Sunday, 29 May 2011

There's no method to impro

Sometimes I feel like this blog is just a record of me realising majorly obvious things that everyone else has known for ages. Anyway, here it goes, what I've been thinking about this week is......

There is no method to impro, or comedy, or theatre or art in general. 

Or rather, there are other people's methods, but if you want to make a success of it yourself you have to find your own method in the moment, which constantly changes, and that's the whole point of it being creative. 

Recently I thought I had 'it' and was able to reliably improvise funny scenes and shows and whooooo-yeahhhh. One of my last blogs seemed pretty popular too (improvisers are scared of making people laugh etc) and I thought I was on to a winner when I came to performing. Then in my next show I felt really frozen, rigid, unfunny. Then it happened in another show, then I was really awful in the last two shows. I actually found myself on stage thinking "oh fuck, I'm on stage, I've got to make up something, it's meant to be funny" and felt a block of ice between me and everyone else. Not a great place to be.

It seems that at the very point I thought I had 'it' was the very point it had all gone. 

I tried to get to the bottom of all this. Was it abandoning/loosing the basics? I tried to concentrate on them but they just bored me and I just found the whole thing, and myself, really boring. I actually spent a week or so finding my whole brain and everything it thought off to be really boring. 

Then Edgar lead a workshop I was in (Thursday) and I suddenly started enjoying everything again. A load of responsibility lifted off my shoulders and I was having fun again. His opening patter went like this....

"My name's Edgar. I run these workshops with Steve. We're going to make some stuff up. Anyway, that's enough words from me"

And then we made up stuff, that's it. For impro geeks out there I think Edgar is the new Mick Napier, he doesn't even know or care who Mick Napier is - which makes him even more like him.

Then again this Saturday a lovely improviser said they'd been absorbing loads of stuff but were now confused by it all and stuck in their heads, so we get her to just focus on one thing and forget everything else, and the scene she was in was hilarious, touching, told a complete story and was basically brilliant. 

On Saturday I also concentrated loads on people starting scenes with believable actions and then someone entering in a heightened emotion (Meisner emotional preparation) and this produced amazing scene after amazing scene. 

The weird thing is that I was teaching that style about 3 years ago and then stopped for a bit because it got really boring and predictable to look at. But now it seems it was exactly what was needed. 

Every time I go into Saturday workshops with too strong a plan, it feels like hard work. Every time I go in with an open mind and adapt, it produces some amazing stuff. 

This all leads me to believe that there is no set method, as by the time you've learnt it it's too late anyway as it's then old and everybody is doing it or bored of seeing it. If you think you've got 'it' you actually loose something else - the danger, the enjoyment, the excitement, the vulnerability, the humanity, the nerves, the brilliance. And all these things are way more important than the 'it', whatever the 'it' is. 

The experimentation and learning and getting it wrong and being confused and doing things and doing anything is it, is the whole point, and it’s out of that that the good stuff comes, and it's out of that the new stuff comes. You're not brilliant because you 'know' stuff, you're brilliant because you don't know stuff but you do things anyway. 

A couple of people this week asked about how to set up new shows themselves, so I told them some good venues etc and the more logistical ins and outs. They asked me how they should go about choosing a cast and what they do in a show, but I said that's the whole point - that bit has to be up to them, and that's the exact point it becomes exciting and alive.

Also if you're looking for guaranteed impro method then the best thing you're going to end up with is an imitation of what someone else is already doing.

So don’t go to workshops to learn a technque that will solve all your problems, because it doesn’t exist. Go to be inspired to find your own thing, and then do your own thing, and put yourself into it. Use teachers to get what you want and then use and abuse their stuff for your own benefit and creations, not to end up being a cloned version of them.

In my opinion just learning a techniqe to make comedy, maybe even art in general, safe and reliable won’t work, because comedy is dangerous and unreliable and comes out of life in the present.

ps - this blog came at the exact time as the arrival of Mick Napier's book, and what he says in the opening chapter is spookily similar to Edgar.  I love the idea that neither of them would care about this blog, or each other.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Paul, Cariad, David, Rob, Phil, Glue

Such a great night at The Miller last night I felt inspired to write about it.

We had a first half of Cariad Lloyd and Paul Foxcroft doing impro together, with support from band The Glue Ensemble. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was probably one of the best impro shows I've ever seen. 

They just take a word from the audience (I can't even remember what it was) and then make up lots of connected scenes off the back of it. 

What was so great about it is I couldn't really word why it was so great, as I was too busy enjoying it. If anything I would say it was its beautiful complexity in its own simplicity. 

I watch a lot of impro, which you kind of have to if you run a venue, so I usually have a bit of impro immunity. It's quite unusual for me to laugh out loud at an impro show, and even then I kind of see the technique behind the actors. 

However with Paul and Cariad I just saw two real human characters on stage that made me laugh, and I laughed a lot, and I really cared about them a lot! Also I really felt that the actors were constantly surprising themselves, without planning, which meant I was constantly surprised and intrigued. Even before going on stage Cariad happened to mention to me the dangers of being typecast in impro, and I could really see her come to life when she played a wife-beating deep south red neck man. Cariad and Paul immediately embraced all characters, while keeping a real human touch. 

One scene that really stood out for me was a brother and sister reading the diary of their dead mother. They started off as cold towards each other but as they read the diary (in silence, except for music), you could see their relationship warm up and the years peel away until they revealed the young brother and sister love they had previously lost. It was incredibly touching, and even from the back of the room we were drawn in. 

Not many people could have pulled that off. Was it the silence? In my opinion no, it wasn't that, as I've seen improvisers try and pull off the being silent thing and it fails because their thought energy is outside the scene. But in this case it worked a treat because they were entirely focussed on each other and the complexity of the relationship. Even though they were in silence there were constant games going on - if Paul held up a slice of pizza, Cariad ate it, if the pages were turned back too quick they stopped and re-read. 

And I think the games were another theme throughout the shows - games on multiple levels - verbal, physical, emotional, over small narrative arcs and over the whole shows. Sometimes they would delay the ongoing narrative, not because they were scared or bridging, but so that they could play games and add depth to the show.

Paul is also an exceptional physical comedian. His character pulling a hot beef boullion out of the over, burning their fingers, and then doing it all over again was incredibly funny and impossible to put into words. So trust me, it was incredibly funny. 

In fact I really loved watching Paul (I haven't actually seen him perform before) as he's really funny and witty, physically and verbally, and yet he's also completely grounded in the reality of the scene and character. It was nice to see someone with huge amounts of energy and humour but with it completly balanced and pointing in the right direction, in fact I learnt a lot from it. 

Balance is perhaps my closing word for the show - it was like eating a really good meal in a really good restaurant. You can't quite work out why it's so much better than all the other meals, it's just that is everything is so perfectly balanced. 

After that we also had David Shore, Rob Broderick, Phil Whelans, Cariad Lloyd and Paul Foxcroft performing together. As a bloke running an impro venue this is so awesome, as I really respect all of them and to have them all together was really special. 

They performed a long-form montage, again inspired by a single word that I can't remember. There were lots of rapid scenes, edited by sweep edits and with characters changing from tap outs. 

Now I don't think it's too much of a secret that I'm not usually too much of a fan of long form techniques. I quite often find sweep edits and tag out distracting from a show and they are done rather self-conciously in my opinion. 

However I think this show might have changed my mind a bit, as it was more like watching a really good sketch show, with lots of rapid scenes and funny characters and genuninly good impro. 

The sweep edits and tag outs were barely noticeable - there was no sense from the audience of 'what the hell is that meant to be?' They were instead done really quickly and subtly so that the focus was on the actual scenes. 

Also what I loved about the show, and David Shore thinks this too, is that long-form doesn't have to mean short-form. I always felt a bit put off from long-form for ages because I always thought it was too slow to put in a comedy club, but actually there show was lightening quick and really funny. 

Also it looked like great fun to be in, a real challenge and freedom for the improvisers. 

David Shore was great and what I love is that he was having fun on stage and letting loose. When you're running so many workshops and have such a good reputation it must tough to turn up and let it all go, but he looked really free. 

I loved Phil Whelans too, I can't believe I hadn't seen more of him. I loved his commitment. I always say you're either on stage or your off, so don't hang around in the middle, and he really embodied this. He was excellent at raising the stakes in a brave manner with big characters that the audience wanted to pick up and hold on to. 

Last but not least Rob Broderick, who I've alway had a slight man crush on and is possibly the friendliest most helpful person in the world of comedy. He's like the Dave Grohl of comedy. I've seen him in loads of shows now and I don't think I've ever seen him miss an offer, ever. Everything someone says to him he'll pick up on, justify, agree and add not just one details but an incredibly specific detail. Seamingly unimportant offers suddenly becomes gem of comedy and story. 

So all in all a fantastic night and made me feel happy. Many thanks for everyone involved and everyone who came along to watch.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Wildheart Gathering

Just spent the weekend with Music Box at The Wildheart Gathering ( in Sussex.

Many thanks to Adam Oliver for inviting us, making us feel so welcome, and for doing such a great job of hosting the cabaret stage all weekend. Especially for being so patient when we were late arriving, had more cast than a West End Musical, and suffered various set backs. 

Just before going on stage a tent pole (a large tent pole, it was a marquee) decided to fall on my girlfriend George's head, on her birthday. This resulted in her being rather dazed and confused, before bravely coming back to perform in the show after the audience sang her Happy Birthday. 

The audience was great. I was worried that being semi-outside the audience would have less focus but actually they had more, and got really into it with lots of pantomime style reactions to our characters. 

It was interesting that I'd just lead a commedia character that day so employed some of the over the top physical actions from that on the stage and was pleased it went down well. 

After a couple of pints of cider later that night I decided it was a good idea to do some unplanned improvised stand up on the stage, which basically involved me telling the audience about my day and making them all do impressions of deer in a field. 

Well done to Jon Monkhouse too, who came all the way from London for one show, played Jamie Oliver very well in a scene, but when there were multiple Jamie Olivers stood down to play a camel for the rest of the show. It was an excellent camel, but still a very giving and unselfish thing to do.