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!