Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ensemble Rehearsal #4: The Best

After starting rehearsal learning some Bollywood dance choreography as a warm up, we spent some time discussing, among other things, what we wanted to be working on. We realized that we often spend a lot of time focusing on our faults as improvisors and how we can improve them. Of course, because of the nature of the art form, we have to do this so we are all capable of juggling any and all balls that might get thrown at us. As an example: I need to be able to play the hero, villain, love interest, or side characters depending on what the show needs.

But what we don’t do is push ourselves to get better at the things we’re already good at. Bryce is really good at playing villains. How can we push him to get better at playing villains? If we start giving each other notes on what we’re good at and challenging each other to get even better, we’ll find out what we’re good at, grow in new ways, and learn new things that everyone can benefit form. Very exciting.

It all reminded me of something I had heard August Wilson say in a master class. Every time he sat down to write a play he set out to write the best play that had ever been written. Otherwise, what was the point? Why bother? I tried to research an actual cited version of that quote and what I found was even better:

For years I sat in that chair and tried to best my predecessors, to write the best play that’s ever been written. That was my goal until I ran across a quote by Frank Lloyd Wright, who said he didn’t want to be the best architect who ever lived. He wanted to be the best architect who was ever going to live. That added fuel to the fire and raised the stakes, so to speak. Now you’re not only doing battle with your predecessors but with your successors as well. It drives you to write above your talent. And I know that’s possible to do because you can write beneath it.

That’s how I want to write. That’s how I want to improvise.

Then we moved on to singing. Typically when we sing songs in rehearsal we do a “Chorus/Verse” song, where one person starts by setting a chorus, we all repeat it, and then we all take turns doing verses. Except we never end up singing songs like that in shows, and really, very songs are like that to begin with.

During the last Shakespeare show, they worked on “Verse/Chorus” songs. The idea was to start with a verse, like most songs do, then the next person sets the chorus (but we do not repeat it together yet). The next person does a verse and then everyone sings the chorus together. Then everyone takes turns singing verses. The result is much more like an actual song, and hopefully more likely to happen I a show (with practice).

We took this a step further though and tried to merge with the exercise the work we had done on acting in other people’s styles. The idea was to mimic the person’s singing style. Not the notes, but the tamber, cadence, vowel structure, etc. This pushed people outside of their normal vocal patterns and pointed out patterns and habits that we people had. All very useful.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ensemble Rehearsal #2: Inadvertant One-Acts

For the first time ever, the Un-Scripted Theater Company has been having ensemble rehearsals where we get together and play without preparing for any specific show. Last night we had the second one of these and did some really interesting work that was simultaneously unlike anything we usually do while still being stereotypical of our work.

We started by doing a character movement exercise lead by Mandy. There’s a name for it, but I can’t remember what it is. It involves moving around the room and taking on different physical characteristics as a way to experiment with different physicalities and movement styles. We wanted to work with how movement influences character and break out of the movement ruts we individually typically fall into to.

To move this idea into scene work, we did a variation on an exercise Christian often uses in his classes. One person started a scene as a character they wanted to see inhabit a world. Then other people came in not exactly mimicking that character (because we didn’t want scenes with 5 of the same character) but mimicking that person’s acting style, as if everyone in the scene had graduated from the same 8 year acting school. Similar speech and movement but not identical. Coming from the same place, but not the same.

The resulting scenes were more like one-act plays than any scenes I’ve ever seen trying to be one-act plays. We theorized a number of reasons for this. One being that because every character in a play is written by the same person, all of the characters have a similarity that this mimicking recreated in our scenes. Another was that we weren’t entering the scenes at the next plot point but at the next character point. We didn’t enter once we knew what should happen next, but we entered once we had the next character that should be in the world. As a result the scenes didn’t have strong protagonists, yet felt like every character was the protagonist at one moment or another. (Something we had worked on more directly and less successfully during Theater The Musical.)

No one ever felt pressured in these scenes to come up with what should happen next. Even when something was happening in the scenes, the scenes weren’t about that. They were about the characters and their relationships, which are what stories should be about but often aren’t.

Every scene we did could have been fleshed out into an entire play (or I suppose a sketch if that’s how your mind works) or could have been a brilliant improv scene in performance. Here’s a brief list of the scenes with hopefully just enough detail to jog my memory down the line:

- A disgruntled teacher’s lounge with a gay yoga instructor and a classic porn stash.
- A “black widow” haunted by her murdered husbands and a “black widower” haunted by his murdered wives go on a date and decide to join forces: Blithe Spirit meets Arsenic and Old Lace meets The Brady Bunch.
- A cowardly deputy saves the town in spite of himself. Tarrantino meets Deadwood meets Blazing Saddles.
- Two strangers finally speak to each other on a subway train after countless train rides together.

And many others. I wish we’d taped the rehearsal.