Thursday, May 28, 2009

Guesswork.

So here’s something new: Teach from a textbook you haven’t read all the way through—after skimming it briefly. (And not even skimming the whole book. Just the first chapter.)

Last night I lead a Viewpoints workshop straight from the book. I spent a long weekend learning some of the technique from Dave Razowsky when I worked with Jill Bernard last fall, but other than that (and a few hours of play at a KC Improv Festival a decade ago), my Viewpoints experience is non-existent.

I used to have to teach straight from books all the time—they were all we had. When Lighten Up got going, my informal motto was, “Use what you know. Learn what you can. Make the rest up as you go along.” (Which I wrote when I was spoofing a Nike ad for a t-shirt.) We set out to learn everything we could from every source possible, including Chicago visits, festivals, intensive workshops, a set of notes from a decades-ago Del Close workshop with the Committee (click "download the notes"—it's totally worth it), and books.

There weren’t many. Impro and Improvisation for the Theater, of course, and Truth In Comedy, when it came out. There were some really mediocre books and some focused mostly on kids’ games. Augusto Boal had some interesting stuff.

But last night, I jumped in at the last minute, and only had time to skim enough exercises to fill a rehearsal. Every now and then, I had to read instructions for exercises straight from the book—others, I was able to guess the intent enough to…um…improvise. After exercises meant to introduce the Viewpoints, we tried some scene starts and scenes, isolating tempo and duration to get a sense of what they felt like. I just adapted some work we’d done with Dave for those.

In teaching like that, I learned as much as I taught. As much as it suuuuuucked not to get to try out the new toys, I got as much trying to figure out why they worked, or didn’t.

The other cool thing: The participants' training, for the most part, was in playing games—with some focus on character and scenic techniques, but much more on the product and what goes up in the show. (We all come from the same place—KC's key provider of the crack on the playground that gets us hooked.) So much of working with Viewpoints feels abstract and strange—and figuring it out together is part of the fun.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Room.

Corey and Monique introduced us to the best worst movie ever made—The Room—after Michael and Amy's wedding. And at the risk of seeming obsessive, which would surprise no one, I will admit to watching it twice this week with two completely different groups.

Night One: With the Imps following Omega Directive
Everyone cracked up after the first line, which reassured me that we didn't all drink it funnier than it really is after the wedding. The little crowd ended up yelling at the screen Rocky Horror Picture Show-style, which is easy, as it turns out, when every scene is either a reprise of dialogue from another scene or completely random. It was like doing a show and watching one at the same time.

Night Two: With the Hallmark Creatives
This one was practically a tweet-up, as all the participants were folks I spend most of the day gossiping back and forth with in 140 characters or less. So when Stacey said, "I'm resisting the temptation to live tweet this," we practically threw her phone to her, knowing it would be as/more hilarious than the movie. The difference between watching with improvisers and watching with writers: the improvisers add their own dialogue—the writers predict the movie's. Emily and Bess (I think I have that right) each said a line seconds before the characters.*

(What the groups had in common: We laughed as much or more at each other as at the movie.)

Sometimes improvisers are quick to blame the audience when a show sucks. They didn't get it...they were dead...they were drunk...whatever. Auteur Tommy Wiseau, who holds monthly screenings of his movie in LA and continues to defend and explain his "meticulous" choices seems to alternate between assuming critics haven't seen or don't get it and accepting the range of reactions: "You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself, but please don’t hurt each other!"

Also, he recommends in the special features that all Americans see it at least twice.

Which I've done...and alarmingly, some of it is making a little more sense. You have to work a little bit harder than an audience member should have to, but you can kind of see the pattern the threads are straining to pull together.

Some audiences want to think. If you're watching interpretative dance, or performance art, or visiting a modern art museum, then yeah...you're expecting to have to put a little of your own thinking into it. Improv audiences just want to yell proctologist, or maybe "dildo." And I've never met any willing to watch "the best worst improv troupe ever."

I feel pressure to wrap this up with a point. I guess it's this: Because there is no justice in the world, it turns out we have to work a lot harder than Tommy for that cult following. We actually have to not suck.


* One of them also named the deeper meaning of the name of the movie: The experience depends on who's in the room when you watch it. Oooh! I'm sure that's really what it means.

*******

Random thought #1: This commercial is just...wrong.

#2: Check the dildo link above, if you already didn't. It's Tantrum's monologist for June 12.

#3: If you design improv posters or websites, these two links have snarky but helpful info. (And many of the reasons why I'm happy Michael, who kicks ass, designs ours and why when I do Corbin stuff, I wimp out and just modify existing templates.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Vote.

Oh, this is far more important than presidential elections.

KC Magazine's nominations for Best of KC are open...and it sure would be nice if an improv group won. So vote for your favorite—or, if you're that kind of objective, vote for the one you really do think does the best work.

It's right here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Go.

We've got our 10. And, as usual, not without controversy.

It finally occurred to me that the primary reason for all the angst is that the kids have to choose between their friends and their troupe—something not even grownups are particularly good at. (I can't begin to tell you how many times I was accused of overlooking a player's flaws because we were friends or dating, or my old business partner let someone really mediocre on stage because he was going out with her.)

With my old troupe, Lighten Up, at least we didn't know the majority of the people auditioning for the group. We judged them entirely on what we saw in three hours of auditions. A lot of the time, these kids know each other, which means they're more or less likely to assume potential based on their other experiences.

Fair or not fair? How does what you do or have done outside the group affect the kind of member you'll be? What do your personal choices off stage say about the ones you'll make on stage? And, as a current member, what do you owe Exit 16...vs. what you owe your friends?

Improvisation is about trust, so I've always assumed part of what you owe the group is loyalty to your fellow players...and that extends to potential players who audition. That may mean cutting them slack, assuming positive intent (to use corporate language), keeping secrets, showing respect. That's part of the reason my posts about the kids may come across as vague sometimes.

(Plus, they're kids.
They make mistakes. I make mistakes. It's part of the way we learn with and from each other.)

Anyway, it was a rough week. That loyalty was stretched—even betrayed—a couple of times in a couple of ways. Ultimately, I did something I've never done before: I left the kids Wednesday night with the final decision unmade. Typically, we make our picks in a meeting at Perkins, then the kids let the new members know they're in.

Because of the weeks' events, I contacted all the new members through email, and posted the final list on Facebook. I made the final call on the way home, alone. But after listening to the passionate discussion and looking at the members' final votes, the decision ended up having almost nothing to do with the smart, talented kids who auditioned, and everything to do with the kids in the troupe.

And, honestly, with how I've felt about coaching them the last year.

I thought about three things as I made the decision about who would join the group next year:
  • What I've learned from auditioning, teaching and directing improvisers since the early '90s, and from coaching Exit 16 for almost a decade.
  • My loyalty to the troupe—not just the kids in it, but its history and its connection to the school.
  • The exhilaration, frustration and exhaustion that came from coaching an incredibly talented, very strong-willed group this year—and the feeling that my grasp on control and discipline has been tenuous, at best.
We could have taken more kids. But ultimately, there will be 10. Why? In no particular order:
  • Because that way, the experienced players will outnumber the newbies by two. There will be more kids who understand the expectations, standards and principles of the group (including the ones we learned right here at the end) than kids who don't.
  • Because they'll only outnumber me 10-1 instead of 12-1.
  • Because they'll get more stage time and attention.
  • Because there are even numbers of girls and guys.
  • Because doing smaller shows at the Corbin has been good for them—and a smaller troupe will make them better faster.
Did we probably miss the chance to get some really smart, talented, funny kids in the group? Yep.

But am I 125% certain we've got the right troupe? Again—yep.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Set...

We had 19 kids audition tonight.

So apparently either relatively few people want to join, or there was very little promotion for auditions. (Or, as one of the kids put it, "Everyone who didn't make it last year hates us." Awesome.) In the past, we've had 30-40 kids.

The kids were mostly sophomores—just a few juniors. We're calling back 11, and will fill 4-6 spots. We may go small this year, just so the kids with experience outnumber the ones without. Who knows...we'll decide all that tomorrow night, in the annual fight.

Each of the kids getting called back got a piece of advice: show more character range, don't fight, show us you can play emotions.

For the ones who didn't get called back—and there was no one who doesn't have some potential—it was mostly about needing to see a little more growth. More maturity, more emotional range, more confidence, more presence. There's not a single one I wouldn't be thrilled to see next year...especially if they spend some time in theater class or forensics. Even sports. Choir. Anything that helps them figure out a little bit more of who they are. You can't improvise when you don't know—and that's asking a lot of a teenager.

Anyway, tonight's discussion was pretty easy. If I said, "I don't think I can help her get better right now" or "I really think I can get more out of him," they listened.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ready...

Tonight, we ran workshops for kids interested in joining Exit 16 next year. Every year, it's a three-step process: Optional workshop, audition, callback.

I think I've said this before: Run enough auditions, play the right games, and you can almost tell by the end of the warm-up who has the best chance of being a good improviser. It's even easier to tell with adults, because they're harder to train—so you can kind of assume you'll see whatever potential for growth they have by the end of a few rounds of go/yes, zip/zap/zop (the version where you let things evolve), and my new favorite, Jill Bernard's Loser Ball.

Tonight's group was fun. All good kids, all smart, all with potential to do nice work. Which, unfortunately, isn't nearly enough to get them into this group. It's complicated math:
  • Exit 16 can have 10-12 members
  • Gender split should be pretty even (this year is 7 girls, 5 guys—we prefer even numbers)
  • We're losing 6 kids (2 guys, 4 girls)
  • We'll have 2 sophomores and 4 seniors next year (3 girls, 3 guys)
Which means:
  • We can take 4-6 kids
  • Even numbers (or close) of girls and guys
  • We need a total of 6 sophomore and juniors, which means 4 more
  • We could take 2 seniors—but only if we take 6 kids total
And the kids we take have to balance the personalities we've got.
  • Chris and Laura can go from straight to quirky to creepy in nothing flat.
  • Elizabeth and Kay play smart, fearless, verbal characters in very different ways.
  • Steven and Garrett commit like crazy to big physical and/or emotional characters.
We're also trying to replace Tim's brains, Allie's versatility, Claire's physicality, Kristie's emotion, Amy's playfulness and Aron's presence. Which we won't do.

But we'll get six more kids who kick butt in ways we won't even be able to imagine at the end of the next few days. I can't wait to meet them.




Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My Uncle Bo.

I’ve had two glasses of wine, which allows me to talk without filters and use this blog for exactly what I didn’t mean to use it for.

I have this uncle I haven’t talked to in a long time, because I thought I’d have more time. Which it turns out I don’t.

He’s one of the first really, really funny people I ever knew. He’s got a dark, sarcastic sense of humor that never crosses over into mean-spiritedness. (OK. Maybe a little. But only when truly called for.) When I was little, I called him “Fish” because he reminded me of Abe Vigoda—which means Mr. Vigoda’s appearances on Conan have a specially, completely different meaning to me.

Of my mom’s four brothers, he’s apparently the most like the grandfather I never met—and would apparently have had wrapped around my finger, mostly because tall, bald dudes with darkly sarcastic senses of humor did not freak me out when I was little. (Probably because I didn’t get it.)

We spent lots of time at his house. In the basement/playroom, shooting hoops (badly, badly, badly) on his patio, sitting on the fireplace in the den, on the sunporch. Of all the uncles, it’s just his house that I know the way around.

He gave me shit before I knew what that meant. And was one of the people who taught me to give it back. Considering the fact that this sort of playful antagonism defines a great majority of my relationships, that’s a pretty big gift.

Damn it.