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 TreviƱo 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