Wax On, Wax Off

A number of weeks back I wrote about the improv tool set AEIOU. I return to the topic now.

After students have learned the basic pieces of AEIOU it is helpful to drill each of these tools individually and then in combinations in a “Karate Kid,” wax on-wax off, fashion.

Name that actor

For example, I find it helpful to have teams of two students begin scenes with actions only and then add emotions. What is particularly useful at this stage is to have each improviser only create one action at a time. For example improviser A might go on stage and begin by painting a fence. The action should be simple, repetative and open ended. Improviser B then enters and begins another simple action that can be related to improviser A’s action, say pounding nails in boards. I keep a close rein on the actors though side coaching here, making sure that each improviser begins only one action and sticks with that action. All too often our improvised actions are complicated and muddy as we start one thing, quickly throw it out for something more “interesting” and rush through things to get to the “funny stuff”. I enforce the one-simple-action-at-a-time rule tightly.

Once improviser B has begun her action, it is improver A’s turn to observe and then react to improviser B’s action. Improviser A might then put down his paint and take a “finished” board from B, add that to the fence and then paint that newly added board. B then watches and reacts to A.

Name that actor

Again, what is important here is that each improviser does only one thing at a time, reacts to the other’s offers, and they build the story together. I call this playing tennis. Each improviser makes one offer and hits the ball back to his scene partner.

Once a number of actions have been established then one of the improvisers can have an emotional reaction to the action of the other improviser. Maybe B stops pounding nails, looks over at A’s fence and smiles in approval. A then reacts to B’s emotional offer either physically (holds up his hand for a high five?) or emotionally (smiles back?).

Name that actor

These simple tennis scenes can be done using any combination of the AEIOU tool set: Actions and You statements, Observations and Emotions, I statements and You statments. Some combinations work better than others (I like nonverbal and verbal combinations the best), but really any pair can lead to interesting beginning scenes with lots of potential.

Today’s Improvmantra: Keep things simple.

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Graduation Speech, Improv Style

‘Tis the graduating season. This past month my wife was contacted by an old grade school classmate, Kevin. It seems that 25 years ago she and he delivered co-Eighth Grade Graduation speeches. His task was to talk about the past, and her’s was to talk about the future.

Flash forward and Kevin is now a high school teacher. He contacted my wife because he was asked to give the graduation speech to the seniors at his school this year and he wanted her to participate via video. With the magic of modern technology, my wife obliged with this:

Today’s Improvmantra: Don’t forget the “And.”

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How To Perform Improv

This post is amazing. All you struggling improvisers out there take note! This is how you do it.

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Through…

Ok… sorry folks… this is going to get esoteric.

In my previous post I talked about the struggle. I thought I would then go back to writing about improv-y things… like AEIOU and the like. However, blogs and writing and thinking improvisationally have their own effects and their own ways of driving me. For a week I tried to get back to AEIOU but the words wouldn’t come. That’s when I realized I was trying to “drive” my own scene. So I did what I should have done originally and looked to my scene partner, the universe, (see, I warned you about esotericness… esoternocity?) and my partner said, “Hey moron… look over here!”

A few days ago Kate posted a great comment to me… which finally pushed me off the pot upon which I was perched. What happens when we say yes to the struggle?

Firstly, let me say that at least in my experience saying yes to the struggle really isn’t that easy. There have been many times when I thought I was “saying yes to the struggle” only to discover that I was still finding different creative ways of avoiding the pain of struggling. We are very smart, we humans, and we are oh so good a constructing our avoidance tools. They are big, complicated, pretty, interesting, exciting, and tricky. Humans mostly attempt to avoid pain. This makes perfect sense when we are in survival mode. We don’t want to be hungry so we work to get food, we don’t want to burn ourselves so we are careful when we cook it over our hot fires.

But survival doesn’t mean growth. For growth we need to risk, and for risk we need to be willing to be in pain and be in the struggle. So, this past week I have said yes to the struggle…. I mean really said yes.

I am sure it is different for everyone, but for me I worked like this: I looked at what it was that I didn’t want to do/say… then I did or said that thing.

This is kind of subtle so I’ll explain. I have spent a good deal of my life not being perfectly honest about things. I am not what you might call an out-and-out liar, but I have definately skated around important truths with the important people in my life. Being completely honest with the people I care about actually scares the crap outta me.

So these past weeks I have been playing chicken with myself and when I found myself not wanting to say something truthfully… I forced myself to say it. Honesty is my struggle, and I see now how I have spent a great deal of time and energy sliding around it. So what happened when I said yes to the struggle?

Oddly, nothing has turned out the way I thought I would. I was convinced that if I was completely up front with the people I loved than they would turn away from me, reject me, be angry with me, dislike me… Amazingly I have found the opposite to be true. People I thought would turn away have turned toward me… people I thought would reject me have embraced me. And even weirder than that, their reaction to me is completely secondary to my reaction to myself. Yes, I appreciate that my friends and loved ones haven’t kicked me to the curb, but more importantly I haven’t felt this good about myself in years.

Many years ago I spent my summers as a raft guide. In the midst of a class 5 rapid, when things are really scary and dangerous, the world looks very crisp. There is a high that I used to feel after getting safely down a river. (The same one I still feel when I am on stage in the middle of an improv show) The sky always looked so blue, the trees so green, the world looked gorgeous. Now that I am in the middle of my own rapids the feeling is the same. I haven’t felt this alive in years. Esoteric or not, It’s actually fun scaring the crap out of myself.

Today’s Improvmantra: What is your struggle?

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The only way out is through

Life can get pretty messy and complicated and scary at times, can’t it? Just like being in the middle of an improv scene when you aren’t quite sure where it is going. I know every improviser can relate to that feeling of panic/excitement when the audience is looking at you and the house is dead quiet and you have no f-ing clue where the scene is headed… and it doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere good.

When I performed Theater Sports in Seattle it was at just these moments when the judges or the MC would whistle down the scene, thereby ending it or “putting it (and by extension everyone in the theater) out of its misery.” After I left Theater Sports I began performing with a group doing scene-based improv. We didn’t have judges and we weren’t performing a “competitive” improv format, but for years we kept the whistle. It felt so safe. We knew if a scene started tanking we could just kill it and move on, saving ourselves the embarrassment of struggling through a crappy scene in front of an audience.

I know why the whistle exists. When you are performing in front of paying people you want the most successful show possible. But right now I’m wondering about its long term effects. Sure, in the short term you don’t have to make the audience sit through crap, and you, the performers, don’t have the downer of struggling through a dog turd of a scene either. Nobody feels down, everyone feels good, happy, having fun, cue the puppy dogs and clown balloons.

When my group finally got rid of our whistle it was not without some serious trepidation. What would we do if a scene began to tank? What if (gasp) we had a sucky show? We did eventually rid ourselves of that safety blanket whistle, and you know what? Something magical happened… we had crappy scenes, and frankly some sucky shows…. But something else happened as well. We began to save each other. Not having a whistle meant that there was literally no way out of the scene unless we got through it. We had to find endings, we had to figure out how to create moments of tension, we had inject our own energy into those flagging scenes. We were not always successful, but as time went on we got better and better at doing it. Talk about trust. In a PRS show there is no sitting on the sidelines watching. We are all actively engaged in every scene, ready to jump in and catch whoever, whatever, is falling. In the long run, the way we got better at improv was by getting through the struggle.

Buddhists philosophy states that life is pain. I once thought that idea was quite sad and defeatist. If life is pain, why bother? Now I see how I have misunderstood the idea. Of course life is pain. Life is struggle and struggle is painful. But, the struggle is the point. It would be great if we could all blow the whistle of life sometimes (insert your own dirty joke here), but that ain’t how it works. You can try to ignore your struggles, but they will always come back to bite you in the ass (bonus points if you can think of a second dirty joke here). To mix my metaphors: St George was right. We have to face our dragons, even if we aren’t sure how.

So, suit up you Buddhist/improv warriors, it’s probably gonna get messy.

Today’s Improvmantra: Live in the struggle.

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Who am I?

This is a small interlude from my current writing about AEIOU. I’ll get back to that… but this was important.

I have a problem and I suspect most improvisers have the same problem as me. I want to be liked by everyone. I don’t mean a want to be “popular” – no I gave up that dream when I entered the ninth grade weighing a scrawny 105 lbs and liking D&D. I mean I genuinely and seriously want everyone to like me: audiences, teammates, coworkers, strangers… I have known this for years. In fact, it’s been kind of a joke for me between my friends. And when someone once said to me during an argument, “You know, you don’t have to be liked by everyone.” I thought, “Yes I do. What the hell is she talking about?”

No, it was only recently, like today actually, that I realized this is a problem.

Because, let’s face it, I’ve done some pretty stupid things in order to be liked. No, I haven’t done keg handstands (not my style) or allowed strangers to borrow cash (although, I have considered it). No, the things I am talking about are much more subconscious and pervasive in my life. I have:

  • Conformed to what others think I should be/do
  • Compromised my beliefs/values to please others
  • Second guessed myself and doubted my intuition because of other’s beliefs
  • Allowed myself to be swept along by other people’s ideas even when I suspected they were wrong
  • Not been honest
  • Not stuck to my guns
  • Blamed myself for other people’s problems
  • Lost my sense of self

Each time I have made these choices, it has felt like a virtue. I have spent my life cultivating the persona of the humble, empathetic, easy-going guy. It was only today that I looked at where that has gotten me: uncertain, confused, angry, and lost. I have allowed the winds of other’s ideas blow me here and there in the ocean of life.

What I thought was humble was actually egotistical. What I thought was empathetic was actually co-dependent. What I thought was easy-going was actually wishy-washy. Don’t get me wrong, I have a pretty damn good life. But it is disconcerting to look up at this point and wonder if I really know my own mind.

Today I encountered the concept of differentiation. In psychology differentiation is defined as how much a person is able to manage their own thoughts, feelings, and individuality without forcing estrangement from others. This doesn’t mean you have to be an opinionated ass, it just means you are comfortable with knowing your own mind.

As a theater person I am very familiar with Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes in the play Hamlet: To thine own self be true. Yeah, Polonius, but what the hell does that mean? Apparently it means differentiation, a lifelong process of emotional maturity.

As a teacher I have seen many kids with poor differentiation. Those are the ones who do stupid, stupid things in order to be liked by others, or are so timid they don’t know how to make choices for themselves. As an improv teacher and performer, have noticed these same tendencies in many improvisers as well: stupid choices… or overly timid. I just never really understood what I was looking at.

Now I have a name for where I need to go (grow) next and something new to teach my daughter even though I find it pretty scary. Give up my need for others to like me?… But then people might not like me.

Scary. Cool, but scary.

Today’s Improvmantra: Explore differentiation.

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Words, Words, Words

In any play, movie, story, or improv scene there are two kinds of dialog. One type of dialog forwards the story, the other is atmospheric or basically filler. Dialog that forwards the story is rich with information. The information doesn’t need to be exposition, but it does need to reveal to the audience something new, a next step perhaps, in the direction the story is going. Atmospheric dialog exists in plays/movies/etc, to fill out the reality of the story, to give the audience a taste of what the world of the story is like and to make scenes sound realistic. Good playwrights know the proper time to use each one of these types of dialog. Good improvisers would do well to pay attention in their own work to these types of dialog as well.

Too often in improv a lot of dialog is filler. This is why the “don’t ask questions” rule was created. While watching scenes, improvisers noticed that scenes with a lot of questions didn’t go anywhere. But, are all questions inherently bad? It can (and has) been argued that questions do have a place in improv scenes, and I am of the opinion that the desire to drive out all questions is futile and counterproductive. However, most questions are atmospheric; they typically do not forward the story.

What kind of dialog does forward the story? Statements. Specifically statements made by characters that reveal something about how they are thinking or feeling, what they are seeing or trying to do, what they want, and how they feel about the other characters on stage. I have broken these kinds of statements into three categories that make up the final three letters of AEIOU:

I statements

Observations

U (you) statements

An I statement is any (nonquestion) bit of dialog that starts with I. I think it’s going to rain. I want a laptop. I went to the dungeons earlier. (I feel) This sucks. I statements tell the audience what a character is thinking, feeling, doing or desiring in a scene.

Observations are statements made about the location or action happening on stage. It sure is dark in here. That’s a huge snake. Hey, someone stole my egg beater! Observations let the audience “see” what is happening on stage and what exists at the current location.

U (you) statements are all about endowing the other characters on stage. You’re fat. You’re late. (You) Pass me that shackle. You stole my egg beater! You statements show the audience how your character thinks and feels about the other characters, and allows you, the actor, to endow your scene partners.

When I teach beginning improvisers I am careful never to use the rule “Don’t ask questions.” In fact, I teach no rules at all. Instead, after spending a good deal of time teaching improvisers how to use action and emotion to move stories forward, I teach them dialog tools that do the same thing. Teaching improvisers these three dialog tools does not remove all questions from scenes. Questions are going to happen. But, once these tools have been taught, improvisers know when they are moving a story forward, and when they are just filling the air with words.

Today’s Improvmantra: Not all dialog is created equal. In scenes, say something that forwards the story.

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