Tuesday, April 17, 2007

DC Comedy Festival improv workshop notes

This weekend I attended some excellent improv classes at the DC Comedy Festival. Below are my rough notes as well as notes that another BIG member took.

Mark Sutton's workshop: Finding More

Box exercise

As a class, he had us explore an improvised box of items of personal significance. At various intervals he would say 'go' and we would start a monologue about the object in our hand. Helped reinforce the concept that environment work in improv should have some kind of importance for the characters, not just to give your hands something to do.

Chair exercises

He moved the chairs around in various positions and had us do the same scene premise (someone getting fired) over and over again but with different configurations. Very different scenes resulted from different configurations (close together, far apart, etc.). We also did scenes where at the end, the improvisers had to reposition the chairs. The next scene would be inspired by the position of the chairs (though we were not required to sit in the chairs at all). I found this led to some really cool new scenework and inspiration.

In one of these scenes, the chairs were used to demarcate the front half of the stage from the back. One actor was placed in the front and told never to look back at the other actor, who was in the back half and not allowed to cross the line into the front half. This led to a very interesting dynamic where the person in the front had high-status (because they never looked the other character in the eye) even though it was a seemingly-low status character.

How Improvisers Make Themselves Safe

We use words/dialogue to make sure everyone is okay. Improv is not about feeling okay, it's about taking risks. Words become information you have to deal with, a box you can't get out of (or spend lots of time trying to get out of).

Second City saying: "Bring a brick, not cathedral."

Joe Bill's workshop, "How to Stand Out in a Scene"
  • A big difference between short and long form is the source of tension that's powering it.
  • In short form, the game is the source of tension. Will they execute it? Will they do it in a way that's funny or surprising?
  • In short form, you don't need to act; you can indicate. It's a head game, mostly, because it's a form built on rules and right and wrong--that's the nature of a game.
  • In long form, the tension for the audience is: Do I believe you? Do I continue to believe you? Will I be surprised by what you get me to believe? It's lodged in the heart and gut, and any consideration of right or wrong will screw you.
  • In long form, characters reveal themselves in three ways:
    • What they say
    • What they do
    • What they value or stand for
  • It doesn't matter whether you discover these things, or decide them--or in what order. But character is how you do what you do. If you know who you are, you'll know what to do.
  • In improv, we're going for the absence of self-consciousness and judgment. The audience wants to see that as much as they want to see funny stuff--they're paying for something they want to do but can't.
Mark Sutton and Joe Bill's workshop (Motherlode Part 1)


The whole class did three characters for 30 seconds each. Then they asked us to pick the most interesting/surprising character and revisit it for 30 seconds. We then did three scenes as that character, two students at a time.
  1. As the character we picked
  2. Using an object with meaning for that character
  3. Playing some aspect of that character to the extreme, over-the-top
Point of view exercise

You only have three things to work with: actions, speech, and internal point-of-view. They asked everyone to pick an internal point-of-view (such as an emotion or attitude). We then got into two lines and did two-person scenes. Line 1 started by projecting their POV onto their scene partner (e.g. my attitude is 'fear', so I start the scene by regarding my partner fearfully). Line 2 started by projecting their POV onto their environment (e.g. my attitude is 'boredom', so I start making a pizza in a bored way).

By doing this at the start of the scene, we started to get more information. Your bored pizza-making or fearful-regarding leads to more inspiration about the shape of your scene. Once this happens, they asked us to start dialogue and interaction.

The Improv Glance

They told us about this obvious 'tell': when an improviser looks around at the scene partner to check in with the partner. The tell is this shows you are looking for support instead of creating something for yourself. When you look at the other character it should be for a character reason.

Improv scenes are simple

They emphasized that great improv scenes are not usually very complicated. Many times we make them complicated by "feeding circumstances to the premise monster" -- which I found incredibly apt!

When characters ask questions, or argue, it's fine.

When improvisers do, its bad. This goes a long way to explaining why the 'Yes, And' rule is a bit simplistic; characters can say 'no' to each other as long as improvisers are not.

Circumstances vs. Dynamics

This was the best improv exercise I've ever done: in groups of three, Mark gave us a circumstance and told us to play it absolutely realistically. One was a doctor telling a patient he had a terminal illness, one was parents telling their daughter how much they loved her before her wedding day, etc. He asked us to remember exactly how the emotional dynamic felt between the characters.

After everyone had gone, the same groups replayed their scenes with the exact same dynamics, but this time with different circumstances. So in the first round, I was the doctor. In the second round, I was a car mechanic telling a guy that his car could not be fixed. So instead of playing the usual stereotyped car mechanic guy, I played a really serious, sober-minded car mechanic, and the 'victim' played a really hilarious (but totally deadpan) guy who was devastated by the loss of the car.

I'm still processing the implications of this exercise, but the main point was: the audience cares about emotional dynamics. Invest in the dynamics and don't worry about explaining everything by generating circumstances.

Improvisers often fall in love with the second idea

We waste too much time at the start of scenes figuring out what the scene is about. We do something that's plenty great at the top of a scene, but then drop that offer when we get 'the second idea'. The audience then wonders what happened to that first idea.

Mick Napier's Workshop

Personal Attention

He totally lived up to his reputation. First of all, he asked all 25 of us to introduce ourselves and memorized all of our names on the spot. Then all 25 of us did an hour of short scenes. He then gave us each a detailed, personal critique of what our improv was like, and gave us a single challenge to work on to make it better. Then we did another hour and a half of scenes that were much better. We finished up with a Q&A session (notes from that below).

The main thing I took away from Mick was the importance and the potential for giving improvisers individual attention. If he can do it for 25 people in a single 3.5 hour session, why can't we all do it for 6-12 people in weekly 2 hour sessions?

To keep a troupe fresh
  • Learn new forms (even if you don't perform them)
  • Bring new people in (as long as you're careful about screening them)
  • Occasionally have a rehearsal where someone in the troupe brings something new to work on that the group has never done before
How to learn people's names the first time

Decide to be good at learning people's names. Start telling people that you're good with names. This will change your brain so you can remember names.

Introduce a game never played before

He told us about something awesome that Second City sometimes does in rehearsal, but which you could do on stage: have a player stand in front of the audience and say "We're now going to perform a game/format that we've been doing for five years. It's called [made-up name], and here's how it works..." The player then invents the rules or the structure on the spot. Everyone on the backline listens attentively but pretends like this is old hat. Then you jump in and perform it.

Don't be funny exercise

He also recommended doing scenes in rehearsal that are explicitly not funny, that are serious and real, as a way of getting into more inspired improv.


Unknown said...

Thanks for taking and sharing these copious notes. Sorry I missed it.

Anonymous said...

Your notes make me feel like I was at the classes. I particularly liked the idea of doing scenes not intended to be funny and the exercises where you do serious scenes and then change the characters. As for memorizing names by telling people you are good at memorizing names, does that work for making smart investments too?

Unknown said...

Holy cow, man. These are awesome. I am going to steal most of this and pretend I came up with it.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I just found your blog today...I was the "victim" in the cancer/dead car scenes that we did at that workshop. Awesome blog.

Anonymous said...

shoe carnival
nike sneakers
Nike Basketball shoes
MBT shoes
supra shoes Toto ran over to the trees and began to
bark at the birds sitting there. Dorothy went to get him, and saw
such delicious fruit hanging from the branches that she gathered
some of it, finding it just what she wanted to help out her breakfast.