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photo by *Jake via Flickr

Today we started putting the pieces together and went on a little emotional low-high streak. We learned an opening called "The Invocation," did a 30 minute version of "The Armando" and played a cool game just before the end of class that tested all sorts of coordination. After three days of intensive, all-day improv, we've done "six weeks" in real time terms.

Well, there went our confidence

Day 2 was all about us reporting on how we felt after our scenes, and most of us were really critical. Jessica actually complained about it, saying we were doing amazing work and should be more confident. Last night, several of us joked about showing up this morning and just being a bunch of arrogant bastards, but by lunchtime, we lost all that bravado.

The structure the long form improvisation done at the Improv Olympic is called "The Harold." The shows last about 30 minutes and consist of several parts, starting with a theme, word, place or some other such input from the audience. Step one for the players is to build a three to five minute "opening" which is designed to take that word (let's say it's a "spatula") and get at its full meaning. As teacher Jessica would say, "it's to turn that 'pebble' into The Universe... to turn 'vibrator' into Women's Lib."

Improv groups use all sorts of methods to explore the meaning of the spatula, from songs to weird contortionism. Jessica taught us a method called "The Invocation," and it has four phases.

  1. IT IS. In phase one, members of the group describe what they see in response to the word/object suggested. The description is precise, and it builds cumulatively. So, if the word is notebook, and person A says "it is a three ring binder," person B says, "it is completely red," person C is NOT allowed to say it's a blue Dell "notebook" computer. The group builds a common, physical definition together.

  2. YOU ARE. In phase two, we each make a personal connection to the suggestion. These do not have to build or be consistent across the players. I might say (to the object itself), "You are where I kept my life goals."

  3. THOU ART. This phase is similar to "YOU ARE" but rather than being personal, it's meant to be metaphorical or philosophical. For example, building on the personal YOU ARE, I might say (to the object), "thou art a dreamcatcher."

  4. I AM. Finally, we become the object. With I AM, we look for one word or phrase that captures the essence of the suggestion. "I am hope," I might say as the notebook.

Again, the point of the exercise is to avoid having a show that spends 30 minutes talking about a friggin notebook, because no one wants to see that. The would, however, be interested in a story about a GM line employee who kept a secret file with plans for improvements to the company's cars that he plans to sell to Toyota, for example.

We played around with the invocation, and worked up to building actual scenes based on our inspiration, but the scenes sucked. We got trapped within certain themes way to easily, and Jessica sent us off to lunch with a pretty heavy and on point set of critiques encouraging us to push farther. In my own scene, I know I walked into it having forgotten the wants and needs lesson of Day 2. I was fixed on a character who was homeless, but he had no motivation or desires, so the scene went nowhere. Others in the class had different challenges, but the point was that our scenes were not nearly as inspired as our opening invocation had set them up to be.

There must have been something in my meatball sub because I and the rest of the class returned and, man, we killed the second half of class!

The Armando Diaz Experience

Armando Diaz is a real man who lives today in NYC, running his own theatre at The Magnet. He has a longform improv style named after him, referred to as "The Armando." Like the Harold, you build scenes based on inspiration, and Jessica explained that "the Armando" is just another source of inspiration.

Rather than having an opening (in the form of an invocation, perhaps) and all the other structures of the Harold, the Armando is built around a monologue.

  1. Audience provides suggestion

  2. A monologist (referred to as the Armando) tells a TRUE story related to the suggestion. He stops after a minute or two

  3. Players create scenes inspired by the audience suggestion and the story of the Armando. They comment on the story

  4. When the scenes feel exhausted, the Armando returns with another story, possibly integrating themes from the previous scenes

  5. More scenes

  6. Another monologue

  7. this could go on forever, but it doesn't. Eventually, the Armando gives a final monologue which tries to touch on many of the subsequent themes raised in the scenes.

Some important points:

The monologues need to be true, maybe a bit exaggerated, but not just made up. It's really hard to just make up a story on the fly. That's the job of the players in the scenes.

Also, the scenes that are built, should not just be a visual replay of the story. This isn't Charlie Murphy stories on Chappelle. Like with the Invocation, we explore what the real meaning of the story is behind the actual words used. I told a story of my constant running in middle school. One day, I was chasing a friend of mine and he leapt over a chain-linked fence onto a steep hill. I followed but didn't quite clear the top chain, clipped my right foot and busted my ass in front of a whole bunch of friends and cute girls who all laughed at me.

That story isn't about jumping over that fence. It could be about many things, though. It could be about embarrassment. It could be about not finishing something you started. It could be about the price of trying to be like someone else.

We did this for thirty minutes, with multiple monologues and scenes and didn't realize at all how much time had passed. We were inspired, and that was the point.

Jessica's bomb ass quote of the day:

"We can get inspiration from anywhere. Be inspired by everything."

That reminds me. On September 7, I'll be taking part in a show that follows this theme. It's called Stand-Uprov, and will be a the Improv Asylum in Boston. New York has it's own version called Stand-prov. The premise is the same, though. A standup comic performs his set (or MONOLOGUE :)) and the improv players build scenes around that story, commenting on what was really being said.

I don't have time to describe the closing game, but it was mad fun.

Today was another incredible improv-y experience. We sort of sucked in the morning, but we killed in the afternoon. Thanks Jessica and all the cats on the team!

I'm off to find Drinking Liberally in Chicago.