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

Monday (6/28/10) 9:04am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed a week due to travel.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  The Guild [season three]
Books:  Talent is Overrated



The Guild [season three]
This is the Felicia Day webseries about a dysfunctional group of  MMORPG gamers.

Honestly, I feel like I could just rehash my review of season two of The Guild.  This webseries is a light comedy with wacky characters, focussing on a closely-observed view of the subculture of WoW players.  It is the little-webseries-that-could, created by the most adorable person on the planet.

So, as usual, saying anything bad about it feels like kicking a puppy.

But I suppose I don't have anything *bad* to say about The Guild.  It's more that all my compliments come out sounding backhanded in a way I don't really intend.  It succeeds at what it sets out to do.  It makes a minimal budget go as far as it needs to go.  The cast are clearly having fun.[1]

Jeez, it feels like I'm handing out "Everyone Gets a Trophy" trophies, doesn't it?

But honestly, the show's just trying to be a solid little sitcom about gamers.  It's not trying to be groundbreaking.[2]  It's not trying to be something endlessly discussable by TV nerds like me.
       
Sure, it has some qualities that stand out.  Again, they do a good job of building up their season to a big climactic battle.  I'm impressed that they manage to create a gaming showdown without a single bit of game footage.  Ms. Day does a great job, as usual, of playing up Codex's neuroses and frustrated diffidence.

And there are individual jokes here and there that just rock.  The nauseatingly-cute Nintendo Wii game is hilarious, as is Dena the peevish, 11-year-old bassist.

But mostly, the show lines up cute jokes that provoke a wry smile.  You kill a couple of hours watching the season, have a pleasant enough time with it, and then move on with your life.


Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin
The subtitle of this book is "What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else", and that's as good a description of the book as any.  Note that this is a business book[3], and so, like all business books, its contents can be summarized in a paragraph:
People do not become world-class performers because of intrinsic talent.  They become world-class performers by putting in about ten thousand hours of "deliberate practice".  Deliberate practice means "practicing at a specific skill, at a level just outside your comfort zone, under circumstances that give you immediate feedback about your success rate."
So how does he pad that out to 240 pages?

Well, he spends some time debunking counterarguments.  "But Mozart was a genius at 15!"  Yes, but he started when he was three.  "I've put in 10,000 hours at my job, and I still suck at it!"  Yes, but you haven't been doing *deliberate practice*, you've just been repeating the overall task.  "Some people start out really talented at stuff!"  Yes, but those early advantages don't amount to much in the long term.

What it comes down to is this:  deliberate practice is exhausting, and time-consuming, and it's not most people's idea of fun.  Plus, if you come to a field late in life, there are already tons of people who've put in their 10,000 hours ahead of you, so that's discouraging.  So it turns out that very few people manage to put in the work it takes to gain real mastery of... anything, really.

Naturally this got me thinking about improv.  I've remarked before about the difference between "hippie improv" and "engineer improv", in terms of instruction.  The executive summary:  "hippie improv" is all about getting people to relax and find that state where they're good at improv; "engineer improv" is all about drilling particular skills.  Talent Is Overrated espouses something on the extreme end of the "engineer" spectrum.  In fact, another way to describe the difference between the two approaches to improv is that "hippie improv" answers "how do I uncover someone's natural talent for improv?" and "engineer improv" answers "how can someone get good at improv without having any talent whatsoever?"

I figure that on some deeper level, the approaches are the same (does it really matter if extensive practice 'uncovers your talent' or 'develops requisite skills'?), and different aspects of improv benefit from different approaches.  Sometimes you just want people to get a bit more zen and mellow; sometimes you want them to practice some specific thing until it becomes second-nature.  Beyond that, I know nothing.  (Recall that I am not a teacher.)

I'm intrigued, though, by the question, "How can you get good at improv without being talented at it?"  It may well be impossible, but it's an interesting way to conceptualize things.  What bare-minimum toolkit do improvisors need, in order to succeed in spite of themselves?  How could you use deliberate practice to get good at that skillset?

These questions feel faintly heretical to me.  And it may be that this isn't a productive line of inquiry.  It may be that improv doesn't break down into individual skills that you can assault with deliberate practice.  It may be that the technical end of things is insignificant compared to an overall mental habit of "just relax, observe, and accept people's offers", and there's no way to home in on those qualities.  It may be that the only way to get better is to just do tons and tons of shows.

But still, it's fun to think about how this book might apply to teaching improv.

(Fun tidbit:  Geoffrey Colvin's sister is singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin.)


For next time:  I'm reading yet *another* business book (Small Giants by Bo Burlingham).  I've started watching a PBS miniseries by the author of Stumbling on Happiness.  After that, I imagine I'll finally watch Adventureland.

________
[1] As an aside:  Wil Wheaton is very well-cast here, playing basically one of the Internet-jerkwads he must have to deal with from time to time.

[2] ... at least not artistically.  You could certainly argue that it's groundbreaking in terms of business models.

[3] Colvin is an editor-at-large for Fortune magazine.  In the book, he profiles business mavens, and focuses on how this information applies to creating helpful work environments.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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