You can have three relationships in an improv scene:
- With your scene partner(s)
- With your environment
- With your activity
The first one is covered often in classes and is easily the most important one. But there are two more that I don’t always get to see on stage and are great options to explore in a scene. Both of them can be best understood in the context of being alone onstage.
Relationship with environment
The character you’re playing in a scene can have a relationship with their surroundings. For instance, if you’re a CEO in your own office, then you’re likely to be comfortable in your home base. You know where everything is. You own everything in there. This is your domain! But if you’re a new hire coming into this office, it’s the opposite. You might enter gingerly, looking for permission to sit. You shrink into your chair. This is the lion’s den!
Some of this is status work but it’s also a relationship. And just like any relationship, it can change over time, especially if we put them together. Maybe the new hire gains confidence and the CEO loses theirs? Or we can start with their environment relationships swapped with the CEO uncomfortable in their office and the new hire strolling in as though it was their home.
If you’re alone on stage, you can choose this relationship to explore right away. Let’s say you’re camping. Are you an expert, familiar with camping from years of experience? Are you terrified of nature? Are you one with all around you and birds float to your outstretched finger? Are you happy to be out there? Angry at the campsite? There’s a lot to play with here and it’s totally up to you since you’re out there by yourself.
Relationship with activity
This is similar to the last one but now we’re talking about how you do what you do. Let’s say you’re getting dressed. Again, the world of options opens up. Are you putting on the clothes with resentment? Are you exhausted and doing it slowly? If you’re up there, getting dressed neutrally is a fine choice but you can tell us something about your mood, your character, your view by choosing a relationship to what you’re doing, no matter how trivial it is.
- You can iron clothes with zest!
- You can get into a car with sadness.
- You can wash dishes while being paranoid.
It’s up to you to make that choice and let that inform you and the audience as to what is going on. Let your mime/object work sell it. Use your whole body, your face and make sounds like giggling or groans of fear.
And have fun with it! Keep building. Don’t drop it. If you’re angry at doing the dishes for the hundredth time in a row and your lazy roommate walks in, bring it up! Come back to it after they fail to apologize. Get angrier! Whatever you like.
These last two relationships are hugely important in the world of clowning. If you ever get a chance to take a class, jump on it. You know what? Lemme see if I can’t make that happen at MIT this year; a one/two day class would be a perfect intro.
It’s good to know that even if you’re on your own in a scene (maybe you’re starting the scene or maybe it’s a solo scene), there are a couple of options for you to play and have fun with.
It seems all our English classes are full (or nearly full) except for one that still has space left…
Level 3 : Saturdays, 3:30-5:30pm starting Jan 12
Here’s the others that are almost complete:
Level 1: Sat, Jan 19th, 1pm
Level 2: Tue, Jan 8th, 7pm
Level 2: Sat, Jan 12th, 3:30pm
Level 4: Mon, Jan 7th, 7pm FULL
Level 4: Sun, Jan 13th, 3:30pm
If you’ve been thinking about signing up, don’t wait too long. They’ve been filling up pretty quick.
Don’t forget our free drop-in class coming up:
Free Open Workshop: Sat, Jan 12th, 1pm
I’m pretty excited to be teaching the level 2 class coming up. I took a couple months off from teaching and I miss it. YEAH!
Something I noticed about myself over the weekend when I played at The Magnet in NYC on Saturday (I’m home now). I often counsel players to make the biggest choice in improv, the one that follows the problem. And I think that if you’re stuck, those are the choices that will help you unlock the comedy in a scene.
But on Saturday, where we were JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, CS Lewis was ripping up my (Tolkien’s) work straight out of the typewriter. He was still grieving over his dead wife and that’s how it was coming out. I knew instantly that the biggest choice, or at least the easiest one, was to get angry. Someone’s tearing up your work, right? Engage Fury Mode.
Instead, I made the choice to be sympathetic. I invited CS to my house for a cooked meal because he was clearly in pain. I made the most personal choice I could think of. And it hurts the comedy, I think. I spent the rest of the scene trying to soothe CS and convince him that it was ok to come over for supper and spend the night (he had been sleeping under his desk). It was a far less funny scene than I could have made it. But it was a far more personal scene than it would have been otherwise. And afterwards, I realised those have been the choices I’ve been making for a while. My scenes have felt pretty unfunny probably since MI opened, especially so in the last 18 months, but they also feel way more meaningful to me. Somewhere along the way, the personal became more important to me than the comedy.
I don’t know if this is the right instinct to follow if I’m going to be doing funny business but it’s the one that feels right to me. I’ve done enough comedy that it feels tired to make the funniest choice. And if I want to do pure comedy, I have The Follow-Up which is just an hour of being as silly as possible. These most personal choices come out in my show Life Story, where I just interview a guest about their life and we do scenes based on the details and stories that come up. The comedy is secondary to the personal in a way made explicit and inherent in the structure and goals of the show.
Exploring the most personal choice can sabotage the comedy. But it can also make for some really human improv, and I guess that’s what I’m exploring now. It’s not why 99% of people go see or do improv, but it’s what’s keeping me going on the stage. Maybe off the stage, too.
I’ve been pretty bad at promoting the biggest improv event of the year on the blog. Twitter and FB are all over it but tumblr? Totally neglected.
I totally neglected to mention that we have Dave Morris and his solo show coming to Mprov. Forgot to let you know that Get Up (Shana Merlin & Shannon McCormick) are coming from Austin, Texas with their two-person whirlwind of a show. We even snuck in Pgraph’s Valerie Ward from Austin to jump into our Ladies’ Night Jam. Slipped my mind that we have a reunion show from The Bitter End with Etan Muskat, Dan Beirne and Vanessa Matsui making the drive up from Toronto. I should have mentioned Anders Yates is sneaking across provincial borders to re-join Uncalled For for one night. And I made no note of The Curfew from UCB sending up Chelsea Clarke, Erik Tanouye and Brandon Gardner. Will Steve Theiss make it up north to join his Curfew pals? That’s a mystery for the great beyond.
So even though we have a great line-up of acts, including a ridiculous quantity of awesome local acts, a schedule with every show poised to kick ass and some amazing workshops (that are nearly full), I didn’t feel the need to mention it until today, opening night.
If you did want to know more, you’d probably have to check out mprov.ca.
Mprov: The 7th Annual Montreal Improv Festival
Oct 10-14, 2012
This weekend I had my first ever improv audition to get on a house team. The experience was, to say the least, absolutely terrifying. I was feeling groggy because the cold I’d been fighting off had finally gotten the best of me, and I was struggling with a creative block that I’ve been fighting against for over a month now.
As a person who spends most of her time either writing, drawing or improvising, “creative” is a large part of my self-image. Lately, however, I’ve been feeling like I’m anything but. And what’s left to fill the gaping void that a lack of creativity has left in my life and in my definition of myself? Struggle.
I’m not usually one to hate on myself. But it’s tough to go through phases of bountiful creativity followed by seemingly endless dry spells that leave you feeling depleted and useless. Lately every time I jump on stage I feel like the next few minutes are spent fighting against myself. My brain can be an asshole at times. It blocks me, doubts my ideas and offers a lot of counterproductive insight.
“You shouldn’t say that, it could be offensive.”
“Think of something, QUICK! Think!”
“Don’t forget to be physical, why are you just standing there? MOVE.”
“What do you know about your character? Nothing. You know nothing.”
“Do this! NO! Wait! Do that! NEVERMIND! What are other people doing? DO THAT!”
“ABORT ABORT ABORT!”
Silly brain. Y U NO BE NICE?
As with most artists, I’m my own worst critic. I replay scenes in my head and think of what I could’ve said, what I should have done, how I could have made the scene better/clearer/funnier. When people compliment me, I question whether or not they just have a pathological need to please others.
I never used to have this struggle. When I started improv, I loved the thrill of jumping up and not knowing what would happen next. When I was on stage, my mind was empty and completely immersed in the moment. When I had a bad scene, I could easily brush it off. I even managed to convince myself that I loved being a part of a failing scene because of the opportunity for growth that it provided.
So why the sudden change?
Given that I’ve never been through this before, I’m not exactly sure why it’s happening and what I can do to fight it. I’m willing to bet, however, that this is a natural transitional phase that occurs when an artist makes the terrifying leap from “student” to “performer”.
The classroom is safe. You’re allowed to fail. You’re surrounded by a group of supportive peers who understand the difficulty of what you’re doing. Ironically, when you feel like you’re allowed to fail, you usually succeed. You become less afraid to make bold choices, more inclined to try something new, and more willing to share your ideas. At the very least, this results in a scene that is very fun to discover. All of that goes away as soon as you tell yourself that whatever you do, it has to be good.
Given that I recognize all of this, you would assume that it would be easy to just tell myself that I’m allowed to fail and be done with it. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Giving myself the right to be bad at something is a struggle. But I’m making the promise to myself that from now on I need to treat myself the same way I would a friend. And the truth is, if a friend of mine tried and failed, I’d still see it as a victory. I’d say “good for you for trying,” and I would trust that they would only get better. What I would NOT do is assume that, because of one bad scene or off night, they’re untalented and should spare any further embarrassment by giving up.
I know that many people have gone through this or are going through something similar right now. I think that mental blocks, whether they come in the form of bad scenes, low inspiration or reduced confidence, are an integral part of the creative process. That’s why, as difficult as this post has been to write, I’m hoping it will generate a useful conversation. Admitting to failure and struggle makes me feel vulnerable, but it’s a feeling I’m trying to get used to. Realizing that not everything I do will be perfect or even relatively good is one of the wonderful lessons that improv teaches for a richer, more fulfilling life. Accepting this fact, and learning to get up and keep trying regardless, is a lesson I’m still learning.
By: Tasha Lovsin
If any of you are anything like me, you might start scenes with the equivalent of a mental blindfold on. When the blindfold comes off, you find yourself in some strange land where you’re quite unsure of who you are, what you’re doing, or why the person in front of you is giving you that funny look.
Up until recently, I thought this was entirely normal. “This is the essence of improv,” I told myself, “you don’t know anything until you discover it on stage.” I sometimes like to make huge pretentious statements about the “essence” of things, but you have to admit that in this case the logic seemed fair.
Yet I must confess that this made scenes extremely difficult to start. Entering the stage as a blank slate gave my scene partner nothing to work with. As a result, opening lines usually involved the typical “Hey Bob, what are you doing there?” and other such boring dialogue until we could finally establish some sort of relationship or goal.
But despite the difficult start, I stuck with my mental blindfold because I felt like coming on stage with an idea already formed would defeat the purpose of improvising. In a way, it sort of felt like cheating.
All of this changed when Marc made my class experiment with mantras during a recent exercise. Mantras, or the act of repeating something over and over to yourself before and during a scene, allow you to give your character substance without taking away from the element of surprise.
Consider the difference between following opening scenes:
In the second scene, however, each person has a distinct emotion. Mantras help to achieve this. For example, the woman may have the mantra “You’re going to pay for this,” while the man’s might be “The sun is shining brightly today.”
Whatever the case, the characters appear on stage as if they already had an existence prior to the beginning of the scene. Something has caused them to feel happy or sad, and now we are curious to find out what that might be. Without necessarily knowing who they are or what they’re doing, they bring something to the table by knowing how they feel. And something is better than nothing.
Montreal Improv just celebrated our 2nd anniversary and I wanted to write something long and involved about how I feel about it. But instead I’ll just say how happy this whole thing makes me when I see how happy it makes others.