29 August 2007

ZdG Busking Workshop Day Two: Accepting and Building


One of the axioms of good (or as my sophomore-year acting teacher would have preferred: "helpful") improvisation is to always accept and build on ideas your scene partner(s) put(s) forth. This is encapsulated in the phrase, "Yes, and... ," the idea being that one's response to something he or she is given should take this form. "Yes" I accept what you have established, "and" in addition I can contribute _________ to it. If both players can maintain this pattern, this energy, the scene will do a lot of work of carrying itself, and there will be less chance of the dreaded waffle. (I love self publishing; maybe there are other contexts within which I could use the phrase "dreaded waffle," but I can't think of any outside of cookbooks at present.) "Waffling" is when a scene sort of putters out, or sits still, spinning its wheels, and this is more often than not the result of "blocking."

Stick with me here. Just think of the after-show parties you'll be able to dominate with the finer points of theatrical jargon.

"Blocking" in conventional theatre refers to established gross movements around the stage. On this line, cross to the other side, etc. "Blocking" in improvisational theatre (in which there is generally very little of the previous definition) is when someone negates or "blocks" another's suggestion on stage.

"Geez, this sure is a real swell clambake."
"Yeah, or it would be, if it weren't actually a weenie roast, owing to the fact that clams are completely non indigenous for at least 100 miles in every direction."

Ouch. Not the most conducive to building a scene, not to mention trust between scene partners. This is one of the many axioms of improvisation we are attempting to impart and demonstrate to our students at Marywood. It's harder than it sounds, believe me. Nothing demonstrates this difficulty better than trying to collaborate to plan a class. Thus far, our planning sessions have taken at least as long as each class in combined discussion time, and a lot of it is owing to three guys (now four, with David Zarko cogent again [oh Heather, how I miss thy estrogenital influence]) all trying to get their ideas and priorities in. It's a good friction, the kind that makes better product, but dang: sometimes I wish we could just take thirty minutes to agree on a sequence of exercises and then go to lunch.

Last night's workshop was alternatively uplifting and frustrating for me. Uplifting because the students (Geoff and I are on a mission to keep one another from referring to these adults as "kids") are taking to the lessons so wonderfully, and listening fiercely. Even those who seemed less than engaged yesterday were fully involved last night. Frustrating, too, because I want more time with them, and that makes me impatient, which makes me feel less like collaborating with my fellow instructors and more like taking charge.

Fortunately, this less-than-helpful, semi-panic state was kept well in check last night by Dave running a great deal of the workshop. It was very game-intensive. In fact, the first half was effectively dominated by warm-up and games. Dave abandoned his Maestro persona for this class, and no one seemed to particularly notice, save for one question at the start: What's your real name?

After the games and a break, we came back in with a warm-up game, and reviewed the improvisation axioms we had agreed upon, simply stating them before trying them out. We had some discussion about this not being ideal, this terribly brief lecture, but given our time constraints it seemed the most effective way. So here's what we recommended to the students:
  • Accept and build ("Yes, and...")
  • Listen actively, responsively
  • Be as specific as possible
  • It's better to make an obvious and specific choice than a clever one
  • Make the other person look good
  • Establish a relationship with your scene partner(s)
  • When in doubt, make a physical choice
  • Rhythm is important, but allow yourself too the time to really take in what has been given you
From there we shook out, and began the game Freeze, with the adjustment that the audience stood in a circle around the players. It was thought this would be an interesting segue way into the kind of environmental performance they may be engaging in on Monday, and it kept people from getting drowsy whilst sitting. We played three rounds, with periods of groups observation--first from the players, then observers--in between. In the final round I began "freezing" pairs to give them adjustment and then asking them to continue, which worked better than I had anticipated. "Freeze. Specify your relationship. Go!" This was a largely successful period of improvisation, but we need to step up the challenges today.

From there we moved on to working on animal states, guided by Dave. They took to this well, but with some breaking of character. I attribute this to shyness about the strangeness of the exercise and the lateness of the hour, and we didn't become strict about it. Once again, an exercise that could have received scorn from people who felt silly or manipulated actually seemed to give them a better sense of effective tools incorporated in it. It really is an incredible group, and I don't relish the thought of having to choose amongst them for casting. But we're a ways off from that yet (a whole five days).

We left off with a homework assignment: to observe a stranger based on the character-building guidelines we had established thus far and bring him or her in to the workshop in some form for next class. I'm excited to see what they come up with. It's going to get very risky and challenging for them from here on out. Tonight we announce that they must choose before next class whether or not they wish to continue, to perform at the Festa and be eligible for Prohibitive Standards' cast. Thursday they will return for warm-up if they're uncertain, but largely we'll know who we've got overnight. Tonight's class marks the end of a certain period of relaxation, and the beginning of a certain period of creation.

3 comments:

dave said...

Jeff - there's been lots of discussion on the Story Games forum lately about improv, so I hope you won't mind that I linked to you. Your perspectives might be welcome there, too.

Jeff Wills said...

Dave, ol' buddy, I can't get this link to load for me. I love "Story Games" in lieu of "roleplaying."

dave said...

Ah. I think it's because it's in the category of 'Game Design Help', which might be registered-members-only. Try going to the Signup page and getting an account, then going to it. sorry bout that.