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Posts tagged Paloma Nunez

Photo © Marc-Julien Objois

Photo © Marc-Julien Objois

It’s been an intense week for people in the arts. We’ve seen actors, filmmakers, comedians, and musicians called “cucks,” “crybabies,” “snowflakes” and far worse for expressing themselves, or being concerned with “feelings versus facts.”

But no one goes to see a show about facts. No one stands in front of an equation at MoMA, or dances to string theory.

How do you speak your truth and show vulnerability onstage when tensions are so high? We asked a few of our favourite improvisers for their perspective.

Anand Rajaram What we do as artists is unique because it’s the only field in which we are not only welcome to, but required to express our feelings.

Lawyers may or may not empathize with their clients, or police with their suspects, but it cannot get in the way of doing their job or they’re deemed unfit to hold their position. Artists, as a result, do what everyone else suppresses.

Naturally, that causes those who suppress themselves most to respond strongest, either in thanks for petitioning an idea on their behalf, or with vitriol for challenging their beliefs.

There is no potential worse time for democracy. That means there is great potential for intense feelings and self and societal suppression. And that means artists are well positioned, if brave enough, to emerge as strong social pillars in these turbulent times.

But it starts with recognizing one’s feelings, then having perspective, and finally, having the strength to withstand criticism for one’s viewpoint. Improvisers, like actors, need empathy to understand alternate perspectives and represent them honestly. Big ears and openness may lead to a very transformative time to come.

Christine Aziz I haven’t been doing a lot of improv in NYC, but have been feeling particularly vulnerable considering I’m in a country where I have legal status but not really. I’m living in the US, but I’m not an American, so it makes me sometimes think, well, who am I to be having opinions about this? Or my opinion or reactions to the election aren’t as heavily weighted. Of course the leader of the free world makes decisions that affect the whole world, so my reactions are as a citizen of the world, who of course is affected.

I was at a jazz show last week where the headliner talked openly about his feelings, and people appreciated not only his music, but his authenticity. I worry about being too much of a downer as people start to say “Be positive and hope for the best” and “Be the change” etc, but this is totally unprecedented and I don’t think it’s right to suppress people’s perfectly valid fears. I’m so grateful to brave artists who are speaking up, especially the cast of Hamilton, because now is the time for artists to do our work. People are looking to us to inspire them and give them hope, and to propel them towards speaking up and standing up for others in their own lives.

I’m doing a cabaret show on the weekend and it’s comedic, but I want to fully acknowledge what is happening – the feelings of sadness and disappointment – but also the fight. The energy of “We aren’t going to take any bullshit, and we are paying attention.” But still keeping it light and not letting it dominate my act. The show must go on, but the show must also be mindful of what is happening out there in the world and can’t exist in a vacuum.

Susan Messing My thoughts are obviously leaking into my work. I did a show with Scott Adsit last Thursday, and one scene began with him onstage and me in the house and I said, “Mr Gonzales, are they really going to build a wall?”

“Post-truth” means LIE. I find it infuriating how that phrase and “alt-right” are bandied about as if it isn’t hurtful. At the least, comedy is helping us that feel lost and marginalized to commiserate with each other through laughter during a time that is distinctly not funny.

Etan Muskat I think the operative word in “Fuck Your Feelings” is “Your.” One of the scariest things about the American election is how divided people seem to be. There’s real rage on both sides, and a real inability for the politically divided country to find common ground.

This thing about Trump tweeting that theatre should be a “safe and special place” is particularly interesting, because that’s an idea associated with millennials – that they are routinely attacked for – but it’s also at the heart of the current wave of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia: people saying “I want my world to feel safe and I don’t feel safe around X.”

The SNL sketch with Tom Hanks about Trump voters and black Americans having so much in common was one of my favourite bits of comedy surrounding the election cycle, because it attempted to do something I haven’t seen much of lately: show the common humanity of enemies.

I remember hearing about a study that said reading novels increases empathy, because the reader is compelled to identify with the experiences of the narrator and characters outside their own experience. It’s a more intimate relationship than with a film or TV character. And that empathy translates to real life interpersonal dynamics.

I think improv has the ability to have that same effect, because of the vulnerability of the performers. But that vulnerability cuts both ways, as we’ve seen with Second City performers in Chicago being heckled to the breaking point.

I really believe the best comedy expresses profound truth. But truth is contingent on experience, even to the point that people will deny obvious facts if they don’t fit their worldview. That’s the secret to Trump, but it’s also the secret of all art. To tell a truth that our audience can embrace. So it really just depends on how you see the world.

Paloma Nuñez Share your life, your view, your experience. Everything that comes out of you comes from the filter of your life experience. That is relatable. Someone may see themselves in you and your life, and they might not feel so alone. Art is about feelings, because that’s how we process facts.

(Sidebar: This election wasn’t won with facts, it was won with feelings. People felt unheard and underrepresented, Trump capitalized on that. I mean did he even say any facts? Don’t fact check me on that…)

Fear is the enemy of creation, so you can’t worry about what others think; instead just make them feel. It’s the unifying factor. We all love people, we all want our loved ones to be safe, healthy, and happy. Show people who they are, without the filter of ridicule or judgement, and they might just see themselves in the mirror you place in front of them.

Julie Osborne Against this sort of socio-political backdrop, it’s easy to become mired in cynicism or hopelessness. Unscripted theatre affords us the opportunity to combat that with humanity in a very immediate and responsive way – inviting both the audience and performers to reflect, provoke, transpose and challenge our feelings in a setting that is very deliberately not constricted by fact, but that fails and feels hollow when there isn’t some sort of emotional truth present.

We go to the theatre to see exactly that: people being affected – experiencing things that resonate personally. We go to the theatre to feel something. In the company of others. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking comedy or tragedy (or a bit of both). It’s kind of the whole mandate, then, to speak personal truth and show vulnerability.

Cameron and I saw True Blue at the Fringe festival, and five days later, it’s stayed with me.

The show is an hour of unscripted theatre in the style of NYPD Blue or True Detective. The pace is slower than most improvised sets, but it’s every bit as compelling. Unlike most improv, the actors weren’t going for laughs (although there were plenty to keep us entertained). But what was really refreshing was seeing improvisers sit in scenes long enough for nuances to emerge, and dialogue to breathe.

One of my favourite performances was by Shanda Bezic, an actor who I was surprised to discover only started learning improv last year. Her characters were grounded and authentic, yet still playful.

At the other end of the scale was Anders Yates’ hilarious turn as a coroner. It was clear he didn’t know much about coroner…ing, but scene partners Colin Munch and Amy Matysio used this gift to their advantage, and the audience’s delight.

I came away thinking how we don’t have to know everything, or be “expert improvisers,” as long as we commit fully to each tiny moment, and each other, on stage. And how being different – in format, style, or approach – is a wonderful thing.

True Blue was named Patron’s Pick, and there are still two more chances to see it this Sunday.

Photo © Connor Low

HEADSHOT1

Photo © Pierre Gautreau

Teaching new students the art of improvisation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. The students are so vulnerable and so terrified, and the courage it takes them to simply show up for class deserves recognition.

It’s easy for any improviser to forget, after all the hours logged in classes and on stages in front of audiences, that they once started out as sweaty-palmed students. Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.

The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)

The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.

I believe in creative endeavours we must let our squirrel out to play, and that the door isn’t actually protecting us, it is only an illusion. When we feel fear, our brain kicks in to analyze our situation and find a way to keep us safe. This is great, but only when you are literally trying to survive, like a lion is chasing you or something. When it comes to be art, “being in your head” will kill you. The more you do improv, the more you become aware of the “being in your head” phenomenon.

Most new students tell me that they want to get out of their head, they want to build confidence and feel more relaxed talking to people. Their Squirrel is dying to get out of the Garage.

Think about when you feel the most at home, where you can really just be yourself. Maybe with friends or family, when you’ve had a drink or two, or are in a really good mood. You say what you want, you may act silly, you may make people around you laugh. This is your squirrel running around outside the garage! What a fun free feeling (and now you know you have a Squirrel).

The number one enemy of this squirrel is judgement, aka the garage door: the antithesis of creativity. It is fear incarnate. But “No judgement” is much easier said than done, especially the judgement of oneself.

Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.

When my squirrel is out, there is no thinking, it is just being. I slow down and lock in on my partner/ensemble and everything seems to just come to me. The connections, the ideas, the offers, THE TRUTH. It feels like magic, the audience can’t believe that what you just created wasn’t written and rehearsed, and my cheeks are flushed with fun.

The brand new improv student will experience this a few times maybe, in the early weeks of their classes, but the confidence it builds is astounding. It’s a drug and the students are hooked on the freedom: the feeling that it wasn’t any work at all.

How could it be that easy? And how do I make it happen again? How do I entice the squirrel to come out? Well if that isn’t the age-old question, the problem that plagues improvisers of all ages and experiences.

Here is what I try to encourage in the early days of improvisation, and these points are a reminder for those who’ve been at it for years:

Failure

There is so much freedom in failure. Many of us are programmed to fear it, and

to strive for perfection. But perfection has no place in art. In comedy the goal is entertaining the audience. If that means playing an improv game terribly but with gusto, then you have succeeded. When we can earnestly put ourselves out there and try to do something whilst failing, we will delight others. When new students try and fail in front of each other, it inspires everyone to stick their neck out. This shared experience creates a bond and trust is born.

Trust

Trust to be oneself, and trusting our ensemble. Then the garage door opens. For new

Students, I ask them not to think about being interesting/funny/clever but just to do exercises to the best of their ability. Most of the laughs that come from the early days are because of a moment of truth or failure. When those laughs happen, it’s amazing how much a student learns to trust themselves, and that they don’t have to live up to an expectation of funny: just of true in-the-moment reaction.

Why am I sharing the Squirrel in the Garage with all of you? I know everyone has this beautiful self inside them. If you are finding this timid creature for the first time it can change your life no matter what stage you’re in. Improv isn’t just for people who want to be funny or make a career of performing. It’s for people who say “Fuck* fear, this is my voice!”

*(The word “fuck” does not scare the squirrel.)

If you find yourself in an in-your-head rut, remember those early days of learning and what really drew you to this art form: fun. It’s easy to take a billion classes and to get mucked up with all the things you should be doing, but how is your squirrel going to get out of the garage with all those rules in the way?

There is no perfect improviser, and no right way to do this art form, so go back to what makes you giggle and go from there. As the lovely Susan Messing always says, “If you’re not having fun, then you are the asshole.”

Paloma Nuñez is an actress/improviser/comedian living in Toronto. She has had the joy of performing improv for over 10 years and has performed in many festivals, including NYC, Chicago, the Carolinas, Vancouver and Edmonton. She performs with the Bad Dog Theatre Co’s Theatresports, and with the Canadian Comedy Award-nominated Bad Dog Repertory Players. She co-produced Throne of Games, also nominated for a CCA. Catch her in the feature film, Spotlight, coming out in 2015. She likes hugs. 

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“Edit with your intuition. Listen to your body.” – Jet Eveleth

It’s Harold night.

You’re standing on the side, watching a scene that’s been getting huge laughs. It’s so hilarious, you’re not even thinking what beat this is, or which character you should bring back, when suddenly…

everything goes to hell in a badly-mimed handbag.

The performers, on fire just moments ago, are now strangely quiet. The audience is even quieter. And the only sound is your own heart thumping as you wonder, “How the fuck do I edit this?”

Or you’re watching a scene that started out shaky and went downhill from there  – but still you’re rooted to the spot.

Or maybe you’re actually in a scene that’s well past its best-by date. You find yourself calling for a newly-invented character, miming a noose, or just screaming for help with your eyes for someone to PLEASE. FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, EDIT. THIS SCENE.

If any of these sound familiar, here are some techniques that can help. I guarantee your fellow performers will thank you.

Photo © Mike Riverso

Photo © Mike Riverso

Some people say you should edit on a laugh. That’s not a bad thought, but it isn’t a must. Especially if the scene you’re watching has clocked seven laugh-free minutes already.

The best time to edit is almost always before you think “Someone should edit this.”

Replace that thought with “I should edit this.” Better yet, just stop thinking and edit. Starting with the…

Sweep Edit

The granddaddy of improv edits, the sweep often gets a bum rap for being boring, safe, or amateur. Say what you will, but when shit hits improvised fan, a sweep edit will get you out of the way of flying feces every time.

There’s really only two things to remember:

1. Stay in front of the players you’re sweeping, and

2. Jog, don’t walk.

Otherwise you might be mistaken for a walk-on character. And the only thing worse than a scene that’s tanking is a scene that’s tanking with one extra person, aka a clusterfuck.

Sweep 2.0

Some people put their own spin on a sweep.

Improv duo Scratch uses a 360-degree spin to let the audience (and each other) know when they’re new characters, or in a new location.

And we’ve seen a few people put a skip in their first step as they sweep to a new scene. It’s a nice little touch that communicates the performer’s enjoyment along with the audience.

Now that you’ve got that down, the wonderful Jet Eveleth teaches a bunch of great techniques, including…

Vocal Edit

This is one of my faves, because it’s so versatile. All it requires is stepping out and taking focus, either with words or a sound.

Let’s say the scene on stage takes place at a vet. You could edit by making animal sounds. (This could also work as a swarm edit – see below.)

Just make sure to stay downstage, and be loud enough so that you take focus, to make it clear you’re editing.

Maybe the vet scene referenced a song. In that case you could edit by singing the song as you move across the stage.

Now anyone can bring the same song back as an edit, or a song from the same artist, genre or era.

Narrative Edit

You can edit with a brief narration, spoken as you walk confidently from one side of the stage to the other:

“Meanwhile, in a basement in Idaho…”

“A hundred years later…”

“And as the sun set on the horizon, meth lab owner Bryan Hobbs was just waking up…”

The narrative edit is similar to a sweep, but leaves the rest of the team with the gift of a location, character, or other new information.

French Edit

Also called an organic edit, it simply means making a clear, strong initiation as you enter to begin a new scene:

“…and that’s how meringue was invented.”

“This place is filthy!”

“Has anyone seen my bandana?”

Or whatever.

Enter the scene with energy, and you’ll lift the rest of the show with it.

Monologue

You can always edit by stepping out and starting a monologue, until you’re tagged out or edited.

Unless you’re doing a monologue-based set though, this probably isn’t your best option. I’ve seen Harolds where one person did a random monologue, and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Monologues work best when they’re brought back, either by one person or several.

Swarm Edit

This makes an awesome stage picture, because it involves multiple players. The idea is to move in and edit as a group.

Anything can be a catalyst.

Paloma Nunez initiated a great swarm edit with Little American Bastards. One of the characters on stage started crying. Paloma entered from stage right, saying “Drip…drip…drip…” while making falling teardrop motions with her hands.

The rest of the team followed a beat later, saying “Drip…drip…drip…” and making the same motion. It looked great, and started a whole new scene seamlessly.

You can swarm silently, or with words or sounds. Use your physicality to heighten the effect.

Internal Edit

This is a subtler form of edit, where you change the scene you’re currently in.

Let’s say you’re in a scene where your character’s on a blind date.

You could break the fourth wall, turn to the audience and say, “That’s when I knew I could never really love Brad.”

You could then move downstage and start monologuing, or narrate, or scene paint a whole new scenario.

Or, you could take on the voice and physicality of a totally different character, then begin a new scene as that person.

Line Repetition

This comes courtesy of Dave Sawyer from ImprovBoston. (See our post on the Snatch Edit)

If a scene is dragging, you can take any line of dialogue that’s just been uttered and repeat it as you walk on stage. Use your volume to take focus and let the performers know you’re starting a new scene:

Player 1: I got some vanilla ice cream. You want some?

Player 2: I’m lactose intolerant.

Player 3: (walking downstage, louder) I’m lactose intolerant…but I love Scientology!

You can also repeat a sound from one scene, and heighten – or morph it into something new – to start another.

Sometimes It’s Good To Be An Asshole

One of my teachers said, “When the audience is laughing, you want to be the asshole who edited the scene too soon.”

Trust your gut to know when it’s time to edit. And before you second-guess yourself, just remember Ben Stiller’s Starsky character and “Do it.”