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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...

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