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Posts tagged improv exercise

Here’s an exercise Cameron uses that’s great for “yes, and”-ing.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

If you listen to Comedy Bang! Bang!, you know the Andy Daly characters get really fleshed-out, in part because Paul F. Tompkins, Jason Mantzoukas and Scott Aukerman ask leading questions.

You can do the same in scenes. When you ask leading questions, your scene partner now has to accept that reality and build out from there.

It’s like the press conference game. You’re basically endowing the character, and you just keep endowing them. For example:

Player #1: So, John, you wrote a book called Starting when you started drinking. I noticed the last chapters are just random type. Do you really feel like this has helped your life?

Then the person has to respond. It forces them to realise that those are true things now, because the other person said them. So it’s “yes-ing” and it’s “and-ing.” It’s forcing you to go, “Yes, this is fucking real, so just accept it.”

When Player #1 says, “Oh and there’s a whole chapter on how to start embezzling,” that feels like the wrong path, and you’d have to explain why, in your book, it’s a valuable thing to start doing.

Where it gets fun is, it’s really about surprising the other person. So like, “I notice you wear a live raccoon as a hat. Does that help with writing, or are you also into fashion?” And then they can be like, OK, I wear a live raccoon, how do I explain that? Or, “I see you’re not wearing pants.”

What you want is for them to almost laugh the word “Yep,” and then follow up with “Here’s why, and here’s how that happened…”

Player #1: Today’s your birthday.

Player #2: Yes, I share a birthday with…

Player #1: Tom Selleck?

Player #2: Yes. The man and the moustache.

Player #1: For your birthday gift, on twitter you said that you wanted people to send you their used Kleenex. For eating. Was that a joke, or do you actually eat tissues?

Player #2: I do. I feel like the fibre market is expanding…

Player #1: Why do they need to be used?

Player #2: Well, people are germophobes now. Everyone’s carrying around their little bottle of Purell, and it’s actually leading to a very unhealthy and more dangerous society. We need to get more germs into our bodies in order to be healthier.

…or whatever.

To get started, you might endow someone’s character, but then as they “yes, and” it, they’re going to say things that in turn you can feast on.

So if you say you’re into Paleo, I’ll think, to what extreme are you like a caveman? You know what, I’ll test this out by saying, “I notice you slaughtered the neighbours’ dog and ate it, and you also drag your wife around by the hair.” I’m not making you say those things; you said you were big on the Paleo thing, now let’s really go 100% on it.

Try it at your next rehearsal.

The National Theatre of The World did a long scene recently where Matt Baram and Ron Pederson never referred to each other by name.

Naomi Snieckus then mischievously pimped them, herself and Chris Gibbs into doing a scene that only contained names.

The result was hilarious but also fascinating, as they used only first names (e.g. “Edgar?” “Daphne…” “Timothy!”) to emote and define their relationships to each other.

It’s a fun alternative to the “Fifty” exercise, where two people do a scene using only numbers from 1 to 50 in place of dialogue.

Try it at your next rehearsal!

Name Game Wordle

One of the things that I do when I bring improv into the world of social work and/or academia is an exercise that I now call “The Drawing Exercise.” I learned it from the wonderful Jess Grant (in a group rehearsal with a bunch of very awesome people).

The exercise goes like this:

The premise is that the group works to create a picture together: line-by-line, person-by-person. Individuals take turns, but there’s no given order to the turn-taking. This is a silent exercise. The group is given one marker and a large sheet of paper on an easel (or on the wall). The instructions given are minimal.

  • draw ONLY one line or mark at a time
  • no talking
  • make your mark and then wait, facing the group, until someone takes the marker from you
  • the final drawing should appear drawn by one hand.
  • find your ending; when the group feels the picture is complete, you agree to this (non-verbally) and stop drawing

The group stands back about two meters from the paper, forming a semi-circle facing it. The facilitator makes a single mark on the paper, then stands by it with the marker in their hand until someone in the group (“A”) takes it from them. “A” proceeds to make another mark on the paper, and once again steps away from it with the marker in hand and stands until someone else continues the activity. The process continues until the group feels their picture is complete.

There are a ton of great things within this exercise, but for now I’m going to talk about making one mark at a time.

As an improvisational exercise, having to make one mark at a time is meant to induce the process of making room for the ideas of others. It’s intended to point to how it feels to do this kind of sharing, and to point to the experience of creating together and/or “having to” create together.

The technique of making one mark at a time also ensures that people take turns, and in doing this, give up some control, while making the concept of having control or personal power, visible.

Allowing for the ideas of others is an improvisational technique; not just allowing, but necessitating/obliging/enforcing. We’re forced to make room for the ideas of others, forced to “hear” those ideas because they are then “in the world/on the paper.”

We can’t ignore the reality that has been created because it is visible, concrete. In this way, it’s training for the improviser: to begin to say “yes” to, to work with, to engage with and accept, the marks of others.

The mark begs our consideration, as does our fellow players’ existence. Their words, their stories, their body language: these are all changing the space, shifting the flow of the air in the room, altering the shape of our body when we sit down or shake their hand or pull our gun (hahaha Michael Scott).

As an improviser, this is what we learn to do. We learn to actively consider the existence of others; their ideas, their postures, their words, their silences. We actively consider the existence of others and ourselves.

As we’re forced to consider the marks of others, it makes us reflect on how we feel about it, how we react to it. It helps us to hear the voices of others, to consider their marks, and to consider them in the context of what was drawn before and what will come after, as part of a whole process of creating together.

Sometimes this is exciting and sometimes this is shitty. But it’s usually an awakening. So I’m really thankful for improv and the way it does.

cathyblog

Cathy Paton is an Arts Facilitator who has worked in Canada and internationally with many groups, exploring movement, improv, and communication. Trained in long-form improvisation, modern dance, life/art performance method, and red-nosed clown, she is currently working on a PhD project that looks at how we can change our ways of relating through the art of improvisation. Cathy has a background in social work, and is always looking at ways of combining the arts with ways of being together.

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This game uses physicality to find a character, heighten and explore it. Our thanks to Todd Stashwick for teaching us.

To begin, players walk around the room in a neutral gait. As you walk, become aware of what part of your body you normally lead with. It may be your nose, forehead, chest, shoulders, hips, knees… Whatever it is, heighten it.

Stay in this exaggerated walk for a minute or so, then be the complement to that walk. For example, if you were walking with your shoulders slumped and stomach protruding, throw your shoulders back and suck your stomach in.

Walk in your new character for a while, then be the complement to that walk. After 30 seconds or so, become the complement to that walk.

Staying in this last physicality, stop and find something in your environment. Reach out and shape the space in front of you. Feel space push back as you work with the object.

What have you found?

Is it heavy or light, large or small, rounded or angular? Feeling the weight and shape of the object, think about your name, age and occupation.

Remember your physicality and newfound characteristics as everyone takes a seat. At the front of the room are two chairs, angled towards each other. The Coach/Director sits in one. He or she will play the Interviewer, whose task is to hire a super spy.

The qualified applicant must know twelve languages, be a mixed martial arts expert, have excellent sniper skills, be able to crack codes and hack into enemy computers, etc. etc. Think James Bond meets S.H.I.E.L.D. on steroids.

The Interviewer buzzes an off-stage assistant to bring in the next job applicant. He or she then interviews as many unqualified applicants as there are players.

Each person’s unsuitability for the job will be revealed as the Interviewer questions them about their experience (or lack of), physical (dis)abilities,  personality and other quirks or tics.

When the Interviewer can take no more, he buzzes in the next applicant.

As you can see from the photos, it’s more fun than a season of The Americans. Try it at your next rehearsal.

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All photos © Mark Cotoia

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This is a short-form classic.

You probably remember it from Whose Line Is It Anyway? Ryan Stiles was usually a hapless chef, forced to mix and eventually eat disgusting concoctions prepared with the “help” of Colin Mochrie.

Even without props, this exercise is a great reminder of the power of body language.

To begin, choose four players. Two people stand with their arms clasped behind their backs. The other two thread their arms through the “holes” on either side, then perform a two-person scene as normal. The players in front do all the talking, while their “helping hands” do all the gesturing.

The contrast between what the audience sees (someone scratching their nose, stroking their chin, or twiddling their thumbs for example) and what’s being said is half the fun.

Here’s a great example (sans words) using dogs. Click below to view.

This exercise sharpens listening and reacting to your scene partner, because there’s no way you can pre-plan actions or dialogue.

To begin, two players step out.

The Coach/Director hands one person a book. It can be any book that contains dialogue. You can also use a screenplay or play.

Someone calls out a number below 50, and the player with the book turns to that page. They read the first piece of dialogue they find in quotes.

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Let’s say the number is 34 and the book is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The first sentence in quotes on page 34 is:

“Well, Harry, what brings you out so early?”

The second player must respond to that initiation, however they feel is appropriate. They might say:

“Mindy kicked me out of the house. Again.”

or

“I don’t want to be late for my A.A. meeting.”

or

“I skipped the full-body shave this time and just sprayed on a little more Axe.”

Or whatever.

The first player then reads the next piece of dialogue by the same character. (Sometimes this might mean skipping a page to find the next snippet in quotes.)

Chances are, the written dialogue won’t make a lot of sense coming after the improvised line. That’s OK. The point isn’t to create Edward Albee-worthy scenes; it’s to get you focused on listening and responding to whatever is thrown at you.

The scene continues with one player reading their dialogue from the book, and the second player always responding extemporaneously.

It’s a bit of mindfuck, but that’s what makes it fun. Try it at your next rehearsal.

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.