When I read the description of Adal Rifai’s workshop on Dragon’s Breath, I signed up immediately:
Each performer stays engaged and connected at all times — there are no sidelines to escape to. Each performer is continuously a part of the piece, becoming an architect from within.
This format will help you use organic transitions and find non-verbal ways to support a scene, while rocking a form that flexes your improv muscles like never before.
The sentences capture at least three of the things I love in improv:
- being connected at all times,
- organic transitions, and
- supporting a scene.
It turned out my reflexes weren’t as fast as I thought, and I ended up purchasing the final ticket to the class; a few of my organically-inclined teammates on The Letters weren’t so lucky, so I told them I’d report back to them. Here’s that report
The first exercise was called “I Am Blood Mountain.” The first person would walk out as a mountain and say, “I am ____ mountain,” where the blank could be replaced with any word, not necessarily blood. Each person would then come out and add a description to support the mountain name, such as, “There are bubbles boiling on the bottom of the mountain,” but simultaneously add something physical that complements the description. As people add descriptions and physical components, those who have already gone stay up and continue with what they were doing, becoming a part of the mountain. Once everyone has gone up, someone starts a new mountain, and the game repeats.
The second exercise was The Machine, as one might find in an opening. Adal placed an emphasis on communication between parts of the machine and the ability for anyone to be able to successfully guess what another person was adding. For instance, if one person is a switch, that switch might control another part of the machine, and via an appropriate sound or motion, the switch might communicate this to another component. Likewise, if someone comes on as a flower, that person might simultaneously create a bee to land on it to help disambiguate what it is. Once the machine formed, Adal would usually have us try to move or make the machine work in unison.
Our third exercise focused on stage picture, with an initial emphasis on symmetry. There was a line of symmetry along the center of the stage, and people could either join the scene on one side of that line or right down the center. Anyone who would join the stage picture could only add something new if the stage picture was symmetrical and would otherwise have to complete the symmetry. Adal eventually relaxed the symmetry rules, but spent a large part of the exercise focusing on cause and effect of the picture. For instance, if there are two performers rowing a boat and two performers representing land, one would expect the land to either get closer or farther away to the boat. If the boat hits land, one would expect the rowers to react to reaching land, potentially by leaving the boat.
After we grew comfortable with the exercises, Adal explained the Dragon’s Breath form. The focus was on two person scenes with everyone else completing the stage picture as non-verbal environment objects, keeping in mind the lessons learned in our exercises about stage picture, cause and effect, and communication. The environment objects could (1) transition into other objects or join the existing scene as characters, (2) step out to initiate a brand new scene as a character by breaking form and making eye contact with another, previously environmental element, or (3) start doing a sound/motion while making swivel-headed eye contact with the team to start a group transformation that might eventually lead into a new scene.
We ran through this a few times; things felt seamless when I held my previous stance for a couple seconds to take in the new initiation before transforming into the next pose. Dave Holtz made the observation that by having support define the environment, the form creates an opportunity to focus on the relationship between the characters.
Adal talked about the importance of eye contact both in initiating scenes as well as transitioning into group transformations. He also gave some tips to make better use of environmental support. For instance, walls could move while an improviser walks in place to create the illusion of motion.
After class, we ended up getting papusas and picking Adal’s brain about improv for a while. He made a number of interesting points, including that a team should adapt its style to accommodate a new player (quicker) than a new player attempting to accommodate the team’s style (slower), that one should treat coaches as expert outside observers who don’t necessarily have to know a particular form nor be more experienced than the improvisers requesting the outside eye.