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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Wednesday (1/20/10) 2:08pm - ... wherein Peter attends the Tuesday-night Keith Johnstone workshop.

Last night I took a five-hour workshop from Keith Johnstone.

Here are my notes from the workshop:



Notes from the exercises we did.

* The beeping exercise.  (Responding to feedback.)
        * First, send somebody out of the room.
                * Pick some simple activity like 'touch your nose'
                * Bring the victim back in.
                * Have the crowd 'beep' when the victim gets closer to the desired activity.
                * Keep going until the victim does the activity.
        * This is basically operant conditioning.
        * If done properly it's very effective
                * You have to do it *in the moment*
                        * That is...
                                * ... don't beep when they did the right thing a while ago
                                * ... don't beep when they look like they might do the right thing later
                                * Beep when they're doing something correctly *right now*
        * We'd do all sorts of inappropriate beeping.
                * Keith would gently correct us by telling the victim, "Sorry, we're all very new at this."
* Communal storytelling.  (Pleasing the ensemble.)
        * In this exercise...
                * A large group got onstage
                * Someone would suggest an activity.  ("Let's ride bikes!")
                * Everybody who wanted to do the activity would say "YES!" while punching both fists in the air.
                        * Then they'd do the activity.
                * Everybody who didn't would quietly leave the stage.
        * The rejection makes the game dangerous
                * i.e. you might screw up and wind up alone on the stage.
        * This trains you to do things that please your ensemble.
                * This is a very very good skill.
                * Too often, we just try to delight ourselves.
                        * Director:  "I'd like a tap dancing scene"
                          Micetro cast:  "But none of us tap-dance!"
                          Keith the Co-Director:  "Director, are *you* a tap-dancer?"
                          Director:  "Why, yes!  How did you guess?"
        * Weird thing:  experienced improvisors tend to stay onstage the longest
                * Perhaps they're conditioned to "YES!!!" any damn thing
                        * ... whereas being more discriminating might be valuable.
                                * Remember:  some ideas deserve to die.  Quickly.
* "What comes next?"  (Pleasing your partner.)
        * This exercise takes two people.
                * Person A asks, "What comes next?"       
                * Person B suggests an activity.  "We do ."
                * At this point, one of two things happen:
                        * Path 1:
                                * Person A does the suggested activity.
                                * Person B joins in.
                                * Person A asks, "What comes next?" again.
                                        * That is, we go back to the top.
                        * Path 1:
                                * Person A says "No."
                                        * Person A does this while raising their eyebrows.
                                                * Again, we make the rejections as gentle/non-negative as possible.
                                * Person A suggests a different activity.  "We do ."
                                * Person B does the activity.
                                * Person B asks, "What comes next?"
                                        * That is, we go back to the top with the roles reversed.
        * Again, this is all about pleasing the other person.
                * Usually, this involves doing wwhat hte other person (and probably the audience) is thinking already
                * Subpar movies fail at this.
                        * "Most of the time, the movie makes you *wrong*."
                        * A great film, you *predict*.
                        * Good storytellers hint at where they're going.
                                * "*This* is what will happen later."
                * Surprises are generally mean and bad.
                        * Keith once did a show with a giant mechanical crocodile prop.
                                * They tried showing the audience the prop in action *before* the show.
                                        * This made its eventual appearance get a much better response.
        * How do you play this with a stranger?
                * In that case, you just rely on certain universal qualities of storytelling.
                * We all like predictable connections.
        * For me, the exercise got pretty dream-like pretty fast, but it stayed connected.
                * Plot summary:
                        * We went through the jungle
                        * We found a tiger
                        * It ate us
                        * We went to tiger heaven
                        * We got sent to tiger hell
                        * We climbed a big ladder
                        * We climbed out onto the top of a Mayan pyramid in the jungle.
                        * We spotted that same tiger again.
                        * We all had a laugh about what had just happened.
                        * The tiger guided us to a secret door in the pyramid.
                        * We opened it, and... out of time.  End of exercise.

                * It was very surreal, but it was all connected.
        * You can't follow "We go to the beach" with "We go swimming".
                * It's too big of a jump
                * You need intermediate steps, like "We paddle."
* The "taking someone home" scene.  (Change.)
        * We did a bunch of iterations of the scene where somebody takes a date to their apartment/house.
        * Entering someone's territory is always interesting
                * i.e. you put someone in "the wrong place"
                * Every scene was able to coast on the inherent interest to that setup for a minute or so.
                * After that, then what?
                        * Then you have to really improvise
        * If you take someone home and then go to the bedroom, that's an okay completed action
                * But that scene has no change; it needs a tilt.
                        * Perhaps a 'scene 2' could provide the change
                                * Note:  don't be afraid to cut to scene 2 once scene 1 runs out of gas
        * Keith has recorded his own channel-surfing
                * When things don't change, he gets bored and flips the channel
                        * (... especially when *relationships* don't change.)
        * Theater should illustrate change
        * Resisting an obvious change in improv can give you a cheap laugh at the expense of the drama       
                * This is because we laugh at people who get thwarted.
        * Improv cars never go anywhere ("oh, the key doesn't work")
                * Remember:  the car never has to go to the "right place" -- it just has to *go*
        * The tilt has to alter you.
                * If you refuse to change, you've killed the tilt.
        * Tilts can be rational or irrational
                * Irrational is better suited to comic performance
        * Be altered when batshit stuff happens
                * This happened repeatedly:  we wouldn't respond to an insane event with "That's insane!"
                * You don't just blithely "Yes, and" the content -- you respond realistically
                * Silent comedians (e.g. Buster Keaton) were geniuses at fighting for honest reactions.
                * Movies like The Kid or Safety Last work hard to make the main set-pieces feel *real*.
                        * The comedy comes from the star being *forced* into the situation.
* The 2-hander with snaps.  (Pleasing your partner, good-natured pranksterism.)
        * The setup:
                * It's a basic two-person scene.
                * Three preferably-burly men stand off to the side.
                * If at any point you are disappointed with the scene, snap your fingers.
                * At this point, the burly men will drag your partner away from the theater
                * All the while, the dragee will shout, "But I'm a good improvisor!  I'm a good improvisor!"
                * (And, of course, your partner is allowed to snap as well.)
        * This is another exercise in giving your partner what s/he wants
                * Remember, if your partner stays interested, odds are the audience stays interested too.
                * Also remember that getting changed is a good way to maintain people's interest.
        * It's also about good-natured pranksterism.
                * Don't worry that your friend will be mock-dragged-away
                        * Treat it like a good-natured prank.
                * Friends play pranks on each other
                        * [They have permission to screw w/each other's status. -- ed.]
                * Being good-natured about it calms the audience
* Scenes with stuffed animals.  (Inactivity has its uses.)
        * In this scene, we had an improvisor return home to their significant other.
                * The SO was portrayed by a small, inanimate plush-toy rabbit.
        * Keith occasionally directed the improvisor to tell the rabbit, "Look at me when I'm talking to you!"
        * The animal attracts attention *with* its inactivity
                * [I noticed this especially when I expected a 'reaction shot' from the rabbit.]
        * We then replaced the stuffed animal with a similarly-inactive improvisor.
                * We still watch that inactive improvisor.
        * Why aren't we ever this inactive in shows?
* Funny/scary/sexy.  (Staying connected to your partners.)
        * This exercise is almost identical to the one described here.
        * Keith:  "Have you played this before?"
            Us:  "Yes."
          Keith:  "Well, play it with me, and then I'll tell you why I invented it."
          Avi, sotto voce:  "KJ, MAKIN' IT RAIN, BITCHEZ!"
        * We did a first round where the performers just found *themselves* funny/scary/sexy
                * This led to a very isolated/disconnected-feeling scene.
        * Then they played as normal.
        * Keith reminded them that the scary one will strike you if you let on that you're scared.       
                * This forced more naturalistic behavior.
        * Keith said that the front door was locked.
                * This forced the improvisors to move around more.
* "Parent-teacher meetings."  (Status.)
        * We did a few scenes where a parent came to a teacher's office to discuss a kid's misbehavior.
        * "Status" is something you do, not something you are.
                * If you're high-status, you do things to other people.
                * If you're low-status, things get done to you.
        * Low status needn't be miserable
                * We love happy low-status people, b/c they aren't a threat
        * High status needn't be nasty
        * Some physicality shortcuts to low status:
                * Look but don't get caught
                * Overbite, esp. *laughing* overbite
* Servants and balloons (Raucous fun with status.)
        * Three people lined up
                * The master in the middle, servants to either side
                * The servants would try to make fun of the master to the audience.
                        * They'd do this whenever the master wasn't looking.
                        * They'd start with just sticking out a tongue.
                                * Then they'd expand from there.
                        * The 'to the audience' part is key.
                                * Otherwise, it's just a mean-spirited servant being snarky on his/her own.
                                * Note:  the servants can see the audience; the master cannot.
                                * Improv involves a lot of looking to the audience.
                                        * When you see the audience, make sure your face looks alive, not flat-affect.
                                                * See also:  Jon Stewart on The Daily Show
                                                        * He's almost always looking at 'the audience' (= the camera)
                                                        * ... but he's never flat-affect about it.
                * Whenever the master has an excuse to, s/he beats the servants with a big balloon.
                        * Keith is running out of his favorite brand of balloons.
                                * "Airship" brand ballons, a name that's regrettably googlescrewed.
                * When hitting someone with a balloon, swing *through* your target.
                        * People tend to slow down as they approach a surface, which is counterproductive.
        * Every audience is familiar with master-servant relationships
                * We all 'get' status.
        * Other variations on this setup are possible.
                * You could have four people in status-order.
                        * With your balloon, you can only hit people of lower status.

       



Other notes.

* Keith Johnstone likes furniture
        * Master-servant scenes (see below) are often more fun if a bed is involved
                * (Add your own BSDM jokes here.)
        * He also likes having a sofa with a hole in it.
                * Actors can get sucked into the sofa
                * A head can *sit* in the middle of the sofa.
        * Furntiure, like props, can be useful for variety.
                * You can have a scene with props followed by a scene without props.
* "Rules are for beginners."
        * "No blocking" is a rule
        * "No questions" is a rule
        * If you do block...
                * Don't just say, "I broke the rule," and leave it at that.
                * Always dig deeper.
                * Ask, "Why did I just block?"       
                * If you did it to delight your partner, it's cool
                * If you did it out of fear, it's not.
* If we could get rid of a performer's fear, they could improvise perfectly.
        * Types of fear that screw up improv:
                * Fear of the uncertain future, of being altered
                * Fear of getting attention for joy or odd behavior
        * The problem is, audiences pay to see alteration, joy, oddness
        * We're conditioned to guard ourselves
                * Don't look naughty at school; don't look disreputable
                * Don't look approachable/hit-on-able in NYC
                * People who look joyful and approachable get picked on, mugged, etc.
        * If you're afraid, that scares the audience
                * Instead, stay tapped into your pleasure in improv
                * Good-natured screwing up assures the audience you're cool
* Failing is how you learn
        * So:  fail early and fail often!
        * If you don't screw up, you're not learning
        * In work, failure is a disastrous loss.  In play, it's no big deal
        * If you're good-natured about failing, the audience will love you for it.
        * Only eggshell-ego'ed actors should worry so much about failure.
        * Micetro *needs* failures for it to feel properly sporting
        * (Relevant quote:  "Be wrong as fast as you can." -- Andrew Stanton)
* Improvisors have trouble performing in the moment.
        * We get caught living in the past or the future as performers
        * Similarly, we don't really *see* the other performers
                * He saw a show with performers who wore tied-on false noses
                        * It was hot, so often the performers would...
                                1. Go offstage
                                2. Raise their false noses to their foreheads
                                3. Have a drink.
                                4. Return to the stage with the false noses still raised.
                        * Not only would they not notice their own noses were still 'up'....
                        * ... they would also ignore the fact that their fellow performers now looked like unicorns.
        * Gossip is how we distract ourselves from the here and now
                * From real questions about people.
                * From really knowing our friends.
                * We're socially conditioned to avoid probing questions
* Voice and pace.
        * A strong voice *subdues* the audience
                * Which is a good thing
        * Improvisors tend to talk too fast
                * They're afraid of getting interrupted
                * Great clowns are slow
                * Be slow.  Be clear.
* Stage pictures.
        * Onstage, cross your legs *towards* your partner.
                * (... unless you want to seem distant from your partner.)
        * Enter on the *upstage* leg.
                * (... unless you want to seem afraid of the audience.)
        * Move *across* the stage when possible -- "open out" the set
        * Improv favors 'dead-on' stage pictures
                * This is because we need to completely see everybody
        * People tend to sway in party scenes
                * We sway to adjust our physical arrangement w/r/t to those around us
                                * It's about status.  We set the pecking order.
                                * Giving way on a narrow sidewalk works similarly
                                        * It's instinctive and silent
                * We tried freezing a large spontaneous group of people, then removing subsets of them.
                        * This leaves the stage artificial, off-balance negative-looking arrangements.
                                * [Like people mis-arranged in an elevator. -- ed.]
                * Onstage, you want to 'not act' and rely on your instincts for positioning
                        * (See the "trance" notes below.)
                        * The only people who don't position themselves naturally are....
                                1. Aggressive people, and
                                2. Bad actors.
* If you can't do drama, you have to rely wholly on laughter
        * We're not good enough to get constant laughter
        * Don't trust the laughs
        * An audience has a limited supply of hysterical laughter
                * Maybe 15 min or so
                * Street theater needs an awesome start to get attn
                        * Paid theater should pace itself       
                * Laughter needs to be contrasted with non-laugh scenes
* Audience suggestions.
        * A good prompt is, "Could you suggest an <X> that will inspire us?"
        * If you *are* inspired by something, admit that you are inspired.
                * It won't be a 'pride goeth before a fall' thing.
                * If you crater, it'll be fine so long as you crater cheerfully
                        * The audience will be cool with that
        * Remember:  the audience laughs at stupid suggestions *because* the stupid suggestions are stupid.
        * Taking tough/dumb suggestions can lead to the 'performing seal' syndrome
* Trance, etc.
        * "Don't act."
                * Actors tend to strain to act, and don't rely on natural instincts.
                * Jeremy Irons quote about acting:
                        * "In a film shoot, there are three or four moments that require genuine acting.  The rest of the time, I'm just walking in and out of doors."
                * In scripted work, you get out of the line's way.
                        * Just stop acting, and count on your instincts to guide you.
        * More trancey stuff in sports books like Golf is not a Game of Perfect and Inner Tennis
        * Physical actions and mask-like facial tics can provide similarly automatic behavior
                * Pigeon-toes, worrying your hands in your lap, overbite, avoiding (but still attempting) eye contact.
                        * This leads to being cute.
                * Lengthening your face or always touching your mouth automatically generate certain kinds of characters.
        * Hypnosis removes stage fright and thus unlocks hidden talents
* Neat things that Keith did in the exercises:
        * Instead of asking for volunteers for scenes, he would just read a few names off of the class list.
                * I like this better than waiting for volunteers
                * It makes you feel less pride-goeth-before-a-fall-y when the scene goes crappy.
        * Keith did a lot to make on-stage rejection as gentle/non-negative as possible
        * He also would start a lot of exercises with, "Do this for 30 seconds, then we'll do it for real."
                * This took a lot of the pressure off at the very start.
                * The advance warning made it easier for him to stop the performers and give notes at the 30s mark.
        * Many times, he ran the same exact setup, with the same actions, repeatedly.
                * This let us focus on specific structural stuff without worrying about content.
* A lot of his exercises are about getting you to be less verbal.
        * Screwing up your verbalization improves your physicality.
        * Mantra does this
                * A mantra isn't meant as an objective
                        * Mainly it's just noise to get you to be less verbal.
        * Gibberish sabotages verbal-ness, too.
                * ... although it's a little less effective
        * Getting rid of language entirely is helpful.
                * For instance, if the audience doesn't speak English.
                * In this case, all you can do is physicality.
                        * ... and rely even more heavily on having your character change.
        * Props temper our verbal tendencies, and make us talk less
* Some miscellaneous notes:
        * Hypnotists pick the people most suggestible -- that is, the ones who fit in.
        * The instinctive fearful shrug is a reflex to protect the jugular
        * English naturalistic acting is tedious
        * The Enlightenment killed a thriving world of masked improv
        * "Whose scene is it?"  Hint:  it's not always yours.
        * He regretted that his concept for "MusicSportz" (i.e. competitive improvised music) never happened.
* Actors tend to be scared.  So theater keeps turning into a museum exhibit.
        * They find something that works, and desperately stick to it.
        * Don't do this in improv.
                * Keep it risky/dangerous -- that's why it's fun!
                * Keep testing your limits.

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Comments:

[User Picture]
From:acrouch
Date:Wednesday (1/20/10) 3:17pm
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Fucking fantastic. You're a note taker after my own heart.
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From:hujhax
Date:Wednesday (1/20/10) 3:20pm
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~ thanks! ~
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From:ptevis
Date:Friday (1/22/10) 2:12pm
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Dang. Awesome stuff.
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