One of my favorite events from David Shepherd’s Improv Olympics, which I participated in as a teenager, was Sound Swim. An audience member would choose one two minute sound-effect from a selection of tapes for a team of improvisers to create a scene against. Some of the sound selections offered were storm, subway, pneumatic drill, factory, party, laboratory, heavy surf, chicken coop, everglades, wind, angry crowd and traffic. Teams were also offered the choice of discarding the selected tape and providing their own “live” sound effects.
|From Improv Olympic handbook.|
I first started using sound effects in the warm-up section of a workshop with at-risk teens. Using a soothing voice, I would guide the students through a relaxation exercise, where they had to lie on the floor, close their eyes and slowly relax their bodies from their toes up to their head. Once this was completed, I would play a ten minute tape of various sound effects. Some were brief, ten seconds, others from thirty to sixty seconds. The objective was to get up and create an activity based on the sound effect. Some students would find a section of the space to explore the sounds on their own, or partner up with one or more players, and engage in a quick scene. It was a wonderful way to start the workshop and get everyone into the head space of focusing on activity and imaginary objects when improvising.
As the years progressed and my students became more inhibited, I discovered that I had to redesign this warm-up. The relaxation section was still effective, to the point where some of my students would drift off to sleep. But once the sound effects started playing, nobody would get off the floor to engage in an activity. Those who did would do it in a half-assed manner.
So, I decided to turn the warm-up into a group activity, bringing in several sound effect CDs, all which had a table of contents listing the type of sound effect and length. Amongst themselves, the students had to pick a series of sound effects, place them in an order that would tell a particular story, and then improvise it.
First time I tried this new approach, twenty two high school students participated on an auditorium stage. After about ten minutes of planning, they asked if they could close the curtain, so I couldn’t figure out what they were up to until the presentation. I agreed, the curtain was drawn and several minutes later, it slowly opened. The stage was filled with clusters of students frozen in a tableau; center, left, up and downstage. It was a kinetic image.
The first sound effect played – a bus driving down the street. Two students downstage left started improvising a scene between a bus driver and passenger. The passenger was off to see a tennis match. Next sound effect was a tennis match, up stage left, as two students engaged in a furious back and forth volley. Center stage, eight students as children climbed monkey bars and seesawed to the next sound effect of children playing. Upstage right, running on pavement was heard as two students jogged. The final scene, downstage right, was the sound of spray painting as several students graffitied a wall. When I asked the group what the presentation was about the response was “exploring the theme of recreation.” Well done.
|Group outline for story.|
I was impressed by the theatricality of this presentation and how after each quick scene, the students would go back into a tableau. My eyes had no problem following the action. The student, who operated the CD player, had an integral role in the presentation and his timing was impeccable.
Second time I tried the exercise was with a smaller group in a classroom. I set the same guidelines as before; put the sound effects in an order that tells a story. The scenario this group came up with was a bank robbery, where hostages were taken and eventually rescued by a SWAT team. What was interesting in this interpretation was that the students didn’t use any dialogue, just non-verbal sounds. In a way, it was like watching a live action silent film. When I complimented this group on the style and ingenuity of their presentation, one student admitted that “We didn’t know we could talk in this.”
Occasionally, I’ll bring in a tape of various movie themes. I’ll play three during the course of a scene to see how it changes the nature of the interaction. Jaws, Star Wars, Pink Panther, The Godfather, James Bond theme and Terminator have an immediate affect on players and keeps the audience riveted to what may happen next. It also forces players to be more physical and pushes them towards vibrant emotions and characterization. With the theme from Jaws, suddenly there is tension in the scene. The Godfather, Italian characterizations spring forth. Playfulness occurs with the Pink Panther theme, as players find themselves moving in tune to the saxophone’s familiar syncopation. Pride is the stand-out emotion when the Star Wars theme blares.
Howard Jerome, co-creator of the Improv Olympics with David Shepherd, and the Canadian Improv Games with Willie Wyllie, once told me that “the problem with teaching improvisation is ultimately, you end up schlepping around a lot of stuff from workshop to workshop.” A recurring dilemma I have before leaving my house to teach a workshop is deciding whether to be self-contained, or load up my bag with goodies, sling it over my rapidly aging body and head on out. With sound effects, I have to lug in a boom box, extension cords, CDs, tapes and pray that by the end of the workshop they will still be intact. But the students appreciate it, the materials encourage them to take full advantage of all their senses, and it makes the workshops more theatrical.
The upper body work-out is beneficial for me, too.
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.