Friday, January 10, 2014

Layers by Michael Golding

Frequently, when I do workshops with experienced improvisers, I’m surprised that they don’t take advantage of all the necessary skills for a successful improvisation.  Some books on the market make improv sound more complicated than it really is.  The terminology may change over time, but the skills remains the same; listen, agree, explore where, imbue objects with qualities, be in the moment, be real, support fellow players, be emotionally sincere.  

Page from 1982 Improv Olympic program

Often, I find improvisers in scenes talking about the where, objects and emotions, rather than showing them. For a time, I taught skills workshops, with an emphasis on the aforementioned areas.  Then I hit upon a more interesting approach for myself and students; scene workshops with side-coaching.

A few years ago at the Canadian Improv Games National Festival, I conducted a scene workshop with a group of teenage players from Australia. They were a fascinating group to work with; sardonic, self-effacing, and uninhibited. After a group warm-up, I had them fill out who/what/where scene cards. My only guideline was that the scenes be grounded in reality.  After collecting and reading out the cards we started to put them up on their feet.

The first scene took place in a lifeboat with a boy and girl who had just escaped from a sinking ship.  The first minute of the improv was filled with snappy one-liners, sexual innuendo and a lack of regard for the laws of physics. Entertaining, in a surreal way – but it was time to add on some layers.

My first direction forbids the two from talking.  They can only use non-verbal sounds.  I then had them focus on the lifeboat.  It’s bobbing all over the place because of the harsh ocean and becomes particularly unsteady whenever one of them stands up or tries to move.  Then I had them focus on the temperature – which was frigid. How does that affect your breathing and movement?

The tone of the scene changed instantly and I allowed them to talk.  The conversation was much more realistic.   Using inner monologue, I had them get in touch with what they were feeling at the moment.  Fear and anxiety was at the forefront. Once those feelings were acknowledged, I had them go back into the scene – which now had a more poignant layer.  As the boy operated the oars, I had him focus on the pain in his shoulders, arms, and how the skin on his hands were burning.  Hunger began to overwhelm the two.  I had them focus on that sensation in their stomachs and how to express it in their movements and speech.

In the last thirty seconds of the scene, I had the players focus on an object; a discovered frozen solid chocolate bar. With amazing detail, the boy painstakingly unwrapped the bar, with the girl helping him so he could pull the wrapper completely off.  As the boy broke the bar in half, the girl hungrily licked the inside of the wrapper. They then huddled together, biting down hard on their chocolate bars. The chewing appeared painful and excruciating.  Without any prompting, the players watching provided the ending.  Several made the sound of a horn blowing from a ship, with another yelling out “Ahoy there!”  The two players on the boat looked towards the sound of the ship with hope. Perfect. Scene!

I allowed the players in the workshop to side-coach the next series of scenes, which focused on school, dating, working out, and parenting.  Whenever a scene began to falter, a direction focusing on feeling, objects or exploring the where, got it right back on track.

Then, the group did something unexpected and extraordinary.  They started side-coaching with various games, while still focusing on feeling, objects and the where.  Games that I originally found to be somewhat simplistic now had more vibrancy. The players provided me with another way I could approach side-coaching skills.

My workshop approach has often been described as “old school.”  As I transition from young improv whipper-snapper, to honored elder, I’m okay with that.  My “old school” teachers were David Shepherd and Paul Sills. In the improv community, my mark will never have the same impact, or be as lasting as theirs.  But I’d like to think that whenever I get improvisers to focus on the where, objects and feeling, I’m honoring their legacy, and hopefully providing young improvisers with something “old school” to think about.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at 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. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. 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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