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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.

Craig Uhler’s Scene Work Elective

I just finished up Craig Uhler‘s scene work elective at iO. I took it because I felt like I was in a rut in my scenes, and I’d been unsuccessful at working my own way out of it. And I especially wanted to take another class with Craig Uhler, who taught the awesome No Humans workshop at The Improv Retreat last year and who has more fun than anyone else in the world.

I love Craig’s teaching because he’s more interested in getting players on stage than he is in lecturing on improv theory (which he calls “some ideas we have about how to pretend”). This is awesome for me, because as much as I love improv theory, I am prone to over-thinking and learn more by jumping in and DOING.

Also, Craig is good at getting to the root of where someone is stuck, and his feedback is both no-nonsense and encouraging. Even when his feedback to someone was, “Quit being a jerk,” he managed to say that in a constructive way that helped the player immediately.

This is unrelated to Craig’s teaching, but one of my favorite things was that this class started out with a pretty even split between men and women. As the class went on, a handful of the men flaked (especially around St. Patrick’s Day, because it’s Chicago), which left a mostly-female class. I LOVED this. I have so rarely been in classes or on teams with mostly women, and I got to see and play a broader range of characters than I see/play in troupes of mostly dudes.

Here are some stray notes from the class:

  • Keep your initiations simple. We should have a pretty good idea of who/what/where by the time the scene has gone on for a minute, but we don’t need it all in the first line.
  • Bring yourself into your characters. How would you play your parent in a scene? How would you play your best friend? Most people, if they’re being themselves, act like a combination of their parent and best friend.
  • In a group scene, if you notice an odd man out, try to bring them in. Putting people down may get you ahead in life, but it hurts your improv.
  • Be at least as smart as you are in real life. Play the nice version of yourself who cares about things. If you choose to play a character who is a jerk or is perpetually confused, it can come across as fear or not supporting your partner. Jerks and stupid people aren’t off limits to play, but they shouldn’t be your default.
  • Specificity reads as confidence. Vagueness can look like panic.
  • Play with your scene partners, not next to them or in spite of them.
  • When you start a scene, assume well-meaning friendship with your scene partner. If something else develops, that’s awesome, but don’t force conflict or a complicated relationship at the top.
  • If you’re tired or half-sick but need to do a show anyway, do not sit down. Inertia will kill you if you sit. You can play calm characters that you like, but they can’t spend lots of time sitting.
  • Protect yourself by having lots of fun. If you’re having fun, you’re rarely going to ruin a show.

If you’re stuck:

  • Say what you want. You will never hurt a scene by saying what your character wants and going after it.
  • Start sentences with “you” or “I” statements. (“You know … ” and “I think … ” don’t count.) That way, we learn about the characters.
  • Mirror your scene partner’s emotions. Care about what they care about.
  • Touch your scene partner. (But don’t be creepy or violent, or nobody will want to play with you.)
  • Repeat something your scene partner said.
  • Change up the stage picture.
  • Say something small talk-y you would say in real life or give a mini-monologue from your life. Just a line or two. A good scene partner will treat that as important.

Again, none of this came out in lectures, but as notes immediately after or during an exercise. Everyone got lots of stage time.

Craig is already planning to offer the class again. Here’s a link to the iO electives page for details. If you want to get out of a scene rut, you should definitely take it!

“Should I quit improv?” Part 2: Are you getting better?

Earlier, I wrote about how quitting improv might be the right choice if you’re not having any fun.

You can read part 1 here, but here’s the quiz I wrote:

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.32.17 AM

You’ll notice that a “no” to “Are you having fun?” doesn’t automatically lead to “Maybe find something else to do.” Because sometimes, if you’re working hard on getting better, you’ll go through a not-fun phase, and that is the exact wrong time to quit improv.

Riding a bike with training wheels is easy, but taking the training wheels off is hard. It feels like you’ll never be able to really ride a bike. How does anyone balance? And brake? And turn? And shifting gears while pedaling sounds like witchcraft.

Now riding my bike around the park is so effortless I don’t think about the mechanics of it anymore. I needed the training wheels for a little while when I first started, but now they would get in my way as I maneuver around traffic.*

Sometimes getting better at improv isn’t the most fun thing, but doing hard work now is an investment in the enormous amount of fun you are going to have down the road. Improv will get more fun as you get better at it.

I found this very true when I went through iO’s training center. Levels 1 and 2 were the most fun ever. Levels 3 and 4 made me feel worthless, like I was never going to be good at this, and maybe I should stop trying. Something shifted in Level 5, though, and improv was once again a magical thing I would love forever.

At the time, I thought this was just because I liked some teachers more than others — my Levels 1 and 2 teacher was Jet Eveleth, and my Level 5 teacher was TJ, and they are both just the best. While I do think clicking with my teachers was part of it, it was mostly because, after the Levels 3 and 4 teachers started taking away my training wheels, it took me awhile to find my balance again.

Jimmy Carrane, who creates the excellent Improv Nerd podcast, recently posted about the impulse to quit improv. He’s a good writer, and you should read the whole post, but here’s my pull quote:

There is this incredible hokey saying, “Don’t quit before the miracle,” which really applies to everything, especially improv. In improv you never know the day, time, or year when you’re going to get good at it.

It happens slowly. And you’ll never know where it will lead you.

In a classic blog post, which you should also read, Bill Arnett created this chart:

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.54.04 AM

“For young improvisors: relax. You may not feel like your scenes are getting better but your poor work is slipping away. That plateau you’re on that frustrates you after class is actually a slope.”

I find this graph encouraging when getting better feels too hard. (A couple of years ago, it inspired me to create my own chart about how Flash Fiction came together.) It’s not really a plateau, it’s a gentle slope, as long as you keep going forward instead of sitting down and camping out.

So don’t quit improv because it’s hard. Fun is on the other side of hard. Quit because you don’t care enough about the fun to put in the hard work in practice.

 

*Where I ride my bike, “traffic” means “scary geese.”

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.