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.