Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lunch hour brain dump.

So Hallmark brings in terrific outside thinkers—marketing folks, artists, branding experts, writers, even improvisers—to tell us what inspires them and share what’s new in the outside world.

Today, it was Jason Rohrer. From an article in Esquire:

A naked kid and a freakishly tall man walk in a meadow. The meadow is their front yard. It pokes up from among the sheared lawns of upstate New York's Route 11B like a Mohawk, purposeful and defiant. The kid's hair is long and blond and, on first glance, feminine. He wears orange rain boots, his uncircumcised penis free in the breeze. The tall man wears military-style cargo pants and a red T-shirt that says MONTREAL INTERNATIONAL GAME SUMMIT. He's barefoot. His dirty-blond hair is spiky from not showering.

(I assume he showered before coming here, but was far enough back in the crowd that I can’t be absolutely certain.)

He’s a video game programmer whose most famous game, Passage, presents a lesson in mortality in five minutes. I downloaded it for my iPhone while he was talking and played it at my desk—and though it didn’t make me cry, a lot of what he said got me thinking.

To sum up: There’s a lot of discussion in the video game world about whether it can be art. They’re compared to movies as if that’s the standard—if a video game seems almost like a movie, that must be good, right?

His definition of “art” is tight enough to mean something but “weak” (his word) enough to open up the discussion (paraphrasing, here): Art explores the human condition, leads you to insights about your life and the world around you, and makes you think about it after you’ve experienced it.

He wonders why video games should want to be movies when they grow up—why they can’t be their own thing. Why would you want to invent a movie? They already exist.

Talking to my friend Amy on the way back from his chat, we both admitted that Hallmark’s creative resources are often just as inspiring to us in our outside worlds as they are at work. In our day jobs, we’re cogs in a much bigger machine, so our contributions can keep things moving—even influence the direction they go in—but we’re not big or strong enough to affect holistic change.

But in my improv life (and in her jewelry-making world, Applescraps), I can change things. Whether it’s bringing an idea to a group or adjusting the way I communicate or deciding what kind of projects I want to be involved in, I can use new information immediately.

And I want to do something with this idea of not trying to be something that already exists.

For our show, Erik and I have talked a little bit about more theatrical work—something beyond toilet-paper, something worth writing down. OK, hang on…

A quick aside to say I’m past the days of any interest in self-indulgent experiments with art-for-art’s sake. Improvisation, as I use it, is about entertainment—that means it should offer SOMETHING to an audience. And if it’s advertised as a “comedy” performance, that something should be laughter. But I think there’s a middle ground between trying to put on a show that makes a statement and playing Spelling Bee.

…and we’re back. Now I’m interested in pushing in a different direction. There are folks who take “that scene was so good it seemed like it was scripted” as the best improv compliment you can give or get.   

But if what we’re doing is improvised, that means it can be affected—from moment to moment, scene to scene—by everything. The audience. The environment. The mood. We talk about that a lot in terms of work within the scene, but not the form or the show itself.

The closest we get here (there’s more organic work going on in other cities) is suggestion-heavy, audience-participation driven shows. But is there something else? Something that taps into the energy of the room and the space and the crowd?

How do you create work that truly exists only on that night, for those people?  

OK. Lunch hour’s over. Time to get back to work. 


  1. Great. I check in on your blog, and now I'm even more devastated for missing the game guy. :(

    Oooh, I bet they taped it though. :)

    I got a little confused there for a minute...you did NOT compare what you guys create to toilet paper? Did you? I hope not. Because then I'd have to smack you. I really will--you are in improv, so you can handle that physical stuff :D I think I misread it though.

    I *have* sometimes felt that the characters you, personally, create, are so good that they seem scripted. As someone who has to work very hard and plan and plan to come up with believable, well-rounded characters, well, I find it a little annoying, frankly.

    Sometimes improv is better than what could have been scripted, right? The jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was a composer as well as an improviser, said that about some of their late-night jazz sessions, in Kansas City way back when. I think she did anyway.

  2. PS And I'm referring most specifically to your character who walked into the morgue, having killed someone, if you remember her. I certainly do...

  3. Bryn: Totally worth checking out his tape.

    And...um...yeah. Toilet paper. Use it once and it's done. Mostly it's an inelegant way of helping us appreciate the wonderful moments where everything comes together and let go of the crap.

    I think some improv is better than some scripted work—but it seems kind of unfair, because the standards are different. Audience expectations are relatively low, and post-show picking apart is kinda difficult unless you're watching tape. You can't really compare the performance to a script, or the way someone plays a character to another actor's take...

    I do remember the morgue scene, though. And it was fun for all the reasons I love this stuff—it was in the moment and built second-by-second based on scene partners' actions and reactions, happy accidents and audience reactions (including the awesome laugh coming from the first couple of rows) (that would be you).


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