Monthly Archives: June 2012

Technique, Form, and Substance. Also, cake!

I posted this once upon a time on an old blog. I’ve kept the old comments, because I have insightful friends.

If improv were a cake …

Exhibit A: Lauren and I made this for a friend’s birthday. My mom probably helped with the icing.
 … technique would be your kitchen tools.

You know, wooden spoon and mixing bowl and spatula and measuring cups. It’d be really messy to make a cake without those things, and the ingredients probably wouldn’t be well-blended.

It will make your improv so much smoother if you get good at acceptance and heightening. If you want to be very fancy, you could learn miming, singing, rhyming, and contact improv.

But if all you have is a really great bowl and spoon and spatula and measuring cups, you’ll still go hungry. At least, hungry for cake.* And you can accept and heighten and mime all you want, but that’s not enough for good improv.

Exhibit B: I made this cake for my friend Meredith, who is a vegetarian.

 … form would be the cake pan.

Cupcakes have the potential to be as delicious as bundt cakes, layer cakes, or crazy sculpted cakes; a run of short form games can be as fun as Harold and Armando. They’re different shapes in which to pour your awesome scene work.

You don’t need a bunch of flashy forms any more than you need 18 highly-specific cake pans. However, if you have no pan at all, nobody is going to want to eat your delicious cake, because it won’t look appetizing. A formless show is hard for the audience to know how to watch. Have a form. Your form can be as basic as Exhibit A or as complex as Exhibit B, but don’t let your show get into Exhibit D territory.

Exhibit C: My husband made me this cookie cake and iced it with a Marc Johns drawing.

 … substance would be your ingredients.

There is no definitive list of what to put in a cake to make it a good cake, just some general guidelines. Most cakes have some combination of eggs and flour and sugar and milk. Some have cream cheese or carrots or cocoa; some are vegan or gluten-free. It’s a lot of stuff that wouldn’t necessarily taste good on its own but works in combination with the other flavors to make something new. There’s flexibility there, as long as you keep your proportions reasonable and your ingredients are good quality.

Most scenes have some basic ingredients, too: relationship, character, environment, game, and that indefinable magic that comes out of a group working together. There are probably more I can’t think of. Or fewer, depending on the kind of scene.

If your milk’s gone rancid or your sugar has ants, your cake will be awful. Your cake pan and egg beaters might have been fine, but that doesn’t save your cake. There’s no sense investing in an expensive Kitchen-Aide mixer if you’re not going to bother with your ingredients and proportions.

But once in awhile, for some inexplicable reason, a cake with all those great ingredients still doesn’t turn out the way it’s supposed to. Some scenes won’t work, and you can’t always know why. You just have to double-check your ingredients, clean up your tools, and try again.

Exhibit D: My mom probably did not help with this icing. This is all me.

… and comedy, of course, is just the icing on the cake.

You don’t have to have icing for a good cake. In fact, bad icing will ruin an otherwise good cake, and good icing won’t save a gross cake. If I have to chose between a cake with bad icing and a cake with no icing, I’ll pick no icing.

And I’ll take a good, interesting scene that doesn’t me laugh over a weak scene dripping with gags. Even good icing doesn’t make up for bad cake, and funny jokes don’t make up for shoddy scene work.

True confession: Icing is my favorite part of cake. But it gives me a stomach ache to eat it by itself. Good icing on good cake, though? Life doesn’t get better.

Exhibit what?: This is from when my mom pretended it was my birthday so my friends would come over and watch Schindler’s List.

And, hey, when you’re done, make sure you clean everything off and store everything in a cool, dry place, because fresh ingredients can spoil and attract bugs. Take care of yourself and your tools, or you won’t think the whole enterprise is worth the trouble.

*Is there any other kind of hungry? I submit that there is not. 

Trust first, then love.

A much earlier version of this post appeared a couple of years ago on a now-defunct blog. I cleaned it up for you, but I preserved the original comments. You don’t go throwing away your mom’s sniffles.

Before I could seriously do improv, I had to heal from church. Playing taught me a skill I’d totally lost but that I needed if I was ever going to brave church again.

The churches I grew up in were mired in conflict. Not honest, productive disagreement; more like festering resentment. It was the kind of conflict that nobody talked about directly, only through gossip. You never knew what people might be saying about you or your family behind your back.

This led to ugly church splits. (Has there ever been a pretty church split?) When I was in middle school, my parents moved the family to a church that had had no splits in at least decades, maybe ever, because maybe everything would be ok there.

And everything was ok for awhile. The church ran so smoothly because everybody had a deep, unquestioning trust for the pastors. That worked well enough until the pastors fell apart — bickering, gossip, and moral failings* left us without anyone in charge.

By the time I graduated high school and moved away, I had collected a compelling list of reasons not to trust people.**

All this mistrust handicapped me when I started learning improv. 

I would decide I couldn’t trust a fellow player because she intimidated me or I didn’t know him well enough, but then our scenes together were guaranteed to flop. According to our directors, the only chance any of us had was to trust one another.

But I already knew that trust is foolish! Trust leads to betrayal and disappointment! Why would I make myself vulnerable to that?

Because that’s the only way anyone would want to play with me. Because it’s the only way I could ever get any good.

I couldn’t start trusting everybody all the time — remember how foolish that is? — but maybe I could try trusting a little. Just these few players, though, and just for 2 hours a week at practice. I can handle anything for 2 hours.

My playing got better, and I bonded with my troupe. That trust bled over into how we treated one another outside of practice. Somewhere along the way, we found we’d grown to love each other.

I’d always thought I needed to be friends with someone for a long time before I could trust them. Now I was finding that, if we trusted each other first, love followed. Some of my deepest friendships are still with people I got to know because we learned to play together.

Some of the friends I made in improv gave me rides to their church, where I found a community of people who trusted and loved each other in real life. I’ve now been a member about seven years.

I am not a preacher, nor do I have of any gifts of healing or tongues or evangelism or any of those big impressive-sounding ones. But I know God has met and healed me through play more than in any other way, and play is something I can teach.

* “Moral failings” is church-ese for addiction or infidelity. Maybe more, but that’s how I’ve heard it used.
** There were bright spots, too. I have some wonderful memories of children’s choir and youth group rattling around in there with the trauma.

How to Play: Red Ball

This warm up game teaches how to give and receive well.

(It’s also where I got the name for this blog.)

How to Play:* Everyone gathers in a circle. One player (the giver) walks to another player (the receiver), makes eye contact, and holds out an invisible red ball.

The giver says, “Red ball.”

The receiver makes good eye contact and responds, “Thank you, red ball.”

The giver then takes the receiver’s place in the circle, and the receiver now becomes the giver. The new giver takes the same red ball, gives it to a new receiver, then takes his place.

A note for the giver: Interact with the ball, but don’t keep it for long, and don’t spend energy deliberating on who should receive it. Pick someone who looks like he needs a gift — trust your first impulse. When you give, be clear and specific. Make eye contact, and wait for acknowledgment from the receiver before you walk away.

A note for the receiver: Look the giver in the eye before you receive the gift. Thank her sincerely, then receive the gift with enthusiasm before you become the giver yourself. Make sure to say the full sentence, “Thank you, red ball!” This assures the giver that you’ve understood her. Be sure to receive the gift you were given, not the gift you thought you would get. That is, if you are handed a tennis ball, don’t receive it like a beach ball.

A note for the waiters: Stand with your hands open in front of your or relaxed by your sides. This shows that you are ready to receive whenever someone is ready to give. If your hands are in your pockets or balled into fists, don’t be surprised when you aren’t offered many gifts. 

 

“Red Ball” is at the core of what improv is about.

It’s the first game I teach to a new group of improvisors — whether they’re new to improv or just new to me. It sets a tone for the attitude I want to see throughout the rest of practice.  

It teaches you to treat everything as a gift, even if it wasn’t what you expected or wasn’t from the person you expected.

It teaches you to appreciate the giver as a person as well as the gift she has to offer.

It teaches you to hold your gifts loosely. They’re not yours to keep. They’re yours to give to whomever is open and ready to receive.
 
No gift is boring. It’s all in how you receive it.

I taught this game to a group of pastors and leaders at my church a couple of years ago, and they were quick to see obvious applications in Christian life:

We think of our abilities as gifts from God — make sure to acknowledge the Giver, not just the gift! — and that these gifts are given to us so that we may give to others in turn. How easy is it, though, to think of my gift as something scarce and rare, something I should protect and keep? But that’s burying a talent. We are made to give generously. (And if we’re attentive waiters, we won’t be empty-handed for long.)

And when we receive from one another, we are to do so with openness and thankfulness. I’d like to be totally self-sufficient, but I’m not. I don’t have everything I need, because I’m only one part of a larger body.  I need to be open to receiving gifts from other people, even if they’re not what I thought I wanted.

This fluid giving and receiving of gifts is what we’re called to in 1 Corinthians 12. The passage begins with listing the gifts, then establishing the metaphor of people as different parts of one body who must function as a whole.

It’s no coincidence that this is followed immediately by the famous “The Way of Love” passage. It doesn’t matter what wonderful gifts you have if your attitude isn’t one of love. In improv, we love one another by giving and receiving well.

*Tips for whoever is leading the game: Once the group has established a rhythm with the first red ball, add a yellow ball, a green ball, etc. If they seem to be doing well with the balls, add something large and unwieldy, like an anvil. Or something interactive, like a hyper puppy. Or something delicate, like a glass slipper. Having almost as many objects as you have people in the group — though not more! — keeps the energy high. Once the game has gone for a few minutes, start setting aside objects as you receive them. The action should decrescendo into stillness once you’ve received the last object.

It’s not called stealing.

When I get home from taking an improv class, coaching a troupe, teaching a workshop, or playing in a practice, my first impulse is to write. I don’t know really know what I think about anything until I’ve written it out and looked at it.

(When I finish performing a show, however, my impulse is to stay out too late eating junk food with my friends, then come home and crash. I don’t know why this is, but I think it’s a good thing not to over-analyze your own shows. Let someone else do that.)

When I’ve taught and coached, some of the more proactive students/players have emailed me to ask me for more personal feedback than I could give in front of the group. If you’re one of those wonderful people, I hope you don’t mind that I’ll be borrowing from some of my responses to you.

If you’ve ever been one of my teachers or coaches, I’ve probably written down things you’ve said. I hope you don’t mind if I share them with other people. I’ll do my best to remember who said what.

But my favorite teachers have gotten so deeply into my head that I may steal from them without realizing it. I think I’m ok with that. If you’re one of those teachers, I imagine that you’re ok with it, too, because you know that this art form will wither and die if we don’t let other people take our ideas and run with them. That’s how we’re trained to act toward each other on stage, anyway.
 

“In the arts, it’s not called stealing. It’s called being part of a movement.” — Noah Gregoropoulos