Sunday, October 21, 2012

All Shook Down

You ever have one of those times where you screw something up despite your best intentions? You know you're screwing up while you're screwing up, but the dominoes continue to fall.

That, in a nutshell was my Level Three audition.  The "Dear John" e-mail I received at 1:30 a.m. was a mere formality: try again in two months.

At least I knew I had screwed up and why, so the result wasn't a shock.  Only 36 people get accepted out of the approximately 75 people who audition.  Several of my friends didn't make it on Friday.  Several male friends.  One of us posted the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer segment with the land of misfit toys.  We may form our own troupe: The Land of Misfit Boys.  Well, congrats to my friends who made it through.

Anyhow, a look behind the curtain: introduce yourself, do a three person scene, and then do montage.
It's over very quickly.

The three person scenes have you lined up alphabetically with your class members.  So, in class it may have been wise to have sought out more scenes with the two people immediately after me in the alphabet to familiarize myself with these actors.  Oops. Montage was done one of two ways: one class did sweep edits and had call backs in their montage.  Our class and one of the other classes did walk-out edits with no call backs.  The montage in our class devolved into a series of five person scenes.  Five-person scenes are very cluster-fucky in a montage.  It wasn't as bad as freeze tag during the initial audition, but that's not saying much.

You can also get your notes after the audition to find out what you need to work on.  Me? My characters did not have enough detail, and I did not have enough emotional range during my audition.  Fair enough, and I'm not surprised.  I would've probably used the word "insipid" if I were to give myself notes. But, I digress, lest this become a pity-wank.

So, yours truly will be planning his next improv steps and looking forward to giving this another try in two months.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Something I learned Today

We had a double header.  One, two, three, four, five, six -- count 'em -- six hours of improv.  Loved it.

We began with some of our usual scene work exercises.  As usual, it kind of went off the rails.

So, again, we came back to sharing stories of interactions that we had with people within the the past week or so.  Sadly, many of us found ourselves scrapping to find an example, because it had to be a face to face reaction instead of e-mail, telephone, Skype, bathhouse rendezvous, etc.  Gellman urged us to use these to initiate our scenes.  That may seem contrary to the idea of making it up from scratch.  It's not.  One of the pitfalls is to try to be too "empty" when you begin a scene.  Unless you are really at the top of the improv game, you probably can't be truly "empty" when you begin a scene and still be able to pull it off (i.e. produce a good scene).  Having some lines stored up is just a trick of the trade.  So we shared some of our personal interactions over the recent past, and began our scene work.

Again the fundamentals are stressed: emotional reactions to the situation, the other actors in the scene, and the environment.  With respect to the interactions that we had, one may fall into the trap of assuming the role you were in when the interaction happened.  The stronger choice for improvising is to choose the person on the interaction who is doing the action.  A variation on that advice is to treat your scene partners the way that people treat you.

Dan and Kristen had a fun scene where he sought counseling from a friend who is not a licensed psychiatrist.  She ran with it.  Then he got pissed off with her diagnosis.  Kristen had this funny Godzilla line -- complete with Godzilla claw motion -- that was directed at Dan.

The second three hour session was very much dedicated to Gellman drilling us on fundamentals to get us ready for our audition on Friday.  (The audition to determine if we get to move on to level three and the remainder of the conservatory levels.)  We worked on three person scenes (one part of the audition process) in the first of the second session (the third quarter?).  We had ten people in class, so two lucky dogs got to perform two three person scenes.  Yeah, I was all over that shit.

Scott, Zach (a Sunday session guy), and I played a fun scene in an airport. Our flight was delayed, and Zach's character was worried that his wife would flip out.  My character was recently divorced and not happy about it.  Scott's character was gay, and Zach and I agreed that he had it easier because guy's are easier to deal with and his partner Dale (not in the scene) was pretty cool.  Scott had this great reaction line where he accused us of judging him with our eyes.  He could see that we were just imagining he and his partner having sex every time he spoke.  That was a fun scene to be in.

We had a bit of discussion afterwards about what works in a scene.  Personally, I've been over thinking things way too much in my conservatory classes. In the past couple weeks, I've tried (with occasional success) to just have fun and not over think and over process a scene.  Almost anybody who seriously pursues improv probably did impersonations and characters for their family and friends long before they ever took an improv course. And they probably made their family and friends laugh with these antics, an that encouragement maybe resulted in school plays, prank phone calls, being a class clown, or whatever.

I know that's how things played out for me, and when I'm impersonating a co-worker for other co-workers, or impersonating a relative for other relatives, or what have you, I don't over think it. I don't try too hard to be funny.  I don't build up whatever I'm doing to be some great monumental statement.  I just have fun and act the way I think that person would act with all the physical ticks, voice inflections, stock phrases, and whatever else enters my head.  It's just fun.  And it's easy to morph into these people because I've observed them. I've noticed the small things, spent time with them, and assuming their persona for a brief while doesn't feel like a huge stretch.  The past few weeks, I've made a conscious effort to reconnect with that.  I still stumble and fall into bad habits, but I've felt more locked into the process recently and simplifying things helps immensely.  Paying attention to what the instructor says and has said for the past eight weeks also helps.  (So glad I've been writing it down and regurgitating it into cyberspace; I can review my notes on my phone when I'm riding the Blue Line on a weekday morning. It sure as hell beats having what I think is a staring contest with the former fratboy day trader douche who wears his sunglasses for the entirety of train ride.  But I digress.)  The advice to have a line or even a character in your back pocket before you step out makes it less daunting.  Ultimately, that's not too different from riffing with friends, except that you have some parameters to work with and ground rules to keep in mind.

On that note, Gellman told us that part of what we're being taught to do is to fuck around with focus.  Fuck around with focus.  What a great ethos.

The last portion of class was fucking around with characters and we were encouraged to get goofy, crazy, whacky, and bats hit.  Shit got pretty warped -- as it was supposed to.  I got to use my Canadian accent, which is always fun for me.  (And not a great stretch because I have several relatives who live in various small towns east of Toronto along the 401.)  There was a great scene where Kristen was a grandmother who had some form of dementia (I guess), two of her grandkids were trying to keep her from hurting herself, and she accused them of wanting her dead.  Casey (the difficult third grandchild) just agreed with that accusation of wanting Grannie to croak, Grannie lauded him for his honesty, and the scene clicked into place after that.

There was so much great scene work that I'm not recalling at this late hour, but this was an immensely fun day of improv.  Everybody in the class is immensely talented, and it's a privilege to play with them.  We were joined by two awesome improvisers from the Sunday class: Zach and Ann Marie.  It was a pleasure having them on stage.

Wow, after six hours, I wanted to keep going.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Words I Thought I Brought, I Left Behind

My notes are for shit this time around, so here goes (mostly from memory).

We began with a warm-up that was very much within my skill set: improvise as poorly as possible.  Owned it.  Clunky exposition. Talking about objects.  Questions?  Negating your scene partner's choice.  Leaving.  I told my my scene partner she had poop smeared on her forehead.  Dicks were whipped out -- by women.  Farts were mentioned.  People were called gay. Sadly, we forgot to mention Hitler.  Schade.

After that shit show, we got down to business.   We did two exercises that allowed everybody to have three scenes.  All in all, we had a solid class.  The first exercise was two people with one of them doing an activity.  An activity that takes concentration.  Something you do not want to be distracted from, and your goal is to carry on with that activity for the entire scene.  Your scene partner, is trying to distract you. Both actors were to strive to be a character.  The exercise consisted of two scenes, with the same characters in each scene.  In the second scene, the setting would change, and the "doer" from the first scene would be the distractor in the second scene and vice versa.

This was fun.  Mario and Kristen did a scene where they were exes trying be "just friends."  Yeah, right.  Gellman pointed out a cool thing about their two scenes: they were both doing the same activity: moving around old shit (one time in an attic and the other time in a storage facility), which was also reflective of their dialogue. They were having a conversation that they had probably had had many times before when they were dating.  Scott and Kris had a very fun scene where they were step-siblings. And they played and drew on Scott's activity from the first of the two scenes: building a house of cards.

This exercise marked the second time in Conservatory where I tried to perform a character based loosely on a good friend of mine.  He's distinctive in his voice, diction, and personality.  So that helps.  It feels almost as if you're cheating when do something like that.  There's another benefit too: the person I base this character on is extremely slow to anger and almost always sees the good in people.  So, that helps with my anger issues during scene work.  I was in the scene with Megan, who gave this overly agreeable nice guy persona great stuff to work with as the home-wrecking next-door neighbor.

A cool aspect of this exercise was that the second scenes were invariably stronger than the first.  The second scenes were stronger because the exposition was already out of the way for us, so we didn't feel the need to set the table for the scene.  It made the scenes stronger because it was believable that the two characters already knew each other, had a history, and the scene would just begin as if the audience is walking in on a conversation that was already underway.

The second exercise was quite the challenge: two person scene in which you can only speak when you touch your scene partner.  And, no, you don't just get to hold onto your scene partner for the whole scene so you can talk whenever you want.  This was a great exercise for making silence less uncomfortable and feeling its power while you're in the middle of it. You also have to focus more on your scene partner, his or her facial expression, movement, and location on stage.  Really cool stuff.  Scott and Elizabeth had an awesome scene where they were mother and son.  Scott was a gamer with no friends -- with the exception of the eight people scattered all over the world with he plays his games.

Ultimately, the purpose of these exercises was to get us to do what we should be doing every time we play: be a character with strong needs and wants interacting with his or her environment with honest emotional reactions.  Or something like that.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mr. Self Destruct

Yesterday began with about half of us in class, so we began with freeze tag.  This sequence of freeze tag felt good as a unit (even though it only involved about half of us).  Poor Scott made the mistake of embracing me in a scene -- never do that immediately after I've ridden my bike to class.

Once the whole gang had arrived, we did a mock audition.  (Because you have to audition after Level Two to be allowed to complete the program.)  This was a mid term of sorts.  If you remember that scene from Rocky IV where Ivan Drago declares to Rocky: "I must break you," you have an idea of what Gellman was out to accomplish with this exercise.  Everybody was against the back wall, and we did three people scenes after getting a suggestion from the "audience." The characters were supposed to be somewhat close to who we are in real life.

Then, it was time to be broken.  Of the ten people in our group, he said that two of us would have made it through.  Spoiler alert: yours truly ain't one of 'em.  And then, things got personal.  "Personal" as in personal critiques of what we're doing wrong. Questions about what we were thinking on stage. And tips to improve what we're doing.  (I think at that point it was pretty much a given that we would have a better turn out than usual for our post class drinking session.)  A global suggestion was that we were taking far too long to get going.  In these scenes, we need to check-in and get the first line out within three seconds.  Tops.  Another global suggestion/admonishment was that these scenes are about character.  Character comes first and scenic content is a second.  (Perhaps a distant second.)  The goal of these scenes is to have the actors perform their characters with an emotion while interacting with their environment.  Easier said than done.  You've taught all these great things over the course of months or years, and it's confounding how it all can evaporate during that three minute scene.  You (or I, more accurately) find yourself making the same mistakes. Again and again and again.  Son-bitch.

Another mistake: letting the first line define the entirety of the scene.  (This is useful corollary to the beginner's mistake with object work -- talking about the object or the action involved with the object.)  Yet another error that found its way into more than one of our scenes was turning the three person scene into a two against one.  This is bad.  Very bad.  Well, it's very bad for the two people who gang up on the one.  The one, according to Sensai Gellman, will almost always come off looking better than the two.  In fact, the one will have a much better chance of making it through because the auditors will conclude, "fuck, she deserves it after putting up with those assholes."

Yeah, I was involved in one of those 2 on 1 scenes as part of the 2.  In the personal critiques afterwards, I was once again told -- wait for it -- TOO ANGRY.  I was genuinely surprised, but it's again something to work and to try to banish.  Gellman then asked me several questions about the character I was playing on stage.  What did he want? What did he desire?  I had no answers, which was reminiscent of trying to write a character based loosely on me in a writing class.  I had the same critiques: this character's wants and desires were not well defined.  Well, yeah, because I'm apathetic.  And angry, evidently.  (We grow 'em dispassionate and irritable in the wilds of southwestern Michigan.)  So, that's a challenge and some homework worth doing with respect to improv and writing: stop doing the same shit.

But enough about me.  As a unit we were also faulted for "yes anding" a single topic or just "yessing" a single topic.  Example: grandma died.  And then an entire scene about the single subject of grandma's demise.  Throw another log on the fire and take it in another direction: "Cool.  She was an ornery old bitch who never let me eat ice cream.  And now we get to sell her house and pocket the money. I'm spending Christmas in La Paz with a gaggle of whores!  Thanks, grams."

Going further on emotions, we all too often have the urge to treat a scene partner the same way that we would treat a real person who is emotional:  we try to console or de-fuse the trauma.  But we get a better scene when we throw gas on the fire instead of putting it out.

Another fundamental thing that we were drilled on was connecting on stage without constant eye contact.  In several of our scenes, whatever object work we were doing would either get ignored entirely or get turned into a mindless and repetitive motion. (Think Daniel-san doing "wax on" when a table or something else is being scrubbed or wiped off.)

Man, that class was a punch in the gut.  As I understand it, he is trying to get us out of the trap of thinking too much on stage and trying to be funny.  We just need to let it go and start moving, talking and reacting without all the pre-planning, processing, and stammering.  Just start delivering lines and moving around and figure out what you were doing after you did it.  I've been trying to get myslef to do that in scenes for a while, but it just seems to fall apart in practice.

So, back to my anger issues and the above paragraph.  The final scene of class was a four person scene: mother (Elizabeth) and her three kids (Dan, Megan, and I). After some side-coaching, Gellman got one of us playing the kids to assume a place in the birth order.  It was Dan as the youngest (and he's a real life youngest child).  And his lines were delivered after the mother and his sister.  So, after he did his bit it was my turn to go.  Given my crow's feet and ever-increasing light black hairs, I took the mantle of oldest child (even though I, too, am the youngest in real life).  I just channeled my oldest sister and some of the tirades she used to have when we were all growing up and having an argument as an entire family.  It was anger, sure, but it was also just delivered freely without trying to be witty or clever and the words just came out without searching for them beforehand. Despite this outburst of anger, Sensai told me it was a solid contribution.  According to him the difference was that the emotion was honest and the character had an opinion, something to say, instead of just spouting off out of intellectual laziness.

* * * * * 

I finally went out and saw professionals imrpovising this past week.  I had fallen into a lull of not going to shows after the past several weeks.  What got me off my ass and out of the house on a weeknight? One of my Second City instructors, Kate Duffy, is leaving flyover country for Los Angeles.  Well, Kate was performing with her close friend, and improv giant, Susan Messing at the Annoyance on Wednesday. It was a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: see Kate before she left and finally see Susan Messing improvise.  

The fuss and hype are entirely deserved.  This show was awesome.  You can tell that they are great friends and that they love being on stage together.  As entertaining as the show was, it was also kind of intimidating for a novice improviser.  You find yourself thinking, in between bursts of laughter, "damn, how do they that.  I have so much to learn."  Personally, I was tickled pink that they used the audience suggestion "Jimmy Hoffa" for the show.  What ensued were scenes with mob wives, cellmates in prison having altercations over chess pieces, a mob wife cheating on her husband, a psychologist taking advantage of her patient and insisting on payment afterwards, a pervy dude named Glenn using fisting as a pick-up line, Turkish prison guards who are huge fans of the NHL, two early teen-age boys calling each other "abortion face" and trying to explain sex with a dinner date metaphor.   The whole experience was a reminder of just how fun improv can be and is.  A reminder worth keeping in mind after a harsh review, a bad class, or a bad performance.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Get So Emotional

About a week ago, I did a make-up class on Wednesday night.  I couldn't make my usual Saturday slot on account of a baby shower.  A baby shower for my baby. [Pause for appropriate emotional responses from all of you wonderful readers.]

All of the actors in class were strangers, even if a few had vaguely familiar faces.  I didn't bother to learn any of their names.  I guess that makes me an aloof prick, but nobody asked me my name either.  So, there.

Back to my notes and observations from class.  We concentrated on emotional reactions in our scenes.  The sort of emotional reactions that somebody has when they've been holding onto something personal about somebody and have avoided saying it for too long.  You know these sort statements: I love you. You're selfish. This isn't working.  I hate your meatloaf recipe.  That sweater is actually pretty ugly.  You ruined oral sex for me.  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  The emotional response is a good piece of advice.  Too often we make the mistake of being too polite in our scene work, probably because it's closer to the pussy-footing we do in our everyday conversations.  And, perhaps, the tendency to mimic the insipid interactions we have every day is a misguided attempt to make our work seem more realistic.

We were also encouraged to make physical or emotional movements before we speak to get ourselves out of our heads on stage.  The added bonus of making an emotional or physical movement before uttering a word is that your scene partner gets something to react to -- it puts less pressure on them to create something out of thin air.

To help with the night's emphasis on reactions, we played an immensely fun game called "Sentences."  We each wrote a personal sentence on a scrap of paper and tossed them on top of a table.  Then, you and your scene partner take five scraps of paper and put them in our back pockets.  (Except for a woman who wore a dress that had no pockets.  She held the papers in her hand.)  The papers were there to be used when we were at a loss for a reaction to what our partner was saying.  Gellman told us that the game is played poorly when the sentences are used as an initiation or in a manner equivalent to mad libs.  A highlight was a scene involving Bosnian janitors (man and woman) who were having a contentious conversation that delved into unrequited love.

The main thing we took away from this exercise is that if you get emotional on stage, then you can't fuck it up.  You just gotta go for it.  That being said, anger is the emotion that is used as a default because it's the easiest one to reach for. I'm guilty of this.

The challenge is to reach for other emotions, to go elsewhere on the palette.      

We then tried to put our knowledge to use in some improv games that we learned and payed numerous times in Levels A through E: 4 square and scene tag.  The basic principles that we worked on was to make physical choices, to react, to play with emotion, and to listen.

I had fun playing with this new group, but I missed my Saturday posse.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Head Games (It's You and Me, Baby)

It was one of those days.  One of those days where you're thinking about other things when you should be thinking about you're doing.  So, my scenework was basically for shit today.  Well, it happens.

We began by listing some current events topics at the beginning of class.  Topics such as the teachers' strike here in Chicago, the nutcase-dipshit who made the anti-Islam movie that has pissed off the nutcase-dipshit faction of the Islamic world, the brouhaha over the princess's boobs (is that France's revenge for Waterloo?), and Romney's "Obama supports the Islamic radicals" quip.  The point of this exercise was to get us thinking about how our improvised characters might mention these events during a scene to add depth to our characters and the scenes themselves.  I like that idea because it takes the action on stage out of a vacuum.

We spent a good chunk of our time on theoretical stuff.  Part of that discussion was the notion that being trained to create shows that are sold to an audience somehow compromises the content or the integrity of the show. Gellman was adamant that being able to learn this craft to communicate and connect with a broad audience is more sophisticated than just doing it for the amusement of your friends and their friends.  He uses IO as an example.  He says that when you go to a show at IO, chances are the audience consists of other improv students or other improvisers you've seen around town.  (True enough, I guess.)  His point was that communicating with a broader audience is more difficult, and it is not necessarily dumbing down your material.  If you just make other people in your improv group laugh, and nobody ever pays to see you perform that material, then your just having a circle jerk.

In our scenework, we spent an extensive amount of time on montages -- which will be a huge focus of our audition to be allowed to complete the conservatory.  As a preface to that work, Gellman shared a piece of advice that stuck with me: as an actor, your line is not over until your scene partner reacts/responds to your line.

In montages, the idea is to come out, take a few seconds with an action on stage, and check in with your partners before delivering lines.  Leading off with a line without seeing what's happening, who's on stage with you, and what they are doing can lead to some very bad beginnings to your scene.  For example, you say "Dad, I'm not going to college" but you're onstage with two female actors.  Or you start working with a wrench and say something about the car you're working on when the people behind you are bowling.  This goes against what many people are taught in their beginning classes -- to just say something as you are walking out.  Also, we were bluntly told that montages do not have call backs (or reincorporation) of previous scenes or characters.

We began class on hour early this week, which was kind of cool because we had our usual room for an hour after class ended.  We used that time to jam and practice our montages.

Damn, is that all I have to say about this week?  Fuck, I need to take better notes.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

I Am A Man Who Will Fight For Your Honor

Back at it.

Once again, we got into things with some freeze tag. But before we began, Gellman shared a story about a classic Laurel & Hardy scene where they have to deliver a piano to a house in the Hollywood Hills and they have to go up 250 steps from Sunset Blvd. to get to the house.  His lesson from that story was that adding the stairs to that scene was the source of the comedy, and we need to add stairs (in a metaphorical sense) to our scenes to create comedy.

After our freeze tag warm-up, we had a review of last week's ground rules for dialogue and Gellman's personal rules for his class.  He expanded on one of the reasons for his no gender-bending rule: in some improv circles men play women because there are no women in the troupe, and there are often no women in the troupe because of the bullshit notion that "women aren't funny." That shit don't fly in Gellman's class.  And rightfully so.  During this part of class, he also shared a vitally important life lesson: "Junkies can't be trusted, especially when they are speedballing."

One of the drills that we did, which we also did last week, was sixty second relationship scenes.  Two people are on the stage, and the audience gives them a setting for their scene.  What the actors have to do during that scene is to stick to the dialogue guidelines (yes, and; statements; and stay in the present) and establish a relationship between their two characters.  It sounds easier than you'd think.  You can't just be obvious about the relationship (Hello, mom, I am your son, and I am going to come out as gay in this scene...).  It actually gets easier if you just look at your scene partner and react honestly to his or her cues, statements, and body language.

Some highlights of this exercise were Kris and [fuckican'trememberwhowasinthescenewithher] as sisters at a campground.  Sister A accused sister B of hating her soul because it was so beautiful and that's why people like her.  Another highlight was Dan and Kristen.  Dan was hitting on Kristin after she had told him not to do it.  He thought that restriction only applied for the previous shift as opposed to a blanket prohibition.  It was then revealed that she was particularly opposed to his advances because they are co-workers -- and cousins.

Gellman's tip during this exercise was that the scene works better when the characters are fighting for something or someone -- such as a couple fighting to keep their relationship going (even if they want different things out of the relationship, they still want to be together).  This idea of a clear exposition in the scene at the beginning is also usual for sketches because if a scene isn't working, a good place to start in trying to fix it is to go back to the beginning --the first sixty seconds -- and see if the characters relationships and objectives (what they are fighting for) are well defined.

Our next exercise was a wrinkle on the sixty second drill.  We each had to write down a line that we said to somebody during the previous week or that somebody said to us.  The line had to be person A saying something personal about themselves or the recipient of the line; it could not be about some third person.  So, we got on stage with our scene partner and the audience gave us a relationship and a setting.  Whoever went first said their line as the first line of the sixty-second scene.  During that sixty seconds, a scenario had to develop.  For the next scene, you and your scene partner have the same relationship, but you're given a new location, and it was the other person's turn to deliver their line first.

This was quite fun. My personal favorite was Mario and Siera as husband and wife.  In scene one, they were in the yard of their home in Boise, ID.  Mario's first line was "you're a prick." (Something a husband usually says to his wife.) In sixty seconds, they had the beginnings of a marital misunderstanding that was nuanced by a desire to make things work.  In the second scene, they were on a balcony at a resort in Puerto Vallarta. Siera began with "you really are a selfish person."  This couple had this funny scene where they both found common ground in that they are both selfish and put themselves before their spouse.  But hey, it's just peachy because even though I put myself first, honey, you're number two above all others.

The idea of using a line as the spark for a scene is a good one.  Gellman told us that one of his friends would keep a list of "overheards" that he'd use to begin scenes.  I'm going to steal that idea.