Monday, October 6

Deconstructing (pt. 1): Create More, Explore Less

This post will be rambling and probably insanely boring to non-impov people. (Chances are that it will be boring to improv people too.) This is at least me third attempt at it but each thought leads to a new thought and by the time I get three paragraphs in and I end up contradicting myself. But I do love thinking about this stuff and my brain has been pretty fixated on this topic for the last two weeks. Writing/discussing about it helps me process my thoughts which actually helps me get out of my head when I am actually performing. Anywhozits, enough with the qualifications. I should just get on with it.

(Off topic, the radio just mentioned that Disneyland was closed last night for Miley Ray Cirus's birthday. Yes, I wish I was her. Just this once.)

Background: Right after I finished my last 501 class (which was one of the great classes of my short improv life), I started a 600 class. 600 classes are kind of the master classes at UCB. They focus on a specific thing or form, often something new the teacher wants to create or explore. It is the same teacher as my last 501 (who I adore because I think she "gets me"). The 600 is filled with great performers, most of whom I have know of for a long time but never have had a chance to play with.

I went into the class not having very clear idea what the form was going to be. (I had a guess that was completely wrong.) It is a form of deconstruction... sort of. It is almost a reconstruction. No, that's not the right word either. One of the big problems with discussing improv (as is the problem with discussing most art) is that the vocabulary is so slippery. Very little is concrete form person to person, place to place, time to time. Hell. I don't want to get too deep into what it is because that might spoil some of the fun for those who see it. But I want to talk about some of the ideas behind it.

One of the cool/difficult things about the way we are doing this form is that it involves breaking a lot of the "rules" that have been drilled into our heads. Of course there are no rules in improv. There is often structure (which can also be broken).

(A lot of 600s are about learning new tools and skill sets but don't actively break any of the previous rules. Forms like The Documentary or The Movie are different forms that give you different styles and editing tools with which to play (and does brake the "avoid plot/narrative"). Other 600s like the phenomenal Raw Harold was about really removing all the rules. This 600 has moments that remove some rules and tweaking others but staying very true to others. We are being given a lot of freedom with which to play... which means you have to be so more diligent about certain other things.)

But there are things that are trained into you that are make it easier and smoother. For example, "Don't talk about things not in the scene." You want to make the scene about the present. Simple enough. Who wants to watch people talk about what the crazy night they had last night or what they are going to do tomorrow or that weird guy done the street. You want to see those things on stage. Of course, you can have very funny/engaging scenes with people talking about other things... it is just a lot harder to do well.

The opening of this form is specifically breaking that rule. You want to talk a lot about other people and things. You want not get stuck on playing the game of the scene because that will stop you from getting information out for the rest of the piece. I took a workshop with Matt Walsh during the Del Close Marathon this year. The best thing I took away from it was a simple sentence, "Create less, explore more." Basically, find that information and stuff in those first few lines and explore those. Don't keep adding new vaguely related stuff. But here we have to do a five minute scene, layering more and more info, never delving to deeply into anyone thing. It goes against one of the base instincts we have had imprinted into our brains. In someways it become the reverse of that rule: "Create more, explore less."

While difficult to shift gears, I am finding this aspect so rewarding. In my head I am creating new little rules in my head, new ways to think about the doing the opening scene. The idea is to paint the world around the people in the scene. Step one (like any scene), is to establish where you are and who you are to each other. The where is important. Not just "we are in our living room" but where that living room is. Is it in a New York apartment? A suburbs? A farmhouse? Those are all questions you should be asking in any scene but here it is even more important. And once you know who you and your scene partner(s) are, just start painting that world around you. Who would these people know? Who would be important to them? Who would intrigue them? The teacher calls the opening the Gossip and for good reason. Who would they talk about and why would they talk about them?

Normally, it is important to me to figure out my view point through specific emotions and actions. But this becomes some what secondary. But I am finding that is okay. Given five minutes (which is actually a life time in an improv scene), you can take your time and figure out who you are through who you talk about. I like having that time and discovering things indirectly. Once I realized that, it suddenly became easier to think about. (I'm not saying I'm doing it well yet but I think I am starting to get it in my head.)

I've established a bit of a pattern in my head. Establish where we are by environmental work and who we are to each other. (I still need to get better at naming people... I am bad at that.) As soon as we are done with that, start talking about other people. Right away. Don't worry about finding something important about us in the scene. That will come. Once someone has been mention, give two or three things about them. Just yes-and. If your scene partner mentions the new pet shop down the street, immediately think about pet shops I know or what pet shops make me think of. "Oh, yes. I walked in there yesterday. Jenkins, the owner, sure seems to specialize in exotic reptiles." Doesn't matter what it is. Yes-and once or twice then move on. That is hard to relearn but I'm starting to get my brain to do it "two, three facts and drop it." From there it is to A to C off of who we are, where we are, or what what has already been mentioned. For whatever reason, I think pet shop, I picture a barbershop next to it. "I so need to get my haircut but I swear that my barber is trying to cheat me." Or when I think "reptiles," I think of people who are scared of them. "Speaking of snakes, my sister still hasn't recovered from that time she got lost in the Reptile House at the zoo." Or go to the environment we're in. Maybe my scene partner has gone to the fridge. "Oh, by the way, I gave the last of our eggs to the neighbors. You know how hard it has been on the Dickersons since Fredrick lost his job at the paper mill."

The hard part for me has definitely been to not play any game that has popped up. It is so ingrained in me that if I see a way to play something already established to not come back to it. For example, last night I was doing a scene where we quickly discovered we were a married couple and I had recently told my wife that I had always been gay. We had a few mini-games very early including the fact that I was touching her gingerly but a lot. It was so difficult to get away from (1) that very loaded and emotional relationship and (2) that mini-game. We had, in any other case, everything you needed for an easy and fun scene to just play. But we needed to give info for the body of the set. We (well, mostly my great scene partner) would quickly add more things/people in the world, but almost everything was presenting a way to play the game we'd established. I actively had to keep steering myself away from it.

One lesson I took from that scene, is that you can play those mini-side games (like the touching) but you can never fixate on them. They can help ground you and give you something to do but you can't comment on them more than once. And you can save any game you find for the scene for later. When you feel you are getting closer to that five minute mark and feel you have laid down a lot of stuff for everyone else to play with, it can give you something nice to give the backline something to edit you on. For example, last night I realized that has the scene went on I was becoming more comfortable being gay around my wife and I just said, "Wow. I am become more gay by the minute." (Yes, not the greatest game. Just an example.) And we were edited.

Okay, this is already too long and I haven't come close to everything I want to say/am thinking about. So I added a "pt. 1" to the title. Later (when I get time) I will discuss...
• In the opening, endowing yourself with something strong. • Pimping the entire backline, or why it is better to give than receive. • Playing specifics but not plot. • Laying game, playing game, discovering game. • The easiest from of connections ever: Mix and matching characters.