Archive for the ‘improv teaching’ Category

‘make an object, say a line’

August 19, 2007

Last week I had the pleasure of tutoring some High School Theatre Sports teams.

I never know quite what I’m going to teach but I always prepare a list of exercises that I think might be useful that I can glance at when I’m stuck.

My stand out performer this week was definitely ‘make an object, say a line‘.

Make an object, Say a line

How it works: Standard open scene, but players can’t speak unless they have created an object through mime (one object earns you one line).

What it does: mime skills, less talking, less worrying about story, less talking about what you are doing*.

Origin: unknown.

*Players will hopefully work out that if they mime a cup and say ‘I just got a cup’ then they have put themselves back to square one (needing to mime a new object).


Unscripted Learning

August 18, 2007

This is the first time Amazon’s recommendation system has turned up something interesting.

Unscripted Learning: Using Improv Activities Across the K-8 Curriculum

Using improv to teach other things is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. So I may have to look into this one.

I found the chapter on improvising maths here (PDF).

A tragedy in slow motion.

August 13, 2007

I was judging a theatre sports competition last week.

(Talking to one of the teams before hand;)

Me: What games are you guys thinking of playing.

Them: We were thinking about slo-mo commentary.

Me: Are you-

Them: Oh we’re not going to do that ‘two people fighting*’ thing.  We know everyone always does that.

Me: Oh great.  Awesome!

We then have a chat about the kind of stuff I talked about here, about how you can get caught up trying to recreate past magic, and how it never works.

Well, I probably don’t have to tell you how this story ends**.  About 40 seconds into the scene, the players get nervous and immediately start fighting.  My heart broke a little.

I have the same problem sometimes.  I can talk a good a good game about doing the best kind of improv (whatever that may be), but when I’m on stage and the audience isn’t laughing… there’s a good chance I’m going to reach into the big bag o’ shtick.

* the slo-mo sport-fight is one of Whose Line’s many gifts to the world of improv.

**in fact Jeff predicted exactly what would happen, despite my assurances that ‘no no, these guys get it.’

Full KJ interview

August 7, 2007

Following on from this post.

Here is the full interview.

There’s some wonderful stuff in there.

KJ: …I think the fear has to be gotten rid of. In a Swedish theatre an old actor said to me – Sweden’s got lots of money for theatre and they have all kinds of foreign directors come in and teach them things – he said, “You’re the first person in my career in the Swedish theatre who ever mentioned fear.” It’s just taboo. People are not supposed to be afraid. And they’re petrified. I’m amazed that I was the only person he’d ever met who mentioned it. He said, “And I’m very happy now because I knew I was afraid but I thought the others weren’t. Now you’ve arrived here and I know they’re all just as scared as I am.”

GM: And it’s okay?
KJ: It’s ridiculous. If you’re an office worker or a a wood cutter or something and you were scared going to work every day, and you had to have a drink before you started work, which is quite common. Actors are at the very top of lists of alcoholics, you know? Travelling salesmen and actors are always at the top. And it’s partly because of the terror and partly because they’re adrift in foreign cities quite often and there’s always a pub next to the theatre. So what do you do during the day? It’s a great temptation.

GM: How do you get rid of the fear, other than drinking? Or do you just embrace it?
KJ: Well, you admit it, first of all. That’s a help. You’re negative to protect yourself, really. People try to force against the negativity and say yes to everything, but they should do it by getting rid of the fear and then it wouldn’t matter. People put rules in. There are so many rules, like you mustn’t ask a question. That’s a rule that’s being propagated. Some teacher had a student who obviously would ask questions and hardly contribute anything. In which case, for that student, you should stop them asking questions. But if somebody asks a question you should say, “Did you ask that question because you were afraid?”, in which case they shouldn’t have asked it. Or you could say, “Why did you do that?” and they could say, “It’d be fun for my partner”, in which case, yes, you should do it. So the imposition of rules is ridiculous. It’s a question of what you’re trying to do at the time. Did you kill the idea because you’re a coward or did you kill it because it’s more fun? If it’s more fun, kill the idea.

On Time Jump, and getting too good.

July 12, 2007

I remember when I first started improvising at the Canterbury Uni’.  We were all pretty much making it up as we went along (oh yes, I see), with me trying to direct while simultaneously teaching myself to improvise out of Impro for Storytellers.

I’ll never forget playing Time Jump for the first time.  A scene that started with a blind date and then flew headlong through an unwanted pregnancy, a shotgun wedding, back to an embarrassing school dance moment, then forward to a funeral and beyond.  It was the best scene we’d ever done.  Time Jump instantly because my favourite game.  Every time we played it: gold.  It was the only game I wanted to play.

Then suddenly, the magic evaporated.  The scenes just stopped working, and the more we tried to make them work the worse they got.  It was like, as KJ puts is, slamming a revolving door.

Eventually we just stopped playing it.  Which is a shame, because I think it’s a lovely game.

It’s obvious to me now what was happening.  We’d worked out ‘how to play it’, and we spent too much time going for the gold and not enough time on things like character and story.   It started innocently enough with the observation that, after a jump forward, you should either radically change the stage picture (suddenly one character is naked and the other is on fire) or keep it exactly the same (six months later and they’re still waiting for the bus ho-ho).  Then we realized that it was always funny if you jumped back to see the same characters back in High School.  Pretty soon we knew completely how to play Time Jump, and we were completely unable to do it.

With game based improv there’s always a risk of getting too good at the game, at which point the game starts playing you*.

So the challenge is, how do you stop thinking about how to make the game work and just play?  (and thus making the game work).   Just keep playing new games?

*this may not make sense, but it sounds good.

Return of the Killer Dolphins

July 6, 2007


I was reading about military trained killer dolphins (what do you do for fun?), and I can across this article about clicker training.  The description is exactly the same as the previously described Dolphin Training game.

Speaking of which, at the Shawn Kinley workshop, I learnt a variation; instead of saying ‘ding!’ the trainer just looks bored or interested.  It worked surprisingly well, but it does further complicate the question of whether this game teaches us bad or good habits.

I guess it’s better to be conditioned by signals of attention, than laughter.  BUT on stage, under lights, it’s difficult to see the audience, but easy to hear them.  So it’s easy to get trained by laughter into stupidities.

Workshop Format

July 4, 2007

(Since I’m at school, and thus can’t work on my comic)

I  was talking with my good friend Jeff Clark about ways to run workshops without the need for a strong coach figure.  Here’s one of our ideas.  Jeff (in typical form) has entitled it ‘Nicetro’.

1.  All players announce what skill they would like to work on tonight (strong characters, accepting offers, narrative, starting scenes, etc) .  That is their workshop focus.

2.  Players are randomly called up to play a scene (kinda like Micetro).

2. (alternate) One player is called randomly.  They pick a game, other players jump up if it’s a game that works for their focus.

3. Scene.

4.  We ask each player ‘did you (do what you set out to do)?’

5.  repeat from step 2.

Fire Drill

June 19, 2007

Here’s a nice little experiment;  (learnt from Ari Voukydis)

Instructor calls out two people to do a one minute scene.

As soon as they are finished call out two more people until everyone has performed.

Repeat except for a 30 second scene, then 15, then 7, 5, 3.

Note: different scenes each time, this is not like half life.

Then ask everyone two questions.

-As a performer, which scene length did you enjoy the most?

-As an audience member, which scene length did you enjoy the most?

Discussion below fold…


Cat in a Toaster

June 11, 2007

[Sorry, closest I could get (source) ]

I can’t find any reference to this one (not even in German). But I suspect this is also attributable to Joel Dale (ed: apparently not).

Here’s the scene;

It’s Christmas Day and the player is a child who has just received two gifts; a cat and a toaster. The player doesn’t know what to do next, so he/she puts the cat in the toaster.

This is not as common as Atomic Spaghetti, but like that, once you have the concept in mind it’s very easy to spot it when it happens.

And what is happening? The player is thinking ‘connections good!’ which is true, connections are lovely. But not just any old connection, logical connections are good (it doesn’t even have to be real logic, it can be your own special brand of logic).

Not to say that putting the Cat in the Toaster is a bad move, it’s miles better than doing nothing, but it needs some emotional weight behind it. It can’t just be because ‘connections good.’

Atomic Spaghetti

June 7, 2007

That last post reminded me of a great piece of improv terminology I once heard*.


Atomic Spaghetti

Imagine a scene that starts off with a guy eating spaghetti. The players seize on this idea: spaghetti! The spaghetti becomes more and more important until by the end of the scene… BOOM!   Atomic Spaghetti.

What we see is a kind of over-aggresive yesanding right from the top of the scene, which sounds great (it’s amazingly efficient to make a whole scene from one offer), but it’s like trying to make a human pyramid with only one person on the bottom layer.

You need to take some time to set the scene.  Eating spaghetti? Ok.  Are we in a restaurant? Is this a romantic dinner? A mob gathering? A romantic mob gathering?

Anyway, it’s a common problem with high schoolers, so it’s a great term to have (or better yet to coin a new term based on the first scene where the problem occurs)