Chicago Improv Summer: Imagination (Level 2, day 2)


This improv thing is getting pretty deep philosophically. If I had to summarize with just a few words, I'd say I'm starting to understand why folks take this stuff so seriously. What we're really doing is unlocking the power of imagination we stashed away when society told us that was only for kids.

Building an Environment



As a child, I'm sure most of us can remember kids playing house or cops and robbers. We'd sit in a sandbox, but we didn't just see "sand." We imagined a vast desert crawling with armies or space shuttle landings or a kingdom. What we learned today was to create those spaces again, agree they exist and then perform scenes within the limits of the world we had created.

Rachael had us start by constructing a room (in our minds) on stage. One person described what was along a single wall; another person did wall two, etc. up to the four walls. Then a fifth person defined the floor and ceilings. Where are the doors? What kind of lights? What diplomas, awards, posters are on the wall? Is the paint peeling? Is there a ceiling fan? How big is the room?

It's important to remember where we've put things. If there's a mantle on the wall, we can lean on it. If there's a desk on stage left, we can't just walk through it when entering and exiting the scene. If we don't respect the limits of our worlds, the audience won't buy it.

The exercise is all about giving us and our characters tools to define a scene as we walk onto a seemingly empty stage. Rachael shared what I will call "The Trick of Three." When entering a scene, have in mind three possible environments and three possible motivations or directions for your character. Entering the stage with at least one is crucial so you don't flail around, but if your scene partner creates a reality which negates your first ideas, you have two to fall back on.

Folks, I can't overemphasize how hot this concept is philosophically. The rooms we build on stage are real as long as everyone agrees they are. That's how the real world functions! The only reason I'm able to walk into a 7-Eleven with a $5 bill and come out with a box of donuts is that the I, the merchant and the larger society agree that $5 bills have a set value and can be exchanged for goods and services. There's nothing inherent in the $5 bill itself which says "am worth one box of donuts." No, it's based on an AGREEMENT between all parties involved that the bill means certain things.

If the improvisers decide they are on a deserted island five square feet in area, and if they respect that creation, the audience will see the island and EVERYONE IN THE ROOM WILL AGREE IT EXISTS. We have the power to create anything we want!

DIE, DIE, DIE!



We did another exercise where we had to depict our own deaths (whether intentional suicide or accidental) without using words. We had to use objects we created in the scene to pull off the death. Karen had a really sick one. She was setting up a birthday party and accidentally hung herself when putting up the decorations. Leah had a suicide checklist, tied a rope around her neck and had a friend speed away in a car attached to the rape. I turned on four televisions blasting the Andy Griffith theme song, built a guillotine and chopped my own head off!

Why did we do this morbid thing? To create characters that were invested, scenes that were to the point all while using objects created in the scene.

The Organic Opening



I've referred to The Harold enough by now that I won't re-explain it every time. We've practiced several types of openings, but in this class we added the "organic transformational" opening. We take the audience suggestion and, as a group, create three interpretations of what that suggestion might mean. These aren't scenes but constructions of some sort, usually initiated by one person. If the suggestion was "Christmas," we might build a Christmas tree with our bodies as the first of the opening, then we might transform into elves on an assembly line and then into a group of crying children who complain that they got crappy gifts.

We played a performance game called "One to Seven. Seven to One." This was a challenge. Here's the deal

  • There are seven players in the back line on stage

  • One person initiates a solo scene (player A, scene 1)

  • A new person enters the stage and created an new scene (scene 2, with player A and player B)

  • A new person enters the stage, creating a third, different scene (scene 3, with player A, B and C)

  • Remember, player A is a completely different character in Scene 1, Scene 2 and Scene 3

  • We do this until the seventh player created scene 7 and finds some reasonable excuse for his character to leave the scene

  • Then we return to some LATER POINT in Scene 6 until the player that initiated Scene 6 finds an excuse to exit

  • The same applies to Scenes 5 through 1

  • So the game ends with a solo player (player A, scene 1, later in the plot of scene 1)


Other notes from Rachael



  • Another Rule (this is #6, building on the five we got on Monday): Use Your Actual/Real Emotions in Your Scenes. If you're nervous, use that!

  • If you are listening for the audience to laugh, you are not in your scene. This rule came as a response to something Gabe said. I'm not sure it quite applied to his statement, but I get the point. If the audience laughs, great, but don't let the audience lead or define the scene. Let the relationship between the characters and/or the ongoing game define the next step. Sweet. I think I learned something!

  • It's brave to be quiet in improv. Harold Pinter is a playwright who devoted about 40 percent of his plays to silence


Day 2 Lessons:



  1. Use your environment. It gives you something to do if you have nothing to say.

  2. Go for three things in the transformational opening

  3. Listen, listen, listen

  4. Make eye contact with your fellow players

  5. Have fun

  6. Give yourself a gift, and maintain it throughout the scene

  7. The scene is about the relationships between characters, NOT THE OBJECTS YOU'VE CREATED!


I'm diggin this improv stuff, man. That philosophical point I was making at the start of this post is only one of many powerful metaphors this art form provides. Last week I talked about how frightening it was to discover how much we can communicate with our fellow humans, and get from them what we want, without being negatively manipulative or overt. Now, we're building worlds together and abiding by the rules within that world. This all reminds me of what's happening in the online virtual worlds of places like Second Life and World of Warcraft, and there's a lot to learn about humanity in all of this.

I gotta bounce now. Day 3 was a pretty crappy day for me overall. I'll explain why when I give that recap lata (don't worry. it doesn't involved gettin jacked!). I'm off to see a puppet improv show!