Tag Archives: Brendon Culhane

“Words, word, words. I’m so sick of words.”

In college, there was a deaf student who frequently came to our improv shows. He usually had a friend with him, translating our words into sign language. Our troupe had a goal that we wanted the show to be interesting and fun for the deaf student even if, by some chance, he didn’t have an interpreter that night.

I wrote in an email to my Flash Fiction partner, Brendon, “I’d love it if a deaf person watched our show and got the gist because of stage picture and body language, but things should definitely be harder for the blind.”*

An improviser I don’t know well asked me how I met one of my troupe mates. I said we’d taken a clown class together. Because he looked confused, I quickly explained that clown — at least, the kind I had been learning — was like improv, but without words. He said, “But that’s what improv is, is just words!”

No.

Words are the quantifiable part. The seemingly-easy part. The least important part, if we’re doing it right. The part that can get us into the wrong kind of trouble if we’re lazy about them.

Most of the pitfalls Mick Napier lists in his book Improvise under “Common Problems” are about words. He’s got over seven pages about one version or another of talking too much (“Too Much Exposition” like in Blade’s sidewalk improv) and only one page about not talking enough.

I am aware the I’m starting to sound like Eliza Doolittle.

“Never do I ever want to hear another word … ”

 

*I just typed, “Things should definitely be harder for the blind.” Google is probably flagging me as a menace.

In the beginning …

… my sketch idea was more boring than it was in the end.

My church is moving into a new building, and they asked me to make a video to promote one of our Consecration events: We’re going to read the whole Bible aloud in a week, which should take roughly 24 hours each day. This means we need the whole church to take turns reading so nobody gets worn out.

I recruited my Flash Fiction partner, Brendon, to act in the video. My husband Blade helped with some of the technical aspects.* I wrote the basic outline for the sketch and edited the footage.

I had three ideas for the sketch, and they came to me in this order:

  1. Brendon signs up for all the reading slots, and I spend the video talking him out of it. I explain how the Consecration event actually works.
  2. Brendon signs up for all the slots and I coach him through it. He messes up a lot — reads the verse numbers and all the footnotes aloud, for instance — and I have to keep him on track.
  3. Brendon practices reading the whole Bible, and I just let him go.

The third thought ended up being the strongest. Del Close said** that an improviser’s first and second thoughts tend to be knee-jerk reactions. It’s usually a player’s third idea that has life.

The first thought was boring, because why would I spend 3 minutes trying to talk Brendon out of doing something? It’s always better to do something than it is to debate about doing something.

The second thought was based off the idea that we needed a straight man to ground the scene and set the record straight. Maybe we would need to explain more with some audiences, but our audience is biblically literate folks who like Rez on Facebook.

The third thought was the most energetic. It felt like Brendon and I were on the same team instead of him being on the Team of Fun and me being on the Team of Boring Reasonableness. Being on the same team is more joyful.

Also, my own role shrunk from actor/director/editor to director/editor, which felt better. Three hats is too many hats.

*Technical aspects include: Setting a camera up on a tripod, letting me know when we were out of battery, and teaching me how to use iMovie. 

**I can’t find a citation for this, but I can find a lot of people writing, “Oh, yeah, a teacher told me that Del told her that …”

Plateau: a criminal oversimplification

This summer, I’ve been working with my friend Brendon on a two-person show* called Flash Fiction. We had our first show a couple of weeks ago after about 8 weeks of practice.

This is a mathematically precise chart** of our progress over the summer:

You know what communicates mathematical precision? Paintbrush.

A is our first two or three practices. We were figuring out what we wanted the show to be and getting our scene legs. While we have 18ish years of improv experience between us, neither of us had ever done a two-person show. The initial learning curve was huge. It took us a couple of practices to loosen up and articulate our goals.

B is the middle several practices. Let’s call it practice 4, 5, and 6. I realize that, on the chart, it is MUCH LONGER than A, even though it represents a similar period of time. This chart is not following calendar time. It’s following how the time felt. We plateaued for a few weeks, and that plateau felt like it lasted forever and ever amen. We weren’t bombing; we just weren’t getting better very quickly anymore. Everything we did was ok. Just ok.

C is our last three weeks of practice before the show. Every piece felt amazingly better than the piece that came before it. We played hard and smart. It was the kind of playing that reminds me why I do improv in the first place. I don’t know exactly how we pushed out of that plateau; good coaches and a Jet Eveleth workshop certainly helped.

D is our show. It was not our best work, but it was not our worst, either. It was on par with our plateau. This is consistent with several other troupes I’ve played with and coached. Even if you have experience, it takes a few performances for a troupe to really find its legs. A show introduces variables — a different space, an audience, logistics — that can throw you. I thought they wouldn’t throw me this time, but they did. The space was unexpectedly weird, the audience was larger than we’d anticipated, and the tech was rocky. It takes practice not to be distracted by those things.

We have another show in a few weeks, so I’m excited to see what E looks like.

This post was inspired by Bill Arnett’s classic post, Analysis and Synthesis, which I’ve found hugely encouraging. Please read it. Bill Arnett might say that what looks like a plateau is actually a very gentle upward slope, so subtle that it’s hard to notice while you’re on it.

That’s it. A criminal oversimplification of something that is born from our souls. I’ve ascribed numbers to art, the most sacred and challenging, the most human, of all of our endeavors. I’m just playing my part in the history of western civilization, I guess.

– Bill Arnett

*It takes a conscious effort for me to say this. I default to “two-man show,” even though I’m half the troupe and also a girl. 

**No it is not.