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Posts tagged Joe Bill

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about “The 10,000-Hour Rule.” According to Gladwell, the key to success of giants like The Beatles, Bill Gates, and Wayne Gretzky is due in part to practicing for 10,000 hours or more.

Consider Joe Bill an outlier.

As a co-founder of The Annoyance Theatre, a master improvisation teacher, and one half of improv duo Bassprov, Joe Bill has been improvising since 1977.

Along the way, he’s developed a philosophy that he and Bassprov partner Mark Sutton call Scenic Power Improv. If you’ve ever taken one of their workshops, you know how exciting and empowering it feels to perform this way.

Now Joe has started a blog where he talks about his approach. Click to read his thoughts on different schools of improv, and why, as a student of Del Close, he enjoys performing with Keith Johnstone advocate, Patti Stiles.

Image © Tilman Dominka

What’s it like to compete with eleven other teams in the College Improv Tournament in Chicago?

That’s the subject of Whether The Weather, a documentary about six students collectively known as Theatre Strike Force.

The film follows their journey from rehearsal in Florida to their feelings after the tournament. It also features interviews with Joe Bill, Dina Facklis, Rebecca Sohn, Noah Gregoropoulos, Jet Eveleth, Bill Arnett and other Chicago luminaries.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the film doesn’t delve that deeply into any of its student subjects. But it’s worth watching for the pros’ perspective alone.

You can see full-length interviews that aren’t in the main feature; they’re a gold mine of improv wisdom, insight and candour. (I especially love hearing Joe Bill swear.) Watch them in full, or in bite-size chunks on the website or on youtube.

The website is a little confusing: when you click on “Main Feature,” the segments play out of order. To view in order, click on “Playlist” at the bottom of the screen and select a segment.

Image © Whether The Weather

Like the Five-Minute Harold, this exercise helps you get focused, fast. Great for homing in on specifics, and sharpening your awareness.

One person (usually the coach/director) keeps track of time with a stopwatch or second hand, calling the scenes after each interval.

To begin, two people perform a scene as they normally would. They can get a suggestion or not. There’s no time limit; the coach/director calls the scene when it feels right.

The players then perform the same scene again, this time in one minute.

The idea isn’t to speed things up. Simply taking the things that stood out in the scene (words, relationship, physicality, emotion) and using them in less time will naturally heighten those elements.

Next, the players perform the same scene in 30 seconds.

Then in 20 seconds.

Then 10 seconds.

Then five.

And finally – just for fun – two seconds.

This exercise helps you distill scenes down to their essence, by identifying what’s important.

Joe Bill also teaches a version where you start with a scene and call it after one minute, then do the rest as above.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Object work is a simple way to take your scene from meh to mesmerizing.

Watch a master improviser onstage, and you’ll swear you can actually see the banana they’re peeling, the stick shift they’re driving, the roll of duct tape they’re wrapping around Grandma’s dead body.

On the other hand, bad object work can destroy the reality of a scene like nothing else.

We’ve all seen tables get walked through, floor mops that come and go, and razor-thin cigarettes inhaled between two fused fingers.

When you give your objects weight and mass, it instantly grounds you and makes your movements more deliberate. It also paints a more vivid picture for the audience.

One of the biggest go-to’s in improv is drinking (insert AA joke here). For some reason scientists have yet to explain, we drink improv beverages through our thumb.

“Watch how you actually drink from a can or glass, then watch how most improvisers mime it. Just try drinking with your thumb in your mouth.” – TJ Jagodowski

Become an observer, starting with yourself. Notice how you do everyday tasks. Practice the movements with and without the physical objects.

When you’re bored with that, go people-watching. Someone who holds their cigarette with their index curled over top is very different from someone who holds it cupped beneath their palm. We all have our little quirks. Try on someone else’s for a change.

A lot of people try to get through object work as quickly as possible in order to “get to the scene.” But if you take your time and invest in whatever activity you’re doing, it can actually inform your character. Or become the scene itself.

Which is funnier: A guy taking off his clothes in two seconds, or watching a guy unbutton his shirt, unbuckle his belt, unzip his pants, and finally remove his underwear while his doctor puts on gloves, one finger at a time?

It’s the anticipation.

When you take your time with objects, your scene partner has time to process what’s happening too.

Say you’re in a scene where you’re on a date. Instead of flipping a pull-out bed instantly and throwing your scene partner on it, the struggle becomes turning the couch into a bed. Removing the cushions. Trying to lift the rusty metal frame. Smoothing out the wrinkled old sheets while your date – and the audience – watches.

As Joe Bill says, “You don’t have to put a shelving unit together in ten seconds.” In their workshops, he and Mark Sutton teach that, “Improvisers spend a lot of time on stage moving things around, and not enough time letting things move them.” That’s great advice.

Like the song says, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Look at TJ holding a glass while he’s on the phone (below). The way he holds it speaks volumes about his character (in this case, a housewife with a fondness for cocktails).

Cheers.

Photo © Sharilyn Johnson

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