Balking

Discussion of the art and craft of improvisation.

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Balking

Postby arclight » August 13th, 2005, 3:32 pm

erikamay wrote:I have seen some seriously talented improvisers balk at a suggestion because
  1. they needed to control the scene, or
  2. they were too cool to follow someone else's idea.


One of the joys of improv is making a silk purse out of a sow's ear - taking shopworn, scatalogical, or prurient suggestions, using them in unexpected tangential ways and doing actual good scenework. Randy Dixon at Unexpected Productions in Seattle has taught a class on that (I've just read about it, I haven't taken it.)

My question for the group is how to do the same thing with endowments from other players. Depending on the people, the situation, and my mood, I'll completely shut down after being endowed as something completely retarded at the top of a scene. Whatever inspiration and joy I may have had going in will have been flushed away and I'll be left cold and lifeless looking for a way out. It makes improv Not Fun.

I don't think this is about being a control freak or being too cool to play the victim or a low status character; it's about troupe chemistry or group mind or playing to delight your partner. I agree that the core principle should be to embrace and extend the shared reality ("yes, and...") but it's absolutely no fun to be consistently endowed as the Senior Donkey Dick Inspector.

You could just drop it, but that goes against "yes, and..." and besides, the audience has seen it so the suggestion is now an incontrovertable, immutable fact. You could (should) try to turn it - after being endowed as Rabbi Shapiro once I retorted, "Speaking as both a rabbi and as your father..." - but some suggestions are immovable, at least by me. Another common tactic is to play your natural reaction. Channel Alan Rickman's character from Galaxy Quest and play the character as the Senior Donkey Dick Inspector Overwhelmed By Morbid Self-Loathing and Soul-Crushing Anomie.

Sure, if a scene needs a Senior Donkey Dick Inspector, if there's some context for it, that's fine. I can buy that. Or if the troupe has been messing around backstage and the players know that suggestion will crack me up (again, there's a fine line between good chemistry and 'inside joke' improv.) It's at the top of the scene where there's nothing, and something like that gets thrown at me out of the blue, my enthusiasm for my partner and the scene just drops through the floor and I really don't have any desire to continue. It's all I can do to not just stop and pointedly ask why the fuck do you believe anyone over the age of 13 would want to be a Senior Donkey Dick Inspector, right here, right now?

A lot of it has to do with not knowing what the rest of your team enjoys. Even slapping the vegan in the troupe with a big ol' beef tongue is okay because she can use that to play from truth or to play opposite her beliefs - in either case she can be invested and drawn into the scene. If you know that totally grosses her out and she can't continue, you don't shit on her like that.

But in less extreme cases, how do you deal with an on-stage endowment or suggestion that just saps your will to live? Get over yourself? Find new people to play with?
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senior inspector donkey dick

Postby erikamay » August 15th, 2005, 1:47 pm

i had to chew on this one for a little - hence the delayed reply.

first - i think the majority of improvisers (including myself) would be tres frustrated by this situation. i read this to mean two things: a) my scene partner is an asshole and cannot play anything other than a high status mayor of plebianville, or b) my scene partner is nervous and pandering to the audience.

i have seen some exceptional improvisers deal with similar situations. in most cases they will make the decision to either a) play senior donkey dick as a top notch private inspector (straight their scene partner) or b) heighten it and play the entire scene as absurd. by confidently grounding the scene in either choice, they not only accept the gift from their scene partner, but also make themselves look like incredibly talented professionals in the same fell swoop.

if the behavior is habitual - i would mention it to that person. you may have to make a decision as to whether their style of play (or yours for that matter) matches up with the ensemble goal. if they want to play sophmoric, and you don't dig it, i am confident the two of you can find better places for yourself separately.
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Improv is not therapy

Postby arclight » August 16th, 2005, 12:22 am

Agreed - in a recent, similar situation, both parties realized that the player tended to zig while the rest of the ensemble zagged. The player called the director and they talked things over; the departure was amicable. Generally we don't see a lot of really gaggy, dorky behavior; new players that do that usually get corrective direction or get scheduled to play less often.

I'll give a less sophmoric example: I don't react well to seduction scenes. I never initiate them, and I have a horrible time playing them. They don't come up very often for me and I generally weasel through them while on-stage but I just lock up dead in workshop & rehearsal. Rhythm too. Either one tends to engage my fight-or-flight response but I fake my way through songs better than seductions.

It's not realistic to expect the rest of the team to play around me, though in some groups we have - we played to each other's strengths rather than sandbagging people with movie, book, pop-culture, &c. references that we knew they'd draw a blank on. The occasional game of 'fuck yer buddy' can draw out some really interesting randomness, but usually that's intentional - you trust that they can take it and they understand you're just messing with them.

I don't want to be a prima donna nor do I want to be a boat anchor and I don't believe my reaction is intentional. Maybe it's more a therapy issue than an improv issue - who knows?
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Re: Improv is not therapy

Postby sara farr » August 16th, 2005, 12:44 am

arclight wrote:Maybe it's more a therapy issue than an improv issue - who knows?


I think of improv AS my therapy. Is using improv as therapy a bad thing? :wink: It's certainly cheaper... and more entertaining.
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Re: Improv is not therapy

Postby arclight » August 16th, 2005, 1:37 am

sara_anm8r wrote:I think of improv AS my therapy. Is using improv as therapy a bad thing? :wink: It's certainly cheaper... and more entertaining.


Improv can be therapeutic but (and I only speak for myself) I don't want to use it as therapy substitute and I'd rather not burden my team with my long-term personal shizzle (ha!)

Take rhythm, for example. Like pitch, you can train an individual only to the extent of their physical abilities. Generally people with no rhythm know their limits and don't generally push them, at least not in performance. What's the line between self-preservation and cherry-picking?

I guess the question is how do you cope with scenes & situations that (despite your best efforts and for whatever reason) leave you locked up and dead inside?
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Postby mcnichol » August 17th, 2005, 11:25 am

arclight wrote:I don't react well to seduction scenes. I never initiate them, and I have a horrible time playing them. They don't come up very often for me and I generally weasel through them while on-stage but I just lock up dead in workshop & rehearsal. Rhythm too. Either one tends to engage my fight-or-flight response but I fake my way through songs better than seductions.

...

I guess the question is how do you cope with scenes & situations that (despite your best efforts and for whatever reason) leave you locked up and dead inside?


I hear you Bob, I'm not necessarily a fan of being the recipient of a seduction in a scene. ...Especially when there's nothing else going on -- like at the top of the scene -- making the sudden seduction feel like a move of desperation. To address this very generally, I think it has to do with what you bring to the scene as a character and improvisor in these cases. The reason it feels initally icky to me is that, when I don't bring anything else to this scene, I feel forced to just play along -- either be seduced or shy away from it. In my view, either is just a plain, basic "yes" with no real "and".

I find that giving your character some other motivator can make it actually funny, and way more fun to play. This way you can "yes" the seduction and make it something far different than the standard seduction thing. For instance, off the top of my head, if you get someone trying to seduce you:

1. endow yourself with unbelievable vanity. As they get turned on, you get even more turned but about your own looks and self.
2. you are an extremely busy person. You are so into getting it on, but you have a meeting in two minutes -- get flustered trying to juggle seducing them back with managing a time when you can meet again with everything else that begets an extremely busy person.
3. you (the character) get seduced by people ALL the time. Play along somewhat blasé, go through the motions with boredom infused into your speech and actions (which will then likely make the other character to react to your seeming boredom)

Any of these (and far better ones) would move it away from the typical seduction thing and make it more unique, more specifically about the two characters that are on stage at that moment. It also gives the other improvisor much more to react to.


The other thing that always floats in the back of my mind when someone makes any move is "what does this really say about our relationship? about our history? about who they are? about who I am? about where we are?" In real life, people say things all the time that -- put in context of the people's specific situation -- says something about any of those questions above. If you're at work, any number of people could simply say "You look nice," and yet there's something different infused in or driving that statement depending of who said it. Instead of just assuming that you are in a bedroom or something when being seduced, just make a declarative statement that answers one of those questions.

"Come here big boy -- I want to taste some sugar." (this would be pretty bad, eh?)
"Linda, I'm sorry -- despite your efforts, your son will be suspended from school." (now you're a school principal)

"Come here big boy -- I want to taste some sugar."
"We're going to have to make this quick -- we're going to be over the drop point in 30 seconds." (now you're both supposed to be jumping out of that airplane)

"Come here big boy -- I want to taste some sugar."
"Oh Corrie, please, you know I have no control when call me sugar! We can't do this yet again?!" (the other person has seduced you many, many times before and you cannot say no -- let anything they say be the exact thing that gets you worked up) --this is one of my favorites: the person who just can't resist something, no matter how they try throughout the scene.

"Come here big boy -- I want to taste some sugar."
"I'm still mad at you, Juana. That car is fucking totalled!"

and
"Come here big boy -- I want to taste some sugar."
"Mom, you smell like margaritas." (duh dunananh! you've got a dysfunctional family!)

I think it always helps to have those questions floating through your head when someone intiates. When a scene begins on stage, imagine what happened just before we saw these characters, like seconds before. What was just said or what had just happened that would cause this person to seduce me? This can give you a place to work from if someone's suddenly seducing you. It gets harder and harder to establish something like that as the scene goes on, but if you make some declaration in the first few lines about the other character, yourself, the relationship, location, history, etc., it gives the scene a specificity and uniqueness, gives the characters some specific motivation (beyond just "turned on") and makes it that much easier to play for both improvisors.


And the last thing is to just have something strong when you come out into the scene. Even if someone else initiates -- with a seduction thingy -- just stick to whatever it was. You can still be that drunk hobo looking for a dumpster. You can still be that little boy who's kite is in a tree. Or whoever. It will make the scene that much more interesting and will likely give the other player -- who maybe started out the scene with a seduction (or a transaction, or teaching) because they had nothing else -- something to work with and react to now. It's the Annoyance Theater style -- it's sort of the opposite of "yes, and" but I think the two work well together. Taken to extremes, they'll lead to two people blindly supporting each other and never declaring anything, or they'll lead to two people doing their own thing and not listening/reacting to one another. If you infuse some strong choices into the scene, it can give the other player something definite to react to.


And the last, last, last thing, either accepting or rejecting the seduction is fine, funny, and playable. But I usually prefer to watch and play when things are absolutely yessed. It's almost like a challenge met that way, and leads to an undeniable energy that the audience (and the players) feel. I don't always do it, but I emphasize going for the absolute yes in any scene, whether the other character intends to seduce you, kill you, kill themselves, eat babies, whatever.


Sorry I'm being superlongwinded, but I read through this thread yesterday and today and had been thinking alot about it. I think we've all gotten caught in the "seduction", "Johnson, get in my office!", "Now class, I'm going to teach you about..." scenes -- any of the ones that can leave you feeling locked up, dead inside, or (specifically, for me) just that you're (boringly) playing out something to it's logical end. But these are some of the ways that I think those paths can be diverted to something more interesting.
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Postby TheVenue » August 17th, 2005, 11:49 am

Man, I'm probably gonna get toasted for this...but here's the deal. If it were me, I would have to tell myself to lighten up. It's Improv, have fun with it. A scene or situation that leaves you "locked up and dead inside"? That's tough guy. I would seek ways to find myself in those situations more often. I would not run from those, I would not blame others for my inability to improvise those situations. I think sometimes smart people ( which should also go on the "what makes improv work" topic) have to be careful not to disect themselves and their comedy. Nothing should be off limits.
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