Finding Fun in Others (aka. Happy Birthday, Kory!)

Kory improvising with an audience member at Rapid Fire’s BONFIRE Festival. Photograph by Billy Wong.

My friend Kory Mathewson made a simple request for this 29th birthday; reflections on “finding fun in others”.

I would like to start this birthday message by telling you about Kory. He is a top tier improvisor with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, where he tours with a rad show called TedxRFT. He is one of my favourite people in the world to be on stage with because no idea is too ‘out there’, no game is too experimental. His response to my ideas is always, “Let’s do it, Amer!”. Whether it’s an improvised parliamentary-style debate, a musical, or a show full of challenging pulse-edits, Kory is always up for taking a risk on stage.

Kory is a truly gifted improvisor, I think in part because of his broad experience of the world.  He’s not the type of performer who exists in a echo chamber, spending 6 days a week workshopping in a theatre; he’s constantly trying new things, traveling, and learning. He studies computing science, and biomedical engineering. He builds websites, and software, and ROBOTS(!!). He likes rock climbing, cycling, “schvitzing”, making up nasty slang words, and seeking out the best food in the city. He chases weird experiences, and it makes you want to do the same.

Once he invited me to the university for a CT Scan, and a researcher complimented me the symmetry of my brain!
Once we were bike riding and we quietly watched a family of beavers screeching on the riverbank!
Once, in Austin, we stopped at every bar on the way to a party and did 98 whiskey shots!

So, how does this all relate to “Finding Fun in Others”?

Kory and I having a laugh riot at BONFIRE 2014. Photograph by Billy Wong.

Kory is a master at making you feel like a million bucks. When you’re in a conversation with Kory, he immediately digs deeper than “How are you?” or “What’s new?”.  He makes the whole conversation about you by asking so many questions. He says “yeah!” and “absolutely!” non-stop. He wants to talk about you rather than himself. He takes any kernel of information and expands upon it. He can talk to anyone about anything for EVER.

Kory consistently strikes up conversations with strangers in elevators. When I first met him, I wondered, “Why? Why would he do this?” At first, I assumed it wasn’t genuine; he was just teasing the person he was talking to, or he had some other agenda. But I now know that Kory is just that curious. He is legitimately interested in what a random teen is eating for lunch, or where a bartender first tasted a certain liqueur, or why you like the dress you are wearing.

There are so many days in our lives where we feel insignificant, like the little things we do are inconsequential or routine. Kory is a great example of someone who shines a spotlight on little details, and makes you feel like you are the most interesting person in the room.

Kory has taught me to find the fun in others by helping them find the fun in themselves.

Happy birthday, Kor!

387693_10150359642971582_411138496_n

Kory and I wearing matching “BUTT” shirts. Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Photographs by Billy Wong (http://www.semigravity.com/) and Marc-Julien Objois (http://marcjulienobjois.com).

The Improv Kiss

Ganza 2015-2202

Cathrine Frost Andersen & Mats Eldøen of Det Andre Teatret (Oslo, Norway). Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Physical intimacy is one of our storytelling tools as improvisors. How we touch, or don’t touch, and our proximity to our fellow performers gives the audience cues about the relationship. Indeed, a simple pat on the shoulder, or holding hands with a scene partner, can go a long way in terms of giving texture to the scene. So can a kiss, or a full body hug, or a well-timed, comedy stage-kick to the groin.

Recently, Steve Fisher of NOW in Toronto, wrote The Ins and Outs of On Stage Intimacy, in which he profiles the work of intimacy coach Tonia Sina. She offers that, “Intimacy must be treated as choreography and should never be improvised.” I think she has a point. The article got me thinking… As improvisors, we often make assumptions around safety when it comes to physicality (for example, I would never use fight choreography in an improvised scene, unless the whole cast had the same understanding of the physical vocabulary), so why don’t we do the same when it comes to physical intimacy?

For me, a kiss has often signalled the end of the scene. My scene partner and I embrace, lips touching, and often the lights fade. End of story. For better or worse, this is how I see most kissing in improv used: as a resolution to a scene about some aspect of romantic love. With ensembles I work with regularly, and even experienced improvisors who I don’t work with regularly, I am fine with a quick closed mouth kiss to end a scene, but I acknowledge that not everyone shares my opinion, nor should they.

However, a few months ago, I was in a mono-scene where I was seducing a fellow performer. We were half way through our 40-minute set – it was not the end of the show – and I could feel that we were building to a intimate moment. This choice was in context of the characters and the narrative we were exploring; two married people having a tryst while their spouses were out of the room. The spouses were gone, and it was time to finally show what we had set up.

Now, I trust this performer, on stage and off – we perform together a lot, they’re a dear friend, and a professional actor. But when the moment came to make a move, I was paralyzed. I had cornered myself into a game of chicken, and it was fun for a while, but now I was stuck there. I knew the lights wouldn’t come down if we kissed, because of the constraints of the show (lights were to stay on our whole set), so we’d have to kiss again. And then what? AND THEN WHAT?! My heart was racing, and my gut said no. I pulled away, changed the subject, and when we got off stage, I felt crummy for wimping so hard on his offers and my own.

Working up to this particular performance, which we knew would explore the dark parts of relationships as realistically as possible, we hadn’t made on stage intimacy part of the discussion. I think now if we had a mutual, previously-discussed understanding about physical connection, I think I would have felt more comfortable in the moment. Or maybe not. Either way, I made the right choice for myself in that instant. Even if my choice was because of my own insecurities with my partner or the audience, and it weakened our story overall, it doesn’t matter. We need to start defining behaviours, and our permissions around them, in order for them to be part of our repertoire as an ensemble, regardless of whether these behaviours become part of our shows or not.

Personally, I am guilty of having doled out some kisses on stage without knowing if my scene partner was comfortable with them. Often times, as an afterthought, I have asked, “was that ok?”. The countless instances of sexual harassment that have come to light in recent months in comedy communities across North America have affirmed that my previous approach was less than ideal. It is imperative to start addressing this topic in our performance groups, as well as workshops, proactively, rather than as an afterthought. It all comes down to respecting your fellow performer, and their boundaries, as well as your own. Consent is required.

When I visited the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, RI, one of the young performers approached me before a Maestro show. “Is there anything that is off limits for you, physically?”, he asked. He did so in a way that was gentle, friendly, and not a big deal. It was a learning moment for me. Before a show, as performers, we are backstage for half an hour or more. It only takes two minutes to ask everyone. Maybe someone isn’t comfortable kissing, maybe someone has a back injury, maybe everyone is cool with writhing in a ball. It’s that simple, and it’s worth it. No explanations necessary.

Saying “yes” and accepting offers is one of the key tenets of improvisation, but when it comes to onstage intimacy, you don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. We need to make onstage intimacy part of the discussion before we hit the stage. Never say “yes” at the expense of your gut.

Ganza 2015-2092

Joe Bill & Lee White. Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

A huge thanks to Paul Blinov, a writer and improvisor from Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, for editing this post for me. Photographs by the rad Marc-Julien Objois (http://marcjulienobjois.com).

7 Theatresports Habit-breakers

411562_10151159954631224_774780845_o

Photograph of Rapid Fire Theatre by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

When I was in my second year at Rapid Fire Theatre, I was convinced that the reason I was struggling on stage was because I was playing short form Theatresports™ (the format created by Calgary’s Keith Johnstone). I was positive that once I was doing long form improv, a lot of my troubles would go away. I blamed the format for my inability to commit to scenes, and thought playing games pandered to the lowest common denominator. Not only was an improv snob, I was wrong.

I later learned it’s never the format’s fault.

Looking back, I now know that short form and long form improv are the same. Sure, there are different structures to explore, but in the end, a good scene is a good scene, whether it stands alone or is sandwiched between other scenes. As a student in Red Deer recently put it, “It’s just the size of the canvas”. If you can do a great short form scene, you can probably do a solid long form, and vice versa.

This is all to say, I believe that Theatresports™ is a worthwhile structure to invest in. I’ve heard a lot of players who are newer to the form say they’re sick of it, they want to try something new. My message to them is: then try something new! The format is just the vessel for whatever you want to explore creatively. Any skill you want to explore can be explored through Theatresports™. You can create a longer story by tying your scenes together narratively. You can explore all the edits in the world (tap, sweep, pulse, flock). You can share personal stories in a mini-Armando. Don’t get caught up in the structure: it’s there to shape the show, not to be the show.

Here are some ways to shake up Theatresports™ if you are finding shows repetitive:

1. Make the Strangest Team You Can
Look around your ensemble and create the weirdest, most unbalanced team you can. Make a team of the people you never play with (maybe they’re from a different generation, maybe they are socially awkward, maybe you don’t get along). Make a team of people who seem to all have the same skill (a team of drivers, a team of monkeywrenchers). Ask an alumni you don’t know to sit in with you. Guaranteed there will be surprises in this show.

2. Mash Up Games
Ever played an Alphabet-backwards scene? Or a Moving Bodies Dubbing scene? Or Stage Directions using an exercise manual as the directions? Many handles are flexible and can be jammed together in wild and interesting ways. Can these games absolutely tank? Yes! But you know what they say: no risk, no reward!

3. Give All the Power to the Captain
Tell the captain of your team that they should decide all of the games for the whole match, and that you would love it if they kept them a secret from you. Tell them you want to be thrown into scenes, directed, and made to do things you don’t normally do.

4. Change up the Judges
If you have player judges, try audience judges, or do a Danish match, where the audience yells which team they prefer each round.

5. Find a Meta-Narrative
You can’t force this one, but it’s a great way to change things up. Keep your eyes open for patterns that emerge outside of scenes. How can what you do in scenes play into, or contrast, what you are doing out of scenes? If these meta-narratives take over the show, you have failed, but if they are spontaneous, they can add an electric energy to the show.

6. Mix Up Team Size
If you always do 3 on 3 matches, or 4 on 4, see what happens when you create teams of 2 or 5 or 1 performer. First off, the dynamics of the whole show will shift in terms of what you games you can play (He Said She Said is a great game for 2 people, but impossible for 1). Secondly, a meta-narrative may emerge (in the case of 5 vs. 1, it’s almost certain the solo performer will win the match. The audience loves an underdog).

7. Adjust the Tools
Ask the judges to get rid of their number 3s. Try a couple weeks in a row where your judges (or host) are very strict with the Basket/Ring of Shame/Paper Bag. Try a match with time restrictions on each scene of varying length. Challenge teams to do a scene with no suggestion. Try a week with or without a musical accompanist.

Photograph of Rapid Fire Theatre by the amazing Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Curious Monkey

Has a gif ever made you cry?

If you asked me last week if people ever cried while watching gifs, I would have said likely not. Yet, I now understand the contrary, because this silly one made me burst into tears the moment I watched it.

img2.thejournal

The shock and amazement on the monkey’s face is so genuine that it brought me to tears. Such innocent wonder is something that we see children experience, but as adults, it is rare. I guess it’s hard to truly buy into a magic trick once you understand the definition of a “trick”.

A lot of our training in improvisation is focused on undoing the behaviours that were piled onto us as we grew up. These behaviours are valuable in the outside world; they keep us safe and allow us to be accepted socially. But on stage, we want to be vulnerable, impulsive, and open to any possibility. Pretty much the opposite of how we are supposed to act day to day.

The joy of improvisation is that we can play with unapologetic curiosity. We can react hugely to any offer our partner gives us. We can be boldly gullible, insanely innocent, and so sweet its stubborn. We can be voraciously curious about where the scene will take us next. We can be dazzled by the wonder of our imagination.

Sometimes you just need to weep about a monkey gif to be reminded of this.

Leading like an Improvisor

Photograph by the super-awesome Mat Simpson. http://matsimpson.co

One of my favourite improv exercises is Dolphin Training. I learned it years ago in a workshop led by Patti Stiles, who is with Impro Melbourne. It’s a partnered exercise that I use in almost all of the workshops I lead. It really allows me to get a sense of a group, and assess their ability to take risks.

It’s simple to play. Everyone pairs up. Partner A looks around the room and decides something that they would like Partner B to do. At first it should be simple: sit in a chair, flick the light switch off, close the curtains. Partner B moves silently around the space and tries to figure it out. The only way they know they are on the right track is that Partner A gives them a bell sound, a “ding”. When Partner B does the precise action that Partner A thought of, then they have succeeded, and the partners switch. It’s like a game of “Warmer or Cooler” you may have played as a child, except without the cool.

I love the game for many reasons:
-It trains the feeling of failure. The whole time you are guessing in silence, you feel the panic of not getting it right. You might feel lost or frustrated. Once you sit in this feeling for long enough, you start to get used to it, and slowly you learn to stay calm and keep playing.
-It forces participants to physicalize their ideas. They aren’t able to say “Do you want me to sit in the chair?”, they need to physicalize it. This becomes really important in scene work – showing not telling.
-It reminds us that we aren’t mind readers. Improv is about a give and take, about reactions. There isn’t a road map we’re following, and there are no wrong choices.
-PLUS! – it’s how they actually train dolphins, through positive reinforcement.

In recent years, I’ve been thinking about positive reinforcement, and how to approach my teaching from this perspective. I felt something was broken about how I was leading my students, when I saw many of them obsessed about the “rules” of improv, stressed about doing it “right”, and so in their heads.

When I first started learning improv, we’d do exercises around “blocking”, to demonstrate the difference between accepting an offer and shutting one down. I think that was, frankly, a waste of time. Blocking will happen, why practise bad habits? Nowadays I don’t even talk about blocking in a class, unless a student brings it up. I also don’t talk about “pimping”, or “shelving”.

(Sidenote: Sally Smallwood from People & Chairs wrote a great post about the term “pimping” and how it might be time for a new term.)

I’ve started trying to make a change in the way I lead workshops. I’ve been rewarding improvisors who make bold, risky choices even when they fall flat. The freedom to take risks is what I hope to foster in them. When we debrief about the best moments of a performance, I’ve been focused on not only pointing out big successes, but congratulating people for choosing difficult games, hosting for the first time, or trying on an accent.

I’ve tried to stop saying “never” or “always”, and I’ve been saying “I don’t know” and “Let’s try it!” more.

My goal is to approach my workshops with the same curiosity I bring to a round of Dolphin Training. Sometimes the only way to figure something out is by doing it.

Photograph by Mat Simpson. http://matsimpson.co

Saying “Yes” And Owning It

Photograph by Meryl Smith Lawton. http://merylsmithlawton.com/

The following is an article that I wrote in 2013 for the professional journal alt.theatre for an edition called Gender & Theatre at The Margins. Special thanks to Nikki Shaffeullah, who is a rad improvisor, and the Editor-in-Chief for the magazine. She encouraged me to start writing about my experiences in improv, and she also inspired me to dress better.

Read it below or download the PDF directly.