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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...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What I Learned from ScrapArtsMusic

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to see the ScrapArtsMusic show here in Portland. The group is from Canada, and they're kind of a mix between Stomp and taiko drums ... with various instruments made entirely from industrial scrap. I went to the show not really knowing what to expect, and walked out at the end of the show on cloud 9, dancing to internal rhythms, my head full of what I'd just seen.

Despite the fact that it was a musical performance, and very obviously scripted, I had two huge improv takeaways from the show:

You Don't Need a Gimmick (or, Keep It Simple)
The ScrapArts show consisted of 5 guys in simple black clothes, a variety of nutty-looking instruments, and lights -- and it was absolutely compelling. Contrast that with a Cirque Illuminations show that came to town a few weeks before: elaborate sets, numerous costume changes, songs, background dancing ... PLUS circus arts acts. The jugglers, contortionists, and aerialists were incredibly skilled, but the many unnecessary layers of spectacle only served to distract from the central acts -- with a guy balancing precariously on a wobbling chair tower, I found myself watching a giant pair of dancing pants elsewhere on stage. Dancing pants! Not so with ScrapArts -- they let their art take center stage, where it was able to shine.

It comes down, I think, to trusting the integrity of what you do. If you feel like you have to fill your show with bells and whistles to interest an audience or justify a ticket price, perhaps you should put some of that effort into strengthening the core -- and in improv, that's story. Have the ability to tell an interesting story, with characters they care about, and no audience will mind that it's being told on a bare stage with three chairs and a microphone.

Have Fun, and the Audience Will, Too
At some point in the ScrapArts show, I realized that I didn't actually care what the performers were doing -- they were having so much fun, it didn't matter to me if they were playing music or painting a wall beige. They leapt around from drum to drum, watching each other, clowning to the audience, and their spirit of play was infectious. Yes, it's fun to watch people do something they're awesome at (see: the Olympics), but it's even more fun to watch someone who's awesome at something have the time of his or her life doing it. It brings us, as audience members, into the experience, filling us with the same joy they're feeling onstage.

So those are my lessons to myself for the week: tell a good story and have fun. The rest will take care of itself.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


The Escapists have been playing with dubbing lately -- or "ventriloquism" -- a game that has always turned my brain to mush. I have a terrible time tracking everything that's going on, remembering who's talking for me, whose voice I'm supposed to be providing, and all the while trying to keep up good improvisor habits like space object work, wheres, and narrative.

The few times that I've felt successful at this game have been when I was "in the zone" -- that very Matrix-y feeling that you can slow time to suit your needs, that nothing is getting past you, that you're mind-melded with your fellow players. But when that zone is nowhere to be found, this is definitely one of those games that can get out of control fast ... and when it does, it tends to revert into everyone talking at once, pursuing their own agendas, and narrative flying out the window.

So Note One (to myself and anyone else with dubbing-related mush-brain) -- slow down. As in any scene, leave room for space objects, where-work, emotion, nuance. Leave the stage, if your character's presence is no longer needed. Breathe. Make eye contact. Breathe some more.

While you're slowed down, remember you're not in this alone (Note Two). You're onstage with at least one other person. You don't even have to do your own talking -- someone else is doing that for you. Watch the person you're speaking for; chances are, whatever they are going to say (through your mouth) is there in their body language. You just have to say it out loud. Be obvious. Be simple. Say what needs to be said and then shut your pie hole and let someone else have a turn.

Remember Basic Improv Math: you're responsible for -- at most! -- 50% of what happens in a scene. Even less if you're onstage with more people. So if you feel like the weight of the scene is on your shoulders, let go and let someone else pick up the slack.

And Note Three (let's call it the Chris Miller Rule of Improv Awesomeness for reasons I might explain in a future post): when in doubt, do space object work. Touch something in the "where." If you're in a kitchen, chop vegetables or wash dishes. Sweep the floor. Rummage around in your purse for chapstick and put it on. Straighten your imaginary clothes. It'll give your voice-provider something to work with, keep you from being a talking head on an improv stage, and give the audience something to look at.

Finally, give yourself a break. Everybody can't be awesome at every game. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

Some Dubbing Games
- Two-, Three-, or Four-Way Dubbing
Two, three, or four actors provide voices for each other, while also appearing in the scene. (Actor A provides the voice for Actor B, who provides the voice for Actor C, who provides the voice for Actor D, who provides the voice for Actor A, etc.)

- Dubbed Foreign Film
Two actors provide the voices for two other actors who act out a "movie" scene.

- Audience Dubbing
A volunteer from the audience joins a scene, with their voice provided by an actor offstage.

It's been 19 years, 11 months, and 25 days since my first improv class.

Friday, January 15, 2010

For Shame!

Shame on me -- not posting to this blog for 10 months! Clearly I need a new plan of attack. Let's try something new ... like game descriptions. Seems like I'm playing a lot of games lately; maybe thinking about them in a new way will bring ideas of new ways to play them.

Anyone out there following along -- if you play another version of this game, or call it by another name, drop me a comment!