FROM THE GUTS — my adventures in improv

May 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

The attempt for a blog resurrection begins with a new post about what’s happening in my life — improvisational comedy. I’ve been taking classes since the start of this year. The experience has been life changing and the people have been phenomenal. And now, I share a few highlights for you, lovely reader.

LEVEL A: THE “YES, AND…” MANTRA

After a winter of cold snaps and many ruined holidays, I enter the big city at the start of the new year with a hopeful spirit. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The rooms are cozy and warm. Fully carpeted for rolling around. Some even had pianos. All had a collection of plastic chairs. This, my friend, is the gold standard of comedy training, especially when the training center is located on a basement level. Truly an underground start for many.

The games we played over the next seven weeks were designed to show (not tell) us how the basic principles worked. The most important one is “Yes, and…”. Always accept offers and “Yes, and…” them, even nonverbal cues or gibberish language. Play off the offers and add more to their existence. Don’t just copy, push to the next level. — Tina Fey lays out the basics more brilliantly and it’s definitely worth a read.

Overall, this level was a great primer in the fundamentals. It teased the great things to come if one continued their studies in this five level program.

Everything we learned was designed to get us to the first “yes” — making eye contact, being direct, committing to an offer, staying positive, listening, parallel thinking, avoid blocking, and realizing “mistakes” are actually opportunities for the best laughs.

Be a spotlight hog and you’ll most likely get a cheap laugh, crash and burn, or kill the scene.

Remember: everyone in improv is playing a supporting role.

LEVEL B: TRUTH + PAIN = COMEDY

If Level A was the first season filled with rough patches and moments of brilliance — then Level B is where the show finds its footing and steps up the game. These seven weeks provided a new sense of confidence and I am thankful for what I have learned.

After a series of low enrollment cancellations, I found myself in a new day and time slot (which also had its benefits because Monday Mash-up is held after class and provides more opportunities for getting on a stage). If the mentor in Level A can be described as a “lanky Riker”, then Level B was taught by a self-proclaimed “sexy elf.”

Here the knowledge became concrete. Labels were being added to concepts, making it easier for us to remember. More passion. More caring. The effectiveness of the teaching style was immediately felt.

What also made a difference was the new set of faces. Here the energy was more dynamic, and the people were more willing to bond. While I still love and always remember the first group from Level A, it took a mighty long time to get to know them. To contrast, Level B’s set of players were friendlier and were eager to take the next step in this strange new world. Plus, we actually went out for drinks and even shared a karaoke night on St. Patty’s.

Which is great because the importance of this class was trying to established more connections to your scene partner and audience. Bonding with each other, whether it’s a casual hangout after class or supporting each other at Monday Mash-up, helped strengthen the inclusion and the association among us.

We worked on establishing the platform faster — who, what, where or better described as Environment, Relationship, and Action/Problem. Get that out ASAP and you’ll get to focus on raising the stakes, heightening, and exploring… basically, the best part of improvisation. The final step to this is the solution but since that’s the hardest to achieve, it’s saved for the more advanced levels.

Other things we learned: basic joke building (A —> (skip B) —>C), statements over questions, exploring emotions, and the introduction of status play.

The most profound thing the mentor shared was a formula, the idea that TRUTH + PAIN = COMEDY. You see this among stand-up comedians. You see this in movies and television series. It’s all about creating a rapport with the audience and your scene partners — allowing an investment to be made in the narrative. The better the connection, the better the laughs.

LEVEL C: POWER PLAY

Since this level just started, there isn’t much to put here. What I can share you are my first impressions:

Crossing this new threshold with me are ten familiar faces from Level B. The two new faces to the group quickly established their presence with a high-octane style and balls-to-the-wall attitude. It’s great, although overwhelming. Based on what I’ve seen and those involved, we won’t run out of raw energy any time soon.

Our mentor can only be described as an “Obi-Wan” figure — wise and cool and thoughtful. He has taught in both Level A to E and Conservatory classes. He has also directed a few of the main stage shows at Second City Toronto, which is a benefit as he provides notes and commentary for us to grow and develop.

He also seems to like what he sees in us so far, commenting with, “I’m going to have a lot of fun with this class.”

The first day of games included a lot of status play — games that had us taking and giving each other an “Oscar Moment” and worked on a three people dynamics. Things are heating up and we’re already off on a sprinting start.

——

I’m not sure if I’ll do micro updates or go for an unload like this post. Whatever the case, I highly recommend improv classes. If you find one, just dive right in. When it clicks and you want to continue, start reading up on the many books on theory (books by Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone are recommended).

I’ll probably write a post on how improv is affecting my writing.

There is definitely overlap in narrative theory.

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