Sunday, December 16, 2012

No words

What do comics and comedians do when a tragedy that affects so many occurs, if a comedian's drive is to constantly amuse, entertain, make others laugh? I, who always try to find humor in everything, found it disrespectful and inappropriate to post anything jovial, trivial or amusing in the days following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Yet, life goes on. It has to. No matter how much we want to respect the dead, the mourners, we have to go on. It's just the nature of life.

Does this have anything to do with improv? Believe it or not, it does. The mere fact of moving forward, moving a scene along, is how we cope with anything and everything.

That's it, really.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beginnings and endings

In the beginning...there were no pencils, or typewriters, or laptops, or iPads... But there were stories. Always stories. And where there are stories, there are storytellers.

We are all, in a sense, the writers of our own life stories - and writing stories on the spot is exactly what we do in improv. I think of the improv audience a little bit like the universe. They are the unknown element each night, throwing things at us, seeing how we cope. Some are kind, some want to challenge us. We have two choices: we can clam up in fear and produce crap results, or we can focus on the present moment, go with the flow and create something amazing.

Someone in my troupe recently asked me how a scene should begin. There are a couple of tricks you can use to start an improv scene. For example, you can start in the middle of a sentence or thought with a word like "and" or "but". Some of the most interesting scenes have no real beginning and end. Why do you think that is? I think it's because that's how life works. We like to think life has a tidy beginning and end, with perfectly choreographed pit stops along the way. When that (inevitably) doesn't happen, we get bummed out, depressed, confused. But it's often the road blocks, the small moments along the way that make us stop and watch, listen, concentrate.

Another way to begin a scene is just to start doing something physical. Even if you don't know what you're doing, something will come to you. This planet is always moving, which is why we get so impatient when we're stuck in a line, or in traffic, or in a personal situation. It's natural for us to want to keep moving, keep going forward, move the scene along. So move! And the rest will come.

Another question I get asked often is, "How do we end a scene"? Again, too often we think life is linear. We are born, we live, we die. Somewhere in my mind I tell myself a perfect life span is 0 to 100. I don't know where we go next, but what I do know is, really old people look and act a lot like newborn babies, so there must be something circular and cyclical about it all. Like beginnings, we think that scene endings have to be neat and tidy, with a logical conclusion. Not necessarily so! A scene can end with a great punchline, a crazy twist, or an "uh-oh" moment and still leave the audience satisfied and entertained. If you don't have a lighting person to end your improv scenes, as in our case, it is often the audience (aka The Universe) who decides when a scene is over by their unanimous, spontaneous reaction through laughter or applause, or both. When you know, you know.

And what's so important about the ending anyway? Isn't it the "during" that counts? Do you think it would make you happier, more content, more at peace, knowing that your life will end well? What does that mean anyway - that you know you've achieved all your goals and dreams? Seems to me that's the time when you want to hold on, savour, enjoy. Ancient sages have told us the same thing in different languages and words: the journey is the destination. In improv, it's pretty much the same.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Rules of Improv - for Politicians

There are 8 Rules of Improv. Well actually some troupes say there are 10, some say 12...the point is, as in life, the rules kind of blend into each other over time and space. In this post I'll share the top 10 rules that I've learned and try to practice on my journey. And then I'll explain how our presidential candidates and politicians in general could benefit from them in time for Election 2012.

1. Don't try to be funny.

My troupe often says, "But it's comedy! We're supposed to be funny." That's correct. But the emphasis here is on the word "try". Don't TRY to be funny. If you try, you will appear as if you're trying, and you will not get a genuine laugh, you might get silence, or worse - the dreaded courtesy laugh.

Likewise, politicians: leave the jokes to the comedians.  It's not natural when you try to be funny, really. Do not attempt comedy at the podium unless you have a strong background in on-camera acting, like Ronald Reagan or Al Franken. But if you do need some joke writers, I'm freelance...I work around the clock...I love to travel...just sayin'...

2. "Yes, and..."

If you say yes, add information. But politicians take note: make sure you answer the question first, please. Say "Yes" if you mean yes! Then continue your thought.

3. "No, but..."

If you say no, continue that thought.

Politicians: "No comment" does not suffice. That cuts the conversation off, and it's pretty much a confirmation that you're guilty of whatever it was you were just asked. We realize it might be none of our business, but human beings are nosy - we want to know more.

A better reply would be, "That's not relevant now, but I'd be happy to discuss Internet porn with you over a drink sometime, off the record, just guys (wink wink)..." At least we'd know you were being honest.

4. Give and take

In improv, it's about balance of communication. Basically, if you find that you are doing all or most of the talking, shut the "*ç% up. Let the other guy have a chance to say something once in a while.

Politicians: this rule is NOT about giving to the rich/poor and taking from the poor/rich. Nice try.

5. Don't block or negate.

This immediately cuts off any communication.  Can we talk about political debates? Oh boy... What and how are you guys (and gal) actually communicating here? Do I have to give you a Blackout or yell "Scene!"? When you guys start negating, blocking or denying, the audience gets nervous for you, and if they're nervous, you're bombing.

6. Listen, watch and concentrate.

Don't be so self-absorbed (I know, I know, but I have to say it) that you are unaware of what's going on around you. Always be present, in the moment, aware of everything. Don't expect the First Lady or Vice President to do this for you. We the people will notice.

7. Make statements

Asking questions too often in a scene puts pressure on your scene partner and is, frankly, a cop-out. 

Politicians: don't ask questions in a debate - we know you're just trying to take the awkwardness off yourself and make the other guy nervous. It's wimpy. We see through it.

8. Work to the top of your intelligence (don't use blue humor to get a laugh)

Most of us in improv have been guilty of resorting to middle school humor at one time or another. When nervous, throwing out a word like "penis" or "boobs" may get an immediate shock laugh and allows you an extra moment to think about what you'll do next.  But it's cheap. You can do better than that.

Politicians: try not to discuss, offer or photograph your genitalia while in the public eye. You should basically work on keeping your minds out of your pants. Or anyone else's pants. (I know, I know, I just thought I should tell them.)

9. Don't think too much.

Thinking too much prevents you from being in the moment and reacting to what is actually going on.

Politicians: let your staff do this for you. You were not elected to think. You were elected to look friendly, give us confidence, and make other nations think there are actually some non-obese Americans out there. (When will America have its first Fat President?)

10. Follow the follower

Yes, you heard me. Follow the follower, not the leader. In a 2-person improv scene, there should be no leader. It should be equal. It should be balanced. You never know where it will take you. And when you go into it with that attitude, that's when you find the beauty, and the magic will just happen.

Politicians: hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! This one might need some practice. But hey, that's what keeps improv coaches in business.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Where accepting can lead you...

In improv we move the scene along by accepting and adding information, better known as the "Yes, and" rule. To put it into practice, here's my version of how Tom and Katie's relationship would look in an improv scene, following the "Yes, and" rule.

TOM: "Hi, I'm very rich, very famous, and very much in need of an image make-over."

KATIE: "Yes, and I'm young, naive, and very much in need of an image make-over."

TOM: "Yes, and I've been meaning to talk to you about those J. Crew and Gap outfits you wear on the red carpet."

KATIE: "Yes, and I'd be happy to wear Armani Privé if you hand over your credit cards."

TOM: "Yes, and in return you'll have to give birth to L. Ron Hubbard's frozen sperm child, say it's mine, and turn down all movie roles that challenge and fulfill you as an actress."

KATIE: "Yes, and can I have my own fashion label?"

TOM: "Yes, and only if you tell every major magazine how wonderfully I treat you and feign interest in Conor and Bella's school sporting events within our first year of dating."

KATIE: "Yes, and I want you to tell the world what an amazing woman I am, while jumping on a large and inappropriate piece of furniture."

TOM: "Yes, and I know just the person who'll let me do it - Oprah! She loves me."

KATIE: "Yes, and make sure you offend a major talk show host too, like Matt Lauer, so everyone thinks you've gone totally nuts because of me."

TOM: "Yes! And lots of PDAs, so people know I'm not...well not that I'm not...I mean, so people think I'm, you know..."

KATIE: (giggling) "Yes, and I promise to always wear flat shoes  - unless I'm out with Posh Spice..."

TOM: "Yes! YES!!! And I'll give you a fairytale wedding in Italy, and we'll live happily ever after...with my mother!"


KATIE: "Yes. (ahem) And... 5 years, max."


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Because it was there...

This evening a few improv colleagues and I performed at a farewell cocktail party for a large Swiss bank. In the after-schmoozing, we were telling people, as we always do, that "life is an improvisation".  Yes, yes, those of us who do improv regularly know that, but for improv virgins, this is a new and startling concept. It's always gratifying for me when it dawns on them that we all go through life improvising what we say, do, and how we react.

But it's more than that. For example, I'm sitting at the computer in my dining room-cum-office-cum-storage room (I still giggle when I write that word, even though in this case it's Latin). I get up to grab something, and on my way I step on a height measuring stick that belongs to my 5-year-old son. I grab what I need, walk back, step on the stick again, sit back down at my computer, and take another sip of my beer.

Now, you might be wondering what is so remarkable about this that she chose to write about it? What is remarkable is that, as an improviser, I didn't even think to move the stick. I didn't get upset that it was there, because I was focused on my immediate goal, and I just figured my 5-year-old put it there while he was playing and then ran off to do something else. Because that's what 5-year-olds do.

Do you get this, people? I stepped on the height measuring stick without complaining, without even flinching. Because we just got bunk beds today. Because stuff is in disarray around here. Because I can't be bothered right now to find the measuring stick to measure the height measuring stick with which to re-hang it because the bunk beds are now in the way of the old nail that was once hanging the height measuring stick which is now on the floor.

My point is, I stepped on it, because it was there - and everything was fine.

That's improv.