Red Beans and Rice

I am making up a pot of red beans and rice, which I am want to do on occaision. One of the main parts of Red Beans and Rice is the ‘holy trinity’ of foods; Onion, celery and green pepper.

It makes me think ‘what is the holy trinity of improv?’ In my mind it is a few things:

1. Confidence. Do something. Whatever it is. Just do it. Stop thinking about why you should or shouldn’t. Just do it. That moment where you considered it – that was your downfall – you should have done it. Stop considering and start moving. Your body doesn’t lie – if it felt like you needed to enter / exit / do something, then you probably did. Listen to your body. It knows more than you do.

2. Care. Care about the characters you are with. The fact that you are onstage with them means that you must care something about them, right? Otherwise, why would you be in this scene with them? (And, if you don’t like them – then leave. It’s not hard, just walk away. Really.) So care about them. Know them. Even if you don’t – it just means you know them in some other way.

3. Reality. People say really crazy things in life – so amazingly crazy that it seems unreal. But put those people in in an improv scene and they get timid, or blah. Or they got HOG SHIT CRAZY. It seems like it is one or the other. But they don’t reflect the reality of life. The joy in the lady talking to her toy bear on the bus. The guy who is buying ten cans of cat food and a frozen pizza in line in front of you at the store . The couple having the most undramatic breakup over coffee at the coffee shop. It’s all really amazing. If you just open your eyes and see it, it becomes the new reality for your life on stage. See it and reflect it.

I am sure there are fifteen other ingredients that I can come up with as well (like bay leaves, very very important the bay leaf is…), but for now, you get these three.


Murder Your Darlings

(NOTE: Originally posted at An Hour of Play)

Criminal Improv Unit: SeattleIn the few instances that I’ve been in literary situations (interviews, readings) since getting back into improv again, a question I’ve been asked in each case is, “How does improv impact your writing?” I’m not sure I can answer that question well, because I haven’t done much writing at all since jumping back on stage. I can, however, speak to one huge way in which a “rule” of writing has carried over into my improv. It comes from a passage about writing (often misattributed) by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

When I started this blog (a whopping five days ago), there were certain topics that I knew I wanted to tackle, and this was at the top of the list. But I’ve been pretty good about following this advice myself recently, and I didn’t want to call out other improvisers whom I’ve seen forcing their darlings onstage. Fortunately, last night’s performance of “CIU” was a) our best show yet, and b) one in which I murdered a lot of darlings. So I’ll come at this from an angle of something done well, rather than something fucked up (and it is, if not the most common fuck-up I see (and do) in improv, right up there at the top).

So what is the application to improv? When one is out of scene, whether in short-form or long-form, one is still highly engaged with the action onstage. It’s a keen state of observation, of listening, of finding what support a game or more narrative show needs. And when one picks up on a piece of support that would advance the scene in a particularly great way… that is a darling. If the scene allows for it right at that moment, a darling can do amazing things. If, however, something in the scene changes before the darling can be introduced—changes in a way that makes the darling a distraction—murder that darling post-haste. And forget about it. Realize that one of an improviser’s strengths is the capacity to generate new darlings almost constantly.

In the past, when referring to my writing, I often said that 90% of what I wrote was shit. But the 10% that was good couldn’t have existed without having generated the much larger shit pile. That equally applies to improv ideas. To get to the best ideas—or at least best for the specific scene—there has to be a pretty huge shit pile of ideas discarded. For whatever reason, that didn’t occur to me at all when I first jumped back in. As soon as I had an idea, I felt the need to put it into action. And I had a lot of shitty ideas. Or rather, a lot of them probably weren’t bad on first thought, but by the time they were brought into the scenes, they were already obsolete, and took the scenes sideways (if I was lucky) or (more likely) backwards.

So, last night’s show. The cast did stellar work last night, across the board. Dan, as the lead detective, and Tony, as the renegade import cop from Texas, had a great antagonistic relationship. Stephanie and Joel, as the married detectives Dr. Phillips and Dr. Phillips, were awesome. Christina was so amazing in two roles: one as the lab tech Beverly (or was it Everly?), and one as a medical marijuana smoking club manager. Tamara was freaking hilarious as the lab tech Everly (or was it Beverly?) who used yoga techniques to examine corpses in the morgue. Jay… holy crap, Jay… stood our usual format on its head from the very beginning of the show when he deviated from opening the show with a victim scene and instead played a serial killer who was flushing a victim’s body parts down a toilet until he was interrupted by Tiffany, whom he then killed. Stakes? Damn’ straight, stakes. His serial killer, who didn’t speak until he was caught, was brilliantly played, creepy, and funny as hell. Tiffany (who is HILARIOUS) and I were swing players. As it turned out, Tiffany barely spoke at all through the course of the show, instead turning up in various bathrooms as yet more victims for Jay to kill. Which, while not highlighting her own brilliance, were exactly the supports to scenes needed in each instance.

For myself, I played one character, a homeless guy who found Jay’s bloody shirt and tie in a dumpster and started wearing them, and then wound up in the back seat of Dan’s and Tony’s cruiser (offstage) for the rest of the show. My darling murders took place offstage all night. A couple examples: I was in costume as a postal worker, ready to go onstage to be questioned as one of the patrons of the bar where the first murder took place. While in that costume, Jay ditched the bloody shirt and tie. Well, that’s evidence that’s probably more important to follow than someone in a bar who probably didn’t see anything, so darling poster worker got murdered before seeing the stage. The two Dr. Phillipses talked about the profile of the killer, and how he had mommy issues. So I donned a muumuu, glasses, and a wig to play a crazy, old woman. Shortly after, it was revealed that the killer had been abandoned by his mother at an early age. Off went the muumuu, wig, and glasses, as another darling got murdered.

Had I forced the old lady onstage (and I was really enamored with the idea of the character), at best, it would have been a briefly humorous distraction. At worst, it would have forced all the actors onstage to do a lot of justifying of the denial of something already established: that the killer’s mother was not in the picture. And where they went instead—into the drooling madness of Jay alternately withholding and offering the detectives information on the whereabouts of his latest victim—was amazing. And probably couldn’t have happened if I’d forced my darling onstage.

The show was awesome, due almost entirely to everyone else in the cast. They were so, so good last night. And while every actor would like to be part of that creation, sometimes the best way to help the creation be great is to step back and let it happen, to leave a pile of darling corpses in the wings.

Don’t Kill Yourself

(NOTE: Originally posted at An Hour of Play)

One of the things that I adore about Interrobang is that we regularly issue challenges, both to ourselves and to others in the group, in an effort to expand all of our tool kits. For example, in one of our “Last Call” performances at Wing-It, Shira played almost exclusively low-status characters. In her next performance, her challenge to herself was to play only high-status characters. Where, in one performance, a typical character had been a very submissive Mrs. Noah, in the next performance, in a scene between two cheesy music addicts, she was the one who beat up the other character and stole his Barry Manilow collection.

The example I’ll give for myself is to stop committing suicide in scenes (at least for a little while). While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a character killing himself in a scene (if it’s justified and advances the scene), the fact that characters I played in both of those “Last Call” performances killed themselves suggests to me that it’s become too much of a go-to. (And even after noticing that, and putting in my mind that my next self-challenge at “Last Call” would be to not kill myself, I wound up doing exactly that in a performance of “Criminal Improv Unit.”)

So… here were the three scenes:

1) Noah (played in the style of Robert Shaw in “Jaws”) has taken two of each creature onto his ark, as God has commanded. In one scene, he walks in to find his wife flirting with another man. He walks offstage to get a rifle, comes back on, and levels the rifle at the interloper, saying, “Smile, you son of a bitch.” In the time that he’s been offstage, another man has come on. Faced with two men taking his place with his wife, he screams up to God that while he’d agreed to two of everything, he hadn’t realized that God had meant two adulterers as well, curses God, and turns the rifle on himself. Justifiable, and a great reaction from the audience (getting an audience to audibly express sadness reacting to an improv scene, for me, is in some ways, even more satisfying than getting them to laugh).

2) Low-status cheesy music nerd changes the locks on his own house to keep high-status cheesy music bully from stealing any more of his stuff. He breaks into his own place and sets the needle down on a newly purchased, rare Manilow LP. Bully comes in and takes it from him, and also reminds him that she killed his cat (cats were a big part of the overarching theme of the show). Sobbing, he goes to his closet, pulls out his taxidermied cat, retracts its claws, and rakes them across his jugular. Again, totally justified, and it led to the rest of the cast coming on as cats, trying to nudge him back to life, then labeling an audience member in the front row (whom we had been singling out throughout the show) as inheriting his soul. As they purr all over her, corpse starts singing “Mandy,” and the cats all join in. End of show (and a great pull by Steven in the booth to bring “Mandy” up for our bows).

3) Lawyer, who is a prime suspect in a murder, is cornered in interrogation. It’s clear he’s going to jail for a long time, based on the fact that he’s smuggled heroin in his clients who are being deported to Ireland (a gang of Seattle Irish, whose names are all Johnny Walker). He pulls a gun (ah, police procedurals!) that the detectives didn’t think to search him for prior to bringing them in. The detectives pull their guns–Mexican stand-off.  They try to get the information from him as to who actually killed the victim, and he tells them that they’ll have to figure out for themselves and turns the gun on himself. Possibly the least justifiable of the three scenes (especially after telling myself, in a different context, to NOT do this), although totally fitting the trope of characters in shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order” ending their own lives rather than facing justice. Also fit into the format of the show of introducing red herrings and dismissing them before the detectives find the actual perp.

None of those, in isolation, are necessarily “bad improv.” They all worked in the context of the shows in which they appeared. But I think that one of the surest ways to stop improving as an improviser is to return too often to something “because it worked.” Where would any of those scenes gone, for example, if the characters hadn’t killed themselves? Might Noah have had to cede some of the status in the relationship with his wife? Maybe the music nerd finally has enough and turns the tables on his tormentor? Could the lawyer have revealed more information about the actual perp, leading the detectives in a different direction? No way to know now.

In general, I believe that if you have any fear about where a scene is going in improv, that needs to be explored. It might not make for the best performance in that specific case, but whatever’s learned from pursuing the more difficult direction is something that’s going to make future performances better. While the specific example I used here is about characters killing themselves, my larger point is that it’s important to challenge ourselves to continue pushing in other directions. I’ve found a bit that kills the audience every time? Great, that’s one of my tools. But if I stop there, if that’s the only tool I pull out, I’m limiting myself. That’s as good as I’m going to get. Time to challenge myself to do something besides what I know works.