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

Sunday (2/7/10) 10:14pm - ... wherein there is an improv update.

It's been some time since my last general improv update, so I figured I'd post another one.

One More Night
Since last time, One More Night had its
premiere.  We've had three weekends of shows so far (including this one), and the run has been going well.

The show has given me some chances to do narration, and it's been weird, learning what I'm like as a narrator.  I think I'm something of a control freak.  I'm so used to the screenwriting end of things that it makes it tough for me to let go and let the story do its thing.  I get especially twitchy with plot inconsistencies -- as soon as I spot some internal contradiction, I'm putting the brakes on things until I can get it unraveled, even though the audience is probably letting it go.[1]

I'm also such a structure nerd that... well, the analogy would be Peter:storyline::gardener:topiary.  It's all, "nope, nope, cut short that story tangent, just stick to the elements you've already introduced" and "okay, this mystery person you've introduced is going to actually be this other person you've already met, we'll keep this clean and simple".  There's a general Canute-versus-the-waves feel of "DAMMIT I WILL MAKE THIS ELEGANT DAMMIT."

I think my instincts are generally sound.  There's a general rule in improv that the further you are from the scene, the better a sense you have of where the scene wants to go.  If you're the lead in the scene, you have no idea what to do with it.  If you're a secondary character, you have some idea what it needs.  If you're in the wings, you have a pretty good idea what wants to happen next.  And if you're in the audience, you have the whole scene mapped out in your head down to the last detail.

So as a narrator, I was in a pretty good position to know how to help a scene.  I'm just saying, I tend to over-help.  Instead of letting people improvise, I'm obsessively nudging the narrative this way and that.

It's been interesting, watching us try to incorporate more story devices as the show has gone on.  We've made a conscious effort to include:  more dancing; creatures composed of multiple performers; tonal variations from story to story; slow-motion swordfights.  (At some point, I need to narrate in a foot massage.)

We've also tried to fix up some "cold stage" problems.  For example, there are times when people are reluctant to jump in when a narrator introduces a character, so we went over some ways to handle that.  A narrator can point out a particular performer as the new character.  A performer can jump in as, not the new character, but as another character in the scene.  (Then, this performer can point to somebody else and endow *them* as that new character.)  Also, we've tried coaxing the full cast to take the stage as color/background characters more often.

Generally, it seems to help if, as the 'onstage audience', we don't recline on the comfy onstage pillows.  Do that, and all you really want to do is take a nap.

It's to my considerable surprise that I've wound up kissing somebody in all four of the performances I've been in so far.  Much as I'd like to chalk this up to my own irresistible handsomeness, it's more likely that I'm initiating a fair amount of kissing.  Plus, I'm pleasant and innocuous, so folks feel alright about kissing me in a show.

judovitch will be pleased to learn that we videoed our most recent performance, and plan to video the closing-night show as well.  (Ye gods!  My family might finally see me do an improv show!)

Keep in mind that the show only runs for one more weekend:  this Friday and Saturday at 8pm.  See it or, well, don't.

Improvised Singing
The class has been going well.  On the 23rd, we went over ways of sharing improvised songs (line-by-line, counterpoint, call and response, and so on).  We also went over ways to cue the musical improvisor (the easiest way is verbally, as in "Take it, Laney!" or "One more time!" or "Dance break!").

That class session went really well.  The most fun bit for me was during a freestyle battle between Jason and Noah.  We realized we hadn't been doing a lot of 'background acting' behind the songs -- that is, every singer was belting out a song alone onstage, with nobody else in the environment.  So this time, as the song got started, I sat in the background as if I were a patron at an outdoor café.

For a little while, I was out there alone, sipping my imaginary coffee.  Then Kristin came out as a fellow patron.  We greeted each other like I'd been waiting for her, and she sat at my imaginary table.  Bryan stepped out as a waiter, and took orders.  All of this was low-key, not drawing focus from the furious rhymes that Jason and Noah laid down.

Some time after that, I suddenly noticed the rap battle and pointed it out to Kristin.  Then we both got up from the table and formed a little line of backup dancers.  Amy joined us.  During a brief pause in the raps, I introduced a short, high-pitched chorus that was quite a bit like the one from
Young MC's "Bust a Move".

It felt really good, having so many people yes-and something I'd thrown in, and then finding our way towards a neat way to support the song.

On the 30th, we focussed on singing in character, which was fascinating.  Basically, if you have a strong character, and that character has a strong emotion, the improvised song kind of sings itself.

It reminded me, oddly enough, of the controversial chapter in Freakonomics about parenting.  The general idea (and my memory is hazy here) is that they did a massive statistical analysis of how various aspects of parenting influenced whether kids were successful or not.  Then they discovered, to everyone's dismay, that the aspects that correlated to the kids' success were fairly simple:  things like "how old were the parents when they had the kid?" and "how much money did they make at that time?"

They were all factors that were decided before the kid was even born.  Factors such as "how much time the parents spent with their children" had negligible effects.

Naturally, everyone was horrified by this.  I'm not saying their findings were accurate, but it speaks to a strong intuition that we all have:  we think that how we do something matters.  In the case of an improvised song, we think that how well we come up with lyrics, or how well we improvise melodies, is really important.  Hell, I've been hung up on forcing myself to use the abcb rhyme scheme for a dog's age.

But sometimes, how well you do something *doesn't* matter.  Sometimes, all that matters is how well you set up the initial conditions.

It was fascinating to try singing a song once I had established a strong character.  Again, songs just wrote themselves.  If a character had a catchphrase, that catchphrase was, with simple repetition, an instant chorus.  And mind you, this was without even setting up an emotion for the character.

(Side note:  improvised songs that don't come from any emotional place always annoy me.  To my mind, the ability to express outsized emotions is the main reason musicals exist.  If you're just singing to sing, the best you can do is come up with a song that's clever, and unless you're Gilbert and Sullivan, 'clever' is not going to get you very far.)

The class on 2/6 was all about dancing.

The real discovery for me was that committing to a dance move with your *face* absolutely made the rest of the dance fall into line.  Yes, dancers always talk about "selling it" with your facial expressions.  But I never really heeded this advice, and I tend to be dead-faced onstage anyway.  But sure enough, if your face was really into the dance's emotion, suddenly the dance moves got about a thousand times better.  Odd.

We also tried about a zillion variations on dance diamond.  "Dance Diamond", you'll recall, arranges four improvisors onstage in a diamond formation (one UC, one DC, one L, one R).  They all face downstage.  Then the person DC starts dancing, and the other three follow.  If at any point the DC person faces left, suddenly the L person is the lead, and the other three follow the L person.  And so on.

We tried putting on two simultaneous dance diamonds.  We tried putting six of us onstage at once, mirroring and flocking in fluid patters around the stage.  We tried basically a mime edition of "Yes!  Let's!" where one person would mime a motion and whoever wanted to would join in with that.  We tried to incorporate specific patterns, like crossing past other dancers onstage, or slowly moving en masse towards the audience.

It was interesting stuff, and fun to watch.

Side note:  sweet jesus, singing and dancing simultaneously is exhausting.  I mean, I vaguely suspected this, but really I had no idea.

Additional side note:  just started watching Glee, which seems to be perfect timing.  It's fun to watch that show and think, "Hey, I'll be doing that on Saturday afternoon."

Johnstone Workshop
I also took the
workshop with Keith Johnstone on January 20th.

The Future
One More Night finishes its run this coming weekend.  We're firing up the next gnap! troupe, which has its run on Saturday nights in April.  The singing class will perform a full-length improvised musical on March 12th -- it also looks like the class is forming a troupe, which may or may not work out with my schedule.  Oh, and I might have sorted out an appearance on
"Writing on the Air" for Parallelogramophonograph to do some radio improv.


[1] This also happens, albeit less noticeably, while I'm in the ensemble.  For instance, in the last show, Mike and I were established as merceneries -- and then later we sort of blundered into being characterized as thieves.  I kept trying to rectify the inconsistency-that-nobody-really-cared-about.

Mood: [mood icon] optimistic · Music: none
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Date:Monday (2/8/10) 5:38am
"...judovitch will be pleased to learn..."

Judovitch is indeed pleased! :D
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