Sunday, 7 December 2008

So the question is ...

In general, do acting classes or comedy classes train you better for improv?

Monday, 10 November 2008

An Art or An Artform?

I guess I've tended to treat improv as an artform.

I should clarify that, though. I've tended to treat long-form improv as an artform. But I see improv as an art.

Comparing the two terms, they don't represent the same territory. They mean different things. In fact, their differences in meaning are quite important.

For me, when you do art, you are not subject to any rules. Basically, in art, anything goes. Technically, you can do anything. Perhaps the only things that bound you are laws of physics and laws of your government, and only the former probably really bind you.

However, when you do an artform, you ARE subject to rules. If not rules, then principles. All in all, though, you're subject to something. Why? Because if not, you're not doing the -form of the artform. The form basically is the difference between an artform and an art.

It is this form that means that, No, it's not anything goes. Instead, some things don't go. In fact, some things are preferred, or maybe even required. Else, you can't say you're doing that form.

When it comes to doing Harolds--which I see as an artform--I've long taken issue with the generally derogatory term people have for its standard form. Its standard form is typically called "the training-wheels Harold." After (in theory) mastering "the training-wheels Harold," the definition between scenes is generally thrown out the window. At this point, the artform degrades into art. I say "degrades" because people will say they can do Harolds, but the implication is that they can do a Harold "on-form." In truth, doing a "training-wheels Harold" and making it good is quite hard to do. It is easy to disregard form; it is hard to honor it.

When it comes down to it, doing art is a liberal way of working, and doing an artform is a conversative way of working. The participant in an artform appreciates working with some restrictions. The participant in an art can't deal with restrictions. The products of each may or may not be that different. However, something can be said of the work that comes from doing artforms compared with the work that comes from doing art. In doing art, anything can go, and in essence, anything can be good. But in doing an artform, this is probably not the case; some things don't go, and in essence, not everything is good, esp. those products that fail to be on-form.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Speak Your Brains*

Here's one for the comments section.

I am, as an exercise, writing an improv manifesto in order to facilitate this, I'm in the process of completing the task outlined below. I present it here for your enjoyment and edification.

Finish the sentence below in as many ways as you feel the need to, feel free to be positive and affirm ideals to aspire to or to add "not" and proscribe things that ought to be avoided. Go wild my kindred. Go wild...

"Improv should..."

Should what? Tell me.

*"Speak Your Brains" was a segment in the phenomenal British TV show The Day Today. Look it up.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Recently, Foxy wrote:

Anyhoo. I think a show needs fulfil any promises it has made to an audience. By which I mean if you're selling a show as funny, you have to bring the funny. Imagine going to the "action movie of the decade" and finding out that it's a period drama about a happy goatherd and his affable father. It would be totally contrary to your expectations and you'd rightly feel cheated.

I really like what you say here, Foxy. I wholeheartedly agree: If you advertise yourself as something, you had best live to the expectations you set with your billing. Else, you're misrepresenting what you do. You potentially disappoint the audience. You take their money and run.

Now, granted, given that improv is not rehearsed (at least in the same predictable sense as theater), there is some room for failure, and audiences should probably realize that (well, they probably already do, many seeing improv as "sub-prime theater" or "unfunny theater"). But performers, if they're going to charge admission and charge audience time, need to get to a level of performance such that failure happens rarely. Now, what is meant by "failure" is partially determined here by how you advertise your show, and partially determined here by performing to general theatrical conventions or standards (speaking so the audience can hear, etc.). "Failure" isn't some vague concept.

As for the necessity for comedy in improv, I can't remember offhand what I wrote earlier on the subject, but of those people who think improv must make the audience laugh, those people throw the word "improv" around as a synonym--nay, abbreviation--for the term "improv comedy." That is,

Given some people,
"improv" = "improv comedy"

This is not a mathematical equation, else it would sound contradictory. ("Comedy" would probably equal zero!) It's just a definition. It's saying that when someone says "improv," he means "improv comedy." This is to say that for these people, "improv" must make and audience laugh because, Hey, that's improv! (What they mean is "Hey, that's improv comedy!")
The discussion is much like this for these people: Should insurgents terrorize? Of course they should, if you use the word "insurgent" as a synonym for "terrorist."

Remember that the word "improv" refers to styles of many different things, not just comedy. A jazz musician could say "Let's improvise" and probably no one takes that to mean, "Okay, sure, let's put down our instruments, get up, and crack each other up with scenes." You village has just been wiped away by a flood. "We're going to have to improvise" doesn't necessarily mean staging a show; it means building your home out of sticks and mud.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

At Long Last, the Die-Nasty Write-up.

'K, it's been almost a month and I can really get my head around a lot of what happened.

First off, let me highlight how wonderful and awesome the Die-Nasty company is, add to that the phenomenal people from Rapid Fire Theatre and everyone else who I met out there. Except the guy at immigration.

Second, let me thank Mark Meer, Belinda Cornish and their dog Atom for being gracious and adorable hosts and a very cute dog. If you ever have cause to make a cake, these people are worthy recipients.

Thirdly (and finally) it wouldn't have been the same without the support and "mad skillz" of my fellow English, Adam Meggido, Sean McCan, Cariad Lloyd and Maya Sendall. All of whom are genius-level poets.

The Show.

OK. Show-Day -2. Wednesday
I've been in Canada for about 16 hours. Last night Cariad and I arrived in Edmonton and were taken straight into a workshop, then a pub, then the place we're staying at (Mark and Belinda's house is amazing and I still giggle with glee and excitement every time I think about the comic books, action figures or posters). Today we're hunting for some costume.

The setup for the show is this: "a family-run-business has won the lottery and is using some of the money to take the family and some employees to Hawaii." We're met by Matt Alden, one of the core company, who drives us around some good costume stores in a tiny car; wigs are bought and I pick up some fake facial hair and glasses. There's another workshop that evening, in which I acquit myself mildy better than the night before, but still not "well". The other UK participants arrive that evening and much fun is had in the pub. I have no idea what character I'm going to play at this point; I have this idea about being a cult investigator/de-programmer and hope that if I imply that one exists, there'll be a cult on the island.

I can't really account for Thursday. I think I bought a Green Lantern t-shirt and ate a twinkie. But more must have happened. In the evening Adam and Sean run an improvised Shakespeare/Musical workshop for the Rapid Fire guys. A lot of fun stuff is learned by many lovely people. I take the time to look up Hawaii on wikipedia, a pointless activity.


Friday rolls around. D-day.

I still have no idea what I'm going to play. I have a bunch of names in my head and some costume that seems to say "academic". The morning and afternoon is spent eating salmon and trying to convince Cariad to let us buy her some truly dreadful gold boots for a character.

People begin to congregate at the Varscona Theatre at around 1630, aside from those folks already there finishing the set, cleaning the theatre and preparing for the show. It's at this point that I, faced with the need to pick a character, decide on a few things.

1. I've bought a false moustache and intend to wear it.
B. The english accent is a novelty here. I'll abuse that and be English.
iii. I've got tweeds, fake glasses, a corduroy jacket and they seem to feel "right" as costume.

And so, Professor Steven Doctors is created.

Someone told me that the 53 hour is like a breeding ground for your bad habits, and Doctors is a manifestation of all of mine. He turns very rapidly into a high status buffoon, the sort of character who talks the talk but can't back it up. He is also fairly emotionally isolated. This turns into a problem for me in the dark hours. Fortunately, he's also fun to play and entertaining to watch (I'm told).

Now then, the format of the show is roughly this. Every 2 hours there is an interval. This serves a number of different purposes. The audience can easily mill around, stretch their legs or go buy food and drink. Similarly the cast can also go grab some food or whatever, step out back for a smoke or fresh air. Towards the end of the interval, the cast congregates in the basement where Dana Andersen (the Director) takes a roll call of participants for the next two hours. Those performers who are "in" then join a circle and chant to build energy. We all then run upstairs to the entrance at the rear of the auditorium.

What follows happens at the start of every two hour segement; they're called the Hot Thirties. Each character (sometimes in pairs) is announced by the Director, they run down the stairs into a spotlight where the character performs a short monologue about something. Frequently about their experiences so far, hopes for the future or their feelings. This works quite well as an introduction to the story for new audience members. This done, Dana then sets up scenes and casts them from his notebook and mic stage left. And the show takes off...

Now then. This is a huge post. You've got the form and the run up. You'll get the rest in a couple of days.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Improv Vs. Comedy 2: This time it's personal

Hello Ben. Hello blog readers. Hello monitoring software. It's been too long.

Does improv need to make an audience laugh?

Short answer, no.

If you're after a longer, more rambling reply (and I suspect you are), then I'd say that improv doesn't need to make the audience laugh any more than a play does. Or a book, tv show... whatever. Drama can be just as entertaining as the funny that improv usually busts out, insofar as a hardcore need for amusement goes, I think audiences like variety - who doesn't? A bleak script/show tends to benefit from the contrast of some form of comedy; it can serve to juxtapose whatever tragedy the piece is about. It doesn't need to be funny, but it doesn't need to not be.

There's a common view that because most (frequently all the shows a given person has seen) improv shows are comedic, all improv shows are comedic. It isn't true and it bugs me plenty, but we're dealing with a funny old art form. It's been around in a coherent form for at least 500 years (that might warrant a guest blogger to explain properly by the way. Watch this space...) and so few practitioners seem to want to do more than emulate Whose Line.


I'm off topic.

Anyhoo. I think a show needs fulfil any promises it has made to an audience. By which I mean if you're selling a show as funny, you have to bring the funny. Imagine going to the "action movie of the decade" and finding out that it's a period drama about a happy goatherd and his affable father. It would be totally contrary to your expectations and you'd rightly feel cheated.

Improv can and ought to cater to a range of tastes. We've all (I hope) seen beautiful improvised moments of deep anguish, blazing anger or poignant emotional truth that have stood out in a show precisely because they weren't funny. They were real, beautiful moments of drama, joy, whatever. And here's the kicker folks, not being funny makes you funnier.

I've only phrased it like that to keep you interested, I'm a shill.

Improv, to my mind, is about stories not comedy. Comedy is great, it's phenomenal at killing stories, which means it's a brilliant finishing move. But if all you've got is gag after gag after gag, it's going to get samey. And, as we all know, samey leads to fear, fear leads to hate and hate leads to bland shows.

And don't nobody pay for bland. Except maybe the Amish. (I wonder if they'll email and complain? Are there cyber-Amish? "We only use Windows 3.1. Every subsequent O/S is evil. Eeeeeevil.")

The trick I refer to is this: imagine the joke you could crack after 20 seconds. Now don't do it, keep playing it straight. Try making it to 40 seconds, then a minute. Then bust out the funny! Whatever gag will have more impact, simply because it contrasts. It's a change from what has gone before. Moreover, it's probably the end of the scene which makes you seem funnier! Pow! Zap! Blam!

My point, far from it though I may be, is this:

Improv in a vacuum doesn't need to be funny.

Improv that wants people to pay money to come see - moreover, that wants those people to come back to see it again - doesn't need comedy. It just has an easier time acheiving his goals with funny than without.

I don't know anyone who's looking to see a really well improvised tragedy. And maybe that's because nobody's selling yet...

I guess my short answer is in the second paragraph.

And it's this: "[improv] doesn't need to be funny, but it doesn't need to not be."

But what do I know? I am, after all, just a humble tailor.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Group Mind

This past January, I gave a lecture-seminar for the New York Society for General Semantics. It was titled "Developing the Experience of Group Mind." Specifically, I spoke of the long-form improv experience of group mind, and how as an improv teacher I develop an improv group's group mind.

The journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics published it as an essay. Feel free to give it a read. You can find the essay here.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Major Inspirations

To my improv in specific, and to my performing career in general, I have a number of obvious inspirations. These inspirations, in the form of people, have quite obviously influenced the kind of work I appreciate, want to put onstage, in all hopes do put onstage. While I don't have a comprehensive list to spout out at a moment's notice, I have a few I can utter here.

These are not in any hierarchy; I've merely listed them as they come to mind.

1. Adam Goren, aka Atom and His Package

Adam is a musician, and his work as a musician inspired my music before it inspired my improv. It might even suffice to say that he does not directly influence my improv, but only in some far-flung way.

Atom and His Package was a one-man band of sorts. He would come to his shows just himself, his guitar, and a CD player with prerecorded backing music. It was kinda like karaoke with guitar in some weird way, but that wasn't what communicated during his concerts. In his concerts, he was an amazing performer, a nerdy-looking guy, heavyset, but ferocious, hilarious, understated, and even lovably insecure. He was a genius in idiot's clothing, maybe you'd say if you saw or heard about the setup.

He was inspiring because he taught me just how personal you could be in your songs. In his songs, he sings about specific people in his life, mentioning them by name, making songs up about stuff for which you have no reference. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, at least with respect for attracting listeners. But it wasn't. The people in his life became a sort of cast of characters for his songs. You almost felt as if you knew some of them--their habits, their ways, their attitudes, etc.

He also inspired me that, yes, you can go onstage with a CD player and sing. Granted, Atom had a guitar, but his band didn't need to be one or two other guys. It could just be him. He could make retarded songs that no one understood. You would grow to like them if you listened often enough. (I surely did.)

If you listen to the music of Atom and His Package, these phrases describe his early work: dorky and punk, whiny and badass, outrageously personal and obscurely specific. As his music evolved, his music just became badass. He'd have outrageous song titles ("If You Own The Washington Redskins, You're A Cock" and "The Palestinians Are NOT the Same Thing as the Rebel Alliance, Jackass," to name two), blazing fast lyrics, songs that made you just want to jump up and down, and music that just made you feel alive.

So, he inspired my music (listen to "posting songs" here to hear the influences), but he also inspired my improv. In this way: You can get deeply personal and specific. You can pull from obscure places in your life. It doesn't mean your work will suck. On the contrary, it can send it through the roof. Specifics, specifics. If your improv doesn't have them, it's general, and if it's general, it only does so much for the audience, and only so much for you.

P.S. Here's an Atom and His Package song live. It's called "I'm Downright Amazed At What I Can Destroy With Just A Hammer." It's specific, CD-backed, and badass.

2. Marjoe Gortner

Marjoe was a 4-year-old Pentecostal preacher. For footage from the beginning of his documentary, see YouTube. (Marjoe is still alive, though I speak of him here in the past tense. It would be amazing to meet him.)

I do improvised sermons. It is very safe to say that Marjoe singly influenced my approach to improvised sermons--not so much his preaching as a kid, but his preaching as an adult in his Oscar-winning documentary (1972). In the film, he shares insights into his style and approach. What impressed me most about the documentary, though, was what Marjoe did to audiences. We're talking Pentecostal churches, and he would work the audience up to such fits of ecstasy, to see it would drop your jaw. People shaking, people dancing, people writhing, people speaking in strange tongues, people crying, people on the floor, exhausted, as if they've been exorcised (not to mention exercised).

I watched this film for the first time in a religion class in college, and what he did to audiences is what I wanted to do to audiences as an actor. I used some of his approaches as warm-up exercises for actors in a play I directed in college. Today, Marjoe's body language is very much embedded in many of my curtain speeches. The object is to give the audience energy, excitement, an edge ... to move them, inspire them, open them up, get them to feel something. Mmmm.

3. Respecto Montalban

This (former?) Harold Team from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre may have been the first Harold Team I ever saw perform. If not, it was the one that impressed me time and again in those first months of watching long-form improv in the summer of 2000.

Respecto was an attractive team of outstanding performers. They never ceased giving you amazing visuals, extreme physicality, and insane implications from starting premises. They kept mixing things up, innovating when others didn't seem to innovate, and just overall usually put on a damn good show. I've never seen a team to this day that matches their chemistry and energy. And their work is probably the most inspirational for me when it comes do teaching and doing Harolds. I can't remember what's in this video, but here is some sense of their work here on YouTube.

That will suffice for now.

Paul, you?

Friday, 26 September 2008


1. There's been a couple of recent, somewhat polemic discussions on the Improv Resource Center about improv (specifically long-form improv) and its relation to comedy.

The question for you, Foxy, is "How do you see their relationship?" That is, does your improv need to make the audience laugh, or not?

That's an opening question. Perhaps we can have a blog discussion about this.

2. I found some photos from Die-Nasty 2008 online. I see our friend Cariad in them. At first I didn't think I found you in them, Foxy, but then I realized, YOU WERE MOUSTACHIOED!!

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Some Non-Improv Books Influential on My Improv

It's been quite some time since I've added to Tractor Control because of being swamped with work. A morning clearing after a day of major advancement in my work means I have some time to add to my beloved Tractor Control!

And the topic I chose? A list. That's easy enough for now. I herein list non-improvisation books I've read that have influenced my thoughts on improv and my pursuits in it.

The chapter of note for me is the principle of reciprocity, which I feel has a bearing on improv. If you give the other improviser what she wants, she's more inclined to give you what you want. You might say that this book is possibly an argument for the iO, take-care-of-your-partner approach as opposed to the Annoyance, take-care-of-yourself approach, suggesting that you're better able to get what you want by taking care of your partner than yourself.

The Strategy of Conflict
by Thomas Schelling

Schelling would go on to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. In this book, he enlightened me with a new vision of conflict. Schelling saw conflicts as bargaining situations. By that, he meant two opponents going after what they wanted, but the opponents were interdependent--I could get what I wanted depending on what you do. The idea blew my mind open with respect to improv and introduced me to game theory in a way that had application to improv. Schelling talks about games of coordination, a tool I use for teaching group-mindedness. I happen to have an article coming out this month in the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics going into detail about this!

by Alfred Korzybski

The first book on general semantics, this book has bearing on how I teach improv. General semantics and Korzybski's work oriented me toward a more fact-based orientation, a skill that allows me to resolve disagreements quickly, not to mention manage different performers opinions on subjects like how a scene went, how it should go, etc. General semantics has also heightened my awareness to the power and influence of works, which has set me on numerous quests to find just the right way of introducing an improv idea for maximum speed in learning. I credit general semantics for much of my ability at getting new improvisers to perform like "the pros" in short amounts of time.

A Technique for Producing Ideas
by James Webb Young

This short, powerful classic contains a surprising plug of a popular general semantics book at the very end! Young's book defines the word "idea" in a way that makes finding ideas at the spur of the moment easy. I use his definition in my classes. Young defines an idea as "a new combination of old elements." When it comes to doing long-form improv, finding an idea for a scene is as simple as taking two free-associations generated in the opening and putting them together to start a scene!

by Paul Arden
This short, illustrated book is incredible in its insight and advice. Geared for the advertiser, it is more generally a treatise on creativity from which nearly any creative producter could benefit. It is a book I look to for different ways of thinking about living life and doing things. It helps me to dream and to ideate. This book is the perfect gift for anyone, especially the improviser in your life!

Many more books have influenced me. These are major ones that I choose to talk about now.

Now, on a separate note: Foxy, I want to hear about Die-Nasty! Please give a report!

Edit: Blogger didn't like my original formatting. Such a pain!