I'm not even going to bother with warmups - they are nothing different from yesterday.
We toyed around today with different "collaboration" games, such as One Word Story, Dr. Know It All, and Genre Stories. Genre Stories involved each of us telling a part of a story, but we had to do so within the confines of a genre we were given.
Our teacher dropped a bomb on us: our show was moved from the e.t.c. stage to the mainstage. We all made a big deal of this - perhaps bigger than we should have. This is a stage where a lot of famous people have performed and it's weird to have rehearsed on it - and it will be even stranger, I'm sure, to perform on it.
So we rehearsed a bit (aka "played improv games") on the mainstage.
Sketch was more of the same for sketch. We cleaned up old sketches even further and then went down to the mainstage to get the blocking down.
At this point, I am tired and I feel like the experiece is coming to a close. These two weeks have been great, but I am excited to see this show come together.
We were allowed to pick our own warmups. We played Shakedown, Zip Zap Zop and Counting to 15.
We started things off with a longform game called Weirdass. Structure:
- Two people act as if they're being interviewed by some unseen person. They sort of monologue about each other.
- A scene relating to something in the discussion takes place.
- Another scene relating to the previous scene takes place.
- Go back to step one.
We spent most of the time after that playing games, such as:
- Do-Run - It took us forever to remember how this game went. Some people were just terrible at this and either couldn't rhyme or completely froze up. "No!" Steve shouted and kicked a milkcrate. "Do something!!!"
- New Choice - Or as Steve called it "ding".
- 185 Blanks - "185 blanks walk into a bar. The bartender says 'sorry, we don't serve blanks' and the punchline goes here." Steve's advice: "Do something. This game is hard and is rarely funny, but do something. Allow no dead stage time. Better to say something than nothing."
Let me preface this post with something completely unrelated to it: I am a geek and I am excited for the iPhone to come out. I will be even more excited when the price goes down by $200 or so in the next few years.
Anyway...I feel no need to explain these warmup games because I've done so in the past.
- Counting to 15
Look, Mommy! I wrote big words in the last sentence!
We went back to playing "The Rules of Dialogue" game again. Jordan and I had a scene in which we didn't break any rules and the scene went well past its prime - Steve gave the scene the mercy of killing it.
We sat and talked for a while about using genres in improvising. "These games are always a lot of fun for the audience," our teacher said, "but in terms of creativity, they're often pretty lame." For instance, when one hears "kung fu" movie as a genre suggestion, you are guarenteed to see someone make a "badly done dubbing" joke. While this always flies well with the crowd, it's cliche and there are so many more (and possibly better) ways to go with it.
Take the suggestion "action movie". What first comes to mind? Probably an explosive fight scene. But if one goes a bit deeper, they might find another idea. It always seems that in an action movie, there's one tense scene between the hero and the antagonist in which they have strained and (forcibly) witty dialogue. The audience would understand this happens a lot in action movies. Why not do it?
Essentially, he asked us to be less hokey and to delve deeper into genres. It's better to be what Shaun of the Dead is to zombie movies than to be what Scary Movie is to horror films.
We played the classic "Genres" game, except instead of freezing the scene and doing different styles, we stuck with the same style but had to do things a different way. For instance, the group I was with was given "teen movie". We'd do the scene in the style of a teen movie, he'd freeze it and say "Okay, do it again in the style of a teen movie, but a different type." And so on.
He brought up another interesting point after someone whispered a secret to one of their partners onstage: "As easy as it is to reveal information in scenes with secrets, it's a waste. Why not just confront the other person onstage with your secret?"
Also this piece of advice: "When in doubt, have a huge emotional reaction and this will propel things forward."
Also: "That scene was hard. Fishing with a monkey...is hard."
And don't forget: "Who do you think would win a hot dog eating contest? A skinny Japanese man or a goddamn bear?!"
Okay, that's enough advice from our improv teacher.
Our last game was called "Talk Show". It wasn't much more than what it sounds like.
Sketch went well. I helped develop a sketch that I think we'll call "Monopoly". It went better than I expected.
The time that we didn't devote to new ideas was devoted to going through old ones again in attempt to get things polished.
Sean, our teacher, realized for the first time in his 28 years of living that "The Alphabet Song" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" have the same melody.
It was pouring when class ended. I stood in the rain for four seconds and my clothes were completely soaked. A McDonald's provided temporary refuge.
And now, one last quote from our improv coach:
"It used to be 'don't talk to strangers and don't play with matches.' Now it's 'don't get molseted because of pedophiles all over ther internet.'" - on Scruff McGruff commercials
Steve was a half hour late. We had a sub during warmups.
- "Czechoslovakia Boom Sha-Boom" - Click the link for an explanation.
- Poor, Poor Animal - Everyone in a circle. Whoever is in the middle tries to make someone on the outside say "poor poor animal" without laughing.
- Shakedown - I am fairly certain I've described this before.
Steve arrived and told us he overslept.
We played "Party Quirks" for our somewhat shortened session. I had the fortune of playing James Earl Jones - and trying to get the host to guess who I was. When one must resort to referencing Martin Luther King Jr's assasin, one knows they are in far over their head.
Next was a game called "Debate". Two debating politicians were selected. They went outside while we picked an adjective, noun, and verb in the infinitive tense. For example: "dizzy elephants hug". The politicians had 20 second periods of time to figure out what the subject of the debate was (while they gave speeches, of course) via the miming of two "presidential aides". After those 20 seconds were up, the second politician would go through the same process.
Here ended improv and began sketch.
We're really starting to work on writing and performing sketches now. I helped write 2 sketches that I was content with - "Waldo" and "Laffy Taffy". For now, I'm not giving details on the sketches. If either make it into the show, I'll post it/them on YouTube.
And that was our day.
I've been in Chicago for eight days now and will leave Saturday. How weird is that?
The stage where they performed was surprisingly humble. It is the very definition of "black box" - completely black, stage on one side, audience in the middle, and bar on the other side. We had front row seats - which is to say were one of a handful who could comfortably set their feet on the stage. There were moments were the performers were literally inches away from us.
The show opened with a Harold performed by Diplomat Motel. The suggestion was "Toronto" as suggested by Jordan. Each plot loosely connected itself by the end. Hilarious stuff.
Next was a game where both Diplomat Motel and The Deltones came onstage. They had an audience member come up and describe her day in detail. They took pieces from her day, twisted them around and made it "[Audience Member's Name Here]'s Worst Nightmare". It seemed like a very cool ensamble game.
Next was an Improvised Musical by The Deltones. It was strange - one of the members performed in the Second City Camp show we saw Wednesday. It was strange recognizing someone we were sort of connected to onstage.
Anyway, the suggestion was "Crystal Meth" - the first and only thing shouted. Hilarious, crazy, mind boggling show. If I have learned only one thing from this trip, it's that I've got a lot to learn.
Steve, our teacher, asked me how I was. "Tired," I said.
"What'd you do last night?" he asked.
"One year old woke up at five in the morning."
"Ah. I had a 20-something wake me up at three with a party."
"Huh. How so?"
"Well, he was gone for a couple of days being the subject of a new drug."
"Oh. What kind?"
"I think it was a nicotine based drug meant to cure Alzheimer's."
- Counting to 15 - If you have been to drama camp in the summer, you know this one.
- The Circle Game - There was no real name for this. Steve said: "Get in a circle everyone. Alright. Now I want everyone to walk to your left. When I clap, go the opposite direction." This changed to those of us in the circle providing the claps and then having to change direction as a group with no cues.
- Emotions on a Scale - I think I described this exercise a couple of days ago.
More "three line scene" work. He encouraged us to have huge emotional reactions to the other character's lines. "The last line should be a big turning point for the scene in this exercise."
The three line scenes had new rules after this: scenes had to be exactly 30 seconds long but they could still only have three lines. Then they had to be exactly a minute long. Once again, work to try to bring emotions up.
Steve, on one occasion, would interject with this: "That was great, guys. One piece of advice, though, and that's..." He rubbed his eyes. "...I completely forgot what I was going to say. What the hell? Why am I talking? You guys are doing great. Let's keep going."
At one point he mumbled: "I am so drunk right now. Actually, I'm not drunk. I'm hungover...but I...I just feel like I'm hungover. God I'm tired."
We played a game whose name I cannot remember - let's call it "emotions". During this game, a scene took place and types of emotions were called out by a host. Everyone would have to adjust accordingly.
Next was a game called "pick up lines". Most of you know how this game goes, so I'm not going to bother explaining it. This game went very well.
Lunch, sketch class. We had a sub today. We improvised through more scene ideas - one that went particularly well was about a man in the gallows. The rest ranged from okay to awkward to watch.
We are halfway done with these classes. At this very time a week from now, our show will have been performed. It seems so far, I haven't learned much from improv in terms of "rules", however, I find Steve's emphasis on emotions to be something I could work on.
"I don't think that conflict, setting...none of that matters," he said. "What matters most is how your character reacts emotionally to what's around him. He's in a coffee shop. Great. How does he feel about being in a coffee shop? How does he feel about the people around him?"
A random piece of advice he threw out today: "If you're feeling stuck, get into a random, huge physical pose. Something will come. Think with your gut. Not your brain. I know that sounds cheesy, but...yeah, you know."
Something strange I'd like to bring up about sketch class: at The Second City, setches are often made via improvisation. You write an outline of events, bring it to a group, cast it, and run through it. And then you run through it again. And again. You take the parts you like from each run and make it into a sketch.
Often this finished sketch is not much like the original idea you presented. This is fascinating to me. I have a strange fascination with the creative process and what happens to an idea once it's been shared. And we know what can happen to an idea thanks to this digital culture: it can be easily shared, discussed, interpreted, re-done, remixed, or mashed-up with a completely unrelated work. I find that exciting.
The same sort of thing happens often with sketches. The group puts their own spin on it. This is more often than not great, but ocasionally, it can be a little frusterating if you feel your original idea was better (and if the group vetoes your idea and you aren't insanely passionate about it, it probably sucked in the first place). But that's a big thing about improv: you have to be completely willing to get the best idea and the world and go, "You know what? Screw that. My partner is doing something and I need to play along with that."
Our original teacher came back. He's something of an improv drill sergant, but he's a very good improv drill sergant.
- Zip, Zap, Zop - Chances are, if you're reading this blog, you know how this game goes.
- A game sort of like "Go" but with names only - This didn't go well at first, since not all of us have each other's names. (I think I may know them all, surprisingly.) He responded to our poor performance with these words of encouragement: "Jesus fucking Christ, this game isn't that hard!"
Next was a game of freeze tag, except our teacher called the freezes rather than us. This lead to a discussion about editing, which is about knowing when to end the scene. The best place to stop a scene is at its peak - often times this is the biggest laugh of the scene. We played freeze tag again, but the other half of the class called the freezes while the other half played freeze tag.
After a break, he taught us charcteristics of bad dialogue:
- Denial - Don't say "no" to suggestions. On a similar note, don't deny what the other is saying. He gave us this example: "If someone in a scene says that they have a squirrel, don't say 'That's not a squirrel, that's cookie!'"
I had a question about denial earlier, and so I said, "You took the words out of my mouth."
"Really?" he said. "You were going to say squirrel and cookie?"
"No, no," I said. "That would be cool, though. Do you use squirrel and cookie every time?"
"Yeah, I do," he said.
"Weird," I said. "I use the example 'that's not a pizza, that's a shoe' every time." (An example that my improv coach, Joe, instilled in me.)
He repeated the example I said to himself. "Man," he said. "That's a good one. I'm gonna start using that."
Anyway, more bad things to do in dialogue:
- Questions - This is a given.
- Commands/instructions - If both give commands back and forth, this gets tiring. If only one gives commands, it can become a teaching scene, and that's never good.
- Past/future stuff - I think the message he was trying to give here was "Keep stuff in the scene."
We played a game after this. We were split into two teams. A member would come forth from each team and they would do a scene. However, if one broke one of the preceding rules, they would be kicked out of the game, and a team would be one person short. The team that stayed alive (i.e still had members when the game was over) was the winning team.
Many seemed to find it difficult not to ask questions. One scene started and ended with one line: "Let me ask you this...(pause of realization)...shit."
I seemed to have trouble not bringing up past events. How very western world of me. (He said with what may have been sarcasm.)
One last game: World's Worst. Steven (is that the name I made up for him?) emphasized the importance of "stepping out of that back line like a bullet out of a gun" - even when you've got nothing. As long as there was no "dead stage time", things were okay.
Improv ended and sketch class began. We discussed with Sean the "rules of improv" scenes we tried to do. My take was that because we were thinking so much, the scenes sucked. I've found this is the nature of improv: the more you think, the more likely you are to screw yourself over in a scene. It's best to ingrain "the rules" (like no denying) in one's head so thinking can be avoided.
We tossed around ideas during sketch. After a brief outline of a few scenes were given, we attempted to improvise them. Scenes included a game of bingo full of senior citizens and a man asking for directions - but the direction giver, despite not being helpful, is very unwilling to let him get directions from anyone else.
After a few more scenes like this, the day ended.
This has nothing at all to do with Chicago or Second City.
- Do-Do-Do-Do - I think Joe tried to teach this one to us once. The group gets in a circle and snaps. One person says a word and a person next to them says a word. For instance "snake" and "drum". The group would then respond with "Snakedrum. Do-do-do-do."
- Pass the Snap - Like pass the clap, but around the circle.
- "Let's Go To..." - One stands up in the group and says "Let's go to the [insert place here]!" Everyone enthusiasticaly responds "Yay!" and pretends as if they are something or someone at said place.
- Yes and Circle - Someone starts with a statement, like "I have a boat." Someone adds on to the statement with a sentence that begins with "Yes, and..."
We moved onto a game that I think was called "Endow". We paired off and one said to the other "You are a [insert thing here]." The other would reply "Yes, and [something about their character]." Our sub for the day, Tim, emphasized the importance of saying a lot in a few words.
This leads to a game of "Three Line Scene". This was done in groups of two. Sample scene:
One Guy: Chef Brian, this is the best soup I've ever tasted!
Other Guy: That's because I peed in it.
One Guy: Wow! The best pee I've ever tasted!
After a break, we played a game called "Animals". We drew animal names from a box and we did a scene where we had to assume the characteristics of one of the animals. The day ended here. I think the general theme of the day was character skill building.
Tim gave us a few parting words: "When your real teacher comes back tomorrow, tell him we played a game called 'Frogdrum'. And when he asks about it, just spend 10 minutes and make up random crap about this nonexistent game. It'll confused the hell out of him."
We watched a performance of the Second City Educational Company after that. It was good. There was a lot of sketches, a bit of improv, and a bit of structured musical improv.
After this we talked with Sean about the performance - he was in it. He later brought up a certain type of scene they did that typically lasted no more than 10 seconds. This type of scene was called a Blackout. It would be best described as a one-joke scene - or, in BD terms, an "Oh-My-God" skit.
He gave us a technique we could use to write these scenes as well.
- Start with a stock scene. A stock scene is a scene which can be easily identified - like a doctor's office, a wedding, or a car.
- Consider where the stock scene would normally go, and think of a twist to give to the stock scene. This twist is one of the basic buliding blocks of comedy.
- Write the sketch. Establish the setting and situation and when the audience has that, give them the twist.
We tried our own hand at the Blackout. A few good skits were written, but generally it was blah to bad. And that was the day.
Oh, I have to mention the guy in charge of the educational program: Jeff. On the first day, Jeff had a tiny bandaid next to his lip - we assumed that he nicked his face shaving.
On Tuesday, the bandaid was near the top of his nose. There was no visible cut where the bandaid was Monday. A few of us noticed and discussed amongst ourselves. "There's no way he cut himself shaving there," someone said.
Today, the bandaid was to the right of his right eyebrow. It got to a point where we actually asked our sub, Tim, what was going on.
"I never noticed," he said. "I have no idea."
The keyboard I am using does not really have an "o" key, so I am trying to avoid that letter.
Took the purple line out again. It's getting easier and easier to take it. (That's what she said!)
We had a substitute for impov today. His name was Tim and he is so far the most sane adult we've met at Second City.
One of the students complimeted Jordan and us on our mime technique and that was humbling. Those weren't his exact words, though; he said he liked "the way [we] move".
Jordan and I were already identified today as "the mimes". We didn't even title ourselves. It just happened.
- First was "the clapping game". We passed a clap around the circle and eventually two claps were added to the mix, causing quite a few people to stop and be confused.
- Next was a game called "Yes". It is exactly like "Go", except while pointing we were to say the other person's name and wait for a reply of "yes".
- The final warmup was a game of "Red Ball". We passed a red ball, yellow ball and orange ball around.
One Word Story transitioned to a similar game where each of us told a phrase of a story (as conducted by Tim), but we had an emotion we had to use.
After a break, we were instructed to walk with variations in different body parts, an exercise Jordan and I were familiar with. Ocasionally, he would stop us in mid-walk and interview us while we were in character of this strange body-parted person.
A similar game followed, this time where we were given emotions. We were asked to walk around with an emotion (say, suspicion) and to change the intensity of it as directed by Tim. We started at a 1 and eventually went up to 11.
This moment, I think, really opened the rest of the group up to each other. When one is in a room full of yelling, screaming, cursing people pretending to be mad at each other, one has to both join in and feel connected to his fake pissed-off companions as well.
We played "Hitchhiker" after this. It's a little like park bench: two chairs, one guy is driving, and the passenger he picks up is a character. The driver must assume the character of the passenger and then find a reason to leave. The passenger becomes the new driver and a new passenger/character is picked up.
Then there was a game of Freeze Tag - except we were not to change scenes, settings or characters. We were to assume the character of the person we tagged out. As people raised on traditional Freeze Tag, Jordan and I had a bit of trouble wrapping our brains around this subject. After this confusion, a traditional game of Freeze Tag ensued.
And that was the end of improv for the day. Next was sketch writing.
We had a sub yesterday, so we were introduced to our new teacher, Sean, whose name we pronounced phonetically (and incorrectly) as advised by our sub from yesterday.
And let me tell you: Sean is a hyper guy. He admitted he's something of a coffee addict and revealed to us that he's known to have up to 5 cups of coffee a day. His hyperness makes sense, though, so he's a cool guy.
He explained to us some more characteristics of good sketches- much of it was related to the "plot curve" you may have seen in an English class many a time. He presented us this thought as well: "If you have a sketch and it just isn't working well after the second or third draft, put it in a drawer and forget about it. Start on a new one."
He put us into a game to help build character skills. He put six of us in a chorus arrangement and "conducted" us as we ranted and monologued about topics that made our characters mad. We'd start with a subject to be angry about - I was given the topic of mothers.
"Who would hate mothers?" Sean asked me.
"A father," I said.
"A father?" Sean was confused.
"An ex-husband," I said. The character was built from there and everyone went through this process.
We took a break and spent the last half hour doing an "about me" talk. Jordan talked about his experience with the "police" from a week or two ago (ask him about it) and got the group very interested. After this, class ended.
Once again, the group is really coming together already. We ran into one of our new friends while walking around Chicago and stopped at a pita place with him.
This whole experience gets more and more surreal by the day.
The said new friend saw a truck with a large photo of a woman in a bikini. His eyes followed the truck down the street.
"Nice picture, isn't it?" said a man walking by.
"What can I say, man, I like boobs," our new friend said.
They both laughed. The man walked on. I wondered if they knew each other.
Our new friend laughed.
"I love this city," he said.
Arrived at Second City and went upstairs to the training center. For 20 minutes we got the "rules".
Then we made our way to our classroom - the backstage area of the skybox theater, or what our teacher called "a shithole".
Speaking of our teacher - we met Steve (or let's call him that). He too is from Iowa, though I'm not sure where. After introducing ourselves to him, a girl asked if she could use the restroom.
"Okay," he said. "But you're going to miss out on the first of the rules." She left.
"Rule number one," he said. "Use the f'ing bathroom before class."
Warmups went on after that, at which he emphasized the importance of "cranking it up to 11".
After this was a simple exercise: we each got into randomly selected groups of two and did brief scenes. And I mean brief. The average runtime of these skits was about 30 to 45 seconds each. He did this to see where we were in terms of improv knowledge. I can't say that anyone had a good skit. Each skit was awkward in its own special way.
After a short break, he instructed us to get into different groups of two and instructed us to have a normal conversation - except in front of everyone else. After every group's conversation had its time in the spotlight, he "conducted" our conversations, raising and lowering the volumes of each pair.
Then things got weird - he stopped conducting us and we did an exercise called "cocktail party". Each pair had their conversations, but we ended up conducting ourselves throughout this affair. It went fairly well.
During each of our conversations spoken before the group, some interesting things were shared about one another. One conversation:
Guy: What was the scariest moment of your life?
Girl: Probably the day my house was on fire.
Girl: Yeah, it burned down.
Guy: Man. When did that happen?
Girl: A few years ago on Christmas.
(awkward pauses and shocked expressions all around)
And on top of that, words of wisdom from Steve:
"So, for this..." He begins coughing. "Excuse me. Guys, don't ever start smoking."
And then my favorite, after an awkward skit involving herpes:
"Ah...watching high school kids do awkward skits about herpes. I could do this all day...But guys, don't get herpes. Seriously. That shit is forever."
After all this was a sketch comedy class. We just went over the basics of a good skit and read a few skits too.
His cousin's son, Dillon, is at walking age and is approaching talking age. He gives coherent responses when you least expect it. Saying "hi" to him often prompts a "hi" back. "What color is this?" almost always results in a response of "yellow", even if said object is not yellow.
We explored a farmer's market/mini-state fair/art show sort of thing today. Best part of the experience: asian beef on a stick. It was simple, but so very good.
Also good: garlic and spinach deep dish pizza.
Second City classes begin tomorrow.
In about 13 hours, I will be leaving for Chicago.
The whole thing is a little strange. I'll be there for two weeks - the longest time I've spent away from home both on vacation and without my family. Homesickness is not something I'm worried about, but I'm sure that this caveat will make the experience even more interesting.
Also strange is packing for two weeks. Which makes me realize this: I have a lot of shirts. And I am not sure if I have a bag large enough to put a bunch of shirts in. Laundry is an option, of course, but it is something I would like to avoid.
And strangest of all: self-inflating air mattresses. Watching it blow itself up is entertaining, but watching it deflate itself is even stranger. It's got a motor in it, so it sounds and looks like it's vacuuming itself out.
Books: Finished "The Road". It was good, but I don't think it hit me as hard as it has hit others. After that, I started on "The Illustrated Man" by Ray Bradbury. I'm not done, but so far it's proved to be one of the best books I've read. The book consists of a bunch of short stories that lean toward being science fiction - but not in a nerdy way. Speaking of science fiction (but not in a nerdy way):
TV: "Lost" is the only show I watch consistently and it won't be on the air again until February 2008. My Mom expressed an interest in buying the first season of "Heroes" on iTunes, and so we did that and we're going through the season. It's a very good show so far - it's sci-fi but it's not nerdy and overly technical. We haven't got very far yet, so please don't give me any details.
Music: Bought "Yours to Keep" by Albert Hammond Jr. a couple of days ago. Nothing spectacular, but good - it's poppy and makes for nice summertime music.
Movies: I don't watch very many movies, but I re-watched some of "Amelie" recently, a movie which holds a place on my top 10 list. I don't even have a top 10 list, and yet I know this movie is on it.
Now would be a good time for me to try to get back on the one post a day wagon. That may be difficult on the Chicago trip - though I may be able to bring a laptop with me.
Right now I'm reading "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy as recommended by a teacher some time ago. It's about some cataclysmic event (I assume it's a nuclear attack) which has destroyed the country and civilization, and a man and his son are trying to survive. It was hard to get into at first (books which lack quotation marks bother me) but it's growing on me the more I read it.