Who are you to deny my space?

Day 2 of the class is through. I think I feel less sure about everything now than when I started. Too many rules to think about at once? The best scenes are 99% normal everyday material and you’d think doing “everyday situations” would be the easiest thing. But it’s the opposite; somehow it’s hard to be in a natural situation — you have the urge to invent ridiculous objects and scenarios but then you’re really stuck because you don’t know at all how to deal with that.

So ironically the rules help keep you doing something realistic and natural. It’s odd to need help with that.

We started out with more “7 Things.” Our teacher this time really likes this game (described yesterday) because it not only frees up your thinking but also reinforces that everyone else “has your back.” It’s important in the scene to know that the other player is working with you. This games echoes this in that you yell “Yes!” to everything to affirm that it’s accepted no matter what it is.

The other warm-up was new: A pattern game. One person starts by saying a word and pointing to another person in the circle. That person says a related word (where the “relation” is invented on the spot) and points to another person. The third person tries to pick up on the pattern and says another word and so on. (This isn’t the person next to you — you point at anyone else haphazardly around the circle.)

For example, say the first word is “New York.” The next word might be “New Jersey.” The third person might say “New Orleans” and the pattern is now obviously “things that start with ‘New.'” Or the third person might say “Alabama” and the pattern is “states.”

That’s the easy part. You repeat the same words, in the same order, pointing to the next person, remembering who “sends” you the pattern and to whom you “send” it to next. Then a different pattern is started with a different order of who says it. Repeat that until it can go fast around the circle.

Now you start one pattern, but as it’s going around you start the second at the same time. You have to stay on top of where the patterns are and when it’s your turn and to whom you send this one. Then add a third pattern. Or two of one and one of a another.

The complication adds a new lesson: The best way to support this technique and not lose a thread is to make eye contact with the next target, hand off the pattern, and keep eye contact until you’re sure that person has it. This concentration and visual communication is useful in the improv scenes as well. It’s also probably a life-lesson about communication.

The next mini-lesson was that the first three lines of a scene should determine the scene. You should know who you are, where you are, your relationship, what you’re doing, etc.. You do not need to know all of these things, but you need some kind of basis. The description of this was: When you step onto the stage the possibilities of what’s happening are infinite. Then one person says “Dad, I’m not going to college.” That reduces the possibilities down to, say, thousands. You know this is a kid, the kid is stating something that might not be obvious, the other person is the dad. The next person says “You’re going to college, and that’s final.” Now the number of possibilities shrink to hundreds — you know this is a challenging position, the dad doesn’t agree. But maybe this conversation was had before? “But dad if I don’t turn pro now I’ll never get respect with my monkey act.” Now you’ve got something.

Another little point that came out of a scene is that although it’s fun and exciting to start a scene with a lot of energy, it’s hard to maintain and after it’s done it can be hard to decide what to do next. Examples are like “Hurry, they’re coming they’re coming!” or “Get them off me get them off me!” So you do get “them” off and everyone calms down…. and then what?

One of the biggest lessons of today was “every line counts.” One scene started with a pizza guy showing up. The customer opens the door and says “Wow, that pizza really stinks.” After a response the customer says “Wait, I think it’s YOU that stinks!” Then it trailed off into random inventions since they didn’t know what to do with the scene (as we all did when we got stuck, which was frequent). So the teacher points out: You, a customer of a pizza delivery, open the door, find a stranger, and basically the first thing you say is “Man, you really stink.” That’s not normal. So either (a) don’t say something that doesn’t make sense, or (b) that DOES make sense for that character, which means that character is the type who would immediately tell a stranger that he stinks. Now THAT’s a good character, so stay with that. What else would he say? Would he say you’re ugly, you suck at making pizza, your car is weak, what?

By latching onto and digging into what each person has set up, both now have something to work with.

There were a couple of new variations of the Rule of Agreement. The first is “Don’t deny history.” If something happens in a scene, you can’t negate it later. Sounds obvious but in the moment it’s easy to accidentally stomp a tacit assumption that another part of the scene created.

The other is that one space/props are built by miming you must respect and play in that space properly. If someone has built a table the other person can’t walk through it. Or, if the other person does, you have to deal with having just knocked the table over!

Speaking of props, we dealt with that more today. All props are invented with miming. We had two games to get used to this idea. First we stood in a circle and balls were passed. “This is a blue ball” the first person would say, and show the ball with miming. Maybe the ball is the size of a speck of dust. Maybe it’s heavy and has to be carried with two hands. Maybe it’s bouncy. Maybe it’s giant and has to be rolled on the ground. The point is you pass it to other people who have to maintain the characteristics of the ball. The trick is you get three of these being passed around at the same time. Also this helps with the communication/eye contact thing — you lose balls if you can’t pass them properly.

In the second we built a scene using just miming. The first was a convenience store. Everyone stood in a line outside the front door. The first person goes in and does something, like get a beer and pay for it. This establishes the beer area and the cash register and the exit door. Each successive person has to interact with each thing established by the person before, plus add a new thing, plus not break any established things like counters. You can move stuff, break things, etc.. Then we repeated that game where we also had to come up with the scenario as we went rather than being provided it. Sometimes you could talk, other times not even that.

It’s amazing how much little things matter. If you half-mime something it’s not convincing. If you really carefully act it out, it suddenly becomes real. If, then, someone else violates the space it’s palpable. Human perception is weird like that.

Finally there were two main scene exercises. The first dealt with the problem of each person having preconceived notions of who they are. You’re supposed to have this notion when you step on stage — that’s what gives your character weight and purpose and helps drive the action. On the other hand, what do you do with two random characters? How do you blend them? So the exercise is that eac
h person is given a line to start with (whispered) and must start the scene with that line. Of course they don’t match. You have to come together somehow.

The second was a way to get us to relax and talk more normally about something. Two chairs are placed next to each other and you sit. You’re given a task (e.g. surgery, fishing, rowing) and something to talk about (e.g. golf, cooking, furry animals). The rule is you CANNOT talk about what you are doing, just on the subject. The odd thing is this makes the whole thing much easier. When you’re not worried about discussing or “justifying” what you’re doing, it’s much easier to talk about the real subject naturally. It was easier and more fun. Of course the idea is you can ALWAYS do this, and you should.

Hopefully tomorrow it will be easier to be more natural…