Tag Archives: Open Source Improv

Geniuses, Poets, Artists, and Unexpected Guests

geniusThis is the “do unto others” of improv. Image by David Kantrowitz. Buy a print here.

At Open Source Improv‘s June show, the host introduced True Story and invited any improviser to jump up and play with us. We do this every month, and it’s given me a chance to meet and play with new people. It’s great.

However, on a bad day, I find myself hesitating on the sidelines when I’m playing with new people. Hm, I don’t know that guy. I don’t know his style. He might be tough to play with. What if he’s way worse than I am and I can’t save the scene? Or what if he’s a zillion times better than I am and I can’t keep up? I’m going to hang back and wait to play in a scene with someone I trust. And before I know it, I’ve leaned my back against the wall, violating my own neurotic rules of sideline etiquette and basically guaranteeing I won’t take any risks. Boring.

(See also: How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun)

But this month, one of the people to jump into the True Story was a kid who looked about 8 years old. Suddenly, there was no room for that, judge-y internal monologue. It was immediately obvious that our main goal had to be to make this kid feel like a rock star.

The scenes he was in didn’t make a ton of logical sense, but they were the most entertaining scenes in the piece. He got to drive a car, he was a criminal mastermind, he was the new Batman. I don’t know that he said more than three words together in the whole piece — he was too busy giggling — but he seemed to have a lot of fun.

A friend in the audience pointed out to me later that we “Yes, and!”-ed more boldly, without any hesitation, when the boy was in the scene. We were better at supporting one another, better at giving and accepting gifts, and better at treating each other’s ideas like the best ideas in the world. For those scenes, we were all trying so hard to make this kid feel like an artist/poet/genius that we had flashes of becoming those things ourselves.

Now if I can just turn that internal monologue off in jams when there isn’t an eight year old. Maybe that kid will come back every month. He was the best.

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.

Students scaring teachers

Last night, I played again with my friend Brendon at Open Source Improv. It was our second show. We were all warmed up, the logistics were taken care of, I was feeling relaxed and ready …

Until 3 of my students walked in the door.

Then I got anxious.  

Every week or two, Jimmy Carrane posts a talk show podcast called Improv Nerd, which I highly recommend. His guests are talented improvisers who have some connection to Chicago’s improv scene. In the dozen or so episodes I’ve listened to I’ve noticed a trend:

It doesn’t matter how many Second City Mainstage shows they’ve done, how many i.O. classes they’ve taught, even how many seasons they performed on Saturday Night Live. They say that they’re afraid of being found out as frauds.

This seems especially true of improv teachers. When I took classes at i.O, a few of my teachers would encourage students to come to their shows, then quickly admit that having students in the audience freaked them out. If they just taught a 3-hour class on environment, then their show better have a rich environment. If it doesn’t, their students might call them on it. Or worse, their students might lose respect for them.

I think that’s where my anxiety was coming from last night. It helped that I’d heard so many players I admire come on Improv Nerd and name that feeling. Naming the fear drained some of its power. That gave me enough distance harness that fear as energy instead of letting anxiety win the day.

I felt better about this show than about the last show, partly because the students were there to scare me.* I think I play better when I’m scared but don’t let the fear win.

*I do not think they were there for the purpose of scaring me. That was just a side effect.