Monday, July 6, 2009


So a few weeks ago, Nikki & I went to the Twin Cities Improv Festival and, along with seeing some kick-ass shows, took two classes from Bill Arnett.

(If I was better at tagging, I'd remember if I'd talked about this first part before.)

How I Take Festival Classes: An Approach Developed Over 19 Years: I'm long past the days of instructor/theory collecting. When I started, I was shooting for variety: I signed up for workshops with as many instructors from as many schools and cities as possible to see what techniques clicked. Three-hour samplers are great for exposing you to the main principles of a school of thought. Now I want maximum feedback, so I tend to either take multiple classes with single instructor or repeat classes with someone I've worked with before. The benefits:
  • You get more information about that instructor's theory, because their classes usually give you different pieces of the same puzzle.
  • You get better feedback, either because the instructors watch you longer and gets a sense of your fall-backs and patterns, or because they get more comfortable with you and can be more direct.
  • There's no way you're going to get good at a technique by doing it one time in one workshop—that's why improv classes are usually 6-8 weeks long. Ever do yoga? You do the same poses over and over, going deeper, feeling stronger, becoming more aware of how different muscles move. Same with improv exercises.
It's that last point I'm particularly excited about. Over the last couple of weeks, I got to:
  • Take Bill's classes about creating characters with point of view and playing it real.
  • Working with Nikki, try the exercises out on Tantrum.
  • Do the same/similar exercises in tonight's class at the Roving Imp (John studied with Bill in Chicago).
When people ask (as a Hallmark intern did today) how you rehearse improv, one of the answers is "You work on new ways to create characters." So far, roughly, I've learned about characters from the following (with dramatically oversimplified explanations):
  • Annoyance: How you do what you do is who you are. Characters are created physically, emotionally and verbally.
  • Jill Bernard: VAPAPO (Voice/ Attitude/ Posture/ Animal/ Prop/ Obsession).
  • iO: Different takes on playing real people in real situations and playing truthfully and close to yourself.
  • Michael Gellman/Second City: Spolin-based, reality-driven work.
  • Dave Razowsky/Viewpoints: Movement-based work.
  • Various work on status influenced by Keith Johnstone, body tension work with Hilary Chaplain, and stuff I've picked up from books.
Some of the theories at least seem contradict each other. Annoyance says take care of yourself first; Second City says make your partner look good. (For how it all looks different, read this blog entry by Bill Arnett.) In Viewpoints work, you make physical choices; in status work, you decide where you are on the ladder compared to your scene partner. Some schools encourage you to be weird and playful, others teach you how to play characters not much different from yourself.

And the great thing is, they're all right.

The reason I'm a workshop junkie is that it's impossible for me to commit an approach to memory if I don't do it more than once. I want to be the mechanic in the garage who can find a wrench in the toolbox without looking—I just reach out, and the right tool is there.

Which is why beginning and multi-level classes rock. Chances are good that I've done an exercise before, so I can layer something else on—thinking about Viewpoints topography (the map you create as you move through the space) when we're doing a character walk (physicalizing a character), or working on playing close to myself as we practice a long-form.

So two weeks of revisiting the same exercises and theory has been super-fun. In Bill's classes, we messed around with the idea of how a real person deals with an absurd character—he gave us permission to call out the crazy, change the subject, leave the room, fire the nut-job.

That was a new toy for me. I've always struggled with playing close to myself, because I've heard different versions of "why would someone pay to watch someone be normal" since I started doing this. But something finally clicked in this workshop. Playing close to myself isn't the same as playing me. What I got out of Bill's class:
  • I can react like a normal person would act if s/he is telling the truth—but better. No compulsion to be polite or passive-aggressive.
  • It keeps me in the moment—being real with an absurd character means letting everything s/he says affect me.
  • I really don't have to think about making anything interesting happen—all I have to do is notice how what they're doing makes me feel.
I've heard different versions of all of this stuff before, but Bill's exercises and feedback and his teaching style really hit home for me. The first class introduced the idea; the second sold me on the theory.

It's not something I'll use in every scene or even every show or with every troupe. But it's another tool in the box, and a chance to work it repeatedly for a couple of weeks means it's a little more likely that when I reach for it, it'll be right there.


  1. Way to change the subject. Right when things were getting good. Sheesh.

  2. I figured I'd actually talk about theory instead of bitching about people not talking about theory.

  3. Also, between the original post and your comment, I added some more shit to it. You're speedy. If you want to argue more, though, I completely understand if you want to go back to the comments section of the other post.

  4. I actually didn't read this post. I just thought you were trying to change the subject.

    I'll go back and read it.

  5. You only skim my stuff. Admit it.

    I don't blame you. I'm kinda long winded.


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