Thursday, 27 October 2011

What is my dream achievement in Improv?

I filled out a fun questionnaire for an upcoming show I’m involved in, and this was the last question on the list. A Del Close award? (Yes that would be a HUGE honor but that wasn't it) I didn’t think very long about it before an answer came to me. My only dream is that I can still be performing when I am so old that I need a walker to get around. I had the honor of meeting and taking a workshop with Charna Halpern during the Vancouver Improv Festival this year. She warned us improvisers to stop going to super loud concerts and to protect our ears. She wears hearing aids and said that she can’t really listen like she needs to when performing on stage. She rarely does shows nowadays because of it. In a weird way, in her saying this I felt my mortality for the first time in my life. Not my life passing by, but my improv mortality rather.

I had another improviser (Aaron Merke) ask me if I could get in shape to do some crazy physical improv and I laughed and laughed. I’m not athletic and to say I’m too tall and awkward is an understatement. Now I know we are not professional athletes training for a marathon but I realize that if I do plan on performing I need to take care of myself. That or die young from a drug overdose. (Seems to happen way too much to some very talented performers) If you use the analogy of a flame; I definitely want to burn strong for a long time. Not flare up and burn out super fast. I’m sure you other improvisers out there will agree sometimes it’s hard to look after ourselves when we are doing a ton of shows. Especially if you are like me and work a full time day job on top of running a theatre. This kind of inspires me to start working some physical stuff into our warm ups……WOW what a great idea. I have thought for years that if you could get fit from performing improv I’d be the Incredible Hulk of the improv stage. LOL. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. We often eat crap food much too late and have a beer now and then (or 12). So that’s something I am going to start working towards because I NEVER miss a warm up. Incorporating simple work out routines into the warm up could definitely help. I promise no shake weights.

I’m only 31 and I am already starting to notice changes with how my body performs. I know that adjustments will have to be made as I continue to age. I will adapt and change and grow I’m sure. I also look forward to some of the challenges that are sure to come as my body decides what I can and can not do anymore. This is a bit scary because something I say all the time is “Let your body do the improvising.” What does the future hold for me? How will I perform when my body can’t? Will people pay to see an old man sitting in a chair on stage for an hour? I’m not sure. Asking myself these questions makes me think to the image of a Buddhist Monk riding a donkey backwards. We must always be moving forward, present in the moment and paying respect to the journey we have taken. (Thank you for telling me about that image Randy Dixon)

I truly love directing and know that I will be a bitter old man scaring new improvisers until they close the casket door on me, but it is performing that keeps me alive. I joke all the time that I will out live all the Vegans and Vegetarians because all the preservatives in the food I eat preserve me. I joke that I’ll out live em all, and to be honest I plan to. The theatre that is killing me is also keeping me alive. There is a balance created that can not be broken. It’s this balance that will allow me to live FOREVER! Well maybe not but I love the romance of it. I guess I better start taking care of myself now so there isn’t any reason I can’t do this for 100 years.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Bunny, Bunny!

It's all about the experience. Taking as much understanding or knowledge from the exercise or game that you can. If you ran 500 miles and made it all the way to the end, you would feel so great for making it and for accomplishing that goal. But really it's at the 250 mark that you are truly going to learn the most about yourself and your body. It's about the journey not the out come. It's exactly the same with warm up games and exercises.

Why do we do warm up games? I’ve asked this question multiple times to groups of improvisers and usually get the answers: “To get our minds ready. “To relax and loosen up.” Or my favorite “I don’t need to warm up.” Something that doesn’t get the weight it deserves is the actual exercise itself. The people who slaved away coming up with these silly games did so out of necessity. They saw something people weren’t doing or struggling with and created a game to help solve the problem. They all have very valuable lessons in them. All of them are improv stripped down to its very basic form. Even the most silly and weird game, has things to be taken and applied to our scene work. Bunny, Bunny for example is a super silly zany game. (I have wanted to use the word zany for awhile.) This game has a whole lot of potential to look stupid. If the group is playing and a couple people in the group aren’t playing it like it’s the best game ever they end up making the whole group look and feel uncomfortable. Anyone who says improv is a way to look cool in front of people is doing it for the wrong reason. If the entire group is having fun, being present, ready and enjoying themselves then it stops looking silly and actually looks like a well orchestrated exercise in rhythm and movement. This is the same as unsupportive improvisers in a group.  If they are trying to look cool while doing improv they will only hurt the group around them by half assing everything they do. If they are reserved and holding back (creating rules) they end up hurting the whole group dynamic putting others in their heads. You are only as strong as your weakest link. If you feel that everyone is as invested as you then you will push yourself farther.

There are a million reasons we play games like Bunny, Bunny. Another reason is making good offers. This goes way further in its simplifying of an offer then just saying who, where, and what. It’s takes it to its core of how to make a good offer to your partner. Being clear to whom you are making the offer to. The surer of yourself you are the more clear your offer will be. By also taking the time to ensure your partner across the circle is ready for the offer and the more patient and calm you are in letting this happen the easier a great offer can be passed. Breathing, focus, connection, relaxation, trust and willingness to go all in makes this game work. These are also the things that make for great improv scenes. So not only are you doing this to get into this state of being or trance, you are also familiarizing yourself with how that state of being feels in practicing it. All of this work translates to how you will improvise. If you have a bad habits in these games and are aware of them, you can start to work on them and hopefully then improve your improv. You’ll start to catch yourself hesitating or not trusting people in your group. If you do then bang that stuff out in the warm up exercises. That’s what they are there for.

One more thing I’ll touch on is having fun. We as adults are not aloud to play. This is instilled in us as we grow up, get jobs and buy houses. Well this is something we improvisers get to do. We get to play and have fun. It takes a lot to shake off the rules we follow in our daily lives but if we feel safe and are surrounded by fun, positive caring people we will be able to play freely and have fun. It’s the same at any job you do. Time flies when you are having fun. You also actually get more work done when the mood is light. So if you find yourself about to do a warm up game or exercise and you say to yourself “I don’t wanna play that game.” Ask yourself why? What if you just said yes? Who knows what awesomeness will come out of saying yes and challenging yourself. Jumping in head first and trusting that it is for a reason. Then really watching and evaluating yourself to see where your bad habits lie. Just start saying yes and going in with everything you got and your scene work will drastically improve. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Just a Ramble

The music plays softly. Pockets tapped for your wallet and phone, wallet and phone, wallet and phone. You’ve literally stood in this spot a hundred times. You know where the creak in the floor waits. The water bottle in your hand acts like a tent peg to the ground. There to calm the movement wanting to escape from within you. Twisting the lid on and off to the rhythm of the song playing creates a moment of tranquility.  Deliberately rock back and forth on the loose board to soothe and quiet the voices bouncing off each side or your head. Let the day go as you stand there. Check your nose, fly, shirt, and give yourself one last shake. Did you lock your truck? Yes of course you did. You always check the handle. Eye contact, establish eye contact. These five minutes hang like an eternity in the air. Breathe even, deep, calm breaths, in and out. Zoom in on what’s being said behind the thin flat. It’s your time to enter. Your name is called. Tap for wallet and phone, wallet and phone. As the audience calls out with cheers, a hush fills your body and mind. Take one last breath before you step through the curtain. The music plays loud. Step out into the quiet light and onto the stage as ready as you’ll ever be. 

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Tattoo The Audience

I am always looking at other activities and art forms and comparing them to improv. For example one of my favorites to compare to Improv is Martial Arts, more specifically Kung Fu. There is a great book called Zen in The Martial Arts By: Joe Hyams that is an easy read and has lots of quotes and lessons from Bruce Lee that you can’t help but apply to what we do. I have been chatting with my tattoo artist recently about what she does  and it started to resonate something in me. She definitely leaves her client with something when the session is done. I am not trying to be clever but rather just find it very fun to see where similarities lie as well as what I can take from other art forms. So let’s get at er then.
         We talked about the fact that tattooing is very intimate and very physical. A tattoo artist must be comfortable around their clients also not be shy to touch them. Some people that come in to get inked come with cliché ideas and get butterflies and tribal. These people may only get one tattoo as there wasn’t much meaning behind it, or they may get a whole bunch because it’s really addictive. Then there are people who come in with meaningful ideas and stories to tell about why they chose the design they chose. A tattoo artist must be someone people will open up to. I know my longest session was 5 hours. There is not much to do but talk. I have experienced tattoo artists that were not personable and I swore I’d never go back to them and never did. Connecting and sharing should be part of the process. You come in to have this person take a part of you and literally put it on your body. So in the end you leave and that artist has permanently left a reminder of that time together on your body. That’s something that no matter how much time passes will be there and when you look at it you will be taken back to the time you got it.
What my goal is with improv is to leave the audience with something that reminds them of the experience we all had together during the show. The people who come to get a generic un-meaningful tattoo are perhaps like those that come to see a short form show where they can drink and just laugh for a bit and go home. They won’t invest fully in the show or the experience of getting a tattoo. If they laugh they are fulfilled. They probably attend that show or get that tattoo because their friends are doing the same. We don’t have the advantage tattoos do. First off we can’t actually leave something on our audience’s body that will be there for the rest of their life. (Permanent stamps at the door?) People coming for a tattoo at least have an idea what they are walking in to when they come through the door because tattoos are becoming quite widely known and accepted. Also we don’t really have that ability to make the same kind of intimate physical contact with each person in the audience. So what I’d like to do mentally a tattoo does physically.
I want to try and touch someone in a personal way that will stay with them for as long as possible. Most people get that first tattoo because it means something to them. They are doing the same when giving a suggestion that means something to them. We as improvisers need to take that suggestion and honor it as best we can by giving them what they want. We need to play that suggestion and hopefully relate to not only that audience member but as many others as possible. This concept of leaving them with something at the end of the show has ummmm stuck with me. I think I apply this a lot in my workshops and shows. I want people to leave feeling better then when they got there. I want them to walk more confidently after the workshop is done much like a tough guy with his first tattoo. When they first walk in they may be a bit tentative. Also they may be a bit intimidated by my “passion”. Once you get past all the built up expectations and open yourself up you realize how awesome the experience can be. You can really be present and take so much away from both getting a tattoo and learning this awesome thing called improv. I know walking in to get my first tattoo I was scared to death about how much it was gonna hurt. People walk into their first workshop worked up and scared about how embarrassed they’ll be. Some audiences walk in scared they will get called up and made fun of. If we do our job and connect with them this should help relieve all this anxious energy and put everyone at ease.

 If nothing else the image of us tattooing our audience with ideas and a group mind seem like a good way to describe what I am trying to do. Some people will just come watch the show and leave happy because they had a good time. Some may come and really be brought in to what we are doing and if we do our job they may really connect and have a piece of that show stay with them. Just the other day I was outside the theatre and a woman came up to me and said “Hey, Too Tall Tim.” I had no idea what she was talking about until she explained that like 7 years prior she had seen me in an improvised Christmas Carol and remembered that instead of me being Tiny Tim I was Too Tall Tim. That blew me away. She said she had seen me around town and always said to whoever she was with, “There is Too Tall Tim.” That is incredible when you think about how long ago that was. So by being conscious and aware of this power we will definitely have a great tool in the old belt.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Should We Be Accountable?

I’m sure we have all been in a show where we were so fully invested and committed to our scene or character that we said something over the top offensive. Not intentionally or to create a reaction from the audience but rather just spitting something out that immediately after made you go “oops!” I try to live by the rule of, no regrets but even I have crossed the line on occasion. I won’t get into dirty details but trust me when I say I have said some pretty bad things. This is all coming up for me because at two separate shows recently something very “racy” was said. Now normally I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it but in these two cases the one who said the risky thing ended up apologizing for it after the show. One time forced by a host and another time on their own because they truly felt bad for what they said. What I want to look at here is, should we as improvisers be held accountable for what we say or do on stage?

Unlike Stand Up where the jokes are pre-meditated, practiced and executed, improv is literally us just saying what’s already there. As long as the thing we say isn’t intentional, or meant to be hateful (Unless a character calls for it) I don’t think we should ever apologize for our actions. In order for us to evoke honest laughter from an audience we need to be honest to them with our reactions. We also shouldn’t have to edit ourselves because that takes us out of the moment. If we are gonna play the Fool for the audience then you would think we could get away with anything and everything. In some cases it seems we can because of certain expectations set up by the Host of a show. They may let the crowd know that everything we do is coming from something in our own lives or experiences, people we’ve met or dealt with. Also that we will play every character with as much honesty as we can so if we do go somewhere racy it’s our character doing it not us. Also the whole idea of lowered expectations plays into this. If it’s set up that we may fail then racy mistakes will almost be expected.

I also wonder if by revisiting the incident, and saying sorry for it, the situation was actually made worse. (The apology forced by the Host was very goofy and not a genuine apology) In the heat of a scene the inappropriate statement or action may seem less offensive because it fits within the walls of that scene. Either way isn’t what we are trying to do is evoke emotion from the people watching us. It was Del Close who said we should try and actually kill our audience with laughter to bring them out of the comatose state. For us to do this we will need to take chances………… Now here is where I’m hung up. That last sentence makes it sound intentional, like we will purposefully try to be more risky in our improv. I don’t think its okay to do risky improv for the sake of doing risky improv. I think its okay to do truthful scenes that depending on what happens in them may end up being risky. Also I guess we need to just take ourselves seriously. For example if for whatever reason I end up playing a bigot I need to play that bigot honestly. Chances are I am gonna offend someone in doing so but we wouldn’t have a chance to go there if I steered clear of that character. We wouldn’t have had a chance to perhaps shed light on a dark subject if I didn’t fully dive in and do that bigot justice (That sounds funny).

So where is the fine line drawn between risky improv and honest improv. I’m sure the line blurs depending on many factors. I need to have no fear of prosecution when I offend someone. As soon as I have fear I will not be able to fully jump in. I am here to entertain, challenge and bring an audience into our show. I am accountable to the audience to play each character or scene as honest as I can. If they judge me then so be it. You will never make everyone happy, nor will you ever know what may offend certain people.  In the end hopefully all the other improvisers will support me and accept my decisions. So to answer the question: Should we be held accountable for our actions? We should be accountable for doing the best quality show, scenes, characters, as we can. We should not be punished if those happen to have unintentional mishaps that offend people in the process. In the end of it all those “mishaps” may actually evoke great conversations that would have otherwise never happened. The key may be to never try to offend but if it naturally happens don’t ever apologize for it. 

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Break Down The 4th Wall

We break down the fourth wall as soon as we step on stage. We get suggestions and do an audience warm up. There are games we play that are directly influenced by the audience. They yell “change” or “sounds like a song”. Most games are direct interactions with the audience. The audience warm up is a chance for the host to create a relationship with the people there to see the show and let them know how breaking the fourth wall works. A good host is almost trained to be a pick up artist. The smoother and the better spoken they are the easier it is for them to pick up the audience. I compare this to a first date. You have a very limited time to let the audience know that you can be trusted and are loyal to them. The host has to be genuine and not a slimy pick up artist or he will fail in his attempt to create a comfortable environment. What I am exploring right now is ways to take some of this onus off the host and put some on the other improvisers. Something that happened during a show I hosted that I really focused on the audience was the improvisers actually felt left out and not included. The audience really loved it though. So obviously there is a balance that needs to be found so everyone can be invested equally. 

Something the host and improvisers also need to do is give as much as they expect to get back from the audience. You can’t expect personal embarrassing stories from someone when you don’t reveal something about yourself first. This can be done in a subtle way by just being present on stage being honest and yourself. I am finding though that subtle isn’t always the best course of action. I am not one who thinks you need to treat your audience like children. There are a people who think you should treat the audience this way and preach it. That’s not what I’m saying. I guess what I’m saying is, just say it like it is. If you want the audience to open up to you and really invest in the show, then show them that you want to be open and that you are invested in them. Don’t just do a standard improv warm up, really take the time to introduce yourself to them and let them introduce themselves to you. The short form games can all be set up using personal information from the audience. We tried playing a fitting game based on what info we got from the audience. It was tricky but we as a group have a deep list of games so we pulled it off and it was awesome.

What was great when I focused on the audience was that they started doing the work for us. We did short form first half and a Harold in the second. Because we had been so focused on them they started breaking the fourth wall helping us along. This was a big lesson for me on how to get the audience more involved in our long form. Let them break the fourth wall rather then us doing it. This allows us to stay in our scenes and committed. We are all hyper aware on stage ( so we just need to extend this out towards the crowd. I am still playing with tools to give the audience in order to help them do this. The most important thing is them feeling supported and safe to come in. Help them understand they are another performer coming along for the same ride. It just felt very unnatural to break a scene to go out to the audience.. I am trying to find ways to keep the flow. If you think of the booing and cheering in a Melodrama perhaps this idea will make more sense. The audience is more involved and routing for their favorite characters in these plays. Use similar concepts to bring them in during the Harold.

One thing the theatre is going to start doing is warming up before the doors open. This will allow us to all cover a shift at Front of House and Concession and have us interact with our audience before the show starts. We will all be out there rather then hiding in the green room. If we are gonna break that fourth wall let’s see what happens if we never put it up in the first place. It will be important that we are not out there trying to interact with our audience (this would be so forced and unnatural) but rather just be there. Something we decided is that we all need to have something to do while we are out there. If we don’t then everything will seem forced and awkward to us and the audience. We will see how it goes as we implement it. This has been a very satisfying experiment so far and seems endless in fun possibilities.  

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Trio Scene from Seattle

Not sure how clear it looks but it was our first performance in the festival. I was with Caitlin from Winnipeg and Lisa from Seattle. Super fun scene to be in. Caitlin was gold. 

Monday, 27 June 2011

New Look at The Same Question

So after coming back from the Seattle International Festival of Improv, I must admit to having a little bit of an awakening when it comes to why I do improv. Not to discount the first answer, because it was, and still is a part of why I do improv (see below or click here for previous answer ). I just have a new perspective since coming back from the Festival. I met wonderful people from ALL over the world. They taught me so much in the week we were together. So why do I do improv Randy Dixon asked again. Well I do improv for the audience. Plain and simple (well until he asks me again)

            We explored the idea of improvisers being the Fools of today’s society. For those who don’t know much about the Fool you aren’t alone. When I walked in I had no idea what everyone was talking about. I got a bit lost in some of the seemingly over complicated discussion, but what I took from it was that we are able to say things and not be persecuted for it much like a fool telling the king he is an idiot and not having his head chopped off.  This is an incredible power to have. We have this for many reasons I assume. In some peoples heads improvising isn’t real acting or a real profession. The traditional fool is looked down upon for physical or status reasons. I won’t get to into it but if you look at the fool in Shakespeare’s plays as well as look at the definition of the fool in Tarot and compare it to improv you’ll be like “Whoa”

            Something that I believe is important for a fool is to be trusted by who they give advice to. They need to be seen as loyal to their master. So if the audience is our master then we must find new ways to show that we can be trusted and that we are loyal to them. When we do an intro to a show or are a host we really need to connect with the audience to get them to come along with us and trust us in all that we are doing. The improvisers need to do the same. One idea for this was to never put up the fourth wall. We are gonna break it down anyway, so why ever put it up. Have the actors connect to the audience before and after the show. No more hiding back stage. We need to erase the idea that if you come to an improv show that you will be made fun of or brought up on stage and mocked. This will take time but can be done. So once we have them with us and trusting us what do we do?

            We use our power to give them advice? Perhaps, but I think what I will try and do is leave them with something to take away, a gift maybe. How do I do that? Well not positive but by commenting on and saying things that are true right now in our lives that others can relate to is a start. If we play for truth and what we know and understand this will happen. If I do a scene about being single in 2011 and play it honest using what I know about being single today others will relate to it because they are single right now. Then hopefully they leave with it in there minds enough that next time they go on Plenty O Fish they remember the scene I did. If we strive for honesty and use what we know (we should be doing this anyway as our characters are only as smart as we are) I think this will happen. The idea of the fool to me is a tool to learn, discuss and then forget. Being aware or trying to be the fool of course is the opposite of just being the fool.

            So back to the question: Why do I do improv? I do improv for the audience. I hope to give them something to leave with and not just entertain and move on. Whether I leave them with a thought or a new understanding of themselves I did my job if this happens. I literally hope to give them a part of me that they can relate to and take with them. My other answer was so selfish and perhaps part of the reason I was feeling stagnant before I went to the Festival. I do it for them. That’s it. I want to show them all of me honestly so they can relate and connect to me more easily. The more honest and present I am the more they can come along with me. So that about sums it up. Something was asked to me by a director and close friend. Why do I want to do this? Why do I want and need to give parts of me away? Well damn if I know but I’m sure you’ll hear about it.

FYI- All the above ideas came from open discussions with all the wonderful people while I was in Seattle. So I will never take credit but love to put it all down on to share. 

Monday, 30 May 2011

Self Indulgence

I had recently come into a bit of a block with the group I have been directing. Not because they were or weren’t doing something but rather because I lost direction. We have been focused heavily on transformation transitions. This was a pretty amazing exploration in connection and bordered on artsy fartsy improv. We incorporate music and silent scenes into our Harold. We usually get a suggestion and then feel inspiration from it and run as far away from it as we can. This exploration was super fulfilling and very rewarding the first 4 or 5 shows. It started to get stale though. It was as if it was losing its freeness. I was struggling to find where this stifling feeling was coming from.

I started reading, about the Harold and Del Close, and reading, and then reading some more. Something I never thought id ever say when it came to improv, but we needed structure. Not in the traditional sense like something planned but rather a goal to reach for. I find myself saying to groups. “Set goals for yourself” and here I was not doing that in our workshops. I read that Del would look for the deconstruction of a suggestion.  He used the Harold to do this in the most complete way possible. I got a taste of this working with Randy Dixon but didn’t fully understand it until we hit this road block. The reason we weren’t feeling fulfilled after our sets was because we were being selfish (I remind this was all under my direction. The group is amazing and always jumps into everything head first. Very trusting and a pleasure to work with) we were simply purging on stage and not really allowing the audience in on where we were going. They could follow but probably not easily. Not only because they didn’t easily understand our inspiration from the suggestion (sometimes it was pretty obscure) but also because the transformations aren’t regularly used around here. They were seeing a format they weren’t used to.

When we were work shopping scenes they were great. Everything was on point.  Then we’d try another run using our transformations and it was stale again. What was missing between the scenes solo and the full length run? A goal and focus is what we lacked. In the scene work we were taking the suggestion and having it directly shape the scene. When doing a run we took a suggestion and basically left it. BAM! It hit me.

From one extreme to another. Let’s work towards what I interpreted as Del’s idea of a good Harold. Fully explore the suggestion using all aspects of the Harold to do so. So the goal you say? Take a suggestion, use it in the opening to literally shape the way the opening happens. Not just free associating from the suggestion but rather let it shape the pace, length, characters, weight, and the directness of it. We have been using Rudolph Laban’s Effort Actions to do character work but why not use it on the suggestion, Laban the suggestion. Look at the way the suggestion can shape characters, the scenes, the opening, the ending as well as the transitions. The suggestion should shape the entire Harold not just something for us to start from and leave. Give the whole piece purpose to the audience and allow them to easily see where you are getting your inspiration from and take them on the journey with you. Don’t just leave them in the dust and hope they catch up. This doesn’t eliminate any of the freedom we enjoy. It just gives us a purpose and something to work towards each time we step on stage.

 Don’t just masturbate on stage. Make love to the audience because at the end of the day that is what we are here for, them. 

Monday, 23 May 2011

Hyper Awareness

While I sit having a conversation in a bar I am constantly aware of things going on around me.  For example: if a cool car or truck drives by I always notice. This is just being aware of my surroundings at all times. I also notice things around with specific detail. Patterns created by lights, the way the napkins are folded or the way my beer sits on the coaster. Sometimes it’s easier than others to see all of these things. This becomes more easy if I am relaxed or in the “trance” like state. I’ve started to acknowledge times in my day to day when I find myself in a state of ready like when prepped for an improv performance. The more I practice getting there the easier it becomes.
            So once on stage I commit fully to each character or scene I establish. (Try my best anyway, but no one is perfect) I strive to commit as much as possible and forget that I am on stage in front of an audience. This is an incredible feeling to be in. Sometimes I am in a scene so deep that I forget which actor was with me in the scene and only remember the character they played. This kind of commitment makes for some great improv. Here’s what we have found in workshops though.
            We are still improvisers on stage and need to have an awareness of what’s happening around us. Not just being aware of the other actors on stage but rather a hyper awareness of everyone and everything around. We still have to be ready to give the focus away at any time. The best way I can describe it is coming out of your body and watching the scene from above. If you allow your body minus your mind to do the improvising this will become easier.
             No matter how deep in a scene I get, I must be ready for and able to sense movement from across the stage. Another actor should be able to simply move with no sound and grab my attention. We as people feel beats and tempos around us. If everyone is in sync and connected with all the improvisers on stage these beats can be felt easier. Once felt and tuned into everyone can flow more easily and be aware when a change is happening. A fun exercise to try this out is; have everyone in a circle with the rules, one person must always be moving but only one person can move at a time. Allow them to move from the circle once explored and use the whole stage freely. It’s amazing how someone can notice from behind them movement from others. We have developed other exercises to practice hyper awareness but just being aware of it is a big step in finding it.
         I think this is a great start. So don’t be scared to commit hard as hell. Have faith that if you open yourself up to being ready you will start to be hyper aware. Now go ninja improvisers HAHA.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Creating Rules

           Something I have noticed in workshops is that people are constantly creating rules for themselves. For example: When free associating an improviser will repeat a word they or the person before them has already said. This causes them to chuckle or break because they feel they have done something wrong. When I set free association up as an exercise, I never put a restriction on what can be said or that they can’t repeat a word already said. This is a rule created by them and them alone. So by creating that rule for them selves it takes them out of the game and puts them into their head. The few suggestions I do make are to relax and to breathe. Try focus on your breathing and nothing else until it’s your turn to say your word. This keeps the brain busy until it’s your turn.

Another example I have seen is when we play a game involving positions. We number off 1 to 9. So everyone automatically assumes the number 1 spot is the best place to be and gets upset if they don’t get there in the game. Who said the number 7 spot isn’t the best spot to be? We need to break down these ideas. They get programmed in us in our everyday lives. It starts at an early age so it is never easy to break this wall down. In order to feel ultimate freedom on stage though, we have to rid ourselves of these influences. Part of this is thinking in a positive way. Think of each spot as being the best spot to be in. No spot being better then the other. This is just a good life tool.

One thing I do right away is stop allowing people to apologize. We say sorry a lot as polite people. This is a nasty idea on stage. It keeps you thinking you have done something “wrong”. With a good group, any offer made is going to be a good one because the group will over accept it and it will create something amazing. I don’t know where I heard it but I have repeated this many times “Some of the most beautiful art has come from what most consider a mistake” I really believe this to be true. When we get our heads out of the way it allows us to do things we wouldn’t expect. The easiest way to show this is passing a ball around in a circle. When people do this there is tons of apologizing when the ball isn’t passed perfectly. Get them to stop saying sorry for a bad pass. There are no mistakes just a different type of pass. Someone will always go get the ball and resume the game. So getting the idea that they are not making the pass good enough translates to them feeling their offers in scenes aren’t good enough.

Something else that can happen is peers or more experienced improvisers can create rules for the newbies. If a newer improviser does something and someone who they look up to in the group breaks and laughs or mocks a choice they make it will put the newbie in there head about there decision. This will make them second guess they’re ideas or offers. This is dangerous because it can affect someone getting started out and may hurt them later in their performance. Support and trust are key parts in making the whole group feel as though they are safe and free to do anything. I strive to nip this in the bud as soon as I see it. This can make a huge shift in a group towards more positive group dynamic.

I knew that we were our own worst enemy on stage but never really saw it in this light until recently. Perhaps we as humans are so used to having rules to follow that we have a need for them to feel comfortable. If this is the case it will be something we will continue to struggle with to over come. I know I am constantly doing this work in myself. I often type or am about to say “I’m sorry” and immediately retract and replace it with something else. I do this in my day to day in hopes it will carry over to my performance. I guess I’ll keep at it and see where it takes me. 

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Highs and Lows

Sometimes I have ups and sometimes I think I should quit teaching improv and stop messing with peoples lives.

In the past 3 years (since our little improv theatre opened) I have really taken on the roll of leader/ director of many young improvisers. 99% of the time it’s a positive amazing experience. I feel I bring positive energy to what I do. (My looks can fool you but I swear that is just my face) But there are days where I feel I may be leading people in the wrong direction or I find myself asking “who am I to tell people how they should do improv or live their lives.” I get so low on myself that I literally question if I have what it takes to maintain my roll as a performer and teacher. I chuckle to myself when I type that and am in a great place in my life.

These feelings aren’t necessarily sparked by a bad show or workshop but rather by my overall emotional state. I do feel us as improvisers are a little bit more unstable then the people who sit at the bar and numb their creativity. (That’s another post) I have incredible highs but like a drug addict also have pretty deep lows. I used to allow myself to dwell on these lows which of course dug me in deeper. It wasn’t until I started to realize that these low times were just that, a low time and no big deal, that I could simply acknowledge them and then move on from them. This was something I learned to deal with through improv.

I believe that artists are a bit crazy and that’s partly what makes us unique. Being able to swing from extreme highs and lows is what comes with the territory of being creative. If we went along on an even plain we probably wouldn’t have the same passion that drives us to create and share. It is also familiar territory to feel extreme emotion. It’s easier to access and feel comfort in. We can also go there easier sometimes.

So I started to switch my thinking as to my roll and who I am. I found I used to try to be something I wasn’t which was trying to look perfect and made of steel. What I was actually doing was the opposite of my intention. I wanted to have people see me as someone powerful, knowledgeable and someone to look up to, but by acting like someone I wasn’t it had the wrong effect. By having a wall up I blocked people out. What was awesome was that me being me and being real attracted people to me. It also allowed me to be freer to create and flow because I had no wall in front of me. It was a great freedom. We are real people, people who have highs and lows, real people who struggle and fail. So rather then strive to show perfection I now find myself striving to show as much of me as possible. Everyone is incredible. All we have to do is let people in and let them see.

Little Back Story

 I was fresh out of high school and started trying longform directed by the longform king of Vancouver Alistair Cook. He had a wonderful space called The Vancouver Little Theatre. This was my first taste of improv outside of a high school setting. I got to tech as well as perform. An amazing experience that helped shape the theatre I co-own today.  Being that I was employed and from the outskirts, it made it difficult for me to easily continue being apart of this experience. I started looking for opportunities much closer to where I was living. I didn’t have to look far.

table23 (yes spelled with a lower case t) was formed in 1999. We came together for a one off show which sparked a chain reaction of events leading to the group coming together with 5 members. We immediately started performing. We did one big show every couple of months that had sketch, film as well as improv. We all came from very different places and experience levels. So we started work shopping. We started with very basic games in the beginning. This eventually grew into us being more comfortable with being on stage and being more confident in our ability.

We were asked to be in a Cage Match. This is a format where 2 teams come together to perform a longform set against one another. This was my first jaunt back to Vancouver as well as our first attempt at longform as a group. We were little fish in a big pond but we packed the house with as many people as we could and ended up winning 2 in a row. This was a great experience to really take in what longform was and where you can go with it. We lost our 3rd time out to a much more seasoned group. If nothing else it started to change our shows from that point on. We also had started a regular weekly show at a café. The regularity really honed our skills. We began performing games first half, then longform second half. This was a proven formula that we really embraced. We had no official training in the format so we started creating our own language in order to make the format work for us. This is something we continue to do today.

We through trial and error found our way and really have enjoyed the artistic fulfillment that longform brings an improviser. We have since taken workshops and performed here and there with piles of groups at tons of locations absorbing as much as possible. With that said, I can’t help but feel a little proud that we are pretty much self taught. It made the experience much more organic and natural to me. We were able to make mistakes in front of audiences and really experiment freely with no one telling us how it should or shouldn’t be done. We really found our own style that I continue to develop with other groups like Gruper Soup and The Big Unit.

Every time I step on stage with table23 it feels so incredible to have such a great connection and feel such a huge amount of support. We really have become a family rather then just a group. We could have probably gotten here faster but I wouldn’t change the road we picked in a million years. 

Why I Do Improvise

I was asked by Randy Dixon (very amazing improv director form Seattle) to really take some time and think about why it is that I improvise

This seems like it should be an easy question to answer but for some reason it hasn’t been. I’ve been actively thinking about it for at least 3 weeks now. I have spent countless hours performing and work shopping this art and yet I am unclear what is making or driving me to do it. This past time (Improv) really has became more of a passion for me over the past couple years. So if it has just recently become a passion then what motivated me for the last 12 plus years to continue exploring it?

I feel like I could give all kinds of cliché answers, for example: I get a rush on stage, I like the risk involved, it helps my confidence, its fun or I like the freedom, and people would be satisfied with that.  All of these things are true as far as what I get out of performing Improv but none seem to really answer why I do it. What makes me workshop way beyond tired, perform on an empty stomach because there was no time for food, do shows for crowds that could care less if you’re on stage or not, and drive for 15 hours to do an hour long gig?

I do know that Improv is something I have to do. Without it in my life there would be a hole. I have all kinds of ideas and thoughts on the subject that are constantly pouring out of me and I know I would sleep way worse then I already do if I had no outlet for these ideas. So is the reason I do it actually because it’s a necessity? That doesn’t seem good enough to me either though. I have to eat or I’ll die. I’m sure I wouldn’t die with out improv.

And then as I sit here and write, it hits me like a bolt of lightning. I do improv because it is the only time in my life I truly get to explore myself in every sense of the word. I spend my days at a job I like, and am good at plugging away mindlessly to make a buck and feed and clothe myself. Most people at my job don’t really ever get to see the real Graham. In fact most people in my life don’t get to see me for who I really am. When I workshop and perform I am delving deep inside myself exploring how I work as a person. I expose a part of me in every character I play on stage. All are a piece of me and are a truth to me because at the end of the day all the characters I play stem from my life knowledge and beliefs. I do improv because it is a chance for me to be myself. Through training I am able to do this on stage (a safe spot for me where I am free from judgment) I do it because I am free to feel and do anything I need to do. The image or mask I wear or carry around with me is washed away and I can truly and completely be myself. Improv allows me to do this with no fear because an audience sees me being a character so they never think I’m showing them myself. That in itself is funny because the humor in improv comes from the truth and realism of it all.

Well I guess that’s it. That’s why I do it. I need to because I would lose who I am without being able to really be myself on a regular basis. I’m sure everyone needs an outlet for this. Now I’m curious what everyone else does. Hmmmmmm

Live a Day The Improv Way

Some people think improv is the lazy actor’s art. In some ways they are right. Improviser’s do not have lines to memorize, sets to construct, or elaborate costumes to tackle. We are minimalists and can perform on a 4’ by 4’ stage with nothing but ourselves and spontaneity. What you may not realize is that improvisers have years of workshops and exercises under their belts to hone their skills. There are all kinds of concepts to learn in order to make performing easier.
This morning I started thinking about what would happen if you consciously applied these concepts to your life for a day. It may be hard at times to stick with but making the effort can really improve your day.

Avoiding blocking ideas. By accepting other people’s offers you are constantly opening doors and progressing forward. When you say “no” to an idea everything stops. You are putting up a wall between you and the person making the offer. Not only does saying yes help you have more opportunities, it also helps make everyone around you feel good because they are being acknowledged.

Make strong statements. By making strong clear offers we look more confident even when we aren’t. When we ask questions we leave open the possibility for someone to say no. If a statement is made there is less chance of being blocked. Also people will be more likely to be engaged by a statement rather then a question. For example, if you said “how are you?” most people will say “fine” and move on. What if instead you said, “You look like you’re doing great today!” unless you are creepy this positive statement will usually get some one to say “Well yes I am” BAM! Conversation.

React truthfully and positively. Positive offers fuel positive feelings. If you react truthfully to people they will appreciate being answered honestly, unless they are asking if they look fat. Always say NO in that situation!!!!!!!! Being open and accepting in a positive way will make others want to interact with you. Positivity is contagious and will spread to those around you.

Last but not least, pull your shoulders back and keep your chin up. You may feel a stretch in your chest when you do; most of us are not used to this position. We walk around turned inward with our iPod’s and cell-phones plugged in. By opening your body up you physically make yourself look more accepting and confident. By physically looking confident you will have a hard time not feeling confident. When you first try this day out (Unless you think I’m a crackpot and disregard everything I’ve said) get out of bed, pull your shoulders back, take a deep breath and open yourself up to the world.

These concepts are the key to performing improv successfully. Being open and accepting is a great life and improv skill. Give it a shot and see how your day goes.