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Images © David Kantrowitz

I’m always amazed at the depth of talent in improvisers, whether it’s guitar-playing, graphic design, filmmaking, or just Battlestar Galactica board game skills.

These graphics are the work of David Kantrowitz, an artist, illustrator, and improviser with sketch comedy group The Younger Statesmen based in L.A. You can see more of this series here.

I’ll admit: when I signed up for a workshop with Matt Besser, I was scared shitless. Although I’m a fan of his work, I’d heard he had a reputation for being harsh.

Sure enough he had strong opinions, but isn’t that what you’re paying for in a master class? I learned a lot, and was grateful for the opportunity to learn from someone who’s done so much for improv.

When I came across this series of shorts produced by UCB Comedy, I just had to share. Besides being absolutely hilarious, they scared me just a little bit. Enjoy.

“Conflict is the essence of drama.” – Aristotle
“Conflict is not the essence of drama. Agreement is the essence of drama.” – Del Close
“My head hurts.” – improv student

Conflict.

Some improvisers love it. Others run from it.

In most performers’ minds, the word “conflict” suggests that characters should disagree or fight.

Most discussions about conflict tend to generate their own conflict: Is it necessary? How does it get started? How do you avoid it? Should it be based on what the story needs or what the characters want?

In order to get a better understanding of conflict, let’s begin with the “Today is The Day” scenario that’s often taught.

Often teachers will frame scene work with the view that “Today is the day things change for your character…a scene should be about a life-altering experience.” Scenes that follow will be inherently interesting because we see the character in a new light.

After all, how exciting can it be to watch a character do the same thing they always do?

We want to see a character finally stand up to his boss, declare his love, get a divorce, get a job, get fired…anything to break the routine.

And I don’t necessarily disagree with this so much as I disagree with how it is handled.

For one thing, anytime you use the word “should” in an improv context, you (inadvertently) set up expectations. (A scene should be about…)

In the rush to get to a life-altering experience, performers get so caught up in the theory that something needs to happen, that they miss out on what already is happening.

Before we focus on “Why is this day different than all the others?” what if we asked “Why is this day the same?”

Life-altering often seem less life-altering when we haven’t even established the life that is getting altered.

When we place more importance on what needs to happen than on appreciating what is happening, we lose touch with an awareness of ourselves in our experience.

And when we lose touch with how we feel about what’s going on, we start to guess. Or calculate what “should” happen. Rather than be ourselves and play from a truthful place, we make choices based on our opinion of what’s best for the scene.

In order for a scene to be interesting, it really helps for the improviser to be interested in what they are doing or what is going on. If they aren’t, then why would the audience be? When an improviser believes in the moment, they open themselves up to transformation, revelation, movement, resolution, agreement, and breaking of a routine.

These events are sometimes referred to as “tilts.”

A tilt can change someone’s status or even change the balance in a scene without conflict.

As long as you are invested in the moment, there isn’t any need to introduce or create conflict. The pressure you place on yourself to find the conflict will remove you from your scene.

As a result, you are no longer inside the scene, but outside of it.

If you construct conflict in order to create a scene, then you are constructing rather than behaving.

Just be.

If that’s not enough, be more.

When in doubt, raise the level of need for your character. If you get lost in the scene, it’s because you’re not in character. Dig deeper into how you feel about what you are doing, or how you feel about what is going on and allow it to inform you.

You don’t need to CREATE conflict; your character needs to need.

Other characters have their own needs, therefore conflict will ensue whether you want it or not.

“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” – Max Lucade

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

Note: Familiarity with the Harold structure is required for this exercise.

This is a variation on the One-Minute Scene. It’s great for getting players focused on strong initiations and characters, editing, and making connections.

Bonus: because of the fast pace, there’s no time for second-guessing, a.k.a. being in your head.

The premise is simple: your team has five minutes to do an entire Harold. It breaks down something like this:

Opening – 45 seconds

Beat 1A, 1B, 1C – 45 seconds each

Group Game – 30 seconds

Beat 2A, 2B, 2C – 20 seconds each

Group Game – 15 seconds

Beat 3A, 3B, 3C  – 5 seconds each

Of course, these are only rough guidelines. Your gut will tell you when it’s time to move on.

You’ll be amazed how quickly you can build characters and relationships, heighten emotion, identify patterns and bring them back.

If you find your team’s scenes are consistently dragging, taking too long to develop relationships, or not being edited fast enough on stage, this exercise can help. It’s also a lot of fun.

Like the One-Minute Scene, you can ramp it up by doing the same Harold again – in one minute, then 30 seconds, then 10 seconds, then five.

Steve Hobbs is a wicked smart improviser and an old soul. If you need proof, just read this post. He’s a member of the indefatigable Harold team El Fantoma, the indefinable Jenkins Syndrome, and is a featured player in Pondward Bound’s duos night.

Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m dedicating this blog to a man who doesn’t think he’s read anything good today.

I’ve had an improv-related mental itch that’s needed scratching for a while, but have had a lot of trouble figuring out what it was or how to scratch it. You know what I’m talking about: a real thorn in the brain-paw, something I couldn’t quite get my head wrapped around.

The closest I’ve come to phrasing it is, “How did we/I just do that?” For all the moments where that amazing scenic moment happened effortlessly, or when the audience loves something you’re/I’m/we’re doing when it literally feels like it’s a non-move that’s being made, that question gets asked on some level.

Yeah, we know principles of good scene work, techniques, having a point of view, being “in the moment,” and we learn what works from experience and understanding, and for all remaining occasions those moments commonly get written off as the audience’s energy…but personally? I still ask that question.

There are still moments that don’t add up, and still people that will love how lost in that character one of us was when sometimes it didn’t feel like we were that lost in a character at all.

Am I crazy? Are some of these observations justified? What’s happening in those moments that you can only see from the audience? What am I missing?

It was finally laid out plainly for me (through the most seemingly unrelated scenario possible) when I was playing a 10-minute duo set last week, and found myself in the classic pre-show position of having to take a huge dump (ladies, please, hold your applause).

There was no time, I put it out of mind, and soldiered on. It was a fun set; I performed with a player pulled lottery-style from the audience, we both made some moves (intimate prison cell guard vs. inmate about-to-be-released relationship), and sure enough, I ended up taking some focus to “drop a deuce” in the corner of my cell like a good little bran-filled inmate.

Now, this in itself wasn’t too unusual for me, and I didn’t think twice about it at the time. I’ve become all too familiar with sets becoming affected by topics shuffled around pre-show. In fact, it’s uncanny how in a four-set night, the first group having the over-the-top baby-birthing scene will produce at least two subsequent sets with heavy baby emphasis. Uncanny, but typical as hell. I talked about pooping, I pooped while in character, I went on with my day. So what?

So this: when I got off-stage and the intermission came, I was completely empty. There was no round in the chamber, the kids were unavailable for the pool drop-off, the turtle had defied aquatic science and was no longer in the shell somehow. “Large intestine? Cancel my one o’clock”. Totally empty, totally satisfied. That’s not normal for me, or anyone, I think.

Now, with respect to the average person’s intelligence, I’m not suggesting that my colon became some magical gateway to another universe’s toilet, or that my asshole is the Matrix and that particular load realized there was no spoon and woke up in the asshole of the real. This article isn’t (supposed to be) about poop.

What I’m saying is, this realization brought me face to face with an entity that I have a lot of trouble perceiving, and is frequently danced around while left unidentified in my own improv equations. What am I talkin’ ‘bout Willis? I’m talking about my/the unconscious.

Having taken psych classes and group-dynamics training as a camp counselor, I’ve known for a few years that a) the unconscious mind isn’t supposed to be perceivable (memory and sub-conscious recall memory recall fits into the “pre-conscious” in Freudian models), and b) one of my most difficult challenges has been learning to perceive the things I don’t know I’m doing that others can already perceive. (Take a gander at the Johari window for a crash course in that perception relationship.)

image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In fact, I made it a goal of mine to spend the last few years coming to better understand and harness those intricacies in general. But I hadn’t previously considered that, with regard to show tendencies and perception, it’s possible the difficult-to-perceive thing coming through is my unperceivable unconscious mind (which explains a lot, and may or may not have let me poop without pooping)!

Is that what’s being seen? Is my unconsciousness making subtle moves on stage that my conscious isn’t registering? It’s like being Bruce Banner and finding out that Hulk has been taking chemistry classes while I’ve been dreaming. “Have I been sleeping later? Have I been Hulking out longer and longer?”

It fits though – we go to improv school and get trained in all these techniques and skill sets (callbacks, dialogue patterns, scene structuring, thematic work, even “Yes and” etc.), hoping to imprint it so we don’t have to think about it (arguably accessed through the pre-conscious), and meanwhile, what do we value most in longform scenework? Affecting each other. Discovery. Relationships. Truth in comedy. Things that aren’t pre-thought out, and shouldn’t be (formula can be cancer in these moments if it undercuts commitment to the moment).

In a world where we’re trained to both make choices and have points of views while truly reacting in the moment, maybe it’s the sincere presence of the unthinking unconscious in these characters/moments that makes them powerful.

Now, I’m not the first person to write about art and the unconscious, and don’t profess to be an expert on the topic, so I’m going to try to steer clear of getting further nerd-booky and technical with all of this. I can only speak to my own unconscious, and mine freaks the shit out of me.

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the “id” lives in there, which means mine is selfish, and makes me want to punch enemies arbitrarily, and cheat on my girlfriend, and scream out during a school assembly as a kid because it’s too quiet, and be late for every event in my life, and fight bears for fun, and not care about anything, and a million, much more horrible things (these aren’t things I go out and do*, but they’re in there). If I let every scene run wild with unconscious, there’d be a lot of offended, unhappy audience members.

And I’ve had that moment of asking “how can this chaotic, compassionless beast be the missing part of the equation?” I mean, even if these impulses are the interesting, reactionary character elements that help make scenic moments great, there’s a bittersweet taint to it. Not just from needing to rely on part of yourself that’s largely un-fake-able and unquantifiable, but from selfish, consciousness-loving pride.

Consider for a second that the part of you that’s trying to make moves and be amazing – hell, the part of you that learns – could be doomed to come second place to the part of you that isn’t.

Realistically, I’m sure it’s a marriage. Just like the fun iO West team-dynamic discussion of teams balancing out highly structured robot players with highly impulsive pirate players (and silent credit-less ninja thinkers of course), a balance between the unconscious and consciousness in scenes is the best route to goodness.

I’m not sure what the balance is (is training just conditioning for the unconscious, or a series of filters?), but I know it’s there. I’ve done my best to look my own unconscious in the eye, and I think we’re coming to terms…though factoring in my frequent lateness, un-wake-able dreams, constant impulsive behaviour, and recently acquired ability to mentally cancel shitting, I’m pretty sure it’s a juggernaut and wearing the pants in this mental relationship.

Oh well.

HULK SMASH.

*I may or may not fight a bear in my lifetime. I might actually go out and do that one.

Photo © Becky Feilders