Category Archives: Teaching and Coaching

Teaching and coaching

Picture Book Improv: Blue Hat, Green Hat

This year, inspired by Bill Arnett’s post about reading Richard Scarry books as Harolds, I started kicking off improv class with a picture book. My middle school students were, in theory, too old for picture books. (I’m not sure anyone’s too old for picture books, actually.) But starting class off with a picture book helped them all focused on the same thing and gave me useful shorthand to use in my side coaching.

The Book: Sandra Boynton’s Blue Hat, Green Hat

Improv relevance: Pattern-based games, heightening, pacing, rule of three (loosely), reincorporation

Follow up exercises: Anything pattern-based. There are eight thousand pattern games, and everyone’s version is wrong except yours, probably. That’s fine. Pick your favorite pattern warm-up, then try breaking the pattern on purpose. Incorporate building and breaking the pattern into openings, scenes, and games.

Shorthand I took: “Is this a hat or an oops?” (Did you step on stage to show us more examples of the same thing, or did you step on to change something?) “Look for the oops!” (Players on stage, heighten. Players off stage, get ready to edit.)

 

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Each page has four animals, each wearing the same kind of clothing in different colors. The turkey is always last, and the turkey is always wearing the clothing wrong.

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After we’ve seen this pattern three times, it speeds up. We see one animal wearing something, then the turkey’s “oops” right away.

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We the clothing pattern six times before — finally! — the turkey gets it right. He’s wearing everything we’ve seen him mis-wear throughout the book, and he’s wearing it all at once. But then we see that he’s worn this outfit to a pool, when everyone else is in a swimsuit. Oops.

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By the second page, the book has promised us that the turkey will always mess up. Establishing a pattern lets us vary, heighten, and eventually break the pattern.

I’m not sure that improv games — I mean particularly the organic, non-scenic pieces of a Harold — need to be any more complicated than that. Establish the pattern, speed up or heighten the pattern, break the pattern. As we get more adventurous, the patterns get more sophisticated and the variations get wilder, but it’s the same core idea.

 

As I said above, I followed this book up with pattern-based warm ups. I also led a Conducted Story inspired by the principles the students pulled from the book:

  • Establish a pattern, then break it.
  • Show something about three times, or show three versions of a thing.
  • Stories feel over when something from earlier comes back at the end.

This gave us some of the best stories I’d seen so far from any group, kids or adults. Giving the students a framework made their stories more creative, not less. The players loved this exercise so much so much that they used a version of it, minus the conductor and plus some physicality, as their Harold opening.

3 Song Hot Spot

I know Hot Spot is a performance piece in Truth in Comedy, but I use it as an energy- and team-building warm-up, an exercise taking turns in the spotlight. Nobody is in the spotlight for long, and everyone has to get into the spotlight at some point.

In the improv for teenagers class I taught this year, we battled perfectionism and a tendency to separate the kids who were fluent in pop culture from the kids who weren’t. Hot Spot highlighted these pitfalls. Players didn’t want to jump into the middle unless they had the right song to sing. A song that nobody had sung yet, or a song they were sure they remembered all the words to, or a song that would help them fit in.

While everyone spun their wheels on the side, searching their mental playlists for perfect songs, some poor soul had been stuck in the middle for what felt like forever, and he only knew half the chorus to his song.

So I gave them three options: “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep,” “ABC’s,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Yeah, those all have the same melody. The point is that everyone knows them, and there’s no way to look cool singing them. The point isn’t to do the perfect thing. It’s to do something.

Suddenly, they were tagging each other out. They were singing at the tops of their voices, with commitment, expression, and silliness. They were singing back-up vocals for each other.

When I launched them straight from 3 Song Hot Spot into a Harold, they worried less about saying the perfect thing in their opening. They listened better and piled onto the game with more energy. They were more playful and less prone to freezing up from trying to be original. They showed more of themselves, and they played the way I want to play.

Free Class: Welcome and Saying Yes

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. Here’s how I’d start class every week:

Hey! Welcome to Westside! If you have performed at Second City or iO or somewhere for years and years, you’re in the right place. If you have never been on a stage in your life, you are also in the right place! Go around and say your name and if you have any improv or performance experience.

My name is Alyssa, and I’ve been doing various kinds of improv for about 14 years, which is half of my life.

(Someone has performed for years, though they recently took a bit of a break and are trying to shake the rust off. Someone else maybe saw an episode of Whose Line once. Someone’s new to me, and someone else has been coming for a dozen weeks straight. I try and usually fail to memorize everyone’s names right away.)

When you think of improv, what do you think of?

(People say funny, smart, witty, fast. Someone says guessing games. Someone says TJ and Dave.)

So I just heard about a lot of different kinds of improv — short form like Whose Line Is It Anyway, long form like many Chicago theaters — even different long form theaters have different approaches. But all those kinds of improv have at least one thing in common at their foundation, which is the idea of saying YES.

Depending on what you do up at street level, you probably say no a lot. I’m a teacher for little kids, so I say no a lot, because little kids sometimes want ridiculous or impossible things. Saying no can be healthy and necessary to protect ourselves and others. But down here, you can assume that everyone here is on your side, so you can afford to say yes. Making that switch takes practice, so now we’re going to practice.

Point to someone, wait for them to say yes, then move to take their spot in the circle. Once you’ve said yes to someone, point to someone else, wait for a yes, then move. Your feet are glued to the ground until someone has said yes to you.

(We play this game for several minutes until we find and enjoy a rhythm. If the group was bigger and caught on quickly, I’d have two or three people pointing and moving at a time instead of just one person.)

What made that easier?

Eye contact made it easier! Let’s remember that. Look people in the eyes.

Pointing specifically instead of vaguely made it easier! Specificity is awesome. Let’s remember that, too.

Not worrying about WHO you are going to point to next also made it easier! There’s no wrong person to point to. Nobody here said no to anybody. Let’s remember that: the people in this room are going to say yes to you for the next hour and a half.

Finding a rhythm made it easier! Sometimes you’ll see a group that looks like they’re reading each other’s minds. They’re not. We haven’t figured out telepathy yet. They’re just saying yes in a particular rhythm, which, to an audience, looks like magic.

That Guy

In a jam or workshop, a good general rule is to assume every player in the room is an artist, a poet, a genius. In this lovely ideal world, jumping into a scene with Stranger A is just as safe and potentially awesome as jumping into a scene with Stranger B.

But that’s not how it often works. Often, after the first round of scenes in a workshop full of strangers, I catch myself on the sidelines doing some mental math about how best to avoid being in a scene with that one guy.

You know, That Guy.

  • That Racist Guy who has only been in three scenes so far, but every one of them sounded, at best, like something your grandmother who still says the n-word would say.
  • That Wild Guy who doesn’t seem to know his own strength. He just started a scene by jumping into a scene partner’s arms, and the partner obviously wasn’t ready for it. It’s jolly and innocent, but you have no guarantee he’s not going to do the same to you, and you’d rather not end up with a back injury from a game of Freeze.
  • That Gross Guy who is sexual or violent right out the gate of every scene, saying things that wouldn’t make it onto network TV unless it’s by the criminal in an episode of Law and Order: SVU.
  • That Touchy Guy who is extremely touchy. Whenever he’s in scenes with women, he quickly establishes a romantic history and therefore feels justified being overly physically affectionate. He would do this even if you initiated the scene as his mom, his boss, or his niece.

The common denominator here is that That Guy is That Guy over and over again. It’s not a character he’s playing for one scene or set with teammates he knows. It’s that he has a pattern in workshops of treating players he just met like they’re garbage. If you jumped into a scene with him, you’d get stuck either saying yes-and and seeming to condone his That Guy-ness, or you’d bicker and risk being accused of denial, a cardinal sin of improv.

Most women have a radar for That Guy. When the teacher asks for volunteers, we wait until That Guy’s already had his turn. Or we wait until one other woman or guy-we-know-outside-class has volunteered, and then we jump up to be the second person in the scene. The result is that the men end up with a lot more stage time than the women.

We cannot take for granted that a teacher — even a really good teacher! — will pick up on that every woman in the class is creeped out by That Guy. At least, not of the teacher is a man, which is likely. The teacher will, instead, think we’re hanging back because we’re insecure. He tells the women to be more confident instead of telling the men not to be jerks. My theory is that this is part of why Level 1 classes usually have a more equal male-to-female ratio than Level 5 classes.

Earlier this summer, in an effort to relax about who I played with, I ended up in a scene with That Touchy/Gross Guy. (He’d already threatened to knife a woman in an earlier exercise with no provocation; I think she’d asked him to set the table or something.) His first line in our scene would have gotten him reported to HR for sexual harassment if we’d been coworkers, and I spent the rest of the scene shutting down his attempts to get physically closer to me. I dropped any kind of attempt at character. I think my second line of the scene was, “I am not going to allow you to touch me,” which backfired, as That Guy takes that sort of thing as a challenge. He got grosser, and I had to go to greater lengths to avoid being touched by someone I didn’t trust. I was 7 months pregnant, and this was neither funny nor graceful.

When the scene was over, the teacher didn’t give notes on it. He just moved on to the next pair. After the workshop, a different guy approached me and asked if I was alright. “That was hard to watch. It was not ok. I’m sorry you got stuck with That Guy.” This is the only time I’ve ever heard a male classmate say something like this. He later told me and some others that he had survived abuse and found that sort of scene triggering and Not Funny.

By the time I stopped in the bathroom after the class, all of the women were standing around the sink, talking not just about what a jerk That Guy was, but how unsafe they felt for the rest of class because the teacher hadn’t called That Guy out. I was not the only one affected. For the rest of the workshop, which we had all paid for, the women were too busy protecting themselves to get their money’s worth, and the teacher either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

I wonder if teachers don’t call out That Guy because he’s often clueless, not malicious, and the teacher doesn’t want to distract from class. But that That Guy is ALREADY distracting from class, because all the women on the sidelines are manipulating the order of when it’ll be their turn instead of learning new things and taking risks. Not calling him out is privileging That Guy’s time and money over everyone else’s.

Will Hines has probably the best advice for teachers about calling out That Guy, as well as how all of these rules change with context in a group of people who already know and trust each other and allowing for students to make honest mistakes. From his post, “Chivalry and Improv”:

Teachers should stop those scenes immediately, quickly note that it’s rude for a guy to do that to a girl and not allowed, and either re-start the scene or move on to two more people.

I don’t think a lecture is necessary there; it puts the male student on the defensive and asks him to be resentful. And students are allowed to screw up in class. Abruptly stopping, saying it’s not cool and restarting quickly saves time and send a simpler stronger message: just don’t do it. …

I like putting it in terms of the audience rather than the feelings of the female actor. The female actor, if she’s the type who likes improv, probably isn’t as easily offended as an audience would be, and probably doesn’t want anyone to fight her battles. It’s not fair for me as the teacher to presume what she feels and frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about any one student as it is creating a standard of politeness for everyone for the audience to see.

Find people you trust and enjoy, and this becomes a non-issue. Circus Police doesn’t have That Guy. Most teams I enjoy watching don’t have That Guy. The better the players, the more you can relax and play without wasting any energy on That Guy.

One of my goals as a teacher is to nurture an environment where players don’t have to hang back on the sidelines to avoid That Guy, while also being a place for everyone (including That Guy, who I have to hope will grow out of his That-Guy-ness) to become better players. Any suggestions?

The Very Hungry Dragons

Back in December, I wrote about the improv elective I was going to teach at The Greenhouse, the classical school where I work. I had a blast all semester with the six kids — four girls and two boys — who signed up. They named themselves the Very Hungry Dragons, and I looked forward to them every week.

They had their final performance last weekend at Westside Improv, and they wanted to do a Harold.

I love Harold. Harold is intuitive to me. However, if you learn Harold at iO (and aren’t on indie teams in the mean time), you receive over 144 hours of instruction and practice before your first Harold performance.

Students at iO spend many of those 144 hours, spread out over the better part of a year, developing their instincts for timing and pacing. You learn those things through practicing a lot, seeing a lot of shows, and watching good TV shows, movies, and plays. You develop an intuition for when something feels over, or when it feels like something should be called back.

My kids had more like 14 hours of instruction and practice spread out over the semester. They each were required to see one local improv show, though some saw two. They are home schooled adolescents, which often means that their parents have strict rules about how much TV they watch. My biggest worry for the show was that they wouldn’t have had the time or resources to hone their editing instincts.

So I took that aspect away. I sat in the front row, signaled when they should edit, and occasionally called out things I wanted them to try. (For instance, after an edit, I’d say, “I want to see the pianist again, after his recital is over.”)

I also helped them make connections that they hadn’t had time to develop on their own. (For instance, in one thread, a boy won the lottery. In another thread, two girls were trying to sell a rare and illegal animal. “Girls, who have we met who has enough money to buy your pet?”)

But the scenes were all the kids. They drew out their own themes, relationships, and characters from the suggestion. They were engaged with each other, they reacted in the moment, and were their own goofy selves. I was just there to direct traffic.

Other quirks I enjoyed about teaching this particular group:

  • No matter what the suggestion in 7’s and 6’s, they always said, “I’m hungry!” as one of their 6’s. They are preteens and teenagers. They are always hungry.
  • While they did not have the shared pop culture knowledge that most improv classes have, they were all studying medieval and early Renaissance history together this year. A disproportionate number of scenes had peasants, royalty, and dragons. They especially love dragons and Dragon Queens, and without, bless them, any hint of Game of Thrones.*
  • They were quick to see how improv principles applied to the rest of their lives. They actively worked on being better listeners and sharing focus with one another, and they talked about trying to continue those practices at home with their friends and siblings.

The Greenhouse focuses on a virtue every year, and this year’s virtue was awareness. You can’t learn improv without becoming more aware of yourself and of others in the process. Their homework assignments this year were designed to cultivate awareness in between classes. Two of my favorites were:

  • Pay attention to when you’re tempted to argue this week, and find a way NOT to argue.
  • Spend some time looking closely at your room; what would a stranger guess about you from what they saw here?

The Greenhouse’s continual emphasis on servant leadership ties into improv well, too. The skills you work on in improv — good listening, being honest about your emotions, building others up, bravery, being generous with yourself and others when things don’t go as planned — are the same skills you need to love your neighbor well.

 

 

I’m offering the class again next year for home school students over the age of 12. Click here to learn more about it and here to register.

 

 

 

 

*I have found myself lost in more than one scene lately, because I am not especially interested in reading/watching Game of Thrones, and that’s what adult students these days are drawing from when they play with fantasy.

How to Play: 7’s and 6’s

I taught a group how to play this game a couple of weeks ago, and I always suggest it when I’m practicing with my troupe. Here’s how to play 7’s and 6’s:*

Stand in a circle. Going around the circle, give the person next to you a category, and he has to list seven things in that category. The group keeps count for him enthusiastically. Then he turns to the next person and gives her a new category, and she must list seven things in that new category. She should not worry too much about being correct; the group will count anything she says with confidence. Go around until everyone has gone once.

Then move on to 6’s: Just like before, turn to the person next to you. Instead of a category, though, give them a kind of person. He has to list six things that kind of person would say during the course of a normal day.

Like many exercises, this is easier shown than it is explained. Here are some fictional characters playing it.

Constance: Merricat, give me seven deadly sins.

Merricat: Stealing.

Group: ONE!

Merricat: Gluttony.

Group: TWO!

Merricat: Arson.

Group: THREE!

Merricat: Touching knives.

Group: FOUR!

Merricat: Pride.

Group: FIVE!

Merricat: Nursery rhymes.

Group: SIX!

Merricat: Grounding your kid.

Group: SEVEN! Seven things!

 

Note that not all of the things Merricat said were correct. It does not matter. It matters that she was confident and quick. The group counting aloud helps her keep a rhythm.

After the whole group has had a turn with 7’s, it’s time for 6’s.

 

Julian: Constance, give me six things a lottery winner would say.

Constance: I won?!

Group: ONE!

Constance: I hope my relatives don’t try to take all my money.

Group: TWO!

Constance: Those were my lucky numbers.

Group: THREE!

Constance: We are so happy.

Group: FOUR!

Constance: I need a cup of tea.

Group: FIVE!

Constance: Perhaps I will go outside today.

Group: SIX! Six things!

Note that only some of those things have anything to do with winning the lottery. That’s ok. She’s allowed to say the first thing that pops in her head.

If you’re leading this exercise, encourage your group to:

  • Be fast and obvious rather than slow and clever. We could stall forever while waiting for someone to come up with The Best Idea.
  • Assume that whoever you’re asked to be in 6’s is reasonably competent and happy to be alive. Too many times have I heard someone given “neurosurgeon” and respond, “This is his brain, right? I failed medical school” etc. That gets boring quickly. Which leads to …
  • Allow it to be a normal day. If someone says, “neurosurgeon,” you don’t have to say six things about neurosurgery. On a normal day, a neurosurgeon might order coffee, say hello to his spouse, plan a vacation, forget where he set his keys, read Sherlock fan fiction on his phone, and do any number of other things. That doesn’t make him less of a neurosurgeon; it’s giving him a more fleshed-out life.
  • Let this spill over into their scenes. Characters don’t have to say the most brilliant, hilarious things every line. Most lines can just be the kind of thing that character would say on a normal day, just like 7’s and 6’s. This takes the pressure off players.

During 6’s, players who would normally feel daunted at the idea of inventing a character out of thin air are often surprised when the group cuts them off and cheers after they’ve named their sixth thing. They had more ideas than they thought! Being allowed to be obvious lets people be more creative.

*I recently ran across the phrase “at sixes and sevens” in a book, and I assume the game 7’s and 6’s is a play on the phrase. According to this website, “[At sixes and sevens] is commoner in the UK and Commonwealth countries than in the US. It can mean something that’s in a state of total confusion or disarray, or people who are collectively in a muddle or at loggerheads about how to deal with some situation.” The game 7’s and 6’s has nothing to do with that, but I like knowing where names come from.

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.

Pointing at Things

A few months ago, I substituted for my friend Laura, who teaches art at a classical school. Classical education focuses on memorizing facts in elementary school, applying logic in middle school, and speaking and writing persuasively in high school. So when the lesson plan was to play Surrealist games, some students middle school kids were distressed or dismissive. They were Logic students! They’d been trained to be right, and there’s no way to be right in a Surrealist game.

It made me want to play “Pointing at Things,” so we did. Pointing at Things has three stages:

  1. Point to a thing and say its name. (Point to a chair while saying “chair,” then point to the ceiling while saying “ceiling,” etc.) Be excited about it, and treat it like a race. Lots of speed and energy.
  2. Point to a thing while saying the name of last thing you pointed to. (Point to a window and say, “ceiling,” point to the piano and say “window,” point to your foot and say, “piano,” etc.) Do this until you can do it as fluently and energetically as you could do the first step.
  3. Point to a thing while saying anything but the thing’s name. (Point to your teammate and say, “octopus,” point to a table and say, “sonnet,” point to your glasses and say, “apple,” etc.) Do this until you can do it as quickly and energetically as you could the first step.

People tend to prefer either the second game or the third game. The second game is about memory, and the third game is about spontaneity. I have a theory that the best teams are made up of a mixture of Second Game People or Third Game People.

Most of Laura’s middle school students were Second Game people. I am, too; I suspect that’s more common. I am great at remembering what’s already been said and done and weaving it into what’s happening now. I can see the big picture and the little details that make it up, but I’m liable to get stuck if I have to pull an idea out of thin air. I have to force myself to relax enough to play the third game fluently.

So when I’m on a two-person team, I prefer to be with a Third Game person. This works pretty well for Flash Fiction; my teammate, Brendon, is very much a Third Game person. While he’s fast and spontaneous, I make connections that depend on his memory and focus. We balance one another out, and playing with him challenges me to be more fluent and judge myself less.

The same is true on Circus Police, a newer team I’m playing with. One or two of the players are stronger at the Third Game, the others of us are better at the Second. We balance out in the end.

The Improv Handbook (by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White) has this to say about what’s going on under the surface of this simple game and why it can be so hard:

“You are used to using your brain like a retrieval mechanism — a biological Google. Give it a well-defined question and it will come back with a well-defined answer (or a well-defined ‘I don’t know’). But this exercise is like typing nothing into the Google search box and expecting ten splendid websites to pop up. It won’t happen! To play this game, you have to treat your brain less like Google and more like a lucky dip (grab bag). Stick a hand in and see what you get. …

What’s also surprising about this game is how easy it is to trigger the learning-anxiety response. This is an utterly trivial game; it cannot possibly reflect on your ability to broker stocks, cure diseases, design buildings, program websites or charm the opposite sex, or however else you tell yourself you are marvelous. Yet very few people initially approach it with anything like the relaxed, positive attitude which it requires, and almost everybody punishes themselves bitterly for what they perceive as a failure.”

Jet Eveleth once gave me the note, “You see the game, you’ve got the big picture; now get out there and do some fucking gayballs shit!” [Don’t hold back. Make weird, bold choices without judging yourself.] Remembering that helps; so does remembering that I’m not a middle school student anymore, so there are no grades.

If you’re better at spontaneity, what helps sharpen your memory and focus? And if you’re better at memory (like me), what helps you loosen up?

Who and Who and Who and Who

There’s an exercise I’ll call “Heat and Weight. I am stealing it from T.J. Jagadowski:

Stand facing a partner, and think of an impossibly specific relationship and situation. Not, “We’re sisters,” but, “We’re sisters, and I’m 15 and you’re 18, and I need your advice because I might be in trouble, but I’m also afraid you’re going to tell mom and dad and get me in MORE trouble.” Then, for about one minute, stare at your partner and try to communicate this information with your eyes. Don’t talk or pantomime. Just stare. Then ask your partner if she got it.

Your partner probably won’t get it verbatim. But she might get, “We’re coworkers, and you’ve messed something up on a report, and you need me to cover for you, but you’re also afraid I might rat her out to our boss.” But can you see how that’s basically the same relationship (heat) and the same stakes (weight)?

Switch partners and try again. Then try it where both of you are giving and receiving at the same time. Then try it again, but go straight into a scene after the minute of silence. Shrink that minute to thirty seconds, and do it again. Shrink that thirty seconds to fifteen, and do it again. Shrink that moment of silence, but don’t skip it.

Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s barely even an exercise. It’s just how you start scenes. The what and where and why will come if it needs to, but eye contact will help you establish who you are to each other without all of that expository nonsense in the first few lines.

If you’ve seen T.J. and Dave, a moment of quiet eye contact is how they begin their shows. In Jimmy Carrane’s interview with T.J., T.J. says:

You can’t really talk yourself to clarity, you usually have to quiet yourself to clarity. When you try to talk yourself to the next thing you know about each other, it sounds like you’re searching for that thing.

They talk about who, what, where … Give me who, give me a little more who, start to solidify your who some more, give me some more who on this. Maybe we’ll find out where where is, I don’t know what a what is. I still don’t know what the what is, so. Now you’re there. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.

[The who] is how those two people are in that moment, in that time with each other. … Fathers and sons behave like colonels and sergeants, and fathers and sons behave like best friends, and fathers and sons behave like sons and fathers reversed, so the title does not suffice.”

Listen to that episode of Improv Nerd here. The whole hour is interesting, but the last 10 minutes or so are gold.

We’re improvisers, not journalists. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.