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

Tuesday (8/7/12) 11:14pm - ... wherein Peter attends week 5, day 1 of the iO Summer Intensive.

Here are my notes from week 5, day 1 of the iO Summer Intensive.  Our instructor for week five is Miles Stroth.

* First exercise: do a bunch of 2-person scenes.
        * Then: what did you think went wrong in those scenes?
        * Miles considers "what went wrong" in terms of:
                * What type of scene was it?
                * What was I doing to serve that type of scene?
                * Did we fuck up the basics of that type of scene?
        * Most scene problems happen in the first ten seconds of a scene, usually due to a lack of listening.

* Scene Type #1: Straight/Absurd Scenes
        * i.e., one silly person, one "straight man".
        * This is the default scene type for newer improvisors.
                * This is because they tend more strongly to play premises than play characters.
                * It's also just common throughout improv & comedy generally.
                        * (Esp. Monty Python -- see "The Dead Parrot Sketch".)
        * Figure out which one you are (straight or absurd) as soon as possible.
                * Then play that part as hard as you can.
        * How do you figure out which one you are?
                * When the scene starts, you *listen*.
                * In Harolds, people usually start a scene with an idea/initiation.
                        * In the rare case when the initiator does *not* have an idea, you'll know quickly.
                * So your biggest priority is to watch that.
                        * Be 'paranoid' for "which of the two am I?"
                * If the initiator's taking their time with their idea...
                        * Just bide your time until the idea shows up.
                        * If you have to talk, just say, "Yeah." or something similarly non-offery.
        * When you're absurd, take the absurd thing you've done and delve into it.
                * Do NOT justify, explain, or defend the absurdity.
                        * If you successfully justify your absurdity, it's no longer absurd.
                                * (If anything, it's just tragic.)
                                        * If you're absurd, don't be normal.
                * Don't curb or justify your absurd behavior so it makes sense.
                        * You're not trying to make your behavior 'right'.
                                * That would destroy your absurd-ness.
                                        * Why would you want to do that?
                        * If anything, you're trying to make your behavior *more wrong*.
                        * Any 'logic' you use to justify your behavior... should also be absurd.
                                * How do you invent absurd logic?
                                        * Start with normal logic.  Then invert it.
                                                * "Why did you burn down the house?"
                                                   "So I'd get the insurance money!" --> NO
                                                   "Because it was completely uninsured!" --> YES
                                * Absurd logic lets you dig into the "Why?" of your character, without giving up your absurdness.
                                        * (e.g. "Well of *course* it was *nailed* there....")
                                * Alternately, you can just be in denial of the straight logic:
                                        * "You're drinking because Mary left you, aren't you!"
                                           "No I'm not! *sniffle* I'm happy she's gone!"
                * If you're absurd, it's not your job to argue *anything*.
                        * It's your job to be absurd.
                        * It's the straight man's job to pose arguments.
                                * As the absurd person, don't engage those arguments.
                                        * Just keep being absurd.
                * Likewise, if someone attacks your character in their initiation...
                        * ... your instinct will be to defend yourself.
                                * DON'T DO THAT.
                                * You totally don't need to.
                        * Instead, just accept it as an offer, and embody the attacked quality.
                                * If they call you an asshole, then hey! you have license to be an asshole!
                                * Embrace the negative quality as a form of absurdity.
                        * Even if the 'realistic response' is to defend yourself, in this one case, don't bother being realistic.  It's not helpful.
                * On the other hand, if you're *not* the absurd guy, and you say something crazy, you should provide an explanation.
                * What kind of absurdity should you play?
                        * The initial offer usually tells you.
                        * Hell, it usually tells you *exactly* how you're absurd.
                        * So your game is to follow and develop that offer as far as you can. 
                * Typically, the absurd guy's POV is happy and positive.
                        * This is to counter the straight man...
                                * ... who is usually in a negative, frustrated state of mind.
        * When you're the straight man....
                * ... your job is to call out what's absurd about the absurd guy.
                        * Call it out in the simplest possible terms.
                        * Don't worry about finding a clever way to say it.
                                * "... alright.  I see what's going on.  How do I *not* say it?" --> NO
                        * Even if it's a small observation, *make that observation*.
                * Explain, in detail, why it's wrong.
                * Listen attentively to the absurd guy...
                        * ... so you can find more things that are wrong.
        * Once you have straight and absurd parts established...
                * ... stick to that.
                * If a subsequent offer counters those roles...
                        * (e.g. if someone makes the straight person look crazy.)
                        * Just straight-up block that bullshit.
                                * That is consistent with the world the scene has established.
        * Once you've gotten through the basic situation-establishing of a scene, you can move it to a straight/absurd scene.
                * Either make yourself absurd or make the other person absurd.
                * If there's something fucked-up that happens in the scene, seize on that.
                        * Be paranoid about seeking out fucked-up things.
                * Your first instincts are probably right.
                * This is far preferable to just stalling and thinking.
                        * (This is usually the "oh god what next?" moment in any scene.)
        
                
* Scene Type #2: Character Scenes
        * This is where the primary mover for the scene is just watching sharp characters be themselves.
                * You can add a straight/absurd dynamic *to* this, but it's mainly about the characters.
                        * If your character scene goes full straight/absurd...
                                * You can drop your absurd business occasionally, and dwell in character land, but go back to the absurd business regularly.
                                * You can also both join on the absurdity, and keep it a character scene.
                        * If an absurd offer comes up in a character scene...
                                * Either you're on-board with it, or you hate it.
                                * Either way, you know how you feel about it.
                                * Don't be hesitant, with lots of confused questions.
        * This is very useful when you find yourselves in a "double absurd" scene.
        * A character is different from just 'a slight alteration to oneself'.
                * A character is usually an archetype that carries a whole set of expectations.
                        * If you play a grizzled private detective, we all know what to expect from him.  (We've seen movies & stuff.)
                        * Note that archetypal relationships (e.g. "father/son") imply, to some extent, archetypal characters.
                * If you can't play an archetype, you can at least play someone with a strong, driving POV.
                        * And if you don't have that, you can always observe a POV for your current character.
                                * And failing that, you can just pick a POV arbitrarily.
        * If you introduce a character who isn't an archetype, your partner will likely assume you're playing an absurd character.
        * When you see a clear "character" initiation, try to play a character instead of hitting straight or absurd.
                * You can start by just mirroring the initiated character, if you have no idea what's going on yet.
                        * If you suck at mirroring, DO IT ANYWAY.
                                * Practice is the only way you'll improve.
                                * The audience loves watching you make the effort.
                                * And it's what the scene needs.
                        * With time, you can sort out how your character is different from the existing one.
                                * Once you discover this difference, it's up to *both* of you to play up that difference.
                                * Try to limit this difference to the *content* of what you say.
                                        * The manner in which you say it should still be mirrored.
                                        * The nervous mob guy talks about being nervous, but still does it like a normal mob guy.
                        * If you do not find a difference between you and the character...
                                * Then you both usually end up focussing on one thing.
                                        * That requires an endless, creatively-challenging game of heightening/one-upmanship.
                                * If you find a difference, then it's a matter of translating things back and forth between your different POVs.
                * If you have a better idea what you're seeing, you can play a complementary character.
                * Do NOT play:
                        * A character who has nothing to do with the other character.
                        * A character who could exist anywhere, and has no particular reason to be around *this* person.
        * Sometimes you see an initiation that could be "character" and could be "absurd".
                * In those cases, ask yourself: which is stronger in this offer, the character or the premise?
                        * Then, respond to the offer appropriately.
        * In character initiations, once you've established the situation and the characters, and you have that (usual) "Okay, what next?" moment, you can really go *anywhere*.
        * It can be fun to indulge "opposite impulse" in a character scene.
                * i.e., do the exact thing you *wouldn't* expect from this character.
                
* Scene Type #3: Alternate Reality
        * This is where you both take something absurd for granted, as part of the world you live in.
                * à la sci-fi.
                * Sample initiation: "Man, the vampires are going crazy tonight."
        * Given an initiation, how do you tell if it's "Alternate Reality" or "Straight/Absurd"?
                * Does the offer imply a crazy *person*, or a crazy *world*?
        * Again, if you pick an *archetypal* alternate reality (e.g. "vampires exist"), then a lot of shared audience knowledge comes *with* that.
        * But alternate-reality doesn't have to be genre.
                * It can just be accepting something absurd.
                        * If you do that, make life easy for yourself.
                                * i.e., pick an absurdity that's simple and easy to play.
                * But make sure you accept it in such a way that:
                        * ... makes the absurdity a rule of how the world works.
                        * ... lets you explore what further things that absurdity implies.
                                * "If <x> is true, what *else* is true?"
                                * Always perform that exploration.
                * If you pick a non-genre alternate reality, the audience will have lots of questions about it.
                        * If it takes place on Earth, question #1 will be "How did Earth get like this?"
                        * In this case, a crap explanation is far better than *no* explanation.
                                * Default explanation: "Ever since the aliens landed...."
                                        * Aliens is cray-cray.
                        * Just get the audience to stop focussing on its questions, and start focussing on your scene.
                        * In the same way you want the world's absurdity to be simple and clear, you want the explanation for that absurdity to be simple and clear.
                                * Just use the first explanation that occurs to you.
                                        * It'll be simple, and it's probably right.
        * You still have a scene game on top of that.
                * Maybe it's a "bad roommate" scene in vampireland.
                * Whatever you do, don't drop the alternate reality.
                        * Keep grounding your bad-roommate scene in the vampire world.
                * Once the alternate reality is established, and you have the usual "oh god what next?" moment, it's time to figure out what kind of scene you're in.
        * Again, you can indulge "opposite impulse".
                * Set up the audience to think they know this reality.
                        * Then break from that in some significant way.
        * Whatever world you set up, you have to honor the rules of that reality if you ever come back to that world.
        * If your character rebels against the alternate reality and starts acting "real world"...
                * That makes your character absurd.
                * You should just make feints at "normal reality".
                        * After each attempt, "snap back" to the alternate reality.
                                
* Scene Type #4: Realistic Scenes
        * These are just the same as the previous three types, only with smaller and more reasonable choices.
                * Alternately, the first three types are just exaggerations of certain types of realistic scenes.
        * Realistic scenes move slower than the other three scene types.
                * That means that in a 25-minute Harold, you probably won't have time for them.
                * They're still good to know how to do.
        

* The deconstruction:
        * Open with a 6-minute two-hander.
                * Fairly realistic.
                * Maybe a smidge bigger choices than with realistic.
        * Do a couple of 1½-minute scenes.
                * One exploring each of the two characters.
        * Do a couple more minutes of the realistic scenario.
                * Include & emphasize what we now know about these characters.
        * Do five "commentary" scenes.
                * These are scenes that reflect behaviors from the main scene.
                        * ... but they don't just retell the main scene.
                        * They recontextualize the behaviors into new circumstances.
                * These scenes are short -- a couple of minutes or so.
        * Resume the main scene for a bit.
        * Then a six-minute "run" of scenes.
                * These are 30 seconds at the longest.
                * They get faster as the run goes on.
                * These pick up on anything we've seen before.
                * This can include tangents.
        * Note that this includes a lot of really really short scenes.
                * We're tending to do "soft" scene starts.
                * We're tending to find our scenes slowly.
                * We aren't afforded that luxury of time in the deconstruction.
        
* General notes:
        * Generally, hold off on character choices until you hear your scene partner's initiation.
        * Once you know what kind of scene you're in, and what positions everyone has in them, you can work on nailing down any bits of undefined CROWE.
                * Whatever you pick to answer (say) "Where are these characters?" should heighten the scene's game.
                        * e.g., if the absurd character is hitting on you all the time, the "what's your relationship?" answer should make that behavior as wrong as possible.  ("Father Flannigan, stop that!")
        * Don't halfway initiate a scene.
                * Either start the scene with a clear move, or enter fully blank.
                * It's easy to enter blank and then adapt to the offer.
                * If you enter with some half-formed idea, and the other guy makes a move, you have to work at adapting what you just did to the new offer.
                        * That takes energy.
                        * That distracts the audience from the main point of the scene.
        * If you play a character with a trait the audience will dislike (like, say, homophobia).
                * You want to give that character some obviously-risible traits.
                * You want to clarify that the cast doesn't approve of this trait.
                * "We say awful things so that we can make fun of people who say awful things."
                * "We play people we want to attack."
        * Try to stay aware of the audience.
                * What they're thinking, feeling, etc.
                * If you notice something weird in your scene, the audience noticed it too.
        * Use chairs as chairs.
                * Not props.
        * Start a scene with a clear move.
                * Inadvertent scene starts are lame.
                        * e.g., someone randomly coughs, then everyone coughs, and now it's a scene about coughing.
        * There really are only a very finite number of relationship types.
                * So don't feel like you have to come up with a new relationship.
        * "The Big Five" of subject matter: mortality, sex, religion, philosophy, politics.
                * Great art engages one or more of these.
                * Improv should never shy away from engaging these.
                * They should come up a lot, in fact, because we think of them a lot.
                        * We think of them far more than whatever witty and intellectual thing/topic you want to gag about.
        * When going blue, aim to be "wonderfully awful" rather than vulgar.
                * Disturbing darkness is better than mere shock.
                * Miles's example of a "wonderfully awful" line: "You ever see that moment when innocence leaves a child's eyes?"
        * If a scene hones in on a single point of contention....
                * Note that you can lose that 'contest' without losing your character.
                * This allows you to move on to the next thing.
                        * You can find new *content* to argue about -- new topics -- while holding onto the same *game*.
                
                        
* My notes for myself:
        * When your partner gives an offer that implies an inter-personal conflict, *accept it*.
                * Dig into the conflict.
                * Offer resistance.

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