Posts tagged: Improv
In improv, we learn and teach not to try to be funny. If you are focussed on being funny in an improvised story, you are not focussed on listening to your scene partners. You run the risk of playing in your head and not being in the moment. The humour in a scene is discovered organically rather than being scripted or forced.
In our clowning workshops, we were told to look in the mirror and make funny faces. The tall ones in the troupe were told to hitch up our pant legs to make us seem even taller and goofier. During exercises, our workshop leaders called out to us: “Clown! Be funny!” to make us reconnect with the audience.
The audience seems much more important to the clown that the improviser. It appears to me that everything the clown (both the character and the actor) does is directed towards the audience. There is eye-contact with the audience, talking to the audience, emotions played to the audience, etc. In improv, we are conscious of the audience–what is playing well and not–but we try not to pander to them. (Audiences sometimes love pandering improvisers, but the other players get annoyed.)
In a nutshell, the hardest thing about the clowning workshops for me was getting out of my head, or perhaps, getting into my head. When looking into the mirror making funny faces, I felt incredibly unfunny, and also like my brain was about the explode from the rewiring.
Given these contrasting approaches to humour, it’s somewhat ironic that the key in both cases is just to relax and have fun. And that I did, exploded brains and all.
So you’ve been hired by someone to put on a show for a corporate group or private party, eh? Here’s what you need to know.
This type of show is not about you. It’s not about you being funny and it’s not about expressing your creativity. Do that on your own time, in your own shows. Leave your personal mission statement at the door.
The members of your audience at this type of show want to laugh with and at each other. Set them up to be the stars of their own show. Bring them up on stage and put them in situations where they’ll succeed or fail gracefully (and hilariously.) Trust me, the mail room guy making crappy sound effects into a microphone will be way more entertaining than your cleverest line or your most inspired bit of storytelling.
Forget long form. Stick to games and keep them short. Almost every game should involve audience participation, either with an audience member on stage, or with the audience participating from their seats. You can include a few low-participation games to cleanse the palate.
Things to do in advance:
- Bring your contact’s cell number in case of emergency. You might get lost. It happens.
- Ask your contact for names of important people and a short bio for each. Knowing a few things about your clients ahead of time can give you ideas. For example, at our last corporate show, we included a dancing game because we learned the vice president loved to dance. That piece of info was golden and provided a hysterical ending to the show. In my experience, bringing up a few executives (especially, the boss) works well. If the boss seems nervous or straight-laced, give them an easy job. Always make them look good. I also like to ask for a couple of names of people who are good to “pick on”–your office clowns, guys who drop the f-bomb around the water cooler, etc. If people are shy to volunteer during your show, you can pick from your list of names. As a rule, we discourage people at our public shows from volunteering their friends because reluctant volunteers are not usually happy volunteers; however, I make an exception for office and home parties. If people are keen to see a particular person come up, they will usually react in a positive way to everything that person does on stage.
- Ask the venue manager if they have a sound system and/or a microphone. Prepare your set of games accordingly
- Plan to get there early and plan to stay late. Such shows tend to start late, but that’s no reason for you to be late. Now, I’m being condescending.
- Plan a set list of games. Decide who is introducing what game (alphabetical order is where it’s at), or have one person introduce all games.
- Bring a bell and a buzzer. (See below.)
The set list:
As I mentioned, fill your set with audience participation. The all-time best game for these things is Family Dinner / Typical Day on the Job in which players act out members of the family or company that hired you. Bring a bell and a buzzer for an audience member to ring or buzz every time a player does something that is faithful or unfaithful to the real person. Other games that cannot fail are Puppets, Sound Effects and Arms Debate. Chain Murder is a bit risky because you need a high-functioning audience member. Considering going to your list of office clowns for that one. Other standards that work well are: Touch and Go (or some variant), Slide Show and Should Have Said. If your party happens to be celebrating an anniversary (or a wedding!), go for SPIV date, i.e. recreate their first date with one or both characters being played by 2 players speaking in one voice. For our last show, we considered having an HR person come up and interview a SPIV character for a job position.
Arrive early, meet your contact, check out your performance space and, if applicable, test the sound system and microphone. If you’re performing at a restaurant, always perform after supper. If they are busy eating, they will be distracted, chatty and unlikely to volunteer for a game while their steak gets cold. Performing during desert and drinks is fine.
Warm up the audience. Introduce yourselves and get them to yell out a few things. They will be a bit chatty at first, so let them settle into the show during this part. If you want, you can even tell them that you’ll be looking for audience volunteers and promise to make them look good. Be charming!
Perform the show. Keep your scenes and games tight. Be prepared to change your set list in mid-stream if things are running long, short, or, uh, poorly.
Good luck! Gigs like these are usually a lot of fun. Being a working improviser is every improviser’s dream, so enjoy it for one night!
I found this great article in the LA Times about the blog:
By “white people,” Lander doesn’t actually mean the more than 221 million Americans who check that box on the decennial census. But that’s part of the fun. Lander is doing to whites what scores of journalists and politicians do to non-white minorities every day, “essentializing” complex identities — that is, stripping away all variety and reducing them to their presumed authentic essences.
One irony-deficient reader complained that the blog was less about white people than it was about yuppies. And without knowing it, she was cutting to the heart of the joke. Lander is gently making fun of the many progressive, educated, upper-middle-class whites who think they are beyond ethnicity or collectively shared tastes, styles or outlook. He’s essentially reminding them that they too are part of a group.
So I’d just like to call it now. In the near future, stuffwhitepeoplelike will blog about Improv Comedy. (Musical Comedy was done recently, so for the sake of variety, he may not do Improv for a few weeks.). It will point out that whitepeople particularly like improv done by Wayne Brady.
Other entries I like: Gentrification (somehow he missed that white people also like to paradoxically decry the effects of gentrification), Co-Ed Sports and Expensive sandwiches, but they’re pretty much all wonderfully entertaining so far.
Most improv teachers will tell you in one form or another: don’t try to be funny.
Del Close is credited as saying:
No jokes (unless it is tipped in front that it is a joke.)
Keith Johnstone is credited as saying:
Don’t try. Don’t try to be clever, don’t try to be funny, don’t try to please me, don’t try to be good, don’t try to do this right, that’s sure to mess things up. Just respond spontaneously to what is happening.
Surely, one goal of comedic improv is to produce something that is funny. How then do we reconcile wanting a funny show with not trying to be funny? If we’re not trying, how will it come to pass? Is this a Yoda thing–there is no try, only do? Are we being told, just be funny, don’t try to be funny?
Also, if we conform to such a rigid rule, don’t we run the risk of stifling our creativity? Doesn’t this rule sometimes contradict the rule that tells us to relax and have fun?
And finally, we performers don’t usually get laughs that we don’t anticipate. Only rarely do we think, “did I just say something funny?” We know we did something funny! Not trying to be funny isn’t getting us laughs. Wouldn’t it follow that trying to be funny is the only way to get laughs, even if it sometimes fails? Shouldn’t we spray the audience in hopes that we hit some of the targets?
Here’s my opinion:
I like improv that is funny. I like being the person that is funny and I like being part of a show that is funny. However, focusing on being funny gets me (and probably gets you) nowhere. If my mantra were “go out and be funny”, I’d have a terrible time. I think this is why: in a scene, your mind is at work. If you mind is at work trying to think of things to do and say that will be funny, it follows that you’re paying less attention to your scene partners, forgetting or ignoring what has happened thus far and getting tense. If you manage to think of something funny to say or do, and say or do it based purely on its comedic merits, you may be destroying something–the reality, the truth, the tension–in the scene. If your scene doesn’t have any reality, truth or tension for it to matter, you may have bigger problems.
A better strategy is listening and watching your scene partners and keeping your mind open to ideas. Something that happens in the scene may inspire you! Act on those ideas based on their scene merit. If something moves the scene in a good direction, do it! The beauty is that some of those ideas will be funny. You weren’t looking for something funny; you just got handed a gift because you were listening and paying attention. If it’s constructive, do it! If it’s constructive and potentially funny, so much the better!
By having an open mind, you can be funny without trying to be funny. Clearly, having an open mind helps the creative process and dissipates stress. Anticipating a laugh is fine since you’re not doing something solely to be funny, you’re doing it because it makes sense in the context of the scene.
Thegirl in our troupe often bristles when someone talks about the importance of not trying to be funny. Like me, she likes being funny and likes an atmosphere that is conducive to humour where funny stuff is celebrated. She sometimes thinks this maxim is a personal affront to all she holds dear. Well, it isn’t. If you’ve seen our shows, you know thegirl is funny, and I can almost guarantee it’s not from standing around thinking of something funny to say. It comes to her in the moment while she’s paying attention.
Finally, if you think of a gag that you know will destroy your scene but are convinced it’s hilarious and worth it, know that win-or-lose, you’re ending the scene with that one-liner. If you’re willing to stop the scene right then and there with your brilliance, be prepared to be canonized or canon-ized.
If you’re looking for some improv during Nuit Blanche (March 1), there’s this:
1 . From the Montreal High Lights festival:
And now for something completely different! At 8 p.m., watch a small Just for Laughs gala. At 10 p.m., join Les Improductifs for 90 minutes of impro-performance, featuring four actors, a musician and a host. And finally, at midnight, we present The Nasty Show (18+). A night filled with humor, featuring more than 15 performers on stage. (Show in French only).
$5 – on location only
8 p.m. 10 p.m. and midnight
Studio Juste pour rire
2109, Saint-Laurent Blvd.
514 845-4069, poste 6104
mÃ©tro Saint-Laurent bus 24
From the Improductifs website:
Les Improductifs vous convient à un spectacle de type « theatre sports» ou, si vous préférez, à «impro-performance». Sur scène : 4 comédiens, un musicien et un animateur qui agit en tant que maître de jeu suprême.
Les différentes performances livrées sur scène sont totalement improvisées. Non seulement doivent-elles respecter un concept bien précis mais aussi les nombreuses indications commandées par le public. En effet, vous êtes appelés à déterminer les paramètres dans lesquels les comédiens doivent maneuvrer.
Sounds like a straight-forward short-form set with lots of audience participation. They have a games list too.
2. From the Montreal High Lights festival:
Le 1er mars. Il est 23 h 30. Sur la scène du Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, la lumière jaillit soudain ! Les capteurs de rêves sont de retour pour une 3e année consécutive ! Stéphane Bellavance et ses complices vont démystifier les rouages de l’improvisation en déployant leur immense talent et des trésors d’imagination. Ils vous invitent à passer 90 minutes absolument magiques en leur compagnie !
23 h 30 Ã 1 h
175, rue Sainte-Catherine O.
Nuit Blanche is a fun idea, but I despise this festival for one simple reason: Hydro-Québec. Hydro-Québec, the main sponsor, likes to preach about being environmentally conscious, but then turns around and sets up outdoor toasters to keep people warm. Seriously, what the hell? Hydro has no business even sponsoring events. It has a monopoly–who are they advertising to? Supporting cultural events, are they? With hiked rates on the poor? Our hydro money should go towards hydro. Câlisse.
We’re getting together today to prepare for our upcoming auditions. If you’ve gone through improv auditions, can you share with us what you liked and didn’t like about them?
The response to our ad has been very positive. There were more lurking improvisors, former improvisors and i-curious thespians out there than I imagined. I was expecting a narrow spectrum of improvisors I knew; this is a pleasant surprise!