possible. There’s no point in using some other form of fighting when you have a golden gun. This villain has a device he’s very pleased with. He’ll use it to solve every situation he possibly can. The effect is often fatal.

Gustav Graves

Oozing with self-assurance and ready to snipe at any person he thinks he’s better than, which is everybody else. He’s got the swagger of someone who is damn sure of himself, but you somehow suspect he’s a very different person under that bravado.

Pussy Galore

What every scene needs is some good old sexual innuendo or just plain, outright sexual references. No matter what this scene is, where it’s set, what the relationship is, it will always lead to something sexual.


Oddjob doesn’t say much. But you tell him to do something, he’ll lumber off with hunched, tense shoulders, do it and then lumber back and wait your next offer in silence.

There are lots more villains and henchmen. Which ones have I missed that you have seen?

Monday, 2 February 2015

Top 10 Answers To Questions About Improv

  1. Actually it’s very different to stand-up.
  2. Yes we do rehearse.
  3. No, none of that was scripted. None of it.
  4. Stand-up is just one person standing saying funny things, improv is much less static. Usually.
  5. Okay, yes, the intro was prepared beforehand.
  6. I can tell you some names but you will never have heard of them.
  7. Chicago. No, I have no idea why.
  8. Most of us are in IT.
  9. Yes, but he was only the funniest because everyone else hurried around supported him.
  10. Will you stop fricking saying “stand-up!”

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Game of Crows

Right at the start of a scene it's good to establish some key facts that give us a foundation to build from. There are various alliterations and mnemonics to help you remember this, such as "who, what, where" and "CROW" (namely, "character, relationship, objective and where"). These are good reminders of what a scene should have early on, sometimes from the get-go and sometimes they are discovered, but either way it's very, very helpful to have the relationship, location and some sort of activity established before we get into the meat of the scene.

It's an area people have a lot of difficulty with because on the one hand we are often trying to be naturalistic or at least not "clunky" and on the other hand we need that information out there both as players and as an audience. In real life we might greet our colleagues in the office with a friendly grunt, but in improv it's more likely to be something more like "Good morning, Brad. I love working in this match factory with you where we've worked for 5 years." Clunky, right? But all good information.

I'm not saying that it can only be clunky. I think we should practice so that this information comes out somewhat naturally. But we should be aware that the audience has a higher tolerance for this sort of thing than we might think. A simple remedy for much improv clunkiness is to let more things be discovered naturally.

Now, it's partly the medium: In improv we are on stage with nothing – no props, no set, no costumes, we are quite possibly playing a character we would not get cast as in a movie – so we have to rely on words (with some mime and sound effects) to inform the audience. And whist some jobs you can mime very clearly so that the audience and your fellow players easily understand what's going on – milking a cow, repairing a bicycle, making pizzas – other ones have to be explained. You might be able to mime perfectly the actions that take place in a match factory – even one from 80 years ago before it was all done by one big machine – but would the audience recognise it from some other manufacturing process? Only if you test the final result, is my guess. Same goes for most forms of office work. Especially today as everything happens on the same thing, a computer.

So words are unavoidable. We sometimes have to be a bit wordier in setting these things up. I always explain that as an audience we accept that you might have to over-explain at the start and in fact are pleased because we too want to know this information. The other players are grateful too.

Other media have it much easier. If a movie wants to set the scene in a forest it can simply show the forest, job done. If a play wants to show that your character is a soldier, you'll be wearing a soldier's uniform. If a TV show wants to show you making matches, they'll show a close-up of you making matches with maybe some together stages in the process to make it clear.

Where these other media have the similar problems are relationships. So I think it's a good exercise to see how TV shows, movies and plays establish characters and relationships. Sometimes it shows you, that the blunt approach is fine. Watch the first episode of a series or the start of a movie and see how these clues are given. Some are clearer than others, but many use the same techniques we use in improv.

With this in mind, I rewatched the first episode of Game of Thrones because it seemed to have some good examples. I should warn you, there are no spoilers and it doesn't matter if you have never seen it, but it might make what I'm explaining clearer. So lets look at the scenes that establish key characters and relationships...

The first such scene is at Winterfell, a fortified town in "the North." It's actually is a very clever establishment scene using minimal lines:

Young boy is shooting arrows and missing. A young man puts his hands on his shoulders and says, "Go on; father's watching." It's clear he's a brother from this line and his firm but caring manner. Then they both look up and see the benevolent faces of a man and woman smiling down at them. (The shot from below helps give them status.) Then the older brother adds, "and your mother," which is the first indication (of many) that she is the mother only of the younger lad.
The king establishes the boys age and his caring side, by stifling laughter about the boy's terrible archery skills saying, "And which one of you was a marksman at ten?" And then "Keep practicing, Bran." Ah, a name!
We cut to the other sisters, but we don't yet know they are sisters, but something of their relationship is established. The older sister is praised for her needlecraft as the other looks on resentfully. The younger girl is bored and distracted.
We see her a few moments later shooting a bullseye from a long way away to establish her as a warrior and we establish that she is probably family by the way the young boy chases after her for showing him up. People saying "master" to the little boy helps set this up as the ruling family. And when the father is referred to as "Lord Stark" and the mother "milady" a few seconds later, everything is pretty much set.

This is a very complex set up – we won't normally set up so many people in so short a spaec of time. It's been written by experienced people with the time to make sure these important opening scenes have their impact. But it's a good example of the something to aim for. To give improvisers hope, however, we move onto the second key establishing scene.

Meanwhile at King's Landing, seat of royalty, the body of someone important lays in state. A man meets a woman on a balcony overlooking the corpse.
Man: "As your brother, I feel it's my duty to warn you that you worry too much, and it's starting to show."
Woman: "And you never worry about anything." She immediately goes into a story illustrating this difference between them.
Bang! This is exactly like an improv scene. In a few blatant lines we have set up how the characters are related and how they are different. It could only be more of an improv scene if it turned out they were in an incestuous relationship.

This last scene should give us hope. If writers on a big budget series can do this, 5 people charging a handful of dollars should be able to as well.

The next set-up scene is back at Winterfell. The characters of the king and members of his family are mostly set up before they are seen, in particular Tyrion Lannister, who is endowed as the boozing, whoring, dwarf brother of the queen who everyone talks about very much like the classic endowment exercise, Here Comes Johnny.

The final big introduction scene, introduces Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, another twisted sibling relationship.
The brother comes in calling her name and when he finds her adds, "There's our bride-to-be!" The scene is set here. She's about to get married and clearly deadened by the prospect judging by her manner. That he is plotting to gain the throne is made clear a couple of lines later. There's hint of the abusiveness of the relationship but we don't learn that they are sister and brother until the next scene, but we know plenty about of their relationship by then and the fact they are siblings heightens it to disturbing extremes.

So, what can we conclude? I think it's clear that TV shows and movies use many of the same techniques of endowing that we use in improv. Even the blunt ones. People do come into a scene saying "Hey, sister!" etc. And although we might find it a little heavy-handed sometime, the audience doesn't mind as long as it gets the information it needs. And it doesn't have to have it all at the top. We can let it trickle out as we find out other information about the world we are creating. But making something clear as soon as it is established is important whether it's at the start of a 3 minute scene or a 6-season epic.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Improv vs Comedy

Like a lot of people, I got into improvised comedy because I enjoyed being funny. And like a lot of people over time I came to the realisation that comedy is not at the heart of improv, but the genre it is generally played in. In fact, comedy can often be at odds with improvisation.

A lot of comedy comes from breaking things. There is much comedy in destruction. Many a punchline reveals that things are not what they seemed. That's all very fantastic when it’s the end of a joke, but in a scene it can be hard to recover from. The rug has been pulled out from under the scene and you effectively have to start again. Jokes like these are called "gags" in improv – jokes that halt or destroy the action. They don't always seem so bad in shorter scenes, but they can be lethal if you are trying to get an audience to care about what's going on enough to make it last longer than 5 minutes. It is especially damaging when the gag reveals the situation to be sexual, gross, racist, sexist or other things like this. The laws of improv means you need to go down that path once it has been stated, which might have a very negative impact on the engagement of the actors and audience.

Other destructive forms are outright nos. Saying "no" is funny. Any form of spanner in the works can be very funny. Here's a classic example which nearly always results in a one-dimensional scene:

"You are a highly respected doctor with so much experience."
"It's my first day."

I've seen several groups who somehow manage to block so much for humorous effect, every offer seems to be inverted in the manner of the one above. If that's fine with the rest of the group, it can make for a show with lots of laughs. But I argue that these sort of laughs coming from the laughter response to surprise only work on a very shallow level, become predictable quickly and make it very difficult for the group to create something with any depth.

Laughs that come from connecting two seemingly unconnected things, from the characters themselves or from a great reincorporation are much deeper and much more satisfying.

Concentrating on the funny often leaves the relationships and story untended. People going simply for laughs will much quicker go into areas of sex, bodily functions or having a go at whatever racial group is out of vogue at that time.

Actors who concentrate on the funny are often the least supportive of their fellow players who tend to be the ones running around justifying the crazy stuff the one trying to be funny is saying. The problem, of course, is that the player going for the funny is (often) getting laughs, especially from people new to improv, so this is behaviour easily reinforced.

I don’t want to sound like I'm against funny. I'm not. I describe myself as a comedian and love nothing better than getting a room to laugh. But over the years I have, in improv, been trying to shy away from the selfish, destructive laughs and trusting that if we all work on making the scene awesome, there will be moments of humour that arise. In fact with the right group and experience, they'll arrive almost as much as if you block every offer that comes along and they'll be a hell of a lot more satisfying to everyone.

Are you with me?
(It's okay, you can say a big "NO!!!!!" here, that's actually a good out.)