Wednesday, August 3, 2011

RETRO BLOG: Pain Hole Essay from 1998

Ben's Painhole for the week of March 8,1998

Making FNI Yours:

There seems to be an alarming trend among Friday Nite Improvs audience members and regulars to think of Improvs as a "show". This is completely wrong. As the producer of Friday Nite Improvs, this buggs the living Abe Vagota out of me. You see, my friends, Improvs has never been and indeed cannot be a show. A show is when you go to something and some performers entertain you and you go home. Improvs cannot survive in show format. Improvs is audience participation but it shouldn't even be called that because even calling the crowd an audience implies that there is a show. The "audience" at improvs is the show. There is no one person at improvs more important than the collective whole that assembles there. The regulars may be a little more experienced, but this in no way makes them better. In fact, most of the time a regular-dominated show is just plain boring. So here I sit begging you that if you must refer to Improvs as a show at least make it your show in some way. Don't be intimidated by regulars. Put them in their places. This includes me and Louis. If you don't have the guts to get up on stage, make a suggestion, heckle someone, express yourself from your seat in some way! But please, don't let the so-called regulars control Improvs. It is your place to be a star just as much as it is theirs and really improvs is for you, not for them.

Hoping that I have sparked just one
timid person to get up for World's Worst,


Monday, February 7, 2011

Get In There!

Everyone who performs at FNI starts out as an audience member. The transition from seats to stage is easier for some than others; many of the best and most prolific performers I've seen had trouble getting started.

Ultimately, it comes down to taking a deep breath and raising your hand, week after week, but there are steps you can take to push forward.

Be accountable to someone.

In chatting with John Feightner about this topic, we both agreed that what helped us get onstage was knowing that there was someone in the audience judging us if we didn't. At the time, I was taking a workshop taught by Chris Griswold, another FNI alum, along with John and a number of the other people you see consistently on stage. He was an excellent teacher, but while I found myself making progress every class, I still sat in the audience for most shows without volunteering. After a while, Chris gave me a hard time about it, and every week I knew that if I didn't do something onstage, I was going to hear about it. Every game that went by without my hand in the air, I could feel Chris arching his eyebrow higher and higher in my direction. (Real or imagined? I don't know. [Yes I do. It was real.]) It's pretty basic developmental psychology that we crave the approval of the people whose opinions we value and we'll jump through hoops to get it. Pick someone. It can be anyone, but ideally this person is a) comfortable being judgmental and b) someone you want to impress. Promise to get onstage once a week, and be accountable. If none of your friends are judgy enough, come see me, John, or Abby and we'll be your surrogate judger.

Let the Game Do the Heavy Lifting

Games at FNI range widely in the amount of input they require from the players. If you've seen Tag-A-Line, you know it's a game that has two players who only have to day one word at a time when tagged by the other players. That game is a great way to dip your toe in. A game like Minute Fairy Tale is highly structured. You have the skeleton of a plot already and a time limit, so you can feel comfortable not embellishing the story much. The humor is inherent to the time constraint, your job is to play that up and enhance it. Someday you'll be totally comfortable building a scene from the ground up with nothing more than a one-word suggestion, but until then, use the framework of more structured games as a support.

You Already Have Mad Skillz - Highlight Them

As time goes on and you find yourself getting comfortable onstage, you may want to find new challenges by volunteering for games that scare you. But I'm getting ahead of myself! Let's get you onstage in the first place. Different games utilize different amounts of work and skill sets. Try to identify your comfort zones. What do you do in normal life that makes your friends laugh? Are you very physical? Good at charades? Try miming games like Murder Chain and Pledge Break. Do you like word play? Give Jeopardy a shot. Can you write a completely bullshitted research paper for a class you barely attended and pass? Kick ass at the game Balderdash? Challenge might be your game. Starting with games that play to your strengths will make the stage less intimidating.

And what is the everlasting refrain of FNI? Let's say it together, "Failure is Ok!"

Anyone with a story of how you got onstage for the first time - Questions about which game is right for you - Other suggestion? Leave a comment. Let's discuss.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Ultimate Improv Book

The Ultimate Improv Book is terrible. It reads like a bad training video, one made by an alien culture that’s attempting to wrap its mind around this thing humans call “improv comedy.” I would love to excuse this book for attempting simplicity, but even high school students don’t deserve such childishness. There is no intelligent conversation to be had here and more than a few bizarre concepts that I find to be destructive.

Take for example the author’s insistence that “adding complications to an already problematic dilemma is a wonderful source of entertainment.” While any good improvisor should know to “up the stakes,” The Ultimate Improv Book thinks all scenes should be a derivative of a waiter stacking too much food on a tray. Keep adding problems, they insist! Keep adding characters! The book also flies in the face of almost everything I’ve ever read on literature, screenwriting, and improv scenework by telling us to never start in the middle. The chapter on Characterization takes only three pages and breathlessly simplifies important concepts to Walk Different, Talk Different, Be Extreme. No time for forming emotions, motivations, relationships. The authors also take a moment to say, “It is up to the player to lie to his audience. If he pretends to be happy and cheerful and smiles and looks like he is enjoying himself, then the audience will like him better.” Are we to assume all improvisors hate their work? There is something to be said about stage presence. This isn’t it.

But here’s the truly awful part of this book. The Ultimate Improv Book tells you to PLAN IMPROV SCENES! They actually suggest improv teams use a “huddle” to discuss scenes before they are performed and that its OK to agree upon the ending beforehand (though they casually say its OK to just plan the beginning too!). When not using the “huddle,” our teachers also suggest creating pre-planned scenes, or “Flag Scenes,” where audience suggestions are inserted like mad-libs into highly scripted plot lines. This is trash. This is not improv.

The only thing I can recommend about The Ultimate Improv Book is it's Appendix Six. It's a list of other improv books. Good improv books.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Improv-ise

Mick Napier's Improv-ise is for the improvisor who's heard the rules, tried all the games, and still feels like they need more. They've hit a rut and need new eyes to see with. It's an improv book packed with a lot of good notions about how to handle one's self in an improv scene, although, to really get into Improv-ise, you should have some knowledge of improv already.
Why? Because Mick Napier's book is steeped in bitterness toward the way improv is currently being taught (ie: Truth in Comedy). He begins by listing all the familiar improv "rules" and immediately tells you to throw them out. The "rules," he says, are merely the left-brain trying to overanalyze the contents of a good scene. Thinking about all the do's and dont's will murder you in a scene, and there are easier ideas which will result in better scenework.
Now, as you may have noticed, I only ever type "rules" in quotations. I agree with Napier a lot on this point, but I see the potential in new improvisors grasping the "rules" before moving on to deeper thinking. It's why I like Improv-ise as a supplementary book.
If it's your first, second, third book, whatever, Improv-ise still contains some wonderful approaches to dealing with the actual mechanics of a scene. Napier teaches you how to take care of yourself at the top of a scene (a crucial moment), choose emotional states for your character, support your partner ( supporting yourself), and how focusing on the how's of your choices instead of the why's can create a roadmap for your entire story. It's great stuff for anyone who's thinking, "I know I should say 'yes,' ...but what do I actually do?"
The final chapters also discuss many advanced techniques (how to handle three person scenes, how to vary choices) and a lot of good tips for people seeking a future in improvisation (God help you, you wonderful fools!). If that's not enough, Napier also takes a moment to explain the Laws of Thermodynamics and how they pertain to an improv scene. It's fun stuff and a highly recommended read.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Art of the Nib

So you want to play Freeze? Awesome. We want you to play Freeze, too! It can seem impossible to get in the game, so let’s talk about the best way to get your turn on stage.

Speak up and raise your hand. I cannot stress this enough. The job of the nibber is more complicated than it looks. There are a lot of stimuli to pay attention to, so you have to be loud and easy to spot if you want to grab his focus. Turn up the volume, project with your diaphragm, and once you’ve called (shouted) “Freeze,” keep your hand up high. If you call “Freeze” and get no response, the nibber is not ignoring you. She probably just didn’t hear you. Try again soon.

Pay attention to the scene. A lot of people watch the scene, waiting for an interesting position, not really paying attention to the progression of the scene. Has anything happened in the scene yet? Have they solved the problem they set out to deal with? Does it seem like the players don’t have anywhere else to go (for more than a few seconds. Every player needs some time to think of what to do next). If something dangerous is happening onstage, this may be a good time to call Freeze and save the players from themselves.

Pay attention to the nibber. Did she just nib someone else? Too many interruptions disrupts the flow of the scene and never allows the players to complete their business. Some nibbers will more actively scan the audience when they feel the scene has had enough time to bear fruit (this is not universal, but worth looking for).

If you get nibbed, don’t take it personally, even if it happens a couple of times in a row. Everyone has had a night where they couldn’t get onstage, and it’s just a weird coincidence. 90% of the time, the nibber isn’t even looking at the face of the person who calls Freeze. It’s just a Voice and a Hand in a certain section of the audience at the right time.

Once you are called upon, make your way to stage as quickly as you can. Keeping a brisk pace to the game is key. When you’re on stage, quickly decide who to tag out. If you didn’t have a clear idea of who you wanted to tag out before you called freeze, that’s OK! But don’t dawdle onstage deciding. It’s improv, so whichever position you take has limitless possibilities. Occasionally, a new player thinks it’s clever to purposefully draw out the decision process. Cut that out.

What if you find yourself in the position of Nibber? It’s a rotating position, often filled by a long-time audience member. No one will ever be perfect, but here are a few tips to make it go smoothly:

1. Divide your attention as evenly as you can between the audience and the scene. Listen carefully for quieter people freezing in, and don't be afraid to request that potential players speak up.

2. Don't forget to speak up as well.

3. Be Decisive. As soon as you hear a person yell “Freeze,” either let them in or call “Nib.” Long pauses and “ummmm’s” kill the momentum of the game. If two people freeze in at the same time, just pick one. The other will freeze in again.

4. Freeze in judiciously. As nibber, you have the ability to let yourself into the scene and you are welcome to do so, but use discretion.

5. Scan the whole room. There are dark corners full of eager improvisers who crave your attention.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Saying No: or Doesn't Every Good Hero Need a Villain?

Being contrary comes natural to all improvisors when they first start out. We can make a lot of rules about "Saying Yes!" but that still doesn't stop people from saying "No, no, no!" and ruining the potential of perfectly good scenes. Let's talk a bit about why. Here's a typical case:

A: Honey, let's go to the park. It's such a lovely day!
B: I don't feel like it.
A: Oh, but it's so wonderful out!
B: It's raining.
A: Oh, er, yes! I just love the rain. Let's dance in the puddles.
B: I don't even know you.

Player A is doing their damndest to do something in this scene. They attempt to tapdance around Player B's denial but the scene is eventually derailed. To the audience it looks like a weird mess. Player B, however, thinks "I'm doing rather well!"

Getting thrown into an improv scene doesn't give us a lot of time to think. Once that first line of dialogue is delivered, there's really no time to dawdle. We have to start making decisions quickly. Most people starting out want the easiest decision. In a split second they have to think about how this story is going to work and what's their role in it. A spilt second isn't really that long, so they start to condense all storytelling into something simple. An easy to remember, and monumentally flawed formula:

"Story = Someone wants something, Others try to thwart them."

Now, we can look at a lot of stories and this seems to fit. Would Romeo and Juliet be interesting if there wasn't something keeping the lovers apart? Would a superhero story be interesting if the bad guy didn't fight back? Would a highschool story work if the new kid was easily accepted into the social circle? Drama isn't life made easy, so obstacles do seem like the logical choice for storytelling.

People say "No" in various ways performing improv because they think they've figured out their purpose in the scene. "I create conflict. I create the obstacles. Player A seems to want something, so my only choice can be to not give it to them." They lock themselves into this mode so thoroughly, that improvisors begin denying even the most basic facts of a scene in order to keep the obstacles coming. They'll deny relationships, objects, their very surroundings, anything the other player brings up. I've seen an improvisor deny his own character's existence! All these No's do nothing to reinforce the scene or the story. They just confuse and frustrate the audience (not to mention the other player).

If you want to make better improv scenes, you need to remember that story is not characters being stopped by obstacles. Story is what characters do to overcome those obstacles. There's always a way over, under, around, or through a wall. You just need to find it.

In the example above, having a simple, uneventful walk in the park does sound incredibly boring. Obstacles can be created, however, without resorting to the No's. Here are some examples I can think of.

1) Player B could be sick/fighting allergies. They force themselves outside and are tortured by pollen and pet dander. They could overstuff themselves with medication or be such a hypochondriac that they smother themselves in sunscreen and wear a medical mask. Perhaps they can only go outside wearing a giant balloon, which tears on a branch and nearly get them killed.

2) Player B could be busy or have plans that will be interfered with. They could force themselves outside anyway and attempt to speed up every park activity to finish early. They could take their work with them and either have their papers blown away by the wind or have such a good time that they throw their work away (only realizing, too late, the consequences of not finishing). Player A could even opt to stay indoors and help Player B finish their work, eventually turning a humdrum activity into something oddly romantic.

3) Player B could sarcastically comment on every thing in the park, trying to give Player A the hint that they hate it. Player A could become upset and Player B has to come around or risk angering them completely. Or Player A could giggle and ignore Player B's negative disposition. Player B makes bigger and bigger grumbles which just make Player A laugh harder and harder. We now get the glimpse into a very bizarre relationship.

Use your imagination and you can come up with dozens of ideas that keep the action moving forward without denying Player A's offer of "going to the park." This isn't even to mention the infinite number of ideas/problems that could be created if you just plain go to the park! Say "Yes" and indulge in any number of park activities. If needed, trouble can brew after the event's begun. You can even make the activity odd and exciting enough on it's own.

A: Honey, let's go to the park. It's such a lovely day!
B: You're right, dear. There's bound to be numerous joggers we can kidnap!
A: Better clean out the trunk before we leave!

See, saying "Yes" can be just as fun.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Impro for Storytellers

Impro for Storytellers is the somewhat less philosophical, more exercise oriented version of the first Impro. Many people prefer Storytellers, though I personally enjoy the theorizing of Impro better. Still, as it is a sprawling improv book (nearly 400 pages, ye gods!), there is a lot to benefit from this volume as well.

Reading Impro for Stortellers is a bit like being a fly on the wall of an improv workshop, but the teacher is secretly informing the fly of all his reasonings. This can be a great benfit to new improvisors hungry for lessons but nowhere to learn. Johnstone describes his students' pitfalls (pitfalls a newbie will certainly recognize in himself/herself) and gives straightforward lessons on how to break them free from their constraints. There are copious amounts of exercises described in this book, many familiar to all improvisors and several you may recognize as actual FNI games. Besides some extraneous information on how to handle Theatresports and run your own show, it's all useful information to new performers.

Chapters on "Storytelling" and "Making Things Happen" will be a great boon to those who can't wrap their minds around the ideas in Impro. There are many great lessons on opening up your mind and spicing up your stories. The chapter on "Character" is also very useful. Most improv books have tons to say about scenework but little on character, so Johnstone's discussions here will be great for anyone who wants to break free from themselves on stage. Some people may find these ideas a bit too "theater-y," which is silly considering improv is nothing but theater, but you should take a gander anyway.

Storytellers may be a better start and more digestible than Impro, but I highly recommend both if you wish to pursue improv further.