Seek symmetries. Empower asymmetries. Establish rules of cause and effect. Repeat. These steps help guide a group of improvisers in crafting a collaboratively-established game they can heighten together.
“Simplify,” is my directive to students learning how to build group games organically. If you have more than two or three perspectives each vying to be heard, the game gets messy quick and it can be hard to heighten to an edit.
With this lens, Horse Apples – the corral of Richmond’s Chicago-trained improvisers – courted chaos in the clip below by initiating five different perspectives. But, following Hey Everybody mechanics, they built their scene with emotional reactions revolving around a center while heightening individual, narrowed points of view. And they confidently shared the air.
Watch it and then I’ll take you through it.
I’m the fifth player on stage.
I remember watching my fellow players adding around Joey’s wonderful Self Contained Emotional Statement – “I’m the shit.” David entered next, assuming a pose and engaging a mimed notepad that I read immediately as “Reporter.” Micou establishes himself as a third entity related to David’s addition, the “Cameraman.” Newman heads into the audience – a move I love – and becomes a “Commentator.” I remember thinking, “What does that make me?” And realizing that I didn’t have to – and probably shouldn’t for the sake of Clarity – be someone different. So I too chose to be a “Commentator.” Repetition alone is heightening.
But did I, in choosing to mirror Newman’s role, also choose to mirror his perspective and in doing so reduce the amount of “stuff” on stage to foster faster clarity and collaborative heightening? No. I struck it out on my own following a racist joke. I encourage students to commit to patterns even if they’re the only ones in the group doing so because even one more person devoting themselves to simplicity and repetition breeds that much more clarity. And there I was making a Four Person scene a Five Person scene. We had a “Cocksure Batter,” a “Reporter,” a “Cameraman,” a “Commentator” and a “Color Commentator.”
So how’d we hold it all together? Micou wins a gold star in recognizing that, though he entered third, he can play environment and, through environmental commitment (and his back to the audience), he could exist soundlessly while appearing purposeful. David stayed committed while awaiting his turn; though second to enter (and sitting center stage right next to Joey, the scene’s center), David also engaged physicality to appear purposeful amidst silence. And when he spoke it was through a perspective the audience believed he believed in Moment One.
Newman and I found a “game” in the Upright Citizens’ Brigade style – a funny thing we could heighten about color commentary being racist. Yes, as the fourth and fifth additions to the stage, Newman and I took the lion’s share of dialogue, but I liked that Joey remained the center (though a true point against the assertion that we commentators didn’t steal center is the fact that we drew the real cameraman). I also liked that the scene had legs to stand on beyond Newman’s and my “game”; we had Joey’s reactions and David’s commitment. I love when a group can put away a game, follow another thread and snap back to the game.
When encouraging newbies to see master shows, I encourage two takeaways:
- Take solace in the sloppiness. A group of veterans can make it through anything. A montage? “We don’t even need to rehearse for that.” The Harold? “Let’s just get together in the alley pre-show to talk about it.” You want to warm up? “Haven’t we been?” The key differentiater between the novice and experienced improviser is confident vulnerability. Once you’re there – and there with a group – you can do anything. Your Harold becomes “The Prefect Harold” even as it defies the form. Your montage innately carries enough patterns to produce organic connections, so folks want you to repeat it as “a form.” Don’t be so beholden to a game or format that you fail to follow (which is NOT license to fight game or format because you can’t follow). A seasoned group turns “sloppiness” into purposefulness (and purposefulness into expectedness).
- Do not be inspired by the sloppiness. Just because you made it through doesn’t mean you should’ve (See: today’s 1st person shooters vs yesterday’s exacting side-scrollers; See: buttkissfighting). I start my Patterns & Games class with having students realize how powerful simplicity can be, so as to curb their natural impulse toward complication. They experience the collective joy of agreement in a group game, which becomes the reason not to resort to conflict or commentary. In my workshops, students learn to build actively by following, which gives them the confidence to do instead of just talk about what they could do. My experience has intersected me with many an improviser who fought against being “fenced in,” “constrained by pattern,” and “more creative when free.” And in a matter of time those same improvisers return to me with “structure fosters freedom,” “with a rhythm I can go forever,: and “focus heightens my creativity.” Do you play sloppy, confident that you can right a scene out of any spiral? Or do you play as tight as possible – making your next move in the heightening context of all that came before it, even if you’re the only one playing that way – to maximize your odds for success at the outset?
And therein lies the balance. Practice rigid to play loose. Work, work, work in practice sessions, online, off-stage and in your head; but then, when on stage, in front of an audience, follow your instincts. Play. Follow. Make’em look good by seeking clarity through repetition and simplicity through agreement while grounding yourself and allowing evolution(s) through emotional reactions.
Trust and follow. Trust they’ll follow.
Horse Apples does.
Damn right, they do.