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10,000 Hours

In his book  Outliers , Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink ) maintains that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be wor...

Thursday, March 5, 2009


In my beginning improv class today, I decided to teach speaking in one voice. We'd been working on word-at-a-time stories, with often hilarious results, but too often our tales would pause, agonizingly, while the storytellers looked for just the right word to come next. My students each had a very clear idea where they wanted the story to go, so when it was their turn to contribute a word, they didn't want to give up control with a "the" or "a" -- they needed to find the one word that would swing the story around to their vision. Despite my admonitions to relax and just say the next logical word in the story, they couldn't give up control.

Speaking in one voice seemed a logical next step. You really have to give up control with that exercise -- or be outed as a control-freak. So I set the group up in pairs and asked them to answer, in one voice, simple questions that I would ask them, like "what is your favorite color?" As it turns out, however, the questions were too hard to answer in one voice. Whose favorite color? How do you structure the answer? There were too many ways to be wrong, and they were all getting in the way.

So we took a step back. I asked the class to pair up again and, facing their partner and making eye contact, I asked each pair to count to ten, in one voice. Then backward from ten to one. This was something they knew -- they knew how it started and ended and what came in the middle. The only thing that was different was the speaking in one voice.

Then, switching partners, I made up a word ("persephonious," I think, and later "zephyrific" and "fishiculosity") and asked them to spell it in one voice. Of course, there was no way to be wrong, because it wasn't a real word, and it could be spelled any way they chose. However, spelling an unknown word did have enough structure to give the students direction -- they knew how the word sounded, and any English speaker could reasonably make a guess. Yet everyone would probably guess differently -- so each pair would have to work together to stay on the same page.

It was a success -- not only did the students have a great time spelling these ridiculous words, they also "got" the idea of speaking in one voice, which they were eager to then bring to other exercises and games. Now we'll just have to wait and see if it helps with the Word-at-a-Time control issues ...

Improv Hours Today: 4
This Week: 7
This Month: 11
This Year: 132
Total: 5,632

Thursday, February 26, 2009

This Is Your Brain on Improv

I have never been able to come up with a reasonable answer for the oft-asked question, "How do you do that?" ("that" meaning, interchangeably, long-form improv, a specific improvised game, or even improv in general). How do I do improv? I don't know -- I just do it, I guess. I mean, I've taken hundreds of hours of classes, read dozens of books, practiced-practiced-practiced ... but in the end, it's just a matter of doing it. That answer, however, doesn't ever seem to satisfy either myself nor the asker.

I recently read an article in Scientific American about choking under pressure. You know -- you've practiced your convention speech a thousand times in front of the mirror and anyone who'll sit still to listen. You know it backwards and forwards ... but then you get up on the podium to deliver it and -- choke! You can't remember a thing. The old advice, when this happened, was to slow down; with relaxation and calm, your speech would return and you'd be back on your feet. But SciAm differs, suggesting that a better move would be to plunge right in without thinking and hope for the best. The super-boiled-down reasoning is this: your memorized speech is controlled by the cerebellum, land of the automatic; if you think about it, you're using your cerebral cortex, the brain's thinkiest bit. So of course your thinky brain can't retrieve the speech; it's in your monkey brain, safe and sound. It's like looking for your keys in the refrigerator -- better to check the key rack, where you left them. By jumping into the speech without thinking, your cerebellum is triggered, the speech is retrieved from its storage space, and you're the hit of the dental convention.

So how does improv figure into all of this? At the beginning, when you're taking classes, improv is mostly cerebral cortex, the higher-order-thinking part of the brain that gets involved when you're learning new skills. And that's good, because there's a lot to absorb as your mind becomes more flexible and you practice all the new stuff you're learning. As you're busy building new neural pathways and training your brain to think the way you want it to, all this improv knowledge is becoming more familiar. Until one day, thunk!, you're not reminding yourself to "say yes" anymore -- you're just doing it. The cerebellum, your animal brain of instinctual reactions, has kicked in. With practice, all the basic skills will make their way into that part of your brain, leaving the cerebral cortex free to work on higher-level improv stuff.

This is something that improvisors talk about amongst themselves (you know, when you're learning a new improv skill, and it's just impossible, and you know you're an idiot and you'll never get it, and then suddenly, you can do it, and it's easy, and you can't remember what all the fuss was about?), but it's hard to explain to someone in the midst of the struggle. Thinking about it in terms of cerebellum vs. cerebral cortex might just help banish the voices of despair and make it all make a little more sense.

So how do I do improv? I still don't really know. But I might be a little closer to a satisfying answer.

Improv Hours Today: 3
This Week: 9
This Month: 50
This Year: 118
Total: 5,618

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


When you're onstage in the middle of a long-form show, you're a juggler working to keep a lot of balls in the air. And all the balls are equally important in creating a well-rounded story that's satisfying to audience and fellow improvisors alike. While the number of things you need to think about may seem innumerable, they can be broken down pretty easily into three categories: character, story, and improv. Since almost every aspect of a long-form story can be thought of from all three perspectives, it might be helpful to think about each category as a separate brain.

Character Brain
Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. So the Character Brain thinks about the person you're portraying onstage. How do they talk? How do they move? What do they want? What is their history? Their hopes for the future? Your Character Brain thinks about all aspects of your character, giving it depth and making it real, whether you're a walk-through waiter or the mustachioed detective in an Agatha Christie-style mystery.

Playwright Brain
Your Playwright Brain worries about the story. Who's the protagonist? What style or genre are you trying to create? What has happened so far, and what needs to happen next? Your Playwright Brain is writing the story as you go, constantly trying to make sense of what's happening in the greater context of the story as a whole. So while your Character Brain has created a whole world of nuance for the character you're playing, your Playwright Brain reminds you that your purpose in the scene is to be the third guy in the Starbucks coffee line, raising the stakes for the harried teenage barista (the story's protagonist) behind the counter.

Actor Brain
Finally, your Actor Brain, or Improvisor Brain, is keeping track of all the good improv practices you've learned over the years. Yes-And, Make Your Partner Look Good, Go Into the Cave--all that stuff. This part of your brain is focused on the other actors onstage with you, being present in the moment, and noticing what's going on around you. Someone pulled you onstage for a scene--what do they want from you? How can you make their idea happen? This brain is also looking for patterns, opportunities for reincorporation, chances for a lazzi, and other ways to have fun onstage and engage your fellow actors and the audience.

A fun and satisfying long-form story depends a lot on engaging these three brains and getting them to work together. With practice, the three brains will become instinctive, freeing you to relax and have fun onstage.

(Props to Christian for the idea of three brains. He's working on a book. You should read it.)

Improv Hours Today: 1
This Week: 6
This Month: 19
This Year: 87
Total: 5,587

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Be Here Now

At a recent rehearsal, I had my first real exposure to Meisner technique. I'd heard about it, and might have done some of his exercises in college, but I never really thought about it or even knew what it was about. Turns out, it's all about getting actors to do what good improvisors do naturally -- live in the moment.

Meisner, trained as a concert pianist and later as an actor, developed his technique in the 1940s to get actors to "live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." His exercises were at first a reaction to the Stanislavski-based Method Acting, developed by his mentor Lee Strasberg, which encouraged actors to access past memories to gain character insight. Meisner Technique goes one step further, maintaining that actors should play their own truths in a moment-to-moment interaction with their fellow performers ... while, of course, performing the written text.

In other words, Meisner wanted actors to improvise, to feel their characters emotions and live moment-to-moment as they speak the lines written for them by the playwright. So he developed a series of exercises to train actors to do what good improvisors do automatically: be present and react realistically. In improv -- and in long-form improv especially -- you have to. If you're busy planning what you're going to say or do next, you'll miss an offer that would have led you to the next logical thing. Sometimes that offer is spoken; sometimes it's physical; sometimes it's something in the environment. But if you're not present and open to inspiration, you're going to miss it.

Monday, January 5, 2009


When I was at BATS, Keith Johnstone entreated the players in his workshops, and when he directed Micetro, to be boring. We would roll our eyes and snort (albeit quietly), then endeavor to be boring -- whatever that meant.

Of course, later I realized what he was going for. He probably didn't really mean "boring" -- he meant "simple." Pick one idea -- ideally the first one that comes up in the scene -- and run with it. A scene about shopping for lettuce in your corner grocery store can be just as interesting as one about defending the galaxy in a spaceship you built yourself out of cheeseburgers and dental floss. More so, in fact, because the audience can relate to it. Most people have bought lettuce; the majority of us have never defended against alien invaders. And a scene that the audience can relate to is much more satisfying to watch than one that is just played for laughs.

Where simple really helps is in long-form. You can get away with complex cleverness in short form; in fact, you'll probably be rewarded for it, with audience applause and laughter. But in a format where you're telling a single story, in the same "genre universe," for 30 to 120 minutes, the simpler you can keep things, the easier you're making your life onstage -- and the happier you're making the audience.

Think of it this way -- as you and your fellow improvisors are building your story, the audience is figuring things out along with you. They don't have any additional information; neither do you. So if you're confused onstage, you'd better believe they're confused. And if they're confused, their attention is going to wander. And if their attention wanders, they're not going to be paying attention to the story. And if they're not paying attention to the story, they will get even more confused, until you've completely lost them. Then it doesn't matter how brilliantly you tie up all your loose ends -- if nobody in the audience cares, what's the point?

Better, then, to keep your story simple. If you've got a simple, familiar narrative arc (like boy meets girl, they meet with an obstacle, overcome it, and live happily ever after), it allows you to get more in-depth with other things (character development, relationships, locations, even side stories) that make the core story more real and dimensional. And comedy will come out of that! The audience can follow the story, so they're not confused and checked-out. They can relate to it, so they'll find the humor in the truths that you tell and the real, nuanced characters that you portray. And they'll leave the theater laughing and satisfied, eager to return and see another show.

Improv Hours Today: 1
This Week: 1
This Month: 6
This Year: 6
Total: 5,506

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Trust the Improv

Audience members at improv shows (especially long-form or musical) often don't believe the show they've just seen is improvised. They assume that most of it has been somehow predetermined, like the basic plot, the characters or, in the case of a musical, the music. (The Un-Scripted Theater Company talked about this phenomenon in their ShowBlog on December 4, 2008). They refuse to believe despite the performers' reassurance that, while we do rehearse the format and the genre, the show is, in fact, completely improvised. And it's not being show-offey either -- the truth is, it's easier to improvise something than to pre-rehearse it. So it's always baffled me that people are so resistant to believe.

Last night, I was given a gigantic clue to the origin of this phenomenon. I went to a musical improv show in Boston (drove 2 hours, thank you very much), at a well-known and highly-lauded company which shall remain nameless. The show structure sounded great -- it was the reunion of two famous rock stars from the 70s, and they would be interviewed by a "music journalist" and play some of their best-known "hits." I was excited, and jonesing for some musical improv. At the top of the show, the host assured the audience that everything they were about to see was improvised ... and then the band proceeded to open the show with a musical number that was very clearly not. For one thing, it was terrible. Why was it terrible? Because the two singers weren't listening to each other, or the band, or looking at each other (or the band), or paying any discernible attention to each other (or the band) -- and yet, they were singing the same thing at the same time. There are two ways that this is possible. Well, three, if you count "a miracle" as one of the ways. And I assure you, this song was NOT a miracle. For two singers to sing the same exact words at the same time, they either need to be looking at each other and listening to both the other person AND the band, or they need to have written the song beforehand and learned it.

So they started the show off with a pre-written song, performed within 5 minutes of the show's host assuring the audience that everything they were about to see would be improvised. But that's not all. They took audience suggestions for song titles before the show started, then DISAPPEARED WITH THEM -- for all we knew, taking them backstage and preparing songs ahead of time. Then, at the end of the show, they sang another apparently pre-written song (see clues above), then kicked into a version of Journey's Don't Stop Believing. Now, even if we audience members were willing to suspend our disbelief about the improvisational origins of the two previously-mentioned songs, how on earth did they expect us to believe they were making up a song that's been haunting radio airwaves and karaoke bars since 1981? "Everything you're about to see is improvised," my ass!

Trust the improv, people. Believe that something you can make up on the spot will be as good as something you can prepare beforehand. Trust that the audience will love you even if you fail. If you fail, fail miserably, and with your whole heart and soul. The audience is there to watch you walk a tightrope. They want to see you do something they haven't got the guts to do themselves. They want to see the magic moment where utter cluelessness turns into genius, as you pull a rhyme out of your ass, or inadvertently speak the truth of the moment, without even realizing you're doing it. That is what improv is all about. And if improvisors don't trust the improv, the tightrope is only inches above the floor. Raise the tightrope. Put a tank of sharks underneath, and a flaming hoop, and trust that the improv will keep you safe (and failing that, hope to hell you're fireproof and not very tasty!)

Improv Hours Today: 3
This Week: 3
This Month: 3
This Year: 3
Total: 5,503