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PostPosted: November 8th, 2005, 2:47 pm
by erikamay
i have in my possession Keith Johnstone's Impro for Storytellers. i have had this book for close to 2 months now. if you are hankering for it, please holla.

my catholic conscience is now free.

PostPosted: November 9th, 2005, 10:49 am
by arclight
Did you get anything out of it?

The first time I read it I thought it was great. A few years later I tried reading it again and it made my head hurt because it was so disorganized that I couldn't find all the great tidbits I remembered from my first read-through. Or maybe I misremembered them.

At least it was better than Spolin's book which, while it may be a great reference and a revered tome, was even less readable and therefore (to me) less useful. Why is it that none of the popular improv books have indices, anyway?

impro for storytellers

PostPosted: November 14th, 2005, 11:05 pm
by erikamay
Did you get anything out of it?

Yes. Although I havent finished it (I'm doing a few pages pre-bedtime), I am interested to see the parallels, and where things depart from the long-form schooling I am familiar with.

Its got me thinking in the last couple of weeks - does the long form look really weird to folks that perform from a Johnstonian philosophy? It must just look like a big series of disconnected scenes. I'd be interested to actually hear what other people think about this...Shana and I had a conversation about this a while back and it was really engaging - I'm curious to hear other POVs.


Re: impro for storytellers

PostPosted: November 15th, 2005, 1:19 pm
by Roy Janik
erikamay wrote:does the long form look really weird to folks that perform from a Johnstonian philosophy? It must just look like a big series of disconnected scenes.

I wouldn't say it looks really weird to me. But it does look like a big series of disconnected scenes.

I mean, I understand that there can be callbacks, and that there's an overall shape to the show. That you might start with some longer, slower-paced scenes and then build up to quicker, higher energy scenes. But it has always confused me as to why it's called longform when there's not an overall plot.

But I assume there's a good reason.

PostPosted: November 15th, 2005, 1:43 pm
by deroosisonfire
we called it freeform to distinguish it from longform . . .

and i hated it the first time i saw it, because it did seem really disconnected. and it can be. my goal is to make it so good that the audience doesn't care that it's disconnected. and to use callbacks, as roy said, to make it seem more connected than it is.

PostPosted: November 15th, 2005, 2:30 pm
by arclight
Oddly enough, I never felt that Del Close/IO long form was that weird. It's different from the (usually) linear introduction-conflict-resolution-denoument of Six Degrees (aka La Ronde) which I'd categorize as plot-driven long form, as opposed to the 'organic' long-form of The Harold. The games seem odd, probably just as odd as getting direction in a format like Micetro or Gorilla Theatre.

I believe you can decompose many of the long-form formats into two elements: entropy generators and scenes. The term 'entropy generator' comes from cryptography where you need a source of entropy or randomness to ensure stuff gets encrypted unpredictably. In that respect I see the games functioning to get the players on the same wavelength (Group Mind) and to emit elements of randomness which influence the later scenes. The entropy generator can be almost anything: an audience suggestion, an organic game (The Harold), a monologue (Armando), a conversation (Living Room), a newspaper article (Living Newspaper, Impressionistic Horror), et cetera, et cetera.

I don't see that there's much difference between the concept of 'scene' between plot-driven and organic long-form - as long as it's played from some level of truth and immediacy and it serves the show, the players, and the audience, it shouldn't matter if or how it fits in with the larger whole. Theorists might argue that being responsible for maintaing a coherent story arc is anathema to free improvisation, or that people are more satisfied by stories that make sense because they are more powerful and more memorable.

Personally, I like the free-form randomness and lack of direction, but that's because I have a hard time fulfilling someone else's notion of what should be happening on stage. I've seen several beautiful scenes destroyed in performance and rehearsal by a director who felt it necessary to end scenes he didn't know how to direct, rather than let them play out to their natural conclusion. I appreciated direction earlier on but now I often feel it's jarring, heavy-handed, and displays a lack of trust in the people onstage; this is probably a function of becoming more familiar with the 'hold onto your deal and trust that everything will eventually make sense' technique as well as directing and being exposed to more directors.

PostPosted: November 15th, 2005, 4:28 pm
by mcnichol
It's interesting, I'd never considered it seeming disconnected. But I was schoolled on the Harold (as well as two-person shows that might be a little as one scene for an hour), so short-form and plot driven things are entirely foreign to me. I think that long form shows can be very "connected", only not by a plot.

Instead of focusing any energy on plot, I've been taught to (and watched tons of shows that) explore themes and characters throughout. These things are what connect a good show together, for what I like. For me they open more possibilities than strictly following a plot line. And the audience (which is quite often me) connects very well to three dimensional characters and themes. And, when done well, the themes come back in various ways, through various scenes, and often not intentionally.

That said, I think that I have personally not done much in the way of theme since I've been performing in Austin (nor do I think, frankly, that Tight or McNichol & May have as a whole). I've been meaning to get my ass back in gear with that. That's the true "connection" part that can potentially make an audience say "Ah ha!"

I think the closest parallel to what I think of as longform is jazz, in the sense where the piece (ideally) explores themes, perhaps certain instruments are explored more than others, and it allows different people to mesh together entirely differing ideas. And there is often no true sense of linearity. And the themes might not even be apparent to the players that seem to be conveying them (the new agey "group mind" thing) but to the audience member, the group was exploring the idea of grief or something. To another audience member, the drummer fukin rocked.

You know what? Reading and writing about this now makes me want to hang out with people and talk about this stuff in person (party? party?) because I'm not good with message boards.

PostPosted: November 15th, 2005, 5:12 pm
by arclight
mcnichol wrote:That said, I think that I have personally not done much in the way of theme since I've been performing in Austin (nor do I think, frankly, that Tight or McNichol & May have as a whole). I've been meaning to get my ass back in gear with that. That's the true "connection" part that can potentially make an audience say "Ah ha!"

I don't think there's been much improv done with theme as a unifying factor in Austin in the past 3-4 years. Short-form, licensed properties from ComedySportz & ITI (Johnstone), experimental, and plot-driven long-form, sure. But not so much thematic work. Part of that has been that nobody's been teaching that style here. The first I was exposed to it was when we brought Mac Antigua here for a few classes a year or so ago.

That was magical, but there was a downside. I ended up in the unfortunate position where I just couldn't play by The Rules anymore but that's what most of the cast was expecting so it meant I zigged when others zagged, causing no small amount of frustration ("What the hell are you doing?" vs "Would you just trust that I know what I'm doing and that this will all work out if you let it?")

Both the Napier book and Mac's classes reinforced my gut instinct that The Rules really just filled your head with restrictions that got in the way of paying attention to what was going on right in front of you. So when I hear direction like "What's your name?" or "Where are you?", my immediate reaction is "Who fucking cares?! These are interesting people with some sort of connection and I'm sure that they'll specify those details if and when they're important to the scene." Seinfeld proved that people can be entertained by watching interesting characters do nothing in generic locations for long periods of time.

I'm not sure what that has to do with theme. We need more theme here; I think it's harder to discern or play but it's valuable for adding depth.

You know what? Reading and writing about this now makes me want to hang out with people and talk about this stuff in person (party? party?) because I'm not good with message boards.

I prefer mailing lists. And parties.

PostPosted: November 16th, 2005, 3:37 pm
by Wesley
Its got me thinking in the last couple of weeks - does the long form look really weird to folks that perform from a Johnstonian philosophy? It must just look like a big series of disconnected scenes.
More importantly, I think it looks weird to people who don't know improv at all.
At least Johnstonians understand improv theory. But to Joe Schmoe who walks in off the street, I think it is VERY confusing. I've been watching audiences more than shows for a while (OoB was great for it) and I think that "random" long-form can confuse and frustrate the audience. Some examples I've seen an audience react a little weird to are when someone takes a suggestion and then uses word association and starts with something else (I think the audience thinks "That's not what I said" or "Why'd they ask for a suggestion then?"), characters they like disappearing before the character's story is done and never reappearing, and weird edits where the audience doesn't know what it going on.
Very generally speaking, I think that the best shows I've seen purely audience-reaction-wise were explained to the audience (Tiny Bandalleros was GREAT at this) or were more traditional story-telling shows (like Girls, Girls, Girls or Start Trekkin').

...and to use callbacks, as roy said, to make it seem more connected than it is.
This is the main thing I personally don't like about the Harroldy, Chicago style long-form. I've seen some really funny jokes that are repeated to great effect, but to me a joke is not a theme. I love shows where jokes arise out of an underlying theme as opposed to making a gag itself the theme. You can kick a squirrel in three scenes in three different situations and it will all seem connected and funny, but it isn't really connected; it is smoke and mirrors.

Instead of focusing any energy on plot, I've been taught to (and watched tons of shows that) explore themes and characters throughout.
I think my end goal for all this is to do both.
My troupemates and I have worked on several Longform ideas and every one mentions the premise, format, and theme(s) for the show. One of my favorites is called Final Moments, where a character begins with a monologue announcing that they are going to die by the end of the show. The show is then the last minutes/hours/days of their life leading up to that death. There is a definite, fairly linear, story-arc that you follow, but there are infinite themes to explore, too. Maybe the character doesn't know he is going to die, for example. You could explore all kinds of missed opportunities and tomorrows that will never come to pass. Maybe the person does know and is trying to make amends before they go, leading to all sorts of themes of past betrayals, trust, finality, etc.
Like Hamlet, I want to do shows that are a cohesive, solid, strong story, and a character and thematic study. I've got a LONG way to go to get there, but that is the goal. I am really big on themes, but I also like presenting them in the trappings of a story because stories are powerful tools for understanding and internalizing. That's precisely why we wrap moral and religious lessons up in them for kids and adults alike. Aesop, the Bbile, Mother Goose, Brothers Grimm, etc. all present themes and moral lessons as stories and parables for a reason.

You know what? Reading and writing about this now makes me want to hang out with people and talk about this stuff in person (party? party?) because I'm not good with message boards.
I agree. If only there were some Friday afternoon on which people wouldn't have to go to work and we could gather and eat food and talk...

I mean, hey, it's art and its creative so I believe that in the end everything goes. Pointless and gaggy, thematic, story-telling, experimental, etc. It all makes improv dynamic, fun, and exciting. But I personally have a desire to tell stories and explore themes, so that is where my energy goes. And I want the audience to understand it. Nothing pisses me off more than art and literature that I want to enjoy but that I just don't understand or can't access. I mean c'mon people, Jackson Pollock is just a bunch of accidental paint drippings!! Jesus! Stop paying millions for his work! What are you seeing that I'm not!?!? I want to know; I want to see it, too!!!

PostPosted: November 16th, 2005, 7:09 pm
by valetoile
I've never seen a jackson pollack painting in person, but I think that would help. Art is always so much better and more interesting when you see the actual painting, not a photograph of it.

PostPosted: November 16th, 2005, 8:43 pm
by kaci_beeler
I've seen a Pollock in person. It was pretty amazing.
There are many dimensions to the paint, the layers, the colors. It's one of those things you really need to experience first hand to truly get a feel for it, as Valerie says.

pollock and other thoughts (surefire ramble. fair warning)

PostPosted: November 17th, 2005, 1:40 am
by erikamay
i have never seen a pollock in person. he is not an artist i find myself particularly drawn to, although i do have a strong penchant for magritte (which may explain my affinity for the properties of chicago-style longform) and ivan albright.

i agree with bob (enough to marry him, obviously) - i havent seen or been a part of theme getting particularly pressed in longform shows. when you see it fully realized (i think some folks saw the reckoning show in dallas...i remember them being really excellent at theme work) you get it - improviser or not. the best theme work tends to come from groups that have been performing together for a while (UCB). i'm personally looking forward to that jelling with the teams on which i play.

Some examples I've seen an audience react a little weird to are when someone takes a suggestion and then uses word association and starts with something else (I think the audience thinks "That's not what I said" or "Why'd they ask for a suggestion then?")

i think we (all the teams, really but the chicago-style longform teams in particular) need do a better job of describing the format of the show before the get. i'd like to add that to roy's curriculum of a city-wide improv education campaign. explain that we are going to take a suggestion, and then explore that suggestion through associations, scenes and games. if all goes well, we will get to the end of it and leave with something to chew on and some giggles. i never even thought about describing it pre-show...

i dont dispute the appeal of story. i like stories - i just read harry potter's (lets hear it nerds!) half-blood prince. i also like most of the fiery furnace's albums and chris ware's graphic novels - they both lack a linear cohesiveness. why? it just appeals to me, much like chicago style long-form does. i think my individual and artistic POV is better communicated and shared through it. sounds self-important to write...but what else would you do it for?

i asked what the johnstonian perspective was, because until seeing Start Trekkin this weekend - i didnt get it. between enjoying the show, i was thinking "man! they must think chicago long form that we have been doing here is really different!". everyones thoughts have been really cool to see and hear.

is anyone else excited about the prospect of these two philosophies being exposed to one another all the time? like "you just put your peanut butter in my chocolate"? could be akin to tejano - when native mexicans began to mingle with german settlers, the indigenous music began incorporating polka rhythms and became a whole different category of music!

la mexicana praline-induced sugar high wearing off...

(more thoughts? perhaps we take up over a keg of blue moon?)


PostPosted: November 17th, 2005, 12:23 pm
by Wesley
is anyone else excited about the prospect of these two philosophies being exposed to one another all the time?

I am! I can't wait to see what unique Austin flavor develops. I think there is talent, desire, creativity, and diversity enough for this town to blow the world of improv wide open.

I don't mean to knock the Chicago stuff. It is actually kindof interesting because the classes I took were all Johnstonian based, but the shows I'd go see on weekends, like Tight, were often Chicago style. I have a great respect for it. I hope it prospers here and mixes and blends with and influences other art forms. I think this is a great place for fusing cultures, speaking of tejano music (and tex-mex cooking) and I think this is one more fusion that is desitined to achieve great things. Chicago style is different to me in a lot of ways, but that isn't a bad thing.

I would definitely like to see more thematic stuff develop here in Austin. Games are fun, I can't deny that, but themes are the human connection and that connection is what separates art from mere entertainment.

As for Harry Potter, we're making a troupe outing of it tonight at midnight and I am stoked!

Random question for Northerners (or anyone for that matter):

How big is "story telling" in Northern culture?

In the South, stories are often big deals. Family histories are still passed down orally generation to generation (and not just factually like "Your great great great uncle fought beside General Lee," but told as if the teller was there, "Then your great great uncle looked up and saw General Lee sitting atop Traveller and the banner flapping in the background and he wiped the sweat from his brow, reloaded his rifle, and took aim on the Union artillery position..."). There's that "Old South" Uncle Remus/slave type story teller stereotype (how many old south movies have scenes with the master's children listening to the slaves tell stories). You got old time religion and the parables it brings, a Mississippi River mythology, and virtually every town/folk/craft festival includes a storyteller. And jokes take 5 or 10 minutes to tell because of all the (basically) unnecessary embellishments. Hell, look at any post I make if you want unnecessary verbosity. I think of Big Fish as an example of the Southern tall-tale telling stereotype (a lot of my dad in that movie). I grew up in Tennessee and people loved telling stories around the dinner table and in social settings. It was a very social activity.

I am asking because maybe that is part of the difference in styles? I grew up in a culture of story-telling, embellishment, and the occasional one-ups-manship. People had the patience and desire to listen to and tell stories. Do people in the North connect in the same way or do they interact along the lines of theme?
Completely generalizing here, but I noticed many of the Northerners I went to school with didn't have the patience for stories and liked to relate themselves to the discussion by saying things like "Yeah, that same thing happened to my aunt" or "I had a similiar thing happen to me in high school." I mean, everyone does that, but in very general terms the "slow-paced" Southerners seem more story-oriented while "fast-paced" Northerners seem more anxious to get to the point connect with it on a personal level.

PostPosted: November 17th, 2005, 1:44 pm
by mcnichol
Story telling, as a part of a local culture, is pretty much just as big in the north as it is in the south, or in the northeast, or japan or whereever. I'm sure there are regional differences, but stories are something that humans generally relate to. I truly don't think that any North/South division has much to do with the differences in improv (Johnstone is from Britain, I believe, Del Close is from Kansas) or in audience enjoyment.

Yes, people relate to stories. No one I know will argue that. People also relate to paintings. People also relate to food. None of this means that we need to incorporate food or painting into improv to make it palatable to an audience*.

And, in speaking of "fast-paced" vs "slow-paced", I see more improv from the South that is fast paced. As I said earlier, the improv that I was drawn to in Chicago (and seems to exist more in Chicago, less so in NY or LA) is the slower-paced stuff. There are shows -- which sell out weekly, Wednesdays at 10:30pm -- where it is only two guys performing for an hour, and the entire show has maybe three scenes tops. Often, it's just one. Now, certainly not every show is 'slow.' Many shows, Harolds included, are often a bit faster.

Second City puts on two sketch shows per year that run for about 6 months each (though they morph throughout their runs). They've been doing that consistently for about 45 years and on multiple stages. These shows sell out, crowds clap and laugh, and none of the shows have a real plot running through them.

This is not an arguement against plot in any sense -- only an arguement that plot is not a necessary component to improv, or comedy, or anything for that matter.

Also, I'm not sure if 'northerners' refers to Tight, but half the team is from the south, Texas specifically. Relatively brief stops in Chicago didn't change that the culture in their blood is pure South.

Also, if you are using Tight as some standard for "Chicago improv", don't. I don't believe we've really done any Chicago-specific things here (yet). Scenically, perhaps it is Chicago influenced, but certainly not in terms of form. I would really like to start performing the Harold form here. The Harold is very Chicago specific (created by Del Close and performed nightly at IO). I have never seen a Harold performed outside of Chicago and, frankly, the form is strange enough that Chicago is one of the only places you can truly see one done, as there is no good way to understand it without seeing it. A lot. One of the mistakes most people make with performing the Harold is attempting to follow plot when bringing back second and third beats, feeling the need to go that party that was talked about in the first beat. What we are taught, instead, is to rather explore these people in that scene, or the themes brought up in that scene, rather than the move to further a plot (which, from experience, is ultimately limiting). Often the theme might follow the plot to some degree, but not necessarily. The most successful shows I've seen -- from the audience's perspective and from mine -- we ones that explored things other than a plot.

And, for the record, callbacks are not a Harold-specific thing at all. and a callback is not a joke. and callbacks do not "connect" anything. Just wondering, where have you seen a Harold performed and by whom?

Again, this stuff is better discussed than typed. Soon!

ps. I've never related to people with a theme. Maybe if we drink enough Thanksgrilling Day Beer...

Also, please know that I write about this not out of any sense of arguing or defending, but understanding. i LOVE improv, i think about it far too much, and am passionate about it -- not just performing it, but attempting to understand it. this has been something i have done for about 6 1/2 years and i always feel like i am just cracking the surface.

*audience: i believe this: don't ever cater to the audience. YOU tell the audience what's funny, what to watch, etc. don't ever cater to the audience. I'm not talking about taking a dump on stage and making people watch, but playing to the top of your intelligence -- this was a phrase used more than most in my training -- will get an audience enraptured more than attempting to make everyone laugh. Audiences are smarter than we think.

PostPosted: November 17th, 2005, 4:17 pm
by Wesley
I agree. I didn't mean to imply that Yankees don't like a good yarn, too. After all, they gave us Sleepy Hollow and Casey at the Bat among other tales.
(Though, that Connecticut licence plate that says "The Story-Hatin' State doesn't help matters any.)

I guess I meant more about the pace, point, style, and manner of story telling. The south has always seemed to have a different, more reverential social place for storytellers in my stereotypes. Like your example of food, all societies have religion and priests, too, but some areas, like Iran, clearly hold them in a different regard than, say, California. I guess I was asking about degrees, not absolutes.

And the way a story is told is key, too. I was more-or-less wondering aloud if the Chicago crowds clapped and laughed precisely because the method was one they understood, whereas a Texas crowd may get confused because it is not a method of 'story-telling' they are used to. In other words, is the Chicago crowd properly conditioned via culture or exposure to improv to not find it weird when the improvisers word associate with a suggestion? Would I get the same quasi-weird vibe I've occasionally picked up from a Texas crowd in Chicago? If not, why not? What is the difference?

Granted, the world is quickly shrinking and these perceived differences (and they are just perceived) blur with time and exposure. But as someone who loves and watches a lot of Asian cinema, they have some story-telling techniques that are essentially foreign to Western story-telling and can confuse the hell out of you if you aren't at least slightly familiar with the culture and the way they prefer to take in and process information. (I'm using culutre and geography as differentiators, but I'm maybe what I'm really curious about the science and psychology of reaching an audience, any audience).

Also, I could be way off. I'd be willing to buy that premise, too. :wink:
I was just thinking at 60 words a minute and my experiences with our cousins in the North are somewhat limited. I knew a lot of Minnesotans, but they didn't care about much of anything besides fishing and showing off the fact that they could wear short-sleeves in the 40's while us Tennessee natives bundled up under 14 layers of jackets and coats. I've also known a few New Jerseyites and with some notable exceptions they seemed much more direct than the equivalent southerner. ("Dude, you are wicked fat!" as opposed to "You, sir, look like a Christmas pig that was let loose in the corn barn the day after Thanksgiving.")

As for Tight, they were just an example I tossed out because I know they are at the least Chicago influenced and have some training in that style. I've seen some homemade videos of some SCTV stuff and clips on websites and read a good bit about it, but I'm not so sure I've ever seen any troupe do an "actual" Harold. Of course, if some of the books are to be believed (I don't), everything is nothing more than an adapted Harold anyway. I would love to see one, though. I've always found it curious that it is held up in so many books, but never done here.

I think we totally agree on the underlying concept of thematic improv, we just approach the packaging a little differently is all. And that is precisely what is going to make Austin rock.
I love improv, too and I love these discussions. I consider other takes on the issue a blessing and an oppotunity for growth.

I concur that we should drink copious amounts of alcohol and discuss this and many other improv issues further.