Monday, April 30, 2007

Chicago Improv Festival Coaching Notes

I just got back from the Chicago Improv Festival (CIF) where several members of BIG trained and performed as an apprentice team. They treated us incredibly well and made us feel like a part of the worldwide improv community.

Each of the six apprentice teams (which included WIT's Jackie) was assigned a coach. Nick Johne coached us for 10 hours and helped us prepare a long-form set that we performed Saturday night. Nick gave us very excellent and specific coaching and was a real gift to work with.

Below are the rough notes I took during the festival. Most were drawn from Nick's coaching except where indicated:
  • Warm-up design

    Nick taught us a new warmup game called "Whoosh", which is a variation of other "pass the ball with a sound" games, but at the end he asked us to invent our own
    moves to add to the game. I thought this was a neat way of emphasizing the improviser mentality that you should not be playing with rules that constrain you, you
    should always be ready to adapt the form to your creative drive. I'm going to add this variation to every warmup that I lead.

  • Excessive agreement exercise

    We faced each other in chairs, two at a time, and had a conversation where Nick forced us to say "yes" as many times as possible. This led to some great energy and funny moments
    as people tried to affirm each other as strongly as possible. Nick pointed out that eventually we should be able to play with that same kind of energy and affirmation, but layer other emotions on top of it beyond happiness/excitement.

  • Learning how to create deeper, more satifying scenes

    Nick taught us a ton of methods to create more meaningful scenes. My favorites were:

    • Doing a scene in real time

      The best scenes we did in rehearsal were when Nick gave us a scenario, such as two people in a pharmacy, which had to play out in real time (i.e. waiting for the prescription to be filled took the real amount of time). This sounds like it would be boring, but in fact it encouraged the performers to play in a very patient way, to really enjoy discovering the environment and the characters. The scenes usually led to huge laughs that came from something ethereal like a pointed look.

    • Patient improv

      Nick emphasized being patient with us a lot, a quality I had not previously emphasized in my own teaching. It hit home with me when we saw Dasariski perform. Three guys did a 40 minute single scene (with two or three short scenes sprinkled in) that was utterly brilliant. They started slowly and did not try to justify
      everything through exposition. Gradually a story was teased out of the emotional dynamics among the characters, and there were some fast-paced moments, but
      they stuck with the patient style. Why are we always in such a hurry? These guys were playing with total commitment and had crazy ideas, but because they didn't
      force it, it was a very elegant, hilarious show.

    • Mirror each other physically

      We performed two-person scenes where we had to mirror the other actor's physicality. If one player moved to a corner of the stage, the other had to move to the opposite corner.

    • Make eye contact, then look away

      In pairs we did scenes where the characters made eye contact, then looked away, over and over again.

    • Politically Incorrect Scenes

      We did scenes where Nick gave us permission to be as offensive as we possibly could. This actually led to some compelling scenes because we saw that when we played from the heart, it was clear that our characters were saying these things, and not us. The audience will allow you to be very dark (for example by playing a sexist or bigotted or racist character) if you commit to it, and the results can be hilarious and profound. Also I feel like this could be an antidote for troupes that play too nicely, or only rely on one or two people to be outrageous or dangerous (which I think is a limitation in BIG).

  • Four Scene Tones

    When editing, we should vary the tone of scenes to create a diverse show and not get locked into one particular pattern:

    • Physical
    • Surreal
    • Intellectual
    • Emotional

    We did an exercise where we had to edit every scene by deciding which category had just been played, and starting a new scene in a different category. If we did a very talky, intellectual scene, we had to follow it with something very emotional or physical or surreal.

  • Follow your feet

    When he saw us stutter-stepping on the sidelines, this was Nick's commandment to us to get on their and edit and trust our instincts.

  • Editing exercise

    Before introducing any edit techniques to us, we did a round of scenes where we were not allowed to use wipe edits. This forced us to discover our own ways of editing (or use techniques we had learned elsewhere, like tag edits). This is the best way to introduce editing in my opinion; don't tell people the "right way" to edit scenes. Let the group experiment and then coach on what works or doesn't work for a particular style.

  • Audience calls edit

    Two person scenes performed until someone in the audience called "edit". We then discussed why that person had decided to edit when they did. This was a really good way to illuminate editing instincts.

  • Organic edit

    Nick showed us a technique where multiple players started doing the same activity and the entire troupe piled on, making an organic group game that wiped the scene until two
    players were left to start a new scene (hard to explain but powerful in practice).

  • Cartoony characters

    Two people a time played very intense, over-the-top, cartoony characters. Mid-way through the scene, Nick had them switch characters, which was a great challenge for expanding range.

  • Repetition

    One actor repeated everything the other actor said (sort of a half-duplex version of last line). This fostered agreement and discouraged storytelling/plotting, and led to a really cool scene

  • "Wear a veil instead of a mask"

    Nick's note to me was that I often played very theatrical characters, and that I should try playing more realistically. This is problem an artefact of my roots in short form.

  • Source Scenes

    One great way to use a scene to inspire other scenes was to show causes and effects of a scene.

  • Always go with the first offer

    This echoed what Mark Sutton taught me a few weeks prior; improvisers fall in love the second idea, when the first one would be plenty sufficient.

  • Use your own worlds

    Nick had us two scenes as ourselves, filtering everything that happened through something that we were expert in. This drove home the point that you can create
    very interesting work just by being yourself and using what you know.

  • Improv is a folk tradition

    I realized during this trip that improv really is a folk tradition. We do things here in Baltimore that we learned from people who trained in New York City, in San Diego, in Cambridge, and elsewhere, and many of these things were handed down to us by people who themselves received them from improv's master teachers. Gradually the names of concepts change, and new elements are added, to the point where we don't even know our own heritage. I really enjoyed being in Chicago and working with some of the pioneers of improv to see where some of these traditions come from.

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