Craig Cackowski -- "Sustaining a Scene"

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Craig Cackowski -- "Sustaining a Scene"

Postby tacotrombone » April 16th, 2013, 10:15 am

Hi there,

I'm Joshua Philips, and I am producing the JTS Brown-inspired show at ColdTowne Theater every Thursday in May.
For the show, we brought out Craig Cackowski to teach workshops. Last Saturday, he taught a four hour session about slow play called "Sustaining a Scene."
Talk about a pro--after the workshop, he emailed his notes from his own workshop and said I can post them here.

So, without further ado...
'Thoughts on Sustaining a Scene

Overview-This workshop is designed for scenes that are marathons rather than sprints. Rather than play one major game, they juggle several little ones. They are likely to be played in a reality closer to our own rather than an absurd reality. They are played at the pace of life, i.e. if you want to do a 10-minute scene, you should be in a situation and engaged in a routine that human beings can do for 10 minutes. I’ve played in several 2, 3, and 4 person shows over the years that emphasized slow, patient, long scenework, and these are some of the techniques I’ve learned.

Skills to work on

Gift-giving and specifics-Specifics are the fuel that power our scenes. The more fuel you have, the longer you can travel. The more we know about the characters we’re playing, the more they become three-dimensional and real to us, and our audience. Use information at the top of the scene to build a solid base, and then reinforce it with gifts to your partner throughout the scene. Pay attention to your partner’s performance, and give their character details that fit that performance. If the scene is stalling, new information will reinvigorate it.

Know who you are-The stronger a character you have, the easier the scene is to play. Think of it as a filter through which everything gets processed. Because you know who are, you know how you would react to anything somebody says, and anything that happens. In these scenes, laughs come from staying true to the character traits that you promised the audience (i.e. “That’s just what Desmond would say!”). A character’s POV is three-pronged: 1)they have a general energy about them (the way they see the world), 2) they have a specific feeling toward the other character(s) they’re with, 3) they have a specific feeling toward the situation they’re in. All of those components will work together to form a highly specific three-dimensional human being, rather than a one-note caricature.

Choose to know-All the characters in the scene should have the same information available to them, and you should be prepared to build on new information the second it comes up. The audience loves to see an improvisor immediately incorporate information that is new to the improvisor, but old news for the character. Resist the urge to react to new information with surprise, which puts the burden of creativity back on your partner, and instead respond with “I know!”, and add on a detail.

Be comfortable with silence-If scenes are to be played at the pace of life, they’re going to have silence in them. Silences aren’t only good because they’re authentic, they also create tension and provide room for the audience to laugh. As long as there is behavior going on every moment, there doesn’t need to be dialogue.

You’re not going anywhere-It helps to choose a situation and a location that lend themselves to people just talking and interacting on a recognizably human level. The more absurd or extreme the situation, the less likely you are to sustain the scene. Resist the urge to spend the scene trying to change your circumstances, or problem-solve, or brainstorm. Even if you’re in a situation that your character doesn’t want to be in (i.e. trapped in a meat locker), make the scene about dealing with the problem, rather than trying to solve it. Once you solve it, the scene is over. We’re showing this scene to the audience to show them what your characters are made of, and what they would say and do in a particular circumstance, not just to play the plot or the situation.

Shared experience-We’ve always tried in Dasariski to have a common factor that brings together our 3 characters, i.e. we’re in a rock band together, we’re all waitiing for our cars at the body shop, we’re 3 kids waiting for the school bus. Once we have that shared experience, we can have a variety of character and POV among ourselves, but that initial choice to get on the same page is important. If we were 2 guys waiting for our cars and one mechanic, it might create a scene that is more transactional and situational, and lead to conflict and 2-against-1.

Play the different relationships-A 3-person scene has 3 distinct 2-person relationships. A 4-person scene has 6. A 5-person scene has 10, and so on. Shift the focus between all the different relationships that are there, and you’ll experience some of the variety and possibilities that are open to you in this kind of scene. You can also have characters enter and exit to see how people interact when they’re alone with each other, and, of course, to talk about the other characters behind their back.

Have lots of games-The overarching “game” behind these scenes is the relationship(s) between the characters, but you need several small patterns and games to juggle as well. Patterns of dialogue, of behavior, of action.

Shift the focus around-Think of the characters as each having a power bar over their heads (like in a video game). Pay attention to what character has had the most power and focus thus far, and shift the focus instead to a character that is lagging behind. When that character catches up or moves ahead in power, shift the focus again.

Reinforce names-This is a little trick of the trade in a scene with 3 or more characters: if character A names character B, character C should immediately repeat and use the name to reinforce it.

Don’t be afraid of tangents-You have a luxury of being allowed to get off-track, so feel free to engage in philosophical discussions, pop culture debates, etc. Everything will reveal character POV, and you’ll eventually get back on track.

Other possibilities

Once you have these basic skills down, you can easily create half-hour to hour-long shows based on only a few characters. When we begin a Dasariski show, we don’t have an idea of the form it’s ultimately going to take, but here are some of the possible permutations:

One long scene, no character changes, no edits to the past, the future, or other places

One long scene with other characters moving in and out (you can have the fun of playing multiple characters who are on stage with each other, and jumping back and forth between them)

Base scene with character popouts and backstory (you have a core scene you keep returning to, and you follow the characters individually by seeing them outside of the initial setting...we try to have the mentality that if something gets mentioned that we would want to see, we cut to it)

Follow the environment (i.e. a bunch of unrelated characters in one diner, or at a ball game)

And many, many more...good luck!"
"Music throws you back into your body like organic food or heroine." -- William Matthews

"The consequence of joy is a good show." -- Susan Messing
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Re: Craig Cackowski -- "Sustaining a Scene"

Postby shando » April 16th, 2013, 11:13 am

Awesome, thanks for these. Love me some Craig Cackowski.
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Re: Craig Cackowski -- "Sustaining a Scene"

Postby Spots » April 17th, 2013, 7:21 pm

Slow burn scenes rule. I passed this on to a few people I know would enjoy reading it.
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Re: Craig Cackowski -- "Sustaining a Scene"

Postby scott.hearne » April 26th, 2013, 4:04 pm

Very nice. Thank you.
"Great improvisers never look worried onstage. It's not that they became great and stopped worrying, they stopped worrying and then became great." - Miles Stroth
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Re: Craig Cackowski -- "Sustaining a Scene"

Postby TeresaYork » May 3rd, 2013, 4:34 pm

Thanks for this, Joshua!
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Re: Craig Cackowski -- "Sustaining a Scene"

Postby SarahMarie » May 8th, 2013, 11:31 am


Instructor - Improvisor - Pixie - General Manager ---
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