By Alyce Wilson
February 6, 2007 - A Bucket of Chum
This week at improv class, our instructor, Dave, was assisting with the callbacks for the ComedySportz auditions, so Jessie took over. She's his helper in the class and is also education director for Comedy Sportz.
We focused on scene work, through building the platform, using emotion and establishing the relationship between characters.
First, we started out with another round of the name game and some other warm-ups. Then we started doing short scenes where we just focused on establishing a platform. One that jumps to mind is where the suggestion was umbrella. Geoff and I were on stage, and I was huddled into myself, ducking out of the rain. He offered me his umbrella, so I thanked him and joined him under it, complaining that I'd left my umbrella on a bus.
Just then, Colleen pulled up in a bus, and I said, "Let's get on. Maybe they'll be an umbrella on this one." As Colleen pulled away, I found an umbrella and put it up over my head.
We didn't always take a scene all the way to its conclusion. One interesting exercise we did was split into two groups. We went down the line in pairs. The first two people established the who and the where, and then the next two people would clap and come in. They stepped in and became the characters who had been established. They were just supposed to get them into trouble. The next pair would clap and come in and take the place of the two characters. They had to resolve the situation. The last two people were supposed to come in and "put a button on the scene," as Jessie put it. Sort of a punchline, a funny last word.
It wasn't as easy as you might think. One of them started out with me and Jennifer. The suggestion was gorilla. I stood up with my hands on my hips, and Jennifer looked at me and says, "How is the pregnancy coming along?" I said I was fine. She handed me a gift.
I said, "Oh, thanks. A stuffed gorillas. I'll put it over here with all the other stuffed gorillas. I guess everyone knows I love them."
The next two people came in and established the trouble, which was that the pregnant woman was pregnant with her husband's brother's baby. People were going to find out, because the gorilla was the mascot of his college team. The next two came in to resolve the situation, and Colleen, playing the friend, said, "Good thing your husband is a twin." Of course, this meant there wasn't much for the last pair to do, since that served as a button on the scene.
So we revised the exercise, and the next time we only had three pairs of people. This was good, because one person had had to go twice anyway, there being only seven people in class. Tim was missing, and Chuck had moved onto his intermediate class, but Carol was present. So the class members present were me, Carol, Colleen, Geoff, Jennifer, J.T., and Liza.
In another exercise, we were working with emotion. The exercise was to do a scene where one person would have a strong emotion and the other was neutral. I did a scene with Liza where the suggestion was, I think, swimming. She was filled with confidence, telling me she was going to swim the English Channel wearing cardboard and covered in chum so the sharks would chase her and spur her along faster.
It was really hard to be the person who was neutral, since it was such a strong offer. I had trouble figuring out what to do with it, except to say, "If you want to. It's your life." I suppose it could have worked, if I'd focused more on who we were in relation to each other. Maybe, for example, I could have been her agent, who was unimpressed because another of my clients was doing something even more daring.
I think the exercise was probably supposed to teach us how a high level emotion will bring other actors along with it. That's very much Dave's teaching style. He often teaches concepts by demonstrating what effect it has on stage. Jessie was teaching the class from notes he'd given her.
Another exercise involving emotions involved four people who would come on-stage in sequence. One was a shopkeeper who was on stage initially and had a strong emotion. The second person came in with a strong emotion, which the shopkeeper would adopt. The third person would come in with a third emotion, which all players would adopt. And the fourth person would then arrive with yet another emotion all players would adopt. Then they would peel off, and as the fourth person exited they went back to the third person's emotion, etc., until the shopkeeper was left alone with the original emotion.
First, Colleen was a shopkeeper who was frightened because she was alone in the bookstore. J.T. came in and was surprised that the latest Stephen King book was out. She surprised him further by declaring it was free. I think Geoff was next, and finally Carol, who was giggly. It was kind of fun to watch, especially when everyone got giggly.
Then the rest of us got up, with J.T. as the shopkeeper, who was angry. He was working in a kitchen supply store and was angry that no one ever bought anything but spatulas. Jennifer came in, exuberant about buying a spatula, so he got excited with her. I was supposed to be high-energy apathy, so I came in with a handful of money and said I wanted to spend it in this store, even though I had no idea what kind of store it was.
I forget one of the other emotions, but the last one was jealousy. We coveted each other's spatulas. I thought that the exercise went fairly well, but I noticed that when all four people were on-stage, we tended to all talk at once, rather than interacting. That's definitely something to work on.
We also worked a lot on telling stories, having a beginning, a middle and an end. First, we just sat around a circle and told stories in a low key, noncompetitive way, like we had in the beginning class. There was no pressure, and we were just supposed to establish a character, introduce trouble and resolve it.
From there, we went to competitive Story, on-stage with elimination. The energy was a little low that day, maybe because of the cold weather. It's been socking everyone pretty hard. So it didn't go as frenetic as it had in intermediate class when we did it on stage during our open performance. But some people were trying to put a lot of energy into it. I got called out the first round the first time we played, but I was one of the last three the second time.
The acoustics in this room, I'm learning, are pretty bad. Even when you're just a couple feet away from someone, it can be hard to hear them. The ceiling just absorbs all the sound, unlike when we were on-stage, where we took our intermediate class.
J.T. won the first round, and everyone cheered. He definitely seemed more confident this week. Last week, he was more hesitant, possibly because we were a group of strangers. This week he got more into it, coming up with some great offers. I think Colleen might have won the second round. I know she was doing really well.
We did some two-person scenes with one person on-stage. First, we were doing it where the third person would be named and then enter at some point. Then we were doing it where the third person would come in when they saw an opportunity.
For example, when we were doing it the first way, Geoff and I did a scene where the suggestion was breadbox. I had a box, and I said, "I'm going to put our entire apartment in this box." He said OK, and I had him hold it while I put scale replicas of everything in the house in the box. I said that a buyer was coming soon, and I thought she would be more likely to want to purchase it if she could see it furnished.
When she arrived, we had the model completed. Jennifer was at the front door. I greeted her, "Welcome to our humble abode" and waved her in.
Geoff walked up, presented her with the box, and said, "Buy our house." Brilliant.
We did some scenes without the third person named. Once Jennifer was on-stage with J.T., and they were old people eating out of fruit cups. She said she found a bug, but he said it was a raisin. Liza came in as a nursing home worker and said, "OK, folks, community time is over. Time to go back to your rooms."
"You want a bug?" Jennifer asked.
It's hard when you pack so much into two hours to remember everything, which is why I tend to remember the scenes I'm in the most. Sometimes other scenes stand out, though, such as one between Jennifer and Colleen. The suggestion was cat litter. Jennifer was really upset at Colleen for not cleaning it, and after a little bit of bickering, Colleen got down on her knees and started scooping out the cat litter.
Through the conversation, it turned out they were a married couple, and Colleen had agreed to clean out the cat litter if Jennifer would do the feedings. But Jennifer had a soft spot in her heart for strays and kept bringing in more and more cats. She said that she wouldn't turn them away, because it was cruel.
Colleen ended the scene with, "You know, that's why I love you," which was a nice resolution.
Another couple argument scene didn't get resolved. J.T. and Carol were a married couple, and J.T. was fixing the sink. They were arguing over whose fault it was and whether they should hire a plumber, and it didn't really get resolved.
Afterwards, J.T. asked Jessie what to do with a scene when you don't know what to do. That was a really great question, because it happens a lot on-stage. Jessie's suggestion was to go to the where. Go to where it is that you are. First of all, have you established where you are? If not, establish it. If there are other parts of the platform missing, like who the characters are and what's happening, establish that. A good way to think about where to go with a scene.
I had one scene with Colleen where the suggestion was sisters. I fell back on an old bad habit of trying to steer the scene my way instead of really listening to what was going on. When we started the scene, she looked kind of annoyed, and instead of responding to that, I asked her for a hug, saying it had been "too long."
"I see you've been shopping in my closet again," she said.
I said that it was my first instinct upon coming in the house, to grab something out of her closet. She said, "Well, it looks ridiculous on you." Without thinking, I pulled my sweater over my head and handed it to her, knowing I still had a polo shirt on underneath. Later, Jessie told me that instead of really disrobing I should pantomime that. Of course! I don't know what I was thinking.
I conceded, "Everything always looked better on you."
Then I said, "But nothing really matters any more. Mom isn't in that room upstairs anymore."
"Yes, she finally got her own place," Colleen said. Then she complained that no one was there to cook for her.
"Let's hire a mom!" I suggested.
"Yes," she agreed, smiling for the first time. "You were always the smart one."
The scene was fun, but I think if I'd paid more attention to what she was offering, we would have gone in a different direction. We probably would have created a scene that made a lot more sense and was about the relationship between the two sisters. While I've gotten better about listening to other people on-stage, but still, old habits die hard.
must admit that this sort of scene work no longer scares me like it used
to. I find it a lot easier to trust my fellow performers. Especially when
I think about how we did the first time we were in this room, during beginner's
class. What a difference!
I just want
to say for the record that Sunday was the first and last time I will ever
strip on stage.
2006 by Alyce Wilson