Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cut to...

This post reminded me I have mixed feelings about the movie edit and scene painting.

Quick definitions (as I know them—improvisers do and describe this stuff a million ways, so my understanding might not match yours):
  • In a "movie edit," a player ends a scene by stepping on stage and describing the scene transition as you might see it described on a storyboard. Example: "Cut to a park bench on a secluded stretch of path" or, fancier, "Freeze: The shot tightens on his outstretched hand, and we match-cut to the outstretched hand of ..."
  • Scene painting is part of the movie edit—in it, a player describes the physical aspects of a scene, creating a "set" for the players to walk on to or providing wardrobe or special effects.
The movie edit might influence the narrative of a piece—it can return players to a scene or initiate an action. Scene painting should heighten or clarify the scene‚ but it's a description of the environment, not the action or the story.

A few years ago, my kids saw scene-painting in a show in Chicago. Talk about crack on a playground...they could NOT. STOP. DOING. IT.

The main reason: For new improvisers, time off stage is time wasted. High school improvisers, (more than any others, I think) fight their craving for attention (not to mention their almost non-existent attention spans) every time they're "stuck" on the backup line.

Given the chance to scene paint, they're all in. Before we were three lines into a scene, they'd turned its characters into robots or historical figures or stereotypes, filled the environment with bizarre props, and hinted strongly what would happen next.*

On the plus side, they were working important improv muscles. When you're on the backup line, you should be active (Joe Bill says "toes, not heels"), alert, ready to add when needed.

In the minus column, n00bs** have very little sense of what "when needed" means. What it feels like is "when I have an idea." Which, when you're thinking really hard about ways you could "help" is ALL THE FREAKING TIME.

Del Close, the guy who invented the Harold and developed the Movie, said this:
1. You are all supporting actors.
2. Always check your impulses.
3. Never enter a scene unless you are needed.
One of the hardest things about improvising long-form is knowing the difference between "having an idea" (the impulse you're checking) and "heightening the scene" (what you're supporting, not creating). This is the key, I think (from one of Del's student's notes):
"Notice." Not "think." Not "try to figure out." Notice. It sounds a little passive. But think about the best scenes you've ever been in: the ones where it feels like your next line or move is handed to you on a silver platter. You weren't thinking or trying or worrying or wondering. You just had to notice that you were needed, and do the thing the scene required.

Getting myself to that state—where I'm discovering rather than inventing—is the reason I keep studying. Because it sure as hell doesn't come naturally.

*I have painted more people into tube tops than I care to confess. Mostly, to my eternal shame, because the word "tube top" gets a laugh.

**I should point out that, as much as my posts may come across as blow-hardy and mean-spirited sometimes, I do love the improv n00bs—and envy them. This stuff is really, really fun when it's new and you're not super-opinionated.

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