Black Box Beats warm-up

Lights come up on black-clad high school students standing on and around wooden boxes of varying heights.

You know what’s coming next.

Staccato sophomoric pretension. A wonder to laugh at, if you’re not in the actual audience and/or have to drive a performer home afterward.

Like with The Invocation, a structure of that kind of high-falutin performance can help us practice the different types of contributions we have available in service of Group Games.

Statements. Words. Sounds – emotional, mechanical, animalistic, etc. Callbacks, Call-and-Response, and Choruses. Each are available to us. Why not utilize the full suite?

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Zoom In On Help Desk

With its focus on characters interacting, Help Desk games are perhaps the rubric most conducive to Zoom.

As such, I found myself hewing much more closely to my typical Help Desk curriculum this class.

The biggest hurdle came in navigating Pivots and Split Screens. Appearing on a Zoom screen it’s certainly not easy to “tag out” another player. But as you’ll see, the class had fun figuring that out.

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Zoom In On Hey Everybody

“Hey, Everybody,” we say as our initiation in some form. Maybe it’s “Team, take a knee,” “Soldiers. Attention!,” or the Zhubin Parang special, “People, people, [important person] is ready for your questions.”

The potential for trouble in a “Hey Everybody, get out here” initiation is high. Players may rush out on stage to support the initiation with disparate reactions that then battle for dominance; chaos ensues and awkwardness follows. Or, though players may rush out on stage to support the initiation, they await to take their cues from the initiator who becomes the facilitator in a stiff and slow series of interactions that typically revolves more around thinking and problem solving than feeling.  Hey Everybody game mechanics allow a group to quickly build a focused direction out of disparate parts.

The Keys to success following a “Hey Everybody” initiation are:

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Zoom In On Organic Games

Students were taught the 4 Key Lessons for building collaborative improv games on Day One. In subsequent weeks focused one of 4 rubric group games designed to explore the power of each of those key lessons.

At the end of the day – which really is the class showcase – the audience isn’t looking to see a perfectly executed To The Ether game. They don’t know what the hell that is. The rubrics are tools for teaching the players’ tools. All the audience cares about is watching players collaborate in-the-moment to build something together. Players need to follow the ensemble’s moves wherever they go; this is about an ensemble playing their games, not mine.

So now it’s time to put all that’s been learned together in service of Organic Group Games.

Any questions?

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Zoom In On Patterns & Games

I taught my first Patterns & Games class through Zoom.

I had been nervous going into it assuming I’d have to tweak my teaching materials significantly to work within this new world. But as I learned when approaching Silent Games, the mechanics of collaborative pattern play are applicable however Group Games are attempted.

Need proof? Check out the class’ showcase –

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Zoom In On 4 Key Lessons

When I teach Patterns & Games in-person the first class is always Kick The Duck, Red Rover. I love this game. When I say “Go,” the class is to align behind a gibberish group game.

It’s always a mess to start, and then I begin laying in the lessons and with each iteration the group gels that much more. It never fails; by the end the group has built something cohesive out-of-nothing together as an ensemble – and have enjoyed themselves along the way.

The Zoom environment is not conducive to Kick The Duck, Red Rover, but I felt it critical to still have this first class expose students to the 4 Key Lessons that form the backbone of group game work as improv does best.

  1. Seek Symmetries
  2. Empower Asymmetries
  3. Establish Rules of Cause and Effect
  4. Restart and Repeat

So this is what I did…

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Zoom In On One Person Scenes

Agreement is awesome. Don’t you think.

In class number two, we focus on that first of our 4 Key Lessons: Seek Symmetries.

Bringing characters into group games brings new opportunities for chaos. 

Simplifying character-based group scenes with balanced stage pictures and shared emotional perspectives can help a team confidently navigate the chaos. 

Here’s how we did that…

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Fun Times

Remember this Simpsons bit with Krusty about hemorrhoids and riding bikes?

That “I can ride a bike again!” idea jumps into my head a lot (more often than a person should really think about hemorrhoids…probably). I think about it in conjunction with that “It’s just like riding a bike” expression used to refer to an activity that, once learned, becomes so second nature that it can be engaged again without effort even if it’s been a long time since the last time you engaged the activity.

I’ve been improvising on stage since I was 12. Over the subsequent years I’ve learned a lot and logged a lot of hours on stage. You might think at this point – even if I were to step away from improv for a while – I could get on stage with anyone anywhere and it’d be “just like riding a bike.”

But then there are those damn hemorrhoids. Once you get decent at something you can get in your head about not wanting to fall back below that level of competence you’ve reached, and that fear actually undermines the effort. God forbid you start teaching so that every time you get on stage in front of students your mind goes to “putting your money where your mouth is” instead of putting your mind in the moment. And, heavens to Betsy, one day you’ll be on the old side of this young person’s hobby and you’ll feel that while you’re taking stage time those whippersnappers are thinking you should be put out to pasture. Hemorrhoids!

“I’m good at this…”

On top of that, you might be committing the worst sins of the old improviser: You and your team aren’t practicing and don’t have a coach. So you are feeling all the pressure in the world to succeed on stage and eschewing the thing that your ensemble needs to succeed.

Yes, “you” is “me.” These are my hemorrhoids, my sins. Riding a bike was hard.

But guess what? “I can ride a bike again!” And the fix? Preparation (H).

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New Year, New Curriculum

It’s 2020, my friends. And my curriculum needed to get with the times. Goodbye, Dukes Of Hazzard. Goodbye, s/he, his/her, him/her, etc.

2020 brings new exercises, new insights, and new clarifications for teaching.

Links have been updated on the Class Materials page, but they’re also here. Enjoy!

Intro to Improv Curriculum 2020 (PDF)
Character & Relationship Curriculum 2020 (PDF)
Patterns & Games Curriculum 2020 (PDF)
Long Form Performance Curriculum 2020 (PDF)
Teachers Best Practices 2020 (PDF)

Big “THANK YOU” to those who submitted feedback on the site through the pop-up survey. It’s not super aesthetically pleasing” – I hear you. I have big hopes for this site’s redesign and at least a little hope of getting that redesign done this year. First step: Updating the Curriculum. Check!

Stay tuned for more!