Thursday 16 December 2010

Diamond Dance

The Diamond Dance is a great improv tool, not only for warming up but for stripping improv down to its barest essentials.
In a diamond dance, 4 people make a diamond formation and dance. (Usually to music, but I've done it with factory-floor robots and the same rules apply.) At any given time, all four people are facing in one of 4 directions. And in each direction, one player is in front. The player in front leads the dance and the other three follow – copying the leader exactly. When they turn, a new leader takes over.

It really mirrors the give and take four improvisers should use when on stage together and how when one player has focus, the others should be following him 100%. In diamond Dance, the following is a literal copying of him, but in a scene this is usually just listening. But listening with all of your power.

D. I. S. C. Over there.
Photo by Rajab,
In a diamond dance, when each of the followers is following 100%, is fantastic to watch. It's like a fully choreographed dance performance. The less people apply themselves to following, the more disjointed and uncompelling it becomes.

Another factor in making the result so unified is the smoothness when the focus changes. The smoother the transitions, the better it is to watch. If the new leader continues the motion of the previous one, it looks much more choreographed. Many new leaders feel compelled to immediately start something completely new and be "original," but in fact it is much more impressive and interesting when the same movements are continued. Obviously they do need to change somehow over time, but again it looks more impressive if they morph in keeping with what has already been set up. The same as in a scene. Continuing on the same path and building the relationships and story is more interesting than jumping from one thing to another in the name of "originality."

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Roxanne, don't you take off those real shoes

Roxanne (name changed to justify the title) is in a scene where she claims to be a stripper. She apprehensively begins to move stripperishly. She reaches down and takes off a shoe. A real, physical shoe. This is violating a core improv guideline: "only remove mimed items of clothing."

This scene is a clear example as to the reason for this guideline. Because with stripping (as with improv) it's all about building. To remove a mimed shoe and then a mimed blouse is heightening. To remove a real shoe but then a mimed blouse is the opposite. So unless you're prepared to remove more items of clothing on stage (which most of the time is not going to be a good idea) starting with a real shoe is going to lead to audience disappointment. Whereas removing a mimed shoe would mean the audience will enjoy the heightening of removing a mimed top and so the actor can "strip" in confidence.

Jochem prays for Anna to remove a shoe

Another old improv tenet that comes into play here is that it's better for your character be the best at anything they say they can do. This means do it with confidence. Ironically, it is especially true with something awkwardly sexual like stripping. Watching a character relish being the top of her game is great, watching an actor squirm is uncomfortable.

It's also true in real life. If you've ever found yourself in a strip club, you might know that it's tolerable when the girls seem to be in charge and enjoying it. But if you've ever seen a stripper who clearly doesn't want to be there, it's horrible. And they don't have the luxury of being able to mime.

Saturday 11 December 2010


A lot of improv and storytelling in general has a lot to do with the setting up, continuing or building on, and completing or breaking of patterns. Most games found within a scene are a continuation or building up of a pattern. A satisfactory ending to a story is often the bringing of a pattern to a pleasing end or bringing it back to the start. Any surprise ending and the punchlines to many jokes are all breaking a pattern.

Humans are very adept at spotting patterns. We use it in our interpretation of speech and writing, and the recognition of objects and faces. Our personality and behaviour is a set of patterns we unconsciously adhere to. A (daily) routine is a set of patterns we perform regularly. When a routine is upset, the pattern is broken. After a period of confusion or chaos, a new pattern emerges. Even if patterns don't break, they usually evolve. The habits you had 5 years ago will probably have changed into new ones. Maybe they are completely new, but often they are toned down, exaggerated or changed another way.

We can exploit this feature in our characterisation. And use our innate pattern-matching ability to spot games, common traits and hidden links.

It is quite possible, I'm sure, to define improv entirely with reference to patterns. It would somewhat remove it from the practical realities of performing it but be a very useful intellectual and even educational endeavour. If I get round to doing it, you'll be the first to know.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

"A scene is what happens while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon, Mersey Beatlesports

"A scene is what happens while you're busy making other plans."
- John Lennon, Mersey Beatlesports

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Monologues (pt 3): What a monologue can do

I'm sure this list is not conclusive, but it sure shows the range and power of monologues.

  • Move Forward: advance the story.
    • To start or end the story.
    • Tell or further the story; by saying what comes next or moving the action to a different place and time.
    • Can also be used to move on other stories that are happening in parallel, for example by telling what's happening to another character outside the scene. ("At that same time, in her small bedroom 3 miles away, Jeanette sighed because she somehow knew she would never get Jack back" But we don't (yet) go to see that scene.)

  • Expand: give more information about the characters, relationships, objects or environment. Can also tell us events related or tangential to the story without forwarding it. This is usually a form of narration.
    • Add description and details.
      • For objects and environment, this usually sets the scene or creates an atmosphere: "The library is old. A thin layer of dust lies on the wood and leather covers belong to another era." "Outside, a police siren wails and then fades into the night."
    • Tell us history or back-story.
    • Inform us of the effects of an action. ("The glass fell from the window and narrowly missed an old lady below who swore at a passing taxi driver who went home and shouted at his wife.")
    • In rare instances, tell us the future of something or someone (usually as an aside). ("Six weeks later, I found that same teapot broken on the kitchen floor. The spout had smashed to smithereens." "That was the last time she said, 'I love you' to me." The latter could count as furthering the story, depending n context.)
    • Perhaps rarer, in improv, are details from outside the scene. Often to illustrate what is happening, metaphorically. ("Somewhere across town, a tree in the middle of the park fell over.")

  • Dig Deeper: explain things from within the mind of one of the characters.
    • Give inner thoughts: add depth, layers, point of view, wants, desires, phobias, motivation (explain why a character is doing what he or she is doing).
    • Tell a secret: explain something one character knows that the other doesn't.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Monologues (pt 2)

So let's look at our 3 types of monologue in more detail:

Outside the Scene
This is where the actor (as a narrator or character not in the scene) begins, interrupts or ends the scene delivering information to the audience. I can see two main types:

  • Pure Narration – continuing the story or adding details direct to the audience
  • Meta-monologue – where a character narrates or adds information as a character giving a monologue from outside the scene. (examples include where the story is read from a book or a ghostly voice laments the action that is going on now.)

Inside the Scene
This is where a character in the scene has a monologue. It usually involves one characters taking focus and speaking for longer than normal, totally (or minimally) uninterrupted by the other character(s). They are delivered either partly or directly to the audience. There are two main types based on who the monologue is directed at.

  • Monologue is delivered to the other character(s). There are two types, that I can see:
    • Expected: delivering a speech, lecture or pep talk to a crowd, team, class, jury, wedding guests, boxer, child, etc. Basically in an environment or situation where a speech is expected and the norm is for little interaction with the speaker.
    • Unexpected: where one character in a conversation "goes off on one" and keeps talking, perhaps as a rant, usually revealing what the character thinks or feels or some information the other character didn't know before.
  • Monologue is delivered to the audience. The character tells us, the audience, his or her inner thoughts or emotions, or a secret the other character doesn't know. It can be as short as a sentence, and then it's called an aside.

Solo Scene
This is where the whole scene is a monologue. Usually there is just one actor. (Although others can appear to heighten the monologue or be background, perhaps representing the listeners, but have no (or hardly any) lines. Once these background actors to do more than murmur, it starts to become a scene.) Solo Scenes are nearly always delivered to the audience. And then, in most cases, the audience represents the implied second character, the listening group or the character's own reflection. I count three types of Solo Scene:

  • A character telling something to one or more persons. e.g. giving a speech, pep talk, straight-to-camera piece such as a dating video.
  • As one side of scene or conversation. e.g. being interviewed (where we don't hear the interviewer), on the phone, conversation over garden fence.
  • As a person speaking aloud to themselves, often to a mirror. e.g. preparing for a meeting, rehearsing a part in a play, giving self a pep-talk in the morning, etc.

I don't claim this is exhaustive, but it seems to cover most bases.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Monologues (pt 1)

I've been giving a lot of thought to monologues lately, so expect a few more musings and lists such as these. As ever, I'd love to hear your views, disagreements, questions.

Types of monologue:
  • Outside the scene (direct to audience by a narrator or characters not in the scene)
  • Inside the scene (where characters in the scene take focus and speak for longer than normal (usually uninterrupted))
  • Solo Scene where the whole scene is a monologue.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Keeping it Real

Johnny starts a scene in a collection around the motif of "rock." He puts a mimed guitar around his neck, tunes it and them plays some notes with haunting feedback. He provides the noises himself. The audience is in awe. Charlene enters and says, "Why are you playing that invisible guitar?"

Actually this mime isn't so great.
Look how thin that guitar is. 
The audience laughs. It's a classic standup-style gag. Set it up and break it. Funny, but very destructive to the scene. Johnny has trouble continuing with the scene because Charlene blocked his clear offer of his character playing a real guitar. And his character has gone from being a rock guitar god to a delusional crazy person. What's more, Charlene now doesn't know what to do after her initial gag. The guideline here is: Treat mimed objects as real. Otherwise we are reminding the audience this is all fake.

And whilst the audience laughs, I think it's with a little regret. Certainly any of them who has had some improv training will feel that. The audience will probably feel a little cheated. As if Johnny roped them into his world with his great commitment, miming, and sound effects only to have it thrown back in their face. Stupid you for believing that was real. But if we reinforce the reality of these objects, the audience can be brought in further, their wonder used to fuel great a story and, on the way, we can tell better, less disappointing and destructive jokes.

Thursday 11 November 2010

What is Improvised Comedy?

It's fair to say, if you are reading this blog, you probably have an idea what impro is. Maybe you call it improv, I know I do about half the time. But whilst you probably know what it is, it is instructive to have people define it. You can learn a lot about people's approach and passion to something by their definition of it.

Often it's easier to define impro by what it isn't. It isn't scripted theatre and it isn't stand-up comedy. It isn't pantomime and it isn't avant garde socio-political monologue. But it does combine elements from all of those.
Jochem Meijer as Yeus, God of Improv by Rick vd Meiden
When telling an audience what it is, I say it's "the noble art of making stuff up on stage." But to a more scientific audience, such as yourselves, I would say it is "a form of comedy theatre using simple techniques to create new scenes based on little or no initial information." And now it doesn't sound fun at all. So let's get a bit more artsy, "a system of theatre using listening and positive play techniques to build scenes and stories using a combined imagination." But quite frankly, once you are an advanced improviser, who has absorbed so many of the general improv guidelines and for whom the core rules of listening and agreeing are habitual, you could describe it as "dicking around on stage." The problem is that for a tight group of advanced improvisers, dicking around on stage is like watching wonderful theatre. Lesser performers can't just dick around on stage because it just looks like dicking around on stage, and nobody wants to watch that for an hour unless you already really, really like the performers.

So if I had to give one definition out of all of these it could be "The noble art of dicking about on stage to build stories through simple listening and positive play techniques" But I'd like to go with something simpler, that I'm sure has been used before:

Stories from a collective imagination.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Being Shot

When being shot in a story, there's a simple formula to tell you whether you should die. It very much depends on your character's place in the story and what that story needs right now. But in general:
If you're the main character, you'll probably survive;
If you're not the main character, then you'll probably die.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Multi-Layered Acceptance

"A character not accepting a gift is not necessarily a block."
For beginners who are still learning the key improv skill of accepting, I would say take every object another character gives you. And in the start of a scene, 99% of the time you will take whatever the other character gives you unless you immediately have a good justification for why your character wouldn't accept it from them. But later on in the scene... there will be times when not taking the object is accepting the offer and/or agreeing with what has been set up.

For example, Erik has an ice cream stand. He wheels it back into the village he grew up in and encounters his brother, Stefan, who has never forgiven him (for something not yet revealed). Erik offers Stefan an ice cream to placate him and he refuses it. This is not a block. This is perfectly in keeping with the situation that has been set up. The fact that an ice cream was offered has been accepted, even if the ice cream itself wasn't. And Erik didn't expect the ice cream to be taken, either.

To take the ice cream would be to prematurely defuse the situation. We want to heighten the tension, understand where it all came from and then resolve it. Only then should the ice cream be taken, making a great end which would not have been possible had the ice cream been accepted earlier. The ice cream in this case can be seen as a metaphor for (or symbol of) forgiveness. And that is very satisfying to an audience even if they don't consciously realise the connection.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Impro Thought of the Day: Don't let the fact that you can justify anything allow you to not pay attention

Good improvisers are very adept at justifying mistakes and so covering up lapses in concentration. Don't let this fact allow you to become complacent about paying attention and become happy with these mistakes. Whilst a scene like this can still be good, it'll never be awesome. Make awesome your goal.
Maybe not awesome, but definitely Pinteresque

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Impro Thought of the Day: Listen!

Photo by Annelies van Dam
I've never heard of an impro scene going wrong because a player was listening too much. But not listening enough, breaks them all the time.

Friday 3 September 2010

The Devil is in the Detail

Peter and Trista. Photo by Rick vd Meiden

When adding details in order to paint a scene, there are two ways to do it. One is to add lots of surface detail, the other is to add less but to go into more detail about them. The latter is by far the more interesting, especially when combined with adding personal information.

For example, Kurt has been taken into Herbert's library, and is being shown around...

"Here is a book on King Arthur; there's one here on throwing stones; another on the history of inside leg measurement; Mr Brown's Turnip Catalogue; Golf for Loose Women; and How I Ate a Panda for Breakfast."

This is all very delightfully free associative (if that's the expression) and quite amusing, but is it as interesting as...

"This book is 'Gardening Amongst the Gnomes.' It has a date on the first page and a tear on the corner near the back."

This is more interesting, and makes this book seem important, compared to all the ones merely listed above. The importance becomes monumental when when the details are made personal...

"This is my favourite book: 'Gardening Amongst the Gnomes.' This was the first book my father gave to me. It has a date on the first page – my 10th birthday – and tear on the corner near the back from a fight with my brother."

Now we know acres about Herbert. Obviously, we don't want this scene to be about the father or brother, but they were clearly important in Herbert's life and even if we don't see them later, they are embodied in this book. This information and this object will surely affect the scene and the relationship between the Herbert and Kurt. It certainly affects the relationship between Herbert and the book, and the library.

My point is that it is more interesting to paint in one detail than to lightly sketch the whole location. And if it's personal, well that's downright fascinating.

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Whose Agreement is it Anyway?

When we learn improv we are taught to over-accept everything, even the smallest thing. We are taught to say "yes" to everything the other players say.

Very soon in our training we realise "saying 'yes'" is merely a convenient shorthand for "agreeing with the other player" and that occasionally to say "no" is the correct way to accept an offer.

"We're always arguing."
"No, we're not."

"Stop disobeying my orders and get off this ship."
Often when "no" is the acceptance of an offer, it is due to the way the offer was made. Frequently, because it was in the form of a question expecting a negative answer.

"You've packed. Are you going to stay?"
"No, I'm leaving. That's why I packed."

This is another reason why a statement is better for passing information and making offers than a question.

Photo by Rick van der Meiden

Often it takes a while for it to really sink into an improviser's improv brain that the agreement is between the actors, not the characters. The characters can have different opinions and, in the hands of skilful improvisers, argue. But the actors should agree on what's going on. The "yes and" we talk about is not so much about the response to what the character says, as to what the actor wants.

Much of the confusion comes when improvisers play characters which are pretty much themselves, and the line between the words of the character and the wants of the actor is blurred.

The practical lessons from this aren't radical – avoid questions, play characters – but what it does remind us is that agreement in improv is not at the surface, i.e. at the verbal level, but deeper, between the actors. The core of any scene – the foundation upon which the magic of improv is it built – is that the players must agree as to what is going on.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Possible Venue for Edinburgh Fringe show

The Old Old Tavern, Doomton, Edinburgh

Friday 25 June 2010

Your Improv Star Signs

Vaguarius the Vague Man Something will happen to you at some point in the future. It will involve
a loved-one, or someone you don’t know and involve an unspecified common
house-hold object.
Nobuttie the Denier Something wonderful will happen to your love life. No it won’t.
Cashproblemus the Shop Arguer You will go into a shop but not have the correct change. You will get
into an argument. The incident will end by you leaving having stolen the
object you were trying to buy.
Dothis the Teacher Someone you do not know will start doing everything you tell them. You
keep telling, they keep doing. They can never get it right.
Lugless the Man With No Ears Next week… Where are my horses?... Someone will… There
they are.
The Nameless Man You will meet someone you do not know. You will never know his or her
name. And he or she will never know yours.
Pimpdaddius the Pimp You will meet a man. he will make you sing and dance and recite poetry
and try to stand on one leg and pretend to strip.
Didthat the Student Someone you do not know will start telling you to do things. You will
do them. They keep telling, you keep doing. You can never get it right.
Noway the Gagger You will come into some money. No that’s not money, that’s cheese.

Monday 21 June 2010

Impro Thought of the Day: Pimping

The difference between endowing someone with a strong character trait and pimping is often respect.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Pop Quiz: Acceptance

What is the better acceptance of the offer: "Samantha, you're angry."
1. (matter-of-factly) "Yes I am. I am an angry person and right now my blood is boiling."
2. (shouting) "No, I'm not!"

Peter Shouting at Nicole by Annelies van DamFor me, it's (2), actually. In a way (1) is paying lip-service to acceptance rather than a full acceptance. The offer does not appear to have been accepted emotionally, mrely responded to intellectually. (Of course, this could be a character choice where a character does not display emotions but voices them, but then we would expect to really see that explored.) Even though, on the surface, (2) is a denial, the anger in the voice shows that it has been fully accepted by the actor and demonstrated through the character. Also in terms of realism, (2) is definitely your man.

Obviously the hands-down winner would be (shouting) "Yes I am!" but the above two illustrate that, as in life, the message you get across is very often not in the words.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

What is the Scene About?

In a scene university lecturer Lucille explains all about calculus to nervous student Harry, whilst she slides around seductively and drops in some great mathematical innuendo. She eventually kisses him and he doesn't resist.

What is this scene about?
1. Calculus?
2. Harry learning calculus?
3. Lucille seducing Harry?

Monday 7 June 2010


Recently Canadian improv duo Crumbs were in town as part of their annual European tour. Their show is a two-man, two-story longform which morphs between the stories in often ingenious ways.

The first half of the show was them playing together with some local improvisers. It's a great experience for these players but is more a perk for the organisers than what the audience really is there to see. However, if I was an organiser, I'd almost certainly be doing exactly the same. And although it feels a little like a diluted version of what's to come, this is very much the support band concept: warming the audience up with a less accomplished but similar group.

Crumbs themselves play clear, slightly exaggerated characters. They take their time to build the tension, play the emotional truth of situations and be affected by what is going on. They keep things simple in terms of exploring what they have rather than inventing more and more, but are ready to move the story on to the next beat, location and strand when it needs it. They also seem naturally or deliberately (or both) to use genres to underpin their stories. In the show I saw, a story about a dentist was done in a noirish cop thriller style and the story of a man whose day spiralled out of control just because he needed to make a phone call was a kind of black comedy that ended with some nice poignancy. I suspect a lot of their stories end with poignancy, as they do seem to play characters with depth and inner needs and don't feel the need to have 100% happy, everything's fixed, "Hollywood" endings.

The stories alternate from one to the other and there were some great morphs, in particular from spinning, blurry man making incoherent sounds as seen by a man undergoing concussion to man in dentist chair making incoherent sounds.

Because they keep it simple, and take their time to explore all the ideas that come up, they effortlessly tie up stories at the end and allow us to really see inside their characters. That's not to say the stories are simplistic or obvious; it's that because they take their time we always know where they are in terms of the story and even when there is a big jump in time, location, etc, it is clear or made clear why we went there.

They also know what the important things that have been set up are; and what are those character traits or character habits that can show a real inner change or fully reflect the external changes that have occurred. Such as when the very professional dentist's assistant finally gets to drop calling the very professional dentist "Doctor" and call him "Josh."

Ironically, counter to conventional improv wisdom, the show ended on a piece of new information. The name Josh had never been mentioned (I'm almost certain); the dentist had always been "doc" or "doctor." But it was the perfect out for the show. And it wasn't really new information. We knew the Doctor must have a name (common knowledge) and that the assistant wanted to have non-professional relationship with him, so all that was new was the specific detail of what that name actually was. And what capped it all was that it was just a regular name (for North Americans, at least). No stupid joke name to try for that extra laugh that would actually have undermined the emotion and feeling of resolution of the moment. This, as much as anything else they did that night, showed real class.

Crumbs continue their European tour in Germany. See:

Friday 28 May 2010

Playing Real

Frequently in rehearsals, I enforce the no-gag and no-comment rules in an attempt to get people to play more realistically. As I see it, comedy can basically be played two different ways:

1. Straight – characters are realistic. That doesn't mean they are serious characters, but it does mean that if the characters are jokey sorts of people, their jokes are in character and aimed at the other characters and not the audience. Laughs mainly happen to characters and through the story and situations.

2. Knockabout – It's all very jokey. Jokes come from the characters or, often, the actors.

A lot of improv shows end up playing the second way, but the first way is more entertaining, deeper, richer and ultimately more satisfying for everybody.

The second way doesn't have to be taught. In fact it usually has to be untaught. So I like to rehearse playing straight because everyone can do the knockabout, but acting realistically is a skill.

Playing knockabout becomes a particular problem when playing genres. For example, you can't do drama as knockabout, it doesn't look any different to the rest of the show and it certainly doesn't feel like drama.

I'm a real believer in trying to play a genre as real as possible. Don't aim for parody, aim for genre itself. As comedians, you'll find the funny and it will probably become a parody anyway. Remember that the best parodies are pretty close to the genre, sometimes indistinguishable to those who don't know the genre. Try to recreate a Western; don't mug to the audience and simply state that this location ain't big enough for the both of you. The most awe will come from a Western scene that feels like a Western scene rather than a bunch of people goofing on Western clichés. Unfortunately, in improv the biggest laughs often come from dicking around, however such scenes will rarely inspire anything more than big laughs.

And even if simply dicking around for laughs is the goal for your show, the more you rehearse real characters, realistic relationships and playing genres straight, the more ammunition you'll have. And if you do aspire to more than this, if you do want shows that contain awe, definitely try rehearsing without emphasising the funny.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

The Origin of Scenes

Improv could be thought of in terms of evolution, where every tiny little yes-and adds to the scene, so that it starts as a simple suggestion and ends up as something complex and fantastic. The "environment" that shapes the scene in this situation refers to the audience suggestions and people in the group, as well as the world the scene has created for itself. Not all offers create things that are useful to the survival of the scene, but these usually become less important than those that really help the scene take off. Obviously some scenes end up going down an evolutionary path where they become extinct or peter out to audience indifference, but even scenes going in these directions can still learn to adapt. It seems then that, when starting a scene, we should aim to end up with dolphins or humans, not dodos or dinosaurs.

Worst Improv Scene EverAnyway, this is the latest hair-brained theory I am toying with and I fully expect disagreements from fundamentalist Christian improv groups who believe scenes are given to them fully-formed by God. Although we've all been in scenes we know did NOT come from God; or if they did come from God, then God's one sick mother mofo. Anyway, feel free to expand or refute my theory and also discuss if the picture really does represent the worst improv scene ever? (Hint: The worst thing about it was that the Dodo and the Dildo didn't even know each other.)

Monday 17 May 2010

Thursday 13 May 2010

Why this scene?

"Are we seeing something significant to the people in that scene? Or is it just some people doing a bunch of stuff?"

If we're watching a movie, say a bio-pic, we will see 40-50 scenes (according to screen¬writing guru, Robert McKee and others) about, in this case, the life of someone. Now for this person to be worthy of their own bio-pic, they must have been to scores of places, come in contact with hundreds of people, and done thousands of different activities. Yet we only see 40-50 scenes.

Every single one of those scenes has been put in that movie for a reason. Each scene will show us one (or more) of the following: a very typical situation in the hero's life at that point in time; a key event in that persons life; a moment where they changed; an incident that formed their character or lead to change; a scene that highlights their relationships and status in the world; a scene that shows a different side to them. In other words, each scene has a purpose.

There is a reason we are shown each of these scenes.

One thing that might help improvisers who find themselves in scenes that aren't compelling or going anywhere is to ask themselves, "why is the audience being shown this scene?"

easylaughs rumble by Annelies van DamAre we seeing something significant to the people in that scene? Or is it just some people doing a bunch of stuff? At the end of the scene, the audience should be able to say, "ah yes, we were shown that scene because..."

Even when we see a scene of an ultra-typical day of a character, we learn some fundamental details about the characters' psychological make-up. And, nearly always, even these scenes will involve some change. In fact, by many definitions, a scene is not a scene unless someone or something is changed by it. Someone or something must be affected.

The change doesn't have to be huge; it can be quite small. For example if one character insists on the cups in the kitchen being stored on the right, and at the end of the scene, he agrees they can be put on the left, that's change enough (and is actually indicative of an internal change or compromise in that character).

This means that what happens in a scene should affect characters and/or relationships; they shouldn't just be isolated things that happen and witnessed by some people. A scene should not be about "the day a panda was delivered to the office," but "the day a panda was delivered to the office and changed the way the employees worked as a team" or "the day a panda was delivered to the office and made the secretary respect her boss" or "the day a panda was delivered to the office and everyone realised saving the planet was more important than selling photocopiers."

That way, the audience has a reason to be shown that scene and it's far more likely to be compelling and enjoyable.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Physics and Metaphysics of Guns

All the earlier talk of guns made me think about how badly guns are mimed and used in general in improv.

I guess the first question to address is do you hold your hand as two fingers or mime holding the gun? Given that in nearly every other case, we mime holding the object rather than our hand being the object, I much favour the miming. Plus miming holding the gun gives the impression that we are actors trying to create a believable world for the audience; whereas two fingers makes us look like kids playing a game.

Secondly, guns are heavy. Pistols are solid metal designed to withstand mini explosions within them. They are much heavier than cowboys and action heroes make them look. Most do not fit in your back pocket. And when you shoot them, they give a good old kick. Oh, and unless you have a silencer, they are loud.

Bullets travel somewhere around or faster than the speed of sound. So, by the time you hear the "Bang!" that bullet's been and gone, passed through your major organs and probably already embedded in the wall. So in reality, you would have to start jumping out of the way before the gun is fired, unless you have superpowers. Now, in improv (as in film) we can sometimes forgive the screwing with physics and see you jump after the bang. This is forgivable because films are often cut that way. But it's still better to start jumping before (perhaps in slow motion) and have this be the offer to tell the shooter to fire and miss. Otherwise, a shot fired by a competent shooter at close range will almost certainly hit home.

Pulling a gun is a big moment in most stories. Suddenly the life-and-death struggle is real. One twitch of a finger and someone is dead. Introduce a gun into most situations and the emotion of the room will change to fear or panic. If the story is a domestic drama then this is a big, big moment.

Even in gangster movies where guns are pulled all the time, they still instil fear, especially amongst passers-by. Even James Bond finds it hard to remain suave when a gun is pointed at him by someone who intends to kill him. It's great acting to have your otherwise nonchalant character falter when a gun is pointed at him. It heightens the jeopardy of the situation.

Even for the person pulling the gun, it is often a big moment. First-time armed robbers will often be as scared as their victims: the heavy guns shake in their sweaty hands. In your family drama, when the son pulls a gun on his father, boy, does this put both of them outside their comfort zone.

Obviously if you live and breathe guns, holding and firing them can become second nature. only then does it become no different to any other object you might carry with you. You may even get nonchalant when it comes to killing people. Soldiers can get like this; and gangsters, especially in movies. (See Pulp Fiction and Goodfellers.) But even these characters, when faced with a gun pointed between to their eyes, are usually not so cocky.

It's the reaction on stage, for the most part, that tells the audience how to react to a situation. If everyone on stage is blasé about guns being waved about, why should the audience care? If the threat of death won't move our characters, what on Earth will?

Thursday 29 April 2010

Can I have a Relationship, Please

photo by Rick van der MeidenScenes should always, at their heart, be about the relationship between the characters on stage. No matter what the ask-for from the audience. If you get "carpet" from the audience, the scene is not about a carpet. A carpet should feature (often heavily), but really the scene should be about a relationship.

Say for example, there are three films in the cinema and all you know about them is the following:
1. One is about a box
2. The other is about a doctor
3. The third is about a mother and daughter.

If that's all you know, which film do you go and see? Most people would choose the third one as it promises to be about something inherently interesting: a relationship. Even films that seem to be about an object never are: they are about people and, more importantly, relationships. The Piano was not really about a piano; Schindler's List was not concerned with the list itself; and in Rear Window we learn nothing whatsoever about the window in question. Nothing!

Someone asked me recently, "should we not, then, only ask the audience for a relationship, and not an object, location, etc?" "No," is the answer to that for the following reasons:

  1. We want to keep it interesting for the audience and not ask them the same question each time.

  2. The thing we get from the audience is really only a springboard to a scene to highlight the fact we are improvising. If we start improvising without a suggestion, we would still be expected to create characters and relationships as this is fundamental to what we do. Whatever suggestions we do get, should help us find who we are to each other.

  3. We will almost rarely ever get the relationships we actually play from the audience. The audience will only give us "mother and daughter." In a scene we will play "possessive mother and daughter who wants to leave home," "talented daughter and jealous mother," "selfish daughter and adoring mother," "successful daughter and mother obsessed with cakes," "mother and daughter both coming to terms with the loss of the father." We will never just be a mother and a daughter.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Impro Thought of the Day: 21/4/2010

Impro is like life. It looks like a lot of rules when you start; but as you get deeper, you see at its core are just a couple of very simple premises.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Magic Moments: What is a Moment?

People talk about being in the moment, but it's not always clear what actually the (or a) moment is. "Moment" often gets translated in people's minds as the point in time after the last thing said or done. People "in the moment" (defined like this) will whole-heartedly agree and heighten the last thing said but in the process often manage to drop or block much that had gone before. This is not being in the moment.

A moment is a point in time up to which everything set up prior to that moment has lead. It's not a reaction to a single thing but reaction to a culmination of events that in improv terms starts at the beginning of the scene or even the start of the show.

If moments are just about the last thing said the result would be a series of actions and reactions that have no consistency. The scene would effectively be a series of free associations with nothing to tie them together. To an audience it would have a very random feel.

A moment is a point in time up to which everything set up prior to that moment has lead.

Like improv, life is also a sequence of moments. Moments in life are similar, although much more complicated. Having just read the above definition, you are thinking "wow, I hadn't thought of it like that," or "I knew that," or "that makes no sense, whatsoever," or "that reminds me, I must call Julie" or some other response. What you're thinking is defined not just by the line you read, but by the whole of the text before it. And more than that, also by everything you have ever read, been told or otherwise learnt or thought about the subject of improv; anything else you have read written by me or any interaction you've had with me; your own experiences performing and practicing improv; anything learnt, discussed or thought about on the topic of causality and similar philosophical topics. All of this feeds into that moment. And that's not including everything else that has happened to you that was playing on your mind (consciously and subconsciously) at that point – relationship worries, work issues, deep-seated fears, recent good news. Actually, it's far easier to describe the input as "everything that has gone before" than to actually detail what is "selected" to affect that moment. Especially as it is probably impossible to know all of the subconscious drivers we have going on in our heads.

This makes a moment sound like a bulky, complicated thing, but, as we know in life, most moments pass without much thought and we respond in a way that is natural not only to our character in its current mood, but to our previous interactions with that person or situation; and with the knowledge and experience we have accumulated over the years. Most of this is subconscious and our response natural. In improv, the moments should also be natural. We've paid attention and absorbed what has happened so far, who we are, what our relationships are, and we just respond in keeping with this without thinking.

Even those moments in life when we act highly out of character or are paralysed into inactivity by a situation would be explainable if you knew what is going on in our heads at the time. People act out of character because they are, for example, inordinately worried, feeling guilty, depressed or ridiculously happy. Even these moments are based on things before the last thing done or said.

In improv, we only have what's been set up about your character since it first appeared or was mentioned, and we ourselves are creating our characters subconscious desires and failings, so our responses will always be explainable by the actors (if prompted or made to analyse), no matter how instinctively we are playing. So as long as we are paying attention, allowing ourselves to absorb what is going on, we can be in that unique moment so created and react to all of it, not simply the last thing said.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Agreement and the Comedy Store

When I first was learning improv in London, I went to the Comedy Store a few times. I would often be shocked at the amount of gagging and blocking that went on there. There was some great establishing and some awesome songs, but scenes would often be ended with gags that pretty much destroyed everything that came up until then. The audience loved it. Much of comedy is, after all, establishing a routine and then breaking it, so a block where you tear down everything that has been established is hugely funny. (Especially as in the back of the audience's mind is the fact that nothing you are creating is real because there are no props or scenery, it's all thin air.) So why are we taught not to block, when it can be the funniest thing that evening?

We're taught not to block, because without learning not to block, we never establish anything. And the funniest gags come after something of substance has been set up. Not to mention that after a few scenes of setting stuff up and then tearing it down, the audience gets the pattern and it doesn't have the same impact. They'll get bored of the gags. On top of this, whilst a well aimed gag-ending can be very funny, it will never be satisfying the way a nice tie-up with a funny line from one of the characters is.

Of course, once you get into telling a longer story, however, a gag will throw the audience out of your world and you may never get them back in. If you don't care about the story, they won't care. And to end a long-form story that you've spent an hour building up with scene-destroying gag will almost certainly make the audience feel cheated. They may well find it funny; and if your style is somewhat gaggy and comment-heavy, they may well accept it; but they'll never be satisfied.

If you follow the "improv as sex" simile, it's like pushing your partner's head under the covers and farting instead of achieving orgasm together.

Back at the Comedy Store, the sheer number of gags and blocks made my newbie improv zeal ruffle. If a zeal can ruffle. Why were they doing it like that? And why were they happy? Why were the two people who set up the scene joyously happy when Paul Merton took their scene and tore it apart with a single one-liner.

Well, partly because the one-liner was usually very clever and very funny, and also because there was an agreement between the players that this was their style. This was part what they did. They were a bunch of (mostly) guys having fun together. They weren't there to create high art and long cohesive stories, they were there to have fun and entertain an often-drunk crowd. It worked for them because there was an agreement (probably unspoken) that this was how things went down.

It draws the question: If a block is accepted by all the other players as an valid method of transaction in their scenes, is it no longer a "block" in improv terms? It also illustrated that agreement in improv goes far deeper than what people actually say.

And the young me, with my priggish improv-purist ways, I could choose whether or not I wanted to go see these guys do this popular show in their busy Central London venue. Or I could always go and sit with three other people and watch four actors above a ropey old pub in a dodgy part of town create a full-length improvised Greek tragedy based on a vegetable and three emotions. I could, and very often I did.

Obviously, I'm not heralding the block and the gag as great improv tools, but I was fascinated as to how they could be happily used in some shows without everybody feeling their ideas have been trampled all over. But before you cleverly shatter your next scene with a well-placed, but all-destructive scene-busting missile, remember your group almost certainly won't be so forgiving.

So, until next time, take care of yourselves, and each other.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Dodging the Bullet

Lance and Carl are in a scene in a longform that has a noirish thriller feel. Suddenly Carl pulls a gun, says Lance knows too much and shouts "Bang!" Lance jumps aside comically and retorts "you missed!"

Now an audience will probably laugh at this, but mainly because it's a block: destroying the reality of the scene, throwing the genre, character and truth of the moment out of the window, and trivialising (to the point of mocking) the offer of being shot at.

The thing that does most to destroy everything is not the jumping aside but the glib "you missed!" Jumping aside would have been acceptable had Lance immediately followed it up with a dive behind the furniture and/or going for his own gun. This would have been consistent with the genre and current action. However, from this close range, the most consistent with the genre and reality (assuming Carl has shot a gun before which is likely given the ease with which he pulled it out) is for the bullet to hit home.

I asked Lance about his motivations and after some evasion, found that he didn't think his character should die. He gave some justification, saying his character was important to the plot. He was the main informant to the detective. This doesn't ring true of course as in a detective thriller like this, any secondary character is liable to get shot and killed. Especially those close to the central character who have already served a purpose.

He also used as a justification that the audience wouldn't want his character to die either, which is true as his character was a likeable rogue. However, as an audience, there are always (important) characters in stories we don't want to die who do die. (Obi Wan Kenobi, Sigourney Weaver in Avatar, Bambi's mother.) They die because the story dictates it. If you are in a film noir, crime thriller or similar, it's highly likely a few incidental and even important characters are going to get knocked off on the way. It's what happens in the genre. And if people dance around avoiding bullets with apparent glee, this is not a noirish thriller it's a Ben Stiller musical. And nobody wants to be in that.

So, in a nutshell, Lance threw the story off track because he didn't want his character to die. When you really get down to it, most reasons for refusing to be killed end up being what that actor wants and not what the story needs. The two core reasons boil down to:
• "I didn't want my character to die because I enjoyed playing him and I didn't want to have to sit on the side for most of the show."
• "I thought I was the hero."

It's clear that there is a strong an element of ego is in both of these. Lance didn't use the latter, but I've heard the same justification in similar situations. But again this is no justification for the above action. He should have realised that when Carl pulled the gun, said very little and shot at him, he didn't seem to think Lance was the central character; otherwise he might have said more. Even if Lance was the central character, he should have dived for cover and dispatched Carl after a shootout rather than goofing off like the actor son of famous comedians.

But we should also remember that central characters do get shot as well. Frequently. And being shot doesn't mean death. And also death doesn't mean exclusion from the story. (I'll deal with this at a later date.) However, if an actor is improvising with too much attention paid to the ego and not enough to the scene, I am reluctant to point out that they can be shot and even die and still carry on, because most of the time, if you are shot as a secondary character, you're dead. And if you are dead, 95% of the time your character is not seen or heard again.

So except for those scant few times, that bullet is going to slam straight through you and death will come soon. Otherwise you are destroying the magic, the reality, the truth (whatever word you want to use) of the story you are telling and throwing an egotistical spanner in the works.

[Please note this article refers to longform (which should only be attempted by players with a few courses under their belt) and open scenes. Beginners should avoid dying, leaving and any other excuse to quit the scene, and many shortform structures will fail if one of the players buggers off.]

Saturday 27 March 2010

Cool Beat Poetry

Hey Cats,

you want to know how to lay down some hip beat poetry laid on top of a cool riff?

Dig this crazy track, baby.

From: cicodelico-obscure-grooves.blogspot: bing day - mama's place 7''

In 1957 every improviser I know would have had record a contract.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Shelving (Incoming Knowledge Expecting Acceptance)

Shelving, in improv terms, is putting an offer on ice; putting it up on the shelf, out of the way. It's not a block, as you accept the offer. The intention is: "we will deal with this later."

So it is clear there two types of shelving: The first where you accept the offer, shelve it and then bring it back later. The second is where you shelve the offer and forget about it. Technically, this isn't shelving; this is throwing away.

In general, in a short form scene shelving is not worth the effort: the scene will be over in a couple of minutes.

In long form, it is acceptable (as long as you bring it back off the shelf before the end of the scene or show). It's as simple as this: "If you shelve something that is not brought up again, that's pointless and disappointing; if you shelve something that is brought back later one or more times, that's brilliant." Alas there isn't any half-way house. You have to remember.

When you're starting out, shelving is a bad idea. It detracts from the training to make every offer matter, plus with all of the 101 things you have to remember in an improv scene, why add yet another one. Deal with it there, incorporate it and move on with the scene.

Once the laws of improv become more instinctive, remembering things becomes easier and putting an offer aside becomes viable. Shelving, clearly, shouldn't be the standard response to any old offer, So, what functions can it serve?

• If you are in the middle of a dramatic or important moment, a new offer might derail or sidetrack you, force you out of the moment. This offer is probably best shelved to be dealt with later.
E.g. Lady Sally is mourning the loss of her husband and her butler hands her a letter. She thanks him and pockets it. Sure, she could read the letter and it may help project her understanding, but if the actor thinks she doesn't need this catalyst, she can shelve it. As long as later she remembers about the letter or the other actors take this as an offer that Lady Sally has a letter she has received but hasn't read, from which hilarity ensues. [There'll be an entry on the Relative Importance of Offers and Offers from Outside the Scene coming soon.]
• If you think the offer will be best served by being used later, you can shelve it. This could be called the Hitchcockian Offer.
Actor A gives actor B a cigarette lighter. B thanks him and pockets it. Later on the cigarette lighter becomes vital to the story, possibly saving B's life.
• There are too many offers on the table already.
• Running joke or characterisation. Albert walks in and says, "Here's that report." Robert barks, "I said, later!" This illustrates Robert's character or the relationship between Robert and Albert. Also, if Albert comes back in every ten minutes and gets the same response, perhaps with a different item, it becomes a running joke.

You should be very, very wary of shelving anything that is important to the here and now of the scene. I'm just saying once you come of age, impro-wise, had your Ad Libsvah, it is a tool that will help you out in certain situations and add some spice to your longforms. But it must be used wisely. In fact, there is something absolutely vital I have to tell you about this that you must know. But that's for another entry.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Fifteen facts about improvised singing

1. You don't have to sing. Many, many great improvisers don't like the singing part.
2. An improvised song cannot be as good as one written by a professional songwriter. So don't expect it to be.
3. Keep it simple. The songs that you end up singing all day are not usually the most complicated ones.
4. It is acceptable to twist a word to make it rhyme.
5. Most popular songs include lines that do not rhyme.
6. All technical faults can be forgiven if you sell, sell, sell the song.
7. Improv audiences actually prefer someone with a bad voice singing with gusto than someone with a great voice singing effortlessly.
easylaughs singing8. Feel and sing the emotion.
9. The audience would generally much rather hear someone belt their simple heart out about their love for the other character than hear a long list of cleverly rhyming innuendo. (Which doesn't mean they won't enjoy any of the latter slipped in the former.)
10. A good pianist is the secret to a great improvised song.
11. Allow yourself time. Let the first couple of bars go by so you get the tempo. Believe me, singers rarely start singing on the first note. If you feel that this is dead time, then posture and move about like a singer preparing to sing.
12. There's a reason pretty much every song has a chorus.
13. Someone else will almost certainly want to sing if you don't.
14. Practice in the shower. If you are still too shy to sing on stage, invite increasing numbers of people into the shower until you feel confident enough to do it on stage.
15. Repeat. For God's sake, repeat.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Welcome to Crazytown, population: 3 blue frogs and a wispy banana

For someone who grew up liking surreal comedy, I find it odd I dislike going to crazytown. Crazytown is that place on Planet Improv where everything is ultra, ultra weird. It's the place a lot of improvisers go when they think the scene isn't funny enough, or they don't trust that the audience wants to see scenes that are about real people and real things. I think I most dislike it because it is easy.
Most improvisers can stand there and list off random, quirky things, one after the other in a stream of conscious non sequiturs. I could do it for about an hour easily, I think.
It's a great tool to have, in the right scenes it can be perfect. But if you find every domestic scene has to have something incongruous like a dancing alligator or a portal to Spandex Hell or an elephant reverberator or unctuous middlemousings or "winding hours of taramasalata," something might be amiss.
I do realise that in improv a spanner in the works sometimes is exactly what the scene needs. But a spanner in every works is quite monotonous.
The harder thing to do in an improv scene is to keep all of the story strands together, keep your character up and play the reality of the scene. That's much harder than to simply become a dancing frog. And believe me, an audience would much rather see a good scene come together with an ending related to the elements of the scene than see a dancing frog. Unless they are six years old of course.
Crazytown is one of the many locations you, as an improviser, can take a scene. And there will be times and scenes where this the place to go. But only go there when the scene demands it. And I do mean the scene, not the performer.

Friday 29 January 2010

Get Up (Git on up, y'all)

Very interesting and useful workshop today from Shannon McCormick and Shana Merlin of Get Up! from Austin, Texas. They do a two-person longform show and today they showed us some of their tricks. Not surprisingly, the secret of doing a two man show is really knowing your stage partner.

Thinking about trust made me able to articulate a point I'd been dwelling on, which is this:
Trust can be demonstrated by your reaction to your scene partner's wilder (or more left field) choices. If your reaction is, "cool, where’s this going to go?" it indicates a lot of trust. If your reaction is, "good God, what on Earth is she up to now?" trust is lacking.

It is a good way of gauging your own trust of your fellow players and made me realize I don't always trust everyone. But I do know I have the skills to cope with most things. However, trust in your own skills is different to trust in your fellow players and is no way to hold a group together.

The workshop also reaffirmed the importance of the Hero model as a device for informing longform. I'll write more on this and start teaching this very soon.

Get Up! performed their show two days ago at the Amsterdam International Improvisation Festival (Or similar words in roughly that order). It was lighter and slightly more casual in style than many of the American longforms I've been seeing. This threw me a little as I do enjoy seeing the American commitment that often lacks in Northern European improv. But it wasn't actually a lack of commitment; it was more confidence and a decision that they could be a bit more jokey when the time came.

Anyway, tomorrow I have to teach and then do my own two-man show with Jochem (Meijer of easylaughs). Not sure yet what watching the get Up! performance and taking that class will bring to this show, something I hope. Although one thing is sure, Jochem will slap me, try to kiss me and the audience will almost certainly enjoy themselves.