Tag Archives: laughter

Free Class: Conducted Story

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, how to play Bippity Bippity Bop, Yes, And, and Conducted Rant.

Stay in this nice line onstage, just like you’ve been standing in for Conducted Rant. Now we’re going to do the same thing, where I tell you when it’s your turn to speak, but I won’t have more than one person speaking at once this time around. Last time, you each told your own stories. This time, you’re going to tell one story all together.

Tell me a brand new fairy tale. You know how sometimes a 3 year old wants to hear the same story over and over again? When my brother was little, he didn’t just want “Jack and the Beanstalk” every night; he wanted the same wording and cadence every night. Tell this story in such a way that if I said, “Do it again!” you could.

Fairy tales can be about anything — some of them are scary, some are sweet, many have magic, some don’t — but they are not complicated. I don’t a story that you’d find in Orange Is the New Black or LOST that requires keeping track of a bunch of nuanced characters and plots. Give me a simple beginning, middle, and end.

(I wanted to keep them building a continuous story instead of sort of a jokey idea salad, which is a common tendency for people who are trying to be funny. Giving a positive goal, “Tell a fairy tale,” is more helpful than “Tell an uncomplicated story.”)

One more thing — when I’m conducting you, just like before, I may cut you off mid-thought. That’s ok. The next person will pick up where you left off. That means everybody needs to listen, just in case you need to finish someone else’s sentence.

(In the beginning, I let each person get a thought out. After everyone has said one thought, I start cutting people off sooner. If I cut someone off in mid-sentence and the next person doesn’t finish the thought, I redirect them. Like this:

Person 1: And then Charles said to the fairy godmo-

Person 2: Then Charles ate –

Me: She left off at “Charles said to the fairy godmo,” so what sounds like it should come next?

Person 2: Oh! Charles said the the fairy godmother, “I’m going to eat you alive.”

Me: Thank you, yes. Keep going.

I watch for them to get bogged down in the middle of the story. Most groups, if I say “Time to look for an ending!” will reincorporate elements from earlier in the story, which is an impulse I want to encourage.)

What made this easier?

  • Not thinking too far ahead. Yes! If you think too far ahead, you’ll miss something. You might have the fairy godmother saying something, when the person before you JUST established that the fairy godmother got eaten.
  • Just saying the thing that makes sense. Absolutely! Just say what seems obvious to you, what sounds like it should probably come next. The beautiful thing about making collaborative art like this is that you’ve had a different day than I’ve had. You have different life experiences and a different brain. What’s obvious to you may seem like a revelation to me. What’s obvious to me may seem like it’s out of nowhere to you. A bunch of people being very obvious and honest will end up making something original.
  • Not trying to be funny. Yeah! Saying whatever feels like it’s supposed to come next is harder to do if you’re worried about being funny. If I say “once upon -” don’t say “platypus” just because you think the word is funny. Nobody here did that. You did a great job of serving the story instead of trying to stand out as the funniest person. That’s the kind of improviser I want to play with and watch.
  • Saying something someone said before. Yeah! Not everything has to be new every line. (Are you sensing a theme here?) Take what everyone else said already as a gift you can use. Also, repeating some element of the story helps us know when the story is over. In fairy tales, repetition is a feature, not a bug. It’s satisfying to us to hear about Jack going up the beanstalk several times and stealing something each time. If he stole something the first time, then washed the giant’s car the second time, then built a fort out of the giant’s napkins the third time, it wouldn’t seem like much of a story.
  • Being ready to change what you thought the story was going to be. Yes! Whoever says it first makes it true, because improv is magic. If you were picturing Charles as a person with brown hair, then someone says that Charles is a fish, Charles is a fish now. In fact, now Charles was always a fish. The picture in your head needs to change to match the new reality we’ve discovered.
  • Giving the characters names. Yeah, we got tripped up a little when we had two male characters who just went by “he.” We had an easier time once we had Charles and George, and an even easier time once someone made Charles a fish. The more specific, the better. Specific things are easier to remember than vague things. The story where a guy goes a place and takes a thing isn’t nearly as memorable as the story of Jack climbing a beanstalk and stealing a harp. People tend to get vague if they’re afraid of stepping on someone else’s toes or if they weren’t listening and are afraid they missed something. Listen so that you accidentally override the reality the group has already established, but don’t fret so much about messing the story up that you’re afraid to be specific. You’re not going to break the story.

(Somewhere in here, a new player might say, “You keep saying not to try to be funny. I thought that was the whole point of improv.”)

Dave Pasquesi said somewhere or other that every show is us shooting an arrow at a target. The tiny bulls eye in the middle is The Perfect Show, which nobody will ever achieve. Shoot for it, but know that it’s impossible. But the rings around Perfect are Fascinating, Intriguing, Enlightening, Provoking, Moving. That outer ring is Funny. If you shoot for Perfect and you miss, you’ve got a pretty good chance at hitting Interesting or Funny. But if you shoot for Funny and you miss, you’re off the target entirely, and you’ve probably sold out your scene partner.

Laughter is the byproduct, not the goal. Being honest is easier than being funny, and it still makes the audience laugh. Audiences like to hear someone else express how they’ve felt before. They’re laughing because they’re connecting with you, not because you said a witty thing. Laughter is how people release emotion in a theater like this, even if the emotion is sadness or anger or surprise.

Life is a rich tapestry and there is nothing new under the sun, so there isn’t a point in working hard to be funny. This is great news! You can relax. Relaxed people are better listeners.

Thinking over thinking

I thoroughly enjoyed this video, posted last week by Ze Frank.

In life — especially in church — I view people telling me, “Don’t think so hard! You’re thinking too much!” as a giant red flag. I don’t appreciate being asked to turn off my brain.

Phillip Carey summarizes the problem well in the chapter of Good News for Anxious Christians entitled, “Why You Don’t Have to Worry about Splitting Head from Heart.”

“The new evangelical theology, like all forms of consumerist religion, … requires you to be afraid of engaging in critical thought, so that you’re easily manipulated and easily pressured into wanting to feel what everyone else feels. … So it’s hardly surprising that a misleading piece of rhetoric (‘don’t split your head from your heart’), which has the effect of making you feel you’re thinking too much, is pretty popular in evangelical circles these days.”

I often tell improvisers I’m coaching, “Get out of your head!” At first glance, that seems to be the same thing as “You’re thinking too much!”* It’s not. But I can see them get stressed out when they misunderstand me, because then they start thinking about their thoughts, which is an unhelpful internal spiral of nothing happening.

What I actually mean is, “Think in a different way!” Or, more actively, “Do something! Think about it as you go instead of agonizing about your actions beforehand.”

Most players I’ve coached have been college students at a competitive school. They spend all day at taking notes on lectures, writing papers, doing research, and conducting experiments. They use their analytical brains all day.

When I tell them to get out of their heads, I’m not asking them to turn off their brains. I’m asking them to use a different part of their brain than they use in philosophy class. I’m asking them to use the intuitive part, the playful part. The logical part doesn’t disappear, it just takes second chair for a few hours. That the players are smart, logical people makes the play that much richer.

So I like how Ze Frank says this:

It is possible to overthink, but first you have to think and try and talk and do. And after that, if you’re still at an impasse, maybe then you let go. 

I also liked this:

Laughter is the release of suddenly unnecessary emotional inertia.

(See this post on why death scenes are funny in an improv show.)

*If I ever tell you you’re thinking too much, you have permission to kick me in the shin.

Question: Can improv be as deep as more traditional theater?

Did you know you can tell me what you want to read about, and I’ll try to write accordingly? And my good friend Marty has done just that.

Marty asks:

Do you think improv can reach the same psychological/emotional/conceptual depths as more traditional theater? 

No and yes.

Can improvisers make situations, settings, and plots as tight and complex as Arthur Miller or Yazmina Reza? No. I’ve never, ever seen a group do this on the fly. So my answer on the “conceptual depth” part is: Probably not.

But the psychological/emotional depth part? Yes. The potential is there. The players have to be in sync, with heightened focus, vulnerability, and amazing amounts of patience. Then, sometimes, you can reach those depths. Not always. But sometimes.

I don’t think that’s different from more traditional theater. Not all produced plays are as successful, artistic, and moving as the greats. Not every script is God of Carnage or August: Osage County. For every Tracy Letts, there are countless Corky St. Clairs:

The same is true of any art form. For every masterpiece, there’s a daunting volume of worthless crap. When it comes to books, movies, and scripts, we trust time to separate the wheat from the tares.

Improv shows don’t have that chance. They’re like fireworks*: Dazzling, then gone. Or underwhelming, then gone. Time doesn’t preserve the good ones. No matter how good or bad an improv show was, no one will ever see it again.

I also want to address the connotation that “deep” means “solemn” or “intense.” Solemnity and intensity depend on setting, not on content or quality.

Let’s say you’re watching a solid two-person scene. One of the characters is dying. Maybe he even dies by the end of the show. Do you laugh or cry? That depends on where you are. Are you in a black box theater or a cabaret? The space you’re in shapes your expectations, and your expectations shape your responses.**

People associate improv with comedy. They expect to laugh. So when they feel any reaction at all to what is happening on stage, that emotion manifests itself as laughter.

In a more solemn, black box setting, complete with costumes and lighting and sound cues, that same emotional connection could manifest itself as crying or as a deep, attentive quiet.

In a way, improvisers have it easier. If you’re performing a death scene from a tragic play in a black box theater, laughter is the worst thing that could happen. It probably means your show is a flop.

But if you were do to that same serious, tragic death scene in an improv show, and the audience laughed — well, you’re probably in a comedy club, so laughter isn’t bad. It might not be what you were going for, but it’s not bad. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

If we aim for depth, for greatness, we might miss, but we will hit “interesting” or “funny” or “smart” along the way. If we aim at funny but miss, we just hit “corny” and “irritating” and “boring.”*** We might as well aim high. 

What do you think, Marty? Or anyone? Is improv inherently shallower than other kinds of theater?

*This may be a Del Close quote. A teacher said that another improviser said that Del Close told her once …

**For an upsettingly bizarre case study of this effect, read about the date rape monologue scandal at last year’s Del Close Marathon. And watch it, if you have the stomach. Once audience member wrote: “I also think [the performers] assumed … that the story would have a twist, a hilarious revelation that nullified the intense creepiness of the first, oh, I don’t know, 500 minutes of it. If they thought that, it is because they are comedians who expected a comedic story with jokes in it.” People laughed, not because it was funny, but because they had prepared their bodies and brains to express emotion through laughter, even if the emotion was disgust.

***Possibly a David Pasquesi paraphrase. A teacher said that …

In which Rabbit has an amazing audience.

I’ve coached several troupes, most of them at the local college. A couple of years ago, after a rocky show, I heard a troupe member complaining, “Well, that just wasn’t a good audience.” We’ll call this troupe member Rabbit.

Dear Rabbit,

Do not complain about the audience.

The audience does not control your show. 

An audience can’t make a show good, and an audience can’t ruin it.

At your small Christian college, the audience is especially gracious. That can be more harmful than helpful, because sometimes they laugh just to be polite, and it’s easy to become dazed by their laughter and lose focus.

The audience is full of your Friends-and-Relations, who are going to cheer for you no matter what because they know you, Rabbit. They’re on your side. They want to make you happy because you’re a nice guy, and they want you to keep inviting them over for honey and tea.

You don’t want the audience to laugh and cheer just because you’re Rabbit. You want them to laugh and cheer because something they saw and heard resonated with them.

If they don’t laugh, it’s not because there’s something wrong with the audience. They showed up, they paid a dollar, and that makes them an amazing audience, Rabbit.

A real bad audience would be one that didn’t plan on seeing an improv show. They were sitting in a bar or a coffee shop, trying to talk with their friends or do homework, and somehow an improv show interrupted them. That’s a bad audience, but it’s not their fault, because they didn’t buy into this whole improv thing in the first place. (Theater is a lot like church in that way, but we can talk about that another time.)

One day you may look out into the audience and see not a single Friend-or-Relation, and that’s ok. It might mean that you’ve gotten good enough that strangers want to watch.You may never have an audience as much on your side as your Friends-and-Relations are, so this is a time to play hard. You know they’ll love you even if you fail, so there’s no point holding back.

Big or small, loud or soft, familiar or strange, your audience is amazing. Make sure to say thank you.


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.