Physical Theater, Masks and Clowns

photo by illustir from flickr.com
I’ve never really liked clowns. I’ve never really thought they were funny or interesting. As a young improvisor, I sneered at them the same way I sneered at short-form improv and bad sitcoms. I thought I was above it and didn’t even think that there might be something to learn from clowning.

I also remember being confused about Keith Johnstone including so much material about masks in his book on Impro. What could possibly be the value in spending so much time working in masks?

Things started to change a few years ago when one of my friends in New York, a woman whose creative impulses I greatly respected started talking about how the improvisors she knew needed to learn how to use their bodies more. I don’t know what kind of classes she was taking, but she ended up involved in the clown community out there. I was open to the idea that improvisors needed to do more than stand on stage and say clever things, but I didn’t investigate it much at the time.

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Thoughts about coaching and teaching improv

As, I tweeted a while back, almost every teacher and coach (including me) talks too much. We should all talk a lot less and let our students get more reps in class. If possible, we should give them a chance to try it again immediately after getting a negative note. If your students can keep track of how many scenes they have improvised in your class, you have failed as a teacher.

Research on the effects of cardio vascular health on neurobiology seems pretty clear. The fitter you are > the fitter your brain will be > the better you will be at learning and the better you will be at the kind of executive functions that make good improvisors. So get your ass out there and exercise every day.

Exercise also has immediate short term benefits in learning environments, which means I’ll be starting rehearsals that I coach with active warmups that get people moving and their heart rates up. Be ready for it.

Keep things simple and focused. Work one muscle at a time in rehearsal. Repeat exercises from rehearsal to rehearsal or class to class. A student must practice a given skill many times for it to become second nature and useful on stage.

Also, you can’t really practice two things at once and certainly not three. Let students practice something over and over and until it becomes at least partially unconscious, before you add other layers on top of it.

Let students practice things slowly. Too often we are pushing people to do things fast before they have succeeded in doing them slow. In fact, force them to go far slower than they are used to sometimes. Then speed them up. Then slow them back down again.

For the first time in my life, I’m doing movement/physical theater classes. It’s silly and ridiculous and queer, but it’s also fun and playful and ultimately quite useful. I recommend it.