Monday, August 6, 2012

The Tao of Improv: Useful in its emptiness

Thirty spokes converge at the hub,
but emptiness completes the wheel

Clay is shaped to make a pot
and what's useful is its emptiness.

Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in its emptiness.

What is
is beneficial, while what is not
also proves useful.

Tao Te Ching, 11 Breath
For the purposes of this post, the emptiness referred to in the above passage is referring to audience interpretation. I think that the power and intelligence of the audience can be a contentious subject from one school of thought to another. This of course is not limited to improv, but really can be extended to any art (or entertainment) form.

The question is: how much do you leave up to the audience and how much do you spell out for them?

Traditionally, beginning improvisers are very much taught to spell it out. Literally. C-R-O-W: Character, Relationship, Objective, Where. We even have exercises wherein we attempt to fit all four into a three-line scene. Now, in reality, this is for the student improviser much more than for the audience; walk before you run and all that. Actually saying out loud that your scene partner is your grandmother helps put her into a state of mind to support that offer directly.

After you get the hang of falling into the role that is needed for the scene, then we start venturing into the realm of "show, don't tell" which actually forces the improviser to *gasp* act. Soon, you fall into the habit of "show emotion, tell reality," where you do not say "Hello Grandmother, I am angry at you," but rather just say "Hello Grandmother" in an angry tone. More and more communication becomes nonverbal. Soon you realize that these physical relationships (mother/daughter, roommates, etc) are fine, but what is truly important is the emotional relationship (hating your mother, lusting after your roommate, etc).

A quick aside to talk about my personal preferences. I love not being told everything, regardless of medium. Books, films, video games, I'd rather be thrown into a world and be forced to fill in the blanks of what I don't know. A Clockwork Orange is one of my favorite examples. In the book, you are thrown into a story full of meaningless jargon, and you are forced to make sense of it as the story goes. There is no handy glossary to flip to when you first encounter the protagonist's droogs, nor is there any explanation as to the prevalence of milk bars. You come to have your own definitions and backstories for each of these things, and I love that. Of course, it has to be executed well. Undoubtedly, Anthony Burgess had a concrete definition for each bit of jargon and each unexplained item, he just chose not to include those things in the novel itself. My personal preferences will be coloring pretty much the rest of the post, so I thought it would be good to get them out there.

So we have seen the communication techniques of the beginning improviser move from concrete towards abstraction, and now I'd like to talk about the audience suggestion. Specifically, how I like to see the same movement towards abstraction when dealing with the suggestion. Double-specifically in short form improv.

I am most definitely of the opinion that suggestions need not be taken literally and in fact that most scenes are improved when they are not. Now, what do I mean by "taken literally?" For the most part, I mean when you get the suggestion "hamster" and you begin your scene either as a hamster or holding a cage with a hamster in it. Instead, I love to see improvisers take the suggestion as a metaphor (perhaps playing a character who is desperately running away from something, but getting nowhere), or maybe take a single (hopefully logical) step away from the suggestion and see where that leads them.

There are definitely conflicting viewpoints on this, and I have argued the points with some of my dearest friends and most respected colleagues. Their argument usually being along the lines of "the audience said hamster and they want to see that hamster, as it provides them with co-ownership of the scene, which is really a selling point of improv in general." I get that, and I totally agree with them. Again, we are talking my personal preference, and I think it leads into the discussion of "who is the show for? Is it for the audience or the improvisers?" My wonderfully hedging answer to that being "both."

I think that audiences appreciate being challenged to find the connections that the improvisers have made, and that a deeper appreciation for the scene can be had using the suggestion-as-metaphor angle. If you do this, expect there to be at least one audience member per show ready to yell out "where was the hamster?" I don't really have a good answer for this, but I tend to go with the "never apologize" route. You made the choices you made, and those choices were correct, so there is no need to apologize for them.

Letting the audience interpret your choices can lead to scenes that I think are far more rewarding, both for the improviser (getting the freedom to play as you want, rather than feeling tied down to the audience) and for the audience member (filling in the blanks with your own ideas, and the feeling that you get when you get to the same place as an improviser at the same time). You carve fine doors and windows using your words at the top of a scene, but the room inside allows you space to fill with emotion. The emptiness you leave between the suggestion you receive and the inspiration that moves you to act completes the wheel.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Tao of Improv: Better to stop pouring

Overfilled, the cupped hands drip.
Better to stop pouring.

One over-sharpens the well-forged blade,
and it won't last long.

With gold and jade in the hall,
the house isn't safer.

Wealth and pride
are the authors of error.

When the work is completed,
it's time to retire.

That is the Tao of Heaven

Tao Te Ching; 9 Heaven
To me, this passage relates to improv in that it is all about knowing when NOT to do things.

Let us start at the beginning. In the beginning, as an improviser, most likely we find getting on stage to be terrifying. Either we have no acting background and so stage fright begins to seep into our minds, or we do have an acting background and not having the safety of lines/blocking/character is almost mind-boggling. Either way, entering (or worse, starting) a scene is something that we must be forced to do. Soon after, however, we realize that we can improvise on stage without actually dying. We look forward to spending time playing with our fellow improvisers and spending time on stage with them. This is when the lessons I see in this passage can begin to be taught because most likely, our hypothetical beginning improviser is eagerly starting scenes and finding reasons to be in each and every scene, hungry for more experience.

So now we must break it to them that more improvisers is not always better, and knowing when to stay out of a scene is at least as important as knowing when to enter one. Our beginning improviser probably already knows this. Some basic pattern recognition and analysis will reveal that the scenes that involve ALL the improvisers often line up with those scenes that, in retrospect, could charitably be called clusterfucks. No need to overfill the stage with potential main characters, better to identify the protagonist of our scene early and let the scene flow around her.

Parallel to the idea of overfilling the stage with actors is overfilling the scene with offers. In reality, they are the same problem: information glut. With too many actors, there are offers coming from each, so some will almost inevitably be dropped. But even with only two (or heck, one) actor on stage, it is important to know when to stop pouring information into the scene, lest it overflow, spilling those offers onto the desert sands, never to be seen again. Better to stop pouring and start drinking, following the offers you have and seeing where they lead you.

Jill Bernard (whose name, if you do not already know, you will quickly become familiar with by reading anything I write) made a wonderful drawing about precisely this. I do not have a photo of it at the moment, but I will post it later if I take one/find one. The gist is this: why spend your precious scene time searching for what the scene is about when you can just MAKE the scene about the first offer you get? There is no "best offer" that will make your scene amazing, your scene will be amazing by taking the first offer and making it the best, by which I mean make it affect your character and his relationships. After all, that's what all the great offers do, isn't it? So why not make the offer you got a great one?

I also wanted to touch on the second to last stanza, knowing when to retire. This stanza is all about endings, a very important part of improv that gets little attention. Endings are hard, especially in an art form whose very foundation is built on the idea of "Yes, and," reminding us that there is always a next line, always a next move.

I've noticed as a teacher that many improvisers I teach are incredibly reluctant to leave the stage, even when that is the strongest move they could make. In fact, I'd say most of those students have their minds a little blown when they admit they had completed their objective and I ask them why they didn't leave. When the work is done, it is time to retire, and if you have no objective, then it is time to leave the stage. Your fellow improvisers will fill the now-empty stage; that's their job.

In the short form world, we tend to focus our endings on laugh lines. Regardless of where we are in the story arc of the scene, if you get a big laugh (or any other big emotional response, really), there is a very real possibility that the scene is about to be called. Speaking from personal experience, in short form we tend to more often run into the opposite problem: cutting scenes before they are "over." I think this comes from how most short form shows are structured: a preference for many scenes with a focus on high-energy performance. Again from personal experience, I would say that while many scenes do get big laughs, the ones that get applause are the ones wherein everything is tied up neatly when the scene is called. So now the question becomes which is more important: striving for the completed story, or cutting early and leaving the audience wanting more. I'd say the former leads to more volatility in the overall quality of the show, while the latter is the safer, more traditional choice. I'd also say the former is my preference. Also, as a bonus, striving for the completed story will force you to realize when you are overfilling the scene with information, thus sharpening your storytelling.

When we move into the world of long form, endings become more ambiguous, but I think the goal remains the same: neatly wrapped packages of scenes with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. It's just that now the packages need not necessarily be the entire arc of a story, but rather a single beat in that story.

I am rapidly losing my focus and this post is getting much longer than I thought it would. Perhaps another post on this topic will happen, but right now I need to stop typing and hit the Publish button. I'll say that this got very Tao/Zen very fast, speaking to the importance of that which does not happen. I'm happy about that.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Project: The Tao of Improv, an introduction

I recently read the ridiculously wonderful and still-just-as-relevant-as-it-was-in-2000 article A Dao of Web Design on A List Apart. It is the thoughts of a designer living at a time when the expectation for a website was to be "pixel-perfect" on each browser, a feat that was difficult to accomplish to say the least. He uses passages from the Tao Te Ching to highlight why he thinks this approach must be set aside.

Long story short, in reading the article, I realized that many of the passages could equally pertain to improv. Not a new idea, as he points out that everything from Winnie the Pooh to Physics has gotten the Tao treatment, but that was the 90's, 20+ years ago, so now it will be delightfully retro chic to apply it to my particular set of interests.

So I picked up a copy of the Tao Te Ching and have started reading it with one eye always on improv and how these passages can contain lessons on our favorite performance art form. Already I have made some copious notes, so I wanted to start a semi-regular series on the passages and the thoughts I had on them. Hopefully opening them up for further discussion.

Note that I am in no way a Taoist or real student of the Tao. These posts will be mostly based on a very brief reading of one translation of the Tao Te Ching, with little time given for true introspection and analysis. Mostly just gut reactions to the work and the things that pop to mind when I read them. Perhaps later there will be time to truly study it and make deeper connections, but that isn't the point right now. The point is to write, and the Tao Te Ching will act as one of my inspiration engines.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Art vs Craft

“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana
Tony Beeman recently posted a list of quotes from non-improvisers that could be applied to improv. The quote above sparked a comment on a Facebook post from my friend Adina:
makes me is so important for us for the audience to constantly be reminded and appreciating that HEY, [WE] ARE MAKING THIS UP RIGHT NOW, AREN'T WE AMAZING. So my topic/question would be, is Improv a weak art form, as so much of it is about showing off our skills and being funny, vs. having something interesting to say/a message?"
And that brings me to the title of this post. I think that the argument above is analogous to the question of art versus craft.

To me, the desire for the performer to make sure the audience understands that we are indeed making this stuff up as we go is very much the performer as craftsman talking. The craftsman wants to show off his technical skills. The knitter and the blacksmith do not purl and forge to express themselves, but rather to show off his or her skills. The improviser who reassures the audience member that this is all made up, or the one who worries about the rules of the short-form game is doing the same thing: concerning themselves with the craft.

Now of course, this is not to say that knitting and blacksmithing are not artistic. Certainly art can be created using the skills of knitting and blacksmithing; there are obvious examples of both in the real world. The difference lies in that the artist who knits concerns herself not with the skill with which her knits, but rather the feeling or whatnot that she wishes to express.

The years of craftsmanship I would argue are paramount to becoming an artist who smiths or knits. Once the craft becomes ingrained within the person, that is when the art can flow without the interruptions of limitations of skill. Can the art happen without the craft? Certainly, but the quality of work from an artist with intense passion but little skill will pale before the work of one with years of craftsmanship under her belt and equal passion.

I would say the same applies to improv. The years of craftsmanship are important: doing the short-form scenes where you sweat the rules, reminding the audience that we are indeed making this up (whether by actually saying those words, or by frequently coaxing suggestions from the audience and implementing them as the show progresses), concerning yourself with the reaction the audience gives you. Once the craft becomes ingrained within the performer though, I think that is when the performer may begin to yearn for something more than the showing of craft. That's when the performer wants to say something to the audience and creates a method for himself to do just that, whether it is solo performance, creating a show that speaks to your sensibilities as an artist, or whatever other way she can think of to connect with others.

I think I am at this point in my improv career, as are many of my fellow improvisers in Seattle. We have completed our apprenticeships and are full-fledged journeymen, though perhaps not yet masters. I think that is why we strive to find ways to break games in our short-form shows, and why the tone of the scenes swing wildly from one to another. It makes the whole thing much more interesting and much more fun. My only concern is that we may be throwing those fellow improvisers who are still focusing on their craft headlong into our experimentation. Whether this is detrimental to their apprenticeships is up for debate.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


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