Evan J Palmer's Blog

A blog about learning (code, improv, film and, anything else).

Category: Improv

Respect For Women Characters

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A group of women players I jam with were given the suggestion “rock band” in the last class.  They decided to do the role of band members as men.

In another scene, a married couple are having dinner of an evening and discussing their days. The male is a judge and the woman stays home and looks after the kids.

Later, a drunk piano player’s wife enters the room and is immediately endowed with the characteristics of being a floozy and prostitute.

When improvising I do think it’s important to play to characteristics and to recognize archetypes, but I’ve noticed that women are given derogatory or subordinate, low status roles  more often than not. Or, when choosing
a certain type of character, such as a lawyer or a baseball coach, they will choose to play it as a man.

Why couldn’t the band members be women? Why was the male a judge and the woman a stay-at-home mum? Why was the woman in the scene automatically a floozy?

Now, the people in my class are not sexist, and would never speak or act in a derogatory way towards women in real life. And it’s worth noting these character choices were made by both the guys and girls in the class. But I do think there’s an underlying lack of respect for women characters in general in my local improv scene.

There are two reasons why this should change.

Firstly, not respecting women characters reinforces stereo types in real life. Why propagate a shitty stereotype?

Secondly, the scenes will be more interesting without leaning on that predictable flow. Breaking that mold would likely result in cooler scenes and characters with more depth.

I think it’s worth keeping in mind.

Thanks to my awesome teacher, Pete Lead for bringing this to my attention.

 

Ranting is fun and useful

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In our last improv jam we did a pretty cool exercise from Del Close’s book, Truth in Comedy.

In the exercise, both players (or, all players if you like) are to rant for the entire scene. So no pauses at all. If there’s a pause, just jump in and say something, anything, keep it moving.

The idea of the exercise is to help get yourself out of your head. To just keep pushing the scene forward, and for me it it was a real eye opener. All the scenes we did turned out really well. I think this is because we started getting all this extra detail that transformed into offers – emotion, conflict and resolution all sprung out in full force with players not holding back by over thinking.

Great fun.

We also did a variation of it in which a normal scene is played, but a the jam director yells out “rant about it” and one of the players just goes on an awesome rant. This progressed the scene in the same useful way.

How does it feel, like?

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I recently did a small weekend course with Jason Chin – a cool IO improv guy from Chigaco.

He taught us a bunch of really interesting stuff, but there was one exercise we did that I thought was particularly useful. I don’t know if it has a name, but I’m going to call it “How Does It Feel, Like” (HDIFL).

Now, the purpose of HDIFL is to cut past the leading crap at the beginning of a scene and cut right to the emotions between the two players – Shoot the Grandma, as Steen would say. We did the exercise a lot and Jason really pulled us up on it when we didn’t hit the nail on the head.

To play HDIFL It’s straight forward. Get two lines of people, two people walk to centre stage. Person 1 says a line – anything relatively meaningless will do. The second player has to say how that line makes them feel about the other player. Eg:

“I brought you some cheese”
“That makes me feel happy that you remembered my birthday”

“I have a two camels”
“That makes me feel angry that you don’t care about animal rights like I do”

This is so important, because it sets the stage for some real conflict.

Speaking of conflict. When you choose the “correct” emotions, Jason pointed out that we tend to have a dramatic, real scene. If we choose the wrong emotion, we can have a more comical scene. So for example:

“My grandma is dead” + “That makes me feel sorry for you” = a dramatic scene.

vs

“My grandma is dead” + “LOL that makes me feel happy, let’s do a small dance on her grave” = a comedic scene.

It’s worth noting that Jason recommended that for beginner players, it’s cool to just say how you feel: “That makes me feel sad” or “That makes me feel happy” is okay for a junior player. The important part is being affected. Once we get the it stuck in our heads that we need to be affected, then we can move on to saying the emotion AND showing it. And eventually, we’ll be so good at showing it, we won’t need to say it as well.

Improv Etiquette

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When my friends and I practice our improv techniques out of class, and away from the stage, it can be great fun. It can also put you in a weird vibe because people act differently when there’s less pressure. I guess because it’s a more relaxed environment.

Here are a couple of observations that I think will help keep everyone on track when there are no teachers or directors keeping everything rolling along.

1) If you’re in the audience, pay attention
It’s respectful to watch the people on the ‘stage’ even if there’s no physical stage there. If you’re chatting or not looking at them, it can be distracting for them and throw them off. Also, if you pay attention you can give useful notes at the end.

2) No joking from the audience
DId someone miss an hilarious pun? Feel the need to bust a joke real loud to get a laugh? Please don’t. Like in (1) it might throw the players off and doesn’t acheive much.

3) Don’t laugh at people’s mistakes
If someone missed an offer, or just walked through a mimed table and didn’t realise. Please let it slide. Depending on who you practice with, they might like a note on it after the scene, but try to hold it until then.

4) Don’t break character
I find that when I’m practicing with friends, I tend to break character pretty easily. I laugh, or just speak to another player about what my intent is. That’s not so good. Even though the audience are your friends, if you’re going to practice, you should try your best.

5) No blaming
In a more relaxed environment it’s easy to blame someone out loud – in oppose to your inside thoughts. By that I mean, during or after the scene, saying something like “how did you miss my offer?” or “you didn’t stick to your character”. I’m a massive fan of giving your peers notes, but they should be constructive and blame free.

Probably try not to blame people with your inside thoughts either – I think that’s how you get brain blisters.

6) No excuses
Before or after a scene, it’s easy to say “oh, I can’t do this” or “I’m really bad at physical stuff”, or “I can’t mime” or, “that sucked because I’m tired” etc etc. I don’t think that’s a worthwhile thing to do/say because you’re either setting yourself up for a failure, or distracting people from your actual performance. Basically it’s unconstructive, and lowers the bar. We should keep the bar high and always try our best.

Often I watch scenes that people think are rubbish, and make excuses about, and it kinda taints an otherwise cool scene.

Actually, I think a lot of those points are worth considering in real life context too.

I hope this post doesn’t read as too negative. I think they are points worth considering to keep an excellent practice session excellent.

Don’t do it…

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An awesome improv tip that was brought to my attention yesterday:

If someone tell you not to do something in a scene – fucking do it!

Telling someone not to do something is generally an blatant offer.

Some examples for you:

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

“Don’t break that vase.”

“Don’t touch me”

Etc. etc.

Just do what you know

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The hardest thing about improv is getting to the point of realising how easy it is. -Jon B

We had an excellent Improv jam at the Lybrary last night. It was run by Jon, and he taught us two pretty cool techniques.

1) Start a scene off with an opposite view of an opinion that you already have
This is really just a way to start a scene. My friend who is a vegetarian, and not even remotely into any sport, started off talking about how much he likes meat and football. It was good. They were double hander scenes, and the other player either complimented the player or tried to convince him the opposite is true.

2) When stuck in a scene just look at the other person, and describe what they’re doing – or how they’re feeling/acting.
I really like this. Jon said at the beginning of the class that the hardest thing about improv is getting to the point of realising how easy it is. Over the lesson he kind of proved his point by showing us a game/technique in which both players are only allowed to speak in a certain way – you can only describe (endow) the other player, or repeat what they said. It’s great and Jon guarantees it’ll get you out of every situation. Guarantees. yup.

Here’s a long winded example:

The first player, I’ll call her Leah, will look at the second player, John, and say something about him. What ever – anything. Literally anything they see. So Leah might say something like:

“You’re wearing a blue shirt”

or

“You look nervous”

or

“You look angry”

As long as it starts with the word “you”.

Next the second person in the scene, John, will then reply with the same thing as what Leah said, but about himself, so John will reply:

“I’m wearing a blue shirt”
“I am nervous”
“I am angry”

Note, John changed the “You” to an “I” and dropped the “look” (you’d also from words like “seem” and “feel”).

The two just repeat the opening like over and over again using different inflections to convey emotion and tell some kind of story.  Leah keeps saying “You are nervous” and John keeps saying “I am nervous”.

It’s actually surprising how much meat you can get off that bone BUT THERE’S MORE!

The next part of the game/technique is that whoever is saying “I am”, so in this case, John, is allowed to change it up whenever he wants but he has to say something about the other character, so a sentence starting with “You are….”. then Leah will have to say what ever John said, but about herself (i.e. changing the “you” to an “I”).

Don’t say anything for a minute

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Here’s a good improv game that Marko taught us in class last class.

A player starts a scene in silence. He picks an emotion and an activity and starts doing it.

A second player comes out and joins the activity, with an emotion too. It might be the same emotion, it might be a different one.

The two players make eye contact, but don’t talk – just feed off each other – maybe muttering under their breath.

Eventually, one talks and the scene starts – but they don’t talk about anything other than pleasantries (“pass me the fork”, “nice day today” etc) then all of a sudden they burst out about the emotion.

And that’s it, that’s the whole set up.

It actually works really well as long as these things take place at the beginning:

  • Eye contact
  • Emotion
  • Change

Endowment

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A new tool that we learnt at improv last night was the “game” of endowments.

I did cool little air quotes around “game” because I guess it’s more of a technique than a game.

Anyway, you start a scene and to give it more… substance (?) you start endowing the other player with personality traits. As you’re endowing them, you watch them carefully for reactions. Are they accepting your offer? Are they enjoying it?

The idea is to give out heaps of stuff that the other player might like to use, so basically forget about yourself, and really focus to make sure the other player is having fun.

Marko says, that if you know the player well, and you know they like doing something, then start throwing offers in that direction. For example, if you know someone likes playing deformed, decrepit characters you could come in to a scene with an offer like:

“You monster. I’ve seen you sneaking around out the back of the valley. The bloodstains on your clothes…”

Hopefully you’d see the other player take on these traits.

Another example would be if you didn’t know the other player so well, so you could look at them and throw out some subtle offer for them. The example Marko gave was if a guys looks like he might consider himself a ladies man, perhaps try something like:

“Oh well, I bet you get all the ladies”

and look at his reaction. If he smiles, back it up with something like:

“I mean, you’re a great looking guy, and rich.”

I don’t know, something like that.

I suppose you should be equally aware that someone might not like your offer, and not push traits on other people too hard. But that’s my own thought – I could be wrong there, but I wouldn’t like it if someone pushed say, a young child character on me because I particularly hate playing characters like that.

Change

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The most important thing I think I’ve learnt at improv recently is the importance of change on a scene.

You can take a really strong character with a really strong emotion and you’re off to a great start. Once you’re in there, with the other player, you can start having fun, but once the relationship and location and all that jazz is established, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut.

Personally, I know I’m in a rut when my stress levels peak out – the panic sets in that I’m at a dead end.

Luckily, change will get you out of there.

Your strong character can have a change of heart – in any direction – and it really breaths new life in the scene and gives it a direction.

It also seems to point it to a resolution, which is nice.

 

 

New Improv Techniques (new to me anyway)

John Belushi as Bumble Bee at Skating Rink

At  improv class yesterday Marko gave us some excellent pointers.

Namely:

  • Tilting/panning
  • Raising the stakes
  • “This is the day…”

These are awesome methods to use in a scene (improvised or in writing) to help progression and to make it interesting.

Each of these techniques can be used when a scene is in limbo, for example, a couple is sitting around talking about the weather.

Here’s a brief description of each:

  • Tilting/panning
    In this technique, the improvisers will be in a rut and one person will “tilt” the scene by pulling something interesting in, like announcing he/she wants a divorce, or is getting ill. Ideally this should be somewhat related to what’s going on in the scene at the moment.
  • Raising the stakes 
    Not dissimilar to tilting/panning, raising the stakes is where the improviser will exaggerate a reaction to progress the scene.
  • “This is the day…”
    If stuck for a tilt/pan/way to raise the stakes, an improvisers can think to himself “Today is the the day <blank>” to help the scene progress.


I think I got these right – add a comment if I didn’t!