Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The effect of approval and disapproval on improvisation.

I’ve been thinking lots about the concepts of approval and disapproval recently and their effect on improvisers. Inspired a bit by Viola Spolin’s book. 
At the start of the workshop I got everyone to go round the circle saying their name. It sounds simple but lots of people mutter it, or pass it as quickly as possible to the next person, or avoid eye contact at all costs. 

Even with the simple exercise of saying your name to the group there is a slight fear of disapproval, of getting it wrong, of making a fool of yourself that results in people not revealing themselves.

So I made up a new game around it. We went around the circle again with each person saying their name. This time however the rest of the group was to either loudly clap them or boo them. There was to be no middle ground, the group has to clap or boo loudly all at once, with them all making the same collective decision. It was important too that the decision was arbitary, so the audience response/approval was arbitary. 

It was really interesting what happened. The first thing that happened was there was a lot of laughter in the room. Really deep, falling on the floor and rolling about belly laughs. Laughter often results from cutting the tension in the room and this exercise seemed to already have spotted one of the biggest tensions in a workshop envioronment - the need for approval and the fear of disapproval. 

The people who got clapped looked relieved and cheerful. The people who got booed either found it hilarious (encouraging boos throughout the night) or looked a bit surprised. Even though the approval/disapproval was now arbitary and meaningless it affected people on an emotional level. 

So we continued a few more times around the circle, saying our names and then receiving a response. 

As it went on other factors came in to play. Some spoke without fear, without a care in the world, as they were no longer looking for or relying on approval and didn’t fear disapproval. Others seem to thrive on disapproval and playfully seek it. Others seemed terrified of the possible outcome, and still anxious in saying their name, even though it was repeatedly said the response would be arbitary and meaningless. 

Strangely enough some people got jealous of the people booed, because it had come a little ‘in’ game. 

But basically the concept of potential approval/disapproval screwed with the improviser in the most simple of games (saying names) even when it was arbitary and meaningless.
I then applied the same responses to another exercise - three line scenes. Pairs of improvisers took it in turns to improvise three line scenes which were then greeted with united claps or boos on an arbitary basis. Same as before, some freeze up, some are thrilled, but all are affected in some way. 

The general point of the exercise became can you disconnect your own self worth from the need for outside approval or disapproval? Can you perform the same regardless of what kind of feedback you are going to get back. If I told the performers before the three line scenes that they would get a massive boo whatever they did, they would freeze up or enter the stage half hearted. If I told them they would receive a massive cheer whatever they did, they would enter with enjoyment and energy and relief. 

As a teacher my job is often to provide approval and positive affirmation. When I do this people open up and become confident. But perhaps there is too much of this you can do. Some more experienced teachers provide no approval or disapproval at all, so the student’s journey is more about themselves and less about attempting to fit in with someone else’s personal taste. Jonathan Kay ends every single scene with a “thank you very much” with exactly the same energy and doesn’t comment on it at all. Relying on external approval for your own improvisation isn’t a good long term strategy. 

A comment observation is that the improvisation that happens in workshops is much better than the improvisation that is seen in shows (obviously not all the time, but you get the idea).
I think a large amount of this is, apart from warm up time, due to approval/disapproval. In workshops there is constant approval from a coach and other students. In a show an audience is looking for a reason that they have given up time to watch, and only approve when it is deserved. 

Sometimes actors blame an audience for a cold reception, but the energy is the other way round from a workshop. There is a little inherent approval in a show, so the actors have to approve themselves and carry on performing and working and doing good impro until the audience catches up. The lack of initial approval should not lead to improvisers blocking and gagging in a panic, good impro should be carried out as that’s the only thing we can share and rely on. 

So if the external approval isn’t in the room, what should we do? Give approval to our own ideas and more importantly to the other actor. 

Saying yes and isn’t just a personal creative strategy, it’s a group philosophy. Caring less about you’re doing and giving more to approving the other actor and adding to what they say is an incredibly giving thing to do. As their ideas are approved by you they become more confident, more creative, and the group as a whole becomes greater. 

Whenever an improviser is worried about external approval, for instance from an audition, reviewer, influential people or peer group in audience, they suddenly freeze up as they become concerned about themselves. So take the focus of yourself and put it onto your fellow actor, give them approval and let the group grow.

Monday, 19 September 2011

New character excercise

Well, I say new, it's from Viola Spolin's book which was from the 1950s or early 60s, but I found it really effective on Saturday and in fact one of the most complete character exercises I've led. 

1. Get four actors up on stage, in a line facing the audience. 

2. Point to one and they repeat an emotional or expressive statement, for instance "I'm really happy, I'm really happy, I'm really happy."

3. They stay relaxed as they are saying it. Pick up and point out their changes in body as they say it. For instance - "your eyebrows have raised, you hop up when you speak, you're smiling, you sway."

4. When they have received some physical pointers shout 'Hold It' and they keep that character. Whatever they do next their point of concentration is on holding the new physical characteristics.

5. Repeat for the other actors. 

6. Put them through a series of five or so completely different scenes, with them keeping the original characteristics, physicality and attitudes. Give them complete where, who what in each scene so you can focus on the effect of character. 

You can later repeat the whole thing but without pointing out the changes of physicality, so they can discover it themself. 

It doesn't matter if the emotional statement is based on how they are actually feeling, or if it's come in from the outside, as either will change them and generate a character. 

Doing a sequence of scenes rather than just one is excellent as it isolates character and demonstrates the effect of character on scenes.

It's a fascinating game as it strongly shows the connection between inner life and outer physicality. The actors were surprised how strongly they felt in the scene, and how much just saying a line of emotion changed their physicality. Sometime there is debate in impro about whether to act from 'the inside out' or the 'outside in', but actually doing both at almost once happens in this game and is highly effect. 

Thanks to everyone for taking part. 

Friday, 16 September 2011

How to take a show to Edinburgh - The Basics

This is based on a chat I had with various people at The Miller a couple of weeks ago. There were some people from various Edinburgh shows, including me, Fat Kitten, Fingers on Buzzards, The Couch and Do Not Adjust Your Stage, and various people interested in taking shows up there next year. 

This is only a summary of the chat, and this isn't the be all and end all guide to Edinburgh, more just an initial overview. I'm always open to chats about this stuff so feel free to get in touch. 

Super Basics

You have a show in a venue in Edinburgh. It's either free, in which case people just turn up and pay by donation at the end, or it's in a paid venue, in which case people have to book and pay for tickets in advance either at the Fringe Box office, online, on phone, or at venue. 

You raise awareness for your show through advertising, posters and press. 

You persuade people to come to see your show through flyering. 

You live in a house with lots of other people. 

You apply to venues first to get a venue to perform in. They are selective. Once you have that sorted you sign up to the Fringe in general through www.edfringe.com. They are not selective, and will put you in the overall program.

Steps to take

1. Research www.edfringe.com. September and October.

There are various Edinburgh websites but this is the best one. It's run by the people who run The Edinburgh Fringe. Go to the participants section and there are some helpful guides, like How to Sell a Show, Venues etc. If you read through all of them you'll have a good understanding of how the fringe works. 

2. Decide if you're going Free Fringe or Paid Fringe. October/November. 

Free Fringe

On the Free Fringe you don't sell tickets, you perform for free, and then have a donations bucket at the end. The advantages of the Free Fringe are:

- Less initial costs to the performers, you don't have to pay a guarantee etc. 
- Easier to get a large audience, especially if you're new to performing in Edinburgh. 
- Increasingly respected by the industry at large. 
- Can luck out with some really great venues. 
- Can still make decent money on the donations.  
- Easier to get in to.

Disadvantages of the Free Fringe are:

- Some of the venues aren't great (some are). 
- You won't make a huge amount of profit (some people do thought).
- It's hard to do theatre or anything theatrical on the free fringe. 
- The free fringe audience changes the style of show that's possible. 
- Less likely to attract major publicity (some exceptions though, like Cariad Lloyd this year). 

There are two organisations doing this:

  • PBH's Free Fringe, www.freefringe.org.uk, PBH stands for Peter Buckley Hill, the chap who runs it. 
  •  Laughing Horse, Free Festival, http://www.laughinghorsecomedy.co.uk/dynamic/festival.asp

You can apply to one but not the other, as they don't really get on. Read their websites thoroughly before getting in touch. Be aware that on the Free Fringe you are working to promote all Free Fringe shows, not just your own. 

Paid Fringe

This means you are charging the public to see your show, and they have to buy tickets in advance from the fringe box office, half price hut, online, on phone or at your venue. You have to apply to each venue to get in, and the best ones can be competitive. 


- Nicer venues. 
- Professional support team. 
- Higher profile.
- Easier to get press etc along. 
- Able to do more theatrical shows. 
- Possibility of making profit. 


- Large financial investment required for paying guarantees (about 3000 quid at least). 
- Larger financial risk.
- Harder to get large audience numbers, especially for a new group. 

3. Research Venues. October/November.

Again on www.edfringe.com there is a list of all venues. Go through this and make a shortlist of suitable places. You're looking for venues with the right space, that do similar stuff, have a good reputation etc. 

Each venue has its own requirements and timescales for applications, so it's good to be on top of this early so you know what you'll have to provide. 

You can actually apply to all venues, to increase your chances of getting in somewhere. We did this and it seemed to work fine. It's good to have a perfect venue in mind, but you do want some back ups. Only exception to this is PBH Free Fringe, who prefer if you just apply to them if that's what you're doing. 

Some major venues, not including Free Fringe:

Pleasance Courtyard: Place that makes comedians famous, seems to have become the place to be seen. 

The Assembly Rooms: Place to go if you're already famous. 

Pleasance Dome: Bit like the Pleasance Courtyard, but different. 

C Venues: Student things, plays, independent stuff, lots of impro for some reason. We were there and liked it. Found it's proximity to the Royal Mile helpful for getting people in. 

Zoo: Physical Theatre, dance. 

Underbelly: Comedy, didn't go this year though so don't know much about it. 

4. Initial Contact With Venues. November/December/January

This is an ongoing process. There is an initial batch of applications and then an ongoing communication with them. Timescales vary from venue to venue. We got bumped up into a nicer space when the graphics we sent off were good, so every communication is important. 

5. Offer from venue. Feb/March

The timescale varies again, some leave it right up to the programme deadline. If you're paid fringe you might have to pay a hefty deposit around here too. 

6. Programme Entry, www.edfringe.com. March/April

Once you have a venue confirmed you can submit your programme entry for the overall fringe programme. Don't miss the deadline, this is important, so keep checking the website and do it early if possible. Quite often though the delay is from venues waiting to confirm you. 

People do indeed go and watch shows based on the programme entry, so make sure it's good and get some advice. The programme entry should attract attention, explain what the show actually is, why people should go and see it, and raise desire in the audience to see your show. It's good to right from the point of view of benefits to the audience, why should they see it? Also reviews and quotes are helpful to seal the deal. Also don't have a crap image, and don't sound like a dick, as that puts people of. So sort of like this....

Title - hints at the show put more importantly 

Explain the show explain the show. Benefit to the audience benefit to the audience. Raise desire raise desire. "Quote to seal the deal, someone good thinks it's good" ***** - real publication.

7. Accommodation. 

Biggest expense. People share rooms. No real advice here, sorry!

8. Advertising. March/April/May/June

This largely depends on your budget. We found some nifty advert opportunities for not much. It's all about the research and spotting the deals. Online can work well, and iphone apps.

You can also advertise in the fringe programme, separate from your programme entry. 

Remember to keep on brand so your adverts/flyers/posters/programme entry are all delivering the same key message.  

9. Press. May/June/July/August

The edfringe.com media team has a press contact sheet they can send out to you. It's good to get press releases and listings off before the programme comes out in June, so the press are aware of you before they look through the programme deciding who to review or promote. Some press are great, some are not. Getting listed in everything is a good idea as people find out about shows through loads of different sources. 

10. Design and print flyers and posters. June/July.

This is sooooo important. 

Again - this is very important! If you can't do graphic design, don't do your flyers. Get someone else to do it. Pay them. Maybe someone who isn't yet a full pro but good, pay them a bit, it's worth it. 

The flyers are the single most important way of selling your show. I've never seen them work so well before this year. We had really nice flyers thanks to Jon Monkhouse, and I think this is the main reason we were able to sell out most days. If we flyered for 4 hours, we were full up. If we flyered for 2 hours, we were half full. 

There is nothing worse than a shit flyer. A bad flyer will put people off seeing your show. So you will end up spending four hours a day in the rain, handing flyers to people that are making them not come. So some time spent before hand making sure they are good is well worth it. 

A good flyer should have an eye catching image on the front that really captures attention and sells the show, capturing the mood of what you're trying to communicate to the audience. It shouldn't be too wordy. Also some short reviews, especially good star rating, are great, and the show title. 

On the back should clearly be the core details of the show, where, when, how much, dates etc laid out so it's unconfusing. 

Also there should be some blurb, similar to the programme entry, and again written from the point of view of benefit to the audience. 

These flyers if kept are going to be read in the queue of the box office and other places, why should someone want to buy a ticket by the time they've got to the end?

Posters should look similar to the flyers. They might not sell tickets direct buy they serve as a reminder and raise awareness of the show.

I've used www.solopress.com for the last four years and have found them really reliable. They are a bit more expensive than others but the quality is good, they deliver anywhere in the country within a day or two, and they actually turn up. Every year there seems to be a load of messages from other companies offering Edinburgh deals, but they always seem to cock up loads of orders and leave people without flyers on the first week of the fringe. So I pay more and have someone reliable and good.  

Other Fringes

We briefly mentioned other fringes. Brighton was seen as a good one to go and do a one off show, but no need for a full run. Buxton also got mentioned as a good one that more people seem to be doing now. 

There's loads more but my keyboard is smoking now. Get in touch if you want to chat about more. 

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Listening Workshop Notes

I lead at a listening/seeing workshop at our Rag Factory class this week, where I tried to put all my favourite listening games and seeing exercises into one workshop. 

I think listening and seeing are one of the most important and core skills of improvisation. If you aren’t listening or seeing the other improvisers you aren’t improvising with them, as you’re missing everything they are doing. It's a first requirement.

Without listening and seeing we end up with improvisers inhabiting different worlds, and the bottom falls out of the scene/game. 

Also listening is one of the hardest skills to miss in yourself, because you often don’t realise you’ve missed stuff, because you’ve missed it and never even knew it was there in the first place. Most improvisers think they are great listeners, and only when they do some exercises do they see how much they are missing. 

So here are my favourite listening and seeing exercises from tonight, in no particular order:

One Voice

Group of actors together (4-12 or so)
They all talk together in one voice at the same time.
No one actor leads. If that starts to happen get them to lead only a syllabule and not the whole word.
Get everyone to look at each other constantly.
Can play with two groups meeting, or set a party with multiple groups chatting.
Also teaches people to be obvious, as that's when the group mind kicks in for this game.

Voice Mirroring

One of Dylan Emery’s favourite games, who I originally learnt it from, thanks Dylan.
At first the group copies the leader who talks very obviously, and they all talk loud saying what he’s saying at the same time and in the same way. Gradually they lower the volume until they are just saying it in their heads. So I can now point to different people and they pick up on the story/sentence, even if it's mid word. It's very easy to spot when you aren't listening in this game, as it grinds to a halt. 

Try and help people pick up mid word and carry on immediately, rather than jumping to different subjects or recapping the last 4 words. 

We then got the group to tell stories like this, with me pointing to the person who was to speak out loud, while the others voice mirrored inside their head. This is similar to the game Storyteller Die. Quite often popular impro games get dismissed, but I think if you get to the core of why they are there in the first place you can find they are still gems. Storyteller Die is a great listening game, and also a great game for removing the inner judge. 


Simple game, but so fascinating to play. 
Two players. 
Pretend their is a mirror between you. 
One of you leads, the other becomes the mirror image. The whole group can play this in pairs all at once. 
Swap roles, so other leads and other follows. 
Remind them that they aren't just heads and hands, people have legs and feet and loads of other things too, so awaken the whole body. 
Change it so that neither are leading, they are both mirror images of each other and just increase what is already there. So if one person raises a hand the other is doing at the same time and then continues this movement. 
Change into impulse and response. One person makes another move. The other makes a response. If they get caught in their head just return to mirroring. 


People come in one by one playing individual parts of sound and movement in a machine that represents something physical, an emotion, or a concept. Keith Johnstone mentions it in is book but says it's not worth doing. I actually think it is one of the best group physical exercises going, as it teachers actors to build a complete stage picture quickly. Also great for listening and seeing as there are so many parts to be aware of. 

Repeat Last Line

Two actors play a scene. Each actor must repeat the last line the other actor said word by word perfect before adding something new. They can change grammar and emotion etc to make it make sense for them. A great listening game, and one where you can spot if people aren't listening as they miss words. Pick them up on every single word missed, otherwise it's no point in playing the game. For instance:

A: Hello Mr. Hilgarberry.
B. Hello. Mr. Hilgarberry, that's me, welcome to the laboratory. 
A: That's you. Welcome to the laboratory indeed, I've heard a lot about you. 
B. Indeed! I've heard a lot about you too! Professor McMacelberry, the fastest atom smasher this side of Switzerland.
A: Too. Professor McMacelberry, the fastest atom smasher this side of Switzerland. They don't call me Fusion Man for nothing!

So overall, if you can't see or hear what the other improvisers are doing, you can't really improvise with them. Mick Napier suggests that concentrating too much on listening alone can be a bad thing though, as it makes people passive and not actually adding anything, which I also agree with. So as always in impro, I think it's a matter of balance, and definitely a skill worth practicing.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Game of the Scene Workshop Notes

The term "Game of the Scene" pops up loads in impro and seems a topic of hot debate. There seems to be varying descriptions of what it is, online and in workshops. So I ran a workshop on it before August, and another one last night, an impro investigate. So here is the completely bastardized short hand short cut Steve Roe version of Game of the Scene. You don't have to agree with it. 

One thing is that it's got the word 'Game' in it, which suggests it should probably be fun and not too intellectual, even though the following discussion will be. 

Game of the Scene. Couple of important words there - Game and Scene. So for a Game of a Scene, you need a Game, and a Scene. Let's look at some definitions, not Oxford English, my ones.

Scene: scenario, situation, relationship. 

You need your classic platform who/what/where to have a Scene that you can have a Game of. For these reasons when practicing Game of the Scene I found it helpful to give the improvisers the platform first with full suggestions, so they didn't have to worry about that and could focus on the game. 

So we can get a scenario, situation, relationship pretty easily. So let's look at the game part. 

Game: People playing for fun within rules. 

People - we have people, that's sorted.

Playing - we can do that, we forgot sometimes that's that the fun bit, but we can play. 

Rules - Rules!!!! Play becomes a game with rules. But what are the rules?

In short-form rules are defined already, outside the scene, and are super-imposed onto the scene. That's why short-form 'scenes' are referred to as 'games' - they have obvious rules. This character can only talk in three words, this one has arms from someone else etc etc. Every time the rules of the game are played while staying within the given situation, people laugh. Well not every time, but that's the idea. When playing short-form it's good to know what game you're in, what the rules are, and then really push them and have fun with them while interacting within the given scenario.

So in a way short-form is a game of the scene where the game is given by someone else outside of the actors. 

But in normal scenes there is no given game, there are no rules at the start and anything could happen. This is what excites me about it. So at the start, with no rules, just do anything within the scenario. And then work out what the rules of the game are. You are playing a game before you know what it is, and what the rules are, but you can then work it out or arbitrarily decide what the rules are and play them. 

This is easier to spot from outside first, so at first after scenes have run about five offers or so you can freeze them and ask the audience to spot games. After a while though you can freeze a scene and ask the actors within it what the game is, and then get them to play it out. Then you can move on to not freezing the scene and just getting them to play it from within. 

I found it helpful to point out that it didn't matter what the game actually was, just picking one and playing it was more helpful than intellectually stalling while trying to spot the 'right' game. 

But over all of this I found it really important that the game/rules were about INTERACTION. 

The rules of these games are more fun when they are about the other person:

- When this person does this thing, I do this thing. 

And it's also more fun for the audience when these games/rules loop so there is a pattern of behaviour within the scene. 

- When this person does this thing, I do this thing. 
- When that person does that thing, I do this thing. 

It's the interaction, and behaviour, that makes the game actually matter. We want people affected, manipulated, impacted by other people. 

Once these patterns are established, and basic game rules, they can be escalated and pushed and used with varying content in various situations.