Notes from my improvisational comedy class

Tonight I attended was the third of eight Level 1 Improvisational Comedy classes given my the Bovine Metropolis Theater. During the first two weeks most of the exercises involved work with imaginary objects. For example, we’d envision ourselves eating at our favorite restaurant, doing an everyday activity like flossing, or playing catch with objects of different weights. One challenging exercise was to lead or follow a partner in such an activity. We’d mirror the leading partner in his motions until the instructor clapped, which indicated a switch in the leader & follower. The challenge for me, which surely occurs in all levels of improv, is to be attentive to what my partner’s doing when leading, and not try to make it something according to what’s in my head. This is especially true in an exercise where we hand an imaginary object around a circle. Each time it changes hands it must also transform in a coherent manner.
They made me very conscious of what I was doing with my body. The day after my first class I was quite aware of how my feel and legs felt while I was walking. I was aware of sensations I’d never before attended to. After the second class I was very conscious of everyday activities. For example, while emptying the dishwasher, felt the cool metal of spoon against my fingers – I never pay attention to that!

The third class started off with a fun game: attacker-defender. With everyone on stage (about six), we each designated (in our mind) someone who’s trying to attack us, and someone who can defend us. Like the other participants, my job was to move around the stage so as to keep my “defender” between me and my “attacker.” A simple algorithm resulting in brilliant patterns. A fun party game, too.

While the first two weeks involved no speaking, this week’s class introduced gibberish. Well, not formal gibberish, which resembles Pig Latin, or Opish, which my mother is quite fluent, but merely sounds that can convey emotions. My gibberish was quite vowel-heavy, along the lines of what Charlie Brown’s teacher sounds like. I suppose had I chosen a language to emulate, such as Chinese or French, it would have sounded quite different. The diversity of gibberish was rather broad, for example, Jim’s was clearly Scandinavian. Mine probably sounded as it did because I was constructing real sentences behind it was English words, and introduced random noise. (Yes, I do work with a bunch of optical signal processing engineers.)

Anyway, a few fun exercises were:

1. A 30-second television advertisement. A student gets up and the class tells him the product. He first does it in gibberish, then in English. I had MaryLee try to sell anvils. And I’m still wondering what they are for – I only know them through the Road Runner cartoons. Ah, now I know.

2. Interpreter (2 person). In a talk-show like setting, one person is a famous expert on a subject, and the interpreter translates her gibberish and gestures. Quite funny, and it was difficult for us to not laugh. The way the gibberish speaker and English speaker worked from and interpreted each other’s contributions was great, and the heart of the comedy.

3. Interpreter (3 person): This is like the above, but the interpreter is between two gibberish speakers of different languages who know each other well. For example, coaches of the same Little League team, a divorced couple (I interpreted them), owners of a pet shop (I played one), and a father and his gay son (I played the father).

All of these exercises were fun, humorous, and challenging. The challenge comes in both interpreting and going with what your partner gives you, and giving them things to work with. As I mentioned above, trying to control the scene with a preconceived notion of how it’s going to play out is a recipe for killing it. It’s like trying to pull an outside pitch in baseball – you’ll just ground out to short.
More to come…

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