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!

Notes: Paul Grondy Workshop

Paul Grondy

Last Saturday (March 30), I left Ric Walker's workshop and high-tailed it to Paul Grondy's. I have been a huge fan of Paul's ever since I heard Kevin Mullaney talk to him about Harold on the IRC podcast.

Some great quotes from Paul:

  • There is nothing funnier than the committed portrayal of someone else
  • You don't make comedy, the audience does.
  • Taking the comedy out allows us to slow down, take more time between line and response, and give yourself time to consider.
  • I don't want to be inspired by my own brain.
  • Just do acting work up front. You risk a boring scene but it leaves you room to trust in the comedy happening.
  • If you match someone's crazy, it's ok but realize you are doing a shorter scene. Otherwise, give the crazy focus and fuel it.

Paul’s priorities in an improv scene:

  1. Be somebody -- play that person realistically and authentically, and the audience will listen to your dialog in context of that character
  2. His scene partner -- helping build his or her idea
  3. Kick-ass object work
  4. A good location
  5. Then, saying some funny stuff

We played two versions of an exercise called "yes because." The first was about making a completely ridiculous offer into an honest and believable reality. The second was about taking a mundane offer and playing it honestly, resisting the temptation to take it to crazy town. They were very different but both really fascinating.

We finished the workshop with an Armando where the goal was to play normal people behaving normally. We were told that nothing was to happen in these scenes. I found it very hard to resist that built-in urge to heighten and play hard. But it was wonderful! The lesson (as I understand it) was not that one should never heighten but that these instincts can easily push us over the line into creating comedy or (dare I say it) trying to be funny. It was interesting how hard it was to play normal people behaving normally.

Posted with permission from Paul Grondy.