Thursday (10/29/09) 4:53pm - ... wherein Peter attends another Dickens rehearsal.
This past Tuesday we had another rehearsal for the Dickens show. The show opens November 6th, so it's crunch time now. Fortunately, all the elements we've been rehearsing this month are coming together nicely.
In the first half of rehearsal, we went over stage combat.
"Stage combat" = how to fake violence on stage so that (1) it looks convincing, but (2) we don't wind up hurting each other.
It might not occur to you at first, but Dickens has a lot more violence than the average improv show. Lots of orphans getting battered about and such.
As far as I can reckon, stage combat relies on three broad principles:
Don't actually hit anybody. This should go without saying, but we always say it just to be sure. In fact, you try to set up stage combat so that it's *impossible* to hit anybody. For example, with a stage-combat punch, the puncher tries to make sure s/he's beyond arm's length before doing anything.
Ideally, make sure that the actual contact is somewhere the audience can't see it. For example, if that stage punch is aimed upstage (i.e. *away* from the audience), your fist can whiff the air half a foot from the target, and it still looks almost unsettlingly real.
The person being violenced is in charge of the situation as much as possible. This is most apparent when you fake pulling someone by the ear. In that case, the puller just rests his/her fist against the target's ear, and the action is all just the target flailing around in mock pain. The person apparently doing the deed actually does next to nothing.
As much as it was instruction, we were also just checking in to see what experience the cast had with stage combat. We determined that both Joplin and Patrick knew some wrestling moves, so they're on deck any time a street brawl starts up.
We had some discussion about how to do opening scenes in Dickens. We felt pretty uncertain about what an opening Dickens scene looks like. Since then, I went through and summarized the starts of all the novels.
I admit, I got kind of antsy wanting to wipe many of the scenes in the long forms. Maybe I'm just operating at a wonky tempo, maybe my other troupe has been hyper-focussed on wiping more quickly, but I'd watch a scene and think, "Okay, that could the end there." A minute or two later, "Or, okay, that could." I think I wound up doing maybe half the wipes? I dunno.
Funniest moment of the show: zinereem played a crime lord named Jasper Billingsley. I played his employee, Mr. Grackle. He brought me on at one point: "Mr. Grackle! Tell Richard about our business! And by that I mean our real business! That is, the killing, and the murder, and the body-disposal!"
Which reminds me: I badly need to be more clear on stage. I've now had multiple occasions in the show where I've delivered basically the big, significant line in a scene, and had a genuinely befuddled performer have to respond in character, "I have no idea what you just said." I get an idea in my head, and somehow I decide that expressing it very obliquely is the best way to go. That's questionable in screenwriting, and very awful in improv.
The great 'Peter tries to torpedo the show' moment this time came when I completely forgot that the protagonist had strangled his own father to death with his bare hands. I was in a scene where we were disposing of a body, and I tried to endow the body as the father's body. This was tricky, as nobody had given the father either a first or last name. They had mentioned an uncle named "Martin Shimbeau", so I figured "Shimbeau" was the family name -- though it turned out that Shimbeau was instead the mother's maiden name. So I endowed the dead guy as "Roger Shimbeau", leading to general confusion. (See above problem about "Peter needs to be more clear.") Come to think of it, there was another scene where I'd planned to visit the protagonist family -- I knocked, asked for "the Shimbeaus", and caused more confusion.
That said, mishaps like that always happen in long-form improv. It's not really a question "can you brain your way through and make everything logically perfect", it's more about "when somebody says something weird, can you smoothly retcon it?" Improvisors are fond of saying "mistakes are gifts", and something as simple as calling someone the wrong name can lead to a retcon that is a plausible yet surprising plot development. And the performers did a great job rolling with my occasional oddities; suddenly, Billingsley was killing all the relatives of Martin Shimbeau -- and, therefore, was inexorably closing in on our hero. w00t!
I'm amused to realize that I'm now in two shows that are just absolute hell for name-remembering. In the hotel troupe, a show usually has seven or eight cast members, typically playing a total of ten or eleven characters. And now we're discovering that Dickens' stories? yeah, they actually have a sizeable number of characters, it turns out.
The fact that the show's "narrator" will have a pen, paper, and a writing desk in front of him/her will probably turn out to be something of a boon.
Also, we'll be employing ye olde narrative improv tricke of keeping a small whiteboard and some markers in the wings.
We're still homing in on the proper use of narration for this show. It's the usual questions: how do we make sure the narration isn't redundant?; how do we balance out "who drives the show?" between the narrator and the cast?; how do we effectively use the narrator to skip past the boring parts of the chronology?; and so on.
We're also doing an odd transition at the start of act three where the narrator "tags out" his/her avatar in the story, and finishes out the play him/herself without narration. It's a little tricky, logistics-wise, and we're still trying out some different takes on it.
During our main longform, Patrick ended up as the protagonist, and confirmed my suspicion from last week: being the protagonist in the Dickens show can be nerve-wracking. It's weird -- you feel like the entire show is riding on your performance, and yet the way the stories are structured, you're not in the best position to move the story forward. (Dickens' protagonists tend to have things happen to them, rather than going out and making things happen.) There were assurances all 'round that the supporting players would take care of the protagonist, and that feeling wigged-out in this way was perfectly normal and manageable.
I think there are tentative plans to do a costume-shopping trip on this coming Sunday, though I don't think everybody will be able to make it. Perhaps more precisely, I sincerely hope there will be a costume-shopping trip on this coming Sunday, because that prospect is pretty much the only thing keeping me from mad, blind panic about getting everything sorted out in time for the dress rehearsal.