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.