Tag Archives: scene work

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!

Technique, Form, and Substance. Also, cake!

I posted this once upon a time on an old blog. I’ve kept the old comments, because I have insightful friends.

If improv were a cake …

Exhibit A: Lauren and I made this for a friend’s birthday. My mom probably helped with the icing.
 … technique would be your kitchen tools.

You know, wooden spoon and mixing bowl and spatula and measuring cups. It’d be really messy to make a cake without those things, and the ingredients probably wouldn’t be well-blended.

It will make your improv so much smoother if you get good at acceptance and heightening. If you want to be very fancy, you could learn miming, singing, rhyming, and contact improv.

But if all you have is a really great bowl and spoon and spatula and measuring cups, you’ll still go hungry. At least, hungry for cake.* And you can accept and heighten and mime all you want, but that’s not enough for good improv.

Exhibit B: I made this cake for my friend Meredith, who is a vegetarian.

 … form would be the cake pan.

Cupcakes have the potential to be as delicious as bundt cakes, layer cakes, or crazy sculpted cakes; a run of short form games can be as fun as Harold and Armando. They’re different shapes in which to pour your awesome scene work.

You don’t need a bunch of flashy forms any more than you need 18 highly-specific cake pans. However, if you have no pan at all, nobody is going to want to eat your delicious cake, because it won’t look appetizing. A formless show is hard for the audience to know how to watch. Have a form. Your form can be as basic as Exhibit A or as complex as Exhibit B, but don’t let your show get into Exhibit D territory.

Exhibit C: My husband made me this cookie cake and iced it with a Marc Johns drawing.

 … substance would be your ingredients.

There is no definitive list of what to put in a cake to make it a good cake, just some general guidelines. Most cakes have some combination of eggs and flour and sugar and milk. Some have cream cheese or carrots or cocoa; some are vegan or gluten-free. It’s a lot of stuff that wouldn’t necessarily taste good on its own but works in combination with the other flavors to make something new. There’s flexibility there, as long as you keep your proportions reasonable and your ingredients are good quality.

Most scenes have some basic ingredients, too: relationship, character, environment, game, and that indefinable magic that comes out of a group working together. There are probably more I can’t think of. Or fewer, depending on the kind of scene.

If your milk’s gone rancid or your sugar has ants, your cake will be awful. Your cake pan and egg beaters might have been fine, but that doesn’t save your cake. There’s no sense investing in an expensive Kitchen-Aide mixer if you’re not going to bother with your ingredients and proportions.

But once in awhile, for some inexplicable reason, a cake with all those great ingredients still doesn’t turn out the way it’s supposed to. Some scenes won’t work, and you can’t always know why. You just have to double-check your ingredients, clean up your tools, and try again.

Exhibit D: My mom probably did not help with this icing. This is all me.

… and comedy, of course, is just the icing on the cake.

You don’t have to have icing for a good cake. In fact, bad icing will ruin an otherwise good cake, and good icing won’t save a gross cake. If I have to chose between a cake with bad icing and a cake with no icing, I’ll pick no icing.

And I’ll take a good, interesting scene that doesn’t me laugh over a weak scene dripping with gags. Even good icing doesn’t make up for bad cake, and funny jokes don’t make up for shoddy scene work.

True confession: Icing is my favorite part of cake. But it gives me a stomach ache to eat it by itself. Good icing on good cake, though? Life doesn’t get better.

Exhibit what?: This is from when my mom pretended it was my birthday so my friends would come over and watch Schindler’s List.

And, hey, when you’re done, make sure you clean everything off and store everything in a cool, dry place, because fresh ingredients can spoil and attract bugs. Take care of yourself and your tools, or you won’t think the whole enterprise is worth the trouble.

*Is there any other kind of hungry? I submit that there is not.