Tuesday, October 11, 2011

New Improv Manifesto: See What's Happening ...

... and Help It Happen.

I just finished directing another "Improvalot!" (brought to you by the Knights of Improv, from Menlo School -- Ad libitum regit!) and after having less and less rehearsal time every year, I'm forced to keep solidifying and consolidating my personal improv manifesto. Here's part of my current mental rant, from that process:

Guess what, people in an improv scene? I DON'T CARE WHAT YOUR NAME IS. That's right! I. Don't. Care. Who cares if your name is Carl and his name is Jimbo and you're ex-brothers and you're in a laundromat if NOTHING IS HAPPENING?

How many plays (or movies) have you been to where the first two lines are the people calling each other by name? Uh huh. I thought so. There are even plenty of examples where you NEVER learn people's names. On the other hand, how many improv scenes have you seen that start like that? One MILLion. And how many scenes have you seen in plays (or movies) where what happened in the scene had NO BEARING on where they were?

If you're in a scene where all you have is names and a location -- and maybe a physical activity -- and nothing meaningful is happening, I would rather not watch it, thank you. And I'm not sure that you enjoy being there, either. Just sayin'. I would like to watch some theater that ALL of us are enjoying, please.

Last year was the first time I had to put together a two-hour improv show in ... maybe three weeks? With 15-ish high school students? Many of whom had done little or no improv before. And it really made me think: we don't have time to go through all this training stuff that I went through and that I've led lots and lots of people through. And a lot of that stuff ... frankly, I'm kind of over it. So WHAT, out of my 15ish years of improv experience, do they really, actually need to know?

And I came up with one sentence (say it with me, Menlo students):

See what's happening; help it happen.

That's it! One sentence. It encompasses a lot of what you need to know, without contradicting itself too much.

"See" what's happening: implies that you have to Pay Attention. Don't get so wrapped up in your own head that you miss the scene.

"See what's happening" implies that you should be paying attention, not just to the PLOT, but to what's actually Going On. This could mean a lot of things: what genre are we in? what's the situation, status-wise? where does the story seem to be going? how do our characters really feel about each other? what am I and my scene partners actually doing physically right now? It also includes something like "Finding the Game"; "what's happening" also assumes subtext, and that what people are TALKING about could be different from what's HAPPENING.

"Help it happen" is key. Improv students are taught to "Say Yes" -- which, don't get me wrong, is very valuable. But "help it happen" implies some more nuance. Last time I was in a workshop with Keith Johnstone (which was still a loooong time ago), he had revised some of his catchwords so that he was urging people to "be constructive," rather than "be positive," which definitely feels closer to the truth. "Help it happen" implies that you should help the situation out, rather than yourself: is someone trying to con you? Cheerfully let yourself be conned. Are you being captured? I bet you're supposed to put up a fight. Is your boss telling you not to do something before he then leaves the room? For god's sake, do it!

Starting from a Super Basic Concept like this, we can start out with a wider variety of possibilities as "normal": it seems to me like my Menlo students more readily accept that a scene can start with a large chunk of silence, or evolve the use of language in a weird way (I've seen them spontaneously start out in gibberish, just repeat the same word over and over, and even do scenes in foreign languages), or be only two lines long, or be narrated, or be mimed, or be a monologue, or turn it into a game in the middle ... they've done scenes that are really abstract/absurd (we've all got chairs on our heads!) and also scenes that are very "realistic" (hipster cafe!). And I don't have to do much to prod them in these directions by making them play games like, "start a scene with 30 seconds of silence!"; because scenes don't "have" to start with a certain formula (screw you, CROW!). They don't have to think outside that box, because they never went into it.

I remember hanging out with Keith Johnstone over the years (I TA'd the BATS summer school for at least 7 years!); I got to sit in on his giant classes, as well as drive him around sometimes. I find him brilliant and delightful. And I remember thinking how funny it was that, though every year he was working on new ideas and terms and exercises, people in his giant classes would challenge him with his own previous work: "But Keith -- you wrote on page 89 of Impro that ..." Kudos to him: he'd always say something like, "Yeah... so what?" I loved the fact that he was always thinking about new things working towards his goal: to create theater that felt exciting and alive. (And that he's so blunt about saying things like, "Ugh, you could play that game in rehearsal, I guess, but why would you want to perform it?" Indeed.)

I think that improvisation is SUCH a valuable skill; it's really meant a lot to me, and I can see it make an amazing difference in the way my high school students carry themselves and interact with the world. And since teaching is a heightened kind of learning, I find it valuable to be able to look back and say, "What HAVE I been learning over the past 15 years? And how can I teach it so that my students can learn it faster than that?" Yes, I SHOULD be teaching something differently than I was teaching it 14 years ago. Because I know more about it now. And if that means I need to invent something Way Different to accomplish that, so be it! One should challenge one's assumptions every so often, and revise as necessary. SEE what's been happening ... and HELP it happen.

(Photos: "Eye" courtesy of herwordskill; "Help" courtesy of Marc Falardeau; "Fist in the air" courtesy of Ibai Lemon, via Flickr.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, 2006

It's Kinda Like: Not sure . . . the most tragic romantic comedy ever?

Directed by: Karan Johar

Produced by: Hiroo Johar

Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Rani Mukerji, Preity Zinta, Abhishek Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan, Kirron Kher

Note: among those in the know, this movie is referred to as KANK. Yeah, no kidding.

This is sort of a blast from the recent past, with a huge all-star cast. But my Bollywood class is doing a song from it, so I thought I'd mentally revisit it. I saw this kind of awhile ago, and one thing stuck with me: its unusually high-contrast genres. There are parts of this movie that are outlandishly cheesy, and parts that are punch-someone-in-the-face tearjerky (I'm not big on the tearjerker genre ;o). Overall I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it, though they drag out that drama To Its Utmost. It's an earl(ier) directing effort by Karan Johar, and not his very best.

This film is packed with stars, all doing their starry best in roles that suit them. There's Shahrukh Khan, today's most (?) famous Bollywood star, playing the comic/tragic love interest to the solid and stolid Rani Mukerji -- rounding out the love square (?) are their spouses, respectively played by the adorably bubbly Preity Zinta and the charmingly petulant Abhishek Bachchan (do they call him the Little B?). Parents in the film are played by yesterday's favorite Bollywood action hero, now Bollywood's favorite dad and narrator -- here he is, everyone's favorite, the Big B -- Amitabh Bachchan, and everyone's favorite most huggable Bollywood mom, Kirron Kher. All the stars are out, and they're emoting up a storm.

With four essentially likeable people involved in the Love Square, the sad parts are that much sadder, and of course there's every Romantic Misunderstanding and Missed Moment that you could think of. (If you're studying to remount Love At First Sight, Jennifer Kah, this would be a great microcosm of Romantic Distress.) And yet it's that kind of movie where the main characters are so in love that their time together is mostly spent crying because they feel So Guilty For Being In Love.

But there's also comedy, my friends -- for what is Bollywood if not for everyone? Of course Shahrukh Khan's character is charming, irreverent, witty, ever the jester and gadfly (when he's not doing that thing he does where he's sucking air through his lips in a Brave Attempt Not to Cry -- I'll have to imitate it for you). And then there's The Big B, who plays his real-life son's father in the film. In what might be a parody of their actual relationship, Amitabh's character Samarjit Singh Talwar goes by "Sexy Sam," and keeps being discovered by his son in corners, canoodling with young white hotties, a different one every scene. (Whenever he appears onscreen, he gets his own "Sexy Sam" background singers in the score. Awesome!) And his outfits are HIGH-larious. See this highlarious turtleneck and fur-collar jacket? He wears this in this movie.

And the musical numbers are half cheesy sadness and half cheesy goodness. Here are the cheesy-goodness songs from this movie, which, though they seem to fall from nowhere, are nonetheless welcome for their unabashed wackiness.

First: the song we're doing a choreography to -- I include this YouTube clip which has the dialogue preceding it, exposing all the romantic entanglements in a nutshell. (And of course, the parents have a longtime romantic rivalry too -- here they meet at the sumptuous party and trade barbs -- she asks him, "Oh, is that your daughter?" and when he finally ends the conversation, the chick asks Amitabh, "Who was that?" he replies, "My mother.")The scenes preceding the song are only about half in English, but the body language is pretty universal, and sets up the rivalries better than a lengthy plot explanation could. (also, watch out for Sexy Sam! he's got his own the actual lines from this song: "Sexy Sam, Sexy Sam, wham bam, wham bam, thank you, Sam." No kidding, watch for it around 5:20 in this clip):

Now, wouldn't you guess that that song came from a COMEDY? But comedy is just tragedy that you laugh at, and they stop laughing for the second act. Even this song doesn't manage to tip the genre scale, and it's pretty awesome . . . . And now, here and blaring from clubs worldwide, it's everyone's favorite hilarious party anthem . . .

(even more hilarious: both likely "item girls" are in this movie already -- and Kajol is a surprise Item Girl in the first song posted -- so there's kind of an "item guy" here -- the DJ is John Abraham, muscle-man star of action films like Dhoom.)

And then watch the genres collide! That's Bollywood for you -- there's enough time to see both sides of everything. The complications from comedy become tragic. The lousy spouses might be nice people. The silly father becomes noble. Romantic gestures turn practical and vice-versa. Will love triumph? And will throwing popcorn at the TV make it happen FASTER, already? Find out when you watch it.

Verdict: Mixed . . . depends on your mood? There are so many great actors doing their thing that they're fun to watch. And if you like heckling, there's plenty of over-the-top tearjerking to heckle. Again, depending on your mood, it's either a fun romantic comedy that suddenly runs off the rails into the Grand Canyon dug by all that crying, or else it's a Sumptuously Tragic Romance that springs from a silly comedy. Definitely a solid example of that kind of Bollywood tragicomedy romance.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Wake Up Sid

Wake Up Sid, 2009
Directed by: Ayan Mukerji

Produced by: Karan Johar

Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Konkona Sen Sharma, Anupam Kher, Supriya Pathak, Rahul Khanna, Kashmira Shah

It's Kinda Like: Overboard meets Maid to Order, without the amnesia?

This week's Bollywood movie is a great complement to last week's Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. Both movies came out the same year, and both star Ranbir Kapoor. And between the two, he shows off his versatility, playing two opposite characters in the two films. (Both of which films, by the way, were delightful.)

Both films begin with the same circumstances: school is almost out, and the college students are graduating. And, both Kapoor's characters -- Harpreet Singh Bedi in Rocket Singh and Siddharth "Sid" Mehra in Wake Up Sid -- haven't been doing so well in school. But there the similarity ends. HP Bedi is earnest, ambitious, and hardworking, just not great at school. You can see what happens to him in his movie. Sid, on the other hand, is the spoiled partyboy son of uber-rich parents, barely scraping by in school because he can't be bothered to put in any work. He loves his carefree existence -- until graduation, when his slacker friends have somehow managed to squeeze out passing grades, leaving him alone at the bottom. He is, of course, super angry at them for this. To top it off, his dad wants him to start right away working in the office at the family business.

At their graduation party, Sid meets Aisha (Konkona Sen Sharma, who I'm pleased to see keeps getting cast in better and better films). Aisha has moved to Mumbai all on her own that very afternoon, leaving everyone she knows, in search of a dream job. She's a little older than Sid and anxious that he not get "the wrong idea," since they're hitting it off so awfully well. He shows her the city and they exchange numbers; she's thankful to find ONE friend in Mumbai, at least.

And of course Sid's time in the office doesn't go so well, despite the fancy SUV he's promised if he comes to work for a whole two weeks. After a falling-out, he leaves home and with nowhere else to go, crashes at Aisha's place. Hilarity ensues, mostly based on Sid's total inability to take care of himself. (See? Like Overboard meets Maid to Order!)

While Rocket Singh is a quirky, understated movie that feels like an indie, Wake Up Sid feels more like an 80s film: it's more exuberant, and slightly goofy. Kapoor is equally likeable in both roles, and in Wake Up Sid he's charmingly petulant. And the costume design is equally delightful, with him cycling through a neverending (and enviable) wardrobe of superhero, comic book, and Star Wars t-shirts (which of course are chosen for the scenes, well done designers). (I believe he also has Spongebob sheets.) The music, too, is really catchy -- heavily acoustic guitar based, for a true-feeling modern college graduate feel. (Similar to the music from 3 Idiots.)

Here's a song from early in the film -- see his adorable carefree ways? And this song is *ridiculously* catchy. ("Kya Karoon" loosely translates to "What should I do?," or "What do I do?")

Just like in Overboard and Maid to Order (I LOVE those movies!), Sid's transformation/coming-of-age is immensely satisfying to watch, while not being overly unrealistic. And the film's question is how to become the *right amount* of grown up; it's possible to go too far -- or at least far enough to become just no fun at all.

Verdict: I kind of loved this movie. Watch it, and go through your own end-of-school, beginning-of-summer transformation. Enjoy, and happy summer!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It Takes Two . . . to Make a Coincidence

I just watched TWO completely unrelated pieces of media, which both incorporated a certain song. And in each piece, characters used the song as a sort of camaraderie test: if you knew the lyrics, you were of an age, and could be friends. A sort of communal open-secret guilty pleasure, if you will.

What were the pieces of media?
1. The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds -- which, though predictable in structure and plot (cause really, I mean helloooo) was actually, in its dedicated snarkiness, quite hilariously delightful!
2. Episode 21 ("Mamma Mia") of Season Three of 30 Rock

What was the song? If you haven't guessed from the post title, perhaps you fail the test? See below. (I think for my contemporaries I might have picked "Ice Ice Baby" . . . thoughts?)


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year

(Netflix streaming of Bollywood movies = awesome!)

Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, 2009
Directed by: Shimit Amin
Produced by: Yash Raj Films

Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Shazahn Padamsee, Sharon Prabhakar, Gauhar Khan, Prem Chopra, Manish Choudhary

It's Kinda Like: If Wes Anderson directed Office Space, a little bit . . . mixed with some IT Crowd, but serious.

(Note: Beware of Netflix film descriptions; this is the blurb from their site: "Versatile Bollywood talent Ranbir Kapoor stars in this romantic comedy as Rocket Singh, a salesman hustling his trade in a flush economy. In fact, Singh is performing so well at work that he decides to start a company -- within the same company. In his effort to keep his venture under wraps, Singh soon adds con artist to his list of credentials." Did they WATCH the movie? Approximately 75% of this is Entirely, Entirely False. His name is NOT Rocket Singh, he's sucking at work, the economy is NOT necessarily great, and he's NOT a con artist; his whole thing is being completely honest with everyone. Nice going, interns who apparently wrote this blurb.)

This movie was really great! And with a very "Western Cinema Indie Film" aesthetic -- quirky, understated, actors that look like Real People instead of plastic heroes. The opening reminded me a little of something like Rushmore, or The Royal Tenenbaums, with its offbeat, stylized approach to cinematography and characterization. No dance numbers, no Hot Romantic B-story, but an excellent satisfying underdog story. A quiet, quirky comedy, or maybe a comedy-drama -- with the necessary Terrible Things happening around the intermission, as per the Bollywood structure.

Ranbir Kapoor performs admirably as our hero, Harpreet Singh Bedi (not "Rocket," Netflix!), a hopeful, earnest college graduate who didn't exactly get the best grades ever. But he knows how to deal with people. Kapoor is adorably forthright, decked out in a neverending palette of stripes (at once childlike AND an indication that he's on the Straight and Narrow) and a dizzying array of colored turbans. At the outset, he's kind of like a little old man-child (not unlike Rushmore): he wears horizontal striped T-shirts like Ernie, he dances in that embarrassing dad way, he wears *short-sleeved buttondowns,* he's rocking the turban and the beard (no one else is Sikh in the film but his grandpa, forcing him visually even more into the minority), and he seems cheerfully unconcerned by his uncoolness. "HP," as his friends call him, is determined to get a great job like all his friends, so he decides to go into sales--he's a people person, after all. Sales of what? Who cares! Wherever he can get an interview.

Here, look how cute he is:

Far from the suave con man that Netflix indicates he is, HP is actually wide-eyed and innocent, unaware of the cutthroat techniques employed by businessmen. His new mentor, Nitin (played with excellent smarminess by Naveen Kaushik, sporting some truly awesome douchebaggish facial hair), quickly shows him both the quick thinking needed by salesmen, and the routine dirty tricks. HP is appalled by the casual dishonesty employed by his new colleagues.

Through a complicated series of events, HP finds himself running a rival company from within the bigger company. In an Office Space type way, he's quietly subversive, while maintaining his own personal integrity.

The characters in this film are all slightly unexpected -- again a la Wes Anderson. Since it's not your typical Bollywood Romance, the characters have that real-life tinge; like in The Royal Tenenbaums they come off as *slightly* sad, with a hint of wilted skeeviness, as if you're made uncomfortable by your own voyeurism of their perfectly ordinary lives. Harpreet Singh lives in a flat with his grandpa, who is so gleefully young for his age that they're more like cranky brothers. Giri (D. Santosh), the IT guy, is like an Indian version of Roy from The IT Crowd: greasy curly hair, unkempt appearance, nearly horizontal posture in his desk chair, personal schedule entirely unconcerned with the actual time of day, and an open predilection for "porn," which in this case being a family movie is pictures of ladies in swimsuits. Koena the receptionist (Gauhar Khan) is always being hit on -- but she's not really THAT hot, or scantily-dressed or anything, she's just better looking than anyone else in the office. They're ordinary, with the reality-volume turned up a notch. Stylized.

I think just the premise is enough; a lot more happens that I won't spoil for you. Suffice it to say, it's a great underdog movie with an awesome villain (Prem Chopra as Mr. Bedi, the boss, with his perfectly-kept frownyface mustache), a quiet and entirely engaging hero in Harpreet Singh, a delightfully dangerous predicament (starting a rival company from inside), and a satisfying conclusion. A nice-looking, well made film. Enjoy!

(This trailer gives the *most* accurate flavor of the trailers that I could find . . . )

Friday, May 14, 2010

How to be Fascinating

(Or, how to be the coolest ten-year-old around.)

Step one: Buy a scooter. I have this one; it's the Razor A5-Lux:

Step two: Fall off it.

The combination of these two things (and the accompanying bandaids that ensue) will surely earn you street cred with fifth-graders nationwide. You will receive comments like: "Whoooooa, where'd you get a scooter with wheels that big?" and "Wow, what happened to you?" and "This one time, I had a scrape so big that you could see the fat under it!"

(Don't worry--I'm fine. ;o)

I was having a very fantastic ten-year-old sort of day, though. Scootin' around in my jean pedalpushers and giant sneakers, scrapin' my knee like a scamp, scootin' down to get some ice cream, all under the breezy-treesy warmth of a May afternoon. Ahhh, the approaching end of a school year. Is there any better feeling? Even if you're not IN school anymore.

Also: a scooter IS a great way to be fascinating. It turned the heads of all kinds of people, including fifth graders, old ladies with walkers, the guy behind the counter at the Chinese bakery who's never before been inclined to conversation, and hipsters who *also* have scooters.

It's probably a bonus amount of interesting since I'm neither a boy nor a hoodlum. That's what I'm here for. Bringing you cognitive dissonance since 1978.

Enjoy your May day!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Koi . . . Mil Gaya

Since it's nearing summertime and everyone is in kind of a crazy mood (ever try to teach school in the month of May? Thank god I get to teach drama and not, say, math), here's an extra-silly selection for Bollywood of the Week.

Koi . . . Mil Gaya, 2003

Directed & Produced by: Rakesh Roshan

Starring: Rekha, Hrithik Roshan, Preity Zinta, Rakesh Roshan

It's Kinda Like: ET meets Flowers for Algernon, aka Charley, meets The Nutty Professor. There are also parts that remind me of The Sound of Music. Crazy-squee!

The title means "I've . . . Found Someone," which is pleasingly ambiguous in reference. To whom do you refer, O mysterious I? Your wanna-be girlfriend? Or a Visitor From Beyond . . .

Hrithik Roshan, awesome dancer extraordinaire, plays Rohit, our simple-minded hero. Left thusly, we are led to understand, from a car accident resulting from his father's obsession with UFOs, he nevertheless leads a mostly peaceful and adorable existence living with his mom and playing with all his 11-year-old friends. (Roshan is super cute and appealing in this role, too. Awww!)

He's also got an awfully pretty lady for a friend: Nisha, played by Preity Zinta. She's fond of him in the same way that she'd be fond of a neighbor kid. BUT, of course, all that changes when . . . the ALIENS come. Because they've been accidentally PHONED. From HOME. And one alien gets left behind. (Sounding familiar, film fans?) Vocab lesson: Rohit and Nisha call their adorable blue alien friend Jadoo, which means MAGIC. You will learn this when they sing the hilarious song of the same name. And you will not be able to forget it afterwards, so insistent are they on saying that word. Jadoooooooooo . . . . .

Just like a certain alien whom Terry Pratchett has observed resembles a friendly turd in a bike basket, Jadoo is good at things like healing . . . including maybe brains? Begin Flowers for Algernon segment of plot. And both plots unfold together, more or less as you would think. (With pauses for Sound-of-Music-like jaunts with adults and children through the lovely green and mountainous Canadian landscapes -- riding on adorable scooters. Awwww!)

This movie is kinda super silly -- the alien's animatronic and CG nature is hilariously lo-tech (even F.T, aka Friendly Turd, is more realistic), and the song they sing with the aliens kinda made me laugh uproariously and not in the good way. And it also turns into The Nutty Professor, complete with basketball game. Whaaa, you ask? Whaaa indeed.

That being said, Hrithik is very appealing and endearing in his role, and Preity Zinta is always fun too. Plus the kids are great -- and it's fun to watch him interacting with them as if he's just one more in the gang. He moves well both as a dancer and an actor, and the dances (choreographed by the cheeky Farah Khan) are pretty adorable as well. This dance was apparently the one that garnered Farah Khan her award (note the references to classic Hollywood dance sequences -- part of why I love her!). He's just now starting to gain some surprise physical dexterity, from his helpful alien friend:

(Plus: in 2003, this actually won BEST MOVIE at India's Filmfare Awards --their Oscars-- as well as Best Actor for Hrithik with an extra Best Performance award, AND Best Director and Best Choreography. Is this movie, therefore, better than I thought? They even made a SEQUEL, I've just learned. I. Must. See. This. Sequel.)

The Verdict: Silly as all get-out, but silly in that old-kids-movie-you-used-to-love way, and similarly endearing. Like watching an old 80s movie. You know it's cheesy, and you know you love it.

Here's the trailer, for your viewing pleasure: