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

Monday (8/20/12) 2:05am - ... wherein Peter posts a FAQ for his Chicago trip.

I seem to be getting the same questions about Chicago over and over again, so I thought I'd write a quick FAQ.

Q: How was Chicago?

A:  It went well.  It was good for me to hang out with my brother's family.  It was nice to have a change of scenery (this was the first time since 2000 that I'd been out of Austin for more than two weeks).  The classes were very useful, and I met a lot of new people.

In conversation, I always worry that I don't answer this question effusively enough.  It wasn't, for me, life-altering, but I had a nice time and I think it was worth the time and money.

Q: Did you do any fun touristy stuff?

A: Not much.  I did make it to the beach, the Art Institute, the Field Museum, and Millennium Park.  Also I ate so much at Hot Doug's I practically waddled out of the place.  But the rest of the time, I was just going to improv shows or dance events or random bars.  I did end up travelling all around the city (except the south side, as I didn't want to get shot), and by the end of it I really felt like I'd gotten to know Chicago -- but my trip was generally light on tourist destinations.

Q: Where did you stay?

A:  My brother's family has a place up in Wilmette, at the end of the purple line.  It has a separate garage, with an apartment over the garage.  I stayed there.  A few times a week, I'd hang out with the family and have dinner.  This was good, especially since I'd barely seen their kids (three of them, ages 2, 5, and 7) up to this point.  It took about an hour to get to the theater from Wilmette.  It also meant that sometimes I didn't want to stay out late -- if the purple line stopped running, I had to take a long, long bus ride home.

Q: Did you go dancing at all?

A: Yup, usually once a week.  The lindy scene seemed a bit slower than it is here, and its age range was a bit more heterogeneous.  But I mostly went blues dancing.  Yes, the blues scene is huge in Chicago (not least because its events draw dancers from as far away as, say, Minneapolis and Detroit), and they have some incredible instructors.  The scene felt less cohesive -- i.e., less like 'everybody knows everybody' -- than the scene in Austin, but that maybe goes along with its size.  (Also, they don't have a weekly blues dance, so they don't have that "recurring event where the regulars show up every week" factor.)

The scene was welcoming enough, but the lack of cohesion meant that you couldn't really be introduced to the whole crowd at once.  Blues dancing in Chicago seems more lindy-influenced than blues dancing in Austin.  Sometimes it felt a little less 'down into the floor', and there was definitely more physical distance between dance partners.  (Which is fine; just a different style.)

There was definitely more drinking at the blues events, which should meet with titus98usn's approval. 

Q: What did you learn in Chicago?

A:  My notes are online here, but they take a long time to read.  I can summarize some major things I am carrying forward from the trip.

* There were several variations on this concept, but it kept coming through: watch the scene; figure out what, deep down, it's trying to be; support the hell out of that.  A simple example: if you're doing a straight/absurd scene, watch and figure out who's the straight man and who's the absurd guy.  Once you know that, do everything in your power to make the straight man straighter and the absurd guy absurd-er.  The same goes for seeing structural patterns in a Harold.  If something structurally cool is happening in a Harold, screw "the format" and develop that!

* Watch out for 'melodrama'.  In the context of improv, 'melodrama' means "holding on to a strong emotion in a scene, but in doing so, forgetting to *define* anything -- or let your emotion develop into something new or deepen into something nuanced".  This problem has led me to lots of bad scenes where I wasn't quite sure what went wrong -- if you fall into melodrama, you get a scene that's just painted with a broad brush of (say) 'sad', but it doesn't give the audience any way in.

* Learn how to do a 'slow open' to a scene.  Yes, it's a great skill to, say, deliver everything about the basic premise of a game scene in your first line.  But it's also useful to just start with a character, play that, and see what happens.  In a medium/long scene, the audience will love watching you explore that character and really inhabit it.  If you hold on to that, then you can just watch for what the scene wants to be, and develop that.

* The Harold has much more in common with narrative work than you think.  In the same way that non-chronological narration is in many ways the same as chronological narration, a Chicago-style show is in many ways the same as a play.  In both, you want early scenes that breathe a bit and let the audience *connect* to the characters and their relationships.  In both, you want to observe shape of show, and generally aim for acceleration as the show goes on.  And so on.

* Remember that (1) you don't have to do *much* to be a character, but (2) you should still do *something*, and (3) it's easy to do that 'something' from the very start of the scene.

I don't think I got markedly better over the course of the intensive, but I think these will give me a lot to work on in the coming months.

Q:  Did you make any friends on your trip?

A:  Yes.  We had a very close-knit class section at iO -- the 122 students in the intensive were split into eight 'sections', and I think all those groups bond quite a bit over the course of the five weeks.  Our section had 14 students, with contingents from Warsaw, Sydney, England, and the U. S.  Typically we'd go en masse from our day's classes to the bar, and then from the bar to that night's shows.  So those people, I'm friends with.

I met a few improvisors from outside my class section, but I generally failed at that bit of socializing.  I met only a few dancers on the trip; but that's no surprise, as I'm incredibly slow to get to know people in dance-land.

Q: Did you see any good shows in Chicago?

A: The best show I saw was the Harold of Galactus, which was a duo in from Edmonton.  They performed a set of stories taken from various times in the career of some invented superhero.  It was great to watch because of the performers' deep understanding of their genre.  It wasn't just "this is a superhero scene"; it was "this is a superhero scene from a gritty, inventive 1990's reboot of the superhero; maybe something from Vertigo".  They weren't *working* at all to struggle to maintain the genre; instead, the genre just kept giving them gifts: "Well, of course I know what happens next here, because I know what *always* happens next in this style of story!"

Second to that, I got to see TJ & Dave once during my visit, and I really enjoyed it.  The first two times I saw the duo, I didn't have a great time -- I think it was a combination of the massive hype, and my not being ready to take the show on its own terms.  ("Okay, we're going to drop in on these characters' lives, watch them for a while, and then drop out.")  This time I just sat down not expecting anything plotty, soaked in the characters, and had a nice time.

The Chicago vs. New York match in the ComedySportz championships was a chaotic blast.  The referee, who was almost forbidden from refereeing any matches at all at the championships, kept the show almost flying off the rails at all times.  He made off-the-cuff changes to long-established setups just for kicks.  He made the entire audience dance along whenever they played inter-scene music.  And in the end, he threw out half the New York team for misbehavior, which is unheard of in ComedySportz.

If Maestro misbehaved even half this well, what a wonderful world it would be.

Finally, there was a musical Harold team called Leotard Explosion that really humbled me as a musical improvisor.  They maybe didn't have the most impressive storytelling chops, but their songs were, again, humbling.  They had amazing voices and could harmonize beautifully, they had their song structure pretty much down, and they did a great job of making strong character choices that would help the songs just write themselves.

I saw a lot of bad shows, mind you.  I've concluded that the Harold is an easy format to do, and a nigh-impossible format to do well, and lots of Harold teams did just-okay.  Also, I saw the "Improv All-Stars" show at Second City, and it was just kind of depressing in its simple, unchallenging short-form play.  And generally, the improv scene in Chicago felt... safe.  There is no "Free Fringe" in Chicago, where you perform shows that are so out there, and so likely to be complete train-wrecks, that you don't charge the audience money for them.  By the end of my stay in Chicago, I was looking forward to going back to Austin, where I'll regularly sit down to watch an improv show thinking, "I don't even know if what they're trying to do is possible."

Q: Are you moving to Chicago?

A:  Nope.  All my friends are here.  I'm happier with the improv scene in Austin, which, while smaller and less remunerative, is more risky and experimental.  Also, I don't do 'cold' well.  But hopefully I'll get more chances to visit Chicago in the future.

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