Recently I was a part of a panel of teachers and theater administrators at an improv camp. One of the questions was about how we can make our improv shows and teams more diverse. Many of the responses were about how to get people interested and involved, how to reach out to communities that are underrepresented and try to recruit people for classes or even just to get them to shows.
These weren’t bad ideas, but honestly there is a really simple answer. When you are making casting decisions, just decide that diversity is a priority and cast the most diverse ensemble that you can. Cast LGBT folks, cast black people and latinos, cast women. Just cast them. Do it. Stop making excuses about talent or quotas. Just cast them already.
A while ago, Will Hines wrote about something he calls sympathetic disagreement on his blog ImprovNonsense. When I teach this idea, I usually explained it like this: “First, repeat what your scene partner just said that you agree with, and then politely object to one specific part of it.”
I love dogs so much. I’d rather live with the meanest dog than with the kindest person.
I like dogs too, they’re awesome. But I’ve met some pretty mean dogs, who wanted to rip out my throat.
But I want to satirize racism and prejudice on my stage, not punish it or ignore it. If you believe that something in society is wrong or ugly, it’s your job to call attention to it as an artist, to expose it as irrational or illogical. I want people to laugh at it in a way that delegitimizes it and highlights how unfair and grotesque it is.
Got a really great email today from my old company (!) on the topic of “problematic” material in scenes. There’s a lot to digest, and it isn’t really my place to share it all here, but something that stuck out for me is that if a character in your scene is racist or sexist or homophobic or just gross, then there are two possible outcomes for that character: either they change and repent, or they stick to their ugly guns and suffer real consequences (a literal or metaphorical death). This is a choice that character must make, but those are the only two options that can leave your scene in a good place.
Really simple concept, but super useful. I’ll definitely hang onto it for later.
I would like to highlight the ‘if’ here. ’If a character in your scene is racist’. You really, honestly, don’t need these characters in your show. But if they come up, this is a good start to practicing dealing with them, for the sake of the audience and of your fellow players.
It’s hard to weigh in on something, when I don’t know fully what the original argument in the email was, but I’d like to respond to this.
As an improv teacher and the artistic director of a theater, I understand the desire to deal with racist, sexist or homophobic characters in these ways: make them repent, make them suffer consequences or simply erase them from your stage. But I want to satirize racism and prejudice on my stage, not punish it or ignore it. If you believe that something in society is wrong or ugly, it’s your job to call attention to it as an artist, to expose it as irrational or illogical. I want people to laugh at it in a way that delegitimizes it and highlights how unfair and grotesque it is.
Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre is our guest for the IRC Podcast. We talk about nudging students to get better, breaking out of your habits, playing without making sense, presenting long form, improv auditions and Martin de Maat.
There is a new episode of the IRC Podcast up today. It’s an interview with Kevin Reome, teacher at the Second City Training Center in Chicago. We talk about how to treat students new to improv, using you statements and being the guy that everyone wants to improvise with.
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.
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.
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.