Taking Risks Together

The BRIO Ensemble (L to R): Ese Atawo, Jeff Gladstone, Meredith Hama-Brown, Travis Bernhardt, Josephine Hendrick, Tom Hill, Amy Shostak

The first phase of our process, Briocame to a close in February. The seven core ensemble members met to reflect, and talk about the future of our ensemble. We watched the video of our workshop performance, and chatted about the public workshop we’d offered.

The workshop performance had a very keen audience of 30 people at The Dusty Flowershop. Our show was made up of several “experiments”; short segments of ideas we wanted to test in front of an audience. Some of the experiments we had workshopped briefly, others we had not tried at all. Before the show, there were definitely some nerves amongst the cast members. We were joined by lighting and sound improvisors, who we had not worked much within the process up until then. We were also trying to figure out a running order, and keep the show somewhat organized. We agreed to approach the evening with a sense of openness and to accept that some scenes would work better than others.

In our debrief, we all agreed, having an audience present while we tried some concepts out was invaluable. Our process to this point had been several long workshops, some with outside instructors. While we discovered some clear trajectories in terms of things to try during workshopping, we gained so much from having the energy and feedback of the audience in the room. Following the workshop performance, we had a definite feeling of which structures were the best to explore further.

On February 7th, we held a public workshop open to all theatre artists. The group that assembled was very interesting; we had some greener improvisors, more veteran ones, some actors, a director of opera, and a sketch comedian. We had framed this workshop as part-salon, and part-on-your-feet-experiment, and all of the participants brought such curiosity and interest to our time together. We explored several exercises we had learned from one another during the rehearsal process, tried out some experimental assignments, and ended in a discussion about the boundaries of improvisation. The feedback we received on the workshop was extremely positive, and inspiring for me as the organizer.

Our debrief ended in a chat about what’s to come for the Brio ensemble. We agreed that we’d love to work again with Aaron Read (who joined us on sound, using violin, microphones recording the audience, and looping to create amazing textured soundscapes for our scenes) and Megan Lai (who boldly used the simple lights in the space to create saturated looks and stark lighting). We talked about two areas of discovery we’d like to pursue more; the potential effect and relationship between Abstraction & Realism, and the concepts of Subjectivity & Point of View. A lot of our favourite discoveries involved using the space, moving our bodies, physical intimacy, and answering the question “How can we give audiences an even more subjective experience?”. The hope is to launch the second process for Brio in September 2018, culminating in a run of performances in Vancouver.

If you missed our workshop show, and are curious, here are a couple clips. The first is from our series exploring group movement, and this one explores abstract movement + realistic dialogue.

The big takeaway from our Brio debrief: we all agreed we had taken risks. Some failed, some succeeded, but that is the nature of a risk after all.

The BRIO Ensemble (L to R): Tom Hill, Meredith Hama-Brown, Amy Shostak, Travis Bernhardt, Josephine Hendrick, Ese Atawo, Jeff Gladstone.

 

Process Over Product

Sometime last spring, I was wondering about the limitations of theatrical improvisation. I was dreaming about an improv project not bound by time or resources, and not pressured by an immediate audience. I was thinking about how improvisors, with more time, could explore concepts in greater depth, and how with some resources, I could make it practical for an ensemble to prioritize improvising over other things. I was fantasizing about how nice it would be to show up to a rehearsal and really work. I was craving something meaningful, something risky, something a bit impossible. I wanted to experience an open, enduring development process.

Improvisation itself is a process; it is a dialogue between performers and audience. In recent years, I think pressure has been growing on improv organizations to produce more of a polished product, with a guarantee of success. Thus, more and more improv shows appear semi-scripted, and the true essence of spontaneity is diminished. I was thinking about how to counter-act this trend by creating new highly-spontaneous forms in improvisation, and not rushing them to production in front of an audience. I began writing grants, and selecting collaborators.

In the late summer, I received news that my grant to pursue a research and development project called Brio had been approved by The BC Arts Council. While I did not receive funding from Canada Council, apparently my application created a bit of a stir in the jury as to what constitutes theatre, so while more funding would have been nice, I think we can still call that a win. One stipulation of the grant is because it is research focused (rather than production focused) the project cannot make revenue through ticket sales. Without national funding, our plan for a full year process was reduced to 6-months.

Trying out “Monkey Trees” with Meredith Kalaman.

‘Brio’ is defined as the vigour of performance, and over the past four months, I have been working with an ensemble of artists who bring so much vigour and curiosity to their work, it is a pleasure to experience. The Brio ensemble is made up of: Ese Atawo, Travis Bernhardt, Jeff Gladstone, Meredith Hama-Brown, Josephine Hendrick, Tom Hill, and myself. Our project wouldn’t be possible without the support of Chris Ross, and the magical space that is The Dusty Flowershop. We kicked off our process in September by brainstorming what we never see on improv stages, and what we think might be impossible to see. Then we began sharing our own skills within the ensemble through self-led workshops on clown, gender studies, being ourselves on stage, filmmaking, and audience disruptions. We also had the absolute pleasure of having multidisciplinary instructors come in to work with us. Mike Kennard from the clown duo Mump & Smoot worked with us on emotional access, and Meredith Kalaman, an amazing contemporary dancer, lead us through balancing, contact improv and physical connectedness.

Our next phase in this process is continuing to explore and experiment, all the way up to a very casual workshop performance in late January. This performance will be an opportunity to try out some of our theories, concepts, and questions in front of an audience. I can honestly say this process has made me realize how obsessed I am with product. Even though I am pretty comfortable “failing happily”, I certainly like to have a sense of what a show will be like. Is it short or longform? What are the edits? How do we get from point A to point B?

When we finally hit the stage in January, with people in the seats, my goal is to deeply trust my fellow performers. I want to give in to truly not knowing, and trust that all the work we have done in rehearsal will be evident in the show. I dream of a time when improv is not only seen as a comedic medium, but as an art form with no limits on its content. I believe that improv can be funny, but it can also be gut wrenching, truthful, and beautiful.

The Brio ensemble “surfing”.

Stay tuned for more Brio news! In the New Year we’ll have a workshop performance, and we will be offering an open public workshop to share with fellow actors and improvisors, what we learned in our process. And after that? Who knows? More to come, but for now, back to the rehearsal space!

Matching Outfits: The Secret to Improv

Photograph by Chelsea Petrakis. http://www.chelseapetrakis.com/

My mom asked me the other day, “What happened to your blog?”. This confirmed two things:

  1. I haven’t written in far too long. Apologies to you, Dear Reader! It has been a busy summer for this li’l improvisor, and if I am being completely honest, a challenging one. The great news is though, as the autumn leaves fall, I’m back baby!
  2. My MOM reads my blog. Which is pretty much the best thing that has ever happened to me. If my mom wants to read my intellectual ramblings, then heck, I should write them down.

So, here goes!

It just so happened that in July, I was at a festival with a high concentration of fierce, brilliant women improvisors. We’re talking crème-de-la-crème here. And it JUST so happened, at that same festival, one of the headlining acts was detained, and couldn’t make it. And so, a time slot needed to be filled. And it just so happened, the festival directors asked six of these fierce, brilliant women I mentioned before to perform.

It’s rare, an opportunity like this, and it’s pretty much my favourite way to improvise. Find a relatively high-stakes scenario (like performing on the sold-out final night of a festival). Put together a random assemblage of performers who you admire. Decide right before the show what you will attempt to do. Do a couple circle warm ups. There’s not much more you can do to be ready. You don’t have time to worry, days leading up to your show. You don’t have the woulda-shoulda-couldas post-show.

The best part? Improv actually feels spontaneous.

Our show was electric. From the first second we were on stage I felt like I was glowing from the inside out. How could I not be? I was on stage with one of my oldest friends, and the brightest talent, Kirsten Rasmussen. Next to me was one of my creative besties, the ever-rad Ember Konopaki. Then there was Leigh Cameron, who I performed with in a VIIF ensemble, who is brilliant with characters, and a gorgeous weirdo. Oh, and as if that wasn’t mirth enough, Kristen Schier was there too! She’s an absolute beacon of positivity and inspiration. And Laura Doorneweerd from Amsterdam, who has a great mind for form, and a beautiful patience when performing. Basically, you took a bunch of my heroes and put them on stage together. We were also joined by a musician who I had just met, named Kyle, who was also pretty damn special. Oh, and did I mention, we all wore matching outfits and it looked FUCKING GREAT?!

Witches melting. Photograph by Chelsea Petrakis http://www.chelseapetrakis.com/

We had planned to do a form that Kirsten had pitched: alternating matching scenes (where improvisors join the energy of the other characters on stage) with an increasing number of improvisors (first 2, then 3, then 4, 5, 6), with more grounded two-person scenes. By the third beat of the show, which was a very funny group game about basketball players who are constantly losing the ball, we all had jumped in, and the format was OUT THE WINDOW. We were flying beat to beat, completely flowing in agreement, soaking up the whole stage, throwing in a song in the middle of a group game, making some amazing callbacks, and ending on a bookend to the beginning of the show.

When it was all over, I was shocked. The audience also seemed shocked. They stood up for an ovation. I was awash in the whole mystical experience.

How could we have done such a cohesive show? Some of the women hardly knew one another. We didn’t rehearse. We randomly asked for a musician, having no idea how we would use him. And between you and me, our outfits could have matched more… HOW WAS THIS SHOW EVEN POSSIBLE?

We had no idea what would happen. They audience understood that too. And that excitement, when combined with the power of our training, our belief in one another, our commitment to good work, and our trust in the moment gave us an amazing show.  That’s the magic of true spontaneity.

Surfing the Chaord

“Last Wish”: Dave ‘climbing a rope made up his clothes’. Photograph by Patty Varasano. http://www.varasano.de/

This post is derived from a talk I was invited to give at Nerd Nite Vancouver on January 25, 2017. 

Improv as we know (that is, improv for improv’s sake) it is a relatively new art form. When theatrical improvisation started gaining popularity in the 1960s, it was a rather radical concept. The founding voices of modern improvisation are, to me, voices of rebellion, mischief, and innovation. Keith Johnstone (inventor of Theatresports, and Maestro) talks about his experiences watching professional wrestling, and longing to bring the wild energy of those performances back to traditional theatre spaces. Del Close (founder of Improv Olympic, father of long form improvisation) is quoted as saying, “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” Viola Spolin invented Theater Games that allowed people from different cultural backgrounds to express themselves freely, with little theatrical training. To me, all these voices call for more expression, more vulnerability, more curiosity, and more chaos.

Me and Nerd Nite Vancouver. Photograph by Lindsey Elliot. http://lindsaysdiet.com/home

Improvisation is inherently risky because it puts process in front of an audience, rather than a polished, rehearsed product. A scene might fall flat, an actor might freeze, the audience might be uncomfortable. Things seldom go as planned. But herein also lies the joy of improvisation; the moments of true surprise, the triumphs of unlocking a group’s impulses, and the catharsis that occurs when a whole room feels something together.

Over time though, as improv has gained popularity, it has moved further away from being process on stage. As audiences more commonly understand the concept of improvisation (thanks to media like Who’s Line is it Anyway?, and Don’t Think Twice), and as a growing number of actors perform improv, we have are constantly carving out and defining what a improv is. We have expectations about what an improv show is or should be. We practise how to successfully play games, how to teach edits, and how to use common language about improv. Most shows start with a host coming out, asking for three audience suggestions as a warm up, and then bringing out the improvisors. Many word-at-a-time stories end with “The moral of the story is…”. Many open scenes start with a person opening a cupboard and pouring a cup of water. I understand why we teach students how to succeed, but I also wonder if we should be teaching students to experiment more. If an improv show can be anything, than why does a lot of improv around the world look more or less the same?

In one of my courses at Simon Fraser University (Dialogue 701: The Practice of Engagement), we recently talked about the concept of the chaordic space.

Image source: Chaordic Commons http://www.chaordic.org/

‘Chaordic space’ is a term coined by Dee Hock; the founder and former CEO of VISA. The term identifies the intentional blending of qualities of both chaos and order in an organizational process.  In the context of my course, we were talking about how to find the chaordic space build a safe place for generative dialogue; when you are preparing to bring people together, you want to have some structure, but leave space for the unexpected without predetermined outcomes.

I think there is a clear application to improvisation here. When we step on stage to do a show, what are the expectations we put on ourselves as performers, and our audiences? Do we have predetermined outcomes? Do we have an inkling about how the show will likely feel? Order has its place, but if there is too much order in improv, shows can read as safe, boring, fearful, and controlled.

On the other hand, total chaos is… well, chaos. Ideas don’t connect, no patterns are found. It’s hard to tell a story. The reason we play set structures in improvisation is the create a container with which to improvise in. We often get suggestions from the audience to narrow our focus, to provide inspiration. Without any structure, the openness can be stifling.

To work in the chaordic space is a balancing act – it is where the unexpected happens, where the audience is as surprised as the performers. I think in the chaordic space lives improvisation at its best.

So, how can we build improv shows that challenge what is expected of improv? How can we create organizational culture that supports the inherent uncertainty of true risk taking? How can we push ourselves to be less comfortable, and more curious?

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of taking part in a show called Last Wish, directed by the amazing Maja Dekleva Lapajne. I think her theatre company, Kolektiv Narobov from Ljubljana, Slovenia, is one of the most interesting improv companies on the planet, and they are consistently doing challenging work. In thinking about the chaordic space, to me, Last Wish exemplifies a show that existed in teetering space between success and failure, organization and radical freedom.

“Last Wish”: a scene where Daniel is now a chair. Photograph by Patty Varasano. http://www.varasano.de/

The concept of the piece was simple: one microphone in a spotlight, where any of the performers could step up and share what they wished for the show. It could be a wish for a particular improv scene, or a wish for the audience, for fellow actors, or the space. In workshop, Maja helped us establish trust in our ensemble, she fed our curiosity, and trained us to be patient with our choices. The result of her excellent direction was a surprising, chaotic, and wonderful improvised show.

We didn’t take a suggestion, we just agreed to let themes emerge in the first few beats. We did scenes in the dark. We had a conga line. We did scenes in heaven. We endowed audience members as people in our lives we needed to apologize to, and apologized to them. We told a great escape story. We had silent scenes underscored by music. We climbed on each other. We made inside jokes. We cried. We looked behind the curtains. We had a dance party with the audience. Some of it was pretty bad. Some of it was the best improv I have ever done. Some people in the audience thought it was indulgent and hated it. Some others loved it. I think some people were bored. Looking back, it was one of the best creative experiences of my life.

By creating a simple container for the improvised content, we were able to take risks, while trusting we could change the trajectory of the show at any time. Our director urged us to let go of what we thought the show should be, and just let it happen. While on stage, I felt the clear pull of expectations on the show, and felt my fellow ensemble members push to abandon them. Once we got past that, it truly felt like anything could happen. When I came off stage, it felt like I had been caught up in a whimsical wave of impulse.

I want to feel this on stage more often.