Improv 201 class starts 9/16. So excited!
Improv 201 class starts 9/16. So excited!
Over lunch today, I had a great conversation with a fellow Scrum Master at the office. We chatted about the similarities and differences between improv comedy and improved musical performances. More alike than different of course. I’d argue like most things in life.
At the improv jam tonight, the facilitator Andrew Morgan gave the group some pointers throughout our time together. One of them was to increase the intensity of the scene as it went on. Not so much in terms of volume or crazy antics but more in terms of raising the stakes.
I recently wrote my first comedy sketch. It’s not perfect, but I’m proud of it. Been something I’ve wanted to do for a while and it feels nice to get it out of my head and out into the world. It’s a five minute scene (ballpark) about someone who works in a corporate office. I asked some people for feedback on it, and I got a similar bit of advice.
A funny person I know said (paraphrasing), try to get the character closer to what they want in each interaction, and then right when he’s about to get what he wants, take it away. Then do that again and again. Each time increase the reasons he can’t get what he wants in terms of improbability or absurdity.
I’m a Star Wars nerd. Ever since A New Hope came out when I was 5, it’s played a part in my life. On the way home from the theatre, my dad ruminated and asked “how did they do that”?
I didn’t realize that what we just experienced wasn’t real or maybe I did on some level, but I had suspended my disbelief 100%. I asked how did who do what? He said it must be someones job to tell the story and make the special effects.
Since then when people asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, the answer was “make Star Wars movies”. I didn’t know how or what specifically until later.
I don’t love every Star Wars movie now that I’m older. But I really enjoyed The Last Jedi . One of the reasons I liked it so much (spoilers) was Rey’s backstory. She’s not a “chosen one”; her coming isn’t prophetic. I listened to a podcast with the writer/director where he talked about why he made the choice for her backstory. He said it was because (paraphrasing again) that it would be the hardest thing for her to hear and deal with.
I heard another podcast recently that taught me more about writing than anything I’ve read before. I fall victim to embracing a structure. This should happen at page X, that should happen at page Y, at the bottom of the Harmon Story Circle is where you do the plot twist. The podcast talked about why those things tend to happen at those specific intervals. The transcript is here.
In this podcast Craig Mazin says:
What you write is an ironic disruption of stasis. Ironic as in a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts that is, and hear me out, genetically engineered to break your character’s soul.
In my previous life as an animator, all these things ring true as well. It’s all narrative after all. Be clear, have status exchanges, raise the stakes, make the character struggle.
People love good characters because they change based on the obstacles they face in order to get what they want/need. As a writer we get to be mean. We purposefully put these obstacles in their way to knock them back to where they started.
It’s kinda fun to be mean.
I now understand that this works in all forms of storytelling; comedic sketches, film, and in the moment of improvisation on the stage. Maybe in standup too? Perhaps even the reverse is true in the narratives we tell when we are building software via User Stories and Journey Maps. Reduce User Pain, make more enjoyable experiences. But that’s another post.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. - Maya Angelou
This quote came across my radar again and it’s been working away at me in the background all day today. At work I’m focusing on coaching to help people get past limits and anything that blocks them. At play I focus on making people laugh through improv and comedy writing. I’m new to the writing part and I haven’t fully articulated my goals with that. However it’s along the lines of noting our differences so that people understand we aren’t that different after all.
I’m hoping people remember that I made them feel that challenges truly are opportunities and I made them laugh along the way. To be connected to themselves and to the rest of the world, I suppose.
Yesterday, I wrote about the I and the Self. I’ve expanded a bit on that thinking and feel like I missed a third mind in my original post. Let me clarify and introduce mind number three.
The personality. What you’ve grown to like, your preferences. Your strengths, weaknesses and communication styles. You tastes, sense of humor. The self you describe when you meet people, the words you write on your social media bios. This is shaped by external forces, I believe. This is the mind that “witnesses” your life, as Pete Holmes says. Witness the life you are living with feeling and observation. It’s the I in the “I don’t like myself when …”.
The raw self. The thing that is most connected to the Divine (however that resonates with you, God, life-force, creativity; you pick). The raw human well of creativity and connection. What takes over when you are in flow. Or meditate. Or are surrounded by nature. Or when you’re doing a repetitive physical task and you “lose yourself”. Connecting to this mind is what really creative people are good at.
Introducing mind number three, the Monkey mind. The chatter from learned behavior. All of our self doubt and loathing. Delusions of grandeur. Etc. It’s the mind that is literally telling me right now that no one will ever read this, and if they do they’ll hate it, so why bother. This mind can be so unkind to ourselves.
I think that’s my current understanding of my three minds. There’s overlap and a shared space in consciousness. When I perform Improv, I need my personality mind and raw-self mind to collaborate to spark my own creativity, for example.
I don’t quite now how to end this post at the moment, but my monkey mind is screaming at me to go watch Stranger Things, Season 3. To go to a warm safe place that doesn’t require all this thinking and exploration as that is not safe. Monkey mind / lizard brian wins at this point. I’ll have more tomorrow.
Improv Open Jam! Thursday July 11th! Free! Portsmouth NH / Kittery ME and all points around and near. www.eventbrite.com/e/improv-…
I came across the parable of the two wolves via Eric Zimmer’s appearance on David Kadavy’s podcast.
Eric describes the parable as such:
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at battle. One is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery, and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred, and fear. The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?” The grandfather quietly replies, “The one you feed.”
Seems to me the one that wins is the one that you give your attention to. This is right in-line with what I’m reading in Why Buddhism Is True and The Obstacle is the Way. The former is a book about Buddhism, mindfulness practices, and how our brains have evolved. The later is about the Stoics, and how their writings from thousands of years ago apply to the present day.
Both seem to point to the modern practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I’ve never gone to a Therapist, so I may be speaking completely out of turn here. But I’m seeing correlations in all of these topics (including the ‘being present’ focus of Improv as well).
On that podcast Eric also mentioned that it’s not about caging or killing the bad wolf. I’m paraphrasing that. Seems like it exists in all of us, and from what I’ve read in the texts mentioned above The Bad Wolf is the Monkey Mind. That sometimes unkind chattering in the background of our minds.
You can’t stop feeling a particular emotion, or thinking a thought in your subconscious. Acknowledge it, label the emotion, and choose to act in a way that is not harmful to self or others.
There’s something in this overlap of the Venn diagram that I’m very interested in for exploration. On a “crawl, walk, run” scale, I’m certainly crawling here, and I am striving to be running with the good wolf.
Easily accessable from Northern Mass, the Seacoast of NH and Southern Maine. Join us. I’m going to “Improv Open Jam! June 6th”. See you there? www.eventbrite.com/e/improv-…
Overheard at tonight’s improv jam:
You’re going to have to have some kind of pirate divorce
But it’s really just been sitting there. Sometimes doing the above, in part but never in full. It’s not the websites fault. It’s mine. And really it’s not a fault. I’ve bitten off more than I could chew. I don’t have the time, energy, and/or attention needed to do any of the above full time. I’m becoming OK with that. I can tinker with any of the above, and more, and not have to make a major project out of it. Just be.
Sometimes, these items I’ve posted help people. That’s fantastic, and the reasons I’ve been writing these posts. I’m grateful to have helped someone get past a hurdle (technical or otherwise).
I’m letting the Where the Light Gathers domain expire, as I just need to close the door on this chapter. I’m letting go of all the things it could have been, and that’s a bit painful. But it’s for the best so I can close a mental loop and forgive myself for not doing all the above, full time.
I’ll move the posts from that site over to this blog at some point.
In tonight’s Improv class we had to play “not funny” scenes. Not funny meaning to stay in the moment longer, and not just start rattling off jokes. It forced us to focus longer, and look for the next best thing, not the big thing (joke). Sometimes you tell a joke in the scene and it doesnt “make your partner look good” (The second rule of Improv). In other words it doesn’t give them anything to react to, or build upon. It can take the life out of the scene.
We also focused on a Platform Tilt. Which is when you play a normal scene and then something happens (sometimes drastic, sometimes funny) to tilt the platform you and your partner(s) have built.
In the scene I was in, I played a father of a teenage girl, who was dragging her around to work with him. We were arguing in the scene about her wanting to go hang out with her friends, and the tilt was that her mother and I were divorced. I only had a little time with her each week. It was difficult staying in character and letting the scene emerge. I enjoyed the challenge of all that and also building the tilt, which changed the tone of the scene. We got some good feedback afterwards as well.
Last week was a big week for Improv for me. My usual Monday night 201 level course, followed by Thursday’s Open Jam (First Thursday of the month, join us!) and then an audition on Saturday. That last item deserves a longer post, it was so much fun.
In Monday’s Improv 201 class, I had what is likely my best improv performance to date.
The scene setup was a “silent scene”. Jen, our teacher gave us instructions and provided the location. Which was a golf pro-shop. With a silent scene, each performer focuses on “space work” (pantomiming and interacting with physical objects within a space).
Each performer would enter, one at a time, interact with an object they create, and leave the space. Each successive performer would interact with an established object, and “build” one of their own. Repeat until all performers have a go.
It turns out that I entered last, and had to build off a robbery executed by Sarah, a Stranger than Fiction cast member who’s sitting in on our class. She’s absolutely fearless. Then Matt, my former partner from the 101 course, came in and did the detective work. He nailed taking the fingerprints and putting up the police tape over one of the doorways.
I was last in the rotation, just by chance. I chose the role of Shop Owner. I figured that the audience hadn’t seen the results of the previous actors actions. Since most of the objects weren’t the space anymore (Sara stole them). I couldn’t really interact with them. But I knew where everything was, as the shop owner.
So I entered frantically through one of the doors that Matt didn’t put police tape on (again, that was a very nice touch by him) and ran around checking to see if anything was left.
I remembered the cash register and found it empty, as well. I shrank in dejection, walked out and slammed the door.
This was my best performance in improv yet. I think I like this acting thing.
I’m still seeing the parallels to animation and improv. In both mediums one has to exaggerate so that the audience can read the action clearly. Evan, one of my 201 classmates gave some really great examples of this in our class discussions, and it shows in his performances. He always seems to be clearly in character and so effortless.
It’s one of those funny things, on stage you need to push too far, but in the audience it seems totally natural.
The focus of 101 was an overall introduction and the laying of the groundwork of the three rules of Improv via game play.
The games of short form Improv have a structure, focus on being in the moment of the scene, and have humor.
The focus of 201 is on the performance. We learned a handy device, the CROWE:
Remembering to do all this in the moment of the scene is difficult and challenging. It’s fun, but hard work.
It’s just day one, but I can relate the Relationship and Objective, and Emotion aspects of the CROWE to my previous work as an animator. Using the character’s poses, motion, position on screen, and other techniques can inform the audience of each characters status in relation to each other. Same is true for Improv, as far as I can tell.
Transferring status in scene is where the narrative really takes shape, both in Animation and Improv. I’m looking forward to getting better at that.
A suspicion I have about going deeper into the performance of scenes is something I’ve heard Improv actors call “finding the game” in a scene. This is, as far as I can tell, a callback to something that happened earlier in the scene. A hand gesture, a spoken line, an action, etc. Usually funniest if able to be done seamlessly and three times. I think the short games of 101 and Short form in general will add to this.
I’m just learning the 201 performance aspects, but can make the connection to the callbacks in standup and sketch comedy I’ve seen so often. Maybe all that is what 301 is all about. I’ll let you know when I get there.
Off to the first class of Improv 201 tonight!
From somewhere on Micro.blog I came across a link to Alice Bartlett’s Weeknotes. Looks like it’s a weekly post of what she was thinking and experiencing over the past week. Looks like it’s a thing a bunch of people are doing on their own blogs too, and it looks like it fits in with whatever the hell it is I am doing here.
So, this is my first Weeknote. A bunch of stuff that happened last week:
Yes, and I just signed up for the 201 level Improv class!
On the first Thursday of each month, there’s an open Jam. It’s a great way to see and practice Improv for people of all levels. For example, I’m a newbie. I completed the 101 level course in the fall, and this was my fourth or fifth Jam. There are cast members from Stranger Than Fiction (the fine folks who run classes and jams in New Hampshire & Southern Maine) who have been acting for years, maybe decades. As well as some people who never have done Improv before. It’s a great mix.
There were 28 people in attendance, this is easily twice as many as the previous jams. Maybe it’s a sign of growth in Improv across the region. Maybe it’s people working on doing something in regard to new years resolutions. Either way it was crazy and great to have that many people. We worked together in a large group for some exercises, and broke out into two smaller groups for others.
I’m not the first one to notice this, but falling out of a rhythm takes it’s toll. I certainly regressed. I asked some questions (you’re not supposed to ask questions in some games), and I wasn’t 100% mindful of being in the moment. Looking forward to practicing and taking the 201 when it opens up in the late winter.
I’d like to see if there’s a small group of people who would want to practice more, but finding people and a space may be difficult. I’ll ask around at the courses/jams. I think I might know of a space.
Hold The Jam a new episode of my microcast on Improv comedy is up.
I missed the jam last night, hope everyone had fun.
Books I’m interested in Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
A Guide to Keith Johnstone’s Gorilla Theatre
Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual
Not much on the radar until after the holiday, so I’m going to go on a brief hiatus.
Holiday times are busy! Have a great holiday and I’ll pick this up again in January.
Seeing Improv Everywhere is episode 8 of my short podcast on improv comedy.
Rereading my favorite novel and paying attention to when the characters need to improvise.
“plans are worthless but planning is essential“