Thursday, February 26, 2009


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. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this post, but I am having a hard time putting it into words...
    It is something having to do with safety. Safety for the audience from the players, and safety for the players themselves.
    If the players don't feel 'safe' from the other players, then there is no way for them to feel comfortable enough to actually make those 'out of head' decisions.
    I dunno, I hope that makes sense...


New rule: I'm not approving anonymous comments. If you want to sit at the grownup table, you have to sign your name.

Now c'mon. Pick a fight.