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Friday, September 14, 2012

A Conversation with Patti Stiles

This isn't so much an article as a link. A few months back I posted a comment on Patti Stiles' Impro blog. The blog post she wrote was entitled "Transaction Scenes". Patti is one of the world's great improv teachers. She has this amazing way of pointing out the obvious and suddenly your whole perspective has shifted. She writes one of my favourite blogs.

Now, according to the Improv Encyclopedia, Transaction Scenes are defined as:

"A transaction scene is a scene in which nothing happens but a simple transaction. For beginners, transaction scenes are a dangerous pitfall. When the scene Setup is e.g. a shoe-shop, it is tempting to play a scene about buying shoes, but such a scene is not likely to be very interesting.

Transaction scenes need not be boring, but then we want to see something else happening but the actual transaction. An interesting Subtext may help."

Patti blogs about her perspective on this type of scene and I added my thoughts. Check out our conversation here.

A bit about Patti:

Patti is an actor, improviser, director, instructor and playwright who has been working professionally in theatre since 1983. She served her theatre apprenticeship at the world renowned Loose Moose Theatre with Keith Johnstone. It is her knowledge, technique and application of her improvisational skills, which makes Patti a unique and dynamic instructor. Her interpretation and extension of Johnstone’s work and philosophy, combined with her wealth of experience on the world improv stage, has made her a “must have” teacher for performers and companies wishing to create spontaneous theatre with fine skill, strong narrative and elegant style.

Also, she is just plain lovely as a person. If you are in Calgary next week check her out directing Women in Improv at the 5th Annual Calgary Improv Festival. You won't regret it.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Racism, Sexism and Other Stereotypes Onstage

The entire time I've been improvising, I've been interested in the idea of crossing the line. Isn't the best comedy, edgy, risqué and at times inappropriate? Comedy is littered with comedians and shows that are willing to say and do things not normally acceptable. Take Family Guy, Zach Galifianakis and Frankie Boyle as examples of just that. To varying degree all of them go beyond the appropriate, shocking and appalling us and we reward them with our laughs. Now I'm not suggesting that any of these comedic entities are racist or sexist, in fact I perceive them all to be quite liberal. But they do all push the boundaries of good taste.

In a slightly different vein, theatre and film are full of racist, sexist and homophobic characters. Part of the joy of theatre is seeing these terrible characters get what's coming to them. As an audience we accept these characters understanding that this type of behavior is generally punished. Plus, we understand that it is the characters and not the actors who are bigots.

Improv, in my mind, is a blend of standup and theatre. A few gags peppered in amongst strong scene work is improv is at its best. So where should we draw our line, if anywhere? If theatre and standup can portray characters and ideas that have an 'ism' tag, shouldn't improvisers be able to do so as well? If we are playing a diverse spectrum of characters won't some inevitably be racist and sexist? Shouldn't our audiences accept and even reward this?

Here's the thing, improv is different than both of these mediums in a very distinct way. Nothing we say in front of an audience is rehearsed and so we have different freedoms and responsibilities. Furthermore, the person that is responsible for generating 100% of the content of the scene is the improviser. Stand-ups have writers working for them (usually to supplement their own writing) and actors are performing a play written by someone else in most cases. When a play is offensive generally the playwright or the company producing it will take the heat, not the performer. In the case of standups, they take responsibility when a joke goes too far. Even if they didn't write that specific joke they chose to include it in their set.

Chose is the operative word. In improv, we choose everything onstage from environment to costume to the words our character uses. Usually we are not choosing this in a measured, preconceived way. If you are making conscious choices you are not truly improvising. But ultimately we are still responsible for what we say. When I improvise a show for kids, I do not go down certain paths. I don't swear or explore sexual content. But this doesn’t mean I am stifled creatively onstage. I am just as free and open as usual. It is essential for you to understand your audience as you perform for them. Every show you perform will have different expectations and limitations and if you want to stay in improv you need to learn what those are. A late night bar show is different than a corporate gig.

So knowing that portraying a racist character onstage is our choice, should we ever choose to do so? If we are endowed with being a racist, should we deny this endowment or fully realize the character like a good improviser? Furthermore is it innately racist for a white actor to play a black, or Asian character? Is that ever ok? In the ideal improv world we are supposed to portray a diverse cross section of characters and relationships as dictated by the scene and most importantly the audience suggestions. Shouldn't this include sexist, homophobic or characters that are of a different ethnicity than us? Well, I think that it should. But we have to be respectful in how we handle these situations.

This conversation came up recently when having beers with Owen Chan, a good friend and top notch improviser. He's a founding member of The Kinkonauts and a high school drama teacher. He's currently writing an article for me that I'll be posting on this blog soon. Get excited…

Anyway he had some excellent thoughts on the topic. He agrees that racist characters have their place onstage, but that it is the other character's responsibility not to let them get away with it. Racism, if nothing else raises the stakes in a scene. And if at the height of this dramatic tension a racist character has a realization undergoes an emotional transformation it can be exceedingly satisfying moment for the audience. But his scene partner cannot jump on board and start making racist jokes. They need to play against this character and become the audience's champion. In the alternative the scene becomes the worst type of exploitative theatre.

This idea can translate into regular scene work as well. We should be actively making it hard on our scene partners. The idea of acceptance can sometimes go too far so that two characters onstage are in such a state of amicable agreement that they don't get into trouble. If a character wants something onstage the best choice you can make as their scene partner is to make it hard for them to get. Raise the stakes.

As for playing a stereotype onstage, this is a bit different. Recently, an audience member was offended at a show based on a choice that I made onstage. We were doing a scene and I asked for two different accents. I took German and Indian. It was a character switch scene so four improvisers had to jump in and butcher these accents. It's part of the fun of the scene. Now, a friend of a cast member, who happened to be Indian, said after the show that she was offended because she felt like we were so bad at the accent that we were making fun of her culture. It was explained to her that we were not intending to make fun, but some of us were just horrendous at that accent.

Now, I'm not necessarily adverse to offending people onstage. I've said and done some outrageous things. Pushing the boundary of acceptable is what artists do. So at first when I heard this I kind of laughed to myself thinking, it’s not my fault if this woman can't take a joke and understand that we were in no way being racist. But then I thought about it more. I was the first person to do the Indian accent. So ultimately I am responsible for that content having both taken the suggestion and created the character. And did I create a truthful, well rounded character? Absolutely not. Not having much experience with this accent or the associated culture I fell into cheap stereotypes and gags to carry the scene., which then the other improvisers were forced to do when they had to play that character. Ultimately, I was portraying a racial stereotype. Which means, inadvertently, I was being racist onstage.

Here is the problem. There are many, many cultures that I don't have much if any experience with and that I don't really understand. Truth, onstage and off, comes from understanding. So maybe I should never play cultures that I don't understand fully onstage. Then I would never be inadvertently racist. But if I did so then I would be denying a lot of audience suggestions and frankly improvisers who play it safe onstage are incredibly boring. Classic improv catch 22.

Now, it's a good thing I'm friends with Owen because again he had some great advice here. He said that when playing an ethnic character onstage, or a gender or sexual orientation play it specifically. In the best case scenario play someone you know. If you play a Japanese coworker that you have known for years, chances are there will be an element of truth to the character and it will be real. Play your ex-girlfriend or boyfriend and you have a shot at playing another gender with some believability.

Furthermore he says that if you have absolutely no reference point for a character and all you know are stereotypes, play the opposite of those stereotypes onstage. Play a Jamacain anti-pot advocate. Play an extremely sober Irishman. Your portrayal will be imperfect. So much the better. At the very least in this case something interesting can emerge from challenging a stereotype onstage.

An acting teacher of mine once said: “You talent lies in your choice.” I couldn’t agree more. So I say explore racism onstage and different ethnicities. Tackle homophobia. Just make the brave choice and play against what you know, with honesty and hopefully truth.

Monday, June 18, 2012


It wasn’t until I did a workshop with Dan O’Connor of L.A.’s Impro Theater three years ago that I even considered the idea of making promises to the audience. This troupe, made up entirely of professional theatre and film actors in Los Angeles, performs long form improvisation in the style of an author or playwright. I've seen this done by many troupes, from all over the world, but rarely with a higher degree of success and subtlety.  Check them out here.

The whole idea of making promises came up when someone asked Dan what happens during the intermission of their shows.  Do they plan out the second half of what always seems like a beautifully scripted performance?  If so, how much of the outcome is discussed backstage? He replied: "We just make sure to go over all the promises we made to the audience. That's it."

At that moment, it was as if a light bulb went off in my head.  Promises to the audience - what an elegant way to put it! I knew that the audience has expectations of any improv show, or any theatre show for that matter, that we either meet, fail to meet, or exceed.  But never had I heard it so concisely put. Every time we set something up onstage, be it a character an environment or most importantly a narrative, we are making a promise to the audience.  We promise them that everything we set up will be fulfilled.  Each character will go on a journey and be transformed.  Each environment will impact the course of the narrative. And each narrative will come to a satisfying conclusion, reincorporating and wrapping up all of the elements that were introduced throughout.

When an idea is set up and then not fulfilled, we break that promise to the audience. In the Johnstonian vocabulary, breaking a promise is referred to as shelving. You figuratively put the idea up on a shelf and never take it down again. But the reason I like the term breaking a promise is that it implies a relationship with the audience. That's key.

In theory, this concept seems pretty straightforward. So why do we mess it up all the time onstage?

I think the answer is twofold.  The first reason is that many improvisers, myself included until a few years ago, don't consider this ideas of promises.  Personally, while I've known what shelving meant for years, I never thought I was letting the audiences down when I failed to weave an idea back into the story. But I absolutely was.

The second reason, which goes hand in hand with the first, is that improvisers, especially, those at the beginning of their journey, tend to over-promise.  There is a misconception that more information, more intensity, and more ideas will make a scene better. It's the attitude of throwing everything you have at the wall and seeing what sticks. Well some things will stick, absolutely.  But 95 percent of what you throw will fall down and create a big, sticky improv mess, which inevitably you will trip over. And most importantly the audience will stop listening.  If most of what you say is not going to factor in at a later point in the scene, what's the point?

Everything we say and do onstage is important.  We want the audience to care, so as performers we need to take care in our choice of words and actions. Don't say or do too much, just do and say enough.  To be cliche, less is more. Ever heard the saying only make the promises you can keep? Well the same should apply onstage.  Look at improv and life correlating...

Patience is key.  The second you walk onstage something is happening.  Trust me.  Having the patience to figure out what that is and see it through separates the good improvisers from the great ones.  The audience is with you until such time as you give them a reason to stop paying attention. They want you to tell a wonderful story that will delight and thrill them.  But if its bogged down in to many promises they will stop caring.

Now this is not to say that you should walk onstage and wait with a blank look on your face and make your partner do all the work.  You need to be engaging with your partner, responding and making offers as usual. You just need to keep your cool. When you press the panic button and spit out three our four contradictory offers onstage because you perceive the scene to be going nowhere the scene really will flounder. Establish the scene, discover what it needs and follow through.  Make one or two awesome promises.  And then, keep 'em.

Further to patience, as improvisers we need an extreme attention to detail.  It's impossible to keep a promise you can't remember. Or worse yet, if you miss a promise your partner makes you certainly can't keep it.  Improvisers need to take in and subsequently remember everything that happens onstage. Memory is a skill.  It develops with time if you work on it.  So start now.  Pay attention to everything, even during scenes you aren't in. Even if another troupe is opening for yours there could still be something worth remembering.  Every bit of information from the host's introduction to the curtain call can serve you as an improviser.

So pay attention and practice patience. This is the road to more satisfying scenes from both an improviser's and an audience's perspective. And that, is a promise.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Thinking Outside the Pattern

The human brain is absolutely incredible.  It is composed of billions of neurons that combine with one another to create an estimated quadrillion connections all of which systematically and efficiently store information.  This varies from super important information like how to breathe to pretty useless crap like what was Kim Kardashian wore to the MTV Movie Awards.  In short our brains are awesome.

But in improvisation, our brains often work against us. Sometimes our brains are too awesome.

Let me preface this article by saying I am no scientist, by any means.  I am an improviser and as such, kind of a nerd.  That sums up my scientific credentials. But I have made a few observations over the last decade while improvising.

What I’ve noticed is that our brains love patterns.  Information that is connected is easier to remember. In our day to day life this is extremely important.  Identifying and remembering patterns literally help keep us alive. The first time we touch boiling water as a child we have no idea what happened.  We understand the pain and react accordingly but have no idea why our hand is burning.  The second time this happens our brains can form a pattern connecting the hot water to pain.  Then, the next time we see a pot of boiling water our brains instinctively inform us not to touch it.

When we study we use patterns to help us remember important information.  Acronyms are a common way information is organised into patterns for easy access later on.  Does anyone remember what BEDMAS or PEDMAS stands for? Chances are many of you do, even though you may have learned that acronym years and years ago.

Patterns allow us to access information that we have already taken in, synthesized and formed conclusions about.  They inform our actions each and every day. They save us time. They dictate how we feel about people and ideas.  They keep us safe, which is the opposite of what we want to do onstage when we improvise.

Improvisation requires performers to leave preconceived notions backstage. We need to be open onstage, completely. We need to be open to new ideas, situations and solutions. We need to be in that state of mind that exists before we’ve formed the patterns that keep us safe.  It’s a state of childlike wonder.  Anything can happen.  We leap first and worry about the impact once we are in mid-air. We must put ourselves at extreme imagined risk without giving a thought to the consequences.  Just like a child touching boiling water for the first time.

When accomplished properly this feeling is exhilarating onstage.  It’s like playing a massive trust game with your scene partner and the entire audience.  It feels like you are falling backwards, eyes closed, knowing that someone will catch you for the entire scene.  It’s one of my favorite parts of performing.  It’s that wonderful sensation of truly not knowing what’s going to happen next.  It’s why audiences come to improv.

However, like everything in improvisation it’s much easier said than done. How is it possible to let go of a lifetime of patterns that inform every decision you make? Well, there are a few schools of thought on this.

In the early days of improvisation in Calgary, according to Rick Hilton, my good friend and improv mentor, Keith Johnstone would have actors count in their heads throughout a scene.  Or he might have had them doing a repetitive physical task during the scene that did not connect to what was happening onstage.  The idea was to overload the brain so that it couldn’t function normally and preconceive the content of the scene.  I’ve done this exercise and it is extremely challenging.  It does work.  However I’ve also noticed that the scenes that emerge while not planned are often lacking in story, character transformations and most things that generally constitute great improvisation.

This idea of confusing the brain is what actually generated most of the improv games we’ve come to know and love.  The games were initially created as a rehearsal tool to give the brain a task so that narrative could flow out of the subconscious uninhibited. In Missing Letter for example, the conscious brain is occupied with not saying the letter “R” in any of the words while the subconscious brain has to fill in the gaps.  In Character Switch the conscious brain is concerned with listening to a bell and accurately switching into a character that your scene partner created while the subconscious brain is telling the story.  As it turns out many are wonderful to watch and are now performed all around the world. No longer are they just a rehearsal tool. The audience gets to enjoy both the skill of the conscious brain and the spontaneous storytelling of the subconscious brain.

So how do we apply this to open scene work? Should we try and confuse our conscious brains as in short form games? I would argue no.  I like to have all my mental faculties available when performing a scene both conscious and unconscious. It’s not the confusion that we’re after anyway, it’s the effect the confusion has on the subconscious. It prevents us from planning based on patterns from our lives.

It’s extremely difficult to not do something.  The classic example – don’t think about a pink elephant. So I’m not going to advise you simply not to plan.  What I do, and what I encourage others to do is to actively cultivate a sense of discovery onstage.  That’s the state we exist in before we form patterns.  Notice something about your scene partner, or the room that you have never noticed before. Listen closely to the way they speak their words.  What are their hands doing? How is their hair falling tonight? Curiosity may have killed the cat but it makes the improviser. Open up your eyes wide, open up your body physically and discover the scene. Discover a game with your partner. Play with them, like kids do.  Create a brand new pattern onstage for the very first time. Confusing the brain is well, confusing. But engaging the conscious brain in discovery is freeing.

Warm up games can be a big help.  Keith Johnstone’s Misnaming Objects and Alan Marriot’s Endless Box are two of my favourite games to induce this state of mind.  If you want to know how to play them leave a comment and I can explain further. 

But ultimately it’s all about discovery.  So get onstage and stick your hand in a pot of boiling water. Consequences are of no import to the improviser. When no patterns apply, what you discover will even surprise you.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Creating a World out of Thin Air

In improv, we ask a lot of our audience.  We ask them to come to the theatre, to buy a ticket and maybe a beer or two and to give us their utmost attention for an hour or so.  We even ask them to come back time and time again because each show is different. And very importantly each time they see a show, we ask them to suspend their disbelief.  The idea of suspension of disbelief is not a new one.  Since the inception of theatre in ancient Greece, audiences have been willingly pretending that the performers onstage were actually the character they were portraying and not themselves.  

We still do this today, every time we turn on the T.V. or go see movie.  We know that it is Leonardo DiCaprio on screen, but we believe for a few hours that he is Romeo or Jack Dawson.  Films make it easy, especially naturalist films as they shoot on location, pay attention to the details and provide a visually realistic glimpse into a character’s world.

In theatre, we don’t have all of the same luxuries.  Sets, even on Broadway, are often symbolic or indicative of a larger environment or reality.  Most plays do not take place in one room of one house.  Therefore, designers have to use all of their wits to create sets, costumes, props, light and sounds that create an atmosphere serving all the scenes of the play.  And they have to stay on budget – a designer's worst nightmare… The ‘gaps’ in the design are filled in by the imagination of the theatre-goers, which is one of my favorite parts of theatre.  It requires imaginative involvement on the part of the audience.

So what happens when you take away the set, costumes, props, light and sounds? Improvisation happens.  We don’t even rely on a script to create a reality.  It is all made up in real time in front of the audience.  Now perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration as most companies at least perform on stages that are well lit and have some capacity to incorporate music and sound effects and possibly even costumes.  But for all intents and purposes the technical finesse of even the most advanced improv companies is minimal compared to a professional regional theatre, say.

What this means is that unlike film and traditional theatre the audience has to engage their imagination even more so while watching improvisation.  We mime props, act in our street clothes and perform on bare stages for the most part. Our patrons have to imagine EVERYTHING.  And then, when we start the next scene they have to do it all over again. Now a beer or two usually helps, but this is a lot to require from a bunch of people you’ve probably never met. It’s the same agreement that two kids meeting for the first time in a sandbox make when one asks: “Wanna play?” and the other says: “Ok.” Kids have this amazing ability to construct and deconstruct realities for the sake of a game that we somehow lose as adults.  So the fact that this agreement happens between performer and audience before an improv show is kind of amazing to me.

But as improvisers we have certain responsibilities to these generous audience members.  Basically, we need to help them out and give their imaginations every chance at success. But how? Well, the answer in my mind is threefold: commitment, specificity and platforms.

Commitment means that you have to truly and instantly live in the reality that you create. If you are in a kitchen, you must imagine that you are in a kitchen.  If you’ve actually been in the kitchen, it helps. You must imagine it so hard and so clearly that we practically see the kitchen coming out your pores.  It should radiate out of your entire person.  If you have a strong image of a kitchen in your mind, only then can the audience truly engage their imagination.  Everyone’s imagined kitchen will be a bit different, but if you commit to your own imagination it is possible and even easy for the audience to do so.

But commitment doesn’t stop at the physical reality of a scene.  You also have to commit to the idea of a kitchen.  What sorts of things could happen in a kitchen? Keith Johnstone calls these circles of possibility. It is within the circle of possibility that you could cut yourself, poison the meal or light the joint on fire. When someone does something that is outside the circle of possibility, say comes in riding a tiger, it destroys the reality of the scene and you lose the audience, even if it’s funny.

Specificity is pretty straightforward.  Don’t cut vegetables.  Cut a carrot.  You don’t work with Geoff.  You work with Geoff, your brother in law who got you this job because your sister forced him to even though you are a total screw-up alcoholic. And for God’s sakes if you pick up a glass, hold onto it until you put it down.  And when you pick it up again pick it up from the same spot.  The audience always remembers where you put it down and how big it is.  This was a hard lesson for me to learn initially.  But now I’ve engrained it so deeply in my brain that I often hold onto glasses offstage long after my scene is over.  It just takes practice.  This is something you can and should practice on your own.

However, both commitment and specificity are much less valuable if you don’t establish a solid platform at the beginning of the scene.  If you don’t it’s kind of like telling the punch line of a joke without the setup.  It might be sorta funny, but completely unsatisfying.  Platforms are simply the who, where and what of the scene (and the why but that is a whole separate article). Who means relationship. So, who are you to each other?  It’s not just names. Where is straightforward. What is not simply the physical action of the scene, though that’s important.  I like to think about it as what is different about today? On some level you’ve chosen this scene for a reason.  The best scenes are life changing moments in your character’s lives. So what is this life changing moment? Figure that out and live in it.  Right away.

While there is something to be said about a slow and steady platform build, especially in long form improvisation, I firmly believe that the sooner you answer these three questions for the audience the better.  Platforms provide the audience with context, without which it is impossible to fully understand a story. If they spend all scene trying to figure out how you know each other or where you are, they will not be able to emotionally engage in the scene and experience that joyful sensation of going along for the ride. As a side bonus this state of being is more conducive to laughter.

So when you walk onstage verbalize this platform.  Don’t forget to physicalize them as well, but the most efficient way to communicate platforms is by stating them.  Be super obvious and clear at the risk of being redundant. Don’t simply come on and say “Hey Geoff…”. That gives your audience almost nothing.  Come on and say: “Geoff, I know that the only reason you got me this cooking job at your restaurant is because my sister nagged you until you hired me, but I really appreciate it.  Consider all my hard work here an early wedding present.  Wanna shotgun a beer with me to celebrate my first shift?” Now you have given the audience so much.  They have context and can fill in the gaps with their imagination.  Their brains just exploded a little bit.   

Verbalizing a strong platform, specificity and commitment can do more than Michael Bay with millions of dollars. You can get an audience to care.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Improv Magic

(NOTE: I wrote this article May 3, 2011 while working for ComedySportz Berlin.  Thought  I would re-post it to kick start my blog.)

Sometimes as improvisers we worry so much about being funny that we forget about what’s really important.  Insert record scratching sound here.  What do you mean?  Isn’t being funny paramount to what improvisers do?  In a word, no.  While being funny is what happens onstage in many improvised scenes, it should never be our goal.

Improv differs vastly from stand-up comedy.  Stand-ups tell carefully crafted jokes.  Setup, punchline, setup, punchline.  Improvisers tell stories.  Characters are introduced, problems ensue and there is some sort of resolution.  Because these stories are made up in the moment, they require careful listening and emotional reactions in order to succeed.

If you’re onstage thinking about how funny your next line is going to be, you’ll miss your partner’s line that takes the scene in a new direction, making your ‘hilarious joke’ seem out of place and inappropriate.  The audience is always listening.  They always notice when you say a line that doesn't make sense, even if it does get a laugh.

The best scenes happen when two players are so connected to each other and the audience that it seems completely natural.  You don’t have to think about what to say, you know what to say.  That’s what I like to call Improv Magic.  It feels like you’re running downhill, as fast as you can picking up speed every second. It’s a rush for both actors and audience.  Sometimes spontaneous applause breaks out during the scene.  Sometimes it results in complete, enraptured silence on the part of the crowd.  Sometimes there is so much laughter you have to wait 30 seconds to continue the scene.  Either way, it’s these moments that make improv worth doing.

You can’t force Improv Magic, it just has to happen.  It comes out of relaxation, not tension.  It comes out of being in the moment, not planning.

When you spend the whole scene thinking about your next line, possible endings, funny jokes or if you can manage to get that pop culture reference in, it grinds to a halt.  Every time. Its like pushing a car up a hill, with no help.  You work really hard but you don’t get anywhere.

But if you can’t force it, what can you do?  The answer is simple: listen.  And after you’re done listening, listen some more.  Listen with your eyes and your ears. Only then can you really establish that connection with your scene partner and the audience to create some of your very own Improv Magic.