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. * 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. _________  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.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none