One of the incredible privileges of living where I do is we get some of the best people in the world coming through to share their wisdom.
Joe Bill taught a course called “Your Power Improv Toolkit” this past weekend at the VTSL’s Improv Comedy Institute. It was an amazing experience.
The class was 14 people covering a wide range of experience, from relatively new improvisors to people with many years of professional experience. There’s something to be said for a teacher who knows their stuff so well that they can make it accessible and useful to people at such different levels.
I went in with few expectations. This turns out to be a good thing because whatever my expectations might have been, they wouldn’t have come close to the reality.
I’m jotting this down from my notes and my memory, trying to make some sense of what I’ve learned so far. It’s a personal brain-dump. If you find it useful, great! If not, you are never going to get back the time you spent reading it. Sorry.
Saturday started with a bunch of short open two-person scenes, with people being called up in pairs. The scene lengths were between 2 seconds and one minute (I think) and they were done in groups, so everyone did a thirty second scene, then everyone did a five second scene, then everyone did a forty-five second scene, and so on. There were a lot of them. No warm-up, just quick introductions and off we went.
The class was about half people I know and half people I’ve seen perform but hadn’t met. It was a tad intimidating to be learning alongside people who are so much more experienced than me. In my own professional life I’m used to being at or near the top of the food chain. It’s both liberating and humbling to be reminded there are a lot of other food chains out there that I don’t even register on. Then again, theatre people are generally generous, kind, and accepting, and improv people doubly so, so it was a welcoming and supportive environment.
My goal in this course was to learn to look less far ahead, to let the scene develop organically and not let my inner writer try to drive it. This means trusting my scene partners more and taking smaller steps myself in moving the scene forward. It turns out there is a lot of stuff that we learned today that really helped.
One of the things I noticed about the short scenes is I found the very short ones less anxiety-inducing than the longer ones. A two second scene has one idea that is done and gone. A one minute scene requires some development, some co-ordination. I like and am drawn to narrative improv, and as such I care a lot more about longer scenes. I feel like there’s something important to me in them that I can screw up. A scene of a few seconds, on the other hand, is just a throw-away. If I screw it up nothing of value (to me) has been lost.
Joe gave some interesting discussion of a particular set of psychological axes relating to how we act and react in the world. One observation he made: “There is only declaring and reacting.” This is a reasonable taxonomy of human action insofar as scenes are concerned: it is mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive, which is the basic desideratum of any taxonomic classification system. I’m a big fan of taxonomies: they give us language within a given topic, and language is one of the most useful tools for thought.
There is also an axis of focus, which can be either task-oriented or relationship-oriented. I’m less convinced this a mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive categorization, but it’s good enough for going on with.
Unsurprisingly, I tend toward task-orientation and declarative rather than reactive style. People with task-orientation tend to view the world has hostile and those with a declarative orientation want to see concrete results as a way of protecting themselves from that hostility. People with a more reactive orientation want assurance, and are more conscientious.
One of the things Joe emphasized is that these are questions of tendency and modality rather than identity. My natural drift is toward a task/declarative orientation, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be focused more reactively on interpersonal stuff.
But understanding our tendencies allows us to “accessorize” them appropriately with different approaches when called for.
There was some interesting discussion of the semantics of improv, contrasting the subjective, actorly approach to a more objective, writerly or directorly perspective. This makes sense to me as an actor and writer and (thankfully rarely) a director.
As a pure physicist who has worked in various areas of applied physics, I came to identify what I called “the Lore” of any applied field, where people working in the field treated as foundational some special cases of more general principles. I see the objective/directorly and subjective/actorly perspectives as being “the Lore” of practical improv. Beneath both lies the story, and beneath the story lies the emotional connection and the human condition.
The eternal question of narrative vs game was given its traditional airing. I liked this comment: “Narrative is a discovery proposition, not an engineering proposition.” I’m not completely sold on that, but it fits nicely with Stephen King’s attitude toward story that gave me a really interesting perspective on writing.
As someone who is an engineer and who has worked in the “discovery” business in several sciences, I don’t necessarily see the two as entirely at odds with each other. Engineering, like science, is more of an art than a science. But engineering relies much more heavily on the known and the well-trodden path than science or discovery does, so there are important differences as well. In terms of freshness, of novelty, a discovery-focus brings a uniquely personal element to the creation of art that is important.
What is character: “How you do what you do is who you are.” This was called out as a riff on Aristotle’s famous dictum that we are what we do habitually.
Emotion is one of the most important elements of the “how we do what we do”. Imbue an action with an emotion and you are well on your way to a character. Knowing how you are takes you a good ways toward knowing who you are.
The next phase of practice involved emotional scenes. We chose partners at random-ish, spread out through the room, closed our eyes, chose an emotion, and on command raised our eyes and simply observed our scene partner. They had chosen an emotion too, which they were expressing. What followed was a dialog of emotion between characters, without a word spoken, for 10 to 30 seconds (hard to tell how long) and then we were told to “continue the conversation you are already having”. It flowed very naturally for me, and I had some excellent, connected scenes with people I’ve played with before but not necessarily felt fully connected with.
“Listening is a willingness to be changed by your scene partner(s).” You don’t actually have to change. But you have to be willing, and you have to show that.
Another idea was the “golden time” of the first 30 seconds of the scene: 15 to decide who you are, and 15 to second-guess yourself and screw it up, or double-down and commit come hell or high water.
Self-acceptance (for your character) is key. Make a choice, accept it, run with it. The second fifteen seconds is too often “the time it takes to decide we hate what we have initially done.” It is reasonable that we check in with ourselves and be critical of our choices in our offstage lives, because that lets us avoid going to far down mistaken roads. On-stage, taking a mistaken road can be hilarious for the audience. Good drama is made out of bad decisions. Ergo, onstage, there are no bad decisions. There is only failure to decide.
The use of silence is important. Don’t be afraid to be silent, and to emote in silence.
My own big idea from the emotion-scene exercise: “Narrative is a theoretical account of the empirical reality of emotion.” This didn’t make a lot of sense to anyone else, which is OK. I’m an experimental physicist with a decent grounding in philosophy who is strongly dismissive of the Platonic-realist nonsense that dominates theory, which says the universe has a “real” mathematical structure that in some ill-defined sense “precedes” its merely physical form. This is bollocks: empirical reality comes first, and math runs to catch up, because it is nothing but an account of what we find in the world. It is a compact, efficient, useful and powerful account, but nothing more. It is a map, not a plan: it records what we see, it does not guide some mythical Builder.
This matters a lot to me because it gives emotion primacy over narrative. It fills in an important blank in my (as yet unpublished) theory of story. It changes my understanding of narrative and places it in the context of ideas I’ve thought about a great deal for thirty years: the relationship between theory and experiment in the sciences. It is probably completely meaningless to anyone else. C’est la vie. [I’ve since encountered at least one person who gets it. Yay!]
Other experiences: in one emotion-scene exercise we were told to say the same thing over three times, each person going back and forth. So for me and my partner in that scene it went like this:
Me: “I love you.”
Her: “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
Me: “I love you.”
Her: “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
Me: “I love you.”
Her: “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
By the third repetition the whole dynamic of the scene had been established. What we said was the same, but how we said it changed in response to the previous times. She was leaving, I had come to the airport to declare my love. It wasn’t all clear after those opening repetitions, but it all unfolded as if it was clear, so something happened between us. It was actually kind of amazing.
The other emotion-scenes were much the same: knowing how I was told me who I was, and my scene partner was no longer a puzzle to be deciphered but a real person in the real world of our shared delusion who had to be reacted to, and nothing more. My mental relation to the process completely changed. I’m good at getting into character, but letting my own consciousness sink out of sight to become the subconscious of the character–which is how I was trained as an actor–has been tough for me in improv. Focusing on the emotional state of the character made it much easier.
Various jotted notes (assume anything clever is from Joe, anything stupid is my commentary/mangling):
Suspicion and curiosity: two sides of the same coin, both interested, one hostile, one accepting. As ways of engaging another mind the ease with which they morph into each other makes them powerful.
Of the Four F’s of evolutionary biology–feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproduction–on the latter two are really important in scene work, because they are the ones that matter in relationships. There is a Fifth F–friendship–that probably belongs on the list. Aristotle again.
I/You/We: keeping the focus on these things keeps you in the scene and with your partner.
Obligation and inspiration are anti-correlated. This is an interesting observation, and appears at odds with the notion that your focus should be taking care of your scene partner, but I don’t think it actually is. “Taking care” is not an obligation, it’s a purpose. Hooray for semantics.
“You always/never/etc…”: these are passive constructions. React with direct emotion, not indirect reference to the past.
Recognize opportunities but don’t take them all. Be choosy. Take the one that seems best, or none at all if none are needed. Art is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.
Use that second fifteen seconds to react to what your scene partner gives you in the first fifteen seconds, rather than second-guessing yourself.
If you’re in a bad scene, figure out what is making it bad and do more of it.
Don’t play to the top of your character’s intelligence, play to the top of their integrity. This is consistent with my belief in the value of integrity in art. Ideally there should be one over-riding principle that guides the whole thing, although ensembles do have a place.
“Taking from your partner is an aggressive way to listen” or something like that. The idea that you are active in taking ideas from your partner, not just passively accepting them.
Suspend ego, judgement and fear.
Be ready to be grateful. Stillness plus silence plus gratitude is almost always interesting.
Negativity invites a specific response. Respond with gratitude instead. It is disarming. Disarmed is vulnerable. Vulnerability creates theatre.
Object work: half the speed with twice the intensity. Every object is an opportunity to express emotion.
For me: breathe less hard. This is not the first time I’ve been told this, but apparently I’m recidivating.
Look for opportunities to create and increase incongruities between words and actions, words and emotions, emotions and actions. One emotion-scene I did I chose “bliss” and it turned out the character that came with that was pushing their own life-choices on everyone else and critical of people who were taking more conventional paths through life. The incongruity added a lot of depth to the scene, and if I’d known to play it up it would have been even more fun.
Objects don’t have to be metaphors, but the audience will read them that way anyway, so don’t be afraid to imbue them with explicit metaphorical intent.
Personally, I find it hard to get away from the literal. The answer to “how to do this?” is: practice, practice, practice.
That’s a brief, unstructured summary of day one. At the end of it I was exhausted. Day two should be awesome.
More reflections on day one after day two:
Love is a topic of profound fascination to me, for reasons I have a pretty good handle on. Light might well be a topic of fascination for someone with very little ability to see.
One exercise was a repeat of the process of pairing up, choosing an emotion, and going into the scene by staring into your partner’s eyes for ten seconds or so before “continuing the conversation” in words, but in this case we were restricted to three word sentences. I love constraints like this. Form is liberating.
In that particular scene the three words “I love you” came up as well. They come up a lot in scenes I do. One of the other people in the class observed they could not say “I love you” in a scene. People are different, have different needs, backgrounds, oddities. This is what makes improv awesome.
Also, there was a final exercise on day one that started with two characters upstage. At the start of the scene they came downstage and one started object work. After ten seconds or more the other person spoke, starting the scene. That was where I became conscious of how difficult I find it to break out of the literal.
This is already way too long. More on day to next!