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.

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