Saturday, January 17, 2009

Self-critiques and book previews

OK. So now that I have a working firewire, I've been able to pull some stuff off miniDVs and onto my computer. 

I've mentioned before (and Josh has mocked me frequently since) that I'll watch videos over and over and pick them apart. So here's what that looks like...

A while back, I was lucky enough to get to do a show with Jill Bernard. We worked with Dave Razowsky for a few days in LA, focusing on using Viewpoints work in improv. This is a scene from our show, and a run-down of what I think when I watch it. My understanding of Viewpoints theory is based on those four days in LA last fall, so I may be a little off on some stuff, but here goes. 

To set up every scene, one of us started with Shape—focusing on the shape we formed sitting or standing on stage. The other entered and started the scene in response to the first one's shape. We're pretty deliberate in our physical exploration of the space—Jill calls it "new-toy-disease stiffness."

Here's the video. 

Scene 1, Act 1

Jill starts in shape, with repetition (typing) in duration (how long she does it).

I enter and take my own shape, establishing the spatial relationship between the two of us. Each of us also has a relationship with architecture (the chairs).

NOTE: As I watched the videos for this show, it was impossible not to notice how many times I start a scene with a negative. But I'm happy with the shape I started in—I've really limited myself physically lately for some reason, so it's good to see I have it in me to play more open, high status characters. 

As she overreacts to no Coke in the machine, Jill makes a dramatic change in shape—another gorgeous detail for her character. Plus, she messes with repetition (yelling several times) and duration (how long she holds the scream and the pauses in between). So now she has her original behavior
and her highly emotional choices to alternate between.

NOTE: One of the biggest differences between Jill and me is how thoroughly she internalized the different viewpoints. I mostly play with topography and spatial relationship—she played with a lot more of the toys in the toy-box. This is one of the biggest reasons I want to rehearse, workshop and play more; right now, the stretches between shows (and rehearsals, even) are so long it feels like I'm starting over every time. Sometimes I don't feel like I'm even hitting the basics. The more I get to play around with different techniques, the more likely I am to retain them. And honestly, when I spend money to study, I want to hang on to what I learn.

I hold my shape, duration while Jill has her meltdown.

NOTE: I’m not sure about this next choice I make—“I’m just joking.” Did that undermine or negate Jill’s dramatic reaction? Another fabulous thing about Jill: More than anyone I’ve ever seen, she takes everything as a gift. So even when I do something questionable or ham-fisted, she makes it seem like absolutely the right thing to have done.

I retrace my topography while Jill holds shape and duration. One of the things Dave had us work on is
holding while the other performer is talking or moving—an extreme version of taking-turns. We play with that a lot in the first part of this scene. It's amazing how doing something that simple it keeps you in the moment. And it's much easier if you have a shape you're committed to—you don't ever feel like you're just standing around.

NOTE: Now the shape I took on when I hit the chair has had an impact on my character—I walk differently than I did when I was just entering the scene, and I know what my voice does now. This is me in gender-neutral land: lower voice, looser body tension, higher status. In this show, I went there three times. It bothers me that I'm not making a specific choice about the gender of my character—I'm playing an attitude, rather than a person. 

As I walk back, our spatial relationship changes. Jill is back to her normal shape and voice.

NOTE: AND. I. SCREW. UP. This time, I say “coffee” instead of Coke. Dammitdammitdammitdammit. How the hell does that happen? I JUST SAID COKE. By the end of this video, though, you’ll appreciate how freakin’ brilliant Jill is.

I go back to my architecture and shape. Jill holds…holds…then goes back to her meltdown shape. When I make a behavioral gesture—picking something up and holding it out towards her—she reacts immediately to the change with a change in shape back to her rational character.

Then she makes big changes—moving away from her architecture for the first time, and even kicking it. That's a huge, aggressive move. I hold my shape—which, at least for the first part of the scene, I did when she was having a breakdown.

NOTE: Here’s another questionable choice. When she responds as if I’m holding a gun, is it again diminishing her reaction to make it a camera phone instead of a weapon? By-the-book improv rules would call it a denial; others would say she didn't specifically call it a gun, so I was OK. I wasn’t doing it for laughs—I honestly picked up the camera phone. And I like where it ended up—the idea of posting videos of her going nuts on YouTube fit with the sadistic asshole character I’d turned into. And I like the little micro-discoveries in “What’s that blinking part?!?! What the hell is that blinking part?!?!” “I got a message.” Little details like that are so much fun to play with. 

Jill makes another dramatic change in spatial relationship, tempo and topography when she tries to kick the camera phone out of my hand. I love how boldly she plays—the contrast between reasonable Jill and meltdown Jill is hilarious, and incredibly fun to be on stage with. 

NOTE: Normally, I might spend a lot of time in my head: "Jill just did something brilliant. What's the right choice? WHAT THE HELL DO I DO?!?" That's where I was pretty often during our work with Dave. The nice thing about Viewpoints is you get yourself, as Spolin would say, "out of your head and into the space."

After kicking, Jill goes back to whatever the hell that beverage is—topography, architecture, gesture—and we get a real sense of her attachment to the architecture of the mystery beverage. So far, our topography has been pretty straightforward and purposeful.

Scene 1, Act 2

About now, it felt like time for a turn—when she went for the beverage, Jill ended Act 1 of Scene 1. I wasn’t sure what to do—I just knew I had to do something—so I made a change in spatial relationship. When she asked me what I wanted to talk to her about, I wasn’t sure, so I just answered truthfully. (Another thing we learned in LA.)

NOTE: Again, was that undermining? In some schools of thought, calling Jill out on the weird instead of continuing to feed it would be (again) diminishing her choice. But since it was time to make a 90° turn, it felt right. And I was happy with the new piece of information—that we worked for the CIA. It helped establish the stakes and gave us some detail about our relationship.

Jill goes back into crazy-land—and I love how she brings elements of her sitting-down shape into her standing-up shape. She really plays with duration and repetition again with the yelling. As before, the repetition gets a huge laugh, because it's unexpected and perfect at the same time. It was fun to have the different spatial relationship this time—though holding character in shape in duration while she’s doing that is
not easy, people.

After a brief hold, Jill snaps back to normal—and we move back to her original relationship with the chair (architecture). YouTube comes back into play—and a blog entry Pete made about
a guy with an insane roommate who tracks the crazy in a blog pops into my head.

We hold the same spatial relationship for a bit, then I go back to my original architecture —and, when I make fun of her again (the line about the Three Musketeers bar), my original shape. But I sit back up when I apologize—the leaning back, legs-crossed shape doesn’t work with sincerity.

We stay in the same basic shape while we talk more seriously.

NOTE: “You’ve turned me into something I didn’t know I could be.” "Oh no, man, don't." Gaaaaaaaaah. Nice acting, Keanu Reeves. Sometimes when I get too serious in a scene, it feels wooden or melodramatic—one of two extremes. I really should take a regular acting class.

Scene 1, Act 3ish

Then Jill makes a really bold change in shape and tempo. Is this Act 3 of Scene 1? Maybe. It felt like a pretty big turn.

NOTE: Again with the second guessing. We were CIA—was the thing Jill put to her head a gun? In my mind, since the gun had been a camera phone earlier, it made sense for the weapon to be a camera phone again. And it was kind of fun to map gun language over it.

The walking around the chair thing was fun—repetition, tempo, duration and a great big swirly topographical move, with that architecture in the middle. And it was the first time we really played with curves instead of angles. 

And then Jill wraps it with “It’s this Coke Blak—what kind of product combines Coke and coffee? It’s just wrong.”

Effing. Genius. One of the big lessons of our work with Dave was “That happened.” Nothing is a mistake—it just happens. But when it does, you have to use it. I don’t know that it ever hit me in the scene that I’d mixed up Coke and coffee, but the audience knew it…and more important, Jill noticed it. Her brain is one great big room full of sticky notes.

So here’s what was so fun about doing the work this way: Using Viewpoints, we focused on making physical choices and changes, and the verbal stuff came pretty naturally. I didn’t feel like I had to worry about what to say. Whenever I got stuck, or felt like it was time for a scene to turn, I made a physical change—usually, spatial relationship.

One of the things Rob noticed about this show is that our scenes continued when there was a change instead of getting cut—he said he's not used to seeing that in KC improv. I think it's because we don't always know what to do, which might have something to do with the fact that pretty much everyone here got their start in shortform and only recently started doing—or even seeing—longform. 

My approach has always been to keep playing the same character and relationship games we've established; Dave showed us that Act 2 of Scene 1 gets its own set of rules. That lets you continue, using what has happened without strip-mining it, and following the turns for a longer trip. 

Ultimately, this work felt a lot more like riding a scene than playing one—distracting myself with physical choices keeps me out of plot and in the moment. 

Want. To. Do. More.

Coming soon...improv book reviews

As a result of an unfortunate combination of 1) always having One-click ordering turned on in my Amazon account and 2) having an extra beverage, I got a small stack of improv books in the mail this week. With first impressions, they are: 

Interesting approach—a how-to improvise, perform in public and make money, plus interviews with big names—written by two British improvisers. It acknowledges different theories and seems to be school-agnostic. Wonder if it's as comprehensive as it seems?

OH, FOR...OK. I'm going to have to get past the rubber chicken on the front cover. I hatehatehate comedy icons—rubber chickens, groucho glasses—being connected to improv. Why? We're not prop comics. Also have to get past the fact that it's referred to as "comedy improv" instead of "improv comedy," though that particular pet peeve is based more on the awkwardness than the rectitude of the description. The book's goal is to change behavior, and it seems to be an improvisational version of The Artist's Way, with a recommendation that you try a chapter a week and plenty of space for journaling. Hmmm. Fine. Why not?

This tiny, tiny hardcover book is an actual textbook—its price-tag made me flash back to the first week of college and the sticker-shock that came with it. (Reminder: I was drinking when I bought it.) Which explains sentences like this one, chosen at random: "Within the rubric, fluid and segmented forms do not mix." Whooo boy.

I've got a ridiculous shelf full of books like this—and I haven't read or finished reading about a third of them. So my goal for this year will be to get through—and write mini-reviews of—every single one. 


  1. OK, AND...

    (yeah, I have more to say...surprise)

    The kinda cool thing about the crappy, washed out video quality is that all you can see is movement—no facial expressions. Watching this compared to other shows, I can see how much more I'm communicating physically, instead of relying purely on what I say.

  2. Just one more thing, and I swear I'm done. Here's the other benefit of following turns and letting scenes go longer: Michael Gellman taught me that the Second City ways is to show The Day Everything Changed. Why are we watching a scene about THIS day over all the others? What extraordinary thing happened?

    In so many short things, you never get to that—you just see a snippet out of an ordinary day. If you can sustain the scene into Act 2 or 3 of Scene 1, you can establish the pattern (Jill freaks out because there's no Coke Blak) AND show how this day is different (her partner confronts her about it after a year).

    So many times, we just manage to establish the pattern of behavior—the character or relationship game. We never get to see the consequences.

  3. Point/Counterpoint, Yin/Yang, straight man/top banana, or whatever you feel comfortable with...

  4. This was fun to read. You think more than me.


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