Monday, April 30, 2007

Chicago Improv Festival Artistic/Business Meeting Notes

After BIG's coaching sessions and performance at the Chicago Improv Festival, the festival's Executive Director (Jonathan Pitts) and Artistic Director (Mark Sutton) had a long meeting with all of the apprentice teams where they gave us advice, answered questions, and offered the resources of the festival to help us over the next year. The highlights of this meeting for me are noted below.
  • Mark and Jonathan offered to answer any questions we might have throughout the year about our artistic or business operations. I can't think of another art form where the leading practitioners would make themselves so available to beginners.

  • CIF can help connect us with coaches from around the country through CIF artistic associates. We are definitely going to take them up on that offer.

  • If you're unknown, PR for a particular media outlet can take six months to a year before you see any results.

  • Annoyance Theater never used the word improv in their posters; always used the word "comedy" because that was more palatable to the audience. Audience doesn't care how the laughs are created as long as they are funny. Advised us not to use the word improv in our marketing (BIG is kind of screwed in this regard, but that's mainly why we use the tagline "Unscripted theater for Baltimore")

  • Press kit is the most important element in creating a good impression on the media

  • Mark told us the story of how Annoyance was founded. Mick Napier saw a Second City show and read the book Something Wonderful Right Away, and that's about all he knew about improv. They all started a troupe at Indiana University and were flying by the seat of their pants, doing weekly shows at a local bar. "Ignorance was a real advantage" -- they didn't question the validity of what they were doing.

  • Jonathan outlined three layers of improv pedagogy:

    1. Teachers are invested in their teaching.

    2. Coaches are invested in the team.

    3. Directors are invested in the project.

  • Every improv student question boils down to "Am I Good?"

  • Every improv professionals' question boils down to "Is the work good?"

  • When you are the director, you have to believe you are always right (they were discussing self-coached/self-directed teams)

  • Annoyance has a rule: any given element of a show can only be talked about for a certain amount of time. "You can what-if everything to death"

  • You should never introduce a game that you are performing in; hard for audience to accept you as a player, hard for you to get into player mindset

  • Always buy your own theater if possible vs. leasing

  • Realize who you are: teenage groups don't usually like to play as teenagers; all-women groups don't play as women or explore a unique female perspective on the world.
    More interesting improv would result if people used who they were in their improv

  • Group challenges: We start all as a group of peers; some people progress at different rates, some stay behind. Some don't progress at all. It's an art form. Need to assess where a person is against where they want to be. Hard to handle this situation because you usually like all of the people you are working with, else you would not have started a group with them.

  • If combining formats in one show, always do short form first. Audience will be more willing to take a ride into long form after that.

Chicago Improv Festival Coaching Notes

I just got back from the Chicago Improv Festival (CIF) where several members of BIG trained and performed as an apprentice team. They treated us incredibly well and made us feel like a part of the worldwide improv community.

Each of the six apprentice teams (which included WIT's Jackie) was assigned a coach. Nick Johne coached us for 10 hours and helped us prepare a long-form set that we performed Saturday night. Nick gave us very excellent and specific coaching and was a real gift to work with.

Below are the rough notes I took during the festival. Most were drawn from Nick's coaching except where indicated:
  • Warm-up design

    Nick taught us a new warmup game called "Whoosh", which is a variation of other "pass the ball with a sound" games, but at the end he asked us to invent our own
    moves to add to the game. I thought this was a neat way of emphasizing the improviser mentality that you should not be playing with rules that constrain you, you
    should always be ready to adapt the form to your creative drive. I'm going to add this variation to every warmup that I lead.

  • Excessive agreement exercise

    We faced each other in chairs, two at a time, and had a conversation where Nick forced us to say "yes" as many times as possible. This led to some great energy and funny moments
    as people tried to affirm each other as strongly as possible. Nick pointed out that eventually we should be able to play with that same kind of energy and affirmation, but layer other emotions on top of it beyond happiness/excitement.

  • Learning how to create deeper, more satifying scenes

    Nick taught us a ton of methods to create more meaningful scenes. My favorites were:

    • Doing a scene in real time

      The best scenes we did in rehearsal were when Nick gave us a scenario, such as two people in a pharmacy, which had to play out in real time (i.e. waiting for the prescription to be filled took the real amount of time). This sounds like it would be boring, but in fact it encouraged the performers to play in a very patient way, to really enjoy discovering the environment and the characters. The scenes usually led to huge laughs that came from something ethereal like a pointed look.

    • Patient improv

      Nick emphasized being patient with us a lot, a quality I had not previously emphasized in my own teaching. It hit home with me when we saw Dasariski perform. Three guys did a 40 minute single scene (with two or three short scenes sprinkled in) that was utterly brilliant. They started slowly and did not try to justify
      everything through exposition. Gradually a story was teased out of the emotional dynamics among the characters, and there were some fast-paced moments, but
      they stuck with the patient style. Why are we always in such a hurry? These guys were playing with total commitment and had crazy ideas, but because they didn't
      force it, it was a very elegant, hilarious show.

    • Mirror each other physically

      We performed two-person scenes where we had to mirror the other actor's physicality. If one player moved to a corner of the stage, the other had to move to the opposite corner.

    • Make eye contact, then look away

      In pairs we did scenes where the characters made eye contact, then looked away, over and over again.

    • Politically Incorrect Scenes

      We did scenes where Nick gave us permission to be as offensive as we possibly could. This actually led to some compelling scenes because we saw that when we played from the heart, it was clear that our characters were saying these things, and not us. The audience will allow you to be very dark (for example by playing a sexist or bigotted or racist character) if you commit to it, and the results can be hilarious and profound. Also I feel like this could be an antidote for troupes that play too nicely, or only rely on one or two people to be outrageous or dangerous (which I think is a limitation in BIG).

  • Four Scene Tones

    When editing, we should vary the tone of scenes to create a diverse show and not get locked into one particular pattern:

    • Physical
    • Surreal
    • Intellectual
    • Emotional

    We did an exercise where we had to edit every scene by deciding which category had just been played, and starting a new scene in a different category. If we did a very talky, intellectual scene, we had to follow it with something very emotional or physical or surreal.

  • Follow your feet

    When he saw us stutter-stepping on the sidelines, this was Nick's commandment to us to get on their and edit and trust our instincts.

  • Editing exercise

    Before introducing any edit techniques to us, we did a round of scenes where we were not allowed to use wipe edits. This forced us to discover our own ways of editing (or use techniques we had learned elsewhere, like tag edits). This is the best way to introduce editing in my opinion; don't tell people the "right way" to edit scenes. Let the group experiment and then coach on what works or doesn't work for a particular style.

  • Audience calls edit

    Two person scenes performed until someone in the audience called "edit". We then discussed why that person had decided to edit when they did. This was a really good way to illuminate editing instincts.

  • Organic edit

    Nick showed us a technique where multiple players started doing the same activity and the entire troupe piled on, making an organic group game that wiped the scene until two
    players were left to start a new scene (hard to explain but powerful in practice).

  • Cartoony characters

    Two people a time played very intense, over-the-top, cartoony characters. Mid-way through the scene, Nick had them switch characters, which was a great challenge for expanding range.

  • Repetition

    One actor repeated everything the other actor said (sort of a half-duplex version of last line). This fostered agreement and discouraged storytelling/plotting, and led to a really cool scene

  • "Wear a veil instead of a mask"

    Nick's note to me was that I often played very theatrical characters, and that I should try playing more realistically. This is problem an artefact of my roots in short form.

  • Source Scenes

    One great way to use a scene to inspire other scenes was to show causes and effects of a scene.

  • Always go with the first offer

    This echoed what Mark Sutton taught me a few weeks prior; improvisers fall in love the second idea, when the first one would be plenty sufficient.

  • Use your own worlds

    Nick had us two scenes as ourselves, filtering everything that happened through something that we were expert in. This drove home the point that you can create
    very interesting work just by being yourself and using what you know.

  • Improv is a folk tradition

    I realized during this trip that improv really is a folk tradition. We do things here in Baltimore that we learned from people who trained in New York City, in San Diego, in Cambridge, and elsewhere, and many of these things were handed down to us by people who themselves received them from improv's master teachers. Gradually the names of concepts change, and new elements are added, to the point where we don't even know our own heritage. I really enjoyed being in Chicago and working with some of the pioneers of improv to see where some of these traditions come from.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Taming assert_select with css_select and Regexp.escape

I had a lot of trouble writing a test to check whether all elements of an array were showing up in a table properly; I needed more fine-grained testing than assert_select was allowing me. I needed to guarantee that every element in an array could be found as a child of a particular table.

Fortunately, I noticed that Rails also has a css_select method which returns an array of selected elements without running tests on them. This lets you run your own tests using the results of the selection.

This isn't the prettiest code in the world (I'm also testing a formatting helper, hence the literals '$200.00' and so on), so I'll probably refactor it later. There might also be a way to do this more elegantly with assert_select. But I think this does show the utility of css_select.
elements = css_select('table#investors tr td')

[investors(:investor_9),'$343.40']].each do |i,amount|

assert_not_nil elements.detect \
{ |e| e.to_s =~ /#{}/ }

assert_not_nil elements.detect \
{ |e| e.to_s =~ /#{Regexp.escape(amount)}/ }


Things to watch out for:
  • You need to force the conversion of the element to a String for the regular expression comparison (with to_s)
  • In this particular example, since I am using string literals with special characters, I had to use Regexp.escape to make $ and . match properly

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

DC Comedy Festival improv workshop notes

This weekend I attended some excellent improv classes at the DC Comedy Festival. Below are my rough notes as well as notes that another BIG member took.

Mark Sutton's workshop: Finding More

Box exercise

As a class, he had us explore an improvised box of items of personal significance. At various intervals he would say 'go' and we would start a monologue about the object in our hand. Helped reinforce the concept that environment work in improv should have some kind of importance for the characters, not just to give your hands something to do.

Chair exercises

He moved the chairs around in various positions and had us do the same scene premise (someone getting fired) over and over again but with different configurations. Very different scenes resulted from different configurations (close together, far apart, etc.). We also did scenes where at the end, the improvisers had to reposition the chairs. The next scene would be inspired by the position of the chairs (though we were not required to sit in the chairs at all). I found this led to some really cool new scenework and inspiration.

In one of these scenes, the chairs were used to demarcate the front half of the stage from the back. One actor was placed in the front and told never to look back at the other actor, who was in the back half and not allowed to cross the line into the front half. This led to a very interesting dynamic where the person in the front had high-status (because they never looked the other character in the eye) even though it was a seemingly-low status character.

How Improvisers Make Themselves Safe

We use words/dialogue to make sure everyone is okay. Improv is not about feeling okay, it's about taking risks. Words become information you have to deal with, a box you can't get out of (or spend lots of time trying to get out of).

Second City saying: "Bring a brick, not cathedral."

Joe Bill's workshop, "How to Stand Out in a Scene"
  • A big difference between short and long form is the source of tension that's powering it.
  • In short form, the game is the source of tension. Will they execute it? Will they do it in a way that's funny or surprising?
  • In short form, you don't need to act; you can indicate. It's a head game, mostly, because it's a form built on rules and right and wrong--that's the nature of a game.
  • In long form, the tension for the audience is: Do I believe you? Do I continue to believe you? Will I be surprised by what you get me to believe? It's lodged in the heart and gut, and any consideration of right or wrong will screw you.
  • In long form, characters reveal themselves in three ways:
    • What they say
    • What they do
    • What they value or stand for
  • It doesn't matter whether you discover these things, or decide them--or in what order. But character is how you do what you do. If you know who you are, you'll know what to do.
  • In improv, we're going for the absence of self-consciousness and judgment. The audience wants to see that as much as they want to see funny stuff--they're paying for something they want to do but can't.
Mark Sutton and Joe Bill's workshop (Motherlode Part 1)


The whole class did three characters for 30 seconds each. Then they asked us to pick the most interesting/surprising character and revisit it for 30 seconds. We then did three scenes as that character, two students at a time.
  1. As the character we picked
  2. Using an object with meaning for that character
  3. Playing some aspect of that character to the extreme, over-the-top
Point of view exercise

You only have three things to work with: actions, speech, and internal point-of-view. They asked everyone to pick an internal point-of-view (such as an emotion or attitude). We then got into two lines and did two-person scenes. Line 1 started by projecting their POV onto their scene partner (e.g. my attitude is 'fear', so I start the scene by regarding my partner fearfully). Line 2 started by projecting their POV onto their environment (e.g. my attitude is 'boredom', so I start making a pizza in a bored way).

By doing this at the start of the scene, we started to get more information. Your bored pizza-making or fearful-regarding leads to more inspiration about the shape of your scene. Once this happens, they asked us to start dialogue and interaction.

The Improv Glance

They told us about this obvious 'tell': when an improviser looks around at the scene partner to check in with the partner. The tell is this shows you are looking for support instead of creating something for yourself. When you look at the other character it should be for a character reason.

Improv scenes are simple

They emphasized that great improv scenes are not usually very complicated. Many times we make them complicated by "feeding circumstances to the premise monster" -- which I found incredibly apt!

When characters ask questions, or argue, it's fine.

When improvisers do, its bad. This goes a long way to explaining why the 'Yes, And' rule is a bit simplistic; characters can say 'no' to each other as long as improvisers are not.

Circumstances vs. Dynamics

This was the best improv exercise I've ever done: in groups of three, Mark gave us a circumstance and told us to play it absolutely realistically. One was a doctor telling a patient he had a terminal illness, one was parents telling their daughter how much they loved her before her wedding day, etc. He asked us to remember exactly how the emotional dynamic felt between the characters.

After everyone had gone, the same groups replayed their scenes with the exact same dynamics, but this time with different circumstances. So in the first round, I was the doctor. In the second round, I was a car mechanic telling a guy that his car could not be fixed. So instead of playing the usual stereotyped car mechanic guy, I played a really serious, sober-minded car mechanic, and the 'victim' played a really hilarious (but totally deadpan) guy who was devastated by the loss of the car.

I'm still processing the implications of this exercise, but the main point was: the audience cares about emotional dynamics. Invest in the dynamics and don't worry about explaining everything by generating circumstances.

Improvisers often fall in love with the second idea

We waste too much time at the start of scenes figuring out what the scene is about. We do something that's plenty great at the top of a scene, but then drop that offer when we get 'the second idea'. The audience then wonders what happened to that first idea.

Mick Napier's Workshop

Personal Attention

He totally lived up to his reputation. First of all, he asked all 25 of us to introduce ourselves and memorized all of our names on the spot. Then all 25 of us did an hour of short scenes. He then gave us each a detailed, personal critique of what our improv was like, and gave us a single challenge to work on to make it better. Then we did another hour and a half of scenes that were much better. We finished up with a Q&A session (notes from that below).

The main thing I took away from Mick was the importance and the potential for giving improvisers individual attention. If he can do it for 25 people in a single 3.5 hour session, why can't we all do it for 6-12 people in weekly 2 hour sessions?

To keep a troupe fresh
  • Learn new forms (even if you don't perform them)
  • Bring new people in (as long as you're careful about screening them)
  • Occasionally have a rehearsal where someone in the troupe brings something new to work on that the group has never done before
How to learn people's names the first time

Decide to be good at learning people's names. Start telling people that you're good with names. This will change your brain so you can remember names.

Introduce a game never played before

He told us about something awesome that Second City sometimes does in rehearsal, but which you could do on stage: have a player stand in front of the audience and say "We're now going to perform a game/format that we've been doing for five years. It's called [made-up name], and here's how it works..." The player then invents the rules or the structure on the spot. Everyone on the backline listens attentively but pretends like this is old hat. Then you jump in and perform it.

Don't be funny exercise

He also recommended doing scenes in rehearsal that are explicitly not funny, that are serious and real, as a way of getting into more inspired improv.