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.)