- The main difference between a 201 grad show and a seasoned improv show is that when people step out their eyes are locked on each other. People are so worried about putting out their initiations that they don’t see the choices they’ve already made.
- I think of scenes like pyramids, on the bottom we are listening to each other and agreeing, above that we are playing realistically and intelligently, above that making them important and reacting emotionally and above that game.
- Saying a suggestion in a Harold is usually really lame. It’s like if Darth Vader were to say “I declare Star Wars”.
Will Hines substitutes a UCB 401 class and brings a lot of wisdom. That last quote made me laugh out loud.
In preparation for the Del Close Marathon, the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Centre offered a bunch of workshops covering various topics. I attended a workshop with Will Hines covering two ‘harder’ long-forms that he saw many times when starting with the UCB – The Sleepover and Tracers. Below are the notes and impressions from Tracers portion of the workshop.
How It Came About: Tracers was a show that ran at UCBNY in early 2000. It was inspired by the show Close Quarters which ran years earlier in Chicago, and later spawned shows at UCB such as Vantage Point and Retraced.
- A company of 6 to 8 performers.
- Take a suggestion at the top of the show.
- Scenes all happen in the same geographic location. If your location is kitchen, you might see scenes at the dishwashing station, at the bar, at the FBI van in the car park across the street.
- The first scene establishes the location plus the people.
- Scenes heighten a lot!! Every scene is a short little play which gets bigger and bigger (like a balloon).
- Tone can change between scenes. You can have a slow-played dramatic scene in one location, followed by a gamey fun scene in the next.
- We never go backwards – all the scenes are happening at the same time.
- Two gimmicks to use in the show: Callbacks and Foreshadowing
- Callbacks: If something happens in one room, it’s repeated in the next room (eg callbacks – someone screams the word ‘murder’ in scene one. In scene two, you will hear someone scream ‘murder’ in the background). This requires memory, so don’t do it too often.
- Foreshadowing: Backwards callback. You’re encouraged to do it. People in the backline adding something (via a walk-on) which is used later on in the show. This can include emotion!
- The show isn’t made by the gimmicks though. It’s made by the scenes.
- Transitions: French Edit your scenes – walk out in front of the performers and start a new scene.
- Everyone has their own little issue which comes up in each scene.
- Not everything needs to be solved.
- Loads of emotion between scenes.
- Plot doesn’t matter because it’s easy to get stuck in information established in the previous scenes. We want to see relationships, confessions, moments.
- Take your time, there’s no need to rush.
- Show Balance: If you take, you must give – be it confessions, character names, gifts.
- Use the entire stage to indicate the different spaces you are located in.
- If you drop a bomb, let it land. Look at the person for a beat to inform your character choice.
- Make instinctive choices right away.
- Be comfortable with silent tension.
Will Hines is in China, leading a group of Level 1s. Cool reflections.
Hoo boy, this is a good episode of Improv Nerd. Around 16 minutes in, host Jimmy Carrane asks guest Will Hines to define the UCB’s philosophy and go into the game of the scene. Then at 18 minutes, the two perform a game based scene followed by a discussion where Hines separates the base reality from the games going on inside the scene. They then re-do the scene, playing the game differently each time. Neat! Download the episode over at Feral Audio.
Being good at improv means knowing how to manage doubt and anxiety. They never totally go away but they can be handled.
Will Hines answers some reader mail on how to feel “right” before performing.
Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to New York improv podcast Magnet Theater Podcast. This is from Episode 50: Will Hines. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.
2:12: Improv fighting: philosophical debates are good, but wizard battles are bad.
- Philosophical Debates: Two characters are having a point of view discussion. It’s not about winning the fight or defeating your scene partner. It’s about exploration of point of view, which could lead to further point of view, game, or pattern.
- Wizard Battles: Using the powers of reality to win the fight. Making up something to justify your own point of view/make your scene partner look wrong.
Find the sweet spot for fighting in scenes. No fights makes for unrealistic discussion (people in real life fight!). Too many fights leads to defensive moves by the improviser, instead of the character in the scene.
6:20: When a fight is over, we move forward. An interesting change happens in the character as a result of the fight impacting on the character. Fights don’t exist just to fight.
8:14: “Fighting (in scenes) is tricky I think ’cause [..] good fighting and bad fighting feels very similar I think. And bad fighting feels like a lot of good stuff in improv. Like bad fighting feels passionate and true, and honest and specific, all that stuff’s great, like that stuff is what you’re trying to get to right? So it’s really tough for younger improvisers, you want them to be like passionate and committed and honest and personal, but then they’ll only do it to defend themselves. I mean I’ve done it, I don’t mean to. But that’s the trick, to get them to separate their ego out.”
8:53: “The guaranteed way to know if a fight is good or bad, and this is not helpful for when you’re doing improv, is like if you feel like defensive anger while you’re doing it, it’s wrong. Like if you’re just doing it to protect yourself, that’s wrong. Even though that does happen in real life, you can’t pursue that feeling [in a scene]. But that’s not necessarily helpful. Like if you make fun of me on stage and I zing you back, that’s probably not helpful even if it makes the audience laugh. But if you say something about yourself and I zing you just to like make your thing more true or creative more evidence to back up what you said about yourself that is good, and the audience might laugh. Those things feel very similar, but the former is a protective move, it doesn’t work.”
11:05: Fights often break out due to scene partners not acknowledge each other when starting the scene. The first performer in enters the stage, starts doing object work, leaving the second performer to make a big choice. First in will then feel violated and then fights with the second in. “Shake hands” before you start the scene – acknowledge your scene partner when you start the scene – use eye contact, get on the same page early. “The person tried to shake hands with you by talking about a sandwich, and you rejected the handshake. So they’re as miffed as if they put out their hand and you ignored it.”
18:44: Differences in Magnet style Harolds to UCB style Harolds according to Louis Kornfeld:
- Less game oriented.
- Second beats: Extensions of the first beats instead of literal direct heightening. First beats are considered source scenes, which are followed in the second beats discovering resonance between them.
- Use of opening: Casual, exploration of ideas, finding characters. Not literal, not so much to generate premise or game to re-use in scenes.
19:34: Will Hines’ pragmatic thoughts on Harold openings:
Premise or game based opening pulls
- Advantages: You get something funny earlier, potential of laughs earlier, makes the performers and audience comfortable that the show is going somewhere.
- Disadvantages: Discovery can be rushed, scenes can be thin as a result.
Theme, moods, characters, half-idea based opening pulls
- Advantages: Connect more with your teammates, commit harder, more real, more freedom to find yourself in it. Yes And/Agreement is stronger.
- Disadvantages: Can meander more before something funny happens. Less aggressively entertaining – if people aren’t funny naturally, the show will ramble around.
22:02: “Entertain the audience now. Do it now, that’s what you’re there for.”
22:24: “I treat openings a lot [..] as gifting each other with what the suggestion brings to my mind. So what I mean would be, if I do something in an opening, let’s say I come on out and do a short character monologue in the opening, I would then avoid touching that character for the rest of the show, that’s, I’m leaving it out there for the reason of the group to pick up, should they be so inspired. Once I get my idea my idea out there, I’m actively looking for somebody’s idea that’s inspirational to me.”
28:38: Great acting in an improv scene may not be great acting at an acting school, or even feature great actors. It has an honesty and a sincerity to the way that is played. The simplest thing becomes fascinating to watch.
31:20: Just do what you’re being asked to do. Don’t add more, just do what you’re being asked to do to the best of your ability. That will lead to something fascinating, a glimpse between two people – not big, not bullshit, just direct and sincere.
36:37: “Scope on the rules is what’s good.” Not all improv rules apply to every scene uniformly. If the improviser is aware of the scene – what they are doing and what their partner is doing, they will know what rules to apply in the situation.
42:47: “If you’re a good student, you’ll try on different things because the teacher’s asking you to and you’ll decide later if it’s for you or not. But that’s definitely the most productive approach if you’re a student anyway.”
59:48: “It’s all like are you being present and honest in the moment? Or are you relying on formulas and shoulds and you’re no longer like, tuned in. You have to be an honest reporter of the moment to the audience. The audience is watching you so you have to report honestly on what’s going on. So if you’re not doing that because you’re obeying a rule you heard, then you suck. But it’s funny because what is a freeing simplification one day is a binding rule the next day, just because you grew.”
1:22:08: Know/Care/Say: The opposite of the “normal” improv rules that are all negative – scenes should have positive things – choose to know what’s going on, choose to care about it, and choose to say something. “Because those are the three things we’re socialised to not do. [..] Those are real instincts that we have learned. And although we want you to be real on stage, it’s except for those three very ingrained things, big exceptions.”
1:26:51: Know/Care/Say: It’s about skipping all your natural “mammal brain” defenses without changing your real personality.
In preparation for the Del Close Marathon, the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Centre offered a bunch of workshops covering various topics. I attended a workshop with Will Hines covering two ‘harder’ long-forms that he saw many times when starting with the UCB – The Sleepover and Tracers. Below are the notes and impressions from The Sleepover portion of the workshop.
How It Came About: Mother were a Harold Night team at UCBNY known for their high energy, aggressive playstyle. Sometimes the play was too aggressive – scenes would get tagged out almost immediately, and shows had a tendency to fizzle out on occasion. The name “The Sleepover” came from the team’s tendency to run sleep over themed group games in Harolds.
The new form, workshopped with Armando Diaz was intended to improve the team’s acting chops, while slowing them down and forcing hard commitment to characters. The Sleepover has elements of La Ronde and the Deconstruction – each player starts by playing one character for the initial run of scenes, and later scenes as part of the montage/run start with the characters seen earlier until tag runs/side support commences.
I learned this from watching Mother’s shows. If you end up taking a class with Mother, they’re right.
Opening: After taking a suggestion, each player steps out one by one to announce their mantra. The mantra is a line of vaguely inspiration dialogue inspired by the suggestion such as “go big or go home” or “God is on our side” , and is presented as if the person is talking into a mirror. This is used to inform each player’s emotional character choice, so once you have said your mantra make a decision based on what you said – this will be your character for the show.
Be aware of volume: each player should say their mantra at least three times loudly before fading down, and stage picture: everyone should be standing out of line (north/south rule), using the entire stage.
Once everyone has stepped out and said their mantra, everyone should start repeating their mantras louder and louder and then leave the stage one by one, until only one player is left (Player A). This player is considered “activated” and can then pick a second player to activate and then perform a scene, with the second player (Player B) initiating the scene.
- Each player announces a mantra, one by one
- Each player leaves the stage, leaving one player (activated)
- The activated person picks a second person to activate.
- The second person initiates a scene.
Opening Scenes: When the scene starts, you develop who you using the mantra as inspiration. In order to start in the middle of a scene (as opposed to “hi, how are you?”) the initiator should be answering a question that was asked off-stage. The scene plays out as normal – remember to name each other and use philosophy, history, specifics, and relationship as keys to helping the scene develop. Characters should have emotional tones – no-one is identical, and give gifts through agreements and confirmation.
You are rewarded for simple choices that are easy to remember.
Scenes are edited by having the non-activated players step out and repeat their mantra. Players A & B leave the stage. Player B then activates another player (Player C) who initiates a scene with Player B. The rest of the players leave the stage, and the scene plays out. As a result, every character in this universe knows each other. USE NAMES.
The opening run of scenes repeats until every player in the team has had at least one scene. In a team of six players, the scenes would run in the following order:
- Player A & B
- Player B & C
- Player C & D
- Player D & E
- Player E & F
The final scene can be wiped with a sweep edit. Alternatively everyone can step out to repeat their mantras before leaving the stage.
Montage Run: Once everyone has performed a scene, the montage run of the show commences. Anyone can initiate with anyone else, and side supports, tag outs, and edits are performed as normal. The only condition is the scene must begin with the two characters seen in the earlier scenes. This can (should?) be played deconstruction style – bring back all the fun things that came up earlier and mine them for all their worth, getting quicker and quicker until you hit that big bang.
Ending: Blackout on the high point.
It’s roughly that I want to see scenes where people are not worried about making a game, or making a pattern, or doing anything at all where it seems like they’re doing it because they think they SHOULD. No shoulds. This is slightly different in my mind than the related “don’t be funny” exercises. I just mean, forget the rules of what you think you SHOULD do, and instead just be in the scene for real and tell me what the person would really say.