Thursday, February 14, 2008

Things we learned from Susan and Mark

Over the 17 years I’ve been taking improv classes, I’ve finally learned to ask myself a question before I get started: Am I taking this as a teacher, or as a student?

It’s haaaaard to do both.

As a teacher, I'm there to learn how to teach as much as to learn how to improvise. So I take notes on:
  • Exercises—instructions on what we do, in what order, for what purpose
  • Sidecoaching—what the teachers say as other students are in scenes
  • Notes—how the teacher debriefs
  • Philosophy/insights—all the quotable stuff about what the teacher knows/believes
As a student—well, these days I rarely take notes in class at all. I try to stay in the moment instead of transcribing what’s happening. When I do write stuff down, it’s simple:
  • Personal notes I get about my performance
  • Quick, after-the-fact notes about the exercises we did 
That's why it’s nice when I’m sitting in on Exit 16 workshops. I’m there purely as a teacher, and can capture every word, every nuance.

I don’t, of course, post those detailed teaching notes or give them away—because (a) that would be a really shitty thing to do to the instructors who make their living at this and (b) I paid good money to get them. Here, though, are some of the ideas I picked up from
Susan Messing and Mark Sutton’s workshops at the Annoyance (I’m paraphrasing, mostly—they were much wittier).

From Susan’s character workshop:
  1. One of the first thing that happens after you’re born is you get a name. Everybody has one. So it’s creepy if you don’t use them on stage. Have fun with names and the way you say them.
  2. Do something—then figure out why. 
  3. Losing is much more fun than winning when you’re on stage. Being the victim is fun. 
  4. If you hate to do something (object work, a particular game, etc.), you have to do it more until you like it. 
  5. “In improv, we don’t fart and run.” We immerse ourselves in it, sniff it, taste it, describe it, revel in it. 
  6. The more you play yourself, the more your rational self will want to take over and speak out. 
  7. Drink water. Stay hydrated—stay awake.
From Mark, who was all about keeping things simple:
  1. We try to make a it more than it needs to be, instead of getting mileage out of a simple idea. 
  2. We need the audience to buy in—but we tend to try to get there with information instead of emotion. (Which is backwards.)
  3. 15 seconds is the amount of time the average improviser decides the first thing he did sucks. Stick to your choice. The audience and your partner assume the first thing you do is important. 
  4. Something they say at the Second City: "The success or failure of a scene depends on what happens between here (standing in backup line) and here (walking to center stage)."
  5. Environment exists to help us tell the story. Have relationships with things. They mean something. 
  6. We spend a lot of time on the where and the what—not enough on the who.
  7. What does start in the middle mean? Be affected by the opening line. (Example from a KC Improv Festival show: Woman: Good morning, Ted. Ed Furman: What the fuck is that supposed to mean?)
  8. People get in their heads because they project results. Focus on the now and don’t worry about what happens next. Don’t play a scene—play a moment.
If you ever, ever, ever get a chance to take a workshop from either of them, DO. 

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