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250 Improv: Say Something Truthful

I was teaching improv to college age performers with some theatre and improv training. At some point they were stuck about what to do or say next. The performer in question said that the advice they’d previously received was to “Say something truthful.”

Sounded like good advice to me. But then they just stood there. Silent. Gears working away. Desperately trying to not just think of something truthful, but something TRUTHFUL. Like a deep universal, human condition kind of truth. Something the Buddha would toss out there.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. And thus, they said nothing.

“Truthful” doesn’t have to be a big deal.

The moment you brush winter road salt off your pants and say, “Guh. Gross.”  Truthful.

When the waiter asks if you’re ready to order and you say, “I.. um…durr…can you come back? Oh, wait, water with lemon?” Truthful.

When you see your crush and you don’t know what to say, but have to say something and blurt out, “You’re Really Pretty!” Truthful.

Even when you’re playing characters out of your life experience. Those characters are still people with flaws, fears and idiosyncrasies like anyone.

A high stakes diplomatic ambassador from France still sometimes will say, “Boy, I’m nervous about this speech, any advice?”

A professional bomb defuser will still sometimes say, “My mouth is dry. I could sure go for a Coke.”

When someone advises you to say something truthful. Just say something simple.

 
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250 Improv: Why artists work for free #1

As a performer, or artist of any kind you’ve no doubt be asked to work for free, or for a really low price, or just for “exposure.”

What you’re doing, if you’re doing it well, looks like a lot of fun. And, let’s face it, it is fun! But, it’s also a lot of work. In general, people who aren’t artists don’t see or realize the amount of work it takes to do the “fun” part that they do see.

I just heard this comparison. Great artistic work should be like a duck. Smooth and easy looking on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath.

So, people don’t see that what we do is hard work, and it’s not entirely their fault. We work like hell to hide the fact that what we’re doing is difficult.

Sometimes I think we shouldn’t. That we should show the effort. I often think of Elvis in regards to performing. And the amount he’d sweat. The phrase “never let them see you sweat,” didn’t apply to Elvis, and look at him. Knowing that, you also know that he worked a hell of a lot harder than it looked like he was working.

The point I’m making is on the smaller level of performers or artists. We look like we’re having fun when working, so why would someone feel obligated to pay us for having fun? They equate getting paid to working hard, like they do, at their jobs, that they don’t have fun at.

 
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250 Improv: Passion, Precision and Enthusiasm

A friend of mine said he couldn’t dance. Nonsense. Everyone can dance. Qualifying it he said “I’m a bad dancer.” The optimist in me gets annoyed when someone says they’re “bad” at something. Why not say, “I’m not very good at that thing.”? Or better, “I’m not good at that, yet.”

If there’s a scale of “good to bad” can’t we, with similar meaning, have a scale of “good to not good yet.”?

Or maybe, “good to better.”

With dancing, if you’re attempting anything at all, I’ll give you a “good”

There are, of course, better dancers. Art is subjective. Maybe we can’t agree on what’s best, or even what should be in the top ten. But, we can clearly discern when something is “better” than something else.

So what’s the difference between good and better?  

Passion, Precision and Enthusiasm.

To be better at something you need all three. Two you can fake. (It’s difficult to fake passion.)

You’ve heard that the way to get better at anything is through practice. If you’re passionate about something you’ll make the time and dedicate yourself to practice. You’ll be precise in the skills you’re learning. You’ll approach the act of doing with enthusiasm.

Think of anything that you’re “not good at.” You’re missing one of those three elements.

Let’s look at dancing. That phrase “dance like no one’s watching,” is trying pump up your enthusiasm. “Practice practice practice,” is honing your precision. “Feel the beat and let it move you,” that’s passion.

 
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250 Improv: Lessons from 80’s Video Games

Improv 250:  1980’s Video Game Life Lessons

 

I was born in 1971, so when video arcades hit in the 1980s I was a prime demographic. There was a short window of time before home consoles hit where the video arcade was a social place to go.

The benefits of going to a place and socializing with other kids is, I believe, a big deal.

Today there is the option of playing games with people you don’t know, which is great. But, they are people you never come into direct contact with. We need and crave human contact.

This isn’t a cranky post from a front porch about how things were better in the good ol’ days. Things are different. Things are always different. But in the 80’s  video games taught some hard valuable life lessons.

For instance:

  • Many of the games didn’t have instructions. You just dove in and had to figure things out; What to do. What was going on in the world. Who or what was harmless. Who or what meant you harm. You had to figure it out on your own. Or talk to someone who knew.
  • It cost a quarter a shot to learn these hard lessons.
    Sure, you’d get three lives, but after that you were back to the start. It didn’t matter how rich you were. Start over.
  • Sometimes you had powers and solutions you didn’t know about. They needed to be discovered.
  • The game just got faster and more difficult until you died.
  • You could never “win.”

Valuable life lessons.

 
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250 Improv: Don’t Call Yourself Stupid

There are a couple of phrases that I’ve heard people say when working on improv. Variations on the theme of not being good enough. Phrases like; “I don’t know how.” “I can’t think of anything.” “I’m so dumb when it comes to…” “I can’t do that.” etc. etc.

 

Certainly these phrases have a place in real life, and probably in improv too. We all start out not knowing anything and sometimes you have to tell people you need help so they’ll help you. However, I’ve found that when this comes up in improv it’s not that they don’t know what to do next, but they’re afraid their answer won’t be “good enough”

 

Which isn’t true. In improv every idea is “good enough.” Sure, some ideas are better than others, but every idea has some merit. Once we get an idea out there the rest of the group will “yes, and” the idea and we’re rolling.

 

The phrase I say often is “Do something rather than nothing.”

 

Don’t call yourself stupid, or dumb, or any other put down. Especially don’t say it out loud. Here’s what happens: 1. You think the thought. 2. Your brain makes your mouth move and say the thought. 3. You hear the thought spoke out loud (even though it’s your thought, you still hear it.) 4. Your brain hears the information and re-thinks it again. So, something that’s not even true (“I’m stupid” ) has now been re-enforced four times!  
No wonder people lack self-confidence. Trust yourself.

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Hey, if you’re on this site, and you haven’t bought my novel “Cards with the Devil” yet… what are you waiting for??  A written invitation?… oh, you are? Okay, I personally invite you to buy it here. Thanks!

 
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250 Improv: Rock, Paper, Scissors

In improv the game rock paper scissors is not funny. That’s a bold statement, and I stand by it. I’ve seen it many times in performances. Heck, I’ve done it myself in performances. I’ve even written it into a play or two. And, it’s never gotten a laugh.

So why does it seem like such a good idea?

In theory is the juxtaposition of a childish game being played by adults in important situations should be funny.

Unexpected opposites are funny. Like the fat guy who’s really good at ballet.

But it’s not funny. It’s a block, it’s stalling the action. You remember that whole “yes, and” thing that we got going on, right? Well, how have we got to the point of trying to decide who gets to do something via a childish game? Probably because someone didn’t “yes, and.” They either avoided because they were afraid of doing something, or were being polite, allowing their scene partner do something, or they thought a delay in action would build tension.*

Either way, what’s now happening is a delay in action. A delay that we’re going to solve with a child’s game.

Best case scenario, we’ve built tension, but the game has limited endings, so the tension can/won’t be released with any sort of surprise leading to laughter.

Some simple comedy equations: Tension + Release = Action (perhaps small laugh)   Tension + (Release x Surprise) = Big Laugh.

Comedy isn’t an exact science, but you get the idea.

*Also: Fear or Politeness ≠ Comedy.

 
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250 Improv: The Smartest Dumb Guy

I’ve heard this advice multiple times; Play to the top of your intelligence. Why? Because you’re doing Improv with a fellow performer, not Make-em-Ups by yourself. When you play “dumb you don’t add anything to the scene. You get laughs, but your scene partner does all the work.

But, what happens if you don’t play to the top of your intelligence? You accidentally say something “dumb” or play “dumb” because… well it’s funny, damnit. To hell with the high-minded “Improv” purity. You did it for the cheap laugh. Cheap laughs are still laughs, right?

You’ve improved sinned. Now what?

Make your dumb guy is really smart at something, and feel strongly about it. Make him the smartest dumb guy.

At a recent performance I played a character who didn’t understand how to “count cards” for BlackJack. He was just counting the actual cards “1… 2… 3…” That’s a dumb guy. However! It did get a laugh.

But, if I continued to be the “dumb guy” I wouldn’t have to do anything more to participate in improv. I could just keep making stupid statements. Misunderstanding things. Reacting in ways unrelated to whatever my scene partner said. So easy. So selfish. More importantly, not Improv.

To fix this, I made him the smartest of dumb guys. He was really good at counting the cards. He’d written a book about it. Chapters 1 – 10 were numbers “1… 2… 3… etc.”

Even the dumbest character can be really smart at something. Focus on that.

 
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Improv 250: Move Specifically

Jeff is a tall lanky fella, he says 6’3”, but I believe he’s 6’7”

He’s physically awkward. Knocking a hole in stage drywall, breaking our mailing-list box, and injuring himself on our new stage brick wall.

I asked Jeff how many things he’s broken. The list was shorter than I thought it would be. However, the point is similar to his perceived height. He moves and acts taller, more awkward and more accident prone than he is. He’s not an intimidating guy, but you find yourself flinching if he gestures.

The other night we were practicing dancing. I have a goal for my troupe this year to improve their physicality on stage and I think that dancing is a great way to lay a good foundation for that.

We were creating “new” dances based on random suggestions (“the Toaster!” “the Flamingo!”, etc.)

Jeff got the dance “the Flag.”

He created a simple movement with arms flapping out to the side like a flag. Then a knee bend for the flag to go up and down the pole.

There’s something about having his feet planted as the “pole” that centered the dance. I compared him to a giant lever.

He accomplished more by moving less. Smaller, tighter, specific movements.

The advice; Move less, and show more. Later he did a scene involving boxing, which would’ve been a dangerous idea previously, however this time his character was controlled, specific, and hilarious.

I’m not suggesting performers move less. I’m suggesting performers move specifically.