What do you know about improvisation?

I’d love to hear your comments about improvisation, but until someone actually answers this question through the comments function, you’ll have to be content with my answer:

Not a whole lot.

My interest comes from my niece Sara (see Sara’s blog on this page) who is in an improv troupe at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) in Savannah. Unlike her aunt, she likes improv and is good at it. It started with her blogging about what she did this summer to prepare for a play that uses improvisation as part of the performance, 44 Plays for 44 Presidents.

(See “Because every 19 year old theatre student loves Jimmy Carter” and “Who the Hell Are These People?”)

My background doesn’t go much beyond using Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin in acting classes. This is THE theatre acting textbook and to this day it is still on my bookshelf. To this day, I am still terrified of it.

Improvisation for me is something I know when I see it and can appreciate it, but if I have to do it, it frightens me so bad that I am speechless for days. I was always terrified of those damned exercises when I had to do them. My problem is that I’m a slow (conservative) study and for the life of me, I couldn’t think of a thing to do or say on the spot. It wasn’t until three days later that it came to me what I should have done. I was not a spontaneous kid. I’ve loosened up as an older adult. I think I missed the point.

Here are a few things I know about improvisation.

1. It’s a good way to teach actors how to give and take attention on stage.

I think (she’s also heard this from others) that what makes Sara successful is that she’s already got that nebulous thing sometimes called stage presence. I can’t define it, but I know it when someone on stage is so interesting, even when completely still, that your attention goes back to that person. It’s almost as if your attention knows that here is a safe port and things are going happen if you just watch this person. It’s a restful, comforting feeling, like a port in an acting storm and yet there’s energy there that is compelling, that lets you know things are going to get interesting real soon.

I don’t know if you can teach someone to be that or have that quality, or if you can even learn it. I’m tempted to say that you either are or you aren’t.

But I do know that there are things you can do to enhance that quality in whatever measure you have it and one of those things is learn to do improvisation. With improvisation comes, believe it or not, a kind of calm that comes from confidence.

An example: It’s the red carpet before an award ceremony. Tina Fey has her― “Oh, gee, who me?” Stumble, stumble. Shaky smile. Glance around wondering how she landed here with all these people ―thing going on. But she knows exactly what she’s doing. She is improvising. Later on, there she is again, sitting next to Amy Poehler. If you are really watching, you see that tentative look, but a little above that innocent wisp of a smile, you can see her two fingers pop up in a peace vee waving over Poehler’s head. For millions of people to see.

I kept looking and watched while her whole shtick turned into this supreme, un-arrogant, confidence.

That’s not nerves or alcohol or jitters or attention-seeking. That’s someone with a lot of confidence who is improvising.

2. It doesn’t have to be funny all the time.

Improvisation works for drama, too. Just think of how easily you come up with all kinds of rationalizations for why you should be allowed to hang out after rehearsal on a school night. Drama ensues.

3. The improviser has to say ok to not always hitting the mark. And other rules to live by.

(Translation, it’s ok to fail.) Letting yourself fail doesn’t mean you are a failure.

I saw a TEDx video by Dave Morris, “The Way of Improvisation,” during which he outlines and demonstrates some points about improvisation, which he characterizes as a process. It’s a lively and practical discussion. You should check it out.

The thing that struck me most, besides the fail thing, was that you can’t say No in an improv. It shuts everything down. (Is that a life lesson?) You can say Yes, and should, but you may want to add, And. So your response would be “Yes, and….” where you add something to what has already gone before. Collaboration and a way to get your ego out of the way.

4. I know that improvisation in the theatre didn’t start with Second City.

There has always been improvisation in the theatre. More about this in a later blog.

5. You can see the fruits of improvisational collaboration today.

Just turn on your television or head on over to a comedy club that does improvised skits, which is a short form of improvisational theatre. Or travel to Chicago and catch anything at Second City. Or see 44 Plays for 44 Presidents at SCAD or at a whole hoard of theatres across the country just in time for the 2012 election. (Go to http://playsforpresidents.com/ to find or a performance near you.)

On television, there is (drum roll) Saturday Night Live, Portlandia, among many others. Maybe reruns of Whose Line Is It Anyway whose skits are improvised in front of your eyes. This is a short form improvisation. (Check YouTube for some of these Whose Line skits. Or you can go to their web site http://whoselineonline.org/ to see all the episodes free.)

Comedies like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. They are scripted and set but there’s a good chance that to get that zing, somewhere, someone improvised what could happen in a scene, then they discussed it, then wrote a script.

Portlandia seems like it benefits from that kind of collaboration.

A Chorus Line was created that way, with people talking, improvising, discussing, until an organic script came out of it.

6. I know it’s not all about dumping out whatever comes into your head, that there are rules to follow.

Which seems counterintuitive to me but the way Dave Morris explains it, it makes perfect sense. Rules give it structure.

My problem doing improv was always a fear of not doing it right. But here’s the thing. Morris says to just relax and enjoy it. Keep the rules in mind and you’ll have all the structure you need. Get your ego out of it. It is not about you. It is about what is happening right now right in front of you. Go with it. It just is. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. (See? I did read Spolin.)

Stay tuned… there’s more on Improv coming. Right here.

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Acting… or is it?

Quick. Name your three favorite actors. Got them? Now tell me are they actors or are they interesting personalities who act for a living?

I’ll give you my three: Jessica Chastain (The Help among other recent movies), Robert Carlyle (Once Upon a Time), and Sandra Bullock (lots and lots of movies).

Let me first say that there is nothing wrong, bad, incorrect, or anything else negative about being a popular personality. Nathan Lane is one and he’s made a good living doing it. (Note: If you don’t know any of these people I’m talking about, take the time to Google them.) Nathan Lane is hilarious; he has a good musical comedy style that delivers that wow factor. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry – (well, maybe not real tears.) You’ll be enthralled. You’ll say he was worth the exorbitant price you paid for that theater ticket. That’s his shtick and you have to love it.

But. Is that acting? Or is it his enormous personality? The answer to that is the answer to this: What is acting and how is it different from a popular, likeable personality?

There are lots of definitions of what acting is and you’ll see and hear many in your theatre career. One that has caught my eye was in a review in The New Yorker by Hilton Als about Goodman Theatre’s (Chicago) exciting production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The review mentions not only Nathan Lane, but addresses the what-is-acting question much better than I could. Als wrote, “…he [Nathan Lane] is not an actor, at least not one who transforms himself for a role or allows his overwhelming personality to be subsumed in a character.”

The key is internalizing the character. Jessica Chastain did that in The Help. She disappeared into Celia Foote. I can’t tell you the first thing about what Chastain must be like in person but I know so much about Celia. She came alive for me in a way that has nothing to do with the person Chastain is but everything to do with what she dug out of the script and brought to light. What was essentially a stereotyped blonde bombshell marrying up and out of her class, became a person whose back story was evident in every brave reaction she had to the cruelty of the other women.  I felt something so true about Celia, what was  good and bad, her need for acceptance and her almost painful vulnerability seemed alive to me. The depth Chastain brought to the part, combined with technique – she has to have gobs of technique or how else would she be cast in Shakespeare (Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes?) – became a transformation from a person playing a part into a scripted character. So yeah, I’d say she’s an actor.

Robert Carlyle disappears in two distinct characters in ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Yes, yes, the rap about him is that he is shy and wants nothing to do with stardom and fame so of course he has no overbearing personality to flaunt at us and make us eager to know him or at least hang with him. But every time I’ve seen him act, he is someone new.

And Sandra Bullock. What’s not to like? I still remember my first reaction to her in Demolition Man, that she was an absolutely delightful personality and how I’d never seen anything quite like her on the screen. She was so much fun to watch and I couldn’t wait for her next line. I still have that same reaction, but since then she has also done some remarkable work where she was still delightful (that personality can’t help but peep through) but let the character she was playing come through (especially in some of her lesser known films like Practical Magic.) She’s a personality and yes, she can act, but it is hard for that personality to take a back seat and completely disappear?  So I need someone else to make the call. Sandra Bullock: Personality or actor?

Now it’s your turn. Can you pick out someone working as an actor and then identify whether you think they are actors or personalities? Can you tell me why you think that? (Please, feel free to leave comments so we all can dissect your choices. You know we will. Also know there are no right or wrong answers.)

Note:  If you don’t know who Eugene O’Neill is, you need to get started with a summer reading program. See my upcoming blog on “What to do with your Summer Vacation.”

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