Yes, and 7 more things in my closet

Tonight I started a 6-day, 26-hour intensive course on improv comedy. Because I’d like to chronicle what happened and digest it later, the next few blog entries will be a journal without analysis or filtering.

The troupe at Coldtowne Theatre has an interesting history. They started in New Orleans but were displaced by Katrina. Left with no home and little money, they toured the country with their act. After having seen lots of comedy (often at festivals) and many cities, they settled on Austin as their new home. They opened the theater on 49 1/2 and Airport and do shows and classes. “Chicago style” is their thing, meaning the scenes are completely invented. Contrast to “Game style” where situations and structures are put in placed ahead of time as with Who’s Line is it Anyway.

The class is made up of 10 guys, most of whom have no experience in comedy or theater. The teachers are pro’s (literally) and it shows. There’s no “graduation show” scheduled but I said there should be one and our teacher said she’d try to make it happen.

First the warm-ups. The idea is to get you to relax, loosen up inhibitions, and get used to saying the first thing that comes to mind. Don’t try to be funny, don’t try to make sense. The first was “Throw the dagger.” With everyone standing in a circle, a dagger is produced (completely invented of course) and thrown at someone. You catch it in some way, make eye contact with someone else, and throw it. Soon people were catching it with their teeth, getting stabbed, dodging it, using it to cut steak, doing Matrix moves, etc..

The next warm-up was “7 Things.” One people is challenged to think of “Seven things that are in your car” or “Seven things that make you mad.” As you yell out each thing everyone else yells “Yes!” (which makes it funnier — one rule of improv is that affirming something ridiculous is inherently funny). The nouns don’t matter — even if it doesn’t make any sense at all. You might say “Cats, Barry Manilow, the Earth, food, croquet, pizza, commas,” to any proposition. Again you’re just supposed to get used to talking out loud, and getting used to not being embarrassed or worried.

The first lesson is the primary rule of improv: The Rule of Agreement. Improv has no props and no set-up, so everything is created on the spot, or “an invention” in the lingo. Both the audience and the other actor must be able to follow the construction. The Rule of Agreement is that once a situation has been established — even if with a single sentence — you must not deny its existence.

For example, if someone starts a scene with “Hey Harry, look at that dead hooker,” you cannot respond with “That’s not a hooker, it’s a tulip.” This “denial” (the lingo) kills the action. The first person has no response. You can’t argue that indeed it is a hooker because now nothing makes sense and no plot is developing. If you agree it’s a tulip it still doesn’t make sense and there’s no development.

We did an exercise called “Yes, and…” to get into the “agreement” mind-set; however it’s a common mistake (which Malcolm Gladwell made) to say this is the rule. The exercise is that you do a scene but every line must start with “Yes, and…” You do not have to make the situation more ridiculous, you just get in the mindset of affirmation. In reality you don’t necessarily agree with everything — the typical straight-man/crazy-man routine depends on one person disagreeing with another — it’s that you agree with the current “construction” — the situation, the scene, the action.

So now that you’re not denying the reality that has been invented, now you need some reality! How do you start to build something from nothing?

It turns out that what you’re doing in the scene is much less important than who the characters are and their relationship to each other. The interplay between people and the odd mixtures you can get and the way they play off one another is the meat — the invented props, actions, etc are just a means to convey that.

Given this, the next exercise forced us to think about what our characters were feeling. You do the scene but between each turn you have to pause for 2 seconds to think “What do I feel about this?” Then you have to incorporate that feeling into the response, either directly (e.g. “That makes me mad!”) or indirectly (e.g. “Goddammit Billy did you really have to do that?”).

For me this exercise did more than just clarify the character’s existence. Before, even if we had a good premise to start off the scene it didn’t go anywhere. Even with funny characters or situations there was no plot, no development, no action, no interest. When you take the time to think “What would this character feel,” you first have to figure out who the character is. And that’s when I realized that I don’t know! I didn’t think about that. And that’s why it didn’t go anywhere.

It’s like Socrates defining his words — once you define all your terms and everyone else agrees to the definitions, the results fall out automatically. Once you really understand your character, the results of the scene will fall out. Of course you have to be funny and you have to come up with the character immediately, but if you have your own framework you know how to react consistently to the scene.

One way I’ve heard this said is “Take care of yourself first.” (Actually it was “Get yourself off first.”) In other words, understand who you are in the scene first and you can always use it to help you through and develop the plot. An “anchor,” in yet more lingo.

So don’t deny the scene and know who you are. Next lesson is: Listen. Really listen to the other person. Did they just imply something with the last statement? Are they communicating something you should pick up on? If the audience sees that actor A is trying to do something and B isn’t playing along, it’s not fun, not funny, and stifles the momentum.

We did a few exercises to practice this, but we weren’t told what the exercise was beforehand. In one case you had to repeat the scene you just invented, but switch roles. Can you remember everything the other person said? In another you had to deliver the “inner monologue” that the other character would have been going through in the scene.

For me the most interesting point here was not just that you should listen, but what you’re listening for. Go back to the point that the characters and relationships are much more important than what they are doing. It’s easy to get caught up in the action and get stuck trying to think of the “next thing to do.” Inside, remember that the other person has developed a character in her own mind. What is that character? When you’re listening, drill into what that character is. Is it “The guy that’s angry?” “The guy who’s unhappy no matter what?” “The woman who’s excited about everything?” If you’re picking up on this you can play off it and the actions will come more easily. How would your character react to that character, in general? If you’re a tough army guy and she’s your neighbor who you secretly admire, how do you interact with her? It doesn’t matter if she’s walking the dog or going to work or gardening or also in the army or yelling at kids — the key is your relationship and listening for that in the other person helps you establish this.

So: Agree with reality, know thyself, and listen. (The life-lessons are starting to show…) Next is “locality.” Don’t tell a story during the scene — BE the story. Don’t talk about what you did two weeks ago — DO it. Don’t talk about what you’re going to do tomorrow — DO it. It’s easier to interact and people go to sleep anyway. No exercises on this one but it was a recurring theme.

Next is to stick with your personality/relationship. In one scene I started out as a tough army guy with a gun
(a rabbit-shooting gun as it turned out, and by that I mean a gun that fires rabbits). The other guy was a kid who thought the gun was cool. It was working at first but it wasn’t going anywhere. The teacher stopped us and said, “OK, start again but this time you ARE the tough army guy who knows everything about the gun and you ARE the kid who is excited about everything no matter what.” We did it again and it was hilarious. Owning the parts helped in several ways: (1) Audience could track it, (2) an anchor to reduce variables as you’re navigating the scene, (3) something you could count on in the other person, (4) when two personalities do their thing and even clash, especially when it’s ridiculous, it’s funny.

Yet another rule is: Don’t ask Questions. Often a question just pushes a decision onto the other person, rather than helping to build the scene. Furthermore, a question often directs the other person to invent something specific instead of allowing the other person to invent wherever convenient.

For example, player A starts by saying “Why is there a dead hooker over there?” Now B has to come up with a reason for a specific thing that was just invented — a difficult thing. Instead A could say “Look Harry, there’s a dead hooker over there!” Now B has to react to the situation, but B can say and do anything about it. B could say “I’m scared of dead people” or “That’s the fifth one today” or “Let’s go see” or whatever.

Really this rule isn’t that you can’t ask questions. It’s that you shouldn’t put the other person in a position to have to make specific inventions. A question that builds onto the scene can be OK. For example, B could respond, “I’m going to take a closer look. Want to come?” B has developed the scene and A is still open to respond in any number of ways, and again A can rely on his character’s feelings to come up with a consistent answer.

The final rule (for today) is: Keep it Simple. When the scene gets complex the audience gets lost and so do the players. Often the first 30 seconds establishes all you need — when you’re scared or blocked you start inventing more things to add to the scene but this doesn’t resolve the problem. More invention doesn’t help the scene along, it just clutters it and makes it more confusing. This rule was broken the most tonight; when you’re stuck it’s hard to play within the few structures you have. I think owning your character before you get on stage can go a long way to combat this.

However, all rules can be broken. All are guidelines that help get you going and drive scenes forward. In one scene a general and private ended up switching ranks. The storyline made sense and it was funny — holding on to “I must remain in this part no matter what” would have broken the momentum.

Well that’s all for today. It was a blast! Some of it was easier and other parts were harder than I expected.

When all this is over I hope to be able to tie this up in some meaningful way, and also bring out specific ways in which some techniques are useful outside the theater.

  • Sounds like you are learning to really listen to someone talking to you, rather than thinking about your next response.

    Just as in real life.

    Then again: which one is real?

  • Aunt Penny

    Firstly, I think what you are doing is so great! I do think there are multiple applications for these techniques. Getting used to not being embarrassed or worried is a great skill to have, something that I think you may already have. Of course, your family expects you to perform at all family functions in the future. I guess you’ll have to play all parts. However, I would find it fun to try improv. I am good at not denying an invented reality re: Hans and Frans!

    Your “yes and” exercise to get into the affirmation mind-set reminded me (by contrast) of David’s argument about someone using “yes-but” to agree but disagree at the same time.

    This self-selecting group of people must be interesting in themselves, unless they are trying to learn humor to get out of themselves, which is itself interesting. You may have funny reunions in your future.