"Down the Rabbit Hole": Discovery vs. Invention

Discussion of the art and craft of improvisation.

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Postby B. Tribe » March 1st, 2011, 3:22 pm

I wrote a whole bunch of stuff to clarify but my stupid work computer sucks so hard that it crashed Opera and ate everything I wrote. Jordan said what I was going to say about 'discovery' being active. I'd also say you have to discover something before you can explore it. You can't explore someplace you've already been. It's a sequence with one leading to another. Search>Discover>Explore. (HUMAN CENTIPEDE)

Here's more specific examples of following the rabbit hole.

1. Bad Boys show. I'm in a scene with Danny Catlow. He sits in a chair, back straight, knees together, hands on knees. I observe this. I stand about 3 feet from him, hands behind my back. He says "I'm ready for anything". I reply "You say that now..." Discovery: this is a game scene. I find the game. I force feed him discontinued food from the 90's. He gets more hopped up on caffeine and sugar. He chugs Surge, then eats original Gushers, then Little Debbie Chocolate Covered Cream Filled Oatmeal Cookie Sandwiches. I throw the cookie into his mouth from across the stage. 3 beats. Less than 2 minutes. No relationship. No need for one. Palate cleanser after a longer scene.

2. Secret Senate rehearsal. I'm in a scene with Vicki Sokol Evans. Our suggestion is "cigarette". I stand on stage, smoking. Vicki enters. Says "This place sure is empty" Discovery: It's a bar. Discovery: Because I'm smoking, it's a smoking bar. Discovery: I got a special license to open a smoking bar. That's it for that hole. Pop back up. I say something about how nobody can smoke in bars anymore and how awful that is. Discovery: Gift: I'm the kind of guy who doesn't like government getting involved in people's business. Vicki looks out the window, sees a bunch of people smoking outside. Go down that hole. Discovery: It's cold outside. Pop back up. Vicki notes how she's always the only person here. Discovery: Oddness of a continually empty bar. Discovery: She's my only regular customer. Discovery: She's also my favorite customer. Vicki follows that down further. She looks back out the window. Discovery: All those people out there are actually my customers that I kicked out. Discovery: I want to be alone with her. Discovery:Not only is she my favorite customer, she's the only customer that matters to me. We play the rest of the scene out, emotionally invested in each other. It plays like a love scene replacing the male/female dynamic with proprietor/customer. We follow that discovered , not invented, premise with me professing my 'love' for her. Scene edit: I say "When you find that perfect customer you hold on and never let go."

Two scenes. One was a quick hop down the hole to find a fun, quick game. The other, discovery after discovery, leading to a deep but absurd relationship that could have spooled out as a mono scene following the conventions and plot complications that come from love stories.

Breaking it down like this makes it seem so robotic. It's much more free-flowing. Each discovery comes from simple observations and choices. You aren't in your head at all. It feels like floating. Invention feels like awful work.

So it's not cutting you off from ideas or options. It leads to more options than simple 'game' or 'straight/absurd' while still leaving both of those as viable and worthwhile options. Moment to moment. Follow an idea and see what you find, what you discover. Let that move and affect you.
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Postby Jastroch » March 1st, 2011, 3:26 pm

Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell wrote:
Jastroch wrote:Maybe we can replace the word discovery with exploration. A discovery is something that happens. Exploration is something you do.


it seems a false distinction to me...they're wrapped up in one another. but i do think i see what you're driving at, at least in terms of education...wanting to highlight the journey and the process rather than the notion of an end goal or product, yes?


Kind of. That's part of it.

The words we use matter when it comes to improv education. Whether we like it or not, they influence the way we approach scenework.

For example:
A lot of people use the word offer when describing a move that their partner makes. It's an okay word. It has positive connotations. But when you think about it, an offer is something you can either accept or decline.

"I offer you this meal."
"Naw, thanks anyway, but I don't want it right now."

In that case, an improv teacher might say that you "blocked his/her offer." On the other hand, the word "gift" has slightly different connotations. A "gift" is generally something you accept without thinking of it. Who turns down a gift? It's a lot harder.

"I am giving you this boner statue as a gift."
"Oh man, I don't really like it, but I have to accept it."

An offer is something that can be denied, a gift is something that, even if we don't like it, we accept it.

The more I teach improv, the more I find that it's more about untangling our mental processes. And a lot of our mental processes involve our use of language. And language can get pretty tricky.

Let's go back to the word discovery. It's a noun. It's the end result of something. Maybe that something comes from active searching, or maybe it's something you've accidentally stumbled across. Who knows?

The word discovery describes what happens in an improv scene after a successful moment of improvisation. Use of the word discovery confuses product with process, and as such isn't super useful.

I guess what I like to avoid is passive language. Language that assumes, somehow, that a successful improv scene just happens. It might feel that way a lot of the times, but every moment of magical sponteneity is built on strong decision making and active choices that push the scene forward in some way. Those choices may be nuts and absurd, or they may be grounded and emotional, but they're still strong choices.

I think these ideas, for me, are born out of watching people trying to do a TJ and Dave-style show and failing, because they are waiting for something to happen instead of creating it. Confusing slow and patient with indecisive and boring.
--Jastroch

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Postby arthursimone » March 1st, 2011, 3:27 pm

Cackowski teaches, (and I obviously paraphrase), that there's only a few seconds of creation at the top of any scene, then the rest is exploration of the world, characters, reality and relationships that you've brought to the table.

Explore and discover the riches, but the audience can usually tell if you're inventing/controlling something that isn't there. Believability index and all.

Rabbit holes also sometimes lead to snake holes and rat holes and wormholes
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Postby Spots » March 1st, 2011, 3:28 pm

B. Tribe wrote:I throw the cookie into his mouth from across the stage. 3 beats. Less than 2 minutes.No relationship.


I beg to differ. It just sounds like a weak relationship... but it's a moot point. This is a semantics heavy thread as it is.

The thing I like about this thread is that different language opens new doors for different people. But for some, I'm sure it feels like, "wait. why use the door when you can use... the door?"


I love Arthur's post. <3
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Postby ejbrammer » March 1st, 2011, 3:31 pm

I want to third Spots's seconding of Kareem, and second Spots's idea that control is a type of death.

When you think you're in control, you're leading the scene, and you're really doing a disservice to your partner's active participation. If you're both exploring together, then you may discover what neither of you would have noticed independently.

There is a certain feeling that comes along with a discovery that you just know what to say and do. This feeling never comes to me when I'm analyzing a scene from within, but it does come when I'm collaborating with a partner who says something that my character reacts to.

To use another science analogy, many drugs on the market today were created for purposes totally different from the one they are useful for. For example, scientists trying to make a diabetes drug, that ends up being no good for treating diabetes but does treat depression. If they were too singly focused on the diabetes aspect, they may have missed the other true and valuable application of the drug .

To me, that's very much like the difference between having a single-minded focus of active control over a scene, versus truly discovering something amazing that came out of left field - not being closed off to the alternate, awesome scene you might actually be in.
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Postby ejbrammer » March 1st, 2011, 3:34 pm

I'm impressed that in the time it took for me to draft my reply like 5 other replies came through. :)
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Postby Jastroch » March 1st, 2011, 3:34 pm

Spots wrote:The thing I like about this thread is that different language opens new doors for different people. But for some, I'm sure it feels like, "wait. why use the door when you can use... the door?"


Absolutely, this is a super semantics heavy thread. From a practice standpoint at a certain level, this is all BS. But from a teaching standpoint, I guess I'm saying these words really do matter. Cause they create the improv baggage people will be dealing with.
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Postby B. Tribe » March 1st, 2011, 3:47 pm

Jastroch wrote:Absolutely, this is a super semantics heavy thread. From a practice standpoint at a certain level, this is all BS. But from a teaching standpoint, I guess I'm saying these words really do matter. Cause they create the improv baggage people will be dealing with.


Maybe by using the Search>Discover>Explore dynamic will help. You SEARCH for an interesting moment until you DISCOVER one, then you EXPLORE it to it's fullest extent.

Replacing DISCOVER with FIND might be more palatable since it's not so laden with connotations.

And it is right to pick this idea apart. "Rabbit Hole" another idea/metaphor/angle on how to approach a scene. "Moment to Moment" is similar to "Rabbit Hole" which is similar to "Burning the Leaves". They aren't exactly the same but cover a lot of the same ground.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 1st, 2011, 3:53 pm

agreed that language is important, but it's also important not to confuse our own connotations with others.

discovery is a noun, yes, it's a product. but to discover is a verb. it's active, it's in the moment, it's exciting. to explore is also a verb, and one that leads up to and includes the process of discovering. every moment of exploration is potentially a discovery if you're open to it. i'm trying to find the Northwest Passage and, ooh, look, a nifty river! i'm trying to find a western route to India and, oh, look, America! (okay, Haiti, but still!)

i agree with the underlying principles you're getting at, and i agree that language is important...but semantics can always be twisted to our advantage. 8)
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Postby Spots » March 1st, 2011, 3:56 pm

B. Tribe wrote:Maybe by using the Search>Discover>Explore . You SEARCH for an interesting moment until you DISCOVER one, then you EXPLORE it to it's fullest extent.


PROGRAM>RUN>EXPLORER>FIND

First you "program" yourself with improv principles. Second, you "run" into a scene where inspiration will suddenly hit you. Next you "explorer" that inspiration until it runs out. Then you "find" something else!


:P Nah, I kid. I get you. This is cool to see everyone's brain process, and the way they work through language.

Then again I just fell in love with my new system. Totally using it.
Last edited by Spots on March 1st, 2011, 4:00 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 1st, 2011, 4:00 pm

arthursimone wrote:Rabbit holes also sometimes lead to...wormholes


man, if only...!
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Postby Sully » March 7th, 2011, 1:12 pm

I think being willing to discover the story/scene outside of your single-minded writer brain is a skill good improvisers learn. Coming in Invention seems to be the best way for smart, funny people to get laughs.

Owning a part of a scene/story that you couldn't have come up with alone is like cocaine and the laughs are cigarettes. Coming into Improv, I thought cigarettes were awesome. And I only ever wanted cigarettes, shit i didnt even know hard drugs existed or would add to the experience. And then a friend of mine and I were hanging out and he introduced me to cocaine(discovery/Exploring/finding). It was the best thing that has ever happened to me. It made the the cigarettes better in conjuction, but moot without a fat rail. Just having a cigarette was a bit depressing. I mean they were still cool but no longer enough. Once you find cocaine, every cigarette when you are not high seems like a waste. Inventing laughs is cigarettes without cocaine. Sorry... and...

I like the term discovery but discover is better, because its inevitably used more actively. And the coupling with exploration is good. I don't generally explore inside my own head. So I feel like that phrasing works to nudge me outside of myself a little. I don't think discovery happens unless you actively explore your space and your scene partners. So I don't think something will just happen. And that's how i would frame the statement to new students. Seek and you shall find. Cocaine that is.
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Postby arthursimone » March 7th, 2011, 10:00 pm

sully, you can join my new improv group "Key Bumpz!"
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Postby ratliff » March 11th, 2011, 4:58 pm

Jastroch wrote:Words like "discovery" and, to some extent, "organic" to me imply that the things we're creating are outside of our control. Pulled from some magical improv ether separate from our own brain.


Well, not separate. But bigger.

("Brain" is problematic here. Does it include your unconscious? Because if it does, that's clearly beyond your control. And if it doesn't, why would you ignore the single biggest creative resource you have?)

To me the whole point of improv is to be a part of something that's beyond your (or anyone's) control. I admire and enjoy the technical ability and daring of people who can maintain complete control over their scenes, but I don't envy it. Because I can watch those scenes and tick off the points where something truly mysterious, unexpected, or unnerving looks like it might happen and then watch as the players wrench the scene away from the unknown and back into familiar (albeit very entertaining) territory.

It's true that if you approach improv passively, just waiting for the Muse to strike, you'll wind up with some pretty limp scenes. But that's an unfair characterization of great improvisers who believe that group mind is smarter than they are.

There are hundreds of ways to actively discover what's going on in a scene. Spacework is the most obvious example, but the same principle applies to everything in the scene.

And I bet if you walked up to any person on the street and asked them whether "discovery" was an active or a passive idea, they'd go with active. Discovery is not waiting for inspiration. It's intentionally, creatively seeking it out without knowing what you're going to find.

Remaining open to whatever you find and then responding to it intuitively and in the moment is very different -- not better, just different -- than consciously fulfilling the game you've set up or going to the organic group scene because that's what you're supposed to do at this point in your Harold. It's also scarier, and less likely to produce specific, predictable results.

If you have a clear idea of what you want your final show to look like, you'd be a fool not to master techniques that make that more likely. But the more you predetermine what a "good" show is, the less likely you are to follow your intuition and take a huge chance.

Taking that chance might mean failing miserably. But it might completely transcend everyone's expectations and turn out to be an amazing, unique, irreproducible show that nobody could have predicted or planned for.

My desire to play a show like that is strong, but a lot of the time my fear of failure is stronger. I'm working on that.
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Postby kaci_beeler » March 11th, 2011, 7:25 pm

arthursimone wrote:Cackowski teaches, (and I obviously paraphrase), that there's only a few seconds of creation at the top of any scene, then the rest is exploration of the world, characters, reality and relationships that you've brought to the table.

Explore and discover the riches, but the audience can usually tell if you're inventing/controlling something that isn't there. Believability index and all.


Awesome. I can definitely understand where he's coming from, and I think this is pretty much the same idea as Johnstone's Circle of Expectations...though I think he calls it the Circle of Probability now.
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