Saturday 14 December 2013

Paul Rudd and the Game of the Scene

A few people have asked me about finding the game of a scene recently. I’m still searching for a good way to not only describe what it is, but also how to teach it. I’m getting there.

An overly vague definition is that a game is something that is set up and repeated and explored but which is not what the scene is about. Games can be found in any aspect of the scene. Often they come from within the character itself – a catchphrase is an example of a character game, but also from character interactions or interactions with the environment. They often stem from mistakes – a mispronunciation of a word, for example, that then gets carried on in the scene or show, building and evolving. I remember a show where a Dutch performer translated “fridge” into cool-cupboard, from then on any apparatus became named like this. The over was the hot-cupboard, etc. This is a game.

It’s not confusing or accidental that it’s called the game of the scene because the rules of most improv games, if spontaneously started in a scene could constitute a game of the scene. Games like stimulus-response (where something one character does causes another to react in a set way), sit-stand-lie or dubbing scenes are games that really show this principal. With these games, the rules of the game happen in parallel to the scene. They have some influence on the direction of the scene but they shouldn’t take over. I think this is a big insight into what I mean by the game of the scene. More very soon.

In the mean time, here’s an example of a game in the real world. Well, at least the “real world” of actors appearing on talk shows which is actually a lot closer to an improv scene than the real world. Paul Rudd's Late Night With Conan O’Brian Game.

Monday 25 November 2013

Thought of the Day: Improv is easy

Improv is the easiest thing in the world. You just have to fight your ego and overcome thousands of years of social conditioning to let it happen.

Dancing With Myself

A little time back, Take One had its premiere. It’s a solo show idea I’d had a good few moons ago. I explained it in an earlier post saying it was less of a format than a concept. Basically, to recreate a movie in a genre given by the audience. In essence it’s nothing new whatsoever. It’s pretty much what 3 For All (and others) have been doing for ages but with one person. In fact, the great Canadian improv nomad, Ryan Millar, came up with an idea which is remarkably similar which premiered the same week.

But although the broad idea is the same with all these groups, the execution of it – the unwritten rules of engagement that you find out during rehearsal and performance, what you ask from the audience, how you use that, how much emphasis you put on furthering the story versus exploring where you are, the devices you use for furthering the story, the archetypes, character types and story arcs you draw from – all these and more – will vary widely for each group and individual.

It’s somewhat like the concept that the singer and not the song that makes a song (actually it’s a combination, plus the band is a pretty big help and the producer often invaluable). It makes me think of a thought experiment – I would love to give exactly the same script to 3 wildly different directors and 3 different casts and see how different the films end up being. Very, very different, I’m certain.

For me it’s exciting to find a way of really using all the hours of my life I’ve spent watching movies and obsessing over genres. It’s justified those times I’d stop revising for exams in the middle of the night to watch some obscure classic from 1932 that was being shown at 3 am. (I guess you should expect my next format to be based on Angry Birds or Twitter.)

The first outing of Take One featured, as a warm-up, the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally as it would be in an Irish gangster movie and the Ezekiel scene from Pulp Fiction as a Christian Family Cartoon. These worked with varying success but more than proved the concept.

And then the meat of the thing was a time travel disaster movie set in Victorian London with a request for Zombies. I hadn’t intended the genre to have so many elements but the audience was divided and you can’t argue with an audience once you’ve told them it’s up to them. But it worked pretty damn well, if I say so myself.

The next outing will be in January 2014 with a condensed version appearing at the IMPRO Amsterdam 2014 festival (in a double bill with Ryan's format, so you can compare and contrast).

I’ll definitely be doing a lot more of this. I and it are available for festivals, parades and conventions.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

The BIG IF - Barcelona Improv Festival Nov 2013

The first international Barcelona Improv Festival was where I was at last week. It was a big paella of super fun and great improv. I have come back with a lot of exciting formats, techniques and approaches to analyze. It was great to see some old friends and make many new ones. Some (but not all) of whom I manage to name-check (or name-drop?) below.

Old friends:
Lamabati from Israel, who in their show created a great world before the lights had even gone up. And then once they were up, proceed to build on it and make a truly fun story.
Jstar from Atlanta, who I think is a manifestation of some joyful, mischievous deity.
Several of the Estonians I met in Finland who have really leapt up several levels in their playing.
Noah Levin, co-organiser of the festival and one of the movers in the Barcelona scene.
BIL from Belgium who were not there as a group, but managed to sneak a super fun show in anyway.
I look forward to seeing and playing with all of them more.
I should also thank my fellow easylaughians who had a great show. It’s always fun playing with you guys.
easylaughs by Alessio Carone

New friends:
It was great to see how high the level is in Barcelona. They all have good energy, play really intelligently and have great presence.
Impro Acatomba, a local Catalan group, confidently took to the stage with three of their number and joyfully created fun scenes based on genres with some extra difficulties.
It was so nice to meet Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel (of The Maydays, UK), who reminded me (amongst other things) that choruses should not be big and clever but simple and direct. It was also fab to have the whole festival underscored and generally lifted aurally by the genius fingers of Mr Samuel.
It was awesome to meet and see Mike Brown, a lovely man who did a really solid solo show based on the family of an audience member.
The French team, Lilyade from Lyon, performed a wonderful longform, with elements of farce, mime and soap opera, inhabited with characters with real emotional depth and drive.
Do Not Adjust Your Stage, from London, gave us a set of great scenes which owed a lot to the great British sketch tradition of strong characters in strong situations.
ImprovBoston Allstars headlined and created a high-paced show with an astounding array of edits and ways of taking one scene into another. They masterly brought back themes and situations, weaving them together to create a huge fun knot at the end. They also happily messed with each other.

Thanks to everybody I met and remet in Barcelona. So many wonderful individuals. Everyone who entertained and supported me on and off stage. Enough superlatives. To the next festival.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Impro Quote: Anything can happen within the next half hour

"Anything can happen within the next half hour!"
- words said at the start of every Stingray show.
"Can I have the suggestion of an underwater location?"

Saturday 14 September 2013


Reincorporation is an important part storytelling. In fact you can't tell a story without bringing things back from earlier. If you don't bring any information back or continue any things that are set up, you aren't telling a story but simply saying a bunch of random stuff. It's also an important part of comedy. Catchphrases and running jokes are clear comedic examples of reincorporation.

Reincorporation, if you're not familiar with the term and not worked it out from the beginning, is reusing something you set up earlier in a scene or story or show. In James Bond movies, James is given some innocuous looking gadgets by Q whilst Bond goofs off to distract you from how important these objects are. They are in fact magical weapons in terms of mythical hero's journey. Later on these objects are reincorporated at a key moment to save our hero.

Reincorporation being important in storytelling has two main implications. Firstly that if you establish something, it should used or referred to later on. The Russian author and doctor Anton Chekhov is credited with outlining this by stating that if a gun is set up in act one, it should go off by act three. In writing this means don't set up more than you need. Everything should have a purpose. Even if that purpose is not to be reused, but to be there to illustrate character, the severity of the situation, etc. In improv this means use what you set up.

Creativity in stories, is not, as it first appears, simply about creating new things, but much more about using and reusing the things that are set up.

One thing I've learned performing improv, and had highlighted by doing solo shows, is that there is no such thing as a throwaway line. Everything has meaning. And I don't just mean the lines said by other characters, I also mean your own lines. So many improvisers, even very good ones who listen so well to what others say, don't listen to themselves. They don't see if they said was what they meant to say, or if they said it how they meant to say it. If you meant to say one thing but said something slightly different (as frequently happens on and off stage), what you actually said is what has been put out there and overrides what you meant to say. If you're not aware of that, suddenly you are not on the same page as your fellow performers who were listening to what you said. If you meant to sound angry, but you realise it came out more as confused, then your character is confused. Use it.

Ideally everything set up will be used somehow. You shouldn't be creating new things if old things are lying unused.

The other implication is that towards the end of a story, you should only be using what has been set up previously. You should have all the information you need to finish the story. If Jack pulls a gun in the final scene to save his life that was never referred to before, this is disappointing. Same with any reveal at the end that was not set up before. A good murder mystery should keep you guessing until the end but when the secret is revealed, it should be so satisfying because all the pieces make sense. Mystery endings where important information had been held back from the reader or viewer so that there would have been no way of working it out make you feel cheated. Endings like this care called "Deus ex machine" or "god from the machine" because it was often how the Greeks ended plays, with a god coming down and magically making everything all right rather than having the characters solve it themselves. It nearly always makes for disappointing endings. Especially to a modern audience who are not used to having gods meddle so much in their stories.

With writing, you have the luxury of what I call preincorporation. This is where you can go back and add information at the beginning of the story once you know what you need at the end. So if the only way for Jack to save himself is to have a gun, then go back and set up early on that he keeps a gun in his third drawer down. Bingo! Goes from deus ex machina to deus ex syrtária.

We don't have this luxury in improv (and don't have to use it in writing). We can be more creative. In improv you need to use what you have set up to help you out. And trust me, something you (or someone) has said or established and can be reused to save you. Remember that chewing gum Jack put in your pocket to keep because Florence had touched it? Yes that.

In fact the skill in movies and books is for the things to be set up and reused just as the audience has forgotten about them being there. It's a subtle balance. The audience must, when reminded, remember what was set up, so it usually has to be more than just something hanging on the wall amongst a whole bunch of things. The audience's attention has to be drawn to it without them being aware of it. If you go in too strong, the audience will realise it's being set up and the pay off won't work. Too subtle and most people won't remember where the thing came from and again will seem like a deus in the machina. A very good way of doing it is to draw our attention to it, but make us think it's served its purpose. Such as the gum in the pocket which was set up to illustrate Jack's obsession with Florence but which finds a new use as the magical weapon that saves him from his nemesis.

In improv, you rarely have the luxury of knowing what objects you will use later. And being subtle about them but remembering them is close to impossible. Ideally you will use all of the objects and ideas you set up. And use them several times. It is way more satisfying to get a lot of use out of a few important objects than hardly any use out of a vast collection of artefacts. As Jack thought popping the gum into his mouth, not only reincorporating it as an object one last time but also using it to illustrate how his journey had cured him of his obsession with Florence.

Saturday 31 August 2013

Take One

I’ve been working on a format – well it’s more of a concept than a format – for a one person show. Actually, the beauty of it is it can work for any number of people, but because it came from a one-person concept that’s how I’ll do it first time. And then, if it doesn’t go down on the first voyage like a lead Titanic, I’ll try it with other people.

The concept is simple. I create a whole movie in a genre given to me by the audience. Nothing radical, but definitely a challenge. Especially for one person. There are definitely genres that will be a struggle for one person. It’s different with my genre work with Nicole Mischler because there we really go into a single genre in order to make it as authentic as we can.

In the any-genre concept, some (or much) of the authenticity will get lost due to not having a full knowledge of the genre, making it more parody-like. Obviously the aim, as with all genre work, is to try and recreate the real thing, because if you try for parody, it never really seems to work. The best parodies are usually very faithful to the original genre but with some slight (or extreme) exaggerations. I’m hoping what is missing in authenticity won’t actually be missed due to most people not being as up on the genre as I hope to be, and the fun we’ll have along the way regardless.

It’s actually a great concept for me. Using my love of genres and storytelling, and periodical obsession with movies. And what was surprising was that although the original aim was to do a 20 minute version of a film, which doesn’t seem unreasonable, it has been a struggle to get it down to that and have both a big story arc and interesting scenes. But we’ll see. Time in front of an audience is very different to time in rehearsal.

I’m actually very nervous about the show, and even though I have a time and a place, am still unsure whether to hold off, even though my run-throughs (in both a rehearsal space and – something that only works for solo improv – in my head) have gone very well.

Michael Jackson, when he had a new song, would, apparently, put the tape on for his manager and then hide behind the sofa while it played. I fully understand him in these moments. But maybe now is the time to stop cowering behind the sofa about this idea and to show the world by metaphorically dangling it out of the window.

Take One will probably be in the 8pm slot at easylaughs on 13 September
Mischler and More are in the 8pm slot at easylaughs on 20 September
And for the hat trick, Dizzy and The Pit Kittens are in the 8pm slot at easylaughs on 27 September

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Improv Quote: Stakka Bo

"We're right here right now that's the only situation." 
- Stakka Bo, "Here We Go"

Monday 19 August 2013

Video: Meet Your Monster: Gary Hirsch

Very nice talk on collaboration by Portland-based artist and improviser, Gary Hirsch at TEDxConcordiaUPortland.


Monday 15 July 2013

Writing Through Improv

I started writing before I started doing improv. In fact improv was just a fun thing I started doing that might help my writing. It was and it did, but it also took over somewhat. Improv fueled that side of me that loves the latest, shiny, new idea which can make it hard for the old ideas to keep shining. Old ideas often in the form of something I'm half-way through writing. And it also took up much of my time and energy.

But over the years, I have still written quite a lot, and finished a good chunk of it; and even earned a few shekels from a tidy little pile in the corner there. It's something I'll hopefully be doing long after I've got the strength to haul myself up on the stage and make things up there and then.

Reading at an Open Stanza in Amsterdam
Where am I going with this? Well, after several years of intention, I'm finally getting round to teaching writing. The first foray will be a joint weekend workshop with fellow improviser and writer, Ryan Millar, exploring using improv to develop and generate writing. I'm very excited about this as it's been a long time brewing. Or at least the idea of brewing it has been there a long time. But the teabag is now definitely in the pot.

The workshop will take place on the 27th-28th of July and is co-organised with easylaughs. Details on the easylaughs special workshops page.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Impro thought of the day: Three


Three is strong; 

Three is satisfying; 

Three is funny.

Friday 26 April 2013

The Stage-Time / Space-Time Discontinuum

As a semi-professional academic of various performing arts, I have had much time to muse on one phenomenon that all performers have experienced no matter what their discipline:
Time on stage is different to time in the audience.
Two minutes as experienced by the performer can be ten minutes to the audience. Likewise ten minutes as felt on stage can sometimes be two minutes to the audience. Typically the audience time is closer to time as experienced by the clock. It’s very confusing to most new performers and a real skill to be able to accurately estimate how long you’ve been on stage.

It is the clearest example I have encountered of how relativity can be experienced by us.

The performer can be seen as being a moving object and the audience at rest. And performing is somehow equitable to travelling near the speed of light. Obviously, not exactly in physical spaces, but most performances are a journey along a story line, or through a fixed set of games, routines, sketches, songs, poems, ideas or points.

This analogy makes it clear that it is only natural, given Einstein’s assertions, that time experienced on stage is different to time experience off stage.

But it doesn’t fully explain how this experienced time can vary so wildly from performer to performer, from performance to performance and from different points within the whole performance. Obviously it depends a lot on the adrenaline in the performers body and the focus he or she has on it. Adrenaline speeds up the heart rate which has the tendency to make the outside world slow down. It’s the reason when you’re in a car crash or something similar, you often see it happen in slow motion. Focus on something has the opposite effect. Many of us have experienced the same effect off stage, where we’ve been so engrossed in something we haven’t noticed that it’s now the middle of the night hadn’t there been plans for dinner.

So the balance of these two opposing forces cause radical shifts in time-perception as we travel from the start to the end of a show. Had I time and a grant I’d love to measure both throughout a performance and also somehow record the performer’s idea of time. But I have neither. One day I will find the time enough to do some google searching to see if someone has already done it. But not until I get a grant.

I would also love to derive from this a comedy equation, an E=mc² for comedy relativity. Some of you might have noticed that even this equation shows that the energy of the room is that of the MC, squared. [1] Or that it is dependant on the mass of the comedian and the comedy constant c. C, in the old days of BBC radio, used to be known as the “speed of light entertainment.”

Enough silliness. Certainly, I do believe there is an equation that could be found using values for focus and adrenaline to calculate perceived time, but it probably wouldn’t actually help anyone to know it. Experience is definitely the best thing to be able to circumvent this problem. Experience not only allows you to control your focus and adrenaline levels but also allows you to be able to perceive or estimate audience time more accurately.

[1] MC = Master of Ceremonies = the host or compeer.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Improv singing

Off to teach a class about improv singing, which was a good time to remind myself of the top 3 things to do in an improvised song...
  1. Sell it
  2. Add emotion
  3. Sing it in a style
You'll notice rhyming doesn't even make the top three. 

For a longer list of tips I made 3 years ago, see here:

Monday 15 April 2013

Talking about someone outside the scene

A general guideline in improv is to not spend a great deal of time talking about someone outside the scene. This is again one of those great guidelines to reinforce when people are learning when the tendency will often be to talk about stuff happening elsewhere.
“Oh, I wish Jack was here. Jack’s great. He’s got that funny hat and always has a joke. He’d make it fun.”
Obviously, this is clearly a call for Jack to come on and save the scene, which is usually what will happen. But while the description is happening, it’s not so interesting because Jack’s not there. If the actors had talked more about their relationship it would not only be more engaging but also we’d have no need for Jack.

Improv does best with the “show, don’t tell” principle, so talking about Jack is not as interesting as having Jack there.

Jack not needed here.
There are always exceptions. Sometimes you wish to endow characters who aren’t there or follow up a storyline we know we won’t see again. Then we can permit a little talking about characters. And then there are the times when talking about another character is done to illustrate the relationship on stage. Such as two siblings talking about which of them loves their mother more. Although both are mentioning their mother a lot, it’s really about their one-upmanship not the mother. Similar situations are two friends one of whom stole the other’s girl- or boyfriend; two X-factor finalists who both lost out to a rival; two employees with very differing opinions of their boss.

It becomes clearer to explain if you substitute the person for an object. Take the two friends one of whom stole the other’s girl. If it wasn’t a girl, but a car that was stolen, the scene could proceed very much on the same lines. But even then, it would be better if the car was there because the actors could use the physicality of the car to help them find and express their emotions.

So if we make it something more abstract then I think it is even clearer. If what was stolen was leadership of the book club, for example, then we see the function this third person. And although the emotions attached to the object might be slightly different, the scene is still about betrayal and possibly rivalry. And in this version, it makes it clear the scene could be seen as being about status.

So in short, there are times when discussing someone outside the scene is fine. As long as it doesn’t become simply a long description of this other person and their antics, and remains ultimately about the relationship between characters there on stage.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Chicago Festival

No updates to this blog for a while due to travel and other such things. By way of compensation, here's an event I'll be performing at tonight as part of the Chicago Improv Festival. I'll be doing a short Film Noir set with Mischler and More and then joining other improvisers from all over the planet in a jam. Or as the Americans call it a Jelly.