Where have your fingers been?

What do these things have in common: Screaming, the living room, dirty fingers, and a convenience store? All improv games, of course!

Day 5 started with a “Convenience Store” game, but different from the one described a few posts ago (which was about object work). This one is character work — from a circle, one person approaches another, having to develop a character in the few steps on the way there. (Extending the notion I wrote about before of using whatever you just did and how you feel to build it up immediately.) The person you approached is the convenience store clerk, standing behind the counter. Your character has to ask for three items and pay for them; of course the way you ask and the things you pick and so on should match the character. When that’s complete the clerk heads off to be the next character. In the interest of time we started three of these at the same time so everyone’s engaged most of the time.

Then we started right into the arbitrary scenes. Before you went on, you had to think of someone you know and be that person in the scene. Imitate them, exaggerate a characteristic, have their motivations. Of course where you’re up there it’s not vital that your imitation be accurate — you’re just using this to inform the character and it’s OK however it turns out. This was a great exercise for me because for some reason it clicked. It made it much easier to know what to do, how to react. And in each case I ended up not actually being that person, sometimes not even close, but having thought about that and coming out with something a specific character did develop and it was easy to work inside that framework.

We did more scenes with tips that echoed that from previous days, so I don’t have to go into detail. Things like: “Come out with an adverb” (decide you’ll be happy or fast or angry). And: “One thing that drives you” (You want to quit your job, you want to get the other person to appreciate you). Again, sometimes the scene does become about that, sometimes not. But having that makes something happen, and when everyone on stage sees the something you can then work with it. It helps to generate something real and plausible; otherwise you come out with nothing and have you work out what’s happening during the scene — not only is that hard, it’s actually bad for the audience because if you don’t know what’s happening, the audience certainly doesn’t know, and that’s not entertaining or funny.

Another great tip was: “Deal with the 1st weird thing that happens.” Weird things are a “gift.” If two people come one and one trips on the way, that’s probably the whole point of the scene — this guy trips all the time. If the two personalities are a weird mix — which usually they are — then the point of the scene and the comedy is exploring the idea that this weird mixture is in fact normal. These two characters don’t match and yet are friends or doing a common task or whatever. That in itself is a great source of comedy. So whatever it is that’s “weird,” right at first, grab that and instead of figuring a way around it (i.e. to make the scene more plausible), build that into your assumptions. On the next day we actually did more exercises about this, but more on that in the next post.

After the break we did a “Screaming Exercise.” Everyone gets into a rugby scrum, looking down. Then on the count of three you look up and at someone — anyone. Make eye contact (most of these exercises involve making eye contact). If the person you’re looking at is also looking at you, scream. That’s it! It’s weird and funny. Just loosens you up — I’m not sure there was an important lesson here.

Then we played “Where have your fingers been?” In a circle you sing a little song asking where your fingers have been, then the first person turns to his left and names a non-geographical place/situation, e.g. a picnic, the south pole, an assembly line, dinnertime. That person then has to play out a little 30-60 second scene using two fingers to represent two people. The purpose of the exercise is obvious. It’s easier than a real scene because you’re in control of both characters, but you still have to think quickly and develop some situation.

The most difficult exercise of the night was “The Gauntlet.” This is essentially the same thing as “10 characters in 60 seconds” from yesterday, except that in this case there’s another person on stage. That person only reacts however — no help in trying to complete the task. But as it turns out this is (slightly) easier than just doing characters on your own because the other person gives you ideas. It’s not on purpose, but e.g. if you see someone laying down than maybe you’re giving them CPR. It’s slightly easier to move into a situation where anything else is present. Still a very difficult exercise but this made more sense to me than the one where you were just up on your own.

Finally we did “The Living Room.” This is a show format, meaning a structure that could be used to fuel an entire show rather than just one scene. It’s essentially an idea-generator for scenes. The players are on one side of the stage (the “living room”) and then talk about anything just as they are — no characters here. Whenever something is said that gives you some inspiration, you just jump up and start a scene. Someone else jumps up too. Normally in this format you self-edit — you decide when the scene is over. It was kinda fun to do it, but it didn’t add any new information or skills other than just being more practice.

Tomorrow’s the last day!