Sunday, January 31, 2010

Last week and this one.

Rambling about last week...

Spite stuff
After a fun rehearsal/planning session, we were really excited to get back on stage together again. The Roving Imp—as we knew it would—has the most welcoming vibe in the world. The One cast put on an amazing show; they're ensemble is seriously playful and smart, and they didn't miss anything. Our set felt a little...off. Odd. Whatever. We didn't feel as connected as we like to.

Nikki figured it out—we didn't make our standard pre-show promise/threat. So at the Fishtank for KCXRC, we made sure to cover that—and tried a short, Spolin-inspired warm-up that felt really, really good. The set was a fun one.

Also, at the Fishtank
Erik Johnson and I book-ended the January KCXRC schedule with beejay. The Saturday night show, once again, felt great. Our improv backgrounds are pretty different, but we agree that they complement each other. Not sure what's next for beejay—but these two shows have been a blast.

And we got to bring our Thunderdome gang, Team Number 9, back for one last show. Keith Curtis filled in for Steve, and we played another round of Freeze Tag. It was a fun, fluffy little set.

And out in Bonner Springs
Wednesday night was one of our last few rehearsals with Olive Juice before they compete in Thunderdome. We waited until this week to come up with a format, just to get a sense of the way Nifer, Julie and Chanté play with each other; the result mixes some iO, some Viewpoints and some Jill Bernard. They played around with some of the techniques we've worked in the Imp early show on Friday, and there was gleeful clapping. The girls are eff you en to work with—I'm really looking forward to the Olive Juice/Spite chick shows coming in March and April.

Omega Directive rehearsed Thursday for the first time in months. We're really simplifying our show structure; now it's just two different frameworks for scenes, and I love it. The only down-side: I screwed up my calendar, so I missed playing with them on Saturday. Next month, dammit.

Oh, and...
After two years of Peggy begging and pleading with me to do cardio, I finally started running. I missed a couple of days last week and took today off because my arms are so freaking sore I can barely lift them. Yes: My. ARMS. Apparently moving them back and forth when you run is part of what makes it such a good workout. Running 5K on Friday and 2 miles on Saturday—then throwing in some pretty hard-core upper body stuff in our small group on Saturday—did me in.

But it's back on the treadmill tomorrow—because Spite is running a 5K in March. WTF.

Coming this week
Exit 16 on Tuesday. Olive Juice on Wednesday. And a benefit for Haiti by KC Crossroads Comedy on Saturday. I'll be in the tech booth. The kids will be on stage with their alter-egos, Some Technical Difficulties.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

There's no "I" in "improv"

Some of the best improvisers I know have the tiniest egos.

In his Second City boot camp classes, Michael Gellman teaches you first to focus out. iO theory teaches you to treat others like geniuses and artists. Even Annoyance theory, which insists that you take care of yourself first, isn't encouraging ego—it encourages confidence, and making sure you contribute to the scene.

This was all reinforced recently, when I saw TJ & Dave in their new documentary "Trust Us, This Is All Made Up." (Which, I can tell you, you will get more out of every time you watch it.) They heap praise on each other, and can't believe their good fortune in performing with someone as talented as their scene partner.

Talk to anyone who's studied in Chicago, and they'll tell you it's the students and the improvisers clawing their way to the top who are the snotty assholes who won't talk to newbies. The experienced players—the ones you go there to watch or study with—are the kindest, most gracious ones.

It's kind of funny to watch improvisers thrown into Hollywood. Watch Tina Fey or Steve Carell or Jack McBrayer on an awards or talk show. The only time they show any ego is when they're in character.

Look at the leaders in our own community and you'll see the same thing. They're holding themselves to the highest standard—and they're their own harshest and most vocal critics when they don't reach it. They're modest to a fault—getting them to promote their own shows is like pulling teeth, because they hate the idea of bugging people to come watch them. Civilians are surprised to hear that the funniest improvisers are typically introverts—in both the usual understanding of the word (shy and self-conscious) and by the Myers-Briggs definition (being around others, especially as the center of attention, exhausts them).

Why do I find this so crazily appealing, or feel the need to write about it?

Maybe it's realizing the folks I have the most fun with are the ones who still, after all these years, are the most excited about learning new things. Or because I was lucky enough to spend the night hanging out with the ladies of Olive Juice at the Roving Imp—where generosity of spirit oozes out of the walls. Maybe it's because of my Christian upbringing (pride is one of the big sins). Or coming of age in the modest, self-deprecating Midwest.

Or maybe it's because I struggle with ego. You have to be confident enough to get on stage—but not so confident you irritate the fuck out of everyone around you. Bold enough to ask people to come see you—but not cocky enough that you take it for granted. Self-aware enough to know you have some talent—and to be realistic about how much (or how little).

It's a fine line, and not an easy one to walk.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Taking a ride

Quickly, and briefly, before I forget it all:

At Spite rehearsal, after our usual malicious gossip and 1.5 bottles of wine, I imagine I wasn't the only one wondering how to make a graceful transition into doing scenes. We'd been talking about funky theater shit we loved doing, and it occurred to me I had a CD of Viola Spolin narrating a space walk.

So we did it.

What we learned:
  • In true soft focus, you can practically see behind yourself.
  • If you touch and allow yourself to be touched, or see and allow yourself to be seen, your awareness expands exponentially.
  • The chair on the left, though practically identical to the chair on the right, is much goofier.
  • You can see without really seeing, and we do it way too often.
As I've mentioned, part of the joy of playing with multiple troupes is discovering what I get out of each one. And I think maybe I'm realizing that it really is about discovering, not deciding. If I go into a project with expectations, they're rarely met; but if I just play, I'm likely to find something wonderful.

The Spite girls want to push ourselves to try new things (in fact, we came up with a list to inspire this year's promotions, and it may just involve a painful, well-documented trip to an esthetician). I think we realized tonight that we're all pretty cool with geeky, hard-core, abstract theater and improv exercises.

Can't wait to play this weekend. Two shows—one Friday at the Imp, and one Saturday at the Fishtank. Small, intimate spaces with friendly crowds. Should be just right for us.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why I love Freeze Tag

Team #9 decided to play our full set as a game of Freeze Tag at the most recent Thunderdome. We've gotten mixed reviews—from "I loved it" to "I can't believe you played Freeze Tag for 30 effing minutes" to "I wish you'd opened it up more so you could pursue some of the scenes further."

Playing Freeze Tag was a 180 from our set in the last round of Thunderdome—a stylized Twilight Zone-inspired piece. Steve set it up in hard-core ComedyCity mode—establishing that we'd play it as a rapid-fire one-liner game (they call it Body Freeze). We did a few rounds of one-liners, justifying the position and moving on, then kicked into longer, relationship-driven scenes.

Improvisers I have known give me relentless shit about my love of Freeze Tag. It kills me to see it played as a one-liner game—Freeze! Say something funny to justify the position! Barely move at all and freeze again! Repeat!—because if you play it right, it can get you completely out of your head and inspire great scenes with rich characters, emotional relationships and detailed object and environment work.

Here's how: Read up on Viewpoints.
  • The distance between you and your scene partner is your spacial relationship. It tells you your status...who you are to each other...what kind of tension exists in your relationship.
  • Your partner's position is her shape. It can tell you her emotion and her status and so much more. We usually name the activity—which is the least important piece of information of all. (Annoyance theory: How you do what you do is who you are.)
  • Your own shape can also inspire your gesture—and the start of what you're doing. Instead of naming your own activity right at the start, begin it. Figure out why you're doing it.
Ages ago, I saw a list of hack Freeze moves online. I can't find it now, but it included:
  • Dancing, martial arts and exercise
  • Teaching anyone to do anything
  • Super-gluing anything to anything
  • Quotes from TV, movies or other pop-culture references
In each of those, the scene is about what you're doing, not how or why you're doing it. Fine for a quick laugh—maaaabye—but not to build a scene.

Freeze Tag is a microcosm of all improv teaching. Freeze Tag can be used for good or evil. Freeze Tag can save your soul.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Aaaand we're back, with Michael Byars.

Tantrum is back, after...wow. We've been off since EARLY NOVEMBER, people.

Friday's show should be fun.

Michael Byars, KCUR Morning Edition host (if you listen to KCUR, you know the time and temperature in his voice) and PresentMagazine.com music dude, joined us at rehearsal tonight to prep for the show (This Friday! At the Westport Coffeehouse! At 8pm!).

We get varying reactions to warmups by our guest monologists. Some find them even tougher than doing the show—others dive right in. Michael was a diver. He passed the Ball of Emotion. He sang backup in Musical Hot Spot. He got weird in the game Jill taught us.

We love him already.

We zipped through our piece, with him telling stories and us doing scenes. We were definitely playful—which is what I love best about Tantrum—even though in the run-through we didn't really hit any meaty scenes. So Pete ran us through some more focused scenework exercises at the end.

Every group I play with means something different to me. Tantrum was the first troupe I really felt like part of after Lighten Up/Funny Outfit. I love the group's energy and how such different people play off each other. I love that we can have radically different views about improv and life and the ways that makes us stronger. I love the close-to-even girl/guy ratio and the range of experiences we bring to the stage.

And right now, I love the fact that we get to play again this weekend.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

P.S. Interesting thoughts from the creator of long form

If you haven't already, download these notes from Del's classes and read them. Joey Novick—the guy who typed them up because his originals were faded—originally gave them to Marc and me. When we invited Del to a festival, Joey came, too...bringing things nicely full circle. In his intro, Joey talks about the piece they did. Joey has the Bible they used in the show; I have the one Del stole from his own room.

Anyway, I've skipped around some. You'll find this idea starting seven pages in:
If the mind is in the way, all we are going to get is ideas. ... So, if you use your insular, private wig to invent, concoct brand new solutions and responses, what's likely to happen? ... Thought, too much thought, is a ruiner.
Yeah, I over-think things off stage. But my goal is always to not over-think in scenes. Another thing I liked, from an article by a guy in Del's Committee workshops:
"I tell Close he has taught me much. He replied that I've still got so much to learn it's ridiculous to look back yet."
Specific exercises and techniques start on page 41.

Part II: Form following function...or, you know, not.

Explanations, continued from this post about why I think troupes waste a lot of energy "creating" "new" "forms":

The audience doesn't care.

People who do things every day get bored way before the people who watch the things we do.

Want an example? Watch how quickly some companies switch advertising campaigns. You won't, of course, remember the companies that do it because their campaigns never sink in. Marketing departments get bored and agencies change teams or creative directors (or get bored) and they change out campaigns just as they're building awareness and maybe starting to work. Brands with patience and commitment—Nike, All State, McDonald's—actually create something memorable.

iO is known for the Harold. They play with other forms, of course—Del encouraged it—but their training still starts with Harold and you can see different teams perform it every week.

Same thing with Theatresports. And ComedySportz. They're all sought out for their signature forms.

They're not really new.

The first Harold was performed in 1967. A troupe could spend years simply exploring the forms that already exist.

But that's not exciting enough, so we rework an opening (or just leave it off), change out some edits, apply a genre and call it a new form.

There's nothing wrong with doing that, of course. But we're customizing—not inventing.

They're not really "forms."

I've heard Jill talk about this, and I agree. "Form" implies structure—some sort of organization or arrangement of elements or system created to serve a purpose. Tacking an an opening on a montage of scenes creates no more of a "structure" than putting a door frame in front of a pile of bricks creates a "house."

Last night during intermission at KC Crossroads Comedy's premiere, Erik asked Aron how Improv-Abilities came up with the approach to their set. Aron said they consider two things: what they're interested in doing as improvisers and what they want to accomplish with the piece.

That second thing is just as important as the first—but we don't always act like that's true.

We don't fully use all those techniques we're shuffling around.

At iO, students know the Harold inside out. They learn it, get frustrated with it, play around with it and understand it before they start fucking with it.

Do we spend enough time exploring different ways to pull themes and patterns out of stories and monologues or openings? If we don't, we've wasted content and time doing them in the first place.

Do we understand the pitfalls of narrative structures...how to avoid playwriting, different ways to initiate time dashes, varying approaches to the game of the scene?

Do we play enough as a team, exploring the different ways you can take advantage of a 2- or 3- or 7- or 12-person troupe?

Do we work on basic scenework...relationships, walk-ons/throughs, game moves, characters, emotions?

Or do we burn time and energy in rehearsals serving the development of a "form" that doesn't serve the improvisers or the audience?

*********

So...um...why does all this matter? To me, there are a few reasons: Respect for the craft. Knowledge = power. And, you know, why reinvent the wheel? To invent something new, it helps to know what already exists.

I warned at the beginning that some of this might sound judge-y. As I wrap it up, I want to reiterate that, though some of it is, it's aimed as much at me as anyone. I play regularly in four groups and coach one—along with some new and short-term projects—so I have lots of opportunities to either be a total hypocrite or try to make things better. Or to just decide "it is what it is" and enjoy whatever it is we've decided to do with our shows.

Part I: Form following function...or, you know, not.

These next couple of entries, because they're observations filtered through opinion and experience, may come across as judge-y. They probably are. But it's not a mean-spirited judge-y. So a little context...

When Marc and I started Lighten Up in 1992, I had one year of experience with KC ComedySportz (now ComedyCity). I learned basic improv from the very talented Barry Schreier and by playing with folks like Corey Rittmaster and Rob Lawrence. I learned showmanship from Clancy Hathaway. We wanted more, and hooked into a relatively new Chicago improv scene to get it.

In 1993, Lighten Up was one of the few places outside of Chicago where anyone had heard of long-form—much less performed it. We took workshops from Del Close and Charna Halpern, and brought them and their students to our festivals to teach us more. They were about to publish Truth In Comedy, documenting their signature Harold, and iO—still under Del's artistic direction—was playing with Harold variations and new forms. (See here for early notes from Del's exploration of long-form—they're about all we had to work from until we saw a live performance.)

*******

For short-form players, it's games. You join or start a troupe, play a standard set list, and start craving something new or different...so you go to festivals, read books and search online for new games. Or you come up with different ones, invariably assuming you've created something brand new when, in fact, you've just "created" blind dubbing.

A couple of decades ago (Yep—writing that did make me feel old. Just checking.) most long-form players started with Harold. It was the long-form equivalent of Freeze (Freeze Tag, Body Freeze, whatever) or Conducted Story (Story, Story—DIE)...you just kind of assumed that anyone who knew improv knew Harold. In its most basic form, it's a pretty comprehensive training tool, too (this is a really good description):
  • Various openings (stop and go, invocation, pattern games) teach players to listen for and heighten patterns and themes.
  • Beats (sets of scenes) teach time jumps—you learn to uncover the narrative without forcing the story.
  • Games (group scenes) teach you how to support, heighten and discover as a group.
  • The Harold itself is a lesson in creating forms—each element serves a purpose in support of the whole.
But Harold isn't easy. Unless you've seen it, teaching it (as I found out with Lighten Up, and later with Exit 16) can be like handing someone a pile of car parts and a description of what a car does and saying "go."

So we're just as likely to start with montages—separate scenes or time jumps, held together by different edits. They're easy, they're fun...and they're not particularly challenging. Because of that, I think, we tend to pump a lot of energy into "creating" new "forms" to keep us from getting bored and in hopes of differentiating our work from other groups.

You know way back at the beginning where I said I might sound judge-y?

Here's why I think, for the most part, that most of the energy we put into new forms is wasted:
  • The audience doesn't care.
  • They're not really new.
  • They're not really "forms."
  • We don't fully use all those techniques we're shuffling around.
Further explanations next post, because this is, as usual, pushing TLDR limits.

********

I think I've finally hit on why I sometimes get impatient with the state of long-form in KC—and it's not just that "back in my day things were different." It's thrilling to see the community growing and developing, and I love playing with Tantrum, Spite, Omega Directive and beejay...but I just had a little wave of nostalgia for the "older group" in Lighten Up I learned all this with (in particular, Bob, Dan, Tim, Steve, Tracy, Julie, Paul, Carla, Guy and Jeff).

Between the Usenet group (alt.comedy.improvisation) and early yesand.com, discussions at early festivals (Big Stinkin' in Austin, ImprovStock in Athens and our own Spontaneous Combustion), and exploration with the folks in Lighten Up, I feel like I've already been through what KC is going through now. Like everyone else, I want something new and different.