Monday 28 November 2011

Impro vs Ego

A recent workshop with the great Patti Stiles, set me thinking about the Ego and the performer. Something that's fascinated me since I first realised the Ego doesn't come about through being overconfident (as it seemed), it comes from fear. Patti reminded us of how the Ego is the nemesis of Impro and pointed out the ways it tries to thwart the noble Impro on its quest to tell the best stories it can.

  • The Ego is what makes an improviser do what he wants to do rather than what the scene needs.
  • The Ego makes the actor go for the gag instead of the story.
  • The Ego is what makes us hate getting notes from our fellow players and treat them as attacks.

The Ego is created and nurtured by fear and mistrust.

  • A performer without an Ego will jump on stage and make you look good without even thinking about it.
  • A performer without an Ego is concerned with presenting the story to the audience and not looking for their moment to shine.
  • A performer without an Ego takes a note as a suggestion to try a new path or a helpful insight into performing habits.

Fellow travellers, we must join forces and fight along side the hero impro in its struggle against the forces of Ego. We can only do this together, for when we think as a team and are concerned with the welfare for all the other members of our merry band just as much as for ourselves, only then can Ego be defeated.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Sunday 16 October 2011

Friday 7 October 2011

Impro Thought of the Day: The best scenes...

In movies, the best scenes of all time aren't scenes where people explain the story, but scenes where we really see the relationships between the characters. So it is in improv.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Scenes should not be about what they say they're about

The same rules for screenwriting, go for improvisation...

Monday 3 October 2011

Impro Thought of the Day: Greatness as an improviser shows itself not in the creation of offers, but in the acceptance of offers.

Greatness as an improviser shows itself not in the creation of offers, but in the acceptance of offers.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Tension and Release

For a while, I've been thinking about tension and release. It's a very prevalent and yet difficult to define concept. We all know what tension is, but it's hard to describe. We know when it's there, but it's really hard to create it. It's a very important part of modern film-making.

semi-random picture to increase the tension.

I suppose one quick attempt to define the terms is this: Release is resolution or closure and so tension is the absence of that resolution, i.e. a situation requiring resolution. Clear? We get onto more concrete definitions in a later entry.

To think about it in terms of broad genre, drama is about the building of tension and comedy is about the release of it. Roughly speaking.

Below is a quick list I made of emotional situations which create tension and a possible release...

sadness - happiness
regret - forgiveness
anger - relief
loves me not - loves me
enmity - reconciliation
tragedy / loss - coming to terms with it
serious - laughter
hate - love
argument - making up

There will be more on this soon as it's something that's definitely on my mind. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this fascinating but underexplored area of performing. My thoughts are currently all over the place, as you can tell.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Feeling Dramatic, Punk?

Johnny and Lisa are in a scene. It's a dramatic scene early on in what could be a longer story. Johnny is relating a traumatic incident that seems to define his character's current world view. He explains that he witnessed a horrific mob killing. It's clear he was traumatised by it. He begins describing in detail the scene and Kris and Sly start re-enacting it in split screen. However, whist doing what Johnny is saying, they do it in a very comedic way. It's funny, but somehow the story is flat afterwards.

Kris and Sly say they chose to do the scene lightly because the other scene was so heavy. It's true the story had been heavy so far, especially that scene with Johnny and Lisa. And it's also true some levity will help the story and keep people involved. But that point was not the time for it. The next scene might well have been ripe old time for some comedy, but there and then, it was not what the story called for.

Jim and Trista of easylaughs demonstrating dramatic. Photo John De.
I'm not saying the comedy "hit" scene wasn't funny. It was hilarious. But its humour came in part from it being at odds with what was set up. Funny is all well and good, but it should not be at the expense of the story and characters. Not if you hope to sustain a story.

In this case the "at odds" really fell into blocking territory. In a short, self-contained scene, this wouldn't matter so much, but here what we were supposed to be seeing was what made Johnny's character the way he was. It has to be as traumatic as he tells it. If it isn't, it means that Johnny is traumatised by something we know to be comic. All the sympathy we would have had for the character evaporates and our interest in the story with it.

Obviously, we can have stories where the truth is at odds with what characters say, but this is very hard to do improvisationally (not least because it is not the obvious thing and it involves an idea from outside the scene). In this case it certainly was not what had been set up by Johhny and Lisa's scene. The "flashback" we were seeing, because it coincided with Johnny's description, was clearly from Johnny's character's point of view. Sure, maybe the killing was comedic to those who did it, but not in Johnny's character's mind. The killing from his point of view was brutal and traumatic. In a movie, even a comic movie, that’s what we'd see.

I got them to do the scene again, this time Kris coldly shot Sly in the face. It was chilling and everyone felt uncomfortable, but that was what the story needed and our sympathy as an audience was now firmly with Johnny. So much so that, at the end, were Johnny's character to get some form of closure (by making Kris repent, or having him arrested or (most often in movies) by shooting Kris himself) we are so frigging pleased for him in a way we would never have been if his issues had all come from something that was like a clown shooting a mime in a school of overacting.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Highlighting the Story

Although the basic premise of improvised storytelling is to keep it simple and logical, there's actually a bit more to it than that. There are definitely other skills to use to make your story really be effective.

One important skill is having a sense of where you are in a story. This is almost essential for making those choices when the next step can be one of several things, any of which lead down wildly different paths. It can also help see how particular events can be used to show the progression of the character.

Quite often in a story, certain things will happen several times. Their outcome or impact on the story or character differs depending on where you are in that story.

For example, say a particular story is about a guy who hangs around a bowling alley. Almost certainly this guy is going to bowl a couple of times. Probably much of the time the bowling will be background / environment work in that it won’t be significant. The bowls themselves won't be important, but might be used to show mood. I'm a great believer that saying "I'm angry" is (generally) much less interesting and realistic than doing what you're doing in an angry way.

In our story, for example, 2 people could have a heated discussion whilst bowling and we can see how the rollercoaster of emotions affects their bowling. We can see what they're feeling without it having to be explained to us. A sadly bowled ball is vastly different to a triumphantly bowled ball.

But, occasionally, some actions will be given a high prominence in the story.

At the start, a bowl could help define the character (or establish the ordinary world) of the hero. Put simply: If he scores a strike, he’s a great player; if he scores a gutter ball, he’s an awful player; and a middling score means he’s an average Joe.

Depending on where he starts, you can often predict what later bowls will be like. To show what I mean, let's look at a classic “comeback” story:

The hero starts the piece bowling extremely well – he's at the top of his game. But something happens and he starts playing really badly. This is a turning point (or first threshold) and around here he will have a spectacularly bad shot that symbolises everything that has gone wrong. He will then fight to get back on form. In this sort of story there's usually a big build-up to a comeback match upon which everything depends. Not just the match itself, but also the player's career, his relationship and even his life. This match will eventually hang on one single shot. This shot will obviously be given a lot of status (through the build-up and the way it's talked about and presented – in a movie, it will probably happen in slow motion with dozens of cutaway shots to see people's reactions). It will also be an amazingly skilful shot or an unfathomably lucky one.

Now, whilst scenes should not be about what's happening, but instead the relationship between the characters, stuff should happen. And if that stuff actually reflects or symbolises what's happening to the characters, then this is perfect. In fact screenwriting is all about making stuff happen that illustrates the characters and relationships because we can't see the human brain working, we can only see the effects it has on people, namely their actions. Thus this final bowl isn't about a ball going down an alley. This ball now represents everything: The hero's hopes, dreams, career, love-life and even himself. If the ball makes a strike, the hero regains his self esteem; the girl will love him; his peers will welcome him back with open arms; he'll have the prize money to pay off his debts and not have his legs broken by the debt collectors. If the ball goes into the gutter, his hopes and dreams follow it; the girl he loves will leave for good; and he'll wind up a sorry, broken man, or even dead. It's really not about bowling any more. In fact, it never really was.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Great ways of getting suggestions from improv legends, the Mersey Beatlesports

Three great ways of getting suggestions from Liverpool's top improv group, the legendary Mersey Beatlesports:

  1. Can I have an unusual location where we could all live?
  2. Could I have an unusual object that could personify happiness?
  3. And finally, where is Lucy and what does she have with her?

Friday 1 July 2011

The Perfect Form

A lot of comedy relies on the personality of the performer. Improv is rarely an exception. However improv is a discipline where the personality of the performer can actually get in the way.

In acting, certainly, the ideal is to lose oneself in the role. Become that character. However, that ideal is at odds with what the public seems to want. Many of the most popular actors tend to be people who keep the same character no matter what the role. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, etc. Most of the early Hollywood stars can be included as well. That's not to say they can't (or couldn't) act, but their success was in part due to a constancy in the characters they played.

Actors who lose themselves in a role tend to take a lot longer to get recognised by the public, basically because they are harder to recognise.

There is actually a very similar phenomenon in improv. The person who the audience goes home remembering is not necessarily the best improviser. He or she was the one who shone, who was the funniest, the one the audience warmed to the most or got the best line in. But he or she was supported, set up and allowed to shine by other players who yes-anded no less (and often more) than he or she did. In fact, sometimes, because audiences can often enjoy jokes that are at the expense of the scene, or having the ridiculousness of a situation directly pointed out to them rather than it being used to create a new world, and they do find utterly hilarious the destructive mischief of a deliberate block, it can be that the player the audience remembers and loves the most was, ironically, the most destructive player in that show.

When the direct audience feedback of laughter is all that is sought by a player or a group, it is very easy to fall into bad habits. Joyful, well-rewarded bad habits, but habits that can make telling longer stories or playing scenes with any realism or honesty difficult.

So, in the same way that the perfect actor is one who loses him- or herself in a role, the perfect improviser is one who loses him- or herself in the scene. That is by being, saying and doing whatever the scene needs regardless of their regular habits, the things they like to do, their usual way of standing, moving and talking, and their standard set of stock characters. And often at the expense of the jokes that keep appearing in their head.

It seems like the path to getting singled out for praise less, but, if your fellow players all think the same, you will find yourself in a group that can play or do anything: tell fantastic stories, make awesome scenes and allow rich, nuanced characters to emerge that will stay with an audience long after the cheap fizz of a knowing block.

Monday 13 June 2011

Clarity vs Intensity

In my quest to find out about storytelling from all angles, I have been reading a couple of books about creating comics (as in graphic novels / cartoon strips not as in building a comedian from scratch). I'm not really much of a comic reader, but there are similarities between Comics and improv as I have mentioned in an earlier piece.

One thing that was very interesting in Making Comics (Scott McCloud, 2006) is the discussion of clarity vs intensity. Clarity is telling a story, keeping it understandable, letting the characters shine through. Intensity (in this context) is about making the actions exciting and urgent, the characters and events extreme. It is the "Pow! Zzappp! Zing!" that we think of when we think of superhero comics. In a way clarity is truth; and intensity is heightening (and exaggeration).

Short form is often all about intensity. All emotions are ramped up to 11 and characters are big and frequently superficial. Long form tends towards clarity. At least successful ones do. But actually, things are not so polar. A balance of the two is what is wanted, often tending towards one or the other. After all, you do want a little clarity in your big, shouty, animal-based characters scene. And we like to see great stories where there is heightened emotions and dramatic, exciting moments.

If the emotions are always extreme, this can actually make the story less interesting. Or it sets it in a specific genre where this is the case – soap opera, opera, melodrama, etc.

Usually a story will start off with people's emotions at their "normal" level, at a volume typical for their character, their actions perhaps even mundane. But there will be moments in that story when these things become heightened. And because you've started in a "normal" range, the audience can experience that heightening and care about it (as long as it comes from the events of the story).

Obviously characters can be "intense" as in brooding or unquestioningly loyal or bitter, etc, but this is not the form of intensity I'm referring to here. Although there is one form of character intensity that is problematic in storytelling.

We have all met people who live their emotional lives at full intensity (everything is either phenomenally awesome beyond compare or Earth-shatteringly awful without any hope of recovery). But how often are films about people like that? Not often, I think. Because they don't make for good stories. There's nowhere for them to go. The slightest thing (it seems to us) sends them to the pits of despair and then something equally trivial makes them inordinately happy. (This is a short form story arc.) We want our heroes driven into the pits of despair by a relentless barrage and it to be real despair where they question everything about their life. So that when they drag themselves back to the heights of salvation against all those odds, we applaud this achievement and are palpably relieved.

It is the moments of despair and the heights of victory that intensity is most useful (and at other key plot points too), but generally for the rest of the time, the story is told and the characters are expressed and the scenes played out with a clarity that keeps the audience involved and caring about what is going on.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Impro Thought of the Day: "it pays to consciously separate good instincts from bad habits"

"Every technique we use begins its life as a conscious process and, with luck, gradually becomes second nature. But not every technique works to our advantage in the long run and it pays to consciously separate good instincts from bad habits once in a while."
– Scott McCloud, Making Comics

Thursday 2 June 2011

Third Party

This week I've been pondering on whether talking about a 3rd person (who isn't in the scene) is an inherently bad thing. My conclusion is that it isn't. As long as the scene doesn't become about that person.

As I've said before, a scene should always be about the relationship between the characters IN the scene. We discourage rookie improvisers from talking about people outside the scene, because it usually means the scene just ends up being a discussion about someone who isn't there.

But once improvisers are of an intermediate level, they should be able to have a scene where it's not about the person (or thing) they are actually talking about. A scene inspired about the word ball, will probably feature a ball quite heavily, but the scene should not be about the ball. (Unless the ball is a one of the characters in the scene.)

I'm not saying you should frequently talk about people who are outside the scene, I'm just saying it's not necessarily bad. I don't think it's a hard and fast rule that you shouldn't do it and that if handled properly, there is no solid reason why not to.

One way it can be used is if both people in a scene have a different opinion about, or a different relationship to, the 3rd person, then you can see how different the characters in the scene are. It's a way of illustrating differences between the characters and thus highlighting their relationship.

It's also a way of illustrating character directly. One thing I have realised about people is that when one person is talking about another person, they often reveal more about themselves than they do about the person they are talking about.

Certainly in real life what people say about other people are generally not proven facts, but an impression, opinion or judgement of that person.

For example if A says B is irritating, what that really means is that A is irritated by B. It doesn't necessarily mean that B IS irritating. B might be a rival, an ex lover or very pleasant which grates at A's grumpiness.

Obviously in an improv context where simplicity is usually the best policy, it probably does mean X is irritating, but it doesn't have to be.

Not only this, but how A talks about B shows a lot of information about A's character: Is he diplomatic, gossipy, superior, sympathetic, admiring, judgemental?

I agree most of this could come out in reference to the scene partner (except, perhaps gossipy), but my point is that if treated in a similar way to objects, characters outside the scene can be mentioned, even discussed at length as long as the real subject of the scene is the bond between the characters who actually bothered to be in the scene.

Monday 25 April 2011

Yes, Andually: Improv-Com and the Rom-Com

I've heard it been said that the Rom-Com is a hard genre to improvise. I think partly because we're already doing comedy, so it's hard for the same reason the genre of Comedy is hard to improvise. Plus the only difference between a Romantic Comedy (Rom-Com) and a Regular Comedy (Reg-Com) is that the theme of the story is more restrictive. In a romantic comedy story revolves around the love life of the protagonist(s). If you see one funny scene, you can't tell if it's from a Rom-Com or a Reg-Com unless it's the scene where the couple meet or where they get together.

So, to do a scene in the style Rom-Com is to dictate, to a certain degree, what happens. That on top of the problem with doing a scene in the genre of comedy, which is effectively to say "do a scene, but it MUST be funny." Pressure!

So I've been thinking a bit about the Rom-Com lately and even coming up with a structure (or rather a path) to improvising a full one. I'll let you know later what comes out of it, but it's nearly there. But, it seems if you understand a few basic rules about what makes a Rom-Com, and what it is people enjoy about them, you should be able to steer your way through one.

Of course, the Rom-Com journey can very easily be seen as a classic Hero's Journey, in which the thing the hero is searching for (knowingly or not) is Love and he or she has to give up a lot or face great strife to get it. But in doing so he or she becomes a better person and makes the world a better place. They are often very much like quest movies because Love is so often treated in them like a mystical, magical force. A force which the hero often fights against but is ultimately swept along by. A force which guides his or her destiny.

A couple of things have helped me understand this genre a lot more: one is watching a few of them; the second is the excellent book Writing The Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit.

Book available here: Writing the Romantic Comedy ( Writing the Romantic Comedy (

Billy Mernit also has a blog and recently he listed 5 Rom-Com Truisms. They apply more to writing, but they are interesting to note, and some are directly applicable.

  1. "The primary challenge lies not in creating obstacles to keep the couple apart, but in convincing the audience that these two people truly do belong together."
  2. We should understand the protagonist's emotional logic. Especially when it comes to reluctance in / resistance to getting together.
  3. What the protagonists lose by being together must be important: the stakes must be high.
  4. #4 doesn't normally apply directly to improv (it's about writing good roles for women), because we are our own writers, and in general women play women. But it does apply when men play women and also vice versa, because there is a tendency here to make the characters stereotypes or 2-dimentional.
  5. "The most effective function of a subplot is to show how the protagonist is transformed by love."

If I was to recast these for improv, I would state them as follows:
  1. We (the audience) must want the characters to get together.
  2. We must understand why they are not getting together.
  3. One or more of the protagonists must have something important they must give up to get together.
  4. Make the characters interesting not just people obsessed with other people or there simply to fall in love.
  5. As well as all that love stuff, show the protagonists growing and becoming better people, being transformed by the process.
Now I'm not a huge fan of the genre in itself, but like any genre, the best films in it transcend that genre. Plus, all it is really is a broad subcategory of the genre of Comedy with all films linked by a common theme. A theme that is featured somehow in 95% of all movies, regardless of the predominant genre.

See also: the Genre Guru Genre Guide to RomCom.

Friday 22 April 2011

Transitions Workshop and the Movie Paradigm

Fade in.

I recently attended a workshop on transitions given by Tim Orr of longform trio 3 For All. It's a topic I'd covered with him before as part of a broader workshop, but one well worth revising. Especially as it is something I feel I've underused in the year and a half since the earlier workshop. Transitions are the moving from one scene to another, one location to another, one time to another, or one beat or sequence to another. So as well as the usual "edits" there is a whole bunch of other techniques that can be used not just between scenes but also during scenes. This includes techniques for performing multiple scenes at the same time, even in the same physical space.

Tim's mantra is to always ask "how we can make the current scene as magical as possible at any moment?" It's a great approach and is so much better for making wonderful scenes than the common mantra of "how can I be funny right now?" His approach, although he always talks about making improv more theatrical, is actually to make improv more like movies. This is definitely where my thinking is these days. Movies are the things we should have in mind when making improvised stories. Theatre has so many limitations – certainly in terms of making spectacular things happen – whereas in improv, where the set, props and costumes are all made out of the imagination of the audience, we are actually much, much freer to make anything we want happen. And I do believe anything can be made to happen. There is always a way to represent any situation or at least part of any situation. We just need to imagine how it could be done and to get everybody else on board with it. This is obviously not a simple task, but it is achievable with a group of people who are ready to let their imagination move beyond the confines of the stage, are prepared to take the risk and who are really, really working together.

I will certainly talk a little more about transitions in the future, but if you really want to learn about them, go take Tim's workshop.

Dissolve to

Sunday 10 April 2011

The Three Pillars of Acceptance

Improv is basically about two things – acceptance and building on that acceptance. This acceptance occurs in three ways...

The Three Pillars of Improv first developped by Yesandocles.

1. Yes, and: Agreeing with your Partner

A lot of time is spent on this in improv. And quite rightly so as the core tenet of improv - accepting the offers of the other players (and building on them).

2. Free Yourself: Not Self-Censoring

Allowing free flow to whatever ideas you as the improviser come up with or to whatever your character wants to say. Not judging your own ideas, but jumping in when your instinct takes you. Allowing yourself to make mistakes. If you never make mistakes, you're not pushing yourself hard enough.

3. No Judgement: Not Judging the Other Players

Improv is impossible when not done as a team. The best improv comes from accepting everything the other players give you. Even if it is not what you were expecting or was a mistake caused by a misunderstanding, nervousness, etc. Allow other players to make mistakes; accept that there may be players in your group or class who are not as adept as you at certain things. But trust they are trying to improve. Unless you accept everything they do, mistakes and all, you're never going to have great scenes together. It's when there is an environment of trust that people grow and overcome their own deficiencies and only then can the group grow.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Today it is Freytag

The following is from Freytag's Technique of the Drama, Gustav Freytag, (second English Edition, 1896; Original: Die Technik des Dramas, 1863), p19.

An action, in itself, is not dramatic. Passionate feeling, in itself, is not dramatic. Not the presentation of a passion for itself, but of a passion which leads to action is the business of dramatic art; not the presentation of an event for itself, but for its effect on a human soul is the dramatist's mission.

This is a 19th Century way of saying...
Drama is not simply the depiction of action, events and passion. It's depicting a passion that leads to action; and depicting events and their fundamental effect on people.

Or condensed further...
Passion causes action causes change.

Friday 1 April 2011

Storytelling: The Three Acts

The concept of three acts is at least as old as Aristotle. But one could argue that it's such a fundamental concept to everything – the concept of a beginning, a middle and an end – that it was there since before the beginning of time. (In fact the concept was created before the beginning of time, exists during the existence of time, and will disappear when everything all goes back to being merely inky thoughts in the mind of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

Below is a table showing how prevalent the concept of the three parts is in story-telling theories from all disciplines.

General Story
3 Acts
Act I
Act II
Placement of the Hero
In place
Out of place
Back in place
General Improv Scene
Platform Model
New Platform
Balance Model
New Balance
Routine Model
Opening Routine
Break the Routine
New Routine
Hero's Journey
Departure or Separation (from Ordinary World)
Descent and Initiation (to Special World)
Return (to Ordinary World)

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Would Like to Buy: Transaction Scenes

When we first learn improv we are given a set of rules to follow. One of these is to avoid transaction scenes. As we progress, of course, we realise that many of these "rules" are more like "guidelines." The question I wanted to explore is: "Are transaction scenes inherently bad?"

The answer from the observation of scenes is that they are. Because very often they are dull and the same thing always happens. Here's some typical examples...

A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Here's one. That'll be 2 euros please.
A That's too much.
B Then you can't have it.
A I don't want it now.
A leaves

As people learn to accept more, it doesn't really help.

A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Here's one. That'll be 2 euros please.
A There you go. Thank you.
A leaves

Upright Parrot Brigade
However I've seen great scenes set around a transaction, so it isn't a hard and fast rule. The problem is because a transaction is an easy pattern that we fall into every day of our lives. A pattern where 95% of the time the people involved do not know each other and there is no emotion invested in it. A scene should always be about the people in it and their relationship, not about what they are doing. What they're doing is the vessel through which they can express their character, relationship and feelings.

There's a great exercise to help stop transaction scenes being purely transactional. Actor A makes a "bland" or "transactional" offer and B has to respond to by making it personal (i.e. have an established relationship with the other player and/or emotional). Examples...

Recognition of other character (relationship and hopefully emotion):
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Is that you Simon?

Regular customer (relationship and hopefully emotion):
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Well, of course, Mrs Habersham. I've got the usual all ready.

Emotional (not about other character, although the other character will probably become involved):
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Thank you for coming to help. But there's no way we can save the shop. I'll give you this loaf for free – it's the last one I'll ever make.

Relationship and emotion:
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B (suggestive) Of course. Let me get you a nice firm one.

Relationship and emotion:
A I'd like to buy loaf of bread.
B Don't pretend you don't know me, Daphne.

So a transaction is not inherently bad, but it's a trap for inexperienced improvisers who don't want to make the scene about character, relationships and emotions.

And although the characters knowing each other certainly helps, this is not necessary as long as there is some sort of connection or attitude to each other. Two people who have just met who have a strong connection or clear attitude to each other can make for an interesting scene. This can be positive attitudes: They are attracted to each other or instantly really enjoy each other's company; even negative: they antagonise each other from the word go; or a mixture: A is suspicious of B who is trying hard to please A.) If Daphne has to go into the shop of her bitter ex-husband because it's the only place to get the medicine for her mother – that's one interesting transaction. But two bland people in a nondescript shop trying to buy something neither of them cares about – that is highly unlikely to make a great scene.

PS Whilst the Dead Parrot sketch is based around the premise of one of the characters lying ("it's not dead, it's pining for the fjords") which is really very, very hard to do in improv, the scene works because of the attitudes of the characters to each other and the situation are clearly defined and heighten each other. (John Cleese's annoyed insistence causes Michael Palin to lie which causes John Cleese to get more annoyed.) It's also an argument scene which transgresses another rule, but more on that can of worms another day.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Impro Thought of the Day: "Fortes Improvisium Adiuvat"

"Fortes Improvisium Adiuvat" Latin saying: "Improv Favours the Brave."

Monday 28 March 2011

Overview of the Hero's Journey

So here's a quick description of a generic Hero's Journey because I'm going to be talking a lot more about this in the coming months as it's been a mini obsession for a while.

The Hero lives in his ordinary world. Something happens that is a "call to adventure" – something is needed or is lost or must be done. The Hero resists, but very soon has to set forth on his long (or metaphorical) journey.

Once on his journey there are obstacles; people are there to help and hinder him; until eventually, after a big struggle with his Nemesis (opponent), the Hero gets what he was after (usually).

Now he must return to where he started from. Again there are problems and perhaps reluctance. During the return there will usually be one last huge struggle in which the Hero will face death before finally defeating the Nemesis. He returns to his "ordinary world" a changed man, and the thing he brings back changes the world too.[1]

[1] I will be referring to the Hero as "he" most of the time even though a Hero can obviously be female or be an object or a species with no gender.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Impro Thought of the Day: "Be Bold, Be Free, Be Truthful" – Brenda Ueland

"Be Bold, Be Free, Be Truthful."
– Brenda Ueland, If You Want To Write, 1938

Sunday 13 February 2011

Amsterdam International Improv Festival pt 5: Transformations

The continuing list of things that stood out for me at the 16th Amsterdam International Improv Festival

How one scene transforms into another is fascinating to me. The world of film has developed scores of ways of taking us from one scene to another and is always looking for the next new technique. In improv, there are about three different ways to change from one scene to another in general use. But we can take our lead from films as we do with genres and themes and try to find interesting ways to jump from one scene to another. Often films use a connecting object or theme to link scenes. For example one scene ends with the camera focusing on a vase of flowers and the next starts focused on a different vase. In improv our objects are air, but we can do the same thing with people and noises and themes and actions.

A good example at the festival on Wednesday was where one actor was the connection between three scenes, being 2 previously-established characters in the first and third scene, and a poster of a boy-band member in between. The lessons well demonstrated here are: make it clear quickly and right at the top what the next scene is and which character the actor that is remaining is to play. It's a bold play, but it's the sort of thing that makes even seasoned players go, "wow."

Thursday 10 February 2011

Amsterdam International Improv Festival pt 4: Inspiration

This is my continuing exploration of the things of interest I saw at the 16th Amsterdam International Improv Festival. This is a week-long series of shows featuring performers from all over the world and around the corner. It's one of the best-organised of all improv festivals, from what I gather; and it's certainly a high-point on the local improv calendar.

I always enjoy seeing and learning from the various different styles of the different groups and individuals from often very far-flung places. Every group and country has a different approach, a different interpretation, a different attitude; these are very interesting and educational to see.

My only real quibble about the festival is that, in general, it's run more for the performers than the audience. I enjoy the shows most when an established group comes and does what it does best; what it's been doing for years. Increasingly less groups are invited and instead more individuals. This does make the festival more international (i.e. more countries represented) and offers more networking options for the performers, but for the audience it means they miss out on groups presenting their specialty that they've worked on together for years.

That's not to say there is nothing to learn from individuals, but because of the collaborative nature of improv, I always learn most from watching a group do their thing than individuals each doing their own thing.

The highlight of the festival for me was no surprise. On Wednesday the only well-established group that was invited and given the chance to do their own thing on their own had their show. The National Theatre of the World (who all come from Canada) improvised a full Woody Allen play. It was a textbook example of what two people who play a lot together can achieve. People who are committed to telling the story through realistic, three dimensional characters unspoilt by all that gagging, goofing and showing off that blights a lot of improv. It was nothing short of awesome. Something for us all to aim for. In fact it's the aim of my new group, The Ad Libertines. More on them in the near future.

Friday 4 February 2011

Amsterdam International Improv Festival pt 3: Recovery

This is the third part in a series of things that stood out for me at the 16th Amsterdam International Improv Festival last week.

From festival picasa account

The second show on Tuesday was multinational duo The Banzai Twins. This had some great moments and they allowed themselves to have genuinely heart-felt scenes without losing faith and falling into gags. The biggest hiccup in the show was a scene were each player started with a completely different idea. So the scene was then all about one actor convincing his partner she was playing a new character when she had already started playing her established character, with the result that the second player left the stage calling "confusing!" There are obvious lessons in that, but their recovery was brilliant.

They redid the scene in a Japanese theatre style (in a mixture of real Japanese and Japanese gibberish). This time there was fighting and the internal struggle between the actors seemed to get played out as an external fight in which the guy was stabbed to death. This somewhat exorcised the demon of the bad scene and with the guy now leaving the stage calling "confusing!" which not only showed that things had been reversed but established the word "confusion!" as a small running theme. The idea to redo the scene was an impulse and the fighting, I think, wasn't planned as a metaphor for the inner fighting but part of the genre they were replaying in, but is shows that if you let the subconscious free, it'll often do great things. Whilst I believe we have a higher tolerance for mistakes in improv than we ought, and no way want to encourage people to be blasé about them, we should know that when they occur, we should not ignore them or try to hide them; we should embrace them, deal with them, but not let them derail us from where we need to be going.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Amsterdam International Improv Festival pt 2: Inner Thoughts

This is the second part in a series of things that stood out for me at the 16th Amsterdam International Improv Festival

which was last week.

Watching the Banzai Twins on Tuesday, there was a great reminder that inner thoughts provided by other players don't have to be expressed purely in words from off stage or over the shoulder. The player(s) expressing those thoughts can move as they do so, and so illustrate the emotion with movement. In fact they can do so without any words whatsoever and just depict the emotion in sound and/or movement.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Amsterdam International Improv Festival pt 1: Theatricality

This is the first part in a series of things that stood out for me at the 16th Amsterdam International Improv Festival.

Tuesday: Theatricality
Often in improv we forget that we have a god-like control of physics on stage and that we can use this and the audience's cinematic literacy to great effect. One great example of this was a fight scene between two boxers (played by the guys from Cia. Barbixas de Humor from Brazil), where both of them stood apart, facing the audience. And despite seemingly not being able to clearly see each other, each punch received the appropriate reaction and both went into slow motion at exactly the same moment.

Photo from

Another example of using cinematic literacy was a girl (played by Yuri Kinugawa of Japan) in a wheelchair (which, as ever in improv, was played by a regular chair). But instead of the usual, chair being scraped and awkwardly jerked around the stage as the character moves, the chair remained static and because we saw the girl move the wheel and she was the focus of our attention, we accepted her not moving and accepted that it was the background that was moving, which was easy as it wasn't really there in the first place. The fact she was alone on stage at the time, made it easier. But I could see, with a lot of awareness and a little bit of practice, that the chair never need move and even turning with a dozen people in the room, could be achieved by the people moving, not the chair.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Impro Thought of the Day: There is no such thing as "nothing." - Matthieu Loos

What does that mean? "Nothing" is an artificial construct invented by mathematicians. It does not exist in theatrical terms. Stillness and silence are NOT nothing. A pause is not a period of nothing but a powerful dramatic tool. Purposeful stillness can be fascinating.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Amsterdam Festival

Am currently attending a lot of the shows and workshops of the 16th International Improvisation Theatre Festival in Amsterdam. I'll be updating very soon on what I've seen, heard, learnt, unlearnt, thought. More soon.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Improv and The Graphic Novel Part 2: Jumps

This is the second part of my exploration of the useful things for improv raised by Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

Comics, as much as films and books, love to jump in space and time. These jumps often use an extension of the previous topic, closure, for us to be fill in the gap or make the connection. Moving to another time or place in a story is a great tool. It allows us to follow multiple threads, skip bits of the story we don't actually need to see, see the causes or consequences of an event or behaviour, or see parallels between events separated by time and/or space. There's so much more it can do. Here's an example of a time jump used to reveal a truth about a character.

Many types of transition are common to most media. The square area at the top or bottom of a comic panel is the equivalent of the narrator or voiceover in improv and movies. Or a jump can be obvious given the context: often based on the last thing said, such as: "Okay, I'll meet you at noon and the OK Corral."

Comics and movies are especially blessed with being able to use imagery to indicate movement in time and space that doesn't mean we can't learn from them. We can simulate or allude to some of these jumps (or edits).

We've all faked the wobbling screens of a flashback, but how many of us have morphed from one scene to another or been in a split screen with our old and new selves showing how different or similar their lives were? Have we ever described effects as the narrator, the way a book would have to? "As he pushed the button, the whole room went blurry, our faces lost their distinctness and objects hung in the air awkwardly. We were in hyperspace."

The medium of comics is by its nature a medium of jumps. With occasional departures, all comic stories are made up of multiple panels that are essentially pieces of frozen time. So comics, being distinctly discrete, in their depiction of events get to play with time in a way we as improvisers (being physical beings and unable to be anything other than continuous) cannot. But that is not to say we can't also play with time. McCloud talks a lot about how much of what goes on in comics goes on in between the panels – i.e. in the mind of the reader as he or she connects each panel. We as improvisers only really have those gaps during edits, but that doesn't mean we can't think about the time between actions and dialogue; or think more about the connections the audience has to make during and between scenes.

McCloud identifies 6 panel-to-panel transitions.

  1. Moment-to-Moment: the next panel is a very short time later. Very little has changed and very little if any closure is needed to interpret what has happened.
    The gunman steps a few paces forward. The girl's smile gets bigger. The flying bird is a little further away.
  2. Action-to-Action: one subject is shown doing one action after another; the actions are connected.
    A man drops a coin; he stoops to pick it up.
    A golfer hits a ball; he puts his hands to his eyes to look in the distance.
  3. Subject-to-Subject: The subject changes, but the scene or idea does not.
    Someone kicks a ball into a goal; a crowd cheers.
    A monkey dances, money is dropped into a hat.
  4. Scene-to-Scene: These are significant changes of time and space, but still there is some connection.
    Man and woman under a sunset say "Forever" to each other; we then see them both angry on different sides of a court.
    "We'll never know what happened to the Rajeeb Diamond," says a policeman; A caption says "meanwhile in Peru" over a bird struggling along with a large necklace in its beak. 
  5. Aspect-to-Aspect: is where we see different aspects of a scene, idea or emotion.
    A set of pictures conveying the same place from various angles and distances.
    A clown, happy children and a smiling cat.
  6.  Non-Sequitur: This is where pictures have nothing in common whatsoever. However the human mind is so adept of looking for patterns and connections, and so wants to find them, that it's almost impossible to have two things that aren't in any way related. Especially to improvisers who are trained in making these sorts of connections.

So let's look at them more from an improviser's point of view.
  • Moment-to-Moment and Action-to-Action happen during a scene and are perhaps demonstrated best by that exercise where you break down every single movement into a simple, discrete steps. For example to pick up a piece of toast, you put your arm out; open your fingers; put them around the toast; close them; bring hand up. It's possible to divide this different ways and you can always break it down more (or less). You can think of how much you break something down like this as an indication of how important it is. For example, the moment the young man kills his first deer in a film or book would probably be shown (or described) in great detail and perhaps slow motion.
  • Subject-to-Subject is usually demonstrated by focus shifting to other characters in the scene or by a cut-away scene. Or it could be done by a narrator adding some extra details or unseen actions.
  • Scene-to-Scene is where most improv edits fall so doesn't need to be expanded here.
  • Aspect-to-Aspect changes is usually achieved in a brief montage where we see three quick establishing scenes about Christmas. Or by one or more narrators or characters describing different aspects of a scene, event, etc.
  • Non-Sequitur is either surrealist randomness or it's the gap between scenes in the first round of a Harold or similar collection of (usually) unrelated scenes. Although even then, there are usually plenty of connections if you look for them.

This list might not be directly applicable to improving your improv, but the more aware we are of time and space and how much control we have over it on stage the better. It can only help to make us stronger performers; more in control of every aspect of what happens on that few square feet of wood where we do our magic.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Improv and The Graphic Novel Part 1: Closure

I recently finished reading Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I'm not really a big follower of graphic novels, but this book was recommended as being really about storytelling.

It certainly covers a good deal about storytelling, but mostly in the context of depicting said story in sequential boxes and it also has other line-drawn axes to grind . Having read it, like all good obsessives, I asked myself, how can I apply this to the thing I'm obsessed with? There is a good deal that can be applied here to improv.

What was good, was that the book was also written by an obsessive and it's great to see obsessives from other media especially those who have made a success of it. It's great is to witness someone enthusing about an art form that's very comparable to improv in that it's an art form often perceived as a hybrid, i.e. made up of other art forms. An art form that is often sidelined and looked down upon, yet is actually more adept at communicating directly to people than others that are generally more highly regarded.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to go over the concepts that I think can be readily applied to improv that this book brought to my attention or reminded me of. Starting today with...


Closure is the human mind's ability to fill in gaps in what it sees [1]. McCloud puts it as "observing the parts but perceiving the whole" [p63]. Or put another way, "if something is missing in an otherwise complete figure, humans will tend to add the missing parts." [2] Examples are usually given in terms of shapes. For example, circles drawn with dashes that even though it could be seen as series of curved lines, we clearly see it as a whole circle. But it's the same when we see just the front of a car or the end of a box of cornflakes, we assume with such conviction that the rest of the object is there, lurking around the corner or behind the other packets.

It also works in the written and spoken word. Ellipsis, where parts of a sentence are omitted (and sometimes replaced with three dots called an ellipsis), is often an example of this. E.g. in "He gave Sheila the coat; and Gavin the knife," "he gave" is omitted before "Gavin" as the meaning is clear without it. It even works for parts of words as in the flowing examples: "Look out for the skellton!" "I hope I've may my point."

Great closure example (c) 2009

In terms of storytelling, closure in this sense means things that are omitted that are filled in by the audience. For example: a guy goes sleepily into a room and then emerges rubbing and opening his eyes. Here we automatically assume he's been to sleep. We didn't see it, but we know the normal sequence of events and this fits the pattern.

For another example, Jack shouts angrily at Allan; In the next scene Allan is lying on the floor and Jack has a clenched fist. We know Jack just thumped Allen without even having to see it.

Horror films use it a lot. Especially older or low budget ones or those going more for suspense than gore. We see the shadow of the creature approach the terrified girl, and then we cut to a tree. There is an ear-piercing scream and the birds fly off. We know it was the girl who screamed and that the creature has got to her. In fact even seeing the shadow of the creature involves closure, because we don't see the actual creature but we know shadows don't move about without the thing they are the shadow of. (Mysteries and thrillers actually take advantage of closure all the time. Often to throw us off the scent or make us think the story is going down one path. It's something we might deal with later.)

So closure in stories involves the audience filling in things or events that they don't see either during or in between scenes. It's very useful. It means we can skip whole chunks of things that the audience knows are going to happen or that are obvious from what is already happening.

It has great benefits for improv. It means we can don't have to show every single little thing to the audience. There is scope and precedent for omitting scenes or chunks of scenes. Especially, for example, later in a long form when we're racing towards the end or when a character has to do a lot of preparations. Take the situation where the hero suddenly needs to go and get a hat to get into the Hatters' Ball, we could simply have him declare he needs to get a hat and see him in the next scene proudly putting on his new hat. We don't need a scene of him entering the hat shop, choosing and buying that hat, delaying what we really want to get to. A less dramatic and more common improv example of closure is starting a scene in the middle.

I could fill a whole book with examples of this from movies, but all we need to know is that where the audience can easily fill in the gaps, we do have the scope to miss obvious parts of the story out and jump to the more interesting bits. It takes some practice to be sure, you're missing out bits the audience will assume happened and not need to see. Otherwise what the audience thinks is going on and what you think is going on might be radically different. And that's not good.

Scott McCloud has since written a new book much more about the storytelling and I hope to have a look at that soon.