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My Chicago Summer 2006

Chicago Improv Summer: Putting Together The Harold! (level 4, day 1)

pat o'brien. Level 4 teach New week. New level. New teacher. Introducing Pat O'Brien, a director at Second City and a member of the young "team to watch" at iO, The Reckoning. First, I gotta say, it's been great to have teachers that actually do improv, regularly, and well. The Reckoning is that cool young team that everyone's talking about. They do two shows a week. One is a straight Harold format. The other is them experimenting with all kinds of form. I saw one show, referred to as a Bat, where they did the whole show in the dark. No physical movement was involved, just speaking and some sound effects from random crap they brought onstage. It reminded me of old radio shows my mom loved. The purpose of week 4 is to really learn The Harold, that infamous, all-encompasing, truth-seeking, and very challenging structure pioneered by Del Close himself. Harold Diagnostic Pat began class by splitting us into two groups of seven and eight, respectively. Each group did a full Harold based on what we'd learned already, and he offered a boatload of feedback, criticisms and ideas. As it would become clearer over the course of the week, one of Pat's strengths is in showing us the possibilities for any given show or scene. He helped us think about the connections we didn't pick up on that could make a show much better. Given the amount of information one must keep track of in a Harold, he also shared a simple but infinitely valuable tip: Keep it fun, and focus on one aspect of the Harold at a time. For example, in one show you might decide that you're gonna focus on editing. In another, you focus on playing emotionally. Etc. etc. His advice after watching our first two Harolds included:
  • A piece needs more than one game. There should be several games in a show that weave in themes from the opening left out of the scenes so far, for example
  • Tag-ins to a scene don't have to assume the same physicality as the person they tagged out
  • As always, LISTEN, especially to the games because they might have plot or character direction in them. In our case the example was a game based on "Extra Extra. Read All About It" headlines, one of which referred to a Broadway dancer taking the theatre world by storm. That was referring to a scene about a Broadway dancer, so when that scene came back, it should have acknowledged the dancer's success
  • Time dashes from Beat 1 scenes to Beat 2 scenes can also dash backward in time. It's rarely done but very cool
  • The very first scene after the opening can work well by beginning with a noise or movement from the opening itself
  • In a fade edit (where one scene starts in a different place on the stage while another is underway), avoid eye contact with the existing scene so as not to confuse those players who might think you're a walk on into their scene. Simply stand a bit downstage of them and begin your scene as you walk in
  • Go for stage picture balance. If a player from the side decides to play a piece of furniture in a scene, don't leave them to do it all alone. Someone else should play a different piece to support the move
  • It can be very difficult to do a scene where it's made clear from the start that the characters don't know each other. Pick people with an existing relationship
  • Beat 3 doesn't have to connect all the characters from the previous scenes, but it can connect all the themes
The Opening After ripping our Harolds a new one, Pat started to break down the structure piece by piece. We began with the Opening. The purpose of the opening is to generate information from the suggestion that can be used to create scenes. It helps develop that beautiful "group mind" among the players and can inform the audience about the "Rule of Three" implicit in the Harold itself. The opening can be a microcosm of the entire piece. EXERCISE: "I AM" The "I Am" exercise starts when one person steps forward and says something like, "I am a yellow toothbrush." Another player enters, adding, "I am the chocolate residue on the bristles. Another adds, "I am the Flintstones logo on the toothbrush." "I am the mold building up on the handle." "I am the the piece of the toothbrush that broke off and fell onto the floor three months ago." Each time a player adds information about this object, he takes on (to the extent possible) the physicality of that which he tries to embody. In the end, the audience sees this richly-defined toothbrush with a full story behind it. The next phase of the exercise is to construct three complete objects as the opening itself. Use the objects to discover characters and themes. For example. in the case of the above toothbrush, we might have a child who eats too much junk food and lives a horribly filthy life. The next object in the opening could be the family car, complete with old M&Ms stick to the seats and the smell of wet dog permeating the interior. The final object might be the desk of this kids father, with papers wholly disorganized, notes taped every which way and five long-finished mugs of coffee. These three objects may set the stage for a Harold about filth, disorganization, disease, etc. Perhaps one set of scenes is about how children adopt the behaviors of their parents. I don't know. I've made this all up, but the point is that an opening based around constructing detailed objects can reveal the characters and themes necessary to build a quality Harold. Some reminders about object-oriented openings:
  • Focus on one object at a time, and stick with it. In the midst of building and describing this toothbrush, don't start talking about the sink or the mirror. Keep it focused on the initial object
  • Consciously try to discover themes and characters. If the first two objects have a theme of joy, so should the third.
  • Don't go overboard exploring too many themes. Ideally, the Harold opening should finish with one very clear theme for the show, maybe two. But an opening with four themes is not a true opening. It's a grab bag of possibilities that leaves the Harold itself open to too many paths of discovery
  • Try to mirror the vocal style of each objects description. For example, if I initiate an object with, "I'M THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION!!" and I say it all patriotic and bubbly with a nice salute to an imaginary flag, then the person that follows should adopt that same level of enthusiasm.
  • Try to create beautiful stage pictures
  • Raise the energy as you approach the end of the opening
  • Focus
  • Focus
  • Focus

Chicago Improv Summer: Brad Morris Scene Workshop

Even though my Chicago improv summer is technically over (our final performance was August 11), I haven't finished blogging my last weeks there, so I can re-live it!! This will be a really short entry on a workshop I did with Brad Morris of The Reckoning and Stubs. When I say short, I mean it. I spent time watching, listening and performing, not so much with the note-taking, unfortunately.
  • Key elements of a successful scene include a big character initiation from the very start and oversized emotions
  • Practice flying immediately off the back wall. It will help get you out of your head
  • Honor they scene partner, and honor thyself. If, for example, you have been proposed to in a scene (as in marriage) and laugh for some reason, go with it. It's not a mistake. It's a gift.
  • "You're not here [studying improv all summer] because you're clever. You're here because you're clever and want to do something with it." Brad Morris, on why we're here
  • In scenes, it's often easier to know the other person than yourself, so create them, and tell them who they are. They should reciprocate
  • Use your environment to buy some solace when you're panicked about coming up with something clever to say
In summary, establish an emotion up front, use detail in the scenes, find agreement with your scene partner and build on that. And finally, DON'T NARRATE in your scenes. SHOW, DON'T TELL! that's all! These notes don't do the session justice, and I'm sorry I couldn't get these notes up when they were fresher. Anyone who did the workshop, feel free to add more in the comment section.

Chicago Improv Summer: The 70 Workshop

600px-I-70.svg photo by me via Flickr This post is a bit out of order, but I feel compelled to post it now. On the same day of Susan Messing's Insane Story Theatre Workshop, I went to a session run by Seth Thomas, an actor and hip hop artist based in Chicago. His hour was a presentation of an approach he developed to help you create believable characters. It's called The 70, and it's hot. Here's Seth's pitch or theory
  1. Usually when people submit their time and will to someone else, the person submitting their will gets paid. It's called a job. I submit my time and will to some company in exchange for money.
  2. Theatre is different. In theatre, we demand people's time and will, and we demand payment for it (not quite "we" since I'm hardly ever paid for being onstage, but I see the point).
  3. Given that people are paying to see a show, give them an actual show. They are not paying to see you. They are paying to see you act, to be someone else. To be another human.
  4. On to humans...
  5. Human beings are constantly communicating. Constantly
  6. 30 percent of our communication is verbal. 70 percent is non-verbal.
  7. In improv, you're still a human (thank God), so the same rules apply. In improv, 70 percent of your communication is non-verbal (think about that for a sec before moving on).
  8. Because it's improv, the words aren't a given, so let's focus on the 70 percent non-verbal communication in your scenes. Thus, The 70
  9. Off stage, everyone has a complete set of non-verbal characteristics. It's called your Living Set
  10. On stage, you character also has a complete set of non-verbal characteristics, called your Playing Set
  11. That character set must be created consciously
  12. Every non-verbal activity you don't create for your character will be borrowed from yours
  13. That's too much of "you" on stage, and see number 3 above. No one wants to see "you" they want to see you act
That's the context for him teaching us what he did. Essentially, you should be someone else on stage, and you can use your non-verbal communication to define that other human. One other point: how do you practice for an improv show? If you have no script (no verbal), what can you do? Seth's approach is to practice being human, and he spent the rest of the time going over ways we do just that. There are four main areas we can define within The 70: Mind, Body, Soul and Persona #1 Mind Choices This first area consists of three mental choices or choice styles your character needs to choose 1. the dominant proof 2. life condition 3. button word(s) 4. (and anything else you find out on your own) The dominant proof choice is about how your character thinks. Does your character go to bed at 9pm because his proof is:
  • LOGICAL? He needs to go to bed at 9pm because he needs to wake up at 5am to get to work, and he needs eight hours of sleep a night
  • EMOTIONAL? He feels tired at 9pm, so he goes to bed then
  • PERSONAL? Oprah said 9pm is the best, and he trusts Oprah, so 9pm it is
The life condition choice is about your character's mental and spiritual fitness. Button words are what they sound like. Are there certain words that trigger a reaction in your character? "Nigger" is the classic extreme button word, but maybe your character's word is "Phoenix" because he experienced something horrible there. Now, you don't walk into a scene thinking, "My button word is Phoenix. If somebody says "Phoenix," I'm gonna freak out. Instead, you discover during the scene that you've found a button word. #2 Body Choices Within the area of your character's body, Seth identified 9 different attributes you could play with:
  1. default position (physical position of your character when not reacting to stimuli)
  2. affect displays (physical movements that accompany a certain emotion)
  3. emblem (your physical substitute for words)
  4. illustrator (physicality that accompanies words)
  5. regulator (i know what regulation is but can't remember how that plays into the body. sorry)
  6. level of territoriality (how big is your character's need to create, protect and maintain personal space?)
  7. personal bubble (how close can other characters get to yours before discomfort sets in)
  8. touch value (how does your character respond to touch)
  9. life condition (dunno?)
  10. (and anything else you find out on your own)
#3 Soul Choices
  1. Personality (pick an archetype to model your character after, but then pull back some. Is your character a jock? What kind of jock? The kind that studies or the kind that puts date rape drugs in his girl's beer?)
  2. Message to the World/Subtext (being proactive with the things you're saying. Is your character's subtext that "Life is Great!"?)
  3. Purpose (what do you want to do. "If your character has no purpose in life, it has no place in the scene." - Seth)
  4. life condition and anything else you discover....
#4 Persona Choices
  1. Silence (when is your character silent and how? Be clear)
  2. Articulation (articulation is the combination of your mouth, teeth, jaw and tongue to produce a sound. By manipulating these, you can create different voices)
  3. Pronunciation (does your character say words correctly? BTW, articulation + pronunciation = enunciation)
  4. Non-Word Sounds (what does your character do?)
  5. Voice Pitch Level (hi or low?)
  6. Voice Inflection (inflection is change in pitch and is often connected to emotions)
  7. Voice Quality (husky? raspy? nasal?)
  8. Voice Rate
  9. Voice Volume
  10. (that which you discover)
Seth's recommendation is to "work on your human" and practice it. Save the characters you find interesting. In terms of practice, one technique is to create your character, then have him watch TV, and react as your character would, out loud. Try walking differently. If you're right-handed, build strength on your left side. Final note. No, you should not be thinking about all of these things in a scene. You can use these tools, however, to better define your character as distinct from you. Practice this, and your playing set will come more naturally. That's a wrap.

Chicago Improv Summer: (level 3, day 4)

Day four with Bill Arnett continued on our week of focusing on emotional play. After reviewing shows we had seen the night before and doing some cool samurai knife-throwing warmup games, we got into the real work. Multi-Person Scenes The primary focus of improv, as far as I can tell, is the two-person scene. It sets up a clear dynamic or balance with distinct points of view. It's simple. But it's not the only thing possible. We spent a lot of the morning working on three person scenes and four person scenes and learned the trick to making that work. No, I won't beat around the bush and tease you with the answer. It's simple. No matter how many people are in the scene, try to have only two points of view represented! Four people is just a game of two-on-two ball. Three people is two-on-one. Rather than every player feeling the need to be super individual, they support their side's point of view. It was such a mental breakthrough for me to see this actually work out. Good News Bad News According to my notes, we spent some time doing "good news bad news" games, but honestly, this was two weeks ago, and I can't remember! Anyone from class remember, please put it in the comments :) Other stuff from day four:
  • We played scenes with "soap opera style" in order to heighten the emotions further
  • Your offstage behavior is just as important as on-stage. We have to pay attention, take mental notes for callbacks and edit, edit, edit.
  • The most important thing you can do for yourself in a scene is to find and build a context. If the players don't know, neither will the audience. Who are you? Where are you? Why should I care?
  • Be flexible at the top of a scene so you can adjust to your partner's initiation and ideas
I know these aren't the best notes, but brothaman fell behind, ok? I want to see you try to wake up at 8am, go to class all day, have two hours after class to do email, return phone calls, finish taxes, blog and eat before spending three or four more hours of the day watching shows! peacepeace

Chicago Improv Summer: Lesbian Vampire Nazis (level 3, day 3)

Words of Wisdom from Bill:
"In a world of vampire Nazis, lesbian vampire Nazis are just lesbians."
We began this day focusing on opposite emotions. "You can 'yes' too much," Bill taught us. We should "allow the insane to shine." The lesbian vampire Nazi point is pretty self-explanatory if you think about it. If you make everything weird, then nothing is weird and you have no contrast, no surprises and no heightening within a scene or piece. Don't Talk about X We did this exercise where there was a huge elephant in the room we couldn't mention by name, but our characters had to behave with the knowledge of the thing unmentionable. I was wrong in my post about Level 3, Day 2. It was day THREE where I did that abortion scene with Leanne (BTW, Bill has a nickname for abortions: "abobo"). We had to play the scene without mentioning the actual abortion, and not saying it directly really heightened the emotion. Our class also did scenes involving two brothers who hadn't seen each other for 20 years but were reunited at a will reading for one of their dead parents, plus a scene in which someone had a terminal illness. Intensity, Integrity, Intelligence When playing, especially with emotions, be sure to base it on these three things. More wisdom from Bill:
"The best part about heavy metal music is that it doesn't remind you of being dumped... because it's about dragons."
I don't even remember what that was referring too, but it seemed worth writing down. Build a World, then Destroy It Ok, now this was hella fun. Bill had us create a reality (including the emotion of the scene) and then absolutely tear it down with some incongruous statement. I came out as a happy clown. "Hello little girl" etc. etc. It was a birthday party. The kid was happy. I made balloons. Then I said: "No go get me some pussy! That's right, bring your mama's fine ass over here and tell her to bend over!" The little girl cried. For those new to my blog, let me explain that it wasn't a real little girl, but an ACTOR in my IMPROV class. The point was to destroy this reality of a happy clown and happy little girl on her birthday. The thing that popped into my head was what I said, and it was absolutely wrong and damn hilarious!!! Wow, I'm laughing just remembering that joint. Multi-person scenes Oops that was the next day, to be posted soon!

Chicago Improv Summer: Emotional Scenes (day 10)

I don't have a lot of notes from this day, which means I was busy improvising! Here's what I jotted down, though. We started again with the pattern-passing game and got a little better. Our group, having gelled a bit and being comfortable with each other, has now gotten to the point where we're easily distracted, giggly and really annoying sometimes! I think it cut into our productivity a bit but tried not to let it really upset me for real. We did rounds of emotional scenes where we "yes, and" our scene partners emotion. This led to lots of laughing, crying, jumping up and down. I played in one scene with Leanne and we both nearly ended up crying. I can't even remember if that scene happened on day 10, but now is a good place to talk about it. We were given the following info going into the scene:
  • Leanne and I were a couple
  • She just had an abortion the night before without telling me
This scene really shook me the hell up, and it wasn't funny at all, but it was really powerful. I think we were acting! The point of all this: "Be multimedia improvisors." Wise words from Bill explaining to us that we have a wide range with which to work in a scene or show overall, and we should use it. For anyone in Chicago, he recommended seeing Deep Schwa on Sunday nights at 8:30 for quality emotional work. On arguing in a scene, Bill forced us to find a way to lose the argument without giving in. "It's not about the object of the argument. It's about the relationship." I don't think they can say that enough.

Chicago Improv Summer: Level 3, Day 1 (day 9 overall)

Wadup peoples. I'm back on the blog. I've been crazy swamped with these classes and watching shows and trying to take care of personal business, so I'm sorry the daily improv dispatches dropped off. Right now, I'm in week five of the five week program, but I want to do this journal/note thing right, so I'm picking up where I left off. In week three, we swapped teachers again. Out with Rachael Mason and in with Bill Arnett (click for his incredibly helpful improv blog which I just added to my Shoutout section). Bill was formerly a member of legendary iO team, People of Earth. He's a great, great improvisor and teacher. Word Patterns We started off the day with what would become several weeks of word pattern games. The team stands in a circle and, assuming I start the pattern, I point to anyone else and say, for example, "Doberman." They then point to someone else and say, "Poodle" who points to someone else saying "Rotweiler" to "Basset Hound," etc. etc. The trick is to keep the pattern as tight and specific as possible. If someone were to say, "puppy" that would be wrong because a "puppy" is not a breed of dog. Once we can repeat that pattern pretty smoothly and rapidly, another player will start a new pattern. Let's say this pattern is American car manufacturers. We master that pattern then create a third of, say, font types. The tricks is to layer the passing of the pattern with multiple initiations. That is, while passing the dog breed patterns also pass the car maker and font type patterns. On the face of it, this sounds overwhelming, but the trick is in knowing who to pay attention to. I will always receive "Audi" from the same player and "Golden Retriever" from a consistent player and "Helvetica" from a consistent player. As long as I pay attention to those three people, I can move the rest of the players into the background. What's really fun is realizing that one of the patterns has dropped and, inevitably, someone takes responsibility for re-starting it. Also, when trying to pass the pattern on, you often have to repeat the initiation to the receiver. This is just like scene work. If someone doesn't get what you're sending them, send it again. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the size of your team, realize that at any moment you're only responsible for a small subset of active scene partners. Scene Tips Most of the rest of the day we spent on scene work focused on providing information and context. Some tips and observations
  • De-emphasize plot in favor of people. A scene is much more interesting when it's about the people in the scene not what they're actually doing
  • Feel free to do a small recap within the scene to make sure you get what your scene partner is providing. This will kill the confusion.
  • "The job of the first scene in the Harold isn't to be funny. It's to drop the lumber off at the job site." - wise words from Bill, explaining that the first beat of the Harold provides most of the foundation and information needed by the rest of the scenes
  • "The fuel of improv is the logic of the mundane." - more wise words from Bill. We don't need to play John the Baptist's revived head. We can play the pizza guy. Pizza is mundane, but it's life, and if we focus on the life of that pizza guy and his relationships, we find some good stuff
  • "Make choices, not from fear, but from knowledge." - continuing the Wise Words from Bill. This applies to all of life man, not just improv.
  • Err on the side of being blunt. It's way better than being obtuse
We introduced the idea of character monologues in a scene. These can take the form of Shakespearean "asides" or be made more directly to a scene partner. They involve "true" stories (from the character) that provide insight into your past and demonstrate who you are. This day was all about information, context, specificity. We don't need to be weird and funky and obscure. Being specific will help tremendously in the scene and gives your partner something to work with. As Bill, the man of wise words finished, "details sharpen the knife."

Chicago Improv Summer: Messing's Insane Workshop!

susan messing - 2 photo by me via Flickr. Click photo for more As I've mentioned before, Susan Messing is an i.O. teacher and co-founder of The Annoyance theatre. She's pictured above performing in her weekly two-man show, "Messing with a Friend." She's insane. Susan designed the Level Two curriculum for i.O. Level two is focused a lot on creating environments on stage and using your body, not just your mouth. On Friday, she ran a special three-hour optional workshop for summer intensive students in "Story Theatre," where we narrate our own tales and fantasies, using our entire body and stage to create the previously-imagined. Susan had us fly people around, build cars and undersea schools of fish. We even had the smallest fish in the sea return as a messiah and vow a fiery vengeance upon those who would fail to follow his example. But back to Susan Messing being insane. All last week, our teacher, Rachael Mason, was as dirty and foul-mouthed as could be! It turns out, she was just channeling Susan. This lady has Noooo inhibitions at all, and is easily the most absurdly quotable teacher I've ever had. Here's a sample fun pak
"I do improv to get me off. If it doesn't get me off, it's not worth doing." "Don't be a wandering Jew." She said this to a student who took too long to find his place in the scenery. "You whore! Get your hair back." to a woman who hadn't tied her hair up or in a pony tail. "Have you ever almost cum, and then your mom calls." on following through with a sequence. "Thank you for giving me polio." one of the few places you can say something like this is in an improv scene. Polio might have saved it!
So those were the outlandish ones, but I'm not doing the workshop justice with just some crazy quotes. Susan believes seriously in improv, and she pushed us to create and build in just a few hours. A few more lessons she dropped on us:
  • When you're flying another player around on stage, don't stand directly under her. Always support the neck and head. Set her down feet first
  • "half of improv is talking yourself into improv."
  • "lead with people instead of plot." Plot will come after the people are established in a scene
  • "you don't know where the product is gonna be, so enjoy the fucking ride." a metaphor for everything we're doing in improv. There's no script, just the players. The point will arise somewhere. Enjoy finding it.
  • "speak in sentences, not paragraphs." It's hard for your fellow player (especially in Story Theatre) to respond to long-winded paragraphs
  • "a game is anything that happens more than once." The idea of The Game in an improv scene keeps coming up. Susan's breakdown is simple. A "game" is something repetitive. I walk on-stage and ask for bread. Next player asks for a sandwich; next, a buffet; next, the castle; next, the world... That could be a game. Weird example, I know, but I'm movin on peoples!
  • When in doubt, match your scene partner's energy


No, I'm not talking about the Alaskan nature preserve some people want to rip open for a few years of oil. Anwar is an Egyptian man who drives a taxi cab in Chicago and hates it.

I've got a history of cab driver bonding. I worked a job in Boston that kept me at the office late with my cab rides home covered by my clients. I actually got to a point where I could call the dispatcher, and they'd know my voice: "Hey, Mr. Baratunde!! Where you going today?" I swear I could have run for office in Boston or Cambridge and won just with the cab driver vote.

This past Friday night in Chicago, I was forced to take a cab because the L made some sort of detour which put me as far away from home as the station where I boarded the train. I got off the train and into a cab, asking the driver to take me to a major intersection: North Ave and Western Ave.

"Ok, can you tell me how to get there?" he asked.

For my Boston readers, that's like asking for directions to Mass Ave and Newbury. For D.C. folks, maybe it's 14th & Pennsylvania Rd. For those who live elsewhere, you get the idea.

The driver did, however, have a TomTom GPS unit -- one that was very similar to the unit that was stolen from my car one week before. He plugged in the intersection and listened to modern technology for directions. He had been driving a cab for just one week.

It turns out Anwar doesn't really like driving a cab. I asked him why, and he answered so quickly and articulately, it was clear he thinks about it ALL THE TIME.

  1. He doesn't like the passengers
  2. Passengers are generally very rude and too stressed out
  3. Other cab drivers will do anything for money

Anwar has been in the US for one year. He's hear because, as he put it, "my wife was obsessed with moving to the United States. She insisted that there was more opportunity here. It was very annoying." They won the green card lottery and moved to Chicago. In Egypt, Anwar was a doctor and surgeon. He paid $100 per month to rent a spacious two bedroom, two bathroom apartment. In the U.S., he has to pass three medical exams before he's allowed to be a doctor here. He has passed the first two and is studying for the third. In the meantime, he drives a cab and pays $800 per month for a studio apartment.

Oh, and his English was incredible. Considering that one year ago he spoke no English at all, I was extra impressed. His grammar and pronunciation were great.

He talked to me about the misconceptions Americans have about the Middle East, especially Islam, and how the media just doesn't get it right. He also loved that I do comedy! Given the increasingly crazy political world we're in, he thought comedy was a great means to express certain ideas to the people.

I agree man!

Chicago Improv Summer: Why day 4 (or 8) was sooo much better

Firstlyness, I need to standardize how I refer to the days of this program. It's five weeks, five levels and four days a week. From now on, I'm gonna just refer to the overall day count, so there's no confusion about "which day four?" That being said, my last post was about how crappy I felt on Day 7, but as the teaser noted, day 8 rocked. At the beginning of class we talked about the amazing TJ and Dave show many of us saw the night before. I need to set this up a bit. TJ and Dave are two master, veteran improvisors who have been doing their two-man show every week for about six years. The consistently sell out the show and collect rave reviews. There are so few shows I've seen in my life that impressed me to the point of simultaneously thinking, "I should abandon this performance business" and "that's what art can be." One such show is The Whitest Kids U Know, who have honored me by having me open their show with standup. Another is Black Folks Guide to Black Folks by Hanifah Walidah. Seeing TJ and Dave (along with buying some comfortable shoes and getting a good night's sleep) is what pulled me out of my day 7 funk and fatigue. These two dudes walk on stage, take an audience suggestion and improvise a show for 45 minutes! This week, they began as motorcade secret service agents, and it was beautiful. If they ever hit the road or put out a DVD, I will definitely let yall know. So in Day 8 of class we started the day by talking about their show.
  • They moved slowly. They didn't speak for 30-45 seconds at the top of the show, then one of them said, "So, first time workin the motorcade?"
  • They transitioned into and out of characters very smoothly, using every tool they had. Facial expressions, speaking style and posture all changed as they morphed from character to character. They didn't rapidly juggle characters (the way Practice Scaring a Bear did amazingly well), but they made beautifully deliberate choices. They defined characters so well, that when TJ began enacting the Senator they'd created, Dave was later able to play that same senator while TJ was motorcade guy. Even though these two men don't look alike, they both looked like the same senator somehow.
  • They didn't go for the easy nor obvious laugh. The laughter was a byproduct.
  • They have huge balls, as Rachael said, because they didn't even solicit and audience suggestion!
Creating Massively Multiplayer Scenes I just gotta say, Rachael loves to fuck with us. Apologies for the profanity. I use it rarely here, but it is truly the most appropriate word. The Level 2 curriculum was designed by Susan Messing (more on her in another post), who just loves to fuck with people. She'll use hella profanity, obscenity and other under-the-skin-getting techniques to push your knowledge. Rachael broke us into two groups on stage, and she told us we had "five minutes to prepare a bit." What does that mean? NOTHING! We don't work that way? What's a "bit" anyway? And what does "prepare" mean. Each group huddled and threw out ideas. We considered writing a little sketch. We thought maybe her point was that improv is easier than writing a sketch together. We looked at her. She looked at us. She yelled the countdown, "TWO MINUTES!!" When it was our turn to present, we did an opening and some story theatre piece and closed it. Lesson: you don't have time to mull over a thousand different ideas and "plots." Just YES-AND (that's the main improvisors credo. Say "yes" to whatever your teammate throws out there "and" add information) the first idea, and build from there. We could have better used that five minutes doing random warmups. Next exercise: same thing. This time, some in our group taught the others a warmup called "Show Us How to Get Down," which is a dance number type thing. At the last second before we ran out of time, somebody said, our theme is "dance." But when we started, another teammate asked for a suggestion from the audience. We got something different, and YES-ANDed that joint. Next exercise: Rachael mixed up our teams. We did it all again. Lesson: you can do improv with anyone. It's nice to have team chemistry, but it's not necessary. Out of this chaos, we then took to the stage four or five or seven at a time to create scenes with more than two people. Rachael gave us physical locations (teacher's lounge, jail, hospital waiting room), and we filled in the rest, defining the environment, using objects, establishing relationships with the other characters. These were the most fun scenes I've done, and each one was hilarious. I'm serious. We whipped out three scenes in six minutes with no planning, and they were all very funny! It's like magic. To the Beat of the Rhythm of the Night Our next stop was the Busby Berkeley dance routine. These are the old school cabaret, old Vegas, feathere boa-style, synchronized moves that only exist in musicals or films/plays about the mid 20th century. We lined up according to height and created that beauty on the fly by creating patterns and paying attention to each other. Lesson: rhythm. (which should give black folks an unfair improv advantage right? :)) A Positive Intervention Our final and coolest exercise involved two people sitting on the stage in front of the rest of our class. We gave them a massive standing ovation, then Rachael would ask, "So tell me what you love about Jeff." We would talk about how Jeff is an amazing team player, makes surprising character choices, is generous, etc. Then she would ask, "Tell me what you'd like to see more of from Jeff." And we'd say, "maybe a bit less active" or "play someone higher status, in charge." Rachael then added more of her own feedback from watching us all week. We did this for both players, and Rachael then set them up in a scene together with assignments of character traits based on the group feedback. This was a really powerful way to provide constructive criticism. It's one thing for the teacher to hand you a "report card." It's another (more effective) thing to hear the collective thoughts of your teammates on your strengths and weaknesses, however. For me, the positives included:
  • great energy
  • "heart of gold." really, someone said this. I was so touched. Then I died, because while it's nice to have a heart of gold in theory, in practice, it's not so good at powering the circulatory system
  • versatile player
  • great with anything involving song
  • great well-rounded performer
  • beautiful smile
  • very positive
And what they wanted to see more of:
  • play someone serious. hard.
  • use more accents
  • play the straight man. don't provide the laughs. support the guy that does
In my scene, I was paired with Gabe, who was told to be bigger and outlandish. We were set in a warehouse where we moved boxes. Gabe talked all about partying and how hungover he was. I played it straight and mostly silence, adding occasionally, "I am here to work." or "This job provides for my family." The interestingness came when Gabe started talking about how sexy my daughter was. This comment finally got me to stop moving the boxes and look at Gabe for the first time. "Do not talk about my daughter." Gabe continued though. Me again: "This is the last time. Don't talk about my daughter that way again." Silence, silence, and Gabe throws out one more line about how he'd do X to her, and just as I was preparing to leap on him, the scene ended. The one snafu in the scene was about 1/3rd of the way through, I took on a more pronounced African accent. I didn't think I had said enough for the audience to know I didn't have one before, but Rachael noticed and paused the scene. "Keep your shit!" she yelled. I had just been remembering the feedback to use more accents, but it was a good lesson. Once you make a character choice, you have to stick with it. So that was day 8 in class. That night, I saw a two-person show at The Annoyance featuring the legendary Susan Messing with legendary Mick Napier. I saw it was good, said it was good, and it was good.