Last Saturday’s workshop was awesome. One of those sessions where impro gets described as ‘magical’.
The session was on long-form techniques, but was called Tall Tales for some reason. I think because I don’t like the term long-form. I like long-form, I just don’t like using those words to describe it.
I can’t remember who said it in one book, but impro seems to be the only art-form that is split by how ‘long’ it is. You don’t get long-paintings, small-paintings. Composers don’t decide whether to only make short music or long music.
But more than that I’ve found that ‘long-form’ has become a ‘thing’ over the years. And something becomes a ‘thing’ then there becomes a right and wrong way to do that thing, and before you know it there are rules on something that was never meant to have rules.
Furthermore long-form has become something that people have passionate opinions about, and before you know it there is less mindless play and more opinions on stage about what’s being done wrong. But that’s just my opinion.
So it was called Tall Tales, and the idea was to use long-form techniques but as if they’ve never been taught before and with a view to change and experiment with them and come up with something new. Not holding up techniques and methods on a pedestal to achieve, more using them as toys to fuck around with. Ridiculously over-ambitious thing for a drop-in workshop in one day with a bunch of people who don’t know each other!
Looking back at the history of Chicago improv with Del Close and all it seems it was a time of vibrant experimentation and constant change, adapting to the ever evolving venues, improvisers and audience. I really don’t think that when Del Close invented The Harold that it was supposed to be set in stone, it was more of a transient manifestation of the great man’s colourful and varied life at that moment.
So on with workshop notes, I won’t put them all down but here’s what I found helpful:
– Chat at the start to set the scene. I find constantly re-enforcing an environment of safety, trust and support is essential. John Cremer’s excellent book Improv talks about this extensively, thanks John!
– Reinforcing that this is a workshop where you will be constantly falling on your bum and getting back up again. I meant this metaphorically, but about 5 minutes later a chair broke and someone did actually fall on their bum, to a huge applause. Their bum was alright.
General warm ups. Word at a time in partners and What happens next in partners.
Three line scenes. I always do a couple of run-throughs without any direction or feedback, and with lots of wild applause from audience. Sometimes the first run-through will be really blocky, but that’s fine and people spot it and correct themselves and warm up.
More three line scenes. This time the 2nd and 3rd line have to start with the person saying a positive “yes and” and then adding to the previous offer. I don’t continue the workshop until everyone is able to do this, it takes quite a few attempts. As a director it’s easy to direct, either people are saying “yes and” or they aren’t, so just keep re-doing them until they do.
More three line scenes. First line names the other person, second line names the other person back, third line names where people are. It gets people used to putting in a platform together quickly, and also endowing. Again I don’t move on until everyone has got it.
First Scene Krypton Factor.
This is a whole new exercise I think (wooo!). The Krypton Factor was a fiendishly difficult game show in the late 1980s and one of the many rounds was where the contestants were shown a film, and were then asked difficult questions about the film to test their observation and listening (“there was a fruit bowl behind the first character, how many satsumas were in the bowl?”).
I’ve found before from doing either long-form or narrative shows, including one I’m rehearsing at the moment, that when the other scenes have come out of the first scene in some way (be that narrative, characters, game, patterns, emotions) it’s really rewarding. But you sometimes end up in shows where people are stuck, they don’t know what scene to do next, even though quite often the scene beforehand had given them so much information and things to play with. All I could think of is that people off-stage were thinking and planning what to do, instead of just picking up on the obvious cues from the scene that was actually happening on stage. So I made it an aim of the day for people to realise how much there was already on stage for them to play with and expand.
So the Krypton-Factor game. Two people went on stage, and were given the instructions to play a scene as ordinary and normal as possible, in fact they were to attempt to bore the audience. They were given the set-up of a married couple getting sandwiches ready for a picnic. They embarked on the scene and it probably helped the whole day that it turned out to be AWESOME! They did indeed play it straight but found themselves coming up with magical stuff in the moment, including mention of other characters, locations and more. Furthermore as they were relaxed they didn’t miss a single offer.
The second it was finished I asked the workshop audience a barrage of questions:
– What was the name of the character they mentioned?
– Where was the holiday home?
– What’s in the sandwiches?
– How many fridges have they got?
– What are these people like?
– How does she treat him?
– What else have you noticed?
As it was a challenge, the audience had engaged completely and actively with the scene and were passionate about their opinions on the characters.
I then discussed things that could be expanded from the scene into other scenes:
– Events that had been mentioned that hadn’t happened yet (a picnic, a visit to a holiday home).
– Characters that have been mentioned that haven’t been seen yet (kids, other couples).
– Games that are being played that could be exaggerated (class battles over numbers of fridges, people, things kids do to food when they aren’t looking)
– Relationships that could be investigated
– Taking people out of context (husband at work being treated same way by secretary)
– Taking games out of context (scenes about class, high status people being low status around trivial things)
– Different points of view (other couples also getting ready for picnic and talking about them)
There was loads. Immediately there were so many scene ideas, that to play them all would have taken about two hours. And all that from one scene that lasted only 2 minutes. There’s so much information in them that we miss, just in the first scene, let along everything else.
We then continued with everyone doing it in small groups of 5 simultaneously. Two people perform a straight scene, I honk a honker, the audience tell them what they saw, and then they go again. We did this continuously for quite a while, until the group had a great ability to both improvise naturally on stage and listen and observe from off stage.
We carried on the same as above, but this time when I honked the hooter there was no discussion and instead the two on stage immediately sat down and another two jumped up and improvised a scene of the back of it.
Now the group was listening they had no problem setting up the next scene. Sometimes the scenes would be natural narrative flow scenes, sometimes we’d see something inspired by character, sometimes game.
We were still doing this simultaneously as groups of five around the room. The lack of outside observer or judgement seemed to open them up. The emphasis was on play. Play play play PLAY!
The next step was I kept honking the hooter so there were now multiple scenes following the first scene. The instructions were pretty vague (“you can put back in old characters and things if you want to”) but the group really got it.
There was a beautiful bunch of scenes:
Scene 1 – a couple of technicians are getting the space shuttle ready for take-off. They flip switches and knobs. One casually mentions as an aside that his watch had stopped working. The shuttle takes off.
Scene 2 – A dodgy watch salesman is selling dodgy goods. The watches have tracking devices.
Scene 3 – The shuttle commander’s daughter runs into mission control in a panic, she warns him over the intercom that his watch is going to explode and asks him to throw it out of the window.
All the watch scenes came out of a single throwaway line in the first scene, it was rewarding to see the improvisers pick up on it and make something of it.
The natural next step was rather than me just cutting scenes at random, the groups could edit their own scenes.
So I introduced to them the well-known impro technique of the sweep edit, where someone runs across the front of the stage and the actors on stage get off so the next scene can start.
When we first did this the actors on stage didn’t notice the person editing, because the running across the front wasn’t clear enough. So I asked the editor to make it clearer. The next time they edited they ran like a Victorian gentleman and tipped their top hat at the audience as they went. This was really fun and it was really obvious.
So for the rest of the day Victorian sweep edits were the thing! These were great as they made everyone have fun and not take it too seriously, which it isn’t.
I also got them to be braver with edits by pointing out that if you edit too early you can always go back to another scene.
So we continued with the multiple scenes in groups, but this time with the Victorian sweep edits in action and the groups editing scenes right away.
I kept reminding them to be strong and obvious with their initiations at the start of the scene, and to spot various things like story, character, game, events that haven’t happened yet etc.
Next step is the swarm edit, which is similar to the sweep edit but this time someone comes on with a sound and movement influenced by the scene and then everyone else jumps up and joins in including the actors on stage so that everyone swarms off stage as one.
I also added that if you’re not sure if someone is initiating a swarm edit or not, just be brave and make it a swarm edit anyway.
This also lead to one of the best edits I’ve ever seen – the eject edit, where one of the improvisers pressed an eject button at the front of the stage and the actors immediately exited as if the DVD had been ejected.
Again once these were added we played played played played with these in groups doing multiple scenes together.
When a scene is going on someone can come up and tag out characters by tapping them on the shoulder. They leave, and the new actor does a scene with the remaining characters. We can use it to see a character in a different part of the life, flash backs etc, and the actors tapped out can always tap back in again.
A couple of questions that popped up were “can I tap myself back in again?” “can I tap myself out again if I wanted to just do quick flashback?”.
The answer to all these questions was yes.
Basically if you have an impulse to do something, do it, especially when you’re learning.
Putting on Stage
I had people doing it in their own groups for a lot longer than normal. In fact they must have been improvising together non-stop for a couple of hours or so.
Only at the end did we put them on stage in front of people.
Three groups, and some of the best impro I’ve ever seen! We still started with a simple normal scene at the start based on a location, and from that all manner of characters, patterns and stories emerged. I think I’m going to make it one of our new shows next season.
They were doing stuff I hadn’t seen before, using long-form techniques but more importantly making them their own in the moment. It was fluid, fast and fun.
See you soon,
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