Monthly Archives: May 2014

Something I loved, something I need

Mick Napier says:

If you have a note for another actor, just don’t give it to them.  If you must give another actor a note, then don’t. If you really must give another actor a note, then ask permission first. And be o.k. with their answer. Do you know why?  Because they may not want to fucking hear your fucking note.

If “note” is “something you need to work on,” then I totally agree. Unless you’re my coach, or someone who has been playing a lot longer than I have and whom I respect, I don’t want to hear you tell me how to improve. But notes don’t always have to be negative. I think practicing giving and receiving notes can cultivate trust and produce better playing in a group, as long as the tone is both enthusiastic and matter-of-fact. I also think that, just like practice needs warm up, it needs a cool down, too. Short notes can be that cool down.

When I’m teaching improv, my favorite way to end class is to stand in a circle and cool down with notes. Each person says one thing she loved that someone else did and one thing she needs to work on herself.

For example, “John, I loved your facial expressions in the barbershop scene. It gave me a lot to play with. And I need to work on not hesitating at the beginning of scenes; I felt kind of stuck tonight.”

Here’s why I love this:

  • Self-given notes stick. Players’ self-directed notes tend to be accurate. You might listen if I told you after practice that your characters were all kind of the same, but if you discover it for yourself and say it out loud, you’ll be more likely to do something about it. People will notice if you say the same thing every practice, so you’ll be accountable for whatever you say. Your coach is listening, too, and now knows you want to be called out if you’re still in this character rut next practice.
  • Hearing others’ self-given notes is disarming. I’ve had some students who were defensive if I gave them any note at all, but when asked to give themselves a note, they knew exactly what they needed to work on. The only way to fit into the group is to give yourself something to work on, so you HAVE to come up with something. You’ll seem like a jerk if you can’t. And if you’re intimidated by any of your teammates, hearing their notes to themselves reminds you that they still have room to improve, just like you.
  • Accepting praise makes players braver. Usually, the thing people are telling you they liked is the boldest thing you did that night. If you struggle to take a compliment, this gives you practice at just saying “thanks.” That way, when an audience member says they liked your show, you’ll be less tempted to argue with them.

Words of caution:

  • Keep it short. No matter how big the troupe is, this shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes at the most.
  • This is not a debate. Nobody gets to argue about notes or kudos. If it becomes a debate, practice will run overtime and end on a low note.
  • This is not therapy. I cannot stress this enough. Improv is not therapy.
  • Keep the tone light and energetic. Self-given notes are not for beating yourself up, and the thing you liked from someone else should be specific to practice that night. So not, “I want to work on not sucking. I just felt awful about everything I did tonight.” And not, “Leah, I loved how you played tonight, and also always, because you’re just the best friend and roommate anyone could ask for, and let’s be best friends forever.” That’s sweet, but it doesn’t edify the group.
  • If you’re leading the practice, go last. If there’s a guy who hasn’t been mentioned yet, and make sure your “something someone else did that I liked” involves him. Otherwise, make your praise something that involves something the whole group did, or a way they’ve improved overall. Especially praise them for improving on their “something I want” from earlier weeks. It might help to write their self-given notes down after they leave so you can reference them as you plan the next practice.

We have all kinds of warm ups at the beginning of practice, but we sometimes neglect the cool down. Just like warming up with Red Ball helps you give and receive well, cooling down with these kinds of notes gets you ready to go back into your non-improv world with focus and thankfulness. It serves the same function as the final prayer of the Eucharist service:

Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer is thanksgiving for the things we love (membership in Christ’s body, Eucharist), and it’s a request for what we need (strength and courage, gladness and singleness of heart). It prepares us to leave this time-out-of-time and reenter the rest of the world with the right attitude and focus.

True Story: Is there any such thing?

Every month at Open Source, we invite any improvisers to join our troupes in a form we call True Story.* A monologist tells us a few stories from his or her own life, and the players use those stories as the springboard for scenes and games. It’s important for the monologist’s stories to be short, detailed, and honest. But is it important for them to be true? That depends on what we mean by “true.”

A book club I’m in** just finished reading The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti. (This choice may or may not have been primarily an excuse to eat good cheese while we met.)

The book is nonfiction, but the main subject, a cheese maker named Ambrosio, is an unreliable narrator. He is a wonderful storyteller, though, and Paterniti finds himself not even wanting to know how much of the stories is factual. He wants to believe everything Ambrosio says, but Ambrosio’s story is at odds with other witnesses’ more prosaic memories. Paterniti writes:

In the end, it wasn’t so much that there was an alternative narrative–there always was–but it came down to belief: Which one did you want to believe. Which one suited you best? Or, perhaps more to the point: Which one told the story you were already telling yourself?

Our book group discussed the ways we tell the truth, or don’t. My view: We all embellish or edit the facts when we tell each other stories, based on what we think our friends will find interesting. And the way we tell the story becomes the way we remember the story, and so that version becomes the truth, as far as we remember it. I don’t think that’s deception; it’s just how memories work.

In the video above, Hank Green makes these points that are bad news for eyewitness testimonies but freeing for improvisational storytellers:

  • “Our memories are not like books in the library of our mind. You don’t just pluck a neatly packaged memory right off the shelf. …Instead, your memories are more like spiderwebs in the dank catacombs of your mind, a series of interconnected associations that link all sorts of diverse things as bits of information get stuck to other bits of information.”
  • “There’s a lot of reconstruction and inferring involved when you try to flesh out a memory, and every time you replay it in your mind or relate it to a friend, it changes, just a little. So, in a way, we’re all sort of perpetually rewriting our pasts.
  • “Memory is both a reconstruction and a reproduction of past events. We can’t be sure if a memory is real just because it feels real.
  • We’re all largely the product of the stories that we tell ourselves.

My take away for improvisers is that this means we can relax. Our memories will not be perfect. That’s ok. We’re not here to testify on a witness stand. We’re here to tell good stories.

When I’m teaching how to do a monologue, my favorite questions to ask the players are:

  • How did you get your name?
  • Can you tell me about when you were born?

I took that second question from Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. She writes:

All children mythologise their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.

That’s what makes questions about names and birth such good monologue starting points. The monologist has no first hand memory of the events, so there’s no temptation to get hung up on the facts. All she has to go on are her memories of other people’s memories. I get some of the best stories out of players this way.

So if by true you mean factually accurate, that’s not interesting to me. I don’t care about that. But if by true you mean honest, then yes. These stories are true.

 

*True Story is our take on a Monologue Deconstruction. The most well known monologue deconstruction form is The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny, which plays every Monday night at iO.

**I can’t say “my book club” or “the book club I go to,” because I have suddenly found myself a member of two or three. How does that happen? It’s a good problem.