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

Monday (2/25/13) 4:47pm - ... wherein Peter posts his notes on day one of the Three For All workshop.

This past weekend, I audited a workshop put on at the Hideout Theatre by the renowned San Francisco narrative-improv troupe Three For All.  "Auditing", in this context, means I didn't participate, but I sat in the theater and took notes.

Here are my notes on day one of the workshop.


DAY ONE - TIM
=============
* BALL!
        * It's a great warm-up
        * Everyone counts along
        * Three-For-All plays a lot of ball.
* Divide into two groups
        * Each group gets into a circle.
        * One person starts by naming another person.
        * When you hear your name, name somebody else.
        * If you hesitate or tag-back, you go to the other circle.
                * The instructor is involved in this.
                        * (To learn names, of course.)
        * Go faster than is comfortable or sane.
* A set of partnered "über-spontaneity" exercises.
        * One person is A, one person is B.
        * A will give a long speech of some kind
                * No hesitations
                * No opinions
                * Just give facts
                * Continue until the teacher says "stop"
                        * This will go for longer than is comfortable.
                * Sometimes A and B will collaborate on the speech.
                        * More often, A gives a long speech, and B is a passenger.
        * Read a class attendance roll
                * Last name first, first name last
                * A and B alternate names.
        * Next, do an infomercial about a piece of exercise equipment.
                * A is a spokesperson
                * B is a C-list celebrity
                * Again, nothing but facts.
                * Play to the 'camera'!
                        * The teacher goes around and train a mock (space-work) camera on them, if necessary.
                * Just blurting stuff out leads to interesting surprises.
        * Museum tour
                * B is a museum visitor.
                * A is a recorded voice on an info player.
                * Remember that a recorded take will not have any hemming, hawing, or hesitations.
                * B names the piece.
                * B can do all sorts of "DVD Commentary"-esque things to the recording device.
                        * e.g. switching to another language.
        * Restaurant specials.
                * B is a patron who wants to hear the lunch menu.
                * A is a waiter who gives the lunch menu.
                * A has no opinions about the dish.
                        * e.g. "Oh, this is delicious."
                        * Instead, just go on and on about food.
                * The patron can occasionally prompt the waiter with questions.
        * Driving around in a car
                * Observing things you see in town
                * Do it together
        * Automated voicemail system.
                * B calls an automated voicemail system.
                        * B can specify what they're calling.
                        * B can specify what they're choosing at any point.
                * A is the voicemail system.
        * Administrating an oath
                * The "listener" chooses the oath
                * Then the "administrator" gives lines for the listener to repeat.
        * At the theater.
                * B asks about the playbill
                * A reads it
                * Read it un-conversationally
                * Don't add any opinions or editorial details.
        * The PI's office.
                * B is a client
                * A is a P. I. who made a recording of B's wife having an affair.
                * A plays both himself *and* both parts of the recorded conversation.
                * Like with the museum, B can specify things for the recording.
        * You're walking together through a small town
                * You'll spot people as you walk
                * A names each person by first and last name
                * A gives a fact about that person
                        * That fact should not involve yourself.
                        * B tallies them the number of people.
                * One-minute time limit!
                        * Compete to get the most people!
* Generally about these exercises:
        * "Faking perfection" tends to help
                * It gives you a character to work from
                * It keeps you from dwelling on your mistakes.
        * More familiar exercises seem easier.
                * i.e., exercises closer to your own experience
        * This is actually a boon for performance
                * Doing facts without interruption HELPS THE SHOW
                        * It helps you be specific
                                * ... even though being specific is challenging
                        * Opinions are *easy* at this point
                                * It's *easy* to interrupt your fact-stream
                                        * And in shows this "interrupt the facts" thing happens CONSTANTLY 
                                * Opinions aren't necessarily *helpful*, though.
                        * Hesitations are definitely not helpful.
                * Facts give you a lot to run from for the show.
                * Facts give verissimilitude to the show.
        * It's okay to pimp your partner for this sort of thing
                * "This is Mayor Quimby -- he knows the name of every person in town, as well as a fact about them."
                        * It's a compliment, this belief that they can do this.
                        * The audience wants to see you do this almost faster than you can do it.
                                * It's like you're barely "outrunning the fireball", as Jill Bernard puts it.
                        * You yourself *want* to feel nervous
                                * Like you might just fail at everything.
        * Tim starts every class with 20-30 minutes of these "über-spontaneity" exercises.
* The teacher asks us to do some quasi-intimate thing before leaving our current partner
        * e.g. "pat your partner on the head"
        * "kiss your partner on the cheek"
        * "do that super-secret handshake"
* General note: we all need to work on our volume.
        * It's the #1 thing you have to do in theater.
        * Three-For-All always does volume checks in a new theater.
                * Check volumes aimed downstage, aimed sideways, aimed upstage
        * Low voulume = the worst, most pernicious thing in improv right now.
                * It's just unprofessional.
                        * It's the order of a basketball player who can't dribble.
        * You have to make intimate scenes accomplish what quiet scenes do *without being quiet*
* "Hitting the scene hard."
        * Mystery in scenes -- finding it along the way -- is fine in some performances.
        * It's often more useful to start a scene with a clear verbal offer.
        * You're in the *middle* of something.
        * You have implied history.
        * In addition to the facts, you have emotions right away.
                * You can stick to that emotion no matter what.
        * Just agree with the reality of stuff.
                * Even experienced improvisors find ways to disagree and turn it into negotiation and stalling.
                * Just *agree*, even though that agreement means you now have to leap into something new.
        * This is not to say "never do a slow scene start" -- Stephen
                * But still, you *want* to have this muscle developed.
* Group exercise -- groups of four
        * A starts doing something
                * A knows what he's doing.
        * The other three *jump in*
                * Don't do the usual "improvisor assesses what's happening".
                * Just DO THE ACTION, even if you don't know what it is yet.
        * Then everybody, *in one voice*, says "Isn't it fun to <x>?"
                * The first person doesn't lead it.
                * You find the sentence together.
        * Variation: say it in a veddy proper British accent.
                * "I *say*, isn't it marvelous to <x>?"
        * Variation: say it in a very Bronx accent.
                * "'ey, don' you fockin' *love* to <x>?"
        * Hesitation sucks.
                * Assessing is a means of negotiating and stalling.
                        * ... as opposed to just agreeing to the reality of things.
                * You can *always* get going immediately.
                        * *Then* put it in context with a proper 'scene start'.
                        * It never hurts to just jump in with the agreed action to start with.
                * It's no *fun* to watch improvisors safely wait to establish what's happening.
* "Corridor Exercise" for strong verbal initiations
        * Get two groups to line up and form a corridor between them.
                * The people at the heads of both lines do something.
                        * à la Soul Train.
                * Then, each goes to the end of the opposite line
        * In this eercise, they exchange one line of dialog each.
        * Attempt to establish both relationship & location.
                * Either person A gets both
                * Or person A gets one, and person B picks up the other.
                * Or person A get neither, and person B has to pick up both.
        * Specificity:
                * You can always throw in a name instead of "you".
                * You can always follow "here" with an "at the <x>".
                        * Or, you can suffix "here at the <x>" to a sentence with no location.
        * Note that you could layer "doing a physical activity" on to this exercise.
        * The level beyond this is "being there"
                * *Believing* in the things that get established.
                * But to *get* to that level, you've got to establish stuff in the first place.
* Starting at the end of an event.
        * Get six people onstage.
        * It's the *end* of a NYE party.
        * At the head of the scene, four people leave.
                * Because, duh, it's the end of the party.
                * This can happen so very quickly.
                        * Several times quicker than you think it does.
        * Don't let the effort of activity, or the brusqueness of the departure, make you go negative.
        * Note that leaving one person onstage has a totally different feeling.
        * The focus after the departure can go lots of different ways.
                * We could stick to the remaining people.
                        * (This is our default.)
                * Or, we *could* follow the group of four that leave.
                * We could go to a split focus.
                * The variety of options indicates just how much 'starting at the end' is a leap into the unknown.
                        * It's exciting.
                        * It's unpredictable.
        * Another possibility: it's a platform where a train is departing.
                * Three people are leaving.
                * This adds some complicating factors:
                        * Everyone has to agree on which way the train's going.
                        * Everyone has to agree on how to signify the train's motion.
                        * Everyone has to agree on the sight-line from the platform to the train.
                                * And vice versa.
                * Again, who do we follow?
                        * We could follow the people on the platform.
                        * We could follow the people on the train.
                        * We could split focus.
                * Again, fight the instinct to hate each other.
                        * Difficulty instills hatred.
        * Remember that leaving a scene takes courage.
                * But its result implies *movement*.
        * There are many options for travelling to a new location while staying onstage:
                * Staying in place but implying movement.
                        * This can either be horizontal (taking a walk)
                        * Or vertical (parachuting from an airplane)
                * "Resetting the stage"        
                        * Depart a room that takes up the whole stage.
                                * But always leave a "moat" around the stage.
                                        * So you're not getting up into the audience's bidness.
                        * Walk down a hallway
                        * Re-enter the stage as if it's the new room.
                        * You could also do this by 'switching camera angles'
                                * Walk straight UC, aimed upstage
                                * Then turn around at the back wall
                                * Ta-da!  You're in a new room.
                * "Perspective"
                        * Even if you're right next to each other, if one person is looking down and the other is looking up, you imply distance.
                                * e.g., you could be looking up at a man on a horse.
                        * Ergo, you could also grab someone by the hand and pull them out of a hole, and thus get to a new location.

DAY ONE - STEPHEN
==================
* The 70s were a crazy time for improv in SF
        * Everyone was incredible fast/smart/funny
        * Stephen was far more physical when he started out.
                * That was what he was comfortable with and strong at.
        * Physicality was the "frequency" by which he found information about his scene.
        * Think of today's material as 'stepping back'
                * "Find the gap between thought and action."
* Close your eyes
        * Imagine a cold morning, outside, with a coat
        * There's a cup of tea in on a small table in front of you
        * Reach out and warm your hands on it
        * There is no *plot* to get to here.
                * Nor any problems to discover.
        * If you feel an instinct to create problems, then just let that train blow through the station.
                * Just let it go.
        * This exercise results in space work that's really natural.
* Space work is *not* more advanced than other things you do.
        * It's not more complicated than, say, speaking.
        * The best you can do for yourself is to pay mindful attention to your everyday physical activities.
                * If it's a *weird* physical action, you can drill it for twenty minutes until it's muscle memory.
                        * Physical training is part of improv.
        * You have to *practice* it.
        * Bastard-child phylogeny:
                * Improv is the bastard child of theater.
                * Space work is the bastard child of improv.
                * Doors and windows are the bastard child of space work.
                * And once you add horses to this, forget about it.
* Partnered exercise
        * Throughout this exercise, notice your brain's temptation to manufacture problems.
                * Again, let those trains go past.
        * Person A raises his/her hand
                * Then reaches out and grabs a flower
                * Takes a breath
                * Looks at the flower
                * Passes it to B
        * Person B silently adds some physical detail.
                * Something simple.
                * Doesn't need to be really noticeable.
                        * Doesn't need to *signify* to A.
                * Nothing special.
                        * You will be tempted to do something incredible.
                                * Let that go.
                * ... and whatever pace you're doing this at, halve it.
        * Pass it back and forth a few times, adding details.
        * Then, hold it together.
        * Then, one of you sets it aside.
        * Person B reaches out for a locket.
                * You will have an urge to open the locket.
                        * That's totally where your brain wants to go with it.
                * Instead, just pass it back and forth gently
                        * Everything you do with the locket, do gently.
                * Just enjoy the sensory details of the locket.
                        * Including haptic details -- how does it *feel*?
                * Explore color, edges, the chain.
                * After a couple of passes, open the locket.
                        * You both know who's in the locket.
                        * Then, share a view of the inside of the locket.
                * Throughout this, there's no dialog.  No hurry.
                        * "You have nothing but time."
                * Close the locket.
                * Set it aside.
        * One of you catches a cricket.
                * Hold it gently.
                        * "They are very, very delicate and they are extremely good luck."
                                * "To harm a cricket would be a very bad idea."
                                        * But it's not a problem. :)
                * This is *not a big deal*.
                * Again, notice how your brain wants you to go faster.
                        * Let that thought go by; halve your speed again.
                * Hand it to your partner.
                * We don't *need* any exercise finding problems with the crickets.
                        * We're already good at that.
                * Similarly, we don't need any exercise about feeling negative about the cricket.
        * Do the same sort of exercise with a one-week-old swaddled baby.
                * Believe, for the purposes of this exercise, that you're really good at handling babies.
                * "It's not a problem, and it's no big deal."
                * Smell the baby -- it smells like powder and lotion.
                * "You love this baby."
                * Put the baby aside.
        * Grab that gun.  Add five pounds to it.
                * Take your finger off the trigger.
                        * You're not going to shoot anybody.
                * Be really fucking careful with this gun; it's loaded.
                        * Safety first.
                * Pass it several times, quickly but very carefully.
                * Put away the gun.
                        * NOT NEAR THE BABY. :)
        * Note the "gear" your brain is in right now.
                * Relaxed, slow.
                * No problem-generating.
                * Letting details come to *you*.
                        * Letting the object tell *you* what it's got.
                * Often kind of sacred.
                        * You often act *reverent*, which is rare in improv.
                * You're not hurrying through to get to the talking part, or get to the problem.
                * Not nervous about being silent.
* If you *commit* to your space work, if you *see* your space-work objects, the work will be engaging.
* Side note: you don't question things in real life, y'know?
        * "Sunlight?  Pff.  I don't *think* so."
        * Protip: question your questioning. :)
* Partnered exercise: walk around in nature.
        * Person A: comment on what you sense around you
                * Use all five senses.
        * Person B: passenger along with this.
                * You *always* have the option of chilling out and "drafting" off another person onstage.[1]
* Just slow down and "settle into" the sensory stuff.
        * Our instinct: "This moment isn't good enough.  The *next* moment is where it's at."
                * *Every* moment is 'this moment'.
        * Let your ensemble accommodate this stuff.
        * As you notice the details, you can say them.
                * You don't have to be crafty about sensory details.
                * Just *say* what you sense.
* Five people onstage.
        * You'll all speed-skate onstage...
                * ... as a gang.
                * ... towards an unknown gang of speed skaters.
        * Don't know how to speed-skate?
                * Then steal from your scene partners.
        * Try taking a corner together.
        * Then, stop together.
                * Raise your goggles.
                * Note that you're a little out of breath.
                        * Improvisors are almost *never* out of breath.
                                * Even when, if they were characters in any kind of sane world, they *would* be.
                * You let the details come to you.
                        * Routinely ask yourself, "What details might be here?"
                                * If you check for them, they might come to you.
        * Then, confront this other group of skaters.
        * All the while, you want to *take the novelty* out of your actions.
                * This is not showing off for or signifying to the audience.
                * This is just the thing that you do all the time.
        * Stay committed to the actions
                * If you're in a scene, getting laughs, just double down on your commitment to the scene.
                        * Don't let the audience unground you.
                        * To commit, to fight this ungrounding, you can zero in on the sensory details of this world.
* Five people onstage.
        * The teacher chases you, as you run in place.
        * Try setting the chase in all four cardinal directions.
                * This staging makes the world feel bigger, in *all* directions.
        * Don't just run from one setup to the next.
                * Stop running stage-right.  Reset.  Start running upstage.
        * (You can also set this as at split-scene, with the teacher alongside the crowd he's chasing.)
* Eight people onstage, in chairs.
        * You're sitting in a restaurant.
        * Sit as four couples.
                * The couples are all in love.
        * Drop any character you might be playing.
        * Don't manufacture problems.
                * Everything happens normally.
                * There's no need to 'stand out' in this group.
        * Don't overplay anything; just be together.
        * Play everything much, *much* slower than you think you need to.
        * Start with quietly sharing a bowl of soup.
        * Then quietly share a glass of wine.
                * Go slower.
                * Fluids and granular substances take *time* to handle.
        * After a while, use a napkin to wipe your mouth.
                * Share the napkin with your partner.
        * Then, the noodles & marinara arrive.
        * Then, the ribs.
                * Then, deal simply with the post-ribs mess.
        * "This is about permission.  Permission to just... be."
                * "And not be Cirque de Soleil."
                * If you chill out, details show up.
        * This is a really vulnerable exercise.
                * It's easy to freak out, bail on your partner, and focus on saving yourself.
                        * So, notice those instincts, and let them pass you by.
* Five people onstage
        * Get them riding bicycles (in place) on an open road.
        * Note that you don't always pedal while on a bike.
        * Note that you'll get wind in your face.
                * That has an effect.
        * You might get out of breath.
        * Audiences love these sorts of obvious details.
                * "That's all good.  But I'm gonna be from Mars!"
                        * There's a time to be from Mars.
                                * Mars shouldn't be your default.
                                * Practice the obvious
        * Climb a hill on your bike.
        * Crest the hill on your bike.
        * Stop the bike by straddling.
        * Then downhill.
        * Take a long right turn.
        * Face a heavy headwind.
        * Finally, stop your bikes and walk them DR.
        * And cluster, and look up to the rain that just started falling.
                * This (the rain) is your favorite thing.
                * Note that the rain getting in your eyes will have an effect.

DAY ONE - RAFE
==============
* Freeze tag!
        * Lots of improv work involves setting useful defauts.
                * Default to saying yes.        
                * Default to not blocking.
                        * Even Rafe has to keep reminding himself of this.
                * Default to acting your role.
                        * More about this later.
                * Default to being specific and clear at the top of the scene.
                        * If you have nothing when you've jumped in:
                                * Just take a beat, to observe.
                                        * Hey, maybe the scene will come to you.
                                * Or let the other guy do a specific offer.
                                * Do NOT give a vague "So it has come to this" offer.
                                        * That doesn't help anybody.
                * Default to not moving.
                * Default to reacting to things.
                * If someone pulls a gun on you, you should be scared shitless.
                        * This gives your scene partner power.
                        * This grounds the scene.
                        * And it's fun to play.
        * Technical notes on freeze-tag mechanics:
                * If someone says "freeze", do not leave the stage
                        * Don't rush off
                * *Wait* for someone to tag you out
                * "A nice, hard freeze."
                        * Stay as still as you comfortably can.
                * Tap in from behind.
                        * When tapped, step *forward*, and let the tapper step into your spot.
        * There are *so* many times you can say yes in a scene.        
                * And *so* many times even experienced improvisors contort themselves into blocking.
                * You can be *ssurprised* by things, without blocking them.
                        * When you're tempted to block, try being surprised instead.
                * You can be daunted by things.
                        * You can have negative emotions, in some cases.
                                * But that doesn't need to be a block.
                * In freeze-tag, this is readily apparent.
                        * In long-form, you may have character reasons to be reluctant to (say) walk into the garden.
                                * But in freeze tag, why the fuck *don't* you walk into the garden?!
                * "But my character wouldn't *say* yes!"
                        * Typically, improv characters are very under-defined.
                                * This is especially true in short scenes
                                        * (... as opposed to long-form)
                        * And it's improv: once the character says "yes", that defines a new facet of the character.
                                * "Oh.  This is also the kind of guy who, in spite of earlier traits, will go walking in a garden."
* Improv audiences love good acting.
        * Act.  For reals.
        * Do not present word salad in "I'm an improvisor" mode.
        * ... but don't let your volume drop when you're acting.
        * Sometimes, being high-energy can get in the way of your acting.
        * Give heavy emotional offers their emotional weight.
        * Play your character's objective.
                * If your character has no objective, the character's actions can be unengaging.
                * [ed: listen to the scene -- usually, what your character wants will come to you.]
* "Be confident"
        * Or failing that, act confident.
                * Certainly don't be *afraid* to act confident.
* "Be changed."
        * A story is a series of emotional changes from the characters.
                * Over the course of the story, your character will take on many new emotions.
                * So you need to find ways to reach that new emotion.
        * This means that "things that are awful in real life are just like *candy* for the improvisational actor".
                * Getting dumped by your soul mate (for example) lets you explore that part of life in a safe (staged) place.
                * If your character is hurt, revel in it.
                        * Enjoy getting to play that.
                        * The audience loves watching that.
                                * And they're totally on your side for it.
        * An exercise: do a simple scene, with the teacher throwing emotions at one of you to take on.
                * Start in neutral.
                * The teacher will aim for a realistic sequence of emotions.
                * Then, try the same thing *without* the teacher.
        * Remember: *find new emotions*.
                * You can point out your scene partner's emotions.
                        * Which helps the partner settle into that emotion.
                        * It takes the pressure off of "what should I do?"
                                * Just observe what's happening.
                * You can pimp them to take on new emotions.
                * Ways to change:
                        * Get your feelings hurt
                        * Suddenly see your partner's POV.
                * This lets you find new things in the story.
        * Emotional changes give your partner things to work with.
                * It can even endow a 'nothing' line like "I don't know" with something that's useful to the scene.
        * Changing lets you heavily take in a partner's offer and let it land.
        * Arguments are often the enemy
                * They tend to lock you into one emotion (contempt/anger)
                * This is especially true for dudes.
                        * Dudes are already socialized to not show (say) hurt.
                                * And arguments can make dudes double down on that reticence.
        * Remember: if you show a 'terrible' emotion, you always have the out of "the story made me do it".
                * It's not you.
                * You're off the hook.
        * If you have trouble with showing an emotion, you always have the option of drafting off of your scene partners.
                * That is, mirror the emotion of others onstage.
        * Dude exercise!
                * Teacher-dude with A-dude & B-dude.
                * B is an authority figure.
                * A is matching the teacher's level of either anger or hurt (AKA shame) in the scene.
        * Exercise: you get a phone call from your parent
                * You pick it up, say "hello".
                * Then, say *nothing else*
                        * Your parent is loquacious and you can't get a word in edgewise.
                * Then, the teacher calls out a series of emotions.
                        * Feel this response to what you hear.
                        * Make sure it settles into your whole body.
                * Note that you can always lead with an emotion
                        * And then figure out why afterwards
                                * Or maybe not.
* Exercise: adult siblings in a car.
        * You're stuck in traffic.
                * No need to really drive.
        * One sibling (younger by a few years) is secretly told to tell the older sibling that s/he is adopted.
                * The younger sibling is driving.
                * Your mom passed away 7 months ago.
        * Setup #2: the older sibling is secretly told to kill the younger one.
                * (The older sibling is driving.)
                * This is the paragon of "You'd hate this in real life, but it's *delicious* to play out."
                * Note: don't wuss out on the shooting.

_________
[1] Side note: for me, this exercise was immediately locked down to a specific place in Pewee Valley, and it got more specific (a cold day in early fall, along the railroad tracks, near the public library) very quickly.

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