Tag Archives: video

The OTHER Conflicts

I signed up for this workshop at The Improv Retreat because I have noticed, in both my current troupes, that pieces are more fun if we spend at least half — hopefully more! — of the show NOT arguing. We’re more likely to have successful not-arguing pieces in practice than we are in shows, though, and I wanted help breaking out of that. At the same time, nobody wants to watch a show about pleasant people being pleasant.

Jill Bernard performs and teaches in Minneapolis, so I had never gotten to see her before, but I knew of her through these two excellent videos she made a few years ago.

So I was SUPER excited when I found out she was teaching the Conflict workshop.

Here are some stray notes I took. (Once again, any mistakes are because I wrote something down wrong, not because Jill wasn’t so joyful and encouraging that I didn’t consider stowing away home in her suitcase.)

  • Man vs. Man — Most people’s default conflict. It isn’t wrong, but argument comfortable to get into and hard to pull out of, and shows are boring if all the scenes are like this. Man vs. Man conflicts resolve when someone admits they’re wrong, when they agree to table the issue, or someone just decides, “I can’t stay mad at you!”
  • Man vs. Himself — Let your character talk herself into something or out of something. Let her completely change her position. If you take the audience along with her as she changes her mind, it won’t seem like you’re dropping out of character. Real people grow and change, so your characters can, too.
  • Man vs. Technology — This can be as simple as a jammed copier or as complex as a malfunctioning space shuttle. The important thing is that the technology is the adversary, not your scene partner.
  • Man vs. Nature — This can be as dangerous as an earthquake or as innocuous as weeds in the yard, as long as Nature is causing the problems. (This and Technology reminded me of People Take Warning, a compilation of Depression era disaster songs my brother used to play all the time, because ours was a cheerful house.)
  • Man vs. Society — More complex to pull off in an improvised scene, but worth a shot. Some people might have to stand in for Society, but Society is still the antagonist, not the person representing it.
  • Man vs. Supernatural — An entirely different genre we didn’t have time to get into, but now I am intrigued.
  • In those Man Vs. Something-Besides-Man scenes, it’s helpful to remember what other kinds of relationships characters can have to the protagonist. These can include (with examples from Lord of the Rings characters’ relationships):
    • Magical/mystical — Usually a walk-on who has a prophecy or inscrutable saying the hero needs to hear. Gandalf and Galadriel to Frodo.
    • Shared — Both are protagonists, like Lewis and Clark. Merry and Pippin to one another, once they’re on their own journey.
    • Sidekick — Believes in the hero and often serves as moral compass. (A villain’s sidekick is a minion.) Like Samwise to Frodo.
    • Cheerleader — A sidekick who stays home instead of going on the journey. Arwen (in the movies) to both Aragorn and Frodo.
    • Helpless — Doesn’t want to be in the way but can’t help it. Pippin to Gandalf and basically everyone.
    • Doubter — Voices fears or skepticism about the hero, but doesn’t oppose him. Hearing these doubts springboards the hero into action. Like Boromir to both Frodo and Aragorn (except Boromir does oppose Frodo for a little while) The more I think about it, though, the more I think the conflicts with Boromir weren’t JUST because he doubted, but because he couldn’t stand the thought of not being the hero himself.

All of that sounds kind of academic, but it wasn’t. The workshop was pretty active. (I left this workshop with bruises from being more enthusiastic than I am physically aware.) We practiced doing scenes with other kinds of conflict. For example, our suggestion might be blizzard, we had to pick different relationships to play besides vying for the protagonist spot. If it looked like the characters were starting to fight or like one character was minimizing the problem, Jill graciously side coached us back on track.

Since the workshop, I’ve been thinking about how to layer these archetypes onto common relationships to make them more interesting. Back in this post, I quoted T.J. Jagadowski:

Fathers and sons behave like colonels and sergeants, and fathers and sons behave like best friends, and fathers and sons behave like sons and fathers reversed, so the title does not suffice.

So someone may have named me as the main character’s mom in the scene, and my gut response is to feel a little boxed in. But I get a choice about what kind of mom to be. I could be the Doubter mom or the Cheerleader mom or any other kind of mom I want.

Here’s one more Jill Bernard video:

Falling by Numbers

If you’ve done big group trust falls at camp or in an improv workshop, the goal was probably team bonding. I’ve used a version of trust falls I call Falling by Numbers to keep an improv troupe in a state of heightened awareness. Maybe they also bond or whatever, but that’s not something I can control, so I’ve given up trying.

At the beginning of practice, the coach assigns a number to each player. Throughout practice, the coach calls out numbers one at a time, and whoever has that number yells, “Falling!” and falls. Right away. Even if it’s in the middle of a Party Quirks or a Harold. The rest of the troupe catches the faller and lifts her back up. Then the scene or game continues as though nothing had happened.

I’m less interested in developing trust in the faller and more interested in cultivating trustworthiness in the catchers. I want players to grow eyes on the sides of their heads so that they can be ready to run in any direction, at any time, to whomever needs them most in the moment. I want them playing with their whole bodies, not just their faces and voices. You can’t catch someone just by saying, “I’ve got you!” You have to move. I want to see that alertness spill over into how players behave on the sidelines. (Y’all, I have some opinions about sidelines.)

Let’s take for granted that you are playing with the kind of people who would never, ever drop you on purpose. If that’s not true, it’s time to get out of that nightmare troupe* and look for your dream troupe.

A trustworthy troupe will catch you no matter where you fall, but you can help them out by falling well. Keep your eyes open, call “Falling!” loud and clear, and fall toward the center of the room where your teammates have the best chance of catching you.

Basically, the opposite of this:

This comes to mind for me now when I feel old hints of old depression or anxiety symptoms flare up. I might not have any control over whether or not I’m falling, but I can call it out and fall toward my friends instead of away from them. Maybe they’ll catch me, maybe not, but they definitely won’t if I don’t make it clear that I need trustworthy people to be ready just in case.


*Third Wheel is the only troupe I’ve ever been in that has dropped someone. It was at our very first show, it was a result of not paying attention or sharing focus well, and it was traumatizing.

Your body trusts your brain. Even if your brain is wrong.

A paraphrase of something one of my physical theater teachers said today, as best as I can remember it:

Your body trusts your brain completely. This is why, if you’re in bed at night and you start thinking about something scary, your heart beats faster. Even if that scary thing is only a lie in your brain, not a fact in the real world. Your body can’t tell the difference between truth and lies.

Basically: If you think you’re no good, your brain tells your body that, and your body closes up a little. Then your brain gets the message that your body has closed up a little and thinks, “This is PROOF that I am no good!” and then your body closes up as a matter of course.

This is why, as Paola and physical therapists and even my pastor’s wife have all told me, your history is written on your body. Your body remembers your physical injuries, yes, but it also remembers your hurt feelings and disappointments and anger and grief.

In this fabulous TED talk that you should watch in its entirety,* Harvard professor Amy Cuddy shares her research on the effect of “power posing” not only on how people are perceived but also on their testosterone and cortisol levels. (Basically, standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes at a time chemically raises your confidence and lowers your stress.) She argues that when you “fake it till you make it” you actually fake it till you become it.

Cuddy says this:

It’s not about the content of the speech. It’s about the presence that they’re bringing to the speech. … They bring their ideas, but as themselves, with no residue over them.

So your thought patterns shape your body language, your body language affects your hormones, your hormones impact your emotions, and your emotions feed into your thought patterns. It’s an endless body-to-thoughts-to-body feedback loop.

The goal of the class is not therapy. Paola has made it clear that she has no interest in how we’re doing emotionally in the outside world. But to be a strong performer, you must have confidence and presence. Our goal is to work out the places in our bodies that hold tension; it’s a constant fight to stay alive in neutral, to get rid of that distracting residue Cuddy talks about.

I’m not sure if it matters where in the loop you start, but for me, it’s easiest to start with my body. If I start with my thoughts, I’m stuck; I’m too good at talking myself out of things. If I start with my body, with things my instructors can see, then they can help. My brain isn’t trustworthy enough on its own.


*Watching this video has my husband “power posing” at random in our apartment. It is the best.

In the beginning …

… my sketch idea was more boring than it was in the end.

My church is moving into a new building, and they asked me to make a video to promote one of our Consecration events: We’re going to read the whole Bible aloud in a week, which should take roughly 24 hours each day. This means we need the whole church to take turns reading so nobody gets worn out.

I recruited my Flash Fiction partner, Brendon, to act in the video. My husband Blade helped with some of the technical aspects.* I wrote the basic outline for the sketch and edited the footage.

I had three ideas for the sketch, and they came to me in this order:

  1. Brendon signs up for all the reading slots, and I spend the video talking him out of it. I explain how the Consecration event actually works.
  2. Brendon signs up for all the slots and I coach him through it. He messes up a lot — reads the verse numbers and all the footnotes aloud, for instance — and I have to keep him on track.
  3. Brendon practices reading the whole Bible, and I just let him go.

The third thought ended up being the strongest. Del Close said** that an improviser’s first and second thoughts tend to be knee-jerk reactions. It’s usually a player’s third idea that has life.

The first thought was boring, because why would I spend 3 minutes trying to talk Brendon out of doing something? It’s always better to do something than it is to debate about doing something.

The second thought was based off the idea that we needed a straight man to ground the scene and set the record straight. Maybe we would need to explain more with some audiences, but our audience is biblically literate folks who like Rez on Facebook.

The third thought was the most energetic. It felt like Brendon and I were on the same team instead of him being on the Team of Fun and me being on the Team of Boring Reasonableness. Being on the same team is more joyful.

Also, my own role shrunk from actor/director/editor to director/editor, which felt better. Three hats is too many hats.

*Technical aspects include: Setting a camera up on a tripod, letting me know when we were out of battery, and teaching me how to use iMovie. 

**I can’t find a citation for this, but I can find a lot of people writing, “Oh, yeah, a teacher told me that Del told her that …”

On the hook

I’ve said before that Jet Eveleth is one of my favorite teachers. Here she is, talking about nerves and fear:

There are at least 19 wonderful things in this video, but I want to highlight this comment:

“I purposely do things that scare me all the time to learn how to manage my adrenaline so that I can be more authentic onstage. … Especially because I teach, I think it’s really important for me to constantly be scared so I’m empathetic with my students.”

Sometimes, after a Jet workshop, I’d ask, “I’d never done that exercise before; what is it from? Where can I learn more things like this? How can I get better at this?”

Jet’s answer was usually along the lines of, “I learned it from clowning. Paola Colletto is the best clowning teacher around. Take classes from her if you can.”

So I Googled Paola Colletto and found out that her classes were way out of my budget, in terms of both time and money. And I felt a little relieved. Well, that scary thing isn’t an option for me. I’m off the hook.

Until last week, when I heard through the Facebook grapevine that Paola was offering a class called “Physical Theater for Improvisers.” It’s in my schedule and my budget. That puts me back on the hook. I’ve talked with Paola, sent my registration check, put it on my calendar.

I’m purposely doing a thing that scares me. And now it’s time to panic.*

*My friend Steve asked when the class was, and I told him it doesn’t start for another 3 weeks. “So now is not actually time to panic. You cannot possibly panic for 3 weeks straight.” Watch me.

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.

Playing with an open heart.

Meet Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite improv teachers in the world. In her words, this is what it takes to be a good team:

A key here is shared goals. A troupe that lasts is a troupe that is making progress together toward an agreed-upon end. And — guess what! — the same goes for church congregations.

Not long ago, I took a workshop with Jet called “Loving the Harold,” which emphasized quirky organic games and grounded scenes. At the end of the three weeks, one classmate spoke up, “Ok, so now I love the Harold. I love this kind of Harold. But I’m afraid if I start playing like this with my team, they’ll eat me alive.

Jet said something like:

They very well might eat you alive. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Start daydreaming about your perfect team. How would they treat you? How would you play with them? Go ahead and start playing like that now. And expect to get your heart broken.

Some people find their soul mate early on, but some people have to go through relationship after relationship before something clicks. If you were vulnerable and open and you got broken up with anyway, you still have to pick yourself back up and be vulnerable and open again. Don’t be so busy protecting yourself from being hurt that your soul mate can’t recognize you.

You have to keep playing the way you want to play deep inside, and you have to let yourself be seen. You have to believe that there are people out there who want to play with someone like you, but they will never find you if you’re not playing with an open heart.

So I started daydreaming about the kind of troupe I wanted.

I like watching witty, stylized shows, (like Whirled News and Improvised Shakespeare). When I have friends in from out of town, that’s often what I take them to see.

I like watching mind-spinningly fast, aggressive improv (like Deep Schwa and Beer Shark Mice). I find it impressive, because that’s not how my brain works.

I could stand to develop more in all of those areas, and maybe the best way for me to do that would be to jump into teams who have those shared goals. Ultimately, though, I have not been happy on teams like that. I like seeing their shows, not playing in them.

My favorite way to play is patient and relational, maybe with some big group non-scenes to shake things up. I thoroughly enjoy Whirled News and Deep Schwa, but TJ and Dave and The Reckoning melt my nerdy little improv heart.

I want to play like the work is important, like I have all the time in the world, like my partners are poets, and like human beings are inherently amazing.

Not everyone wants to play like that. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean they’re bad guys. It just means they have certain goals, and their goals aren’t the same as mine.

This whole idea resonates with my own experience with different churches and denominations.

I didn’t fit in with Southern Baptist churches in my hometown. And, because my hometown was almost entirely Southern Baptist, I thought that meant I didn’t fit in with any church anywhere. I would have to be a rogue, church-less Christian. Love Jesus, hate religion. That sort of thing.*

(For the record, that works just about as well as a being a rogue, troupe-less improviser. Sure, I can say I’ll work on a coach-less solo project, but I can only get so far without critique from veterans and support from other players who are growing along with me. It might be necessary to go solo for a season, but it’s not a long-term solution.)

Am I saying that Southern Baptist churches are bad? No. I’m just not cut out to be a Southern Baptist anymore than I’m cut out to be a ComedySportz regular.

After some trial and error, I discovered I’m most free to be myself in an Anglican church. I need the structure, the liturgy, the sacraments. I need the arts in worship and the theology classes. It’s where I belong.

But it was four years between the time I realized that and the time I let myself use my gifts and make my friends in the congregation. If I had risked being open earlier, it wouldn’t have taken me that long. I missed out on four years of using my gifts for the church and letting the church serve me in turn because I wasn’t willing to risk coming to church with an open heart.

*And by “thing,” I might possibly mean heresy. Maybe. If, by “religion,” you mean “hypocrisy,” I’m totally with you, but please say what you mean.

You can’t be a human in a vacuum.

This video, created by the good folks over at People and Chairs, was a gut check for me.

Part of what makes it so funny is that the woman behaved as though she was putting on a generic, universal sort of lipstick (while we could see the specific color going sloppily all over her face). The man wasn’t answering an actual phone he could picture, just some archetypal phone.

The thing is, nobody owns an archetypal phone or universal lipstick. I own a very specific phone and — well, I don’t wear lipstick, but if I did, it wouldn’t be the Platonic ideal of lipstick, unless that’s what happened to be on sale at Target.

Precise object work may seem like a chore, but it will make your life on stage infinitely easier.

I found the idea of object work intimidating when I thought it was about being an impressive mime. The key mistake here is the word “impressive.” I thought object work was there for show, so the audience would understand that I knew what I was doing.

When someone told me that improv is not about impressing the audience, object work didn’t seem as important, so I didn’t put much energy into it. I put all my energy into being a human being in relationship with other human beings.

Lately, though, I’m realizing that it’s pretty tough to be a human in a vacuum. I’ve got to be someplace, and there are probably things in that place that I can touch.

Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite teachers, doesn’t coach you to “do more object work.” Instead, she says, “Live in your world. Touch your world.”

When I take that note, the whole scene opens up. I don’t have to stress about inventing clever things or coming up with the next plot point; I can discover what’s going on based on what I see in my world.

Object work isn’t mainly about technical precision, but a lack of technical precision is often the result of not really seeing your world. If my coffee mug grows and shrinks with abandon, then sort of disappears sometimes, my scene is likely to be clunky and forced. If I’m only pretending to see my world, you’ll have to watch me work hard to think of the next thing. That kind of effort is tiring and ugly.

I don’t see and touch my world for the sake of the audience. I see and touch my world because I want to give my brain a break, because I want to make my life easier on stage.