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Started my Improv 101 class!

Today was the first session of the 8-week Improv 101 series at Impatient Theatre, and I had tons of fun.

Among the first few improvisational games we played was “I Love…”, where the goal was to tell people about as many things you love as you can share in two minutes. Almost everyone struggled with this, stammering or running out of steam. Me? I think I took three breaths total–there were so many good things I wanted to talk about! I started with “I love walking out of the Toronto Public Library with a stack of books *this* high”, shared lots of loves related to learning and teaching and languages and cooking and gardening and sewing–and you can see how this list goes on and on… It was a terrific game that left me buzzing, and I’m looking forward to trying it on my own or sharing it with W- and J-.

We also played the Experts game, a role I slipped into easily. (It’s just like turning off my jargon filter and playing with outrageous ideas!) The other participants set us up to be experts on dog shoes, so we talked about commercial and military developments. I liked discussing crazy ideas in matter-of-fact ways. I also liked building on other people’s contributions, giving more details and referring to previously-mentioned “facts”. The topic for my second round was “space trash”, so we talked about some products and services we’d developed to send trash into space as a way of dealing with Toronto’s current strike. =)

The “Yes, And…” game was more challenging, although I started easing into it. At work and in life, I get plenty of practice (and enjoyment!) when it comes to agreeing and building on people’s ideas. What I’m not used to yet is creating and filling in worlds through declarative statements. I can do that with the Experts game because there’s a clearer structure and a role. With the “Yes, And…” game, the playing field is wide open. I’m looking forward to becoming better at listening, responding, and filling in the specific details that can help my scene partner relax and contribute.

Looking back, I can see a terrific connection between the improv workshop today and the women’s leadership workshop I attended yesterday. In the leadership workshop, we talked about choosing roles and using strong words. Well, that’s precisely what can help me make the “Yes, And…” game smoother and more enjoyable–if I can clearly develop a role, adapt it to what’s going on around me, and use strong words to shape other people’s worlds and paint pictures in people’s minds.

Our homework was to notice when we block others (“Yes, but…”, “No…”, and things like that), and to think about how to turn questions into declarative statements that move the scene forward instead of putting the scene partner on the spot. I’m going to keep looking for opportunities to play with “Yes, And…” in real life (we just did that in the kitchen!). I’m also looking forward to playing the “I Love…” game with W- and J-, because I think it will be tons of fun, and I can play it by myself too as a great gratitude-starter for the day. As for strong words, I’m going to practice using more specific words and drawing word-pictures in my blog and in conversation, and trying out different declarative statements in my head.

Looking forward to next week!

Improv 101 class 2: Scenes, objects, and environments

It takes time to build an imaginary world that other people can see, and I’m looking forward to being able to do so.

In last Thursday’s Improv 101 class at Impatient Theatre, we learned more about improvising scenes, objects, and environments. We started off with a few warm-up games such as Zip-Zap-Zop and “Yes, And…”. After I relaxed and mentally reviewed the status-games tips from Keith Johnstone’s book “Impro”, I found it easier to build on whatever my partner threw at me. It’s interesting looking at conversations through the lens of status games…

Our teacher kicked it up a notch by challenging us to pair up and establish characters, relationships, location, and situation with just three lines of dialogue. My first partner and I made the other students laugh when I pretended to be a mom worried by her son’s grades… particularly the F in surfing. (Starting to play with surprise!) I saw that two of the other students were having a hard time with the exercise. I wanted to help build their confidence. I trusted that I’d be able to handle whatever they threw at me and make it look okay (and that it would be a good challenge!). so I joined each of them onstage, nudged them to take the lead, and accepted and built on whatever they gave me. It worked out well! The scenes flowed smoothly, and I hope that helped them have more fun. I had thought about taking the lead and giving them lots of detail to work with, but letting them take the lead meant there weren’t long pauses that might embarrass them. =) I’m looking forward to getting better at establishing scenes quickly.

Another game we played involved pretending to create objects out of infinite, invisible clay. I worked on remembering to mime the construction of the object instead of simply tracing the outline. I made a pretzel, which I think people missed. I also made a pepperoni pizza, which people saw clearly. The instructor laughed at my head-smacking moments – I’d started putting on the pepperoni, then I realized I hadn’t grated and sprinkled cheese, then I realized I hadn’t put on tomato sauce… =) Next, I’d like to get better at spontaneously coming up with ideas based on preceding items, instead of giving in to the temptation to plan a little bit ahead.

To warm us up for environment work, we played a game about seven things one might find in a given location. I had fun adding details during my turn, taking the first thing that popped into my head and embellishing it to make it more concrete for me.

The last big game we played involved working in imaginary environments. We improvised in groups of four, and our task was to hide an imaginary object in a location determined by our teacher and not shared with the audience. At the end, the audience was to guess what the object was and where it was hidden. Our group ended up hiding a magnifying glass in a locker room. The audience figured out the magnifying glass easily, but the location wasn’t clear. There were so many things I can learn how to do better! I tried to remember where the locker doors were, but I don’t think I oriented myself well enough when I was on stage. A moment’s inattention meant that I wasn’t sure if the locker door swung open to the right or to the left. And although we threw in a few more clues–a bench, a stinky gym bag–my team and I rushed through the environment-setting up. All the teams did, probably because we all felt nervous and conscious of the time.

Next time I work with environments, I can help my team members and the audience by taking the time to establish a really solid image. That means I’ll need to work on my spatial intelligence, and to pay attention to all the objects and steps involved in everyday things making a sandwich. It’ll be fun!

I’m looking forward to sharing these games with J-. I think she’ll enjoy helping me practice!

Improv 101, class 3: It’s not about stuff, it’s about relationships

What would it feel like to be able to go with the flow of improvisation, to be able to find the game and go with it?

It’s hard to think that I’ll get to that point. Today, I felt like a trembling 11-year-old rushing through my first speaking parts, thinking too much about the scene and the situation for me to fully enjoy. I found it hard to keep eye contact, to build the relationship, even to listen and recognize the games that we could play with each other.

Maybe after five more weeks, my classmates and I will have figured more of this out! Wouldn’t that be fun? =)

One of my challenges is finding the game, then letting go. A scene doesn’t have to be about conflict or about problem-solving. It can be just a day in the life. I don’t have to consciously amp it up. What would this look like if we did this really well? We might stumble across something interesting, then recognize it and play off it throughout the scene. It’s like the little jokes that W- and I have! We play word-games all the time, and we occasionally make up situations too. If I can figure out how to take that feeling and bring it to my classes, I think that would be pretty cool.

How can I grow in this? There are a few things I can do:

  • I can expose myself to more role models. Watching improv shows can give me ideas of what it looks like when things go really well. I can also take notes when people on the stage miss the game or don’t let go.
  • I can look for opportunities to practice in real life. Maybe small talk can give me more opportunities to listen and react, and of course there are the games W- and I play.
  • I can practice on my own. It might be time to dust off my flash fiction writing, do morning pages, and play with free association or stream-of-consciousness writing. The thing is to hush my inner editor and just follow my curiosity, knowing that wherever I end up is the right place to be.
  • I can set up opportunities to practice. W-’s okay with having people over, so maybe I’ll host a get-together one of these weekends. August 29 and September 5, maybe?
  • I can warm up. How? Hmm… More free association on the way there?

Another of my challenges is to not get distracted by the environment, activity, objects, or imaginary people outside the scene, but rather to focus on developing the relationship between the on-screen characters. What would doing that really well look like? I’d be able to listen hard, accept whatever reality my partner creates, figure out our game, and move the scene forward.

I’m still getting used to making up reality. Normal conversation doesn’t usually include establishing other people’s realities based on made-up assumptions.

It’s useful to practice both strong initiations and great agreement. I can practice initiation and relationship development is by writing flash fiction. Agreement and finding the game, that’s harder to practice on my own. It is, after all, a game. But maybe I can pick some of that up by watching other people, or even video.

<grin> This’ll be fun!

Also, another interesting insight from today: playing a high-status person doesn’t automatically mean putting other people down. It was obvious once our teacher pointed that out, but I think we’d all gone for the snobbish stereotype! <laugh> I’ll be keeping an eye out for status (both high and low) in real life…

Observational humour and solo improv play

Check out this humour specialist’s observational humor monologues based on real-life events at his Toastmasters Club.

It sounds like the kind of thing you could do to practice improv comedy on your own, although I’m sure it takes a lot of practice to come up with things as quickly as he does!

Improv: Catch 23′s Next Act, people-watching

Hat-tip to Taylor for telling me about Catch 23‘s improv event at the Comedy Bar last night. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot!

Here’s what I picked up:

  • The singular of words often pluralized (“Timbit” versus “Timbits”) is funny because it’s unexpected. In the context of the improvised scene, it was also endearingly pathetic.
  • Group reactions make scenes come alive. In one of the scenes, a character was (Chuck Norris-ly?) weight-lifting the whole floor. We could see that because everyone else raised a leg in sync with the character’s motion.
  • Creative analogies win crowds. There was a rather vivid analogy involving taxes and accountants, which made lots of people laugh.
  • Twitter can be a source of inspiration, particularly with quotes taken out of context and with the translation of written conventions (ex: “Wowwww”) to spoken language.
  • Breaking the illusion can work quite effectively. “I want to see a montage of how you captured those monkeys!” We’d never say that in real life, but it made sense as a humorous edit / prompt.
  • Mess up math? No problem, just call back to it and make it a running joke.
  • One of the presenters (Kayla Lorette) was great at conveying subtle emotions through very quick, quirky facial expressions and silences. I was also impressed by the way she used aggression, an accent, and smooth delivery all together.

I wonder what studying people’s expressions will reveal… =) Our homework was to study people. People-watching!

On the subway ride back, I noticed a couple clearly having a tiff. They seemed to be in their twenties. The woman had curly hair with a pouf secured by butterfly clips. She wore a brown floral blouse, white slacks, and ruffled black three-inch heels. The man had short hair, a slight beard, and eyebrows that seemed to always be slanted in a sad look. He wore cargo shorts and canvas shoes. They stood waiting for the train, bodies angled away from each other, yet still standing close enough to be identified as a couple. As the train lit up the tunnel, the woman quickly walked forward until she was near the yellow line marking the edge of the platform. After a short pause, the man slowly walked forward as well.

I boarded the same car and continued watching them from under the brim of my hat. They sat together. She crossed her legs at the knees, angling away from him. Her hands were clasped on the side away from him as well, and she kept her eyes in that direction. His arms were casually crossed, and his legs were crossed at the ankles. He looked away, too. His knee extended into her space, but they didn’t touch. Still, no words.

They didn’t speak throughout my part of the trip, but over time, the woman started glancing over at the man’s side. Not directly at him, but in that general direction. Her arms also loosened slightly, although she still leaned away. Interesting, indeed…

(I studied other people as well, but they were the most interesting folks for that trip.)

More as I learn about people and improv!

Improv 101, class 4: Characterizations

It occurred to me that I hadn’t written about my fourth class in Improv, which was two weeks ago. (I skipped last week’s due to a conflict, and will take a make-up class in September.)

Annie was away, so Kevin substituted for her. We got a lot of practice doing two-person scenes, which I enjoyed a lot because it gave all of us plenty of practice time and threw lots of different situations at us. Kevin was jokingly frustrated by the way my classmates occasionally asked him to define the words he used for suggestions. I know what that’s like! W- and I both use vocabularies wider than most people’s, although he actually has the discipline to look up pronunciations in the dictionary, so he’s comfortable saying things and I often fumble with a few different ways to pronounce rarer words. =)

Looking forward to improv class tomorrow! I’ve got a calendar full of meetings, and then I’ll be off to class.