Tag Archives: improv

Journey. A few thoughts.

We’ve been doing some remarkable stuff in longform recently. I have sat there watching the performance group working with the hairs on the back of my neck prickling and my mouth dry.

I’ve also been in pieces that have just… stalled. Gone nowhere.

This is fine, this is cool. We’re in the practice room. If we’re not getting stuff wrong we’re wasting it, but why does one piece grab and hold the attention, while another bores? What engages? What doesn’t? What matters? What doesn’t?

In shortform, the improv most people who are used to improv are used to, nothing is really supposed to matter. We play silly games. If they work it’s funny. If they fail it’s still funny. Essentially you’re watching the performer walk a low wire; if they make it to the other side then we all cheer. If they don’t then in reality no harm’s been done. Shortform has its uses. We use it. You can knock a show together in minutes with shortform. You can jump in and fill half an hour with virtually no notice. And it doesn’t really matter if it goes wrong. Brilliant stuff.

Longform isn’t quite so forgiving. Longform is starting to take us out into the wilder waters of theatre. To hand in longform you need (I will say) a sense of scene and flow. What we call “beat”. In longform improv you need to act. If you’re going to put a sketch or short play on the stage then you’re going to have to be able to keep up with the demands of that.

The longforms I’ve been held by have had an internal purpose. They’ve had a journey. We’ve begun with recognisable human beings who haven’t by any stretch been the performers themselves. I am very pleased to see that members of the performance group have not only committed to character, but have committed to unpleasant ones. Then we’ve gone somewhere. Something has happened. Those characters have changed.

In a sense (I should stress that this is my current opinion, it could change overnight) longform is a conversation. Shortform is a gag, a joke. I tell you a joke, you (hopefully) laugh, the job is done. We don’t sit there for the next thirty minutes picking the joke apart.

With longform that’s exactly what you do do. You present your opening, then the next block of time (and longforms can last for hours) is spent expanding and exploring that opening. Discussing it. Exploring and expanding it. Challenging it.

Longform improv is a conversation, with your fellow performers and with the audience. It is improv as theatre. It follows the same development path as conventional theatre. We are as obliged as any narrative artist to obey the laws of story. And just as obliged to break them.

Blocking. (Making Things Happen #1)

“You block when you want to stay in control.”
(Johnstone, 1999: p101)

Blocking, in the end, is saying no. Your partner makes a suggestion. You say no. That’s pretty much it.

“Hey, we’re in an airplane!”
“No we’re not.”

Righty ho then. Good scene.

There’s a couple of things here. The first and uppermost has to be trust. Putting an idea out there is a risk. It’s an act of courage. If you read the Tuesday Group class rules you’ll see that one of the number one ways you can get yourself removed from a class is to sneer at other people. Not because we’re all fragile cupcakes, but because we know from hard experience that that crushes creativity. People shut down, their enthusiasm turns to anger and you’ve lost the group.

So why would people do it? A lot of people do seem to take a sense of accomplishment from spotting the problem. I’m afraid there are people who take pleasure in putting other people down. It’s a status thing for them I suspect. If I can make you back down I’ve won. Something.

Another is the fear of endings. People seem to dislike endings.

And another is the compulsion to be the cleverest thing in the room. If you meet a pixie on your travels who asks if they can come home with you then why not take the pixie home? A lot of students don’t think that that’s clever enough. They seem to think it won’t impress, so they tie themselves in knots trying to think of something clever.

Just take the damned pixie home.

Keith has an exercise where two people block each other. It’s not enough to ignore, you have to actively shoot the other person’s ideas down. It is fascinating to watch the mood of the exercise shift from joyful to resentful. It’s a bad idea to end that one without feedback and rebalancing.

Notes for Ged:

Both Block (two worlds). Players both inhabit different worlds
First to block loses
Remove the blocks
Block Tick – first to block gets replaced
“Sounds good to me” limit one actor’s responses to positive acceptances
One blocks / one accepts
Accept but make negative offers
It’s Tuesday – over accept offers.
“The Eyes” – 2 person drawing exercise. Koppett does this with a letter at a time caption.

Making Things Happen

I’ve been meaning to do this for ages. We’re going to look at chapter six of the mighty “Impro for Storytellers” by Keith Johnstone: “Making things happen”, as it’s the best basic toolkit I’m aware of to give a starting improvisor.

Johnstone identifies seventeen different things an improvisor can do to make life difficult for themselves. We’re going to look at all of them. As this would make for an insanely long post, we’ll break them up. One post each. Onto the first:

Blocking.