Last week was the final “graduate show” for my improvisational comedy class that I had been with for more than a year, given by the The Bovine Metropolis Theater in Denver. It has been great to perform with Anders, Jane, Jim, Lori Beth, and Marylee, and I hope to perform with them again.
Check out the blurb about the show in Westword. The dates weren’t right, but we did change them around a bit.
There are five sets of eight-week classes that culminate in three performances.
Level 1 begins at the basics – learning to be on stage, working with imaginary objects, noticing small changes in our partners on stage, and many exercises that do not involve speaking. I wrote about some of these in a previous post.
Level 2 is about developing characters. Some exercises I recall involve getting a character from many different sources: colors, songs, ways to walk, types of car, etc. I remember an article in the New York Times magazine (thanks, Mom) where a professional said he’d get his characters from a type of voice. As long has he stuck to the voice, he’d be in character. It was like an anchor. The facial expressions and posture would follow.
I found that staying in character is challenging, and hence something I can improve on. It’s essential to a good scene, as it makes it easier to do what’s “natural” for the scene, and makes it more believable, and yet more absurd and hence funny. Being a character, as opposed to myself on stage, also gets me out of my head. It doesn’t matter whether what I do “makes sense” to me, as it’s not me on stage, but the character.
Level 3 and 4, roughly speaking, are about scene work. One exercise I recall is being off stage during a scene with two people in it, and just listening. It was a way to learn what the scene needs to be interesting. For example, one trap is for characters to talk about what they are doing. That’s boring. They should move from that to what’s going on between them, i.e., their relationship, and why this scene is about a pivotal turning point in the relationship or in one of the character’s lives.
Two related concepts of scene work are “yes-and” and a specific application of it, “make it worse.” “Yes-and” is a core concept, and the name of a website about improv comedy, which has a good article on status, another key concept for scenes. “Yes-and” is about accepting what is happening on stage — what other characters bring to the scene with their words and actions — accepting it, building on it, and hence moving the scene forward. That makes something happen instead of being stagnant like an airplane delaying a landing my circling the runway.
“Making it worse” is a fun way to both mess with your scene partners and create a funny scene. If a character is in a somewhat awkward situation, even a little, add something to make it even more so. It’s a way of accepting what’s going on (“yes”) and adding it (“and”).
One of my favorite, and difficult, exercises was “New Choice,” where Eric Farone, our instructor (and founder of the theater) told a character to make a new choice if his line did not move the scene forward. Our class did that for about an hour, and speaking for myself, I would have benefited from more.
Another favorite exercise was “bore the audience,” which Keith Johnstone talks about in his book Impro. It illustrates that the worst thing to do in improv is to try to be entertaining or funny. It doesn’t work, and backfires. When “trying” to bore the audience, the characters play the scene slowly and really absorb what’s happening. Relationships and tensions develop, and which creates the potential for truly funny scenes. Eric stressed again and again to “play it slow.” It’s OK to be out there on stage and not know what’s going on – the other players don’t know either, and neither does the audience. That’s OK, so long as it begins to make sense slowly and seemingly naturally, with nothing being forced.
Level 5, the final level, is about developing a form for a show. The first act of our form was loosely based on what’s called a Harold. In about 45 minutes each member of the group plays the same character, and the characters in the initial three scenes (w/ two people each) eventually interweave into a coherent story where all the characters are related in some way, and there is some kind of story arc that is resolved by the end.
Our second act had fewer constraints. We more-or-less based the next scene off of the previous one, and did not have to be the same characters.
I admire Eric Farone for starting this theater from nothing, and having the courage to phase out a job that was paying the bills (but not inspiring him) to do something that he loves.