Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Responsive Scene by Michael Golding




The odyssey of an audience-participation format that started on stage, evolved into a radio show, then found new life in the classroom as both.
 

In the Beginning - Responsive Scene on Stage

Howard Jerome Gomberg (cast member):
Responsive Scene began in 1971 as a stage show  entitled “Show of 1,000 Dreams” at 13 West 89th Street.  The format we used was called a “Vertical Soap Opera.”  On stage we created an apartment complex, with different people (gay couple, blue collar worker, etc.) in various units. Throughout the course of the show, we would visit them at different times:  “Now we go to apartment 3B. A married man was out all night and has just come home to his wife.”  Then we would play that scene.

First time I remember an audience member becoming part of the show was when we were exploring the theme of eviction.  In the scene, the landlord started coming on to the tenant.  An audience member suddenly yelled out “I want to be in this scene as a cop.”  So, he came on stage and we played that scene, which became about flushing things out.

Responsive Scene at the Manhattan Theatre Club, 1971. Members of the audience move into a scenario they suggested; “Turning on.” First a cop, then his captain and finally the chief of the police force.

David Shepherd (producer, director, cast member): 
I envisioned stage action that was an intimate part of the spectators’ impulses, desires and satisfaction. At COMPASS, audience suggestions were encapsulated in one sentence: “Do something about mercy killing.” Now I wanted the audience to ride the improv beat to beat until it ended.  We even had a direction: FIND AN ENDING.  I felt emotion was adulterated or phony on stage: hence the MORE EMOTION direction.  Games were designed that would plunge players into a bed of characters. Emphasizing differences of pace and volume. Use of sound effects.

Peter Waldron & Lynn Bernfield act out the suggestions of residents at the Coronet  Nursing Home in Brooklyn, 1972 . They asked to see a young, hip couple get married, have children (quadruplets) and set up a kosher home. They directed Peter and Lynn moment-to-moment, gave the five children names and found an ending for the scene.

David Shepherd:
When six of my students played the Queens House of Detention, we asked for 20 men to train in the morning.  Because I had such confidence in my students, I didn’t come until after lunch.  By about 1pm there were 60 men in the audience-a third of them familiar with the process.  It was a good tactic since only a few people knew who had been trained; if the inmates balked at a suggestion, one of the trainees popped onto the stage to do it.  The show moved rapidly, with female players cast in scenes with men.

One scene was placed in the front seat of a Buick, where Penny Kurtz rolled down an imaginary window.  The inmate was outraged: “That’s not where the window handle is on a Buick”, he shouted triumphantly. Later a Doctor showed up and was cast in a scene with an inmate.  He was prescribing a giant pill.  When the direction came “Switch Characters,” as an inmate he had to hear how powerful this pill was, how it would cure all his aches and pains, and he had to pantomime swallowing it.  The inmates enjoyed switching characters more than any other direction. 

Responsive Scene at Queens House of Detention, 1971.  Penny Kurtz (left) & Bob Aberdeen (right) train 20 volunteers to run a session that afternoon for 85 inmates.  They asked to see a Prison Doctor and an Inmate, & repeatedly gave the signal "Switch Roles.

Howard Jerome:
At L’Oursin in Southampton I remember a scene we were given to play about selling refrigerators in Hell.  I was doing it with Robin Mide, and it was going down the drain.  Just before it died, we got the direction to Add A New Character.  Robin walked into the audience and took the hand of a woman who was standing there, moving alone since the man she was with didn’t pay attention to her.  Robin replaced me with this woman, after which the scene became less about refrigerators and more about their new friendship, which worked.

It was at L’Oursin that we suffered a “brown out,” which happens just before a power failure.  Can you imagine a stage suffused in brown?  About 8:30pm brown turned to black, and we were preparing to tell people to drive home when customers offered to illuminate the action with beans of light from their cars.  We rolled back enormous doors (L’Oursin had been a boat yard before) and several cars drove up and criss-crossed their beams over the splintery stage area.  This light show was more impressive than our show even, which we picked up again and finished.  We got a long, complementary review from News Day Newspaper.

 
The Joker nightclub in Rockland Country, 1971. An audience member joins Duncan Fife, Robin Sands & Claire Michaels on the dance floor to play out a wild party.  When we blanketed the improv with the sound of loud dance music, nothing was lost.

Responsive Scene on Radio 

David Shepherd: 
We ended up on radio because Howard Jerome was friendly with Bob Lifton, who was a producer at WRVR-FM.  At the time, the nostalgia bandwagon was bringing back scripted radio theatre.  I felt that listeners should be able to create their own soaps.  So, I pitched Responsive Scene in one sentence: Listening audience creates a dramatic radio show.  The cast fluctuated, because there was always a pool of players to fill slots in any program we devised.  We approached each show without fear because the home audience had been alerted to what we would do.  I learned right off the bat that emotions are doubly important when an improv cannot be seen. We made plenty of mistakes, but the audience lit up our switchboard nightly (ten lines) and we got to feel like an institution. 

Responsive Scene Radio Show 1972. Left to right, Penny Kurtz, David Shepherd, Howard Jerome and Lynne Bernfield.
Michael Golding (caller):
At 14, I was addicted to midnight re-broadcasts of “The Shadow.” Being able to actually “see” a story in my mind was a new and incredible experience for me. Then, one week a commercial for Responsive Scene aired (“You supply the audio, we’ll supply the video.”).  I remember tingling with excitement after hearing the spot. The first time I listened to the show, it was like experiencing true magic.  Amazing that these on-air actors could conjure up an entertaining scene just based on a who, what, where outline.  Finally summoning up the courage to call in a suggestion, Bob Lifton walked me swiftly through the guidelines then put me on hold as I listened to the show over my pounding heart.  Moments later, I was on the air with Howard and immediately he made me feel comfortable. My scene was about a pizza boy delivering a pie to the wrong address – a woman on a diet.  Howard asked if I would like to play the pizza boy and surprisingly, I said yes.  Skills I never trained for before came into play – listening and teamwork.  Two minutes later the scene was over and my self-confidence levels went off the scale.  Afterwards, I called my two best friends, David and Eddie to let them in on my new magical discovery.

Throughout the summer, David, Eddie and I phoned in suggestions every week, alternating between playing and directing.  By the third week, we were “regulars.” We would have story conferences every week and spent many hours visualizing what all the Responsive Scene players looked like. When the show ended its run in the Fall, I remember being devastated.

Bob Aberdeen (cast member):
In six months of calls, we had only one really nasty suggestion from a man so high it was obvious that he was not himself.  A Jamaican woman called in once to object that her husband was romancing a woman the night before, when she came home to the apartment after work. We did that scene. Fifteen minutes later, a man with a Jamaican accent calls to object that his wife doesn’t understand him. He has been counseling his young cousin in his home, with no subterfuge, and his wife barges in and makes a commotion. We did that scene, too.

David Shepherd:
The thing about directing on radio is that (primarily) one person gives all the directions. There’s consistency in the improv because one person feels responsible.  With the stage version, the audience input should be by a cluster of three people who either volunteer or are selected in advance.  I want spectators to stay on top of the scene as it develops, but I don’t want them to be treating players like puppets – unless everybody agrees that comedy and gross humiliation is in order.

Sheldon Biber (cast member):
One week a caller phoned in with the suggestion: Son of a fireman keeps pulling false alarms. Howard Jerome played the fireman and I was the son. The first minute of the scene was riddled with cliches and one-liners. Howard and I were really struggling. Then Penny Kurtz chimed in with the direction: “Play it for real. Because I don’t get the sense that the father is angry or that the son realizes how serious this is.”  Suddenly, the scene had a deeper and richer meaning and it gave me and Sheldon more conflict to play off of.

The Responsive Scene Radio Show with Penny Kurtz & Howard Jerome, 1972.
David Shepherd:
At WRVR, scenes started and ended much more easily than on stage because of Lifton’s array of sound effects. Scenes could be finessed gracefully with a simple drum roll or gong.  Listeners began to phone in scenes with specific cast members in mind.  One memorable scene involved Howard Jerome playing all three bachelors on “The Dating Game.”

Responsive Scene in the Classroom
 

Michael Golding:
A couple of years ago I was teaching a theatre arts course for the Downtown Business Magnet High School in Los Angeles.  The class was composed of 40 at-risk students.  Due to a plumbing problem, the class was re-scheduled to a smaller space and I couldn’t use my original workshop plan.  So, I decided to give Responsive Scene a shot. 

I presented the format as something everyone participated in – whether they were playing or watching.  It was something THEY were in control of.

The students had already been trained in the basics of improv, so I briefly ran the scene and directing guidelines by them.  I handed out index cards and within minutes we were reading through 40 scene suggestions.  We had time to play 4 of the scenes with the students reluctant to direct at first.  I directed the first scene pretty much by myself, but was sure the students knew how it worked.  During the second scene I would periodically stop the action then ask for suggestions from the class where the scene should go.  By the start of the third scene I asked students by name what they thought should happen.  The rest of the third scene and all of the fourth was directed by the class without any prompting from me.  When the session bell rang, the students were begging for more.

Responsive Scene is a great way for me is to get to know my students better.  I ask that all their scene and character suggestions come from their lives or something based in reality.  It’s also a wonderful device to keep 40 students simultaneously focused for 75 minutes.

For Teachers:  Uses of Responsive Scene

To Explore       Roles
                        Themes
                        Diversity
                        Complex issues
                        Problem solving
                        Group creativity


Michael Golding:
With the mock radio show version, I had to exorcise a lot of the base tendencies from my students because you can do a lot of suggestive stuff with just sounds.  Most of the early scene suggestions had to do with sex or some form of humiliation.  So I initiated a rule – any scene I deemed questionable because of its inappropriateness had to be performed by the writer of the scene. That cleaned up the suggestions pretty quickly.

Most volunteers wanted to be the MC.  They had a lot of fun inventing patter – particularly warnings: “We don’t want your sick imaginations, so take them into the bathroom and do your own show in the shower.”  We warmed up a lot on tape – like having a player come up with a half dozen characters, then associate each a sound.

The great thing about the mock radio version is that is provides the students with complete anonymity – whether they’re playing or doing sound effects.

The playback is particularly important afterwards, because it brings the class together as a group and provides a nice closure for the session.  Shy students who are barely heard when they speak in class are loud and clear on tape.  The microphone really is an intimate device.


Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. 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. 

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