Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Un-Abridged Closing Night: Let It Snow! Austin, MN

Wow, the run came and went pretty fast. As usual, I got caught up in the show and didn't chronicle much in between. Still, I wanted to take a second to talk about closing night.

We did Let It Snow! and Tara came back from Maine to be in the show. (She was also in Theater the Musical that weekend, helping us do a fun David Mamet musical set in a museum.) Tara created Let It Snow! back in 2004, and I have a show summary for every town we've ever done for the show on this blog. I couldn't let this one go un-documented:

Pack 'Em In! - Saturday, August 18
As poet laureate of Austin, MN (pop 24,718), Jennifer (Susan) is working on a new poem for the holiday Spam parade when she finds out that no one in town really likes her poems. To add insult to injury, neighboring town and arch-rival Albert Lea (pop 18,016) has appointed its own poet laureate, Mary Beth (Tara). Meanwhile Wally (Alan) finds himself at the eye of the storm when he starts dating Mary Beth.  Will the mayor of Albert Lea (Bryce) swallow his pride? Can the town wrestling coach (Scott) save the day? We really pack ‘em in in Austin.

As you may have guessed, Austin is home to the Spam factory and museum:

The show marked the third time Let It Snow! had ventured to Minnesota, having previously visited Hector and Hastings. If you want to check out every town the show has visited over the years, here's an interactive map:

View Let It Snow in a larger map

Friday, July 27, 2012

Un-Abridged Opening Night: The Short and the Long of It

Photo by Clay from last night

Un-Abridged opened last night with the return of The Short and the Long of It. We hadn't performed that show in 7 years, but we had a wonderful cast that had mostly performed it before, back in the day. Aaron was the only except, but you wouldn't have known. Shortform is shortform after all. Glenn Etter even flew in all the way from Portland, OR to be in the show. Glenn, Christian, Dave, and I played together a lot once upon a time, so even though Glenn hadn't performed improv in... 6 years?... you wouldn't have known that either. It was like stepping into a time machine and going back to the very first run of we ever did performing for Glenn's family and Glenn's ex-family. (An entire audience at the first run of The Short and the Long of It back in 2003 was made up of Glenn's relations.)

We had a lot of fun just playing together. The scene I've heard the most about since was a retelling of Rapunzel set in IKEA. Oddly, however, that was not the scene chosen for the longform. Instead the audience picked a scene that Glenn had narrated and Aaron and Dave acted out called "Taxidermy is OK".

Now normally at this point in chronicling a performance, I might focus upon a takeaway from the show that I intend to apply to the rest of the run. That's harder to do in this run because we won't be doing The Short and the Long of It again. It's a very strange experience, doing just one performance of a show. It brings me back to the days over 10 years ago before Un-Scripted when I performed at BATS Improv. It reminds me why I love doing runs of shows.

Typically after a show, I spend some time "fixing it" in my head. I think "this would have been a stronger choice or that would have been a stronger choice". I try to learn as much as I can so the next time I'm more prepared. Maybe I think that way because I'm used to doing runs now, but I think I'm drawn to runs because I think that way. There's just something very satisfying about knowing you can go right back out there the next night and make stronger choices. Whereas in this case, I have no idea when, if ever, we'll do The Short and the Long of It again.

And most of my takeaways from last night are specific to this show. Rather than focus on Aaron and Dave's characters from "Taxidermy", we anchored the longform in the reality of the narrator. That made the second half very similar to the first in that it was a lot of short scenes rather than one long story. Now that we've learned that, we can make that choice.... Um... maybe someday. If we remember.

Still, it was a super fun show. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to play with Glenn again. You can see me tonight in Un-Scripted: unscripted, or Glenn Saturday night in You Bet Your Improvisor (it's a lot of fun).

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fear: Back to an Old Friend

Fear rehearsal Thursday night was like comfortably stepping back in time to 9 months ago. After several cast changes, the final line-up for the show is Bryce, Greg, Larissa, Mia, and myself. That means that everyone in the show just did it last year. That made the entire rehearsal like peeling away the layers of  memory, slowly revealing how we had done the show and what we needed to be aware of.

We warmed up a little with word-at-a-time and then sentence-at-a-time stories, which led us nicely into practicing the opening narration. Fear in its first three incarnations didn't involve narration, but I added it in after Mandy used it so wonderfully in A Tale of Two Genres. Whereas for that show it added a literary quality, for this one it allows us to build atmosphere in exciting ways. To set the convention of narration, and to immediately set the mood, we open the show with narration. Everyone in the cast contributes a brief sentence painting the setting, and then the last person sets up the first scene. At any point then, anyone can break the fourth wall to narrate. If a someone wants to narrate from off stage, they can come on and do it as long as they narrate their character into the scene in the process. Those "rules" exist just to maintain a certain seamlessness to hold the reality together. With this show more than any other, a consistent reality is essential. 

The first thing we remembered was that the opening narration needs to paint a light, happy picture of the world we're about to inhabit. If you start dark, there's no where to go. Starting happy allows for contrast. It's hard to do though, especially as the scenes begin. The first few scenes should also be fairly light, trouble-free, and about exploring and establishing the relationships. This gives you a nice platform to terrorize later, but we usually get so excited that we start throwing in ominous undertones right away. That's not all bad. Some good foreshadowing and fake-outs are useful. 

Then we did a round of killing and dying. Everyone took turns. Everyone killed once and died once. Then we also worked how to safely get bodies off-stage. (You can't just spring to your feet and walk off on your own power. It spoils the illusion or "breaks the reality".) This is the most intense aspect of the show for the audience and performers alike. It's grueling to watch over and over again, and draining to participate in. Still, it's necessary. 

We took a break after that and returned to light and happy openings. We did several and continued into 2 or 3 scenes of the story. We have to remember not to lose the narration as the story progresses. It's useful for setting the mood as well as for getting us in and out of the intermission without breaking the reality too much. Otherwise, I think we're in great shape for the show. It'll be just like old times...

Fear will be August 10 at 8pm.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Theater the Musical: Three!

When we first did Theater the Musical back in 2008 it immediately followed the production of Three, a three-person cast triptych wherein each story was done in the style of a playwright (although that part was not conveyed to the audience).  Basically, we wanted to work on playwright styles but didn't think that fact was intrinsic to the audiences experience of the show. I was not actually in that show, but Theater the Musical definitely benefited directly from that show's hard work.

Due to various scheduling happenstances, the cast of Theater the Musical for Un-Abridged is also three people! While we're not going to do it as a triptych, the parallel was too good to pass up in the title of this post. In fact, of the cast of Christian, Merrill, and myself, only Christian was in Three. Merrill wasn't even in Theater the Musical.

How will we do it? I'm not sure. The small cast-size will limit what playwrights we can choose, but not overly so. Most playwrights have a small-cast play in their repertoire somewhere. We'll make it work.

In order to prep for the show, we brainstormed a short list of playwrights we're likely to get as suggestions. During the original run, we selected a few options from suggestions and let the audience choose what we did. This time around we might just pick. Either way it's unlikely will get someone no one in the cast has ever heard of. But even that doesn't matter too much. Like in Let It Snow, we ask the audience what they know about the playwright. That way you can do a reasonable job flying blind. The first time around Christian and I played brothers in an epic Eugene O'Neil inspired show in spite of the fact that neither of us had read or seen his plays (in their entirety - I'll admit to having read and seen bits and pieces).

Then we practiced singing, but not just singing, we practiced singing as different actors. As Christian discovered from directing Shakespeare the Musical, if you're performing a small-cast musical, playing multiple characters who have songs, you can't just sing like a different character. You have to sing like a different actor playing that character. Some quick ways are to vary your lung capacity, range, size of range, tone, resonance, and/or volume.

Then we moved into playing scenes in different playwright styles that we thought we might get. I won't give you a list because I don't want to influence what you might suggest, but we had a good time.

I'm actually excited about doing this show with such a small cast. It should make it feel very theatrical and be very challenging.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Un-Scripted: unscripted

My performance schedule changed around a bit last week as a result of a wicked bout of stomach flu and a changed airline flight. I couldn't make it to A Tale of Two Genres rehearsal on Tuesday because I couldn't be that far from a bathroom for that long. Then Thursday, Aaron had to drop out of Un-Scripted: unscripted rehearsal because United changed his flight times on him. Having recovered sufficiently by then, I stepped in to take his place.

So if you're keeping score at home, I am no longer in A Tale of Two Genres on Thursday August 2, but I am now in Un-Scripted: unscripted on Friday July 27.

Dave, who directed the original Un-Scripted: unscripted back in 2008 wore the director's hat for the night. He sent out his original show concept notes for us to read beforehand, and ran us through some fun character warm-ups. For those of you unfamiliar with Un-Scripted: unscripted, it's a standard short-form show except that we never stop the show to get a suggestion or introduce a scene. All of that has to happen in character in the context of the show. So we do get suggestions, and some scenes are introduced, just in character. Other times and improvisor might just start playing a game and hope that the other improvisors catch on. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't. Either way, it's entertaining.

We rehearsed by running the show. We had a lot of fun. My personal favorite highlight was the recurring character Marvin the Disco Ghost (Greg) and Amber's lonely rap.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Let It Snow: Needs, Obstacles, Openings

Last Thursday night we had Let It Snow rehearsal! Susan took the helm and ran us through an action packed rehearsal filled with movement and singing.

We started by focusing on Need Songs and Obstacle Songs. In a Need Song, the protagonist sings about what their character needs, wants, is motivating them. It drives the character and the show and should happen pretty early on. Obstacle Songs are all about why that character can't get it. If the show has a strong antagonist, it would be sung by that character. We spent some time exploring having the town be the obstacle, most often in a very well-meaning but misdirected way. That seemed much more interesting and fitting for the show than having a Lex Luthor to the show's Superman.

At the Short and the Long of It rehearsal, I had blown out my voice playing Satan in the mini-long-form. That left me unable to sing in my lower range, which is where I've discovered I'm more comfortable. Add to that a general lack of confidence around singing Need Songs, and I was a bit anxious during rehearsal. I have a hard time with Need Songs because I tend to only see literal needs. Like, I need a new iPhone or something less than compelling like that. Still, I muddled my way through one singing odd notes higher up in my range and generally not liking the direction the song was taking. It ended up being about wanting the approval of my character's dead mother. It seemed to go over all right.

Then we worked on the opening number, which is always a source of much attention in this show. Why? Not only does it set the tone for the show, but we specifically try to reprise the chorus from the opening number at the end of the show. Let It Snow opening numbers may very well be the most structured thing we do at the Un-Scripted Theater Company. The most recent incarnation (and the one we'll use in the show) goes something like this:

Lights up, everyone forms soft tableaux (we're still moving) around the stage inhabiting the "world". Someone steps forward and sings a verse about the town all in the 3rd person (There's no "I" in "Opening"). When they finish someone steps to the front of the stage to set the chorus. As they do that, the rest of the cast forms a pyramid behind them and begins to dance following either the chorus leader or the people immediately behind them. After the chorus has been set and repeated, the chorus leader drops back, someone else steps to the front to start a new verse and the pyramid adjusts. Then the chorus leader goes back to the front to repeat the chorus. Then we might have another verse or a dance break. Then we go back to the chorus repeat it one last time while forming one last tableau. It's just as hard to keep track of as you think it is.

I'm sure anytime we have to actually work things at the pre-show rehearsal and warm-up will be spent on the opening number.

Let It Snow will be the closing night performance of Un-Abridged. It's always been our "signature" show and is the most "feel-good" show we do. And it snows! Assuming we figure out how to re-rig the snow machine. What's even more exciting, the show's originator Tara McDonough is rumored to be returning from Maine to be in the show!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Short and the Long of It Rehearsal: Games as Long-Forms

Individual show rehearsals have begun! Actually, they began last Thursday with rehearsal for Improvised Bawdy Shakespeare (8/3). I was not at that rehearsal, as I'm not in that show, but I know they were able to run an entire show! (Mostly because that show is a late-night show and will be short.)

Tuesday night we had two rehearsals running simultaneously. While I was at the rehearsal studio at Stagewerx running rehearsal for The Short and the Long of It (7/26), Amber was across town at the Playhouse directing the rehearsal for Love at First Sight (8/11).

I had forgotten how much fun The Short and the Long of It is, to be perfectly honest. Having to play any sort of improv game for as a 45 minute long-form is inherently challenging and ridiculous. For those of you who don't remember the show, because we haven't done it in 7 years, the first half is a pretty standard short-form show. We come out, set up scenes and games, and have a good time. After each scene we give it a name and write it down on a big piece of paper or white board off to the side of the stage. Then at the end of the first half, we do quick tableaux of every scene to remind ourselves and the audience what we did. Then the audience votes on which scene they would like to see expanded into a long-form in the second half. It's been our experience that they invariably choose the hoopiest game scene we played. Not always, but most of the time.

So you end up having to play spit-take, Oompa-Loompa Commentary, new choice, etc for 45 minutes, which is a great way to learn new ways to play a game. Because, really, you have about 2 and a half scenes to play the game as you know it, and then you have to find new ways to play it or it gets boring.

We have a nice small cast for the show. It's just Christian, Dave, Aaron, and I. And hopefully special-guest returning ensemble member Glenn Etter. Really, he has to come back because without him we don't have enough people to play Oompa-Loompa Commentary.

In any case, to rehearse we spent about an hour or so playing games. We started with a game I learned performing in a benefit show on Sunday wherein two people play a scene while two people watch with their ears plugged in a "sound proof booth". Then those two people replay the scene without knowing the original suggestion or any of the dialogue. So really, the second group is just using the movements of the first scene as the suggestion for theirs. It was quite fun.

We also played spit-take, product-placement, Shakesfeare (genre switch where you're alternating back and forth between Shakespearean and horror), and a game Aaron ran us through that I can't remember the name of. It started with a relationship between two people starting a scene. Then rapidly people would tag one person out and then start a new scene wherein the remaining person stayed the same character and the new person was a new character with a different relationship to that person. They're tiny little scenes and veer off in all sorts of wild directions. Our initial relationship was politician and political consultant. Our last relationship was Santa Clause and Satan.

Then we took two of those scenes and expanded them into short long-forms. We started with Aaron's relationship scene. We were able to remember the entire chain of relationships we had gone through, and for the long form we decided that the scene we had done was the end of the long-form. I don't know if I mentioned that, but because we're expanding the scene into a long-form, we revisit the original scene at some point. It can be anywhere in the story, but for this one we decided it was at the end. That rest of the long-form was then exploring the backstory for all of these different characters (which included Colonel Sanders, his twin brother, God, Jesus, several leprachauns, Satan, the Easter Bunny, a traffic cop in hell, and more). Jesus, who only appeared briefly in the original scene, took on a much larger role in the long-form. Then when we got to replaying the original scene, it had all sorts of new meaning because of the backstory. It was fun.

For the second long-form, we chose the scene switching game I had just learned. For that we basically just told two long-forms alternating scenes. So one pair (pair A) would do a scene while pair B couldn't hear. Then pair B would do their scene based on pair A's movements. Then pair A would plug their ears and pair B would play their next scene. Then pair A would replay it and then do a new one for pair B to mimic. As a performer, you only saw every other scene of the other story, which was very interesting. The key to this game, as we learned, is to make bold choices and use the movements from the other scene in as wildly different a way as you can imagine. Even when doing that, though, the stories ended up paralleling each other thematically.

I can't wait for the show! It's opening night of the run and will be a great way to kick things off.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Un-Abridged Rehearsal #3: Short Form!

Tuesday night's rehearsal was all short form! Short form is so much fun, but we haven't done it in so long. We're doing three short form shows, all opening weekend: The Short and the Long of It, Un-Scripted: unscripted, and You Bet Your Improvisor.

What did we do in rehearsal? Mostly we just played. We warmed up, we did scene after scene after scene of whatever we wanted to do. Sure, we could have been more focused, but the point was just to "jam" and focus when we get into each show's individual rehearsal.

So... I don't really have much else to write. We did a wonderfully funny sit-com scene called "Three Men and a Room." Look for it next year on NBC. The key, really, to a funny sit-com scene is getting the audience to do bad audience laugh-track reactions.

Tonight's rehearsal is for Improvised Bawdy Shakespeare. As I am not in that show, I will not be attending. I believe my next rehearsal is for The Short and the Long of It next Tuesday. I can't wait!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Un-Abridged Rehearsal #2: Musicals!

Thursday night Susan took the reigns as director and ran us through a general musical rehearsal for everyone in one of the five musicals we're revisiting this summer: A Tale of Two Genres, Shakespeare the Musical, Theater the Musical, Bollywood, and Let It Snow. As Susan put it, those musicals are all very different, but they'll all involve singing together and moving together.

So, we started with some group movement exercises. We didn't dance specifically, but focused on moving together. The coolest exercise we explored was something she thought up watching a clip from the Tony Awards of the musical Newsies. She had six people up but all "off" stage. Then one person comes out and begins a simple repetitive movement. Then people come out one or two at a time and joins in doing the same movement. We started with a pyramid formation with the originator of the movement at the front. Then we experimented with free-form formations.

It was amazing.

One thing we always struggle with is patience. Time moves much quicker for an improvisor on stage than it does for the audience. Usually just as an improvisor is starting to think... oh no... I've been doing this too long... the audience is going to get bored... I need to start doing something else... Usually by that time the movement is really just clicking, the audience is just enjoying it, and really you can keep going for much longer than you think you can.

Then we warmed up for singing! I was really nervous. I haven't sung in over a year and a half. Warming up made me nervous as I could feel my notes being all off. But, then when we actually got into singing, I did great. I remembered to sing low, in my range, and I had much more breath support than I was expecting. All that yoga, running, and working out paid off.

We started with some large group "who will buy" environment songs. We did one in a private social club and another in a nightclub before it opened. Anyway, the basic idea is that everyone sings just a phrase about who they are in that environment and it builds into a big song. Follow the link to the clip and it will make sense.

Then we moved on to point-of-view songs, except that when Susan turned things over to Christian to explain point-of-view songs he explained need songs. He did a great job of it, though, so it was useful. (Sing about the way the world is, then about how you dream it will be, and then the reality of how it will be... or something like that. He did a better job.)

We filled the rest of the time alternating between point-of-view songs and duets. I was in a fun point-of-view song where the suggestion was VE Day. I sung as a German depressed that they'd lost the war. Everyone in the song ended up being depressed. It was the most depressing song about VE Day ever.

THEN I did a duet with Cort. That's right, Cort came back for the rehearsal. Cort's a founding member of the group, but he said he hadn't been on stage in 6 years! Still, he's probably done more improv in the last six years then most of us, and "performs" all the time as a teacher. We sang a fun song about two brothers making up after some long ago falling out.

It's always so much fun to get together with a group of talented improvisors and just sing. I can't wait for the shows!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Un-Abridged, Rehearsal 1: INSANITY

10 years! Un-Scripted is in the middle of its tenth season and to celebrate our summer show is Un-Abridged: The Best of Ten Years of Un-Scripted. We're bringing back 12 different shows from the last 10 years for one night only from July 26 to August 18. Here's the full schedule:

7/26/2012 The Short and the Long of It
7/27/2012 Un-Scripted: unscripted
7/28/2012 You Bet Your Improvisor
8/2/2012 Tale of Two Genres
8/3/2012 Shakespeare: The Musical
8/3/2012 Bawdy Shakespeare (late night)
8/9/2012 Secret Identity Crisis
8/10/2012 FEAR
8/11/2012 Love at First Sight
8/16/2012 Theater the Musical
8/17/2012 Great Puppet Bollywood Extravaganza
8/18/2012 Let it Snow

You'll notice there's no show on Saturday August 3. That's because we all have a wedding to go to that day.

How are we going to rehearse this? That's a good question and the answer to it was left up to me. I'm the "overlord" of the show. If it were a TV show, I think I'd be the show-runner. In any case, I put it together. The directing duties for each individual "show" were then divided up among previous directors. I'll be in charge of The Short and the Long of It and Fear, for instance. 

The Un-Scripted ensemble makes up the core cast. Then we asked guests who had been in some of these shows in the past to come back to perform in them (Joy, Michael, Molly, Mia, Scott, and Chris Sams). Then we also opened things up to previous members of the ensemble to return (Tara will be in Let It Snow, others are pending...).

Tuesday night we had a great big introductory rehearsal. Tonight everyone in a musical will get together to work on singing and dancing. Next Tuesday everyone in a short-form show will get together for a short-form dedicated rehearsal. Then each show gets one dedicated rehearsal. There are four pairs of shows without any overlapping cast. They will rehearse on the same nights. I know. It's INSANE. 

So what did we do on Tuesday? We went over the ground rules and covered some logistics. We did some "speed-dating" where each cast got 3 minutes to meet and chat. We did a warm-up game where I would shout out the name of a show and everyone in it would clump together. Then we started doing scenes in each group and jumped around from show to show and scene to scene. 

Then we took turns leading exercises designed to bring us together and connect us. We learned a couple warm-ups that Clay learned in France, including "The Holy Grail". We got to know each other, and we finished early. 

Here's the cast!

Thursday 7/26/2012   The Short and the Long of It                Aaron, Alan, Christian, Dave 
Friday 7/27/2012        Un-Scripted: unscripted                      Aaron, Amber, Dave, Greg , Joy
Saturday 7/28/2012    You Bet Your Improvisor                     Aaron , Amber, Chris, Christian, Dave, Mark

Thursday 8/2/2012      A Tale of Two Genres                         Alan, Christian, Greg, Merrill, Molly
Friday 8/3/2012          Shakespeare the Musical                     Bryce, Christian, Merrill, Michael
Friday 8/3/2012          Improvised Bawdy Shakespeare           Bryce, Christian, Clay, Dave, Merrill

Thursday 8/9/2012      Secret Identity Crisis                            Aaron, Amber, Bryce, Clay, Dave, Greg
Friday 8/10/2012        Fear                                                    Alan, Bryce, Greg, Merrill, Mia, Trish
Saturday 8/11/2012    Love at First Sight                                Amber, Clay, Greg, Mark, Trish

Thursday 8/16/2012    Theater the Musical                               Alan, Christian, Merrill, Trish
Friday 8/17/2012        Great Puppet Bollywood Extravaganza    Alan, Amber, Bryce, Clay, Dave, Greg
Saturday 8/18/2012    Let It Snow                                           Alan, Bryce, Clay, Susan, Scott, Tara

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Improv and Consciousness Expansion

Several years ago, a friend of a friend who’d seen me in a couple of shows wanted to meet with me to discuss some film projects he was working on. He wanted someone with improv experience and he thought I might be a good fit. I met him at a café one evening. We started chatting and immediately it was going horribly. We weren’t connecting. Our conversation was choppy. I had that sinking feeling you get in your stomach when a job interview isn’t going well.

That’s when the light bulb went off: this was a job interview. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was. Immediately I noticed our status relationship. He was, by his nature, being very low status. I, on the other hand, had come into the meeting very high status to make myself seem important or worthy of his consideration. That was all wrong for the situation. I adjusted my status to match his but come in a little beneath him, and instantly the interview turned. We connected and talked for hours, and I left with the part (except the films never got made).

If I had never taken improv classes, that would never have happened, but I would go one step further and say if I had never performed improv that never would have happened. In performance we talk a lot about the different “brains” you have to juggle all at once on stage. You have your character brain, your actor brain, and your writer/director brain all working all at once. When you get into one of those moments where all of those things are working at once (like they were in that interview) the world seems to slow way way down. You can hear everything someone is saying and respond, while you’re thinking about a couple other things at the same time.

But is that really being in the moment? Isn’t being in the moment about being focused on one thing?
If you’re in a scene and you’re focused entirely on the space object glass you’re holding, you’re going to miss everything else that’s going on in the scene. There are a lot of things happening at any given moment. The key to being in the moment isn’t narrowing your consciousness; it’s expanding it to be aware of everything that’s happening all at once. You’re tracking the space-object glass your holding; you’re watching what everyone else is doing; you’re listening to everything that they’re saying; you’re letting your character react to what’s happening, you’re observing and perhaps altering that reaction to align it with improv best-practices and your own comfort levels and abilities; you’re tracking the story of the entire show and altering your reaction to align with the most impactful narrative; you’re also aware of the audience and how they’re reacting; you’re aware of the temperature in the theater and if it’s time for intermission or for the show to end. Everything.

Before you think to yourself “that’s impossible! I can’t track all that at once,” you’re wrong. Your brain is already tracking all of that completely against your will. Our brains track every single f*cking thing that happens to us all f*cking the time. It’s annoying. In fact, it will literally drive you insane if you’re aware of it all the time. That’s why we’re really good at NOT being aware of all those things at once. You just need to realize that you are tracking them, and let the different parts of your brain talk to each other in ways we don’t ordinarily let them.

Learn how to be aware of everything in a controlled way that you can turn on and off and not be overwhelmed by. If the mere thought of that is overwhelming, that’s probably good and normal. Realize that you don’t need to be aware of EVERYTHING. Just try to expand your consciousness to include a larger set of things than the one or two we typically focus on. I’m not saying that’s easy, but that’s the goal. And it’s a goal that improv can help you achieve.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2: Walls of Time

Notes after the show on Thursday.

I know I promised a blog about Tuesday's rehearsal, but honestly aside from a hysterically funny series of scenes about a jazz radio station, I don't really remember anything we did. I know we were working on large group scenes and playing to the whole house, but the rest has slipped out of my immediate consciousness.

At the show last night, I did remember something I learned the week before that I had meant to mention. I only have about 2-3 minutes of energy before the show to discuss how we want to arrange the set. After that, the whole exercise starts bringing me down and I have to disengage and leave it up to people who care. Set design is not done by committee for a reason.

Last night's show made people cry. It was called Walls of Time by Hal Gelb. It was subtle and emotional and funny and the restraints put on us by the playwright forced us to do a show we would never have improvised on our own. How so? The opening scene was Greg, a painter, on a train. He addresses the audience directly and explains that he was on his way to up state New York where an retired TV news executive wanted a portrait pained of himself and his trophy wife. I was cast as the TV executive. No one was cast as the trophy wife. The playwright did not intend for her to ever be a part of the story. In a regular improv show, we would have seen the trophy wife. Even in this show, had the playwright not specifically said she did not appear, we would have seen her. Yet her absence heightened the thematic elements of loneliness. Every main character was missing someone in different ways.

I also learned a lesson about intermission. I was backstage with a hit for the next scene, but when the scene ended it felt like intermission. Backstage, we all looked at each other wondering "was that intermission?". Then it felt like too much time had passed and we'd missed our chance. I grabbed Greg and played the scene I had a hit for. It was a fine scene, even a fun scene, but the notion that "we'd missed our chance" is a silly one of course. For one thing, a pause to a performer always feels significantly longer than a pause to the audience. They wouldn't have cared. For another, a slightly awkward delay in the intermission call is better than an unsatisfying end to the half after a tacked on scene. As a note-taker and lightician, I always get worked up when a show misses its intermission, but it's good to be reminded how easy that is to do from within a show.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2: Lines and Choices

Getting Back Aaron Saenz

We had a fun weekend of shows wherein I felt like I learned a few things about my process for the show that I thought I would share independently of my rehearsal recap (to follow).

In the show Thursday night (written by Aaron), I had a huge monologue to open the show. It was a memory play, so my character was to be something of a narrator throughout. I read it several times and could hear in my head exactly how I wanted it to sound. Then when I was on stage, my mouth started speaking and the sounds coming out weren't what I was hearing in my head. Two nights later, Aaron had a long monologue to open the show as the host of the TV show the play was about. Before the show, he was running his lines backstage. I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me to actually read my lines aloud once before the show, but that was a brilliant idea.
You Look Like Lola Diana DiCostanzo

After the show Saturday night, Diana asked me if we ran through the scene once before the show. We don't, but I would love to try it, either before a show or in rehearsal (as practice, not with a show script), just to see how it would effect the improv. With the right cast, it would be great, but everyone would have to be focused on making the scene good without thinking too much about where to go next.

It might be too late in this run to give it a try, but it does seem that the better we can make the reading look, the better the show is.
Myths of Whales Susan Snyder

Friday night's show was written by Un-Scripted's very own Susan. Her husband Cort came to the show, who was a member of Un-Scripted back in its fledgling days. We talked after the show and he remarked at how grounded all of the characters and performances where. It's something he noticed last year during this show, and I've noticed it as well. Clearly it has something to do with starting with a scripted scene. I've been think what exactly causes it and have some ideas.

Starting with a script isn't that different then starting without one. In both instances the improvisors are making character choices right off the bat. With the script, those choices might be more informed, but in most of our shows our character choices are informed by the genre, the format, or the suggestions. So we never really start from nothing. I think the difference is that in a regular show, improvisors are also making story choices. In this show, we're not. Here, for that entire first scene all we're doing is making character choices. I think that sets those characters deeper into our consciousness than they are normally.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2 Rehearsal 13: Objectives

Chistian, Stacy, and Greg eat Sam Wo noodles during Thursday night's show.
Aaron and Merrill in the background.

I was in the show last Saturday night. It was a dystopian tale about the end of nature. Here's the full show summary from this week's email:
In a dystopian future, Max (Scott) and Billy (Alan) steal a cloned Christmas tree from a lab--possibly the last tree on earth. Grown up without trees in a Wal-Mart world, young Billy wants to ransom it. But gruff ex-con Max wants to take it up north to Canada, where trees are rumored still to exist, and plant it. With a kidnapped lab security guard (Claire) in tow, they begin the long march north. Meanwhile, the scientist (Mandy) tries to keep the plant cloning project alive in the face of Big Business, even if it means invading what little nature remains.
Mandy wanted to keep rehearsal short on Tuesday, and to get up on our feet and do some scene work. We worked on scenes where the characters had conflicting objectives. This is something we get quite often from the playwright's first scene. The problem is, we can't spend two hours arguing about it, but in most cases we also can't resolve it or the play would end. This is a problem.

In order to keep such things from degenerating into a shouting match of "Yes you are!/No I'm not!", we discovered a few keys. For one thing, one character inevitably has more status and more control over the situation. The lower-status character needs to acknowledge that, otherwise it becomes to improvisors fighting like kids on a playground.
"I shot you!"
"I'm wearing a bullet-proof vest!"
"My bullets go through bullet-proof vests!"
"I'm indestructible!"
"I have indestructible piercing bullets"
The scene can't go anywhere unless the status/power imbalance is recognized and accepted. Still, that doesn't mean the higher-status person automatically gets their way.

The other key is to talk about how the situation makes you feel, not procedurally how you are going to get the other character to do what you want them to do. It's sort of a plot vs. character thing. As the audience, we don't really care how things happen. We care about how the things that happen change people.

Which brings us to another point that we worked on in some larger group scenes: decisions have to be made. Until someone decides something, no character can react to it. What's more, in most cases, they have to be allowed to do what they decide. Even if your character has the power to stop it, if you stop it, you're not letting the story move forward, because if it doesn't happen, we can't see how it changes the characters. This is pretty abstract stuff, and I don't know if I'm summarizing it properly. It was hard to grasp as we were working on it.

Example: One character says "I'm going to get you drunk." If the other character says "No." and refuses to drink, we're right back where we started. (Unless the first person is changed by the second saying 'No'.) But if the second person acts as though they are powerless to stop the first person and gets drunk in spite of their own protestations, the action moves forward.

So, it's a paradox. Sometimes in a show your character might have an objective that they cannot achieve because if they do the play will end. While at the same time, characters need to be continually achieving objectives in order for other characters to be changed.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2: Truth and Reconciliation with Sound!

I did sound for the show last night. I'll get to my experience doing that in a moment, but first I want to talk about the show. It was such a lovely show. I want to say "it felt more like a play to me than any improv show I've ever seen", but that would be doing the show an injustice. It really was great theater, improvised. It's what made it so theatrical that made it so compelling.

Let's begin with the great setup. Steve Koppman gave us a great scene entitled Scenes from the Files of the Wiebman Family Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It was about a woman in her 40s with a husband and a teen-aged daughter. Her 49 year-old perpetually unemployed brother lives with them. When the play starts, their octogenarian Jewish parents are visiting from New York for Thanksgiving dinner. It's a pretty classic family "comedy" set up. "Comedy" is in quotes because none of it is funny to the characters.

The first act took place entirely at the Thanksgiving dinner table. That was the first very theatrical element: it conformed to the classic unities. Mostly. Meaning, for the first act, we saw a 45 minute slice of these people's lives in real time in one location. To truly conform to the  unities, act two would have had to pick up exactly where act one left off. Time definitely passed for the characters between acts, and we now had both the living room and a bedroom on stage. But act 2 was another 30 minute slice of their lives with some characters in the living room and some in the bedroom having scenes simultaneously. All very theatrical and expertly performed.

Another element was the subtly and richness of the characters. At the beginning of the play the brother was the fuck-up and the sister was the responsible one. By the end that had slowly reversed without really changing. The brother changed and got his shit together, but the sister's issues were simply revealed. The daughter, who barely spoke in act 1, became a pivotal character in act 2 as the impetus for the brother's change and vehicle for exposing the sister's problems.

It was really a beautiful show. I spent the entire time watching wishing I was in it but also glad I wasn't because I knew I would have fucked it up.

As for sound, well, without scene changes, I didn't have to do much. Thanks to my new 4G LTE phone I was able to cover the opening scene setup with I Left My Heart in San Francisco off YouTube (the play was set in the Bay Area) and put every song on my iPod with "California" in the title in a playlist for intermission music. Of course, I still managed to mess up a little by taking the intermission music out too soon, but oh well. I'm not doing sound again.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2 Rehearsal 12: Logistics

This week's rehearsal focused mostly on logistics. We took some time to debrief from the first weekend of shows. This is particularly useful in an improv show such as this where not everyone is at every show, but each show has important takeaways for everyone.

We also walked through the space and made the arrangements of things more useful. Now that we've done some shows, we know where props should be and shouldn't be, where we want communal costumes vs individual show clothes to be stored, etc.

Then we did some scenes focused on varying pacing. Mandy likes to talk about "streaky bacon". It's a Dickens reference, but basically it means you can have scenes that are completely different in tone and pacing packed along side of one another, much like the contrasting colored streaks in bacon. If every scene has the same tone, pacing, or feeling, the audience is going to get bored.

We also worked on tension. Specifically we tried to dance around "important things", even if we didn't really know what they are, to maintain tension. It's like the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Adam and God are almost touching for all eternity. If they were touching, there'd be no dramatic tension in the picture. Instead, having them almost touch is dramatic. The same thing translates to scenes, but its a fine line between maintaining tension and bridging. In bridging, you're just killing time until Adam and God finally touch. When you're maintaining tension, you're deliberately staying inches apart.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Opening Night!

My character took this onstage during a party scene. 

Last night was opening night! We had a wonderful first scene for the play Loading... by New York playwright Taylor Shann who joined us via telephone for his interview. At the start of the play, Michael (Aaron) gets his dream job at a video game company. It was about the struggle between art and commerce and, as the playwright put it, "getting it right vs. getting it done." We also saw Michael's relationship with his non-gamer girlfriend Clara (Joy) deteriorate while a collaborative partnership blossomed between Michael and his co-worker Jo (Claire).

Someone noted after the show, that in the two dress rehearsals and the one show so far, all of the central male/female relationships remained ambiguous and unresolved at the end, which seems very much like a play and very unlike a lot of our improv shows. It's great to see us developing that skill and resisting the urge to tie up every loose end.

I played Ted, Michael and Jo's manager at the game company. With some costume advice from Bryce, who used to work in the industry, I looked quite the part in my Threadless t-shirt, open button-down shirt, khaki's and ID badge clip. I got a lot of complements on that.

I read the scene a few times before we started, and I'm very glad I did. It gave me an opportunity to zero in on a couple of key points in the script that coupled with the character description really defined who I was. I was able to make some informed character choices from the beginning and really be the character. Fortunately the playwright had given us a lot to work with. I knew who I was. I knew what purpose I served in the narrative. I could just settle in and do what needed to be done.

I was set up as sort of a comic relief character, which on the surface could be really daunting. When I first realized that before the show, I was a bit terrified. Then I remembered that I didn't need to be sitting there trying to come up with funny things I could do in the show. The character was already set up to be funny. All I had to do was just be that character, do and say the obvious things that character would do and say, and it would end up being funny. It reminded me of my early days as an improvisor when I would do as I was trained and say something obvious and the audience would laugh and I'd think to myself "why was that funny?" Only this time I was doing it on purpose.

I got a lot of good feedback on my character after the show, especially on how I carried it consistently through the scripted to the improvised parts. Making choices and sticking to them is the key. If you make a choice, it's your choice and you'll be more likely to follow through with it the entire show. Then you look like a genius for taking a choice that appears to have been imposed upon you by the playwright and sticking to it, when it was really your choice from the beginning. Of course, if it helps if it's an informed choice.

The other thing that I loved about show last night was how comfortable the entire cast seemed. I haven't really felt that so strongly since we did Theater the Musical. Maybe it's a function of the genre, or maybe it's because in this show we know our characters right away, but everyone seemed to know their role and to be comfortable in it. There wasn't a lot of fretting backstage about what should happen or fighting on stage for control. Everyone seemed calm and confident. It was great.

Aaron had some amazing monologues about gaming. Joy brilliantly turned his metaphors back around on him. Christian and Stacy played spot-on video game characters. Claire played a bad-ass gamer chick without becoming a stereotype. It was a lovely opening night. I can't wait for the rest of the run!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2 Rehearsal 11: First Dress

We had our first dress rehearsal last night! Playwright Annette Roman, who last year brought us After the What the...?! returned with a play called The End. We had a small invited audience of about 4 people along with cast members not in the show. I was in the show and greatly enjoyed it.

I learned a lot about letting go of expectations. As a little background, we have the option of reading the script for a given night's show when we arrive at the theater that night. Some people might read their character description but none of the dialogue before they get on stage. Some people might study the entire scene. It's a personal preference sort of thing.

I was assigned the role of "Deirdre's Father", who didn't have any lines in the first scene. I read the script for any clues about my character, and without even realizing I'd done it, I made a slew of assumptions about how the show would go. They weren't conscious plans or anything. They were more like expectations. They had to do with the structure of the show.

As I interpreted the playwright's instructions in the script, the show started with a scene in the "present". Then the rest of Act One would proceed backwards in time showing us how we got to this point. Then Act Two would pick up where the scene left off and move forward in time. But a few off-hand comments by other cast-members made me realize that other people had different interpretations. They thought we weren't supposed to return to the "present" until the final scene, or maybe they thought something else completely different. Fortunately Annette was there to clarify that she meant for the events to move backwards and then at some point return to the "present". Basically, it was up to us.

Ok, good. Now we're all on the same page. I had to let go the image I had unconsciously created in my head of how the show would go and adjust. Lesson learned.

Except I did it again. Again, without realizing I'd done it. I was playing Deirdre's Father. Stacy was playing Travis's Mother. (The play itself was about the complex relationship of Travis and Deirdre.) The first scene established that in the "present" Stacy and I were both dead. We could only show up once the action moved back to when we were alive.

Or so I thought. Because again, I had assumed the backwards action would happen linearly. The problem was, Travis's Mother is not only established as being dead, but as having died 15 to 20 years earlier. Moving linearly, we would never get to her, but obviously we needed her to be in the play or the playwright wouldn't have included her.

I was sitting backstage watching the show thinking "it's going to be a while before they need me," when Stacy said "I think one of us needs to go in soon." I had one of those moments where the world seems to tilt. What did she say? She explained the aforementioned conundrum and presented a simple solution: as the action moved backwards we would have to have flashbacks to even further back. Again, I had to let go and adjust.

It worked and added a lot of texture to the show. I was in two scenes, one in each half. Stacy was in a similar amount. I didn't realize it until later, but our scenes mirrored each other in an interesting way. In Stacy's first scene with Travis, she was dying of cancer. Her second scene took place shortly after her husband, Travis's father had died. My first scene with Deirdre was right after I left her mother. My second scene with Deirdre was as I was dying. Similar life events visited in reverse order.

I was in two short scenes, but it was still a very satisfying show to be in. That's the big difference between "regular improv shows" and plays. Stacy and I would never have been in so few scenes in a regular show, but playwrights write small parts. People come in for their scene, serve their purpose in the story, and then spend the rest of the show in the green room reading. As improvsors in this show, we need to be ready to play small parts. That's not always easy to do.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2 Schedule!

For those of you who have been wondering when you should come see Act 1 Scene 2, below is the complete playwright and performer schedule! Don't miss it, or me!


Playwright & Cast Schedule (subject to change):

Thursday, April 12: Taylor Shann
Cast: Aaron, Alan, Christian, Claire, Joy, Stacy

Friday, April 13: Ashley Cowan
Cast: Andy, Claire, Greg, Mandy, Scott

Saturday, April 14: Marisela Treviño Orta
Cast: Alan, Merrill, Scott, Stacy, Trish

Thursday, April 19: Steve Koppman
Cast: Andy, Christian, Claire, Gregg, Merrill, Stacy

Friday, April 20: Daniel Heath
Cast: Andy, Joy, Trish

Saturday, April 21: Jonathan Luskin
Cast: Alan, Claire, Mandy, Scott

Thursday, April 26: Aaron Saenz
Cast: Alan, Christian, Greg, Joy, Mandy, Scott

Friday, April 27: Susan Snyder
Cast: Aaron, Claire, Joy, Mandy, Stacy

Saturday, April 28: Diana DiCostanzo
Cast: Aaron, Alan, Christian, Mandy, Stacy, Trish

Thursday, May 3: Hal Gelb
Cast: Alan, Claire, Greg, Merrill, Scott

Friday, May 4: Daniel Will-Harris
Cast: Aaron, Alan, Andy, Claire, Joy, Stacy, Trish

Saturday, May 5: Jason Hensel
Cast: Aaron, Andy, Christian, Greg, Trish

Thursday, May 10: S.F. Alterman
Cast: Aaron, Merrill, Scott, Stacy

Friday, May 11: Marissa Skudlarek
Cast: Andy, Christian, Greg, Mandy, Merrill, Scott, Trish

Saturday, May 12: Neil Higgins
Cast: Aaron, Andy, Christian, Greg, Joy, Mandy, Merrill, Trish

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 7: First Halves

At rehearsal Tuesday we did two complete first halves, in an attempt to get deeper into the show. Mandy wrote the first one we did. It was a lighter comedy, sort of like Neil Simon, about a recently married couple going to dinner at her parent's house. The scene only had the couple in it, but the script was written such that many other characters were required in the second scene. Not only did those characters have full character descriptions supplied by Mandy, but most of them were talked about in the first scene. Mandy did all of this on purpose when she wrote it, because this sort of scenario was not unusual when we did the show last year.

I had many take-aways from being in it as one of the characters in the second scene. Reading the first scene, that I wasn't in, I came away with some idea of my character, but then to hear how they delivered those lines informed my character even more. I made a character choice, which may or may not have been the strongest one. I felt the whole time like I wasn't reacting enough to what was going on, which was a good reminder for me to have big reactions. 

The biggest take-away for me involved protagonists. In many of these plays, the protagonist will be defined for us in the first scene, in this case it was the couple. It's easy to forget that as the play develops. I could have made stronger choices to focus the play back on them and their experience. 

I'm also going to have to be cognizant of how "real" or "normal" to make my characters. Had I identified the couple as the protagonists in my mind before the show, I would have known that as a side character I could make my character bigger and less "real". Of course that's a delicate balance depending on the style established in the first scene. 

Then, for the second first half, we did another play of mine! Unlike last week's, this was the first few pages of a completed script that I had written. This made for a very different experience. In order for the first scene to make sense, I had to whisper some secrets to a few of the performers. I would encourage playwrights to do this when necessary. I had to pass on important character information that I didn't want the audience or the other characters to know. If I think of it, I may ask each playwright if there's anything they need to tell any of the characters in secret. Of course, I forgot to tell one character a secret very important for their character. As a result he had a tough time until he made a bold choice. A bold choice that might not have worked in the context of an entire show. 

On the other hand some completely surprising things happened that I hadn't thought of, but as soon as I saw them I thought "of course!" Of course things would happen that way based on how I've set things up. Something to consider if I ever give that play some rewrites.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 6: My Play!

We're supposed to have two rehearsals this week, so hopefully I'll get my act together to write about them both individually right after they happen. In the meantime, here's my recap of last week's rehearsal:

We started out by revisiting some exercises the cast apparently worked on the week before while I was in Houston. This involved some time spent hugging and kissing everyone in various different ways. Kissing practice can be very important in improv as you never know when you might have to kiss any given cast member, male of female. But there's more to it then kissing. There's also a general comfort level with touching that needs to be achieved. We worked on various movement exercises designed to work on that.

We also worked on picking each other up, who can pick up whom, etc. If the person being picked up knows what they're doing and helps, the holder can hold well more weight then you would imagine. Of course it helps if the holder knows how to stand and what not too.

Then we moved into a reading exercise. We split up in to groups and Mandy passed out scenes from actual plays for us to cold read aloud. During the actual show, the script for that night's performance will be available to us when we arrive at the theater. It's up to each of us individually to decide how much, if at all, we read it before curtain. This was an exercise however in reading it completely cold.

Afterwards people who did the show last year shared how they did it last year. Preferences were discussed. Questions were posed as to how much discussion can/should happen before the show. There are no hard and fast "rules". It really is up to personal preference and the needs of the show at hand.

The advice that I found most useful came from Greg and Christian. To them, the most important thing was to make a strong character choice without worrying about whether or not it was wrong or right. Making the choice is the important thing. You can always tweak it as the show progresses, but if you start vanilla, you'll be vanilla that whole time.

After that we continued working with the scripts we wrote ourselves. We started with a family drama that Scott had written. I was in this one, and learned that no matter how few lines I have, I can't skim the stage directions. I have a bad habit of ignoring stage directions that springs from the fact that in most published plays, the stage directions are not written by the playwright, but taken from the stage manager's notes for the original production. Which is actually problematic as now directors are claiming ownership of such things, but that's another tangent.

Then we did a scene that I wrote and submitted to the show under a fake name. Sadly it was not accepted, so we did it in rehearsal. It was a straight up fantasy with wizards and elves and Amelia Earhart and Spartacus. You know, pretty straightforward. I've written plays before and seen them produced and am familiar with the gut-wrenching exhilaration of hearing actors perform my words. Cringing at my own bad writing felt like a warm hug from an old friend. Still, many of the lines played the way I wanted them too and I was thrilled to see where the actors took it once the scripts went down. They did fall into the "repeat scene 1 in scene 2" trap, but Christian pointed out an easy way they could have changed that. It was unexpected and fun.

I learned a few things from it. As a playwright, you have no idea what detail someone is going to latch onto as important. It may have been inconsequential to you, but because the actors only have these few pages and your interview to go on, it becomes pivotal to them and their character. That, I think, is what makes this process fun for a playwright. For one thing, it takes the play in directions you wouldn't have gone yourself. For another, it teaches you to be very clear about what you want.

Everyone seemed to really enjoy by piece, which was great. People even said "if this got rejected, the rest of them must be great!"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 4: Anecdotally...

I'm behind! The show has had two rehearsals since I last posted, but I've only been to one of them. I had to go to Houston last week at the last minute for work.

The problem is of course that two weeks after a rehearsal it's largely impossible to remember in great detail what we did. I do remember a couple of specifics. We broke into pairs and worked on telling anecdotes. People tell anecdotes in plays all the time, and half the time you have no idea what they have to do with anything until later in the play. This can be difficult to improvise because we're trained not to go off on random tangents and tell stories in the middle of a show, but it's something to learn.

Part of our homework for the week was to write first scenes of plays ourselves. Then for the second half of rehearsal we took two of these and started them. We did the cold reading and then improvised the next two or three scenes. I really don't remember if it was two or three. The first one we did, the one I was in, was Merrill's. It had a very Waiting for Godot feel to it.

My character wasn't in the first scene but was required by the script. That's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I didn't have the problem of having to keep up with the script while reading the scene and then being thrust into improvising it. I could just watch it like a normal scene and figure out where/how I would fit. On the other hand, I didn't have much to go on for my character. I had a vague notion of what was expected of him and had to kind of wing it. Now, you might say "that's what you always do in an improv show". The difference is that in this context I had a playwright sitting out there in the audience I was trying to intuit. That makes it difficult.

Then I watched as we did Claire's. Hers had a similar absurdist style to it.

I'm back at rehearsal tonight, with more to report soon.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 3: Monologues and Swimming

We were back at it again on Tuesday night. We started out working on monologues. Typically the idea of improvising a monologue onstage scares me. I'm not sure way, exactly. We started out by working in pairs. We'd start by improvising a scene together and then gradually one person's dialogue would turn into a monologue, while the other person interjected from time to time. This made me a little more comfortable with the idea of improvising a monologue, but it was almost more informative to be the other person in this exercise. the non-monologuer isn't just their to nod their head and smile. They can use their interjections to focus the monologuer and keep them back on point. I'd like to work some more on developing that skill. When I did a monologue after having been the non-monologuer, I really noticed when the non-monologuer's comments helped me and didn't help me. I felt like we really just scratched the surface of that one.

Then we moved on to a similar but slightly different exercise, and this one we didn't do in pairs, but on stage with everyone watching. One person would do a scene-based monologue as before, only this time the non-monologuer was reading all of their lines from a play. It was essentially the game playbook only with a shifted emphasis. Playbook is a justification game, where the people without scripts have to justify what the person with a script is saying (without making them look insane). For this exercise, the playbook person was instructed to fill the same non-monologuer helper role by picking out dialogue that could help the monologuer.

I went first as the monologuer with Claire as the playbooker. I had a hard time with it. The scene just wasn't going anywhere, largely because my character kept fixing things. Everything was ok! There was no need for confrontation. My character was good and upstanding. As soon as I allowed my character to be unsympathetic (to me if not to the audience), things started to click. Ding! Realization: I have a hard time playing characters I don't like or who make decisions I disagree with. That's good to know. In the end though, I found the hook of the monologue. Once I did, it flowed easily and was awesome!

Then Christian and Scott did a completely different scene, and we discovered watching it that one-sided dialogue is different than a monologue. What are the difference? We didn't get too into defining them, but they were obvious in a "you know it when you see it" sort of way. I spent some time thinking about it, and the best thing I could come up with is that in a monologue a character is trying to explain an emotion to another character (or the audience). Where as one-sided dialogue might just be trying to convince them to do something.

We finished rehearsal by actually doing a cold reading of the first scene of a play and then improvising the next two. We went in two groups. I was in the first one which started with the first scene of Machinal by Sophie Treadwell, a play I am not familiar with. It's expressionist, so the dialogue was not naturalistic by any means. I discovered a few things. First, I can't do these readings completely cold. Every night, we will have access to that night's script probably when we arrive for warm-ups. I'll need to look at it. Doing it cold, I made no character choices and had no idea what was going on. Then when we put the scripts down, I felt like I was holding on to the edge of a pool trying not to get sucked down a drain.

We had a "problem" doing this show last year where the second scene (the first improvised one) was often essentially a repeat of the first. As an audience member I found this maddening. I wanted the play to start already. Move the action forward, etc. Now I see why it happens. As soon as you put the script down you want to make sure you've got the dialogue and the pacing down. You want to tread water a little to make sure you can float before you try to swim to the other side of the pool. I think the challenge (that I will challenge myself to if nothing else) will be to settle myself into the play while still moving things forward.

The second group did the first scene from All My Sons by Arthur Miller. I didn't know that's what they were doing, but about halfway through I thought "this has got to be Arthur Miller". I looked. It was, and I thought "Ah, this all makes sense now." He has such a unique pacing to his plays. So little and so much is happening all at the same time. That's more a musing on Miller, but also illuminates how important the pre-show playwright interview is. Without knowing their pacing, we can't possibly do this in their style.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 2: Dialogue

We're doing Act 1 Scene 2 again and this time I'll be performing in it! Last year I was the Literary Manager for it. That was a lot of fun, but I could see that being in the show was a lot of fun too. With a little creative scheduling, I was able to make myself available for enough rehearsals to make being in the show possible. Of course that meant missing the first rehearsal for the show last week. Last night I attended the second rehearsal and my first rehearsal that I wasn't also directing in over a year. Wow! It was a good break, but I'm glad to be back.

So what did we work on last night? Well, maybe I should remind you what the show is. For Act 1 Scene 2, we accepted submissions from playwrights... Wait, what? Un-Scripted accepted submissions from playwrights? Yes, you read that correctly. We have playwrights write the first scene of a full length play. We perform a cold reading of it on stage, put the scripts down, and improvise the rest. We have a different playwright and play every night, and we interview the playwright on stage before the show so that we can improvise it in their style, as if they had written the entire thing.

So, what did we work on last night? Dialogue. People talk in different ways. Characters in plays talk differently then characters in most improv shows. We first encountered this way back when we did Theater: The Musical, so we have some experience tackling it. Improvisors are trained to "yes-and", which is a very good thing to do. Unfortunately we often take it entirely too literally. For instance, two characters in a scene might both be avoiding a subject. They might avoid it by carrying on parallel conversations where each is talking about something else and appearing not to be listening to what the other is saying. This is very realistic as we do this all the time in our regular lives. This is very contrary to improv training. We're supposed to listen. We're supposed  to build on the other person's offers! The important thing to remember here is that there is a difference between your character and you the improvisor. You can be listening while your character isn't. Having your character ignore what the other person is saying might be yes-anding their offer, depending in the context.

We worked on arguing. Not yelling at each other, mind you, but pressing a point while evading the other person's point. We explored the different tactics you can use, such as having a parallel conversation, or not talking at all, or refocusing the conversation back on the other person. We also worked on "gossiping". In improv "gossiping" is talking about somewhat who is not onstage. As a beginning improvisor, we're taught not to do this because it pulls you away from the characters who are onstage at the moment. And, in your average improv show when you talk about someone who's not onstage, you're likely to see that person in the next scene or in this one if they enter it. That's not true in plays. Plays often have characters discussing characters who never show up. Waiting for Godot is the classic example, but not the only one. How do they get away with it? Simple: talking about the other person is how you're exploring the relationship between the two characters onstage.

After working on all of that in groups of two for a while, we moved on to improvising some first scenes. Wait, what? All of our first scenes will be scripted, why improvise them? Good question. The point of the exercise wasn't to improvise great first scenes of plays, but to begin working on script analysis. We improvised a first scene and then analyzed what we had to work with. If that had been our scripted first scene, what were the grains of sand that would become pearls later on. What is this play about.

After doing one of those, I had to leave. In my scheduling finagling, I had miscalculated a key piece of logistics for last night's rehearsal that required me to be in two places at once. Alas, rehearsal lost that battle. But I will be back! Next week, and I can't wait.