I’ve got nothing

The final six hours was great. This is definitely the best I’ve felt all week. Some of it is sinking in, although I’m not sure anyone else would find our scenes worth watching yet.

We played a game called “1, 2 Selected.” This was invented by some guy at a convention; our teacher liked it so much he decided to show it to everyone he knows with the hope that eventually it gets back around to the same guy. Then that guy can say “Hey, that’s my game! I invented it!” And probably no one will believe him….

Anyway, the game starts like this. One person on stage with a partner starts a beat by snapping; everyone joins in and keeps the beat steady. Then in time with the beat (drawn here with the pipe symbol) the person chants “|Who|Ha|1,2|selected.” The partner then calls out either “1” or “2” immediately (well before the next beat). Now if the partner called out “1” the person repeats the same chant, otherwise it’s repeated with “|Ha|Who|1,2|selected.” So the “1” or “2” response controls the order of the first two words. But you’re on a beat so the calling-out of the number has to turn into one or the other very quickly.

So at first even this is hard, but then you get to where you’re really concentrating on what the partner says, and you can get it pretty smooth. Fine, but that’s just the warm-up. :-)

The real game is: Now instead of the choices being “1 and 2” you have to come up with a pair of words on the spot. They can be anything, “dog,cat” or “floor,can” or even “dog,shog” — it doesn’t even have to be real words! Then the second person repeats one or the other word (so not “1” or “2” anymore) and the same “|who|ha” or “|ha|who” rule applies. And every go-round you must use different words.

This is really hard. The point is to get you listening and reacting while also loosen your brain so words will just flow out. Of course they typically do not flow out. Also there’s the tongue-twister aspect of the who/ha stuff.

The first stage exercise was “Worst Scene Ever.” You get up there and intentionally break every rule you know. Lots of possibilities here — stand with your back to the audience, walk through the made-up table, call the person next to you “son” and then “dad.” Jokingly the idea was to “get all that out of your system,” but it was also useful as a warm-up because it makes you re-think the rules which does make them stronger in a way.

The second stage exercise we did is called “The Double-mint Twins get Fucked up the Ass.” Four people get on stage in two pairs; each pair stands right next to each other. You do a scene, but the rule is that each pair must talk, move, etc. together and simultaneously only. Of course you cannot talk beforehand to decide what to do, so you have to just detect who is leading and where they’re going. You also move and talk in very slow motion so the other person can detect and catch up to what you’re doing. It’s bizarre. What you’re practicing is paying detailed attention to what the other person is doing and detecting who is trying to lead.

The scenes we did this way were actually pretty funny. I think it’s because with the slow-motion you have lots of time to think about the next line. Also two people are thinking about the next line; if one is dry maybe the other has something.

Another exercise we did called “Monkey Wrench” was designed to get you to think fast and to accept whatever happens in the stage environment. Two people start a scene and establish who they are, relationship, etc.. Once it’s comfy, a third person (the “monkey wrench”) from the wings comes out and completely violates the world — breaks the Rule of Agreement — and walks off. For example, if the two people are mopping the floor of a hospital, shooting the bull, the monkey wrench could swim in front of them. The instinct is to “drop your shit” — lose your character and suddenly be bobbing up and down in the water. Wrong. That just happened, and in improv no matter what you thought the assumptions were you have to deal with whatever is happening on stage without violating anything else you’ve established. So in this case you just have to accept that you’re two janitors cleaning the bottom of the hospital’s pool. So you might start by saying “The bubbles from these scuba suits make it hard to see when the floor’s clean.” “Yeah, but with these new suction-cup-boots it’s a lot easier to clean!”

Of course the scene doesn’t have to be completely plausible after that, nor does it have to be funny. You’re just practicing “dealing with whatever” and not dropping what you’ve got. In a real performance no one else would violate your space that badly.

The interesting thing there is that often the result is very funny. In fact, just the act of accepting it and even making stuff up about how this makes sense anyway is in itself funny. Plus, as the teacher put it, the audience enjoys it when something awkward happens, and enjoys you getting out of it or explaining it.

The next exercise was called “You and I.” Two people up, and the rule is: Every line must start with “You…” So e.g. “You always do that to me.” “You think it’s OK to kick old people?” “You don’t know this about me, but.” Both people do this. The point is that even with this restriction you can actually learn quite a bit about the person talking, even when the content is always starting with the other person as the subject. Then there’s the same but starting with “I,” and you see the opposite — that even just talking about yourself you can still imbue the other person with all sorts of attributes and history.

The lesson from this point is that you can tell these stories in less direct ways. If you want your character to feel doesn’t get enough attention, you don’t have to just say “You never pay attention to me.” Instead you can beat around the bush — and in fact this can be funnier, can work better into a scene that might not ultimately be about that, and even in real life this is usually how these feelings come about anyway, so this indirectness can be funnier because it hits closer to home or is more plausible.

We continued this idea in a more difficult way in the next exercise. Three people got up and the whole situation was given to them. First, they all hate each other, and we would give 3 or 4 reasons why each would hate each other. Tons of reasons. Cheating with women, killing their baby, running over their dog, lying so the other person had to go to jail, etc etc. Pile on the hate. Then situation of the scene is such that they have to get along. Maybe they’re all groomsmen at a mutual friend’s wedding, and they’re backstage, so they can’t break out a fistfight. They have to find common ground. They might bring up something from the past, they might fling a fleeting word, but they have to get through this together.

It’s difficult, but the lesson is that not all scenes have to be “The day the shit went down.” Beginners have a tendency to do these types of scenes: Couples breaking up, a kid doesn’t want to go to school, someone wants to quit a job, whatever. And some of this is because of rules and exercises we were given — remember the one about moving a scene by saying “I have a confession to make?” Those are “The day the shit went down” because something big is happening. It’s sort of the obvious way to make a scene “go somewhere.”

But the other type of scene is “Slice of life.” A J.D. Salinger-style snippet. These scenes are the most common with pro’s for several reasons, but mainly because that’s more usual and reasonable. People do have back-stories, possibly even sordid, but almost all of real like are people interacting without the “big event” going down. And then you can see characters more subtly, and that’s probably more funny.

But these are really hard for beginners because you do
n’t know where to take them, how to develop them. And you’d better have a strong sense of your character because it’s going to be about the character far more than putting it in a stressful situation. So this exercise got us to at least think about that and try it.

Finally, we got a little practice at the “long form,” meaning multiple scenes strung together as for a real show. It includes edits (other members deciding when the scene should be “cut” for maximum effect, described elsewhere). It often includes call-backs where a character from a previous scene makes another appearance. There are some tips for that; for example, whatever trait that character has must be immediately apparent when you call it back so all the players — and the audience — immediately understands who it is and not some new character.

The best advice I got today was: When you’re sitting on the sidelines, sometimes you have some ideas. Ideas for character traits, desires, motivations, a funny situation, whatever. OK, but sometimes you really have nothing — you’re blank. At that moment, walk on stage. Do not hesitate, do not say to yourself, “Oh, I need to think of something,” just walk out.

Of course this sounds like suicide. The odd thing is it isn’t, and it’s almost the opposite. I don’t know why. Maybe because once you start thinking you’re already lost, maybe because doubt leads to fear, maybe because clean slate + jolt forces you use all these on-the-fly techniques we’ve been taught rather than relying on something you just ruminated over. Whatever the reason, today I jumped up on stage every time I felt that way, and it always worked out well.

So this was the end of the course. It was a blast and I’m going to continue with classes although not in this intensive format. I’ve already felt this experience changing some aspects of life outside the classroom; I’ll be thinking about that and will take some time to digest it before writing about it, unlike these entries which were just brain-dump journal entries from my class notes.

  • Thanks for sharing all this. Just looked up an improv class nearby via meetup.com. Let’s see if I’ll have as much fun :)

    • Ha, I went & it was awesome :)