Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Review: TIMEFOAL by David Duchovny

We all remember David Duchovny from the X-Files, and from... that episode of the Simpsons where Mr Burns has really big eyes.  But he also writes graphic novels, nowadays.

My housemate has lent me TIMEFOAL, and I am very surprised and pleased to say that I cannot recommend it enough.  The story is compelling, the art style (by Peter Gross) is both gorgeous and simple, and the concept is the kind of thing that makes me laugh out loud in joy.

TIMEFOAL is a story about a young wild horse with the ability to travel through time.

That is it.


Sunday, 23 March 2014

The chances of meeting on the Tube/Liminal Atmospheres

This is sparked by something interesting that happened yesterday.

I've lived in London just under six months.  In that time I have:

*Bumped into RC whilst I was sat on the Central Line (RC lives one stop away from me in Leytonstone)
*Bumped into JW in Tottenham Court Road station while CH and I were headed to a show (JW does not live near me or CH, and we were not headed in the same direction).
*Had HCER recognise me on the Piccadilly line (HCER lives one stop away from me in Leytonstone, and works zero stops away from me in Baron's Court) - we had only met once previously but had been aware of each other.
*Had a friend of TO recognise me on the Hammersmith and City Line (zero stops away from where I work) and strike up a conversation.

This ignores all times I've met people going to my work, because those are much more common.  I am surprised at how often this has happened.

Yesterday I went down to the Miller to watch Shoot From The Hip, Glitch and The Scene (who were really quite good).  I was due to meet SB at London Bridge at 7.15, but arrived half an hour early.  Rather than wait outside in the cold I decided to wait inside the Tube station, halfway up the steps (i.e. within the barriers), sitting about 20 metres away from a busker who was singing some excellent soul.  I had with me a book and my black umbrella.

As usual when you sit down in a public place, you immediately become invisible unless you are careful about your body language (with the usual responses if you take care not to be invisible - mostly hostile glances with some flirtatious ones thrown in).  I've been reading To The Actor and so practised feeling the atmosphere of the place (the book also suggests making notes, which is what these are) - an unusual place to feel, since it was a very active liminal space - watching the people go by it was obvious that very few of them were really there, some going so far as to insulate themselves with prerecorded music through their headphones, and those that walked through in pairs were like little bright bubbles of reality that they threw up around themselves to keep out the cool grey of the station.  My urge on summoning this atmosphere was to just stretch out my right hand into the flow and watch the eddies form behind my hand.  It became clear that being a busker in the London Underground must be terribly, terribly lonely.

Then S/PH arrived, en route to somewhere else.  We embraced, chatted, embraced again, and she left again.

How likely is it to see a friend on the Tube?  I suspect, if one sits still and lets the crowds pass, not unlikely at all.  I sat listening to that soul, reading my book and people watching, for around 25 minutes, in London Bridge, at a time when a high volume of people are going through.  In fact it would be fun and not too hard to say to a group of friends "What are your commutes?  Here's a map showing you when you're probably in the same station as each other." - since even in the same station counter-flowing crowds are often kept separate from each other.  Perhaps a fun project if I had more time.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Improv Rant: Game, Heart, Character, Scene and Thesis

This week was slightly mixed.

Wednesday with Wolfpack went great.  We ran two narratives to time, and our format has firmed up enough that my imagination is starting to say things like "Heyy... how about this way to polish this for stage?".

Tonight with Monkey Toast was a bit frustrating - Level 2 begins with some exercises about 'getting out of your head' (not trying to be clever, not thinking, just reacting).  But... I'm never in my head doing improv.  It's a blessing and a curse - I can't tell myself how to improve because I walk on stage and then I walk off again however many minutes later, with nothing in between.

Let's rant about improv layers.

Take the game of the scene - the repeated pattern you do for fun during a scene.  Think of it as a violin playing a melody:

The game of the scene (violins)

Hear those fun twiddles as she plays Summertime?  That's the game of the scene.  It changes each time each musical phrase comes up, each time a new scene starts.

Below that, there's the heart - the relationship between the two characters in each scene, and the real emotions they share with us.  That's the alto singer that touches you.

The heart (alto)

Hear that beautiful timbre on "sky"?  That's the heart.

Hell, let's stay with that same video for the rest of this.  The scene?  The scene is the drums.

The scene (drums)

If you're a musician, you know it sucks to be playing a piece of music with the percussion missing.  That's the thing that keeps everything ticking!  Without that the notes need to be really good notes to stand on their own.  That's the 'scene', the who-what-where.  Keeps everything grounded, everything moving.  Everything else can fade out and leave you with just that and you're still good for a few bars.

Then character.  Character is the bass.  It's a long, slow, thrumming game that stays the same throughout.  Listen to this, and compare what the singer is doing with what the bass is doing.

Character (bass)

The singer is giving us her all, and the bass is too, but on a much larger scale.  The bass is playing the long game.  The bass doesn't - mustn't - change over the entire song.

These four things, the violin, the alto, the drums, the bass... there's one layer deeper, still.  All of those things are playing 'Summertime'.  They are playing the same piece of music.  That is the final layer.

This is the thesis of the piece, the fact that when you get to the end gives you the feeling of completion.  All of those instruments - violin, voice, drums, bass - were doing different things.  They were playing different roles. They were playing the same piece of music.  You need to realise that this is astonishing.

I saw some Harolds last weekend, and I felt they could have achieved more.  There was no coherence, no thesis.  There were musicians on stage instruments on stage but instead of playing a symphony they played five or six unrelated jazz explorations.  It was disappointing.

Again I get to the end of a rant and feel like I've just expressed something obvious, laboured a point.  But these things need saying.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ramble: Acting, Clowning, Stress and Guilt

This is a ramble: I want to write but have nothing coherent to write about and I'm not in the right headspace for novel writing.


I want to be an amazing improviser.  I don't mean 'good', I mean I want people I don't know to say "Oh, $_MYNAME's in this one tonight" and the other people to say "Oh, we should definitely go, then, I've been meaning to see her".

(Interesting - my fantasy doesn't naturally fall on me being in sold-out shows.  Something deep and meaningful there, no doubt.)

I just finished Level One of Monkey Toast's improv school in London, a course which I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about collaborative storytelling.  I've been doing improv eight years, now, and there are dynamics which are only apparent when there is someone - a teacher - given carte blanche to point them out.  I remember about six weeks ago starting a scene with "We're out of mayonnaise, so I'm heading down to the shops later.".

Looking back at this, it's got two flaws - first, "I'm going down to the shops later" can lead to a conversation about things we're going to do later, which is inferior to showing the audience doing that now (see related: Unspoken Plans).  Second, it's slightly negative - "We're out of mayonnaise".  It's imaginary mayonnaise.  Why not have lots of it? There's lots more you can do with imaginary mayonnaise than without it, and you aren't inviting your scene partner to turn around and kick you like a puppy for not having the goddamn imaginary mayonnaise.  The scene turned out fine, but my initiation was... guarded.

Anyway.  Monkey Toast gives personal notes at the end of each course to each person.  My the notes given to me included what I interpret as a directive to work more on my physical comedy.  The upshot:  I can do finding deep connections between scenes, but I can't currently make an audience laugh by waggling my eyebrows, or even just add flavour and colour by waggling my eyebrows.  If I'm acting, it takes me a good two or three minutes to get into a character (but I feel I do!), and in improv I only have two or three seconds, if that.

To me it feels like it's not going to lead anywhere, waggling my eyebrows.  I feel like either I'll overplay them and kill the audience, or I'll play them sterile and they'll be an unnecessary burden from my brain ("Oh, waggle your eyebrows again now") that don't add to the scene.  I've found if I slow down my actions and regard them as a game in themselves - deep, thrumming games like a double bass, rather than the tilting violins of a repetition game - then I find it more compelling.

So I'm considering taking up clowning, vaguely.  It's so inappropriate, so counter to my instincts, that I'm certain there's a lot of growth to make there.  It's very un-British, to let one's control slip, to be emotionally naked - which I get the impression is why Meisner thought us abnormal artistically.  Can you imagine me slipping on a banana peel?  A lot of clowning is silent, too, and silent theatre pulls at me.

I've started reading Michael Chekhov's To The Actor.  The first chapter expressed very clearly some things I've never told anyone.  Last year was stressful, and this year is the Year Without Guilt: I don't have to achieve anything this year, don't have to fight against the flow because I feel that I "ought" be doing something.  Part of that "not fighting" is not fighting against my personal experience of how the universe is, as follows: if I go dancing, at a club or at a concert, I conceptualise and experience - with no drugs except alcohol - the emotions of the crowd as flashes colours, and as energy specific to the human soul - it makes dancing an amazing light show, and makes it always easy to dance - I just scatter light over the rest of the crowd until they dance as well, and they always respond to my magic.  I did stand up a few weeks ago (Would I like to focus more on stand-up?  Not especially) and I experienced the attention of the audience as ropes as thick and strong as steel hawsers binding them to me - literally as a semi-visible overlay on physical reality that it was tempting to reach out and grasp.  When I passed a cheap gag that I had thrown in to the set on a whim ten minutes before going on, they groaned and the tension slacked momentarily.

I've felt bordering on guilty or ashamed of that kind of experience for a while: my experiences there are not rational, but they are more real than reality.  The guilt is so ingrained, so culturally normal that I just couched it above in the most rational, reasonable terms I could, in the sense of "I experience this, I am aware no-one else does (I am aware everyone pretends they do not experience this and I do not believe them), and I have rational reasons for being happy with these experiences".

Well, screw guilt and shame and our sterile reductive culture.  The entire first chapter of To The Actor spoke of things entirely consistent with what I just described.  Some of the exercises at the end of the first chapter are about projecting power, and about radiating one's physical motions before one does them.  Those are both intuitive concepts to me.  That's how I make friends!

I will not be rational.

I am human, and I glory in that.

I shall waggle my eyebrows.


That went unexpected places.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Improv: The Game of the Scene II

Last post I wrote a bit about the 'game of the scene', the repeated pattern that occurs in some scenes, often initially coming from a mistake.  I said that calling out the game of the scene within the scene itself will kill it stone dead.  I think I was incorrect.

Some games, when called out, would break the fourth wall.  If someone makes a mistake, (last night I stuttered very slightly when I said 'blues' and said 'buh-blues', and we could have kept that up throughout the scene as a very simple game) then that should not be called out.  No-one should say  "why are you calling it buh-blues?", since we all live in the same universe and in this universe that style of music is just called "buh-blues".  "That's weird" should not be in the verbal vocabulary of an improviser (whilst being always in the mental vocabulary).  Games like "people answer the door when the phone rings" should never be called out.

In contrast, I would say character games should be called out explicitly.  Last night one of my characters, Jason the firefighter, snapped at KD "Don't tell me things I already know", which KD immediately picked up on and turned into a game.  The scene was super-easy to play because the game we were playing had been said aloud, and it wasn't weird for my character to want things not told to him* again and again.  The scene tripped along and we actually found some heart at the end.

(*Feeling of unease at playing male roles still has not faded, but in a class where we outnumber the guys literally 3/1 it's unavoidable.)

I don't think I could have played that scene 8 weeks ago: the constant spacework, driving a fire engine/reading a map, whilst not allowing that spacework to dominate the scene which is about the relationship between the two characters, having the urgent task (getting to a burning house) not be false heightening that would destroy the scene, and having two characters in conflict whilst not escalating the conflict until that destroys the scene.  I feel like I've appreciably grown, which is awesome.  I'm very much looking forwards to Level 2 of Monkey Toast.

We can abstract this distinction:  Games which are specific or character can and probably should be called out precisely once ("Pastrami makes her furious", "Anyone that reads this book says 'Bop!' at the end of all of their sentences").  Games which are general and arise spontaneously should never be called out ("you answer the door when the phone rings", "there are lots of dutch people in Surrey") because it breaks the fourth wall and is inferior to simply playing the game straight.

I'm not certain the above is quite right yet, but I think I've gotten closer to the truth.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Improv: Belief, faith, and "The Game Of The Scene"

You're taught in improv to accept what someone else says as true.  This blogpost describes two (related) situations where this was incorrect, which floored me.

I've been taking Level One of Monkey Toast's improv classes.  I'm getting a lot out of them: I had a few bad habits and there were a few subtleties that they have elucidated nicely.  It's so [emotion: world-is-correct] to know that once a week I can turn up to a place where everyone is there to take their own personal growth seriously.


Example One:

Last lesson we hit something that happens very rarely: the scene required two of the four people on stage to say "no" repeatedly to the other two.

The scene:  Antimony and Sodium were police officers, and Calcium and I were grieving parents (names have been replaced by chemical elements for fun).  While we were offstage Antimony and Sodium had discussed how we thought our son was dead, but how they knew this was false and that they were going to have to convince us of that.

Calcium entered, drawing me with her, and we became the grieving parents (I had been considering coming on as the son much later in the scene, not really realising that this was impossible with only four people involved in the exercise.  These classes have shown me just how out-of-my-head I get when doing improv, and how I can draw that back just a touch to serve the scene better).  The scene proceeded slowly - I was focusing on keeping up my character, a weeping bereaved mother, and taking a relaxed view of my needing to give input; the police officers had the information, the mother just needed to be in pain, her husband was similarly in pain and feeling protective.

David Shore, the teacher, kept prodding the scene a bit whenever there was a lull.  "Your son is dead." he would say to Calcium and I.  I had been listening to the police officers in disbelief, confusion and pain as they went over the circumstances of my son's death again and trying to listen and accept what they were saying.  The trouble was that what the characters were saying in the middle of the scene - "Please believe us" - was in direct contradiction to what the improvisors (and the characters, of course) had said at the start of the scene:  "We have to convince them." i.e. "They will not believe us".  This is something which is in some sense basic which I have never really spent conscious thought on before.

The game that David had seen was that the police officers could offer us stronger and stronger evidence that our son was alive and we could continue to disbelieve them.  I had made a desultory move earlier in the scene towards a different game - leaving the room in the hope that my husband might be convinced so that when I came back I could be convinced and then say "But what about Uncle Henry?" and so on and so forth...

David was correct (though not to say exclusively correct - infinite possible good scenes).  There was an extremely funny game there, and it had been clearly laid out in the exposition at the start of the scene.  None of us in the scene, I think, had picked up on that possible game.  I had not seen it because I had been focused on a character-level form of acceptance rather than an improviser-level form of acceptance.

The key word in the above paragraphs is "belief".


Example Two:

Also from class.  I wasn't in this scene so I am going to describe it as shortly as possible:  "I've always believed you were innocent when you were accused of stabbing that person.".

Quickly it became clear to everyone, including the audience, that this belief was incorrect.  Again, "belief".


When someone says "I believe x" in a scene, they are giving you license to let their character be wrong about "x".  It's much weaker than "x is true", "I know x" or even "I have faith that x".  I hear the word 'faith' as much more emotive and primal than the word 'belief'.  If A said "I have faith in you" to B in a longform, I would take that as an offer that B could nearly betray A over the course of the show then have a crisis of conscience and make the correct moral choice.

These are not difficult ideas for human interactions in reality.  They are slippery ideas when you drag them into your conscious mind and apply them to human interactions that exist only in a shared fantasy.


Identifying the game of the scene:

"The game of the scene" is the repeated pattern that occurs in some scenes.  Often one improviser makes an out-there offer, sometimes from a simple verbal mistake, and other improvisers reinforce the mistake again and again until it becomes jazz.  Mistakes are a perfect source of games because literally no-one onstage expected them - they take the scene in a direction unforseen.

I have never been pushed to identify the game of the scene.  Sometimes it comes up and there's a tug towards "use that idea again", but I've never worked on working out a sentence which encapsulates the game.  "I am lonelier than thou", "Fashion magazines are animal specific", "I keep inciting you to read out unpleasant things about my mother" have all been games from recent scenes, but if I'm in the scene I do not have those sentences in mind.

When such a sentence is pointed out the game becomes very easy to play.  I do not know whether that is because having such a sentence in one's conscious mind is good, or whether that is because when such a sentence is said (e.g. by a teacher pausing the scene in class) it allows the improvisers to properly synchronise and makes the resulting scene trip along like anything.  Pointing the game out from within the scene would kill it dead.  This is something I need to be conscious of and work on.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

NaNo 2013 Update: The Maze!

(Stream of consciousness)

In November, or slightly before, I started writing a book called The Maze! as part of NaNoWriMo, mostly because I had never written a book before and I enjoy telling stories.  Since it would be the first book I had ever attempted writing, I went for the easiest genre I could think of: 1970s paranoia science fiction a la Philip K. Dick.

PKD is well known for having absolutely awful prose.  His stories always feature an Everyman who is defined by their job, and by their loveless marriage.  All of the women in his stories are psychopaths, and there is usually only one per story.  All of the doctors in his stories are psychopaths, or very calm robots if you have to believe what they say.  The threats are apparently external but the real danger often turn out to be Authority.  Fun tropes to play with.

I'm currently a shade under 23k words in to this novel, and will reach the conclusion in about three scenes time - perhaps 28k.  NaNoWriMo suggests that 50k is the target.  This dude, about whom I know nothing except that he was the first hit on Google when I asked "how long is a novel", suggests 100k for science fiction, and points out publishers will not always take the time to appreciate the beauty of your work but might simply look at the word count and toss it out.  I am not worrying about publication, particularly.

Currently my prose is awful and there's a lot that I know that the reader would not.  Several of the minor characters have turned out to be more alive than I intended them to be, and I started the book with the wrong ending in mind, so there is a lot I can write about.

I want to take a lesson from the longform improv that I've been learning and take the following steps:
  • Identify the thesis of the story.  What moral or rule of human nature am I trying to impart?
  • Until it became emotionally impossible to write the main character any longer, I followed only the main character.  I have only one thread and perspective.  I can see at least four more possible threads to weave in, and a particular fifth thread (the point of view of the sole woman in the story) that must be made conspicuous by its absence.
  • I had previously been doing an exercise where each story must start with a 100-word description of the locale.  This description became the first paragraph, and took about a third as long to write as whatever story I then told.  I would like to firm this idea up by concentrating on the first three lines of an improv scene: CROW (Character, Relationship, Objective, Where) or WWW (Who, Where, What) must be established in each new section as quickly and as effectively as possible.

I want to think about NaNoWriMo a little bit here.  I really like the fact that I sat down and have written - in a few very busy, very stressful months - enough words that they are more than 1/3 the length of my PhD thesis, which took four years to write.  I like the philosophy that it is better to do something which might be bad than to not do something because it might be bad.

The bits that make me uncomfortable about NaNo are the tips on "plot twists" and "how to add conflict", or even the tip that you should give your main character three names (Palmer Edward Jones) and always refer to them by their full name.  I tried to make two of my characters advance my plot for a fortnight.  They refused.  Eventually, I gave them a bottle of Scotch, a sunny road trip, some blankets, and some guns to shoot at an apple tree with in a backyard.  It was what they wanted to do; it was as a result more True.  It worries me that NaNo gives people advice ("Impose this narrative structure") that to me as I am today means I literally cannot write at all.

Advice about conflict in particular; recently I'm starting to see how much we've been mis-taught about conflict.

Maybe I'm being myopic.  If 50,000 is a good goal (and it is a pleasing number) then perhaps any tricks that help people get there (if those tricks help those people) are good tricks - even if it means bloating a perfectly good 30k story to 50k by addition of a plot twist.  And even with the bloat, the words you write will still have the story to want embedded with in them - the things the characters learn will still come out of you even if you don't realise what it is that you're doing.  After you're done with the story perhaps you can look back over it and say "That's good, but the plot twist isn't working.  I'll take it out.".

50k will remain my initial aim for my first draft.