Follow me on Twitter!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Leave No Trace

So first things first:

I'm moving to Chicago.

The first big question is 'why?' (though that's probably just ahead of 'why now?'); I've had countless students and fellow performers ask me why I'm not in Chicago (or LA or NYC), and I even came close (damn close) to moving to LA about three years ago.  My answer was always that I liked San Diego: the weather is hard as hell to beat, it's comfortable and all my friends are here.  But most importantly, I was doing the things in San Diego that I wanted to do: perform weekly, teach and coach regularly, and the job I had afforded enough income and time off for me to do those things as well as travel around the US and Canada and do shows and festivals (at time of writing, I've been to 15 festivals, and am scheduled for another 5 in 2016).  Now, about that job.

I moved to San Diego in 2008 from Chicago because I got a job working for the Navy Drug Screening Laboratory, which has been my sole employer since then.  The lab tests urine specimens for illicit drugs (e.g. marijuana, cocaine), and my job there has often had people refer to me as "pee guy", "chemist", "drug guy", "piss tester", and a variety of other colorful monikers that lack nuance, to say the least.  That lab is closing, effective 1 February 2017.

The lab is over 30 years old at this point, and in desperate need of renovation and expansion, and the most recent survey assessed that the lab space only has 1-2 more years, maximum, before the physical plant fails and the lab can no longer operate.  That same survey also asked every Navy and Marine Corps installation from Mexico to Orange County if they can spare some space, and we have been flatly informed that there is "no room at the inn".  That, coupled with a $30-50 million price tag for updating has put the NDSL on the chopping block.  Some 60 employees will scatter to the wind next spring, which seems appropriate.  I'm lucky in that I've been offered a job at the sister lab outside of Chicago, and save getting my final orders in the next week or so, I start there on September 6.

I've been telling people that I've got a range of emotions: fear, trepidation, terror, nervousness, excitement, regret, sadness, stress, frustration - which are all true.  Certainly this will be a new chapter in my life, one that must be taken.  Sometimes you make the choice, and sometimes the choice makes you.  'Why not just stay in San Diego?' you may ask, and well, the answer has mostly to do with employment.  At present, I would make nowhere near enough to support myself doing improv, and I would rather not take a chemistry job in San Diego that may require an hour commute everyday to the outer rim (where most biotech is located).  Also, despite having helped found FCI and being employee number 1, I have been gradually phased out, which leaves me with very little invested in it.  Mike and Charles have been very successful running Sidestage, but I have even less invested in that enterprise.  And The Local, which Dino and I have been running for the last year or so is very nascent, so if ever there was a time to leave, this would be it.

In Boy Scouts, one of the principles we camp by is "Leave No Trace" - a concept that we should always endeavor to leave environments better than we found them.  This may sound ghostly - that Boy Scouts are Forest Phantoms, disappearing into the night in a puff of campfire smoke and merit badges.  This isn't truly the case - instead, when we go to places where we are guests or visitors, places that we do not own but that we only get to participate in, that we should exercise good ethics and stewardship in maintaining that space so that others may get to enjoy them.

It is hard to overstate how barren and non-existent the improv community was in San Diego when I moved here in September 2008.  There was one shortform theater, and their improv community engagement was more "private club" than "welcoming party".  There were a few shortform teams that would play about once a month - the Hinges and ROAR - but that was about it.  When I decided to start the Stage Monkeys as a long form team, we became instantly the first Harold team and only the second longform team the city had ever seen (RIP #1, The Ugly Truth).  This was at a time when the only improv training center didn't run classes regularly and one of my first coaches there said "some people try to break off and start their own thing, but it never works out so you shouldn't even bother".

I was the one who created the show Buddy System, taught the first longform class, started the first two-man team (Mike and Chris), and the first monoscene (Fourth Date), and took the first team to an improv festival (The Stage Monkeys).  Now these things don't seem so pioneering or groundbreaking (and to be fair, they didn't feel that way at the time).  There was a time when I used to know every improviser in San Diego, and now I go to a show and recognize barely half the audience.  Our city has become filled with hungry and passionate artists who just want to improvise, baby.  That we can even have hate-filled invective arguments and diatribes over Facebook was unthinkable 8 years ago.  And getting to see people I first taught and worked along side now become teachers and leaders of their own can only be viewed as an unanticipated benefit.

I think we as a culture are obsessed with apocalyptic tales and origin stories because we want to believe that we are either there for the beginning or the end of adventures (probably ideally both).  We are enchanted by ends and beginnings and want to say "I was there", but even I can't say I was there "at the start".  There were people here before I was, doing the work, and there will be people here after I'm gone doing same.  The only downside of having a large dynamic community (and one that records things so poorly) is that we have very short organizational memory.  Just as we little remember the people who began the journey 8 years ago, so too will I eventually wash away, only to be replaced by someone newer, smarter, and better.

There will probably be some people very happy to see me go.  To them, I say "you're welcome".  Hate and fear are powerful motivators, and if that gets you moving, then at least you're moving.  To the teams I coach and play with, and told in person over the last week, thanks for keeping my secret so that I could venture to talk to people in person and thank you for all work we've done together.  To the students I've taught, thank you for listening, for trying, and for being brave to do this ridiculous, ridiculous art on stage.  To the theater owners and staff, thank you for making beacons for like-minded people to find each other - I expect only good things from Mike, Amy, Gary, and the next person who hasn't come to the party yet as they make homes for people here.   To the community, thank you for letting a kid who didn't know any better and wasn't very good and who just wanted to do give me the opportunity to work and grow as a player and performer and person.

My only hope is that I was able to give some small amount of good deeds back, and that if I've left a trace, that it at least is a good one.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Death and Life of Great American Improv Teams


In a previous post, I spoke briefly about the writing Jane Jacobs did in her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. This book, published in 1961, was a critique of urban planning measures of the time and flew directly in the face of what was then modern dogma (an example: belief that parks cure social ills.) The book rejects simplification in favor of an understanding of the need for layered complexity, which can at times seem like chaos. She identifies four basic concepts of neighborhoods that must be maximized in order for them to be thriving, lively places to live, which I will attempt to translate into terms for an improv team.

1. “The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two...”

In city terms, this is an admonishment against districts too tightly focused on a single purpose (i.e. warehouse districts) because it means there will be times when those areas will be empty. (Just think about how many times the Highlander traded blades with immortals in abandoned factories and car parks.) Sometimes people see success in one area (say, banks) and pile a bunch of other things in the same area (sometimes even the same intersection (hello, Subway and Starbucks)) in an effort to duplicate success. (Same thing happens when TV shows or movies are successful.) Translate to improv: teams need diversity of players. Different ideas, candors, tempos, energies, ways of playing. Everyone is working in different ways, but still towards the same goal. We never know what solution will be the one that works in a particular case, so we have to able to pursue all of these avenues simultaneously. Additionally, teams can't just do one thing; they have to be able to do many things well to be successful. (One way to read this is that they must specialize in one type of show, but one of my favorite teams, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, is very successful despite doing one very particular show – but if you've ever seen them, you know that they are dramatic, funny, tell great stories, inventive, bold, and also can act. It's also done in the style of Shakespeare, which they also succeed at. It's also exceptionally well done.)

2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

In a neighborhood, there must be a variety of ways for residents to interact with each other, in a complicated and myriad network of contact. Long streets limit the routes people can take, which minimizes contact and observation. People on teams cannot be isolated from each other they must be able to, regularly do, make meaningful contact with each other. Time spent with each individual person must be (roughly) equal. I think this is why two person groups are most commonly the long-term successful ones; easier to maintain contact.

3. “The district must mingle old buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly closely grained.”

Too many new buildings makes it too expensive for some businesses to operate, and they stay empty. A variety of uses (business, living arrangements) necessitates a variety of places for them to occupy. Variety breeds success. This holds especially in terms of experience and function. What each person brings to the group (the funny one, the serious one, the one who initiates) and how they provide it are critical to its ability to operate.

4. “There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there...”

This doesn't mean all groups have to be huge, it means they all have to be close enough to each other that their interactions are meaningful. The level of engagement and responsibility everyone has for each other keeps people needing each other. This isn't a bad thing; we can't forget that the basic un-written underlying premise of “yes, and...” is cooperation. Best thing about using the word “need” is the connotation the word has of being “active” in what we do with and for each other. Low density neighborhoods feel empty and unoccupied, the same way that sparsely populated teams do. Teams with high density feel busy.

I get asked by people all the time about teams; which they should join, should they take this person or that, or should they quit this one or that one. They are equivalent to “should I move?” in terms of cities. Ms. Jacobs would probably say that moving only furthers the collapse of neighborhoods; that moving people around only lessens their capacity and drive. I think its very easy to get distracted by the offer of new teams as being the offer of better (improv) lives, when those things are not always mathematically equal. We can't fix things if we're always just on our way to the next place.

“We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.” - Jane Jacobs

Monday, December 28, 2015

To Play Music


(This was orignally published at The Green Room (http://sidestageimprov.com/thegreenroom/tubas-and-trumpets) with much better design.)

We spend a lot of time talking about improv teams as “ensembles”, often without really appreciating what that actually means. To most theater owners and/or directors, it conjures an image of cohesive uniformity. We like to think of it as a homogeneity – a team that is unified to common purpose, internally reliant, and trusts each other complicity. All of this is true, but how do we get to that point? The classical approach is to take your team, stick them together for long enough, and have them spend time until they develop bonds. This works, and is how a great many number of friendships form, so it should hold true for improv teams as well. This doesn't explain, however, why some teams seem to just “work” and others don't, and also takes a “fingers crossed” approach to team dynamic.

We know that successful teams are built on commitment, but there appears to be a magic spark that makes some teams fun to watch and others, less so. We also know that successful organizations have diversity, or rather the “right” kind of diversity. Large enough groups (let's say, the Navy or the US) need maximum diversity to account for their large size, but small groups (say a three-man improv team) have no way of representing every possible demograph in it's population. How do we put humans together in a way that they can function together, and more than function, succeed? Bands, as it turns out have been doing this for centuries. You have orchestras with every possible instrument present, all the way down to duets of every possible variation. Billy Merritt refers to the “Pirate, Robot, Ninja” classification, but this doesn't really indicate “how” people play. Everyone has a tone – a voice – about how they improvise. This is really about (using this band analogy) what kind of instrument each person is. Here's a brief overview of the common instruments, and combining the right ones is what makes groups “sing”, where right really only means “complementary voices”.

Flute – highest voice in the band (excluding the sub-flute piccolo); flute is technically a woodwind despite the fact that it is made of metal (usually brass or an alloy of copper and/or silver). Flute parts are typically fun, bouncy, bright, cheerful, and delicate. In solo parts, they can be buried by the band unless they are given opportunity to soar. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=be1jJCH32OU) Most flautists are female, and this type of player also tends to be female. This player's voice carries the melody, so is a voice that carries the game and the engine of the scene, but doesn't carry power or oomph with it.

Clarinet – mellow, high range woodwind and reedy. Often carries the melody, but is excellent at providing fill and mood. When soloed, it very commonly does so in jazz music – again it's high range combined with a delicately reedy sound can make this an instrument easily overshadowed if not given room. There are usually a lot of clarinets in a band, and when put together, they can do some very amazing music. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LpSqykddUo) As an improviser, this person can be very easily overlooked because they rarely shine. Tasked with supporting the central voice, yes-anding ideas, and filling in information they may not always get laughs, but what they do provide is essential.

Oboe and Bassoon – I've combined both here because many times bands may not have these instruments. Few arrangements require either instrument and they don't have an essential role in most non-professional organizations. Also, most groups don't have more than one of each, to give you an idea of how rare they are. Both instruments have the potential to have gorgeous musical lines, but other more prolific instruments can drown them out. The oboe is a high, haunting and bucolic sound. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zL7CDcVQjbM) The bassoon, known as the “belching bedpost” is low, bass reed sound. Warm, friendly, and supportive of other similar parts in most arrangements. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnF9_bouEdY) A hall mark of both instruments (and players), is the finicky-ness of their sound and the intelligence both require. These players will very commonly find themselves waiting for opportune moments to add perfect additions to melodies and harmonies.

Alto Sax – there are a number of different saxophones, but this is the one that you're thinking of when you're thinking of a saxophone. Also a woodwind despite its brass construction and reed used to generate sound. This instrument can be very loud very easy and sounds jazzy, funky, and bright. When given solos, it is very common in jazz or Broadway type songs, or does well in harmony and counter melodies. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKRtUL-klhc) This player is loud and big – imagine heavy characters or premise heavy initiations. This is an improviser who may be light on finesse, but will be heavy on energy and play.

French Horn – a high brass sound that is regal, haughty, and soaring. Quartets of these instruments can be gorgeous and solos are marked by being soaring and big affairs. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC3tMN-ofqM (pertinent section begins at ~3:45)) These improvisers are probably seen as being arrogant or cocky. We might interpret this as a negative, but even these roles have their purpose in shows and scenes.

Trumpet – the biggest carrier of melodies, especially so in marches (e.g. John Phillip Sousa); the trumpet is brassy, bright, and bold. It can do subtle, but it isn't it's strength. When used traditionally the trumpet plays to it's power, energy, and liveliness. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLMVB0B1_Ts) This improviser does melody and power – strong initiations, big characters, bold moves, and speed.

Trombone – also known as “the one with the slide”, trombones are known for power. A common joke in bands are as to how loud the default playing volume of a trombone is. The biggest difference is the slide; notes are reached not by clicking down keys or valves, but by sliding the tube longer and shorter. As a result notes may ooze into each other – this is done for purposeful effect in jazz numbers using glissandos, or if players get sloppy, entirely by accident. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaPmysTfVFI) Because this plays in the tenor voice range, it carries well, and will be commonly found initiating but may play more outright comedic characters. An improviser playing like a trombone may have a little “sloppiness” in their play – a kind of fun funkiness.

Baritone – this one is a low, angelic “small tuba”. Baritones often play bass lines in arrangements, but will sometimes have lovely solos or countermelodies. The instrument can also be known for silly, goofy, playful parts – voices that mimic clowns or baffoons. Played well, it fills a needed middle tone in the ensemble. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjvuYlNLLtY) Improvisers playing as baritiones are often fun, silly, have an emphasis on play and funny but may not always “shine” in scenes. Baritones are a comfortable, consistent, reliable presence in scenes, often doing the hard work in small scenes to keep them grounded and stable.

Tuba – the lowest voice in the band; strong, bold, but often a slow, plodding voice. Tubas rarely get solos, mostly because the precision and speed required is hard to pull off in the instrument, instead it can be found doing low pedal tones or oscillating bass tones in marches and the like.(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4Rul-qYAGQ) Tubas as improvisers are doing the hard work; towing the line in scenes to keep them grounded or give them gravitas. They maintain the reality of scenes and keep them with a pulse and heart.

Percussion – the metronome, the beat, the thrumming backbone of the band. This includes snares, bass drums, cymbals, chimes, bells, marimbas, and all the fun “toys” that add so much little touches to music. Precussion instruments are interesting in that a single one cannot provide all of what is typically needed in a large ensemble (excluding drum kits), but instead have to highly work together to produce rhythm and beat. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDXVgqmaYJk) As improvisers, expect these people to maintain tempo in games and dynamics, to provide edits, and off-stage color. Usually more unassuming players are precussion, but they deliver powerful one-liners and buttons for scenes in addition to small color in large group scenes.

Strings – strings are very common in orchestras, but for our purposes, we are assuming all our instrumentation is only for a modern sit-down concert band. In that concept, strings are uncommon except for very specific arrangements, and then only for a very specific purpose, like the bass guitar in Horner's “Coming Home from the Sea” or the harp in a number of Christmas arrangements. Strings are delicate, full bodied instruments that provide rich melodies, harmonies, and bass lines to orchestras, and we are assuming that violins, violas, cellos, and basses are all a part of this category. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCmqArxZ2GQ) Why lump all of these together? Quite simply, if we use this system as a method to categorize people, we will undoubtedly run into people that don't easily fall into one of the instrument categories, and this is our “everyone else” group. If you have a person on a team that doesn't quite jive with what other people are doing, that seems to be playing by their own music, they're probably a string instrument living in a wind band world. They don't sound “right” because the accompaniment is “wrong”. They're not bad players, they just need other string instruments to complement them appropriately.

A knowledge of the instruments and their accompanying player personas allows for easy ensemble building – some instruments do not naturally go together (though there are some nice tuba/flute duets, these are niche, rare, and gimmicky). Also, some instrumentation doesn't fit the music well; I've had a dream for some years of having a large jazz combo, but having the instrumentation re-written to concert instruments. Saxes become clarinets and bass clarinets, tenors and baritone saxes bassoons, trumpets as french horns, trombones as baritones. Though this would be interesting to hear, it's more akin to the strange “IPA with Sriracha cream” gimmick beers that pop up in San Diego from time to time. They'd be interesting to try, but you wouldn't buy a keg of it. My long time duo, Mike and Chris, works because Mike is a trumpet, and I'm a trombone. Our two brassy tones complement each other. Small groups (duos, trios) need very well balanced instruments – brass go with brass, woodwinds with woodwinds, basses with basses, etc. Larger groups need and can handle more diverse parts.

At the end of the day, our objective is “ensemble” and playing together. Well made music requires more than a single note, we need chords. Multiple notes built to go together, where the pieces work in concert towards a common goal. All groups end up with stylistic choices that define their show, it's what makes two different teams that do the “same show” (e.g. harold teams) have performances that feel different. This isn't a side effect or accidental – this is part of the built in, secret sauce that makes live performance unique. More importantly, this is what makes our team work important. How the parts fit together and what everyone contributes makes team. As the clothes make the man, the instruments make the band.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Books and Shirts


The Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre (UCB) published an improv book recently, though more likely than not, if you're reading this blog, you already know that. This book was obviously groundbreaking in a number of ways: one, the first book to completely encapsulate a theater's approach to improv (as opposed to a person), and from a theater that is very much having a moment right now in the improv zeitgeist. It also was a book that was years in the making, and was the first one to propose to be a toolkit that could completely guide an improviser all the way from neophyte to functional. But I think the biggest thing about the book was more than the content of the book itself – it was that nearly every improviser I knew pre-ordered it and started reading it right away (and also posted a picture of themselves reading it with a cup of coffee). This happened again very recently with the TJ & Dave book, although apparently to a lesser degree.

I'm a bit of an improv bibliophile; I have improv books occupying over an entire shelf, and going back to the 60's. Improv books actually come out pretty often, but this was the first “big” one to come out while improv is on such a huge swing. The interesting thing about improv books is that they are a static, tangible totem in a craft that is absent such adjectives normally. We don't create things that can be shown or kept in perpetuity. Even our improv shows, when recorded, never quite recreate the experience of watching it live. This is kind of one of the magic sauces of improv, that live is what people truly come to see.

The downside is that we have very few totems that we can hang on to as a community; outside of a cluster of improv books (and even fewer really great ones), the TJ & Dave movie, a few team, theater, and festival t-shirts, we don't really have anything that we can hold in our hands. Even most of the great philosophy and writing is mostly in the land of the easily shared, but also easily forgotten digital (like this blog!). Improv is dangerously ephemeral.

I had a student ask me a great question recently: “what is improv?”. Some context as to why this is a great question is that she was explaining to her sister what the classes were about and was looking for a response to give her that described what we were doing. What we do may seem obvious to us as improvisers, but it's always worth remembering to think about what we look like to our audience, and the uninitiated. How would you describe improv to an alien that had absolutely no frame of reference? Hell, how do you describe the majority of what we do even to people who've seen “Whose Line”? (Which, on a related note, can we all bow our heads for a moment and thank God that a show like “Whose Line” exists and was relatively well played on ABC Family, because seriously how would we describe what we do to our families otherwise?)

The answer I gave my student is that it is “theater that is unscripted and unrehearsed”, which is a definition I rather like in that it is accurate, fairly all-encompassing, and concise. But it's not really a precise answer. It does say what we do, but doesn't really give you an idea of what that looks like. I always liked the poetry of the iO description of the Harold – saying that it was like a jazz band, which again, nails the artisanal, flexible, and complicated nature of it, but still doesn't really tell you much. You could of course recall its scene/game/scene structure, but that tells you even less about it. My student's follow up question is: “is it always funny?”, which we as improvisers I think have matured enough to be able to say the truth, which is: most of the time, but not always. But more importantly, that it doesn't have to be.

What is improv? It's something we can't write out easily. It can't be described in a sentence that fully captures what it looks like, what it means, and what it is composed of in a single sentence. This is its inherent beauty. We get to participate in something that we can only share by being present, in the moment with each other. Our entire art is a summer memory, fondly recalled.

Monday, November 16, 2015

They Who Shall Not Be Named

In mid-October, for about 6 hours, the San Diego Impov Collective (SDIC), a Facebook based page for members of the SD improv community, was on fire.  Normally, this would be considered a good thing - high traffic, lots of links, click throughs, comments (and comments to comments), and activity, but as with most conflagrations, heat and energy also indicate destruction.  The origin of this facebook post is multi-varied and long-term, and a story that could fill several blog posts (and has, on this particular blog).  I wish that I could have archived that entire post and everything attached to it, if only for posterity, though it truly would do no one any good should someone ever view that archive in the future.  One could also point out how quickly it devolved into name-calling, attacks on individuals, attacks on people's performative capabilities (all on both sides), and (most importantly), a grave misunderstanding of the underlying issues.

Like the young boy who sticks his finger in the dyke, we fail to understand and appreciate the real problem and instead just focus on going about our day-to-day and fixing only the current crisis.  The central problem in San  Diego is, quite simply:

SAN DIEGO HAS AN US VERSUS THEM PROBLEM.

We have basically two improv communities in town; one with people from one theater, and one with everyone else.  Again, I'll try to not get into particulars as to why this is, or who is at fault, or even to name names.  You'll just have to trust me that this thing exists, and we live under the shadow of it every day in improv in this town.  And, quite frankly:

IT SUCKS.

I miss my friends, some of whom I have known as long as I've lived here.  I miss getting to share in their triumphs and shortcomings, joys and sorrows, and just sitting with them shooting the shit at 2am over crappy food.  But as I was looking through all of the comments, some very passionate, erudite, and thoughtful about the issue (others...less so), I was struck by how much two groups of people who live in the same town and practice the same goofy, fringe artform don't know each other.  It's easy to pick fights with strangers or the "other", it's hard to do so when people are familiar.  We'll always have more in common than what makes us different, regardless of religion, race, sexual orientation, politics, nationality, birth state, class, education, gender, age, or devotion to bizarre theater that you can't fully explain to your coworkers. (It should be pointed out that none of the previous denominations were selected in any particular order, nor should their inclusion or exclusion of other groupings be representative of any percieved or actual status.)

The causal post is gone now - deleted into whatever magic archive all our supposedly "deleted" posts go to for Mr. Zuckerberg or his designated associates to read for their own amusement.  But the underlying root isn't, and certainly the memory of what was said (or wasn't said) will probably linger for some time. (I for the record, stayed out of the fray, an operand largely driven by 1) not wanting to go down the rabbit hole again and 2) the benefits of having a job where access to Facebook is largely impossible.)  But this doesn't change the fact that when you have two groups of people who don't know each other, conflicts easily arise, and not knowing someone else is everyone's fault.

Monday, October 26, 2015

VIIF Report

The approach to Granville Island from downtown Vancouver is on a 4-lane causeway over what is named, with what would be considered British meiosis, False Creek (which is far too wide to be a creek, and is, as it turns out, only a small bay cutting into the heart of Vancouver).  The Granville Street Bridge (which helpfully reminds you in crayon written messages on the periodic street lamp poles) pulls away from downtown to reveal Vancouver's picturesque quality: misty mountains feel comfortingly close to the city center and tall egg carton style apartment buildings fill the skyline, twinkling with green glass windows.  The only truly distinguishing buildings are the BC arena (where the Cannucks (hockey) and White Caps (FC) play) and the Telus Science Center, an Epcot shaped dome at the far end of False Creek's quayside.

Stateside, a bridge like this would likely not even have a pedestrian allowance and any walkers would probably be seen as potential jumpers rather than commuters, but in Vancouver, there is a steady stream of impossibly attractive people walking back and forth, dressed in the standard local attire of a rainproof jacket with attached hood.  For visitors to the Vancouver International Improv Festival (VIIF), this bridge will become a familiar crossing to reach Granville Island proper.  Once down on the far side of the bridge, a small walkway winds down under the bridge, and a short walk underneath it's gargantuan cement canopy leads to the entrance to the island.  Warm, red neon letters state where you are, with a helpful smaller neon sign reminding you that this is Canada.  It's here on the island that the VIIF is taking place - five days of workshops, shows, and fellowship, distributed among what seems to be an improbable number of working theater spaces.

I'm here as part of the International Ensemble, an assemblage of ~2 dozen improvisers broken up into two teams (Bravo and Echo) who spend 4 days rehearsing and performing together.  Applicants to the ensemble submit as an individual, and, if selected, get to rehearse with players they've likely never worked with before, doing forms and shows they've likely never encountered before.  My team (Echo) has players from Vancouver, Atlanta, Winnipeg, Toronto, Edmonton, and Portland and represents a deep roster of modern improv talent and experience, filled as it is with regular performers, teachers, and theater heads.

The first thing I notice about my fellow ensemble players is the high level of familiarity they have with each other.  In contrast to the states, Canada thrives on two big factors that significantly drive the greater national community.  The first is a festival culture that has largely eluded the US up to this point.  Improvisers regularly travel to a number of similarly sized improv festivals both in and out of country, probably fueled not in the very least by a travel and vacation oriented culture that the US seems completely adverse to - as if we can work ourselves to death and productivity simulatenously.  But the second factor is probably the most significant: the Canadian Improv Games.  Every year, high school improv teams from around the country attend this competition, all united under a common banner from the time they entered secondary school.  Because of this, Canadian improvisers have often met and seen each other's work since the time they were 15 and have deep running ties and friendship to each other.

Stepping into the lion's den is a little un-nerving for me for a little while.  I won't cast aspersions and assume that I was going to be better than the Canadians that make up the majority of the cast, but I'm rattled by how easy it seems to be for them, and how professional they are.  Trying to step into a conversation with a dozen people who have known each other for a decade already is an uphill battle for everyone, except the Atlanta extrovert on my team who easily seems to slide into the right groove.  The work is challenging; 5+ hours a day spent rehearsing, in a blend of workshop, laboratory, practice, and class.  But the challenge is exhilerating too - a large group doing new work requires patience and perserverance and the learning curve feels tilted up to the heavens in a way that I haven't truly felt in a long time.  And I can't speak too little about the work ethic I see on display here; a dedication to care and diligence that I see far too rarely back home.

The festival feels huge (I amtold that 138 total improvisers are performing in the festival over 5 days) but intimate at the same time (there seems to be a veritable army of volunteers doing a litany of tasks, but I continually see the same rotating array of them).  The latter I think is due highly to the concentration of events - most improvisers are staying at the Ramada on Granville Street (an amazingly hospitable hotel that gives it's residents free umbrellas and has intimately close walls in the hallways and stairwells) and all the shows are on the island, so the festival quickly gains a camp-like atmosphere.  There are frequent Facebook posts on the performer's page asking if people want to get breakfast every morning, or to let everyone know of an outing to watch the Blue Jay's game at a pub near the old Olympic Village.  And despite the large sandbox feel and often 100+ member audiences, I start to form proximity driven friendships with people, in only the way summer camp (or good festivals) can do.

The festival is overseen by Allistair Cook, a dryly funny and self-deprecating improviser who seems to eschew the spotlight at every turn.  He takes a deeply personal care over the festival; I never see him on a walkie-talkie or cell phone, but I still see him everywhere: checking in on the ensembles at the beginning and end of every day, holding court in theater lobbies, and personally ferrying people to and from party or performance venues.  He seems to keenly know when his presence is needed, and when to allow the festival to run its course.  What I think really contributes to a very warm atmosphere is a bipartisan representation of the Vancouver improv scene - I know that Instant Theater, Blind Tiger, and Vancouver TheaterSports people are present based on the t-shirts I see, but the festival doesn't feel like the property of any company, it feels like it belongs to anyone, and represents everyone.

I see some truly outstanding performances; my personal favorites are an improvised TedTalk (TedXRFT, from Edmonton) and a duo that performed an entire set in gibberish (Chris & Travis, from Vancouver) that really demonstrate a high bar for improvised performance.  My two shows are excellent, the kind of warm, fun improv that I think exemplifies the spirit of experimentation that the VIIF is trying to accomplish.  My last night is relatively uneventful, a short appearance at the closing night party for a drink in a room that looks like a Nickeloden TV show's vision of a basement from the 90's (located at an unmarked door somewhere in SE Vancouver - where I can't really tell you because we take a short bus ride to get there in a vehicle that gives out Wurther's, has a disco ball, and plays 80's music).  I leave for the airport on Sunday morning, the festival a blur that I'll need a few days to still fully process as I slowly spin out of the orbit of this oustanding festival.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not Emotions


For a lot of us, the word emotion when it comes to improv is a scary one with a lot of panicking connotations. Most of the modern improviser are logical, right brained ones, a product, most likely, on an emphasis on game play. Game play is by it's very nature analytical requiring the ability to identify and amplify “unusual things”. Even game heightening, though necessitating a finesse best exemplified in ways that math cannot quantitate, can be broken down into a series of moves – that the UCB improv handbook reads like a science textbook is no accident. Combine this with the fact that most “comedy nerds” are comedy historians raised typically on static, witty comedy programming and you have a recipe for the typical improviser – smart, word-based, unphysical.

As a result, improv spends a lot of time on workshops about “emotions”. We're trying to remove improv from being a purely intellectual exercise into one that respects that it is a performative, acting experience. For new improvisers, the idea of emotions feels absolutely terrifying – I know that I feel a knee jerk response to avoid emotion workshops when I see them offered. Our western society frowns on the idea of “emoting”. Emotions are seen as being volatile, unpredicatable, and mercurial, which are not viewed as valuable in a society that likes consistent, objective, and reliable. Emotion also carries with it the “actor” connotation – which is to say big, theatrical emotions. This baggage presupposes that all “emotions” must operatic or at least soap operatic. We assume that to “emote” is to be melodramatic, which is the other incorrect assumption about emotions – namely that they must be maudlin or depressing.

Other synonyms also fall short; “feelings” for instance, conjur up ideas of either new-age frufruism or being on the psychiatrist's couch. Terms that equally do not achieve what we want: “sensitiveness”, “vibes”, “sentiment”, “sensation”, and “inspiration” all either fail to fully describe what is happening when we “act”, or go to far. This inaccuracy in terms makes it difficult to describe and to teach people how to do them.

If you've watched a really good improv show (or TV or movies), you've seen people playing humans, which is what makes them interesting and engaging entertainment. If you've taken enough improv workshops, you've probably also noticed an identical-ness in the way we teach two “separate” ideas. Namely, that we teach people that playing characters and emotions are distinct, discrete concepts, but in reality they are nearly the same thing. Both concepts talk about commitment to ideas, point-of-view, and being affected. This gut-reaction stuff is about being more human, playing more than just ourselves, occupying fictional spaces on stage as though they were actually happening is: (drum roll) acting. (Another scary word.)

I think we can roll all of this stuff up into a single unifying concept. These are all just “states of being”. You, as yourself, is a state, where you as a cowboy is a different state. Angry is another state, and angry cowboy is another different state. States make you reactive (and sometimes even proactive) rather than “bulletproof” as a state. If you've followed me so far, let's evolve this into chemistry. All elements are constantly in search of making complete electron shells, 8 being the ideal number for those of you keeping count at home. Those elements on the far right are called the noble gases because they don't react with anything, because they have completed outer electron shells. The entirety of the rest of chemistry in pursuit of completing those shells, either by gaining, losing, or sharing outer electrons with other atoms to get to the magic 8 number.

What I'm preferring to think of emotions as now are “valences” - valence states being the difference in atoms to make molecules. Valence, in operative improv terms, being the difference in self to achieve something else – either something lost to another, gained from anther, or shared with another. How much valence dictates how different from ourselves the state is. This doens't really change how we do things, and doesn't change the necessity for being human and reactive but hopefully may give some solace of a new term to people wh oneed something that feels less terrifying and more analytical.