Thursday, February 26, 2009

Anxiousness.

Three things:
  1. I have friends who (in the past, anyway) avoided seeing improv shows because they got really, really nervous for the actors. 
  2. One of my kids had a great time in a show because he “got to kick a chair across the stage and scare the audience,” and
  3. This week, I got another one of those comments along the lines of “You practice improv? You rehearse being spontaneous? I feel cheated.”
Bet your ass we do. And no, you really don’t.

If we didn’t, we’d scare the hell out of the audience in a dozen different ways.

I know exactly why friends get anxious. And I know exactly when it’s going to happen. It’s the missed edit that leaves two people in a weak scene hanging. Or the game that dies with a blank stare. It’s any time you can see performers flailing—physically, verbally, mentally, emotionally.

Most of what I’m trying to get out of classes, rehearsals and workshops is enough control to let go. The techniques that work the best for me are ones that give me choices to make outside the narrative of the scene, like status work and Viewpoints. I love status (especially low status) moves—how do I physically go lower than my partner? Play higher than the environment? Viewpoints—when I’ve worked them enough to hold them in my head—are even better. The scene takes a turn and I don’t know what to? Move. Can’t find the character’s deal? Try duration or repetition and see what happens.

What doesn’t usually work? Rambling until I find something to say. Or heightening a feeling until the emotion completely takes over. For me, being deliberate about physical or status choices gives me freedom to be spontaneous in emotional or verbal choices without ever getting lost in them.

And I think that’s part of what civilians (and young, excited improvisers) don’t get about what we do. It’s never about allowing yourself to completely lose control. You’re collaborating to write, edit, direct and perform a piece. Your muscles have to be strong enough that you don’t flail—you owe it to your fellow performers and your audience.

It’s also a safety issue.

One of the things I remember hearing Shaun Landry say over and over when she watched physical scenes was “control your body.” Lately, the kidlings have been doing more physical work—which is great and brave and fun—but GOOD SWEET PAPPY, the danger.

I felt like the Ultimate Bad Cop Tuesday night when I had to give the Lecture On Not Losing Control to kids who felt like they just finished an awesome show. It’s not that it wasn’t awesome—their timing, teamwork, sense of play and brains get better every show. Things started off chaotic (Blind Musical Chairs for an opening bit, anyone?), tightened up, then descended into madness in the last 15 minutes.

Somehow, things turned mean-spirited—almost all of them were conflict scenes—and near- to downright-violent. I’m maybe making it sound worse than it is. By a little.

Anyway. I chatted with them about how audience members (especially the parents) don’t ever want to feel like the players are in physical and emotional danger. Between now and then, I’ll be thinking of analogies to help them understand why they’ve got to take care of themselves, each other and the audience by staying in control. I should chat with my pal Kitty, who takes trapeze lessons.

The fact that we’re working without scripts should be plenty scary.

****

Next time: 
  • Coaching—what Babel Fish is teaching me. 
  • Elitist Wednesday—more secret than Fight Club. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why.

The thing Tommy Todd had going for him when he was in every troupe in the city—besides his talent, obviously—was youth. I'm realizing this as I challenge Megan, Rob and Keith in my amateur run for the Most Overcommitted Improviser Award. (Huh. Come to think of it, they're all about 10 or more years younger than I am.)

Last week was tough. Fun, fulfilling and energizing—but exhausting. Which is why signing on for another show was a completely natural thing to do.

This is the kind of thing that makes non-improvisers ask: What do you do for fun? For vacation?

Uh. Ummmm. Yeah. When I look at a week mostly full of rehearsals, I actually do get a little tired. But when I get there—it's recess.

So, keeping track of the hows and whys of overcommitment: 
  • Tantrum: Shows every second Friday—and two more monthly spots at the Plaza Library. Tantrum is the first troupe I've played with—really—since Funny Outfit ended. I was so busy at work that I couldn't commit to ComedyCity enough to feel the same level of engagement I had when I was there years ago. And 2 Much Duck always felt to me like a show, not a troupe. (There really is a difference.) I'd been in and directed shows, but Tantrum is different. We have a common goal, similar experience and what I'd eloquently call a shit-ton* of potential. You ain't seen nothing yet.
  • Spite: Every other fourth Friday (with Loaded Dice), starting in March—and a fundraiser March 12. Take all the feeling about Tantrum and super-concentrate it. I learn something every time I get on stage with Megan and Nikki. I love doing a form that forces you stay absolutely in the moment and out of your head the whole time. And good golly, it's just so much fun. 
  • Omega Directive: Monthly shows, twice-monthly rehearsals, and class whenever I can make it. I love the Roving Imp, and everything it stands for. I was pretty stunned when John asked me to be a part of this show, and after just one rehearsal, I know I'm going to learn completely new and different things from this fabulous director and cast. Man, I love being the new kid—it feels great. 
  • Comedy On The Square: Producing only—first Saturdays up in Liberty. Having March off isn't a bad thing. We've found our show and our audience, figured out how to have fun, and it's all downhill from there. I love seeing what Fakers, I mean Scriptease, errrrr...Mos Des Fights will do next. It's fun bringing new groups in and watching an audience there mostly to see friends fall in love with something new. And watching what happens when you take the Exit 16 kids out of the school and cut them in half—or thirds, or quarters.
  • Exit 16: Coaching only—every Tuesday in Liberty. It occurs to me now that I've been with this group longer than any other—by kind of a lot. (11 years now—Lighten Up was only six.) I don't think I'll ever have it completely figured out, which may be the coolest part.
  • We don't have a name for this one: But Ed, Tommy, Nikki and I are going to fill in for Bare TV with a duo-based show in April. Tommy and I did a duo (Poke). Ed and I have talked about one. Nikki just kicks ass. So when a spot opened up and Ed said, "We should do this duo show," I said "90 minutes of US? No effing way. Let's call Tommy and Nikki." Can't wait to start this one. 
  • And later, I'll do the Thunderdome thing when they have an open draw. This should be stupid, potentially awkward, crazy fun.
There. I have now reminded myself why not having many nights to just sit around and watch TV is OK. 


*I have adored this term since Clay used it in our Scriptease/Tantrum show. I needed to give shitload a break.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Trial.

After an e-mail to Pete and a chat with Nikki and Dennis, I think I may have figured out a way into tomorrow night's long-form that doesn't involve a trip through my head.

I've been focusing on pieces of narrative—bits of the story—as I've listened to monologists. Instead, tomorrow night I'm going to listen for four things:
  • Emotions or emotional themes
  • Status contrasts
  • Relationship dynamics
  • Any references whatsoever to animals
There are people in my troupe waaaaay better at bringing smart thematic twists on the stories into the piece without it seeming awkward or forced. So I'm going to let that go and focus on what works for me.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Plotting.

As a community, we’re playing with long-form like a shiny new toy. Troupes are experimenting with forms—from montages and Harolds to more linear pieces. We’re getting a lot right—but I think we’re tripping over a lot of the same things, too. 

As a writer (like a lot of improvisers) I find it incredibly difficult to avoid scripting lines and sometimes scenes in my head. There’s a sort of comfort in figuring out where a piece could go: knowing what the options are, putting some a few story ideas in your back pocket, recognizing a pattern that inevitably will lead to a specific conclusion.

So of COURSE that turns out to be death in a long-form—especially the narrative-driven ones. (By “narrative,” I mean any single form or series of scenes where you’re making an effort to create and follow a story to its conclusion.)

Two of my favorite improv quotes:
Improvisation is the art of being completely OK with not knowing what the fuck you're doing. (Mick Napier)
Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down. (Del Close)
To make narrative long-form work, some of us have to ignore the part of our brains that tell stories. At least for a while.

You know those free-writing exercises? The ones where you just write whatever comes to mind for five minutes or five pages or whatever? And those free-association drills, where you connect one word to others and then others? That’s the way to play the first half of a narrative piece.

Think of it as jumping off a bridge with a bungee cord—you free-fall as far out as you can, and trust that you’ll end up where you need to be.

What’s the fun in bungee jumping with a short rope? If we don’t trust—if we start tying ideas together too quickly or deciding where things should go too early—we take the horrible risk of creating something ordinary. If we choose the story too soon, we’ll spend the whole piece defending that story, and we’ll miss the smarter, better, more creative, more extraordinary story that wants to be told.

It’ll be better because it's the bungee jump off the high cliff. Because it comes from the group. Improv may be the one place where we work smarter by committee. Everyone throws something out there: ideas, characters, reactions, mistakes. The magic happens somewhere in the middle, at that moment when you realize you know exactly what you’re doing—without having any idea where you’re going.

In the end, our writer brains will naturally pull everything together and we’ll end up in a place we couldn’t have imagined. Treat your brain like a bungee-cord, and it’ll take care of you.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Better.

Last night was the first Corbin show that went completely according to the new plan.

OK, well, mostly.

We set the house theater-style instead of cabaret-style, since crowds have been growing. That worked—and the 48-person house looked packed. (The theater will hold up to about 80, so there’s room to grow.)

Bob teched—and man, what a difference. Even though it wasn’t a short-form show—so it didn’t call for sound effects or cutting with music every four minutes or so—having a pro in the booth was huge. He’s got an announcer’s voice and nailed all the cuts—even the edits for Exit 16 kids he’d never watched play.

I got to focus on running the house instead of running back and forth between house and tech. So I was less freaked out when kids were late for call (yeah, we’ll be bumping that back). And maybe not quite as freaked as I would have been otherwise when one of the girls split her head open on a gas meter and two of them headed off to the emergency room (in case there’s any confusion here, let me point out that the freaking was about the head wound, not the show—Bob helped out there, too, by checking the injury with a parent’s eye and sending them off).

With the Exit 16 cast down to three, Babel Fish jumped in and opened the show. Their new format—a version of The Movie—is going to kick some serious butt in Thunderdome. It’s the perfect piece for their new, expanded troupe. They got big laughs and kept the crowd completely engaged. Since a pretty significant part of our audience comes specifically to see their classmates, that’s saying something.

Our ambulance driver got back right before Exit 16 went on, and I couldn’t have been happier with their set. We did scenes instead of games for the first time—a piece we just started rehearsing in prep for the Chicago Teen Comedy Festival—and they attacked every one. They’re used to playing with 12, and they held strong as four.

Scriptease aka Fakers and now Mos Des Fights (insert tagline here) debuted a new piece—their take on the Event. They’d be the first to admit it has lots more potential, but taking general themes from an audience interview is going to be fun and play to their strengths.

None of the ideas that made this show better are new. When we ran Lighten UP, we had really tight control over the whole experience: the theater, concessions, pre-show, house and stage management, all of it. And there was a whole troupe to do it, so we took turns with all the non-stage jobs.

Because we ended up canceling shows regularly before we got the formula down, I’ve been hesitant to ask anyone extra to get involved. Aside from the performers, it didn’t even hit mom-n-pop operation status—just mom. Now I’m comfortable asking for a technical improviser because we can at least do token pay. It’s easier to invite a third troupe because we’re more sure we’ll have an audience for them to play to.

Oh, and, um.

So this Improvisation for the Spirit, book. I haven’t bailed. But chapter 2 requires some serious journaling, so I haven’t had a chance to do it yet. I’m still working on the being present thing, though, and can really see it making a difference. It’s cutting down on my tendency to worry and dwell on things. So, you know, that’s good.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Recess.

I love rehearsal. Maybe even more than shows. 

OK, not more, but differently.

And I've loved it since the first rehearsal with ComedySportz three days after I finished my first class. (Though rehearsals then were a little more stressful: I was young, there were cute boys, and I actually took showers and reapplied makeup before going so I could be at my most adorable.) (I was a nerd. Am a nerd. “Adorable” is relative.)

Anyway.

Of course improv is about the product. Once paying customers get involved, it’s not about art anymore. But in rehearsal, you’re preparing to create the product—and for me, the way to do that is to focus completely on the process.

Rehearsal is the workout. Shows are the big game. Athletes spend the majority of their time practicing; if they can’t stand the drills and scrimmages, they’re going to hate 90 percent of what they do. I’m guessing the happiest, most satisfied athletes get started because they love to play the game—not just because they want the cheering and the trophies at the end. And they remember that even when they’re winning all the time.

In every right-brain/left-brain test I’ve ever taken, I end up smack in the middle. Rehearsal appeals to me because it’s the perfect mix of pure creativity and cold-hearted critique. You’re honing technique. Building muscle memory. Earning trust. You’re pushing your limits, trying new things and taking risks. You have the chance to analyze forms, pick scenes apart and even be in your head that you can’t afford when you’re on stage.

If you do it right, you spend an equal amount of time exhilarated and frustrated. If you never screw up, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. And to really, truly allow yourself to screw up, you have to work hard at playing.

And there’s the fun part.

You get to play. Usually with your friends. You spend 2-3 hours (my ideal is three—because that’s how long it takes to push past the easy stuff) doing what you love with people you like. Sometimes, it’s where you do your best stuff—and a lot of the time, it’s where you laugh the hardest.

When I did this for a living, it sometimes felt like work. But now work is what I do in the office. That’s the place where I sit in meetings in stuffy rooms for hours a day…where I create within the confines of a Powerpoint presentation…where I go because I’m obligated to.

Especially now that it doesn't pay my bills, improv is pure fun. Every single part of it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Impish.

There’s an improv-only theater in Bonner Springs, KS.

Seriously, people. That just gets cooler as you think about it more.

And John, the guy who owns it, is a serious improv geek. (Of course, I mean that in the best way possible.) I got to sit in on his Red Rubber Ball show (and stuck around to watch his two-man show with Keith last night, which kicked some serious ass—they mapped feeding chocolate all the hell over drug and sex addiction).

The Red Rubber ball show was a blast to play. I was up with John, my old friend Don, Nifer, Keith and Patrick; I’ve played with all of them before either in classes or shows, so I was really looking forward to the chance to improvise with them. They made me feel welcome and completely at ease right off the bat. The Roving Imp is like that—the generous, playful vibe there really reminds me that performing isn’t the only reason I love improv.

In the first few months of playing with KC ComedySportz (now ComedyCity), the guys from Chicago came down for a show and workshop. They mentioned that if any of us ever happened to be in Chicago, we should come sit in. Chicago CSz played at the Congress Hotel at the time; I called them just to say I was coming to the show, and they asked me to sit in.

OK. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and they were probably short players that night. But I was a year into improvising and they accepted me without question. They trusted me enough to put me in a show just because I was one of them.

I was an improv fan before, but I think that’s when I officially fell in love.

Lighten Up started running festivals because we wanted the camaraderie ComedySportz teams have. Ours was one of the first national fests, and hit about the time Usenet groups were getting improvisers together online. We started getting to each other at festivals like ours and ImprovStock in Athens and the Big Stinkin’ fest in Austin.

After you do this for a while (uh, say, almost 20 years) it’s easy to forget the feeling of meeting people who get you for maybe the first time. I started doing this when there was no festival circuit…the major troupes in Chicago weren’t mixed and matched…and KC barely had enough improvisers to fill a few troupes, much less a community.

Playing with your own troupe, you get a heightened sense of that trust and camaraderie. But if you ever get a chance to sit in with folks you don’t normally play with, do it. Because making people laugh isn’t the only thing that makes doing this stuff fun.