Last year when we were about to open our theater, we needed performers, a lot of performers. We had a slate of shows that we wanted to produce for the opening, but the company was just Angie McMahon and me. We decided to have auditions, but what were going to ask people to audition for? A show? A team? Or an ensemble?
In the past, I’ve been involved in theaters that have been team centric, most notably iO and the UCB Theater in New York. Team centric systems have their pros, but the more I’ve thought about them over the years, the more I’ve become dissatisfied with them. The main problem I have with them is that they are brittle. Teams break easily. People move away or get better gigs. People get on each other’s nerves and feel trapped where they are. Or they get so annoyed with one another that they begin to lobby the powers that be to cut people. If a team fails, then you need to figure out what to do with the performers. Often good ones are lost in the shuffle.
It’s an improv form–a structure for an improvised performance like the Harold or La Ronde.
Often in a play, a series of scenes are set in one location, all in a row with no break in time. For instance, the structure of Chekhov’s most famous plays are all pretty similar. They consist of four acts, and each act happens in a different setting. Characters enter and exit many times during the act and each time the combination of characters on stage changes, a new scene is formed. These are called French scenes.
French scenes are the building blocks of monoscenes. You start with 1-3 characters on stage doing a scene. Eventually one (or more) characters exits or enters and a new French scene occurs with the new combination of characters. There are no sweep edits or tag outs. Entering or exiting is the only way to “edit” within a monoscene. A monoscene can be 10 minutes or an hour. It’s up to you.
Think of it as a series of beats
Each beat is probably around the length of a scene, between 30 seconds and 3 minutes. The lengths should vary, but most beats should be at least a minute long. If you are getting a lot of 30 second beats, you need to focus on making beats longer and holding off longer before you enter or exit.
4 days to go before we enter the space that will be our new theater. Angie and I are working every day and there is barely enough time to update this diary, but I’m going to do my best.
Every day seems to bring a new package of things we need for the theater. We got a cash register delivered on Tuesday for our bar and brackets to mount the speakers the day before. Lots of little things trickling in from Amazon. What a pain it would be actually be driving around getting all these things. Our big shopping day will be tomorrow.
A significant chunk of my responsibilities is to work on the website. I decided to re-write the code for the site from scratch and implement a lot of features that I felt would be nice to have but would be hard or impossible to implement in WordPress. I think that as our audience and students interact with the site, it will become more and more useful over time.
I’m finishing up a Game of the Scene class through Under the Gun Theater this week and I have often found myself using examples of sketches from TV sketch comedy shows. Once you know what to look for, the Game of the Scene is easy to spot.
This Portlandia sketch has an extremely simple game: two characters ask each other over and over if the other has read something, to which the answer is always yes. What’s unusual or funny about this? For me, it’s satirizing the idea that being the best read is a competition. They don’t bother to actually discuss any of the articles, underlining that they are only mentioning the articles to score points, to find that one thing that they have read, but the other has not.
The “if that, then what” is very straightforward. They pile on the examples, heightening the absurdity by generally making each subsequent article more obscure, and by speeding up the tempo so fast that they can barely hear what the article is before they claim to have read it. There is some nice misdirection twice where Armisen almost sounds like he is going to say that he didn’t read the article, but instead says, “I did not… like the end of it.”
Finally they exhaust the questions part of the game and then add a few variations, first by Maggie bringing in a new copy of Portland Monthly that neither of them have read yet. They attack the magazine like animals in order to prevent the other from reading it and pulling ahead in the competition. This leads to them devouring newspapers on the street and getting run over by cars on the way to ripping apart of phone book across the street. The final tag is just a voice of someone on the street saying, “Hey, it says, ‘Don’t Walk.’ Can’t you read?”
Once again, it’s a very simple game, hard to miss. But they pack in a lot of heightening in a very short amount of time. Improvisors might look at this and think that this is too simple. But in order to play more subtle, nuanced and/or complicated games, you have to be capable of executing the simpler ones first.
We have 6 more Hump Night shows before we take a break for the summer and I’d love to find a couple of interns to help out with the show. I’m looking for people to help by taking photos, posting to our social media and looking for ways to improve the overall experience for our audience. We only have 6 shows left, so it’s not a long commitment. If you’d like to also take the upcoming Game of the Scene class or summer Improv Boot Camp for free that can be arranged or just do it to help out with the show. We can use the help! Just fill in the form below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can (answering the question is optional).
Please share this with your friends if you know of someone who might be interested.
This summer I’m trying something quite different from what I’ve done in the past. I’m going to be teaching a new kind of intensive improv class. It’s an Improv Boot Camp, a training program designed to work specific skills, develop a powerful set of tools, and to practice them many times in different ways over a four week period.
Most summer intensive improv programs have a fairly broad spectrum of topics that they try to cover. If you are just starting out in improv and you are looking to get exposed to a lot of different ideas and try many exercises in a short period of time, you should look at those programs. Those programs can be quite stimulating. But they can also be overwhelming. So many great ideas, but far too few chances to practice them. Often the classes are too large, and you might only do an exercise once, on one day, never to try it again.
My program is for the improvisor who has some experience. They know the basics. They already have a notebook full of ideas and concepts. They enjoy improv, and they want to be great at it. What they need is practice, not another 20 exercises that they’ll only do once. Continue reading “Why Improv Boot Camp?”
In your first few improv classes you often get very broad guidelines of how to create good improv scenes. For instance, you are taught things like “Always yes-and your scene partner!” or “Never ask questions!” or “Don’t try to be funny!” These rules are often useful, but improvisors tend to hold on to them too long. They judge their scene work against these rules when the rules don’t apply. And these rules get in the way of learning new things.
For instance when I teach people how to discover games in their scenes, I encourage them to ask questions and to disagree with the other character. We talk openly about trying to make the scene more funny, and this frustrates some improvisors. Sometimes it frustrates them so much that they reject the concept of the Game of the Scene altogether, and that is a shame.
A lot of improv dialog tends to settle into a regular rhythm, a ping pong back and forth that we encourage in new students. I say something, you listen, pause briefly to consider what I have said and respond. Then I pause briefly to consider what you’ve said and respond to you. This is one way to build a scene, but if this rhythm continues throughout the scene, it can be deadly boring—one polite line of dialog after another with a short polite pause in between each one.
Instead, try something I call No Gap Dialog. Here is a good template to try:
Two players enter and start a scene silently.
The players can take some time in the beginning of the scene to take each other in without speaking, 5 to 10 seconds of silence up top is good.
Then once one player speaks, both players must speak to each other without any pauses at all. They should almost be cutting each other off and finishing each other’s sentences.
Have someone side coaching you. They should snap their fingers if you are pausing between lines. And they should try to keep you going without gaps for about 60-90 seconds.
I’m currently looking for help. I’d like to find someone who has experience editing and producing podcasts to help me with a podcasting project this coming year. If you are interested, just fill out the contact form below by January 19th, and I will respond with details about the project and some questions for you. You do not need to live in Chicago, since this will all be post production work. There will be pay.
I have put together a package deal for coaching though my new theater company, Under the Gun Theater, which I think is a terrific deal. It’s called the Hump Night House Team Project.
Instead of us holding auditions and choosing the teams, I’d like teams to form themselves and come to us. You sign up as a team in 8 week blocks. Each person on the team pays $100 and that covers all the costs for 8 two-hour rehearsals (coaching and space). You also will get up to 4 shows at the Hump Night Pregrame show (and for each show you get a free complimentary ticket to give out to a friend).
The more I’ve dealt with team systems over the years, the more I’ve felt that teams deserve to have as much autonomy as they can. Those are the teams that are more likely to have chemistry, to get along, and on average get better over time. If you want to add someone to the team, you can. If you want to take a break and come back after a few months, you can.
This is a meant to be a learning experience, a way for you to get better and have fun. No one is watching the shows, trying to decide who to cut from your team. If your team wants to stay together and we can find time to schedule rehearsals, you won’t get cut. It doesn’t work like.
I’m hoping that this will be the kind of project where performers and students grow and get better. Check out the site and let me know what you think.