Wednesday, 16 December 2009


Everyone at work is getting very excited about collaboration. They do this by talking about applications like Google Wave and Google Docs... Nobody is collaborating about their collaboration. Few people are thinking about collaboration outside of the App. It's like you can install collaboration. Is this the new capitalism? It used to be that you could buy fame, success, beauty. That you could purchase who you wanted to be. Now you can install the society you wish to be surrounded in. I need to create and cash in on a buzz word for this effect. Applic-nation. Nope - that's rubbish.

Why can't it be more like playing

I did some wonderful things when I was a kid. I was just playing. I didn't care if anyone was watching or if I got it right, or how it would work out down the line. I didn't care if the play was constructive or would be judged. I didn't care if it was PC or not. Why can't it just be more like playing.

Sunday, 8 November 2009


I've been considering composition in art. It would seem that there is usually an ordered arrangement beneath the surface of most paintings. It would also seem that humans prefer for that order to be obfuscated, hidden within seemingly accidental arrangements; there to be found if you know what you're looking for, and appreciated without conscious reason by those who don't.

I'm extrapolating that the same should be true of comedy. The set list, the rhythms, the composition of the performance. We appreciate it when the performer isn't obvious about there arrangement, we like that structure to be hidden and suggested.

Rarely do I think about that composition when I created a set. It was more a case of "oh shit, how can I segway from that joke to the next".

Monday, 15 September 2008

Comedy is a muscle

It's frequently said that comedy is a muscle. If you don't keep performing it goes floppy on you, and you loose it.

Hmmm, certainly any intellectual process must be practised. But maybe there is something more to it. What if comedy is a personality, a pretend character that you need to live in regularly. If you don't, you forget what it feels like to be inside that person.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Impro class (part two)

Impro class Two

Story and Interesting

The following are notes are the second part of an comedy/theatre improvisation (impro) class I recently gave.

(In case further explaination is required, by impro I mean getting up on a stage without any prepared material and making up a show/sketch/play/story on the spot. Theatresports and Whose line is anyway are two well known examples of this.)

As I said in part one, this is how I think about impro. It's a collection of ideas which I've sopped up over many years of improvising, and which probably owe much to well known impro improsarios, such as Kieth Johnston or Viola Spolin - although I couldn't tell you which ideas are mine and which are there's

It's worth looking over class one first, but to summarise it: Impro is about lying to an audience. You invent random thoughts and statements for your character, which you sell as reality to the audience. Your main weapons in maintaining this facade are justification and reaction.

Now we need to work on making our realistic improvisations interesting.

The Air-plane Analogy:

I think improvising is much like flying an airplane. Let me explain. At this point I have defined three components to improvising - Emotional Reactions, Justification and Random Ideas. Lets look at them in turn.

Reaction: Reacting is the driving force behind impro. It's what keeps everything moving. Look at this scene that contains no emotional reaction.

Bob: Mary, look I've just been attacked by a shark.
Mary: Would you like a sandwich?
Bob: The winds getting stronger.
Mary: I've forgotten to take back my library book.

Or try doing this scene in an emotionless monotone voice:

Bob: The house is on fire.
Mary: Oh dear, shall we go outside.
Bob: I think the kids are burning.
Mary: I'll get a blanket.

Rubbish. Reacting moves you forward. Reacting is the engine of the plane. It moves you forward and makes everything else work.

Justification: "She canny take it captain" shouts scotty from the engine room. Every plane can cope with certain stresses and strains before the wings fall off and it crumbles. Justification is that inherant airworthyness. Justification is used to sell the lies that we are creating. If you are week at justification, if you let it out that this is all a lie and you don't know what you are doing, then everything comes apart. If, on the other hand, you can justify yourself out of anything then your stories can go where ever you want them to. The harder you pull back on the control leaver the stronger your plane needs to be before bits starts shooting off.

Random Ideas: Randomness, the adding of new information that is unexpected is the upthrust of our plane. The injection of the unexpected make a scene interesting. It raises questions that must be answered, it breaks routines. Think of Pulp fiction as a perfect example of the power of randomness; Mia Wallace over doses - didn't see that coming, Marvin gets his head shot off - a twist that came out of no-where. New ideas have the same effect on a story as pulling back the control stick of an airplane. You go up. You take off. The weirder the idea the faster you climb.

The key to good impro is to learn how hard you can pull back on that control stick. How steeply you can make your plane ascend(Ideas) depends on the power to your engines (Reactions) and the airworthyness of your plane (Justification). How wild can the ideas you use get? Too little and the plane stays on the runway. Too much and the plane goes vertical, stalls, the passengers puke, and the whole thing plunges into the ground.

The three components above work in tandom. You can have the most airworth plane in the world, you can yank the joystick back and forth, but if the engine isn't running it won't make an ounce of difference. Likewise an air worthy aircraft pelting along at full tilt won't go very far if you never pullback on the stick.

Our aim is to fly, but what sort of flight are we giving:

The Aeronaughtic display: Tiny planes flying in crazy whirls and loops, exciting fast, and we secretly don't care if the odd wing comes off. This is the impro of short games, of theatresports and other performances done for the hell of it. Quickly get the take off with big ideas and in the short time available thrill the audience with the impossible. A few points:
1 - Randomness is a key here, you want to be throwing that joystick about and making the audience gasp. You can throw mad ideas into the pot, but to make this work you have to have a tough plane - lots of justification. Lots of power - lots of over the top reactions. Little offers, weak reactions and mundane ideas will be dull.
2 - Often in this kind of display we set up stunts to try, a scene in reverse, a scene in gibberish. Knowing what you are attempting to do will thrill the audience (even if you don't pull it off, which brings us to the next point).
3 - Although exciting this kind of thing can get dull fast. "Ohh his 15th loop the loop", they know you can do it now, they don't really care anymore. They want to believe that you might crash, they want it to look like the propeller will fly off at any second. Being too good is a almost a curse. Crashing can be a great thing - but only if you jump from the wreckage of an exploded scene with a smile and a "Ta-Dah!". They don't want you to get hurt, but they want excitement. Dare to Fail. Dare to fail big. You do this by pushing yourself beyond your limits of control - but with a huge smile on your face.

The Passenger flight: The telling of a story or narrative. The very basis of a passenger flight is that you are taking someone somewhere. A journey. With an aeronaughtic display, we don't care if the story goes no where. In a passenger flight it's essential. ("This is passenger flight 757 from London to London" - no good). Going somewhere means story, which is what I'll cover next. First some pointers:
1 - The longer the passenger flight the more confort the passenger requires. If it's a short 20 minute hope on a seaplane you can afford to lash your passengers to wooden benches and bank up into the sky at 30G. But it's kind of essential that a long distance flight affords your travellers with comfort and safety. Boeing 757 jets don't take off so fast that everyone in heaving before you've reached cruising altitude. In this respect I'm talking about Randomness. To many big offers too soon and you're creating a roller coaster ride. Take it easy, take it slow. They should barely notice the take off and landing.
2 - You need big engines for a long distance plane: Emotional Reaction has to be key in a long narrative. If Romeo and Juliet ended with "Juliets dead, arse, still plenty more fish in the sea" it would be rubbish.

To continue this analogy we need to take a look at story.


Story is (to my mind) about change. There are three things that can change in a story; The world, The relationships, The characters.

The world: Someone builds a bridge. This is a change in the world. From a story perspective this isn't that interesting or important. You can often skip over world changes. We don't need to see the bridge being built, you can just time jump between scenes. "I'm going to build a bridge", three years later "What a lovely bridge".

The Relationships: Gary and Matilda fall in love. This is a change in relationship. It's interesting, it's important. We want to see it. Mid summer nights dream contains a lot of relationship change. It starts with some people in love, and some people in hate. The fairies come along with their magic and change round the relationships. The bulk of the play is then the reaction to that change. Finally the fairies change them back and we have more reaction. Relationships are important and interesting. Disagree - look up the viewer figures for Big Brother.

The Characters: Gary realises that he's a failure, he is a broken man. This is a change to a character. These are the most important changes. They take the longest to happen, maybe only one major change per story. The change in character is the most powerful of our changes. Think of every Disney film you've ever seen. The little spoon was scared but now he's beaten the dragon and he's changed - he's a hero.

Three types of change: Change to the world (physical changes), relationship changes and emotional changes. Now note this: You can't have change if you don't have a an initial situation. Everything has to start somewhere - much like a plane journey.

Imagine a situation where everything will always be the same. Every day Gary gets up and goes to work. Everyday he stares at Gina, who he adores, but will never ask out. Instead he photocopies paper, then goes home and gets drunk.

This is the setup of the story. It's a state of being that will keep repeating itself. Every day Gary goes through the same routine. That's not a story, but it can be the beginning of a story.

One day Gary gets hit by a car. It is this event that will allow our story to happen. It is where change starts to occur. It is the first event in a long string that will result in the breaking of Gary's continual routine. During the setup the plane taxied down the runway, we see where we are, and the pilots tell us what sort of journey we're going on (this is flight 345 from Gary's horrid life to what ever happens to Gary. This will take around an hour, please enjoy). When the car hits Gary the joystick is pulled back and we take off. Before take off the actors are just reacting, motoring down the runway, just as in the story Gary is just reacting, everyday, in exactly the same way.

After take off our pilots orient the plane down the path is will fly, more adjustments to the joystick (new ideas, justified by our new set of circumstances):

In hospital Gary meets Ted a circus juggler, he promises to teach him how to juggle.

It's really random, but who cares. It's justified. Gary is bored, Hospitals contain random people.

We are on our way. The pilots put the thrust on full (react, react, react), and the make only minor adjustments to keep us going on a straight course. Below the plane there is change. Land and oceans fly by. That should be your rule. As long as there is change in the direction you want to go, that's fine. Don't worry too much where you are now. Just move forward.

At the circus school Gary is rubbish at juggling and falls out with Ted (change of relationship). He goes back to work where Gina talks to him out of sympathy (change of relationship). Gina and he go on a date, but it's a disaster (change of relationship). Gary calls Ted the only other freind he has and they meet up (Change of relationship). Ted tells Gary he needs to stick at stuff and gets him to try juggling again, he succeeds and feels new confidence (change in Character). Gary tells work he's quitting, Gina is impressed and they make up (Changes in relationship, and further change in Gary). Gary and Gina are together. Gary is confident and happy. His life no longer needs to change. Everyday he gets up and sees the woman he loves. Events that got started by a crash have led him to a new place where he is at rest.

The plane has landed.

Lets recap: You start with somewhere, anywhere, and you start with a routine that will keep repeating. A state of no change. You introduce something that destabilizes that routine. Then reaction to the new situation drives our story along. As long as there is constant change the audience will know that they are moving along. Eventually there will be no more change because our hero's have reached a new comfortable place. That to is driven by reaction, the same reaction over and over again "I am happy here, I do not need to change". At which point we have reached our destination and the story is over.

This method of journeying isn't planned. It's guided. The skill of the improviser is knowing what corrections to add in - what tugs on the control stick:
1 - Where are we going: It's bad to know where a story is going, but that destination is inevitably announced during the take off portion of the story. "Every day Gary gets up and goes to work. Everyday he stares at Gina, who he adores, but will never ask out. Instead he photocopies paper, then goes home and gets drunk."
That is what the story is about. There are many ways that Gary's life can change, but the promise of the story is that it will change.
2 - War and Peace is a story. The Train that could is a story. When you're storytelling you usually have an idea of the time space you want the story to fill. My advice. Keep it simple. If you want to go longer, explore the moments. Most impro is short on that. If you can feel a story coming to land, pull up on the throttle a bit with a new idea - but be warned - nothing is more frustrating than an obvious ending that is just delayed for a while. That's just circling the runway. If you do chuck in a new idea at the last minute, land somewhere else. Somewhere unexpected.
3 - I want to re-itterate the types of change we have available. World change, relationship change and character change. I include this because it is your measuring stick. Every scene should include change. World change is dull - make it quick. Relationship change - good stuff, make these scenes go longer. Character change - The best stuff, take your time with this. Often the character change is less of a single scene and more the whole story.

This post has taken about 9 months to get finished - only about 2 hours in real time, but I've been rather distracted in life for a long while.

I hope it makes sense and I've no doubt I'll revisit these ideas later.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

How to improvise (part 1)

My impro method

The following are notes on an comedy/theatre improvisation (impro) class I recently gave. This is how I think about impro. There are many other ways to teach it, and there are many other impro theories. That is only right, impro is making stuff up, only an idiot would claim to know the definitive way to do it. These ideas aren't unique or even all mine. Most are variations on well known impro ideas - Kieth Johnston, and other impro-ie people...

(In case further explaination is required, by impro I mean getting up on a stage without any prepared material and making up a show/sketch/play/story on the spot. Theatresports and Whose line is anyway are two well known examples of this.)

This whole first class can be summarised very quickly. Class one is about learning to lie as a group. You stand on a stage and pretend to be people you are not in places you are not. The second class. The blog that comes next is about how you make those lies into an interesting story.

Class One

Step 1 - You can't think your way through an impro show.

Playwriters spend months and years creating the perfect script. Comedians may seem off the cuff, but most have been working on their material for a lifetime. As an improviser you are not writting a script as you go. You don't think up lines and jokes then say them. It would be way to hard for a mere mortal to do. Impro looks clever, but it isn't made by being clever.

That should be a relief to thicko's that want to improvise. Lack of brain won't be a hinderance.

If you are more-than-a-mere-mortal. A really really brainy type who can re-write shakespere to 14 decimal places, do suduko's in the dark, etc, then stop thinking, now... right this minute... Heed my words for I want you to succeed. When you improvise it would be daft to use your brain to get through it, a waste of decent thoughts.

Impro isn't about thinking. So lets say it again; "You can't think your way through an impro show".

Step 2 - Impro is about lying.

Imagine yourself on stage. Maybe you're pretending to be Balm Steadfast the intergalactic adventurer, or Nucko the pox ridden peasant slave. What are you doing? You're lying.

The world is full of lies. Mostly we consider lies to be morally bad. Impro lies aren't bad lies. They're not stupid, nasty little fibs. In impro we revel in lies. Lie big, lie huge. Tell the audience that you are King Kong and that you flew here in a space ship. They will love it. If you're not used to lying it can be tough at first, so practice. Say a little lie right now. You might feel a bit silly at first, but look - no one was harmed, gravity is still switched on.

Lets lie again. Say a big lie. I'll do it with you. I eat shoes. Proposterous! Very silly. Well actually it's true. Not any shoes. I eat flip flops, thongs as they are sometimes called. It's the material, it's very soft and spongey, easy to bite. It first happened as a dare on holiday with my ex. Now It's a bit like chewing my nails, just something I do. I like the feeling of the rubber in my mouth. There, the lie is over (I don't eat shoes, you knew that right).

To lie well try a couple of things:

1 - Say it like you mean it: I wrote the shoe paragraph with a lot of conviction.

2 - Details: The more details you can get in the better. Don't say "I stole something from a shop". Say "when I was 12 I stole a pink biro from the newsagents next to my school". Detail is great. Remember you can say whatever you want - complete freedom to lie.
Make up the details at your own pace. You don't have to make them big details: "I smoke 30 a day. Have done since I was 12. I smoke marlboroughs". Simple facts, and very believable. Don't try to be clever: "I smoke 2000 a day, started in the womb, I only smoke dried bunyan tree leafs from Karakas". Small details are simple and believable.
You might say "but I can't think of any details", no problem we'll cover that in more detail later.

Step 2 - Justification. It's great, because it is.

In murder mysteries the detective looks for the means, the method and the motive. Could they have done it? How did they do it? Why did they do it? If you have these three things then you've found the murderer! A great lie needs these things. A great lie needs to be justified.

I threw the wedding cake at my wife during our wedding reception. It hit her in the face and splattered her Mum and Dad (Detail). I did it because she told me she had slept with my best man (justification). That last line sells it. It's the motive that led me to do an otherwise unthinkable thing. Great.

Lets look at this another way. Can you lift a car? No? What if it was a toy car? What if you had a car jack? What if you're actually a Werewolf and it was a full moon? What if you lifted it, but not off the ground?

When you improvise you are lying about everything. Who you are, where you are, your past, your present, your future. It's all lies. That being the case anything can happen. So, with that in mind, have you played poker with God? Yes - of course you have. Maybe you're the angel Gabrielle, maybe you're dead, maybe you see god as being in everyone, maybe you're so good at poker even God wants to play you.

If you can justify it, you can do it.

Try justifying a few of these: You just shot your dad. You just robbed a bank. You just ate a shoe horn.

Lets take a step back. It is possible to do anything if you can justify it, but we're also trying to sell a lie to our audience. This should effect the justifications we use: A monkey rides into the room on a bicycle. If this happened in the story line of a Harry Potter movie we'd be happy to accept that the monkey is transmogrified first year magic student. If it happened in CSI then that excuse wouldn't wash. A better lie would be that Grisham has arrested a circus ring master, and he'd brought along his performing monkey. There are several points here:

1 - The wierder the lie, the harder it is to justify.
2 - The justification of a lie needs to fit the kind of world you are in.

Point 2 is very important. It's a Catch22. The sort of world you are in depends on the sorts of justifications you use:
Your story starts with a man flying. How do we justify this. We could say it's magic, but is this the sort of story that contains magic? We could say he's a super hero, but is this the sort of story that has super heros in? The answer: if you say it was magic, then that makes it a magic story. Say he's a super hero it's a super hero story. The justifications you use set what kind of story you are in, and the kind of story you are in sets up what kind of justifications you can use.

Step 3 - Say anything.

The key to impro is learning to allow yourself to talk rubbish. Learning to say any old thing that comes into your head. This is easy to do, but it's also very hard. It's easy because you did this as a kid, and because you're a human with a brain. Human brains are full of rubbish and great at creating tosh. It's hard because (like lying) we sensor ourselves. Most common reasons are thus:

1 - You don't want to look stupid: Just saying anything (teapot, french fry, spanner) feels daft. Parents tell you off for talking rubbish. If you do it out loud in a bar it's a great way to get the place to yourself. But we're improvising, so I give you the right to talk gibberish. Embrase it.

2 - What if they're not the right anything: Life has rules. It's hard to believe that there isn't a right and wrong way to do things. You might be thinking he said just say anything, but what he really means is say a list of words so wild and crazy that they are actually very funny. You think like this because you want to be good at saying anything, you want to get it right. Say anything means say anything. Really it does. If you said "shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe , shoe..." That would be great. If that's really what just popped into your head, and you said it, then you is a winner. If you try to filter your thoughts to say the right thing, you will dry up. Again, there is no right anything - anything means anything. Don't try to get it right.

3 - Poo Poo, I want to sleep with my sister, at night I cry for Jesus: People don't like to say things that might end them up in trouble. Nobody wants to be embarrised. Nobody wants to reveal themselves to an audience. So you sensor yourself and kill your own spontenaity. Get over it. Just say whatever you want. It's unlikely that you're actually going to say anything dreadful. If you care enough to worry about what you say, then you're not the sort of evil person with a mind like a sewer that's going to shout out obcenities on stage. I promise that you will be safe, free your mind and let it out.

Learn to push back the boudaries of letting yourself just say anything. It is to my mind the basis of creativity and astonishingly liberating.

Saying anything is a very powerfull skill, and something you can practise. Start with lists. To yourself just list things - anything. Try to list for as long as you can. Create lists of related things (hammer, nail, wall, floor, carpet, curtains), then lists of unrelated things (bucket, monkey, bob sleigh, nappy). Never tell yourself off for getting a list wrong. This is essential. When a baby falls down learning to walk, you cheer and help it up again. List things you'd like to do (write a book, fly to the moon, drill a hole in my bosses coffee cup). List things you'll never do (kiss my dad, catch an eagle, ride a zebra).

Just list and enjoy it. It's not excercising a muscle, it's unblocking a drain. The more ideas that flow down that blocked up pipe the clearer it will be.

Step 4 - Justifying together.

Impro is predominanly a group activity. We get up on the stage as a group, we lie to the audience as a group. It's a group lie. The one simple key to a group lie is back each other up. Help each others lies. Even if it's not the lie you wanted to tell, back it up. Doing anything different would proove to the audience that you're just a bunch of liars. The audience don't want that. They want to believe you. So if Betty says "I'm actually decended from a bee", use your lying skills to support her. "That explains your love of honey", go further, "I always wondered why you wore a black and yellow stripped jumper, but now I see it's you fur".

Help each other with the details. Help each other with the justifications. Lie together. Don't let the audience know it's not true.

(For existing improvisers: As far as I'm concerned, the fundemental basis for rules like "Yes, and", blocking etc are to back up a lie. To often I see beginner improvisers utterly confused by the definition of blocking and when to say "yes". Thinking of it as a group lie is so much easier.)

Step 5 - React.

Reacting to stuff is the genius of impro. In real life we react all the time. Everyday we react to everything we encounter. It isn't something you think your way through, you just do it. If the door swung open and a naked man walked in right this moment, you'd react. You wouldn't conciously think, what's my motivation here, you'd point, or scream, or sigh and just get on with it. Reacting is the reason why impro doesn't require you to be clever.

In impro we react to the things that are said. If Brian tells you he was raised by wolves, react. "WOW! That's amazing", back up the lie "That explains why you sleep in the garden". By reacting like a human (which is what you are) you add the final block of concrete to your lie. If the lie is really true and you believe it, then you will and should react to it as if it was reality.

Why did Juliet kill herself? Cause she reacted to Romeo being dead. Why was he dead? because he reacted to her pretending to be dead? Why was she pretending to be dead? because she was reacting to her love for Romeo and her parents reaction to her love for Romeo. What is the story about? Romeo fell in love with Juliet and they reacted to each other. Reaction drives story.

How you react depends on who you are. If you are a warrior and a bear runs out the bush you hit it with your sword. If a bear rushes you, and you're a ballet dancer you probably scream and faint, (or if a brave ballerina you might high kick it and run). If you were Harry Potter you might turn it into an acorn.

How you react depends on who you are, but conversly who you are depends on how you react. It's another Catch 22. But it's a great catch 22 because it means you can't go wrong. Lets pretend you're on stage and your fellow actor pulls a gun on you. If you cower then your character is a coward. If you punch him your character is a hero.

Who you react also depends on your circumstances. In impro your circumstances are what you make them. It's all a great big lie.

Step 6 - Bring it all together

You've learnt you can say anything, You've learnt to build a big lie and you've learnt to justify the lie, you've learnt to react to the lies. It comes together thus:

1 - Step on the stage like a confident liar.
2 - Pretend to be someone that you're not. Do this by lying. Say anything and be anyone. (I am Gusto the builder I've come to build your new outside toilet).
3 - Back up each others lies (Hello Gusto, I don't have a toilet, so I phoned you. I want the toilet just here by the hedge).
4 - React to the lies (Wow, How have you survived without a toilet).
5 - React to the lies (I'm so ashamed, we use this giant hole.)
6 - React to the lies (Yuk! that's digusting. It's a health hazzard!)
7 - React to the lies (I know, I've been so ill)
8 - React to the lies (Oh gosh, is it anything contageous?)

And so on, and so on. Not a great example, but I hope you get the point.

That's a lot of talk to reach such a simple ending. The stuff above is the how to paint. It doesn't include what to paint or how to make what you paint interesting. It puts you on a stage and allows you to live in a make believe world. Class two is about how to make it interesting.

Here resteth the cursor.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Rule number one

I cocked something up this morning. I've been rebuilding an important background system which handles time sensitive data. This morning it did an update, but I'd been so busy thinking about the complicated data processing bit that I forgot to update the part that puts the data on to the website. It was quickly mended, but it was a stupid mistake to make.

Here's todays lesson. It doesn't matter how much work you put in behind the scenes. If the bit that everyone see's is broken then you're stuffed.

That's applies to everything, particularly comedy. I love performing, but I'm a background system kind of a guy. I often forget to update the bit that everyone see's. The simple bits, like learning material, talking at a speed that everyone can hear, getting the words right. That bit bores me. It seems trivial in the face of everything else, so I let it slide.

Stupid, stupid boy.