Love this post by Jimmy Carrane
I just read this excellent article called Louis CK, TJ & Dave and the Art of Slow Comedy in Splitsider.
In the past, I’ve been instructed to make sure my scene partner and I communicate the following things in the first 3-5 lines:
- Who we are
- Who we are to each other
- How we feel about each other
- What each of us wants
- What the scene is about (or the “game”)
That’s a lot of info to get across in a short amount of time.
As a result, a couple of things can happen:
- We feel pressure to make offers that sound something like this: “Steve, as your older brother, Mark the Zookeeper, I want you to come to work on time, but you never do. And on top of that, you always give me some sort of crazy excuse, that I eventually accept despite being initially mad at you.” This is not as fun because one person is deciding everything in advance. There’s little room for surprise and the joy of building something together with your scene partner.
- We feel the pressure to create the funny instead of discovering it, causing our scenes to go to “crazytown” instead of being real.
But maybe this pressure is also a function of time and cast size. Given the same 25-minute time slot, two people will probably play a lot slower than eight because they’re not fighting for stage time.
Then again, many improvisers and eight-person troupes can play it real AND get to the funny fast because they’re talented, experienced and hardworking.
My opinion is that slow and fast improv are equally fun and rewarding when they both have truth.
If we ask for a suggestion and an audience member gives us one (“bicycle”), should we use it literally in the opening game or scene?
Some say we should go two or more moves away from the audience suggestion and use that as our inspiration for the scene. For example, “bicycle” makes me think of “summer” which makes me think of “picnic.” So maybe I might start a scene by flipping burgers at the grill with an offer of, “this is just the saddest picnic.”
In my experience, my improv instructors advocate this approach because it is smarter and more artistic.
Others say we should use “bicycle” literally by either making a physical offer (e.g., pretend to ride a bike) or verbal offer (e.g., “sometimes I just want to pedal away from this town as fast as I can”).
In my experience, my friends and family members who don’t know a lot about improv appreciate this approach.
After a few shows where my team didn’t use the suggestion literally, I asked people what they thought about it. Here’s basically what they said:
- Why did you ask us for a suggestion if you weren’t going to use it?
- I guess you didn’t like the suggestion.
- I guess you couldn’t think of a way to use it.
In general, my personal preference is to honor the audience’s suggestion literally if I can because I feel like I’m starting off the show with a big, obvious “YES” to the audience. Plus it’s fun to see their “monkey brains” light up with delight when they acknowledge that you honored them.
However, I do like the “two moves” philosophy in other situations. For example, if we’re doing a Harold and opening with three monologues, the first monologue might use the suggestion literally. The second and third will use an inspiration two moves from the original. As a result, we’ll have more ideas to pull from for the first beat scenes.
I wrote about this topic because it was just interesting to me to see how the perceptions of improvisers and their audiences can differ on some things.
In the end, I think improvisers want to entertain and audiences want to be entertained, so either approach can work.
We’ve all been there.
Many improv teachers will say that we should ignore these suggestions and get something more “appropriate.”
Instead, I believe we can enthusiastically accept these suggestions, use them in a smart way and (if you want) move on.
Here are a few of techniques I learned in class recently:
1. Use the suggestion explicitly, then move on. For example, if the suggestion is “dildo,” you might start with
- A physical offer: Pretend you are holding a dildo. Fondle it. Massage yourself. Then quickly put it back in the drawer when someone enters the room. Do the scene without ever referring to the dildo.
- A verbal offer:
Wife: Oh, Harry! A dildo! You shouldn’t have!
Husband: Happy Anniversary! You’re going to need it.
Wife: I don’t understand.
Husband: Joan, I’m leaving you for your sister.
(now the scene is about him leaving her, not the dildo)
2. Ask yourself, “what would the suggestion say if it could talk?” For example, to practice this skill, someone my class gave the suggestion of “bukkake.”
Player 1: (pretending to be a soldier in a war zone) “They’re coming at us from all sides!”
Player 2: (pretending to carry an armful of ammo) “I gotta drop this load somewhere, Sarge!”
3. Really embrace the suggestion. Just take the suggestions, enthusiastically feature dildos and bukkake and see what happens. It’s improv. Take it to a 10. Get silly.
You can practice these in your next class or rehearsal by splitting your group in two: players and audience. The players ask for a suggestion. The audience screams “inappropriate” suggestions. The players enthusiastically accept the first one they hear and immediately do a 3-5 line scene. Repeat.
In this post, I’m going to explore another trait: OPTIMISM.
My hope is that I can improve my ability (and yours) to play optimistic characters.
What does it mean to be optimistic?
You take the most favorable view of people, events and your conditions. You believe that things will turn out positively. You see the best in all people and things. You are confidently hopeful. At the extreme, you can be pollyanish, or absurdly optimistic.
What do optimistic people say and do?
- They smile
- They dismiss naysayers in a positive, cheery way
- They speak confidently because they believe
- They frame problems as “opportunities”
- They act bravely because they believe things will work out
- They cheer people up
- They use upbeat phrases like “yes we can” and “you can do it”
- They use verbal affirmations (i.e., “I’m a smart person”)
- They ignore the warning signs
- They have open body posture
- They find solutions instead of complaining
- They embrace change and challenges
- They constantly work on self-improvement
- They avoid emotional vampires and negative people
- They walk faster and stand taller
- They are genuinely excited about life
- They love inspirational quotes
- They sing happy tunes
- They’re playful
- They never give up
What are some examples of optimistic characters?
- Rocky Balboa, Rocky
- Agent Cooper, Twin Peaks
- Parry, The Fisher King
- Idgie Threadgoode, Fried Green Tomatoes
- Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption
- Jerry Maguire, Jerry Maguire
- Susan, Bringing Up Baby
- Dignan, Bottle Rocket
- Jerry, Be Kind Rewind
- Sam, Benny and Joon
- Wile E Coyote
- Chris Gardner, Pursuit of Happyness
- Spongebob Squarepants
- Forrest Gump
- Coach Herman Boone, Remember the Titans
- Jack Lengyel, We Are Marshall
- Coach Norman Dale, Hooisers
- Billy Elliot
- Olive, Easy A
- Louanne Johnson, Dangerous Minds
- John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society
- Tess, Working Girl
- George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life
- Kenneth Parcell, 30 Rock
- Leslie Knope, Parks & Recreation
- Jess, New Girl
- Dalai Lama
What are some ways to practice?
Using some of the examples above as inspiration
- practice moving around the room silently like a optimistic person would
- then add simple phrases like “hello”, “goodbye”, “it’s Tuesday”, etc.
- then perform simple tasks like pouring a cup of coffee, opening a door, shaving, etc.
- then pretend to be in a variety of settings - an office, a dining room, the car, etc.
- then go about your daily life as this character on your lunch break, to the store or for the entire day
I’ve gotten advice that if I want to be a great improviser, I should do other things besides just improv. One of the biggest things is writing - sketch, stage plays, screenplays, stand-up, short stories. Anything really.
Just finished Bird by Bird, a great book on writing and life by Anne Lamott and I have to say it’s one of the best books I’ve read…period.
It offers practical writing tips and inspiration for those who want to live the artistic life. Plus it is just dripping with beautiful writing.
Some of the bigger ideas:
- Commit to sitting down and writing at the same time every day. Show up and be present. You have to write A LOT over a LONG period of time to be good.
- Write shitty first drafts without judgement. Just get it down. Perfectionism is the enemy. Clutter and imperfection is fertile ground.
- Commit to finishing on a daily basis - even if your goal for today is just to write a simple exchange of dialog between two characters. Give yourself a quota (say, 300 words a day).
- It takes time to get to know your characters - maybe weeks and months.
- Meet regularly with a writing partner/group you trust.
- When you have writer’s block, it’s not because you are stuck. You are just empty. Instead of staring miserably at the computer screen, do some freewriting, brainstorming, go for a walk or do a cool activity to fill yourself up again.
- Tell your truth as best you can. Shine the light on your monsters because everyone pretty much has the same monsters. Take risks. Be vulnerable.
- Getting published is great, but writing must be it’s own reward if you are to be happy.
I really recommend that you read it. You’ll be glad you did.
Whether you’re an actor, director or writer, you’re an artist. And if you want to master your art, you need to work at it and you need to have a process.
Here’s an inspirational interview with Ernest Hemingway that was written in 1958. Hearing him talk about his art first-hand is fascinating. It’s also useful to learn about the way he works…his process. I never knew how disciplined he was.
Some interesting nuggets:
- He wrote every morning soon after first light
- He stood at his work desk when he wrote
- He roughly wrote his ideas using pencil and paper, moving to the typewriter only when writing was “going fast or well”
- Wearing down seven No. 2 pencils was a good days work
- He kept track of his daily progress using a chart of the number of words written each day. If he was going to take a day off, he wrote twice as much the prior day
- He read widely
- He re-wrote the last page of “Farewell to Arms” thirty-nine times