The Thinking Steps

Rå Power at Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza 2018. Photograph by Tamara Taylor.

Have you ever noticed that most improvised scenes start with an improvisor moving three steps down stage centre?

The audience yells a suggestion, or an edit happens, and the improvisor moves, as themselves, downstage. Once they hit centre stage, they make a choice. This moment is almost imperceptible, so you have to really look for it. Three neutral steps down stage, while we think: “I’m starting a scene. The suggestion is fire. I’ll be a firefighter.”

I think this is why a lot of shows have blackouts or a countdown off the top of scenes, to give time for this moment.

I call this phenomena The Thinking Steps; the time it takes for us as improvisors to make a choice.

These three steps aren’t necessarily bad. They are an opportunity to think; our processing time, where we repeat the suggestion a few times to find inspiration, where our director brain is thinking about what the show needs at this moment. “How can I bring a different emotional energy to the show?”

I hear a lot of students talk about “getting out of your head” and “being in the moment” as the ultimate goal for improvisors. They’re learning this language in books, or from other teachers, or heck, movies about improv. For me, “getting out of your head” is a misnomer. Planning and thinking can help us on stage – looking for the big picture, assessing what the audience might be craving, remembering notes we’ve been given to improve our performance, keeping each other physically safe.

Being “in our head” isn’t bad. I think the goal should be less about not planning, and more about not judging.

Judgement is what stops us from editing, what makes us second guess our impulse, and what allows us to have three different ideas that we waffle on as we take three steps downstage.

When you get off stage, and you feel like you were “in your head”, what exactly were you thinking of? Were you noticing a team mate who hadn’t been in yet, and hoping to start something with them in the next beat? Were you thinking about making sure you find your light this week? Were you extra aware of how the audience was reacting negatively to certain content and clocking that you should try to change the tone your show? I would argue that this kind of thinking is not bad, in fact, it is what keeps us safe and working toward a goal as an ensemble.

And sure, in this art form, there are those magical shows where you get off stage and it feels like every choice was effortless, that your body was leading, and that impulse was queen. But if I am being honest, the majority of the time, I find myself half in my impulse and half in my head. My experience in a show often depends on not if I am in my head, but where my head is at.

Our own self judgement, or the perceived judgment of others, slows us down, causes us hesitate, makes us second guess, and chips away at our commitment. Examples of the kind of thinking that may not be serving you would be: beating yourself up about a choice you made, not listening to your scene partner because you are worrying about a part of the show upcoming, or rolling your eyes at an improvisor from the backline for a choice they stuck with. Once judgment is present on stage, it affects everyone. Performers and audience. It allows everyone to think, “you’re right, this isn’t that good”.

Lately, I’ve been challenging my students and myself to make a choice right away. As soon as there is the impulse to initiate a scene, try and get a choice going. Don’t take the time to travel downstage to decide, just decide. Making a strong choice right away gets us busy so that our judgement can’t creep in.

-An emotional sound (grunt, laugh, yelp)
-A change in the rhythm of your breath (sigh, pant, cough)
-A change to your body (wavy arms, toes that lead, gentle hands)
-A change to your face (furrowed brow, tiny mouth, tense cheeks)

You don’t need to know why you’re doing it, or how you are going to justify it. Just trust you can.

Rå Power at Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza 2018. Photograph by Tamara Taylor.

A couple cool benefits:

If there is any tentative energy in your steps downstage, the audience can sense it, and it makes them worried. (Hell, it encourages THEIR judgment) By moving in a specific way, you lessen their sense of fear by not sharing your own.

Making a snap choice right away will make your entrance feel more complete – it will be full of that choice, rather than just being filled with your “neutral” self.

By the time you arrive downstage, you will have a clearer take on who you are, what you feel.

If you make a sound or breath choice, you will also have the added benefit of breathing, which puts you better in touch with your impulse and emotion.

If you make a physical choice, it’s likely the breath or sound will follow, so you’re golden there too.

Plus a fun side effect might be that you start a scene somewhere else on stage where scenes don’t usually happen. If you make the choice from the wing, maybe the scene will travel all over the stage, or take place “way too close” to the curtain. Making a choice right away can take us somewhere unexpected.

I’d like to give full props to Mick Napier, who got me thinking about making emotional sounds to start scenes, Susan Messing, who encouraged me to change my face, and Mike Kennard, who got me thinking about the connection between breath and impulse.

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.

 

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.