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 clichĂ© 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.