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Posts tagged Mantown

“No one who grew up watching comedy says, ‘One day I hope to do openings.’” – Matt Besser

Whether you agree with Besser or not, openings are a fact of longform life. If you’ve been on a Harold team for any length of time, you’ve probably grappled with:

• What form your opening should take

• How long it should be, and

• What (if anything) to take from it

We’ve all seen – and God knows I’ve been in – plenty of terrible openings. They tend to include:

• “whooshing” sounds

• players standing in a semi-circle, waiting for someone else to make the first move

• players standing in a semi-circle, talking about some invisible thing on stage

If you find yourself struggling with openings, here are some tips to help you get more out of them. Whatever you do, it’ll be exponentially better if you commit to whatever is happening right now.

Standards & Practices is a team that’s famous for their high energy, character-driven openings. They start with a word and quickly generate ideas, people and situations using physicality and soundscapes. These may or may not come back later in the show.

Watch how they go from zero to 60, forming different points of view while staying connected in this opening:

Sometimes their openings are so physical, they go into their first scenes out of breath. No wonder audiences love them. Their opening isn’t a separate entity; it’s an integral part of the set. And check out that time: just under two minutes, or about the length of a good youtube video.

Get Cooler Gets

The drunk guy in the third row has been waiting all night for this. If you just say “Can I have a one-word suggestion?” odds are he’ll yell out “Fuck!” or “Shit!” or “Dickwad!”

Instead of making them go through their mind dictionary, help the audience by narrowing it down. For example:

“Can I have a location that would fit on this stage?”

“What’s your favourite sport/colour/product?”

“What’s something you would never pack on a vacation?”

“What’s a tattoo you’ve always wanted?”

It doesn’t really matter what the question is. Just keep it as short and focused as possible. And if the first suggestion is “shit,” wait for another. There’s nothing set in stone that says you have to take the first suggestion. Be choosy.

“If we’re on the same stage, we’re on the same page.” – Joe Bill

It sounds so basic, but the most important thing you can do in an opening is agree. However many players are on stage, your opening will be stronger and more dynamic if you build on each other’s ideas right from the start. That means really listening to whoever initiates, yes-anding and either matching or heightening their physicality, behaviour, voice, and whatever else they put out there.

Like scenes, your openings will be so much better if whatever you’re doing, you commit, fully and joyfully.

Information, Sound & Movement, and Stage Picture

Too much stand-and-talk is boring. Look for ways to add to what’s being created. You can:

• Narrate the action

• Scene paint

• Use your environment to create a more interesting stage picture. If the suggestion is “baseball,” maybe you take up positions on the stage like a baseball diamond.

• Become an object. Someone taking the form of a physical object is always more interesting to watch than an empty stage.

• For bonus cool points, use symmetry. If someone moves on one side of the stage, mirror them.

Go Deep, Not Broad

It’s easy to go on a tangent and start listing things (“salad ingredients,” to quote Jet Eveleth).

Player #1: We see a ball.

Player #2: It’s a colourful beachball.

Player #3: There’s a man holding it.

Was Player #3 listening? Absolutely, and you could argue he yes-anded. But in openings you want to go deep, not broad.

Explore the first thing until you’ve exhausted it, before you move on to something else. Is the ball made in China? Is it partly deflated? Does it have shark toothmarks on one side?

A Word About Length

During a rehearsal, my team got the suggestion “shining.” I initiated with “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” One of my teammates stepped out and said “Heeeeeeere’s Dave!” Others joined in: “Heeeeeere’s Marcie!” “Heeeeeere’s Donna!”

We went on to a second and third beat of that opening, but our coach pointed out that we could have ended it after the first. “Your set could be about exploring each of those characters you initiated.”

Boom!

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

“Decide what you want from an opening. Once you’ve got that, you can end it.” – Cameron Algie

In other words, you don’t need three beats, and it doesn’t have to be five minutes long, unless that’s what the team feels like it needs.

Finding Your Own Style

After you’ve performed as a team for a while, you’ll probably find yourselves gravitating towards a specific kind of opening. Then you can really have fun exploring it.

Mantown is another team with a signature opening style. They stand and face the audience, beer in hand, and deliver short monologues based on a word or topic. But really, they’re taking turns trying to make each other laugh. The audience goes crazy for it. Here’s a sample from one of their shows:

Adam Cawley: Sega Genesis was the better Sega.

Bob Banks: Better than the master system? Of course. It was the second generation of the master system. That’s like saying Super Nintendo is better than Nintendo. Yes!

Jason DeRosse: Genesis was the second-coolest book in the Bible.

Bob Banks: It was also the second-best time in Phil Collins’s life.

Like S&P, they throw out tons of information that they can use to inspire the set – or not. The monologues are fun in and of themselves. You can see a Mantown opening by clicking here.

For another, thoughtful take on openings, check out this guest post by Erik Voss at ussrocknroll.com.

Photo © Steve Hobbs

Rob Norman is an actor, improviser, director, and a writer for Sexy Nerd Girl. He’s also a Second City alumnus and four-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee. You can catch Rob performing at Comedy Bar with the testosterone-infused improv juggernaut Mantown.

I don’t know you (or maybe I do; it’s hard to see your face past this dense, ethereal veil known as “the internet”) but I’m going to guess what your problem is: You don’t have any money.

That’s obvious. You’re reading a blog about improvisational comedy. Only a working comedian trying to unlock the secrets of their craft would think that’s a good use of their time. Or you’re a very, very bored poor person. Either way, you should probably be on Craigslist finding a real job. Shame on you.

Onstage, your improv-related problems are idiosyncratically linked to whatever psychic inadequacies you possess. Each show is a battle fought with internal reminders: Stop trying to control everything. Build on other people’s ideas. Be more vulnerable. Stop trying to be entertaining. Create scenes that make sense.

Despite knowing what you should do, it seems you can’t help but repeat old habits. So for the next fifty kilobytes, let’s abandon the idea of doing “good improv.” Instead let’s focus on improvising more efficiently. After all, you have limited resources (stage time, energy, the audience’s goodwill).

Great improvisers seem to float through scenes without ever wasting a single line of dialogue, while struggling newbies flail about aimlessly, creating superfluous information that only serves to confuse everyone onstage. So how do you focus on the essentials in a scene?

Player A: Oh no, Jim! My best friend of fifteen years. Look, this nuclear bomb is about to explode.

Player B: Quick. Let’s try to fix it!

Player A: Yes and…we did it.

Player B: Hooray!

Great “Yes anding.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t care less. Why do we put so much focus on imaginary things? I don’t care about the nuclear bomb. And your special effects are unimpressive (the drunken audience’s imagination plus your mime skills do not a good scene make).

I also don’t care about the story. If the bomb blows up, it’ll irradiate an imaginary mall and kill two made-up characters (that no one cares about) with a fictitious backstory that probably wasn’t compelling to begin with.

But there is something real happening onstage: the dynamic between you and your scene partner.

Behaviour is what draws us into your scene. It’s the only thing we see onstage and recognize as true.

You’ll be a better improviser when you stop seeing what could be (or should be – all those helpful improv rules you’ve learned) happening onstage, and start reacting to what’s happening right now, in front of you.

Player A: Here’s my test, Dad. I think I failed.

Player B: That’s terrible. You’re grounded until your marks improve!

Does this sound like a decent improv scene to you? Do it onstage, and watch what happens. At worst, it bombs. At best, it bombs with some funny moments. But why is that? Both players are adding information in a simple fashion. They’re developing the scene together.

The problem is, the star of this scene isn’t Player A or Player B. It’s about some imaginary kid (don’t care) and his grades in school (I also don’t care). For the most part, real kids in real schools living real lives don’t care about their grades. Why would you want to make that the focus of your scene?

An improviser’s only job is to create a dynamic between the characters onstage. It’s how you’re affected by your scene partner that pulls us in. Each time your partner adds information, ask yourself, “Do I love or hate what was just said?”

Player A: Here’s my test, Dad. I think I failed.

Player B: Go fuck yourself!

Whoops! You’re not choosing whether you love or hate your scene partner in their entirety. This is equally boring. It creates a dynamic that exists entirely in the past. You’ve already made a firm decision about your scene partner and there’s no room to build (or heighten the pattern). Instead, think “Do I love or hate what my partner just said?”

Player A: Here’s my test, Dad. I think I failed.

Player B: Oh that’s the worst! Now you’re not going to amount to anything!

Player A: It’s only a test…

Player B: I can’t believe you think that. You’re a failure and naïve!

Great! So each time Player A speaks, Player B is affected personally by it. And Player B has chosen to hate it. But the reverse also works.

Player A: Here’s my test, Dad. I think I failed.

Player B: You are so brave for telling me!

Player A: Dad…

Player B: It takes one hell of a man to look his father in the eyes and admit he failed. I’m going to buy you a car.

Player A: I’m fourteen.

Player B: But with the integrity of a man in his eighties!

Also great! Do you see how both of these examples are happening right now? It’s not about the failed test, it’s about how a kid tells his Dad he failed the test. Do you see how both players are forced to immediately respond? Everything else: characters, environment, action, story – are just by-products of being in the moment. And the context of your scene is an imaginary (and often accidental) construct generated by actively playing the dynamic.

And that’s something you can easily create. Try it. Let your scene partner speak, then decide to love or hate that idea. Once you’ve mastered that, expand “love” to any positive emotion (contentment, admiration, lust, comfort) and apply that to your partner. See what happens when you use the same technique with negative emotions.

In the end, there are two kinds of improvisers: Players who invent information. And players who discover information.

You can make a scene happen, or let your scene happen to you. If you focus on creating less, you won’t have to improvise in the future or the past. You can spend more time with your scene partner. Onstage. In the moment. Inside of the scene. And less time reading improv blogs on the internet. Seriously, you really need to find that job…

Photo © Kevin Thom

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