Camp in Improv Utopia

I spent Memorial Day Weekend in Cambria, CA for Camp Improv Utopia West. I got to spend a weekend with poets, geniuses, and artists from all over and had a great time dorking out on improv with them as well as learning about a binary taxonomy of Muppet types (I’m an order Muppet).

Jill Bernard, Katie Nahnsen, Jason Pardo, Drew Droege, and Bob Dassie served as the weekend’s instructors for a series of workshops that left me thinking about how I can adjust my play to make things easier on myself. I’ve previously taken and written about Jill’s Fireball Theory workshop, so I’ll focus my attention on the workshops of Katie, Jason, Drew, and Bob.

You Can Respond Emotionally to Almost Anything

Katie ran us through exercises that revealed how responding with emotional choices could give us more leverage in scenes. For instance, in one exercise, person A would initiate a scene in a way that they would absolutely hate to have a scene initiated to them, and person B would respond with an emotional choice based on the initiation. The exercise demonstrated how an emotional choice offered a simple way to deal with otherwise difficult initiations. The end result was that even seemingly difficult scenes became simple to play. While I’ve run through exercises that have encouraged me to make emotional choices, the fact that I was seeing how these choices shaped up against difficult initiations was eye-opening, and I feel like taking greater advantage of this would make playing feel more natural.

Treat a Scene Like a Song

Jason likened our scenes to songs, complete with analogues to choruses, verses, and bridges. The chorus could be a repeated phrase or behavior that we give ourselves that would help develop our character, the verses the discovery one engages in with the scene partner, and the bridge something that changes in the regular pattern of behavior in that discovery process. The scenes I did in the workshop roughly followed a chorus-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus pattern, and the result were scenes in which my character behavior felt natural and in which there were many moments of discovery. Another takeaway was that when the repeated pattern of behavior one gives oneself is simple, it becomes easy to go back to later, much like a chorus in musical improv.

Don’t Stunt Your Choices

Drew’s workshop was about developing characters, and he gave me a really cool note when I was playing a snooty character. Specifically, he noticed that my character chose to express that snootiness by repeatedly being averse to or disgusted by what was happening in his environment, but by doing that, I was creating at least two problems: I made it difficult to play in that environment and created more work because my reason for being in that environment required more context to be justified. Had I chosen to express that snootiness in another way, perhaps by making remarks that let me feel superior to my environment, it would simultaneously explain why I chose to exist in that environment (it let me feel superior) while freeing my hand to play in the environment. In one sense, this can be thought of as a generalization of many one-off observations I’ve heard before, e.g. don’t crawl on one’s knees to play a child.

Putting It All Together

Bob ran us through a number of scenes in which we were sometimes initiating and at other times responding to an initiation. Following these scenes, Bob offered distillations of improv wisdom based on patterns he saw in our scenes at large. Many of these reinforced what we’d encountered in the other workshops, and in fact, I found myself reexamining a choice I had made in Bob’s class that appears to illustrate in one fell swoop my takeaways from each workshop.

The setup was the following: my scene partner had just complimented me, and I was his obsequious employee. My gut reaction was that the compliment felt empty, so my character, too obsequious to call out the emptiness of the compliment, asked for a raise. Upon reexamining this in the context of the entire weekend, I think I could have simply reacted emotionally to the fact that the compliment felt empty (Katie!). I let the fact that I was obsequious limit my emotional range in the scene (Drew!), stunting my ability to make a bolder choice. Even if the choice had broken the pattern of behavior of my obsequious character, it simply would have become a bridge to enrich the music of that scene (Jason!).

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