Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Server migration

This blog will remain here, but all further updates will take place on Cara's personal website www.toadworld.co.uk.

Friday, 25 April 2014

iO in Copenhagen 2014 (5 day intensive summary)

I want to sumarise the things I learned from the amazing Jet Eveleth in Copenhagen this year - my notes, written up in other posts, are very disjointed because of the speed I was taking them at.  The bits below are what resonated with me hardest: I've not summarised the physical work we did because I would need to work much longer on it for it to stick with me.

The full notes are here - I suggest reading this summary and then Thursday and Friday.

General Improv

Put eye contact with your scene partner on equal footing with eye contact with the audience.  Spend an even amount of time breathing in as breathing out.

Jet described how to find a character which has appealed to me so much:  Be in a neutral stance and throw something out of alignment, allowing the asymmetry to move through the entire body.  Make any vocal sound that feels right to find the character's point of view.  I'd previously been trying to pick a Psychological Gesture, or having an active verb ('wringing') to find a character for me, and the thing I like about Jet's suggestion is how letting out a sound prevents you from jumping into a scene without a character.  It's the thing which really made me understand the phrase 'be in your body'.

Longform Improv

We would like variety and balance in our longform pieces.  Think like a five-year-old: if the last scene had two people close together, start the next scene with two people far apart.  Standing up?  Sit down!  Fast?  Slow!  Respect the 2-person scene and resist jokey walk-ons - this in particular clarified why non-scenic moments in a long form are called 'group games', because as soon as a third person enters the sacred two person scene to make a joke the atmosphere is sharply cheapened and the natural path is for everyone to pile on and play, because the scene is no longer what it was.

Similarly with edits:  If we have had a talky scene let's have an object-work edit to get us more grounded.  If we're lacking connection in our show make eye contact with another player and see what emotion you see in their eyes, and let that drive the scene.  If we're being too grounded start a scene with a vocal edit to quickly establish tone.

(Seeking balance doesn't require the rest of your team to be doing anything more than sweep/tag edits, either: at the start of a scene you are always free to just take a moment to enjoy your spacework a little more than usual.)

In Monkey Toast this week we were working on using monologues as initiations, and I found it helpful to pull out one of each of these: one World (action in a location), one dramatic sentence (last night, "Puberty is coming." a la Game of Thrones) and one point-of-view (gesture and vocal noise).  It'll give the show balance from the start and it helped me remember what I'd pulled out.  I found I was pulling out very simple things and just trusting myself to honour the monologue more (see below about 'being dumb').

Clowning

This was magical.  I was able to share a genuine emotion (in my case, relieved and sad tears after a glorious week outside my improv comfort zone) with 20 people, while keeping eye contact with each of them, and I got to see people "in clown" (in vulnerable trance) close up.  I now am aware that there's a level of vulnerability that it is possible to bring to theatre that I previously wasn't able to access; I can't access it now as I am but am very interested in accessing that state and power again.  I wish the week had been longer.

I think the clowning has had a permanent effect on me.  It's been difficult not to do dumb things like rearrange the fabric barriers at the airport coming home, or try to drink some frozen soup without my housemate CH stopping me.  I've remembered that dumb things are really fun.

More than that, the strong eye contact coupled with the character work described above has led me to find my scene initiations feel a lot stronger.  I've practised improv on 3 nights since getting back 6 days ago, and I've seen that audiences react very strongly and positively to the character noise.  There's even been a noticeable effect offstage - I was coming home on the Tube last night and had a dumb idea ("What if clowns obeyed the same rules as vampires?") and I smiled so much and so suddenly that three strangers fairly demanded to know what I had just thought of.  Three strangers, on the Tube in London, because I smiled.  Last Friday a man stopped me in the street to shake my hand as I was rapping.  I think it's because the clowning freed something inside me.

iO in Copenhagen (teacher: Jet Eveleth, Thursday, day 4 of 5)

Thursday

On Thursday morning I woke up with a fully-formed piece of clown-business in my head.  On Friday I would understand that the business I wrote on Thursday was in fact my clown's 'safe space'.

We open with a stretch, each to their own, and Jet tells us to bring the gross 10 of a stretch down to a 4 or a 2, just being aware of where the tension in your body is so that you are properly connected to your body.  We then do an exercise that leaves me discombobulated for about the next 24 hours:

We mill about in a crowd of about half the class; one person announces that "I feel like I'm falling -" and slowly melts to the ground.  Everyone around them catches them.  They make eye contact with those around them, and as one turn to make eye contact with the audience.  Jet would clap, those around the faller would scatter and leave them alone, Jet would converse with the faller, and clap again, and those that had scattered would return and eye contact would be remade again.  When it was my turn my hands began burning, as is usual when theatre is working its magic on me, and - after a week of such exercises - I was in a trancelike state.  Jet gave me some tips on my posture - I can be more balanced front and back.

Since it was an intensive the exercises modulated as the class proceeded through them.  Later fallers were asked who they felt a connection with, and what they saw in each other's eyes and how that made each other feel.  Jet then told them to strike a pose and when they did, usually told them that it was the best thing she had ever seen.  Jet was skillful with her voice, here, with gentle emotional cues leading people to give the obvious answer so that those speaking needed think as little as possible.

The bit that left me out of sorts was that no-one picked me to be connected with, which ordinarily would yield a "ho, hum" and a mental shrug, but with the week so far and the deliberate attempt to stop controlling my emotions left me tense and sad.

We move on to talk about connections with the audience; when a stand-up speaks they find the strongest connection they have in an audience member and play to that person.  (I remember the last time I did standup noticing the one person that could look away.)

After that we practise collapsing and dying, as slowly as possible, flaring up to make funnier deaths.  The link I gave yesterday to Slava's Snowshow contains an excellent example of this, and I realised that Kirk's death at the end of Generations has a semi-good example of this - when he says "Oh my", it's not a random vocalisation, but it is just a natural and information-free thing that a real person might say.

We practise pulling and pushing against a character that will not be moved.  Jet demonstrates with Y, who is much larger than her.  These particular exercises would, I think, require several months to get good at.

We play slo-mo fake tai chi, trying to touch each's others hands, and it's fun to watch O retreat with his full body at a single gesture from me and see that I have strong magic.  It reminded me of both Sticky Hands and Zen Wrestling, but less combative and more co-operative.

We then do some deliberately bad pieces, having as much fun as possible.  Jet explains that we cannot always demand perfection of ourselves, because if you tell yourself it must be gold you will be paralysed.  Half the time, try to be awful.  On the other hand, we never want bad edits - we don't want our bodies, the places where edits originate, to learn that that's okay.

Then we flip around and do some good pieces.  One group performs a Bevy (they form an object and speak as it) and I am in a group that starts with a shared character monologue: each player in a dramatic pose, and with no motion.  It's pretty much the form Wolfpack have been rehearsing, and it was nice to be in my comfort zone briefly - I tried also just accepting the character monologue rather than keeping it in mind, which was relaxing.

We watch a scene in which a character hugs someone who does not want to be hugged.  It's a scene where everyone watching knows precisely what they want to see, and that looks incredibly difficult to play.

Take-home:  trust more.  Be physical.

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Thursday Evening

That evening I was behind the bar at Bastarden, one of the theatres.  There was a two-handed shortform show which took up volunteers, and I got picked and did a good scene.  Later, there was a jam and I did two stinkers of scenes, which was a bit gutting.  That set the stage for Friday.

Monday, 21 April 2014

iO in Copenhagen (teacher: Jet Eveleth, Friday, day 5 of 5)

Friday

This day will be short to describe.  We again do the clown warmup in which we fall and are caught.  I connect with someone...


...I can't rightly describe fully what happens next, because although my vulnerability is mine to share, another person's is not.  I'll tell what I can.

I connected with someone and they said they saw humour in my eyes, exactly the right thing to say after the week I'd had of struggling with material difficult to me, and after the show the night before where I had felt like I'd done badly.  I cried, and they hugged me.  Me crying sparked something in them which was wonderful to see at close quarters.

Facing the audience with my partner was far easier than it would have been under any other circumstances; there was no urge to hide my face whilst crying, nor to break eye contact with the audience of 20 of my classmates.  I would guess that this was a fairly deep trance, which we had been building up to all week from the first game of Mister Hit.  Jet was as reassuring as she could be (which was very, very reassuring), and said something to the effect of that she knew that this was difficult, but that my showing these emotions was moving; I remember kicking my feet in anxiety like a child.  She spoke of it very positively to me again when the class was finishing.

I suspect that a future exercise would involve that level of vulnerability without a partner there for support, or a partner chosen from a theatre company rather than one chosen by you from a group, and both of those extensions would require a lot of preparation.

We move on to an exercise in which four clowns line up on the opposite wall; each time they make one of us laugh (or cry, or just make a strong connection) they may take a step forwards; the aim of the game is to touch a member of the audience first.  This was just astonishing; people were laughing and crying and behaving like four-year-olds in their competition just to make us laugh and win a simple game.  Jet would not refer to people by their names when they were in clown.


How do I feel about having cried in front of 20 people?  Very positively.  I feel like if I hadn't managed to allow it to happen then I would have missed the central lesson of the class.  It'll take some time to process fully, I'm sure, but on the other hand...

...since I was 16 I've been maintaining two masks, Affection and Bravura.  They're both true faces of me, and the distinction only matters when I'm under high stress and I need to manage my emotions carefully.  Bravura got rid of Affection's stammer, and made us much, much more personable and outgoing, with the only downside being that I will sometimes without thinking refer to myself as plural if drunk.  It's sometimes tricky with romantic relationships, because they are very different faces, but with comedy it was always simple - Bravura was literally born to tell jokes and distract, and that was always her domain.

But Friday was pure Affection standing in front of a crowd of people we had met only five days before, with Bravura nowhere in sight.  And I learned something immediately!

We played another exercise that afternoon called Make That Edit Cooler! where we did short scenes in a circle, with someone coming on and doing an 'alternative' edit, such as ripping open the stage like a giant present, or coming on as a motorcycle gang and wiping the stage...  One particular two-person scene was ended by a person running on and grabbing one and running off, and another running to grab the other and run off.  Suddenly the right thing for me to do - to stoke the fears of my inner clown -  was to walk on and be alone, having found no person to grab.  Those on the other side of the circle that could see my face laughed - with me having used no words at all.  After the difficult week that meant a lot to me.

"Take things personal enough to be vulnerable, and risk will lead to joy."

Jet: When we add a generator (an opening), the scenes get worse.  What I like to do is to be in my opening, then erase my brain.  And if someone says "but that's not honouring...!" then I say "no, I was in my opening", and then just trust.

Jet: A trick is if you know that you tend to be literal, ask for a line of poetry or from a song.

(For me I think character could be the thing - previously I've been asking for a physical verb to inform me.)

Jet's favourite generator is the shortform game Move On, where you just keep the first scene that has legs as the first scene of your show.  I do love that game.

Jet: Once an idea is taken from the opening that word is burned.  We don't want to hear it again because that means we're taking ideas from the same source.

Later, we play some physical games: we have boys vs girls playing 'tap the water bottle on the chairs set at either end of the room'.  We play it with our legs together, our bums on the floor, and with our eyes closed, and I forgot to worry about how stupid I looked.

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We had a closing show, which is unusual for iO courses and was part of the CPH Impro Festival program.  Ours went well, and I wasn't too wordy.
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Final impressions:  I've missed out a lot from what happened, including an entire hour or two of push/pull wrestling I simply failed to write about because it was physical. I want to be pushed this hard more often, or even harder, and I really want to play with people who make me feel like I need to drastically improve just to be competent.

iO speaks about improv in a very moving way, in a way which makes me think dedicating my life to it might be the right thing to do.  Playing with people for whom English was not their first language exposed a big weakness in my play.  I might ask those people who I have classes or workshops with to shout at me "What's your character?" every time I walk on stage for a while.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

iO in Copenhagen (teacher: Jet Eveleth, Wednesday, day 3 of 5)

Wednesday Morning

We try initiations as follows:  You do spacework, then let out a physical vocalisation to find your point of view, then your partner enters and you connect with them in the eyes.  It's very satisfying.

Jet draws a distinction between external, exposed games that the audience can see and that are simple and require joy on the part of the players, and internal, hidden games that are for the players only that do not need us to show our joy.

I was writing the above and so missed the explanation of the next exercise: One player initiates with spacework, then another player adds with more spacework, and both connect with the audience.  It leads to some very funny and bizarre scenes - K, washing the dishes is told off by R because he let all of the monkeys escape, both staring at the audience.  I think the exercise is one in absorption; K takes a long time to process that the monkeys have escaped, and it's fun to watch him standing there washing the dishes whilst staring around himself.  We on stage mustn't address this, however.

"I don't buy it when improvisers talk to the character choice, or the object work."

Then a gloriously stupid thing happens: M asks a question about straight/funny man scenes whilst sitting on the edge of the stage.  Jet sits down next to him and explains that if she's sitting on a plane next to a complete weirdo and told the complete honest truth, she would get up and leave.  So we go to our internal playwright/director and say "Why can't I leave?", and get a response like "This is the last seat on the plane and my mother is very sick and I'm going to visit her".  You as the straight man are allowed to say 'No' or 'Stop' precisely once, at the end of the scene, because if you say 'No' and the funny man doesn't stop then the scene gets horrible connotations of assault (or even rape) and it won't be fun any more.

(I think of Le Diner de Cons - we have a short setup, then the game begins.  Brochant wants the fool Pignon to leave his house but can't get him to do so because Brochant has effectively broken his leg.  Pignon makes things worse and worse and worse and worse for Brochant until the last 20 minutes where Brochant snaps and screams at him for being such an idiot and completely ruining his life.  Pignon then tries to make amends and successfully resolves the film.  It's a lovely piece because the whole basis of the film is that Brochant was trying to take advantage of Pignon but is quite a normal person, so that every time Pignon screws something up for him we're able to empathise but allowed to laugh as hard as we want.  Go watch it, it's hilarious, and steer clear of the American remakes.)

The gloriously stupid thing about this explanation is that M started to play the funny man with all his heart: raising and lowering his chair, summoning the stewardess repeatedly, falling asleep in Jet's personal space... and played it so thoroughly he completely missed everything she said.  Beautiful.

We do an exercise where someone picks a strong character, and someone enters and speaks almost against the character they have chosen: a super-tough guy hanging out showing off his muscles has someone enter and say "Mum called".  The characters are then more real, and more inappropriate like a real person is inappropriate.  Jet responds to a question by saying that it is a journey to both play the clown, showing your real vulnerability, and play a rich character.  She suggests looking at Chris Lily, Sacha Baron Cohen or Ricky Gervais.

Wednesday Afternoon

Jet:  "I can always be a voice in your head saying 'be an idiot'.".  I remain uncertain as to whether having Jet as a voice in my head is a good idea or not.

Before you begin a piece, check in with all other members of your troupe.  Be highly connected - be ready to play, be dumb!  Be a unit that plays together.  That energy will charge your opening.  Then enjoy every moment - every moment is important to you on stage.  Allow the non-scenic things to be short, as you start to learn them.  We need balance, so not a lot of this.

I ask a confused question about whether or not speech in these group games looks messy.  Jet explains that early in your work you will get chaos and it will look messy, but that over your journey and your troupe's journey it will get tighter and more like 'organised chaos' and very impressive.  If you start playing like this now, in ten years you might be good, but if you play very ordered and sterile now you will still be playing very ordered and sterile in ten years time.

(I think there is still a place for ordered-and-sterile when learning - similar to how one might initially memorise joseki or fuseki (openings) in Go, and as you play with stronger and stronger opponents who do not want to play the ordered-and-sterile line you struggle and get stronger.  My verbal-brain has been interpreting everything in terms of Go metaphors because everyone keeps talking about eyes - in Go, if you don't have two eyes, your pieces get taken and you lose the gameAt one point I giggled and wrote down "I've got two eyes, and that means I'm ALIVE!")

She then pushes us to do scene-after-scene-after-scene, playing with the idea of yin and yang edits.  We always want equal breath, an equal time spent breathing in as out.  The audience must unconsciously know that we are in control of and manipulate our breath, and that we as performers are having fun!  She gives an example of how she might play someone who has just survived a shipwreck, and recalls Slava Polunin's philosophy, that it is our responsibility to dream on stage.

I was happy with the two-prov I did with TS, here - with two the edits had to come from within, initially with Jet coaching from the sides, and finding a new position to start each scene with made it really easy to find what character I was and their point of view.  Aaaaand suddenly another small epiphany when writing this up, and I now grok the short-form game Freeze Tag.  There was a scene that felt good where TS was a monk, and I was sitting at the side of the stage struggling with whether or not I wanted to light a cigarette.

(Edit: I've missed out some of Jet's very useful character teaching from my notes, so it can go here: We start from neutral stance, then kink something out of alignment.  We then stack, letting that wrong alignment propagate through the body.  Depending on the kind of show, we roll that character between 1 and 10; if we want a subtle character (a 2 or a 4) we move the misalignments back to the centre line of the body and make them softer; if we have very big gestures then we might pepper the character with them, so a big hunched shoulder might become a big Gallic shrug.)

The two-prov was very fun to watch - there was a moment when IS and Y were a dictator and her monster on stage; she jumped on his back and they became a daughter flying on her daddy's shoulders, and the change was beautiful to watch.  Similarly with U and P, where their edit took over and the non-scenic blossomed and suddenly we were watching an improvised dance show.  It left me feeling like I could risk a lot more - because look at what beauty could come out!

For these soft subtle edits we needed strong-choice to strong-choice - and a big change in your character.  You can get up a nice rhythm in edits in your show to get up a nice structure; repetition does not have to be within scenes.

Jet talks about the localisation of energy on stage again (again she prefaced them with a semi-apology if this is just one belief too far for you), and I see I didn't note that down the first time she mentioned it: Actions on a stage, powerful actions, leave a mark in the world around them.  There's a part of the stage in iO where people always play giving birth, and at least once the show at the top of the building has synchronised with the show at the bottom of the building; in this class a teacher and student scene happened, and later the stage-picture recurred with a dom and sub scene.

In two-prov or with 3 or 4 people, you need to change up the dynamics - 2 vs 1, 1 vs 2, 3 improvisers alone, 3 improvisers together - to keep your show lively.  Absorb what your partner gives you as slowly as possible so your reaction is truthful.

Scene are heavy, and grounded, and walk-ons can disturb that.  Jet treats walk-ons with mindful caution for that reason.  Think of the scene as rooms, and the non-scene as the hallways between rooms.  But improv requires that you hold no obligations.

The monologue, the impetus, the thesis, does not need to be used cerebrally (look at how much reintroduction we get without trying for it anyway!).  It's okay to do so!  But both is fine, and it's okay to communicate what you're going to do to your audience beforehand.  (But $_MYNAME, says my internal monologue, you work from your head all the time, so you'd better darn well try trusting your subconscious and your teammates.)

Take-home: Equal breath.  Trust yourself more, trust your partners more.  Play now how you want to play in 10 years.

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Wednesday Evening:

I went to see the Barcelona Improv Group do a Speed Harold, which I enjoyed a lot; they were much more linear than the iO teachers had been, keeping three threads with consistent characters in each thread (and they took my word!).  I was pretty tired and over-humaned out, so wandered off and bumped into MKR, who wanted to go to Tivoli, the world's second-oldest amusement park.  At 21:30 or so the sky was dark and there were Chinese-style lanterns hanging from the street lamps with Easter eggs strung in between.  There were flowers and pagodas, and it was truly peaceful and beautiful.  Several children were playing, full of energy even at the end of the day, and we saw a Rooty Shellduck!

iO in Copenhagen (teacher: Jet Eveleth, Tuesday, day 2 of 5)

It's jarring to write this in the active voice all the time, but the passive voice seems really inappropriate for this material.

Tuesday

As with yesterday, we begin the day by playing Hitman, now with three lives apiece.  Jet deliberately plays favourites, and we play along and start to care.  Y, who works professionally as a clown, gets given three extra lives; I get the feeling that Jet is deliberately playing unfair so that we have a person to please and something human to care about.  The game is hard to lose unless you push yourself to play riskily, but the game is no fun at all if you are not playing with risk; it's a well-chosen warmup game given the improv syllabus.

This next bit is a bit important to me.

I lose all three lives and spend a few sentences in the eyes of the rest of the group.  At the end of it, I ask for an extra life and Jet's mouth quirks; I had asked in part as the next step in the dance: she could now say no and appear cruel and the game could continue.

Jet instead announces the class will vote on whether or not I get an extra life.  Two or three people out of 20 put their hands up, including N; I tell B that I'll never say his name again in the game, and B puts up his hand, and I tell E that I really liked his guest spot in the opening show on Monday, and E puts up his hand.  But N puts down his hand, and says "The subtext is uncomfortable.".  Jet suggests I just ask honestly rather than making trades.  So, flatfooted, I ask, hesitantly, "I'm learning so much.  Please?".

Everyone puts up their hand, and I feel a bit like I've been punched in the gut.  The adrenaline from asking leaves my arms and legs weak.  I don't want to labour the moment, but it was a wrench to see that "no" turn into a "yes", and I was glad that both CS and JD were attending the course as well in other classes, because I did cry a bit about that in the evening.

The warmup game continues and finishes, and we move on to some character work.  Jet explains that the eyes keep the connection between the improvisers and build the relationship between the characters, and that the sounds and physicality keep the character.  If you come on, make eye contact and understand the relationship, and then let any vocal sound come out (a sigh, a grunt, a confused hum) that will inform the character's point of view - a person that is consistently snobbish can exist in any scene.  We add in the spacework, with the instruction (familiar from Monkey Toast) not to narrate it, and the awareness that this spacework will distract you from making eye contact with your scene partner.  We must be allowed to dream on stage.

Jet goes so far as to say consider not even defining what your mimes are verbally - "I like to be a really good mime so I can talk about someone else.".  We practise "do an action, mime the action, do the action again noticing a subtlety we missed, mime the action again".  Fiddle with pens, put them down when we go offstage when we're edited.  Explore your world - turn on the lightswitch to see the painting to see the popcorn next to the sofa in front of the TV.

(Spurious level of detail: for me I was getting a cup of water and had not noticed that I pass my cup back and forth between my hands.  I think the trigger for me switching hands was: I am right handed, but the dominant thing I'm doing changes - I don't think I'd need to work out what, though, but rather imagine the surrounding space one level of detail higher.)

"Young improv is a young wine, with one flavour."

"The audience is super-smart."

"Play to the audience you want."

We then moved on to a game which I last played when I was 8, called "What are you doing?"

Person A mimes cleaning their boots

Person B:  What are you doing?

Person A:  Reading the newspaper.

Person A leaves, person B mimes reading the newspaper.  Repeat.

This is a very, very simple game, and we were practising being in the eyes of the audience whilst doing our spacework so that it does not swamp the scenes we later wish to play.  Jet indicated that had we more time we would have been working also on being in the eyes of our scene partner (and looking back to over-analyse Friday's show there was a scene where I was an atheist in a church where I kept contact with the audience but lost contact with IS, my scene partner) - so definitely I ought return to this exercise.  We played it as elimination if one gave an impossible task ("Fishing for cats") or if one ever lost eye contact with the audience.

Jet pointed out the high amount of recurrent ideas even without us trying to reintroduce.  She says she might reintroduce small motions such as 'lighting a candle', which strikes me as a lovely way to keep a world of a narrative feeling earthy and wholesome - perhaps in this universe everyone washes their cars by hand, or perhaps in this universe people brush their hair before answering the front door...

I asked about resolving flashbacks (returning to the original characters that first triggered the flashback), and Jet cautiously identified it as an attachment; other people's ideas might not be respected.  (I suppose this is a context-sensitive question: the Impronauts, doing movie-style narratives, would all be conscious of the fact that the flashback had not finished and would all be tugging towards that anyway - but that level of planning doesn't apply in this Chicago-style longform).  She cautions as well against jokey Canadian flybys, and mentions 'the sacred two-person scene', a phrase which she returns to several times over the week and which sounds like a core part of the iO curriculum.

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We then did some pieces with no openings (no group slot at the start), ,and they led me to write in bold, in all-caps, in a box:

WHAT DOES THE PIECE NEED?

and again, slightly bigger

WHAT DOES THE PIECE NEED?

because this is a thing which I feel I've been missing.  Not to think about "where will it go?" but "what does it need?".  Especially with no predefined theme from the opening, I have never thought so little as during that short piece.

Jet teaches us that non-scenic is a palette cleanser, made up of pure 'game of the scene', while 2- or 3- person scenes are big juicy meals.  Non-scenic (game) slots are the perfect place to be in clown because you can be in eye contact with the audience, and in improv we are constantly admitting that we are doing theatre - although in improv we often want to be in the eyes of our scene partners rather than just those of the audience.  Identifying when we should next go to non-scenic will come with practise (and later in the week we would overindulge on non-scenic because games are fun and everyone gets to play!).

We finish Tuesday with a melodramatic semi-scripted opening, played as serious and as haughty as possible, intended to be a way of revealing yourself to the audience and 'making best friends' with them, because people always laugh for their best friends (and who hasn't gone to a comedy show and laughed a little harder for their friends?).  When Jet said this I was a bit dubious; if you took the stage in the UK and looked like you were really taking yourself seriously I think the crowd would turn against you; later on in the week she would draw a distinction between doing this dramatically and clownfully - the difference being the twinkle in the eyes.

Take-home message:  "I don't need to negotiate for the things that I need; people will give them if I just ask" (JD summed this up for me later later using the motto that was the impetus for the teachers' show: 'I am enough'), and WHAT DOES THE PIECE NEED?

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Tuesday Evening

I was helping out tonight at Bastarden, one of the three stages, and so got to see Starve Trek by Improkroatiaa and Random! by le Theatre de l'Oignon, albeit a bit interrupted by coming in a few minutes late from running the door.  Random! especially was impressive; with just three of them they played a host of characters and gave off the real smell of theatre; apparently Strasbourg has several professional improv troupes!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

iO in Copenhagen (teacher: Jet Eveleth, Monday, day 1 of 5)

I might give the impression in this blogpost that Jet is a terrifying person or a bad teacher.  Neither of those is at all true; to achieve with us what she did achieve in a week - a single week! - she taught in a certain style, and if anyone looked like they were in a bad place she was immediately physically reassuring to them.

All week I had the Gorillaz, The Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head stuck in my head ("'Cause you see, without that trick with the eyes?  The Happy Folk were blind."), and later some misremembered Clint Eastwood too ("For me it's the eyes.  Y'all can see me now 'cause you don't see with your eyes, you perceive with your mind..." - Del That Funkee Homosapien).

Throughout the week I was drawing, and as the week went on and we focused more on the eyes in workshops I found I was drawing places less and less and people more and more - from buildings to train stations to a bar where I couldn't get around to the people fast enough, to stick figures to get people's body positions, to "stick figures and damn the background" to fast full figures of people, as ever drawing the eyes last to make the picture come alive.  Unexpected benefit!

Jet was giving us a single taste of the power of clowning.  To be "in clown", as I understand it, means "to be in a childlike state of mind", so uninhibited by e.g. socialisation or intelligence.  Those later posts will be released over the next several days as I write them up.

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Where to start?  At the beginning, then.

I just attended Copenhagen's first Impro Fest, run by Stefan Andersen, with a week-long intensive course provided by iO, one of the big Chicago schools.  Copenhagen is beautiful and sparse - the whole country has a population of only 5 million - and socialism won out there, with 80% salary for a year paid out to anyone that loses their job.  Bicycles everywhere.

I was put in Jet Eveleth's class, since I'd been in Tara deFrancisco's class on the same course back in October in London - and I'm so glad I was, since the feel of the lessons were so different.  I have made slightly under 30 pages of scribbled notes on the next five days, which I will try to summarise day-by-day here.  As ever, people acting as their public personae get full names and private individuals get initials, and all quotations are only as accurate as I wrote them down.


Monday

All sixty of us sat and listened to Jet, Tara and Lyndsey Halley as they fielded questions about iO and longform.  As a group we then played Hotspot, which I had read about in Truth In Comedy but never experienced: we stand in a large circle, with one person in the middle singing a song - when someone feels the urge (after at most a line or two) they run in and tag that person out and begin singing whatever song their song has associated with in their head.  What makes it not a horrific awkward-fest is that everyone in the circle sings along with the song currently being sung, and enjoys themselves whilst doing so.  We then split into classes.

In Jet's class we start to play Mister Hit, a warmup game Paul Foxcroft plays with us in Monkey Toast: if you are tapped you must say a name, and if someone says your name you must tap someone.  She described this as the words causing the body to move, and the body causing words to come, and - unlike any other teacher I've had before, especially an improv teacher - berated us for losing.  She lectured:

"You have to be put at low status; that's where the clown lives."

"Did you want to win?  Then you'll have to be much better."

"It's like in Meisner: what helps you survive in real life makes you boring onstage."

"Do you try to make people feel good?  Stop that."

"Be with everybody.  Live in the shit."

Every time someone fucks up, by saying a name of someone not present, by saying their own name, tapping when they ought have spoken etc., she makes them stop and stand still and make eye contact with everyone.  A lot of people smile to cope with it, or twist our lips - I snap my fingers in frustration and hold my body under control - and she tells us to stop, and that our covering devices (defense mechanisms) sap our energy when we should be sharing our vulnerability with the audience - great standups make vocalisations like "uhh" and "umm" constantly.

(Writing this for this blog now I realise that my last standup bit, as Elwood P. Dowd, I started with just a stream of random noise to establish the character as a complete lush - yay, instincts!  Yay, new conscious knowledge!)

Their eyes are open and their jaw is loose (Jet (repeated line): "Drop the jaw.  Drop the jaw, honey.  Little more.  That's good."), and when you fail you should make big eye contact.

All this eye contact and punishment for losing, coupled with Jet's astonishing charisma (she was bleeding power into the room like a minor deity on the first day) meant that we really did start to care and really did start to have a want.  Our backbrain, our ego, knows that what's going on is just for fun - but ignore it as much as you can because if your characters don't care then the audience won't care.

"If you don't want anything you're just masturbating."

"All clowns are optimists."

"Never say sorry."

"Drop the jaw."

"Lose the permasmile."

"Drop the jaw."

"Your clown might not be happy, and you are overwriting your comedy with your survival techniques."

We cover soft edits - if a sweep edit is a sudden blackout in a gangster film then these are the more nuanced fades (e.g. if you would fade out on a kiss, or change the soundtrack before changing the video).  Object edits (slow), walking on and starting with spacework that gives grounded scenes, vocal edit (fast), walking on and talking, which establishes tone immediately and leads to abstract, character driven scenes, and partner edits (very slow), where one make's eye contact with a scene partner who is not currently onstage, make an emotional connection and then initiate.  That final edit is very slow and makes the following scene very grounded in relationship.  With all of these edits, if we find we are being edited we simply leave the stage with confidence and grace as always.

Jet explains that these edits allow you to nudge the longform piece into a balanced mix: we don't want to have a piece which is just two talking heads for an hour.  The Relationship/Point of View (intention/objective/want)/World, sometimes thought of as CROW (character/relationship/objective/where) or Who/What/Where, are three balls that we want to keep throwing and catching throughout our piece.  Whichever ball we throw up first tends to be the dominant ball in a scene.  (It's nice that she used a clown-themed analogy.)

After each show, we can ask ourselves: Did I know what I wanted?  Did I know how I felt about the other person?  Did I see my world? and during each show we can say to ourselves "Today is the day I act on these feelings.".

This balance is achieved using "Yin-to-the-Yang edits".  We come to improv for kinesthetic satisfaction, for risk, for community.  These shows aren't books, stacked full of content, so when the adrenaline of being on stage makes your brain kick into high gear you need to be careful you're not being 'clever' or even 'smart'.  If the last scene had two people cuddled up together start the next one standing far apart.  If the last scene was quiet be loud.  Think like a five-year old would and just play opposites.

"Whatever you think improv uniquely brings to theatre, you'd better be doing that."

(Jet prefers not to have initiations in mind when she steps on stage, since they can lead to attachments.)

We also cover French edits ("crisp!" edits if done with good awareness), where someone entering or leaving the scene causes the scene to change discontinuously to a new scene (precisely the mechanism of Pyramid, a shortform game).  If everyone also matches the character that brought in the edit then we get a lot of very different fun scenes, and when an improviser leaves the scene we know no-one is prepared for what happens next.


Take-home lessons:  Always, always, always be in the eyes.  Seek balance with your edits.

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Monday Evening

Jet, Tara and Lyndsey perform two shows for us, one with just the three of them and one with four volunteers drawn from a hat (including E from my class).  The first show is impressive not just for its energy but for the sense that there are no rules; the edits are various, the scenes are lively, and whatever the performers want to do the other two respond with grace.  The show gained narration and closed on the narrator telling us that Time had ground to a halt, and one of the other performers just staring at the sky and saying "...What the fuuck?".

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That was Monday, the first day on this course that was really a half-day because we had the meet-and-greet at the start.  As the week went on the lessons got less able to be expressed with the written word, eventually requiring me to be in front of you and be making eye contact, and on Friday the things I learned are now not able to be communicated to another human being without children (or, I suppose, clowns?), but the learning density was roughly the pace it was at on Monday.  This week was real, yo.