Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lighting Can Bring Clarity

I ran the lights for the final performance of Let It Snow, and I suddenly had clarity on some important aspects of improvising single-story long-forms like we do at Un-Scripted. In rehearsal, we spend a lot of time working finding and establishing the protagonist, but not much time on what to do once we’ve found the protagonist. Watching the show and looking back on the run, certain lessons coalesced in my mind.

In the show Sunday, Dave A. got frustrated that his offer of letting Susan (the protagonist) use his pig in the Pork Princess competition was being deflected. Why was it being deflected? Because it was too early in the show to be helping the protagonist.

In the Holland, MI show, I uttered a line now famous among the people in that show: “Is she hot? Go to Norway.” Dave’s character was contemplating following the exotic Inga to Norway, and her family was trying to talk him out of it. Unfortunately, it was too early in the show for that. Everyone should have been encouraging him to leave and make the wrong choice, which was why what I said had such an impact.

In the Trent, TX show I should have let Molly’s character seduce me and given her the secret to my chili recipe right away because it was the wrong decision.

In short, during the first half of the show, after the protagonist has been established, throw obstacles in front of the protagonist, raise the stakes, make things difficult, encourage the protagonist to make mistakes, and if you are the protagonist, make mistakes. Do things that you the improvisor know aren’t right, but your character doesn’t.

In the second half, you can start helping the protagonist. You can start fixing things, and the protagonist can make smarter choices and, most importantly, change.

Lighting the show Sunday, I noticed another interesting thing. Karen and Christian were playing Tara’s overbearing parents. They were pushing her to be the Pork Princess, when she preferred cows. Then at some point, without any prodding from Tara, Karen changed and encouraged her daughter to do what she wanted. Her instinct was right, to start trying to fix things for the protagonist, but the effect was to lower the stakes and make the show less dynamic.

Why? Quite simply the only character who should ever change or effect change is the protagonist. If the story has a strong antagonist, they might also change, but generally only because the protagonist forces them to. The side characters should pick an objective or attitude about the world and stick to it.

Karen’s instinct to start helping was dead on, but by changing on her own accord without being forced to by Tara (who by this point in the show had become a co-protagonist with Susan, or rather the protagonist of her own sub-plot) she muddied the narrative.

So, here’s a chart:
Scene 1: Find a protagonist with a want/need.
Act I: Raise the stakes. Get in their way. Get in your own way as the protagonist.
Act II: Help them by changing at their request. If you are the protagonist, change.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Show #4: Protagonist Again!

My last show was the Saturday Matinee. We had a great crowd and got the lovely town of Suffield, CT as our suggestion. As the first scene developed, Trish was setting up Scott to be the protagonist. He hadn’t been the protagonist yet in the show and had expressed a desire to. Trish kept saying “You look blue. What’s bothering you?” A clear opportunity for Scott to open up about his feelings, sing a need song, and be the protagonist. But he didn’t bite. He later said “I had nothing,” a not uncommon occurrence in improv.

The scene ended without a song and without a clear protagonist. Throughout the scene, however, Scott and Trish spoke about their son, a character named Ricky, who was coming home soon for the holidays. Tara and I went out in the second scene and she immediately endowed me as being Ricky. She was my girlfriend. I didn’t want to go home. She was forcing me to.

Ah, I slipped into that scene like a nice warm bath. It was one of those moments when I could really revel in the fact that I’ve been improvising with Tara for 7 years or so. We knew how to play-off each other and delight each other and anticipate each other’s offers. I sang a need song, that turned into a nice playful duet with her, and whamo, I was the protagonist for the second time in the run!

Every now and then a couple other people entered the scene. Our characters found ways to send them away because they really weren’t needed. I think they were trying to raise the stakes, but the stakes were raised enough and didn’t really need the superfluous characters. Mostly they got in the way of the scene. That’s something I think we could have worked on more in this run: knowing when not to enter a scene. Not going on can be just as helpful as going on, sometimes.

Interestingly enough, I felt like Christian, who can often times be a pestering stage hog, did a much better job of staying out of scenes that didn’t need him than he did in say The Great Puppet Musical where his omnipresence onstage bordered on the ridiculous. I speak of this honestly mostly because I’m reasonably certain he’ll never read this, and if he did, I can trust him not to take it personally.

The show went rather smoothly from that point on. I did a better job of getting into trouble, and it was really the first show of the run where the protagonist didn’t like the town. This was something that happened frequently in previous years doing this show. One thing that it does, is make everyone else love the town to raise the stakes. Tara did an especially great job of this. Her character came with me and had never visited the town before. She delighted in everything.

Which brings me back to another interesting moment: In the first scene between Tara and I, when her character was convincing me to go home for the holidays, we set that scene in one of the towns we hadn’t taken as our suggestion. We often find ways to mention the runner-up towns in the show, but this was the first time we’d ever set a scene in one of the other towns. So Massapequa Park, NY has now appeared in a Let It Snow, even if it’s not been featured.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Let It Snow 2007, Week 4

Check out the Let It Snow Interactive Map, featuring every town the show has ever featured, complete with performance date, show description, and a picture from the town itself!


Nuclear Family – Friday 12/14/07
Peacenick Sonia (Mandy) butts head with her sister Susan (Trish) over keeping Takoma Park, MD (pop. 17,717) a nuclear free zone. Relations melt down when friends and family pile into Sonia’s tiny studio apartment for Christmas, but snow globes, clockwork power, and love save the day.

The Burro and the Rooster - Saturday Matinee 12/15/07
Ricky (Alan) doesn’t want to go home to Suffield, CT (pop. 13,552) for the holidays. His dad will be depressed. His grandma will pinch his cheeks, and everyone will treat him like a golden child. When his girlfriend Samantha (Tara) forces him to go, Ricky learns there’s a lot to like in Suffield, and the town and his family learns to admit Ricky’s not perfect.

Christmas with the King - Saturday Evening 12/15/07
When Kevin (Bryce) inherits his father’s clothing store in Altus, OK (pop. 21,447), he fears he won’t be able to fill his father’s big shoes. When a rival clothing store undercuts his prices on holiday Elvis capes, Kevin finds himself on the verge of bankruptcy. Only the town’s yearly holiday visit from an Elvis impersonator (Scott) can save the day.

Kiss that Hog - Sunday 12/16/07
Saundra (Susan) dreams of being the Holiday Pork Princess of Hector, MN (pop. 1,166) and borrows her friend Sven’s (Dave A.) pig to enter. When the owner of the feed store (Christian) decides his daughter Susan (Tara) will be the Pork Princess, he cheats Saundra out of her prize pig. In the end, Saundra learns being the Pork Princess isn’t as important to her as her newly discovered love for Sven and Susan is able to realize her dream of being Princess Kay of the Milky Way with her prize calf.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rehearsal #12: And Scene

We had our last rehearsal last night for the show. At the last minute, Tara made the rehearsal optional, which was good as two people couldn’t make it and a third chose to stay home. We had David, so we sang. I didn’t really sing much feeling the effects of a food allergy. As a result, I don’t really have much to say about the rehearsal as it was all pretty much a blur.

I do remember we did a Cirque de Soliel inspired dream ballet number that was pretty kick-ass. We’ll see if it works its way into the show. Hope you all can make it!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Let It Snow 2007, Week 3

Check out the Let It Snow Interactive Map, featuring every town the show has ever featured, complete with performance date, show description, and a picture from the town itself!


Polka Me Gently - Friday 12/7/2007
In hopes of rekindling the holiday spirit in herself, Louise (Susan) plans to play a rock-and-roll polka during Midnight Mass in Euclid, OH (pop. 52,717), but her mother (Trish) will do anything to stop her. When Louise’s best-friend Ivan (Bryce) betrays her, will she find the strength to take on her mother?

Toulon, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Good-Bye - Saturday Matinee 12/8/2007
When an accident in the Toulon, IL (pop. 1,400) nursing home puts Nurse Maggie’s (Mandy) job in jeopardy, she leads the disgruntled residents in a daring breakout. Several of the old men soon find themselves mistaken for the three wise men in the Christmas pageant, and Maggie learns that she doesn’t have to fix everyone’s problems. Sometimes people have to help themselves.

Jenks for the Memories - Saturday Night 12/8/2007
Isabella (Tara) and Beauregard (Christian) Barkey move back to his hometown of Jenks, OK (pop. 9,557) the self-proclaimed antique capital of the US. Struggling to fit in, Isabella opens an antique stand at the local bank, but faces stiff competition at home and at work. Beau’s passive-aggressive family wishes he’d married his omnipresent old flame Kathleen (Molly). But when Isabella starts closing down her shop, she learns she can fit in by just being herself.

In the Ticket of Things - Sunday Twilight
The police of Signal Mountain, TN (pop. 7,429) are on a ticket writing spree, but town damage controller Louise (Molly) takes the blame and is determined to resolve the issue. Meanwhile, Louise's parents are smothering her, stifling her push toward independence. Eventually, Louise gets the police to stop taking advantage of their power, and Signal Mountain is known as a town that uses tickets to better itself.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Rehearsal #11: Eye Contact While Singing

Even though I’m not in any of the shows this weekend, I wanted to go to rehearsal Tuesday night anyway because we were going to be singing!

We worked on trios and duets and color songs, songs that have no plot or emotional content but fill out the environment and mood. I’ve come a long way in my singing over the years, but definitely needed the extra practice. I jumped up to sing as often as I could.

I did a duet with Dave Dyson in which we were brothers having just read or parent’s will in which I got nothing and him everything. We were fighting as characters and used the song to fight as well: in the beginning I kept singing verses without letting Dave in. I also learned that I have a problem making eye contact when I’m singing with someone else.

I hardly did it at all during the song with Dave, and in a later song, Tara had to side-coach me to do it during the song. Once I did, the difference was immediately noticeable to me and the audience. I was instantly more connected and expressive (amazing how that works). As Tara pointed out, my avoidance of eye contact in songs is probably an outgrowth of my predilection to play characters that don’t have to show emotion or change (a predilection that makes playing the protagonist challenging).

I must remember to do that, make eye-contact while singing!

I am not in any of the shows this weekend, as I was supposed to be out of town. Now I am in town, but I’m still not playing baring any unforeseen changes. I will be at the show tonight though! I hope to learn a lot from watching it, assuming a get a seat.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Let It Snow 2007, Week 2

Check out the Let It Snow Interactive Map, featuring every town the show has ever featured, complete with performance date, show description, and a picture from the town itself!


Going Dutch – Friday 11/30/2007
Jeannie (Trish) has fallen in love with her old boyfriend from high school Sam (Dave D.), but he's taken with an exotic Norwegian, Inga (Mandy) who's come to visit Holland, MI (pop. 35,048). Can Jeannie skate her way back into Sam's heart or will he be spending the holidays keeping Inga warm?

Homewood for the Holidays – Saturday Matinee 12/1/2007
Martha (Mandy) needs the first day of her new boutique restaurant and resort in Homewood, CA (pop. 840) near Tahoe to go perfectly, but when the reviewer comes, she's greeted with burnt food, raccoons in the dining room, a bear attack, a quitting hysterical French chef, and total panic by the wait staff all at the same time. Can anything save the day?

Snakes in a Chili Cook-Off – Saturday Evening 12/1/2007
Bill (Alan) is as determined to win this year's Rattle Snake Chili Cook-Off in Trent, TX (pop.318) as he is to make his life more spicy. But when an affair with the town temptress Marigold (Molly) nearly costs him his chance to win, he discovers life is just as spicy as you make it.

Peace in Harmony – Sunday 12/2/2007
This year, someone will be chosen from the high school band to lead the Christmas parade in Harmony, PA (pop. 937). When Daisy (Trish) discovers that the band leader Professor Wilson (Dave A.) is secretly the front man for the Screaming Weasels rock band, she blackmails her way into the job. The evil spoiled Joan (Susan) gets her dad, the mayor (Bryce), to intervene, but in the end everyone leads the parade in perfect harmony.

Shows 2 & 3: Protagonist = The One Who Moves First

I ended up playing in two shows last weekend instead of my originally scheduled one. I filled the spot vacated by Derek on Friday night.

The first show was somewhat frustrating for me. I had psyched myself up mentally to play the protagonist that night, and went out in the first scene playing an upbeat, positive, normal character. Somehow Dave still ended up the protagonist, even though his character was not very real. How did this happen? I have my theories. Dave simply spoke more in the scene. It was a large group scene and a bit hard to navigate, but Dave had the most to say, even if his character was a bit overly excitable in a way more suited to a side character.

Ultimately, however, I think the thing that made him the protagonist was that when the lights came up he made a large physical offer. I noticed this phenomenon during the Great Puppet Musical, and I find it interesting. The person whose character makes a big physical motion at the top of the first scene tends to be the protagonist. It makes sense, really. Whatever physical gesture or offer they’re making draws focus to them, not only from the audience but fellow improvisors. It’s assumed that this gesture (and the character who made it) is important and we all want to know why.

(Dave didn’t hold on to the protagonist role, by the way. His character wasn’t real enough to bare it out. The mantle shifted to Trish as she was more normal and her reactions real and strong.)

Saturday night, I again went onstage in the first scene with the intent of being the protagonist. This time, I started the scene stirring a space object pot. Low and behold, I easily became the protagonist. I did alright. My initial offer (wanting to win the chili cook-off) was a bit plot heavy, and even though I quickly altered it (to wanting my life to be more spicy like chili) the show still ended up a little clunky on the plot heavy side.

Early on, Mandy was ambiguously endowed as my girlfriend, which gave me difficulties as I ended up being seduced by Molly’s character. In retrospect, I think I would have had an easier time navigating the story had Mandy been endowed as my sister. This would have brought in more of a family aspect; she could have served as my confidant; and Molly’s character could have been my love interest. All of which would have made the show cleaner.

I felt good about my singing, and got some good notes from Christian on how to improve. I also need to remember to let the protagonist get in trouble and make bad decisions early in the show. I should have let Molly’s character seduce me sooner, but I was in my head about how to do that and still remain likeable (which wouldn’t have been an issue had Mandy been my sister).

I’ve got one more show left. I suppose it’s possible I may pick up another of Derek’s slots, but I’m going to assume I only have the one show left. Not sure I’ll aim for the protagonist in it or not. I may want to just enjoy playing around as a side character. I’ve got plenty of time to think about it though, as I’m not performing again until the 15th.