Monday, February 11, 2008

Blurt, Part One

Good grief, it's great to be back at my own full-sized keyboard. After an entire weekend spent refreshing the Improv Thunderdome discussion on City 3, I've been dying to do something long-winded. 

Who knew Scriptease's first foray into genre work would be so controversial?

Their winning piece has been called formulaic, "filled with Mad Libs," recycled and rigid, too sign-posted, somewhere between a fine line and a gray area, and made one improviser "very suspicious" of the troupe's originality. 

A lot of nice things were said, too. 

But it seems to me that at least a few folks were bothered either by the piece or our approach to it. I say that because the number of posts about The Dreaded Formula outnumber critical reviews of Babelfish 6-2 and Antiprov 6-1. If posters are, as they say, there to offer constructive criticism to help performers improve their shows, where's the thoughtful commentary about the other acts? Where's the analysis of why they didn't draw more votes? 

Just sayin'.
So it makes me wonder...
  • Is it because we're a bunch of purists who dislike anything that feels like hack work or bits?
  • Do other performers think it was too easy, and therefore unfair? 
  • Did they believe Scriptease cheated...or just didn't deserve the win? 

I'm not going to change anyone's mind. But I thought I'd walk through the process of developing this show, because...well, it's 12: 20am and what else would I be doing? I'll sleep when I'm dead.

How it started:
Scriptease wasn't even scheduled to play Thunderdome. But Guy and Martha bowed out, Megan (of Spite) got booked for a work trip in February and suddenly a spot opened up. Assuming we'd do some kind of long-form, we squeezed what felt like an appropriate number of rehearsals onto our calendars. 

The idea:
Drew got in touch and said, "We have an idea. We want to improvise a disaster movie." My response: "You'll get too plotty. Don't do it." 

The first rehearsal:
Rene got scheduled to work, so Drew and Clay (with pal Lauren) came over and talked through the idea. Their enthusiasm was contagious—we all got excited about the potential for game moves in stock scenes and characters. They headed home to watch half a dozen disaster movies. 

They're watching movies and reading online articles. I'm downloading music and sound effects. 

The second rehearsal: 
Rene has to work again. Crap. So Drew, Clay and Lauren name all the archetypal scenes and characters they discovered during their research. There's a game for every one—and the rules are essentially the same, no matter what the subject matter. 

And here's where we make a decision. It's Wednesday night. We have Saturday afternoon to rehearse (with Rene, for the first time), then perform the piece for the first time at the Fakers show that night. After that, we've got a mandatory Thunderdome run-through and one more rehearsal before the competition. 

I'm acting in a hybrid director/coach role. And I believe we have really specific responsibilities to more than one group: 
  • I owe the performers help in successfully executing their vision.
  • We owe our audiences (both of them) a polished, professional, entertaining show.
  • We owe the producers a show that lives up to the hype. 
  • And (I agree with Josh Steinmetz here), we owe the KC improv community a performance that makes a good impression. 
So we look at a wall covered with a grid of scenes and characters on sticky notes and decide to simplify. We don't have time for a leisurely process of exploration, so we're going to create a formula (I like definitions 2 and 6) and decide who will play which characters. The hope: We'll make the structure a no-brainer so we can focus on characters and relationships. We can take off the training wheels later, after we've got the basics down.

Saturday afternoon:
After we get Rene up to speed, we do a talk-through with music. (I'm just throwing random stuff in at this point.) We discover the outline works (whew), so we run it over and over, discovering something new every time. Some of the things we figured out that day: 
  • If we ask for a local news human interest story, we'll get a good disaster to work with (like a squirrel on waterskis, the birth of a panda or first graders putting on a Christmas pageant). 
  • A town hall or PTA meeting is a great place to brainstorm—it can work like a Harold opening.
  • There's an unprotected wi-fi account within range of the Corbin (which came in handy for downloading "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" and the ABC news theme).
  • On-stage attacks by anything invisible look incredibly stupid. All gory deaths will occur off stage until further notice (although we're not opposed to any character dragging his mangled body back into the scene to die gloriously).
By the end of the day, we have the template baked—10 scenes, each with a specific purpose for the plot, the characters and the improv (e.g. "Town Hall" can be a chance to explore what we know about the topic, establish the Good Authority Figure as the stable influence, make everyone hate the Evil Authority Figure, and provide context for the disaster). 

If you've never tried to nail down something like that in a day, give it a shot sometime. Not as easy as it looks. 

Saturday evening: 
We run it for Ryan Seymour and a friend after we have to cancel On The Spot! and, of course, in the Fakers show. Besides banging up Clay's knee and nearly killing a few audience volunteers in the crowded backstage area, it goes OK. Still more about action than people, but OK.

Pete is kind enough to do notes—and in addition to confirming that the scenes did what they were supposed to (he had his notes labeled almost exactly the same way ours were), gave us some terrific feedback—particularly on presentation. 

Sunday—bonus rehearsal:
Rene and Clay come over to talk through the structure again. Now that we've got the formula down, we talk about what it would take to make it work (and keep it fresh). It has to be about the relationships between the characters, and not the plot. We make a few tweaks (including cutting the first planning session to the essentials: "come up with the simplest solution possible"), and I work on narrowing a 70-song playlist down to a more manageable score. 

Monday—Thunderdome run-through:
We finally get a chance to run it on the coffeehouse stage. It's still a little rough, but it gets reactions in all the right places. Rene and Clay have a fun exchange during the scene where the Good Authority Figure and the Young Hotshot meet the Lone Wolf:
RENE: This is a private conversation.
CLAY: Then maybe you shouldn't have it in a bar.

Wednesday—last rehearsal:
A few more tweaks to the structure (our last three scenes have been getting compressed into one—so no need to fight that) and we're ready to talk through it a couple of times. (Because improvising an action-heavy piece in my loft seems like a recipe for disaster.) 

We focus on three things: Listening to your scene partners, listening to the music and letting everything mean something to you. 

Friday—the competition:
It works. It's still a little rough, but there's no denying it works. In another scene in a bar, Rene and Clay bring out the dialogue from the run-through. Do I wince a little? Yep. Do I blame them? Not even a little bit. 

The audience laughs, cheers and plays along. Scriptease wins. And I'm so freaky proud of how much they've managed in such a short amount of time I can barely stand it. 

After the show, I talk to a few folks—Rob, Pete and a couple of others—about what they thought. I get some great feedback. Yes, the show was rough. But there's plenty there to work with. I can't wait to get back to rehearsal.

Saturday—the aftermath:
So. The critiques begin (Coming tomorrow: Why I Don't Think Unsolicited Feedback Is Particularly Helpful). My first instinct is to try to diffuse any angst by explaining why we did what we did...but it keeps coming. 

The prevailing opinion of those who saw the run-through: The piece didn't change that much. 

F---ing seriously? I'm not defensive (because I'd make the same choices again in a heartbeat), but I'm pretty freakin' annoyed (more on that tomorrow). Here, then, is what they didn't notice (among other things): 

  • Interplay with the audience was much more patient—and the guys reacted in the moment to what happened with the volunteers, especially in the rescue scene. ("No, no...bring your drink.")
  • There was more attention to the music—it had more influence on the mood of the scene and the dialogue. 
  • There were stronger connections between the characters—more listening, more playfulness. 
  • There were more specifics and attention to detail. (Rene shelled and ate peanuts in the bar scene. It was a little thing, but a nice detail.) 
Is there still room for improvement in all of those areas—and more? Hell to the yes. But did it make the piece stronger on Friday than it was on Monday? Without a doubt. 

And honestly, if you think even slight improvements in characters, relationships and environment work aren't a big deal, think about the other scenes you saw that night. How many were built on relationships—and not just funny lines? I'll wait.

Hmmm. So. This is what blogs are for. 


  1. When I saw them on Friday night my initial reaction was, "Oh...that's nearly the same thing they did Monday." But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's just another format, and what's wrong with that? They set out on the stage knowing but not knowing what was going to happen. Isn't that what we all do? I think people need to stop with the reviews and picking apart of reviews. It's making me feel less and less awesome about my own performance, and I can't imagine how the Scriptease guys must feel, especially because they were awesome and deserve to know that!

  2. I was proud of everyone's performance.

    I tend to not really care when I hear what other improvisers think of others sets. It's not for them, it's for the audience.

  3. Quote: where's the thoughtful commentary about the other acts? Where's the analysis of why they didn't draw more votes?

    Scriptease won, and gets all the priveleges and attention that brings. I'd love to hear some more commentary about my team from the audience, but since we may never do the piece again, maybe people feel that it's fruitless.

    Oh well.

  4. The Scriptease did so much with so little time that I am way more impressed after having read your blog.

  5. John, maybe that is "Blurt, Part Two".


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