Improvisational Theater

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A different path, a different lesson.

Occasionally, no, no... OFTEN, a student comes along who really feels confidant/cocky about their "background in improv". Occasionally, no, no... OFTEN, that background is high school drama class game based improv.  Sometimes that background has more weight, say someone who has performance experience, has been in a "professional Improv troupe"...etc. And sometimes this student believes they are a FULL CUP of improvisational theater knowledge, that they know far more than I can teach them, (sometimes they even try to "help" teach my class). And when that happens, I ache for them just a little bit knowing that arrogance often comes from insecurity and that it is likely this student has a narrow view of learning.  But, I am never wholly disheartened because I also know that this condition of disillusionment can be cured.  When I meet FULL CUP students, I aim to meet the challenge. I start by appreciating what they DO already know.  And then with luck I can instill them with an eagerness to grow.

  • Knowledge isn't a liquid, and our minds are not a fixed unit of measurement. That's the first thing to understand.  
  • Placing expectations on any educational experience will likely lead to disappointment. The most effective way to achieve knowledge is to aim to learn, not to aim for learning a certain thing a certain way. Keep your mind open.  There are lessons in everything, not just the things outlined in a syllabus, but in your teachers pedology, in the experience of your student peers, in your own reflections and comparisons...etc.
  • Allow yourself to learn things again.  Learn them with new eyes. Learn them with eagerness and appreciation. Every teacher is different, so the very same subject, game or exercise can be received as a wholly new experience if you're willing.
  • Even the worst teacher can feed you something if you are hungry enough.  Be hungry to learn
  • Be responsible for your own learning experience.  Be alive in the experience, be open to its unique gifts.
  • Negativity is a heavy door that blocks out all the light of opportunity. Focusing your energy on criticizing your teacher leaves no energy for seeking hidden gifts.
  • Take what you want from a learning experience and leave the rest.
  • "It is hard to fill a cup that is already full". Be an empty cup.  Better yet, see yourself not as a cup, but as an event horizon, endlessly capable of taking things in, comfortable not knowing where it all goes.

Regardless of how much I know, how long I've trained, who I've trained with, how long I've taught the work and how long I've been performing, I believe there is always room to grow.  Therefore I continue to grow. The only learning goal I will ever have is to keep on learning. I'm hungry for it and i will find a lesson in even the most mundane activity. Sometimes the lesson is patience, sometimes its critical thinking...etc.  With this outlook, occasionally, no, no ALWAYS, I find myself delighted by the treasures I find. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Be Alive in This

As long as I can remember my father has asked his students to find a state of "relaxed readiness" in their improv work.  I can't say how he came to that term, but I can say it's one of my favorites and that I have adopted it as both a personal mantra and a teaching tool.  The term means just as it states: Be calm and confidant while also aware of everything and ready for anything. Simple. Yes, if you're a Buddhist monk.And even a Buddhist monk works hard to get there.  No one is born directly into Nirvana, (or something like that).

Relaxed readiness is a skill some achieve quickly and with grace and others tumble over for years, some never actualizing it at all.  We come to the improv culture, wholly indoctrinated in a wildly different way of seeing, feeling and being.  We are asked as we learn to improvise to shed this skin, pull apart our wiring, let down all of our walls and open ourselves to YES AND!  And we do our very best to do that, because we are eager and enthusiastic, most of us.  But when we are beginning to navigate scene work, to build stories, to create whole worlds from scratch, and when we are doing this with other people who come from other backgrounds with minds as full as our own... well, it's hard to be relaxed. 

The excited tension in our bodies manifests itself in different ways for everyone, so there is not one simple answer for overcoming it.  Some are tense because they are aiming for a specific predetermined target and they're struggling to keep everyone straddling their arrow. Some are just sure they'll fuck it up for everyone else, so their tension draws their jaw closed tight and makes their bodies stiff.  Some are so tense that their lose all control and every single thought they've ever had races out of them, they're arms flailing wildly in desperation.  (I've always liked those guys because I really get that.  You're scared? Freak out. It makes sense to me.) The tension tightens the muscles in our body, it stifles our ability to truly listen to what's around us, to see and feel what others are doing. It closes that magic portal between the improviser and the universe, from which all the gifts fall.  So there we are, disconnected and often disenchanted, creating disconnected, disenchanting scene work. Unless we find the sweet spot, the improv honey hole of emotional and creative balanced, "relaxed readiness".

As I said before, there is no one way to achieve "relaxed readiness".  But for me the path is lined with trust and commitment.  When I step on stage I TRUST my partner, I TRUST our ability to create together, I TRUST the audience, the stage, the air I breath, and most of all I trust myself to be calm.  And then I am.  Then once a story begins to unfold, I COMMIT. I COMMIT to my partner, I COMMIT to our creation, I COMMIT to the audience, to the stage, to the air I breath.  I COMMIT to the character I am playing, running everything I see, say and do through a filter of who they are, how they move and think, what they need. And then I am aware.  With every offer, every move and exchange, I LISTEN.  I LISTEN with my whole body. And I only respond through that character filter because that character knows all the answers, it is their story, their experience after all.  I am relaxed into the work, and I am ready for anything.I know when I've reached this place because I feel more ALIVE here that at any other time.  Which leads me to another mantra I cherish, a mantra I often say to myself right before hitting the stage, right before teaching a class, right as my day begins, "BE ALIVE IN THIS".

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review for Domeka / Blank Slate / Brody Theater

I have had the opportunity to see Domeka Parker perform improv several times and she has never failed to make me laugh! She is part of comedy troupes “Blank Slate” and  the “Brody Theater Ensemble” a few talented groups of quipsters who perform skits and acting exercises at the Brody Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Domeka’s humor, talent and love for her craft are evident in her every performance. Her fellow actors take her lead and clearly love being on stage with her. 

I recently got to see Domeka perform with “Brody Theater Ensemble” in their October show “Scary Movie”, where they turned two classic horror genres, (monster movies and sci-fi), into onstage performances. It was a lot of fun to watch because the actors called out scene descriptions to give the audience a visual of what they would be seeing if they were watching an actual movie. The show was fun, unique and high energy as you never knew when someone was going to call out a change of scene and take us to another scenario happening during the performance. The group even involves the audience at a lot of their shows, asking for volunteers or concepts that they can interweave into the show.

It’s great to see the range of characters the actors can take on for each performance or what kind of scenario they create as they go. It takes a lot of thinking on your feet to be able to do something that is as difficult as improv, and yet make it look effortless. Domeka and her gang have definitely perfected it. I highly recommend checking out a “Blank Slate” or a “Brody Theater” performance next time they are on stage!

Holly Petersen

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two for the Show!

Anxiety feels very much the same in the body as excitement. If fact, I believe the feelings are physically interchangeable.  The difference is the metal challenge of FEAR.  And you don't have to be unafraid to be courageous. Double in fact, I believe it may be impossible, by definition to be courageous without the presence of fear. I'm going to have to look that up.

Occasionally before a show I feel anxious.  Pre-show jitters.  Nervousness. Stage fright.  Full on PANIC.

But I've gratefully discovered an easy fix.  "I am excited". Improvisational performance is unpredictable.  I could soar or I could plummet.  Taking that on is a THRILL. "I am thrilled".  I find that changing the label I give my physical state, changes the overall experience, like magic.

Saturday night's duo show started just this way for me.  I had, a half hour before, done a performance that left me feeling disenchanted. Nothing had gone "wrong".  I had simply felt "wonky", as it were, "floaty", in a terrifically peopled and formatted ensemble show. Now I was preparing to hit the stage for a duo show.  Just me and Nicole Acaurdi, with a brand new, "half baked" format. There was a part of me, a LOUD part, that was just certain... (Imagine the long, slow, painful plummet of a cannon ball here).  We managed, literally hand and hand, to "buck up", to change the narrative around our trepidation and to produce a truly exceptional performance.

I knew it was exceptional because my partner, Nicole, was beaming as we left the stage and entered the green room. We were both a flutter of laughter and praise for one another.  And the audience was desperate to chat us up after the show.  It was while talking to a student about the show that it occurred to me how nervous energy feeds performance.  Confidence is a lovely goal each time you walk on stage, but sometimes that confidence allows us to fall away from the task at hand, to be indifferent on stage at most and at the least, not have the acute focus that arises out of apprehension. 

This is of course not to say we should be frightened as performers, but rather that when we are we can channel that energy into our performance and create something wonderful!