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?