Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Dry Humping

Improv, like other kinds of performance art, can be horribly bad, mediocre, or fucking fantastic, and anywhere in between. Now, the same can be said of a play or a scripted comedy show. But there are differences. When a sketch show goes wrong, you can usually find a reason. A bad script. Bad direction. Horrible acting. What have you. But if you have a good script, good actors, good direction, and plenty of practice, odds are you will have a good performance.

Improv does not work like that. You can have all the elements of a good show – great performers, lots of practice, good direction, and a wonderful audience – and the show can still tank. It happens. The problem is, if an improv show sucks, people want to know why. They take the tools that work with a sketch show, and try to use those tools to diagnose an improv show. And that simply does not work.

In a sketch show, you might say a line that upsets the audience. The line might have been meant to be funny, but as it turns out, it wasn’t. After the show, you can say “You know what? That line is not working. Lets retool it, or take it out”. That works. Because the next time you do the show, you can tweak the line until it works.

People try to take this diagnostic tool and apply it to improv. If someone says a line that flops, someone after the show might say “You know what? That line did not work. You should not have said that line”. That does not work. For several reasons. First off, that line will never be repeated. No two improvised shows are the same. Therefore, identifying an element of one show and trying to tweak it is silly, because it will never be used again.

Secondly, you are criticizing a performer, which can make them feel bad. Now sometimes, its worth hurting someone’s feelings if doing so will improve their performance. Seeing as we have established that criticizing a decision doesn’t help, the note is therefore not really worth upsetting the performer over.

To put on a good show, you require a number of different elements. First off, you need good performers. People who are committed to the show, and have put their time and effort into being a part of this show. You need good direction. You need an audience, which means you need to advertise. Improv is quite often too incestuous, with the “audience” consisting of other improvisers who are waiting to take their turn on stage (and the friends they have brought).

There is one other thing that you need for a good show. It’s an element that I feel is commonly ignored. When done properly it increases the likelihood of a good show, and when done poorly it detracts from the performance. That element is the warm up. A warm up can make the difference between a good show and a great show, or a crap show and a good show. Yet, warm ups are usually haphazard and poorly thought out, if prepared at all. It’s a “last minute” thing, when it should be carefully crafted and prepared.

A good warm up loosens the performer, gets them in a positive mind set, and prepares them for play. It loosens inhibitions, it primes the creative pump. A bad warm up puts people in their head. It causes them to think too much, question and doubt. No matter how good you are, no matter how practiced and prepared, if you are in a negative mind space before a show, chances are you will not perform up to your best standards.

If you think of an improv show as sex, then the warm up is foreplay. Yes, you can have good sex without foreplay. However, the chances of having great sex is better if you have had good foreplay. Foreplay prepares us for what is to come.And just like sex, dry improv is not much fun for anyone.

So, having said that, I’d like to identify some of the more common warm up styles that I feel do not work.

The “Show” Warm Up: Sometimes, an facilitator will have everyone warm up by running through the show format before the show commences. I feel this is a bad idea. First off, you should not need to run through a show format just before the show. Your performers should have had enough advance practices to be familiar and comfortable with the format before performing in front of an audience.

Secondly, you are draining ideas away. If you do a scene during a warm up that would have made a great scene on stage, you have eliminated that great scene from the actual performance. If you take scenes from a practice and use them during the show, you are not really improvising. Also, the scene will seem hollow and false, because it is not real, it is not natural, it is not spontaneous. It is, in effect, rehearsed. It is not improv.

Lastly, it is not uncommon to have a great warm up “Show” and a mediocre or bad actual performance. And it really sucks as a performer to know that the great show you put on in the basement will never be seen by an audience, while the crappy show you put on afterwards had people watching it.

The “No Warm Up” Warm Up: No warm up is a bad warm up. You show up, you sit and around and gab, and then BAM – you have to go from conversation mode to performance mode. I am sure that there are a few people who can do this successfully, but they are few and far between. Most people need to warm up. If you are running a show, and feel you can perform without warming up, don’t be an egotist. The group needs a warm up. If you are running the show, then you need to provide a warm up.

The “Intensive Analysis” Warm Up: this is potentially the worst form of warm up imaginable. Here, the facilitator runs an intensive workshop, and gives frequent and strong notes. This is wrong. How wrong? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Now, I realize that method of instrucction this can make for a great workshop. It just makes for a fucking awful warm up.

When a person is intensely examined and critiqued, they tend to get into an introspective analysis mode – a state we sometimes refer to as being “in your head”. The performer becomes stuck in “thinking” mode, and is not free to play and have fun. When an improviser is performing, ideally his/her actions and thoughts will flow naturally, without introspection. If the performer is stuck “in their head”, they will be second guessing him or herself, and therefore destroying any spontaneity he/she may have been able to bring to the show.

So, I’ve spent some time talking about the ingredients for a bad warm up – but what makes a good warm up good? A good warm up should be prepared, thought out, crafted – tailored to the individual needs of the performers. Games designed to let people have fun will be more likely to stimulate their creative juices.

There is no one set warm up that works for everyone. The person leading the warm up should ideally be aware of the likes and dislikes of each performer. If someone hates doing the warm up called “George”, then doing that warm up before a show will put them in a negative mind space. But if everyone loves doing “George” and has a fun time when playing that game, then it becomes a great pre-show warm up.

In general, “fun” warm ups are the ones to consider. There are warm up exercises that are fun to play, and fun to watch. Warm ups such as “Freak Tag” work well. Any game or playful exercise that helps the performers have fun and enter a positive mind set will likely improve the quality of the show.

My ideal pre-show runs something like this. For an 8:00 pm show, call time is at 7:00 pm. This is for two main reasons. First off, there are some people – we all know them – who are always late. No matter what time you give them, they show up 20 minutes afterwards.

Secondly, when you get a group of performers together, they are going to spend the first 15-20 minutes just shooting the shit. This is true even if they were all together the night before. Performers are social creatures, and they like to socialize. So give them the time to do so. If you deny them this socialization time, they will resent you for it.

After a 15-20 minute bull session, I then initiate beginning warm ups. Simple activities designed to get people into a group mind-set while still allowing them to chat and socialize. Clap focus is a perfect example of this, as are pure stretching and physical warm up exercises. I will run this portion of the workshop for about 5 to 10 minutes.

At this point, I move on to a good concentration exercise, such as “Threads” or “Red Ball”. My goal now is to monopolize my performers attention, to force them to concentrate completely and totally on one thing. I find this clears their minds of their day-to-day thoughts, and essentially shakes the Etch-a-Sketch. I find that about 5 minutes of this is perfect. Too much, and you start to annoy the performers.

From there, I move into fun games. Games such as “Freak Tag”, “Slow Motion Samurai” and “Jeepers Peepers” are fun, involve a great element of play, and usually will put people in a positive mood. I run these purely fun games for 10-15 minutes.

About 5 to 10 minutes before the show starts, I end the warm up. This gives people a chance to level out, and perform any pre-show rituals, relax, go take a leak, whatever. Just before the show begins, I do a fast and quick energy builder, such as “Sevens”.

Now, does this guarantee a good show? Fuck no. In improv, there is never a guarantee of a good show. That’s part of its beauty and magic. But no matter how the show goes, I know I have done what I can to make it better than it might have been.

3 comments:

Grammarian said...

I found doing sound imitations worked pretty well. It gets you prepped without wasting ideas. It also gets you in a mood to do "onstage" things.

I'm not familiar with the names of the games you mention.

Anonymous said...

Ok.. you have to explain "Freak Tag", "Jeepers Peepers" and "Sevens"
I wanna play!!

:-)

Bernie said...

Here, here!

My goodness, but you said every damn thing I've been thinking just before almost ANY show I've ever done!