Austin Days 4&5: Environment, Heightening and My New Best Friends

Each day has a focus but none of these are as simple as "let's do some space work" or "don't forget to be somewhere." Chris Trew taught in the morning on Day 4 and he made a point that really resonated with me. A question came up about why some argument scenes or transaction scenes are really successful, and Chris said basically to throw all of those "No transaction/teaching/stranger/therapy scenes" rules out the window. 

We learn a lot of pillars (in TNM lexicon these are weapons and paths but pillars is a simple metaphor). You have a game pillar, a character pillar, an environment pillar. As long as a few of those pillars are supporting your scene (probably two, or one really great one, if you have three BAM), you'll be cooking. So a transaction scene between strangers with strong Points of View and clear game, probably going to be great! Similar with environment. How can we use it as a tool to give us another place to push off from or another source of discovery/contrast?

One of my biggest discoveries of the week was on heightening: STOP DOING IT IN MY HEAD. I learned to stumble into heightening the way I discover at the top of the scene. Go out there, not knowing what the next thing is I'm going to offer, but trust that I get patterns and I get heightening and whatever comes out will be great. This was a revolution for me and led to some of the most joyous moments (mostly me watching them because I struggled with this). But I had a scene in the show on Thursday (often referred to as the blowjob scene) where I did this accidentally. I now hold this up as my ideal of how I want to feel when I'm heightening: on stage, not the back line.

TNM Training Camp 2014

And maybe I should have led with this, but I truly feel like I have 9 new best friends (plus CJ, Amy, Chris and Tami). It's like the closeness I have felt on house teams, playing with the same people for months, doing good shows and bad, great scenes and crappy scenes, I feel all of that with every one of my training camp compatriots that I met 5 days ago. If you are looking to breakthrough your work, and work hard, I can't recommend this enough.

Austin Days 2&3: Emotion and POV

Each day has a focus. Day 1 was "and like a samurai," focusing on the consistently building off your partner every line. I forget the phrases for 2 and 3 but 2 was drilling into emotion, reacting with emotion over logic and diving in hard (I struggled most here so far) and 3 was creating a strong point of view for your character in the first moment of the scene, contrasting/complementary points of view and so forth. 

Since we've had some shows under our belts, we've also been watching tape. Each day after lunch we watch the video last night's performance altogether and CJ (one of our instructors). We watch the whole thing together start to finish and he pauses throughout to make quick comments, ask questions, and issue challenges for the afternoon's work.

I also haven't quite gotten my finger on what's different about notes here. Every teacher did a set or two with us, and gave us notes scene-by-scene. But they never seemed to make people feel worse, or choice-coachy. Sometimes they were quick, sometimes more of a discussion (initiated clearly by a question from the teacher), sometimes they would ask the class to chime in to "popcorn" ideas about other moves in a given scenario.

Speaking of popcorn, these classes, like the TNM book (Improv Wins) are full of catchy phrases and useful metaphors. Teaching this way helps boil things down and communicate complex ideas more clearly, and helps us remember them before shows or the next day. Chris says these come to him usually in the moment then get refined over time, but they are useful. 

After each session, we all summarize our take-aways with a word or phrase. Here are some I have found useful so far:

  • And like a samurai
  • Discover something in every line
  • Stumble into emotion
  • Always build momentum
  • Add depth not details
  • Let the walls down. If the walls are up, explain the walls.
  • Find something you can take to 7
  • Joy Anger Love Seduction Fear
  • Contrast over Conflict
  • Find a signature move

The Megaphone Marathons are also starting to bring out some great teams. Below is the amazing Austin team, Opposites, featuring our Day 3 instructor Mark.

Austin day 1: The intensive begins

The New Movement

TNM Intensive runs from 9am-4:30pm Mon-Fri. We go out for lunch and have an optional dinner time activity before coming back for a performance each night. The performances are part of the Megaphone Marathons, with some groups from out of town.

Some day 1 observations:

  • It's a long day, mentally and physically. So I may not be as eagerly blogging as I had hoped.
  • There's a journaling component, which is great. I always bring a notebook to classes and ep0/usually to rehearsals but this longer format allows short spaces in session to journal.
  • A lot of the individual feedback comes from the teaching structure. There is an official lesson, with a rotating cast of teachers each session. But there is always another teaching sitting in the house, watching your work and jotting down lots of notes and data to provide you feedback on your goals for the camp.
  • Like tech conferences, much of the best experiences already happen outside of the formal programming. Walking back from dinner I was able to unstick some of what was confusing me about the philosophy presented. I enjoy just talking to improvisers from other cities about their experiences and scenes where they're from. This week will take 10 strangers and turn them into a team, and that's pretty great.
  • Scene sprints - using a complicated game clock, every so often we do 10 sprints of :27 second scenes with :03 seconds in between (in pairs throughout the room). This is an energizing, if exhausting way to get a lot of practice with a new idea.

See you tomorrow!

Austin Day 0: An Institution

Before I get real improv-y, let me just say that people in Austin are the NICEST. Throughout the day, people just kept striking up conversations with me, just for being in the grocery line for example. How fun!

The Institution

Anyway, I signed up for Asaf Ronen's Drop In Diagnostics Class at The Institution. This was a great experience and such a cool idea. Students from Institution (or the 4 other schools) can drop in any week for some personal attention. It was intense. The class is designed to quickly find weaknesses and provide some practical tools. I left feeling energized but I get that it's not a "good" feeling.

Then was the Rubber Room. This is The Institution's weekly jam. When I told Asaf how well I enjoyed the format, he thanked me and told me a lot of thought went into it. Here were the main features I enjoyed: 

  • Big group warm up that was a) led by one of the teaching faculty b) quick c) involved most of the people most of the time (no small feat for a group this siz
  • Teams did sets. These had music and lights (mine even had bubbles drop). Really felt like a show.
  • Teams edited (tags, sweeps), but a teacher would clear for a whole new scene every so often (in a super fun way)
  • Then the teachers did a set together. It was informal and full of joy!
  • Then the lottery: each teacher drew a raffle ticket and the winner did a longer scene with them, they agreed on the format at the top.

A really fun night. Ok all for now.

One week in Austin: hopes and hideout

I just arrived in Austin, 2 days early for my intensive at The New Movement. As I understand it, the intensive (called Training Camp) is a lot more like boot camp than improv class. It's a small class, we have 6 hours of class each day which focuses on reps, then a show each night for a paying crowd (the game in this analogy). 

Why am I here? I don't perform much anymore with groups that rehearse regularly with a coach. So I wanted to focus on my performance, even if for a week, with teachers who don't know me very well.

And why wait until Monday? Tonight I went to the Hideout Theater (which is right by TNM, easy for us improv tourists). It's got a cool vibe, store front, coffee shop out front (with a decent urbanspoon rating), and they have cocktails. 

The Hideout Theater (and coffee shop)

I saw a show called The International Improv Experience. There are 3 layers to this thing, all of them (in my opinion) delightful. 

  1. This idea that Roy Janik from came up with after doing a lot more international shows and workshops--how to bring more of that to Austin? The show features videos from improv troupes throughout the world. 
  2. A sort of technological whimsy that is loosely related to the theme (I'm told Kaci Beemer is responsible for the look of the show). The show features a talking computer (the person in the tech booth with an 1980s era animated computer head), a button that spins a slot machine-esque spinner to pick random cities, a giant lever that starts scene, and the best part: dozens of shapes that make up the "virtual reality" allowing the "computer" (improvisers) to create any location in the world. I cannot overstate how beautiful this was to watch. I tried to do it justice with the photo below. 
  3. The final is the show mechanic itself. The show was in two acts with a short intermission (for coffee and happy hour priced cocktails). The first half was ComedySportz-esque. There was only one team and the challenges came from the International improvisers. That's what all those videos are. Anything from "give examples of what this poorly translated English means" to "do a scene at tea about how to make cricket more interesting to Americans." The best scene by far (IMO) was in response to a Japanese video that was a scene in Japanese gibberish (it really was gibberish, not just my inability to speak Japanese). The second half was long form inspired by a story telling technique also provided by video prompt.

"Virtual Reality" mayhem is created during the International Improv Experience at the Hideout Theater.

Overall, totally aligns with my expectations of Austin! Creativity in droves, asking what have we not seen improv do yet?