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Posts tagged improv comedy

Have you ever been ill before a show or rehearsal, so ill that you felt you couldn’t go through with it, yet somehow you did and ended up having a great set?

Not me, but the lovely Jet Eveleth with Paul Brittain - Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

(Not me, but the lovely Jet Eveleth with Paul Brittain) – Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

When Paul Brittain offered a workshop in Toronto, I signed up months in advance. I was super excited, and looking forward to learning from the SNL alumnus.

But as the date got closer, I got sick. We’re talking coughing up toxic sludge, sweating profusely, SARS-kinda sick. Still, I was determined to attend. (Who cares if I was carrying the Plague? This was clearly all about me.)

The day of the workshop, I awoke feeling mummified. On the subway ride there, I was sure I was going to pass out.

Standing outside the classroom, I was torn between vomiting or dying. Mostly, I was furious at my body: How dare it get sick, now of all times?

At the last moment I made a decision: I wouldn’t participate, I’d just monitor the class. It was better than missing it altogether.

And then a funny thing happened.

I sat and watched as the first group performed. But when Paul called for four new people to go up, I joined them. My performance was far from amazing, but I enjoyed learning a new form.

I returned to my seat and watched as another group tried a different form. When he called for a new bunch of people, I went up again. This time I was a little more playful.

As the afternoon progressed, Paul switched to two-person scenes.

Standing on the sidelines, I thought of an initiation: I’d go in as Tom Jones, a callback to an earlier scene.

But as I strode forward, my hand cupped like it was holding a microphone, the girl walking towards me endowed me as a computer salesman.

Without breaking stride, I became an Apple Genius, and the microphone became a pen. I saw the store in 3D all around us, and started showing her a MacBook.

With every line my scene partner spoke, words and phrases peculiar to my character (not me) flowed from my lips, and I discovered more things in our environment to play with. I didn’t have to look; they appeared spontaneously.

During the scene I was aware of only one thing: that I wasn’t thinking or anticipating at all. It felt like things were being fed to me, constantly, intravenously.

Afterwards, Cameron asked if I’d seen Paul laughing. I hadn’t, but it was only then with the workshop over that I realized I hadn’t thought about being ill the entire time.

Two hours earlier I wasn’t sure I could stand. My only goal was to get through the workshop without puking. But during scenes, I was like a person possessed. It was one of the funnest, most freeing experiences I’ve ever had.

Maybe I oughta get sick more often.

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 11.06.26 AM

One of the things that made Much Music (Canada’s MTV) a joy to watch back in the day, was the fact that so much of it was unscripted.

With live programming broadcast in eight-hour chunks, there was no way everything could be written or pre-planned. And while it was almost entirely music-focused, there was lots of room for comedy.

One guest of those early days was a young and lanky Mike Myers. Before Much Music, he and VJ Christopher Ward improvised and did sketch on an all-night video show called City Limits. (I remember coming home from clubbing and watching their low-tech green-screen antics till dawn.)

Much’s producers also invited Weird Al Yankovic to “take over” the station with his own brand of insanity. And it was always great to find out which visiting rock stars had a sense of humour.

Now that Bell Media has axed all but a handful of jobs from the station, we thought we’d share some nuggets from the past we dug up on the inter webs.

 

In improv, as in life, the biggest laughs often come from something you stumble across. It might be a discovery about your character, your scene partner, or a so-called mistake.

Even in scripted comedy, some of the most hilarious stuff wasn’t planned. Think of Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd’s “You know how I know you’re gay?” sequence from The 40 Year Old Virgin. Check out Russell Brand’s improvised audition for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Or my favourite, The 32 Greatest Unscripted Movie Scenes.

I saw a Second City revue where Reid Janisse said “X-ways” instead of “X-rays.” The audience tittered.

But a few lines later he brought it back, saying, “I”ve looked at your X-rays, and I’ve looked at your X-ways…” This time the audience roared.

Think back on some of the funniest scenes you’ve done. Chances are you started somewhere and ended up somewhere you never intended. And isn’t that the joy of it?

Photo © Graham Lee

Photo © Graham Lee

For decades, TV shows had the same structure: an opening montage or story synopsis, typically sung or narrated, so newer viewers could understand the story and characters right away.

Meanwhile, regular viewers had to listen to how The Brady Bunch got together. Every. Goddamn. Episode.

As the internet grew and attention spans shrank, intros got shorter. Scrubs‘ intro was just 20 seconds long. By the fourth season, it was five seconds. And Louis CK’s Louie got right to the point this season with no opening whatsoever.

StartInTheMiddle

Modern audiences are story savvy. We’ve become really good at making assumptions, jumping in midway and figuring it out.

When you lose exposition, you focus on now. And that’s where great improv lies.

A Harold traditionally has some kind of opening (the form, after all, was modelled after TV and film) but even that’s changing. More and more long-form shows start with scenes. And dynamic scenes start in the middle.

Even if you just have a fragment of something to begin with, that’s OK. Make assumptions. Decide to know each other. Make bold choices, and you’ll figure it out as you go.

Another way to think of it is like an Oreo cookie.

In Canada there’s a brand called Eat The Middle First. The boring outer layer is like all those scenes that start with “Hey,” “Hi,” and other timid offers. Feel free to ditch that and dive right in to the fun part.

Don’t wait to get to the good stuff.

Carpe Cookie

Carpe Cookie

I did a show a couple of nights ago where I was a robot. Oh, I looked human, but I might as well have been C-3PO for all the emoting I was doing.

For whatever reason, when I got on stage, I played “from the neck up.” In other words, I talked a lot but there was no weight behind what I was saying.

I was looking for something clever to say, when the answer was in my heart, my gut, my body the whole time. The next time that happens, I hope to remember these few simple words:

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Subway

Experts say anywhere from 60-90% of communication is non-verbal (facial expression, gestures, and posture). We take our cues from how people sit, stand or move. But the information doesn’t end there.

“Hairstyle is body language. Clothing is body language.” – Fred Herzog, Photographer

Look at the men in the photo.

The guy with the beard, Subaru shirt and camo pants is worlds apart from the dude with the checked shirt and forlorn expression. If I were to guess their first lines of dialogue, it’d probably be something like:

Guy #1: “I used to ride bikes in the military.”

Guy #2: “I wish Maanika would call me.”

In improv though, it’s rarely this obvious. We don’t have as many physical cues to get a read on someone’s character right away. So what can we do?

Mime An Accessory

In Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ initiates an office worker who wears a beret. With one small gesture, adjusting the angle of the hat on his head, his character instantly becomes more interesting.

Maybe your character likes to stroke his beard, or play with her ponytail. I’ve seen Lisa Merchant mime goatees, while Ted Hallett twirls imaginary locks that would make Kim Kardashian jealous.

Maybe you’re wearing a scarf or a boa that keeps coming loose so you have to keep tossing it over your shoulder.

It doesn’t matter what it is; just reach out into space and find something, then use it to learn about your character.

Scene Paint Someone

If it’s three minutes in and we still know nothing about the people on stage, go in and scene paint something on them. Be specific. Is it a corduroy jacket, or a $6,000 Tom Ford suit? Reveal that they have a secret tattoo, describing what and where it is in detail. Endow someone with a toupée or glass eye.

Give them something to dimensionalise their character, and it will add dimension to the scene.

Study Body Language Like A Thief

There are so many tiny physical clues to how a person is feeling:

• Touching the back of the neck or head signifies doubt or uncertainty.

Improvisers who get in their head often do this unconsciously. If you see this happening to your scene partner, you can snap back them back into the moment by asking them if they need clarity.

• Putting both arms behind the head and leaning back in a chair is a show of status. (Watch for it at your next big meeting.)

• Touching or scratching the top of your hand or forearm signals stress. It’s especially common when people feel anxious or under attack.

Anna Gunn, who played Skyler in Breaking Bad, brushes her forearm ever so slightly when Skyler tells Walt she’s afraid of him.

Watch for these and other clues from your scene partners. You probably know friends or family members with unique quirks or tics; gestures that tell you they’re happy, anxious, sad, or about to explode. Try using some of them on stage, and see where they lead you.

 

“No scene is ever about the words being spoken.” – Del Close

 

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