Monday, May 7, 2012

Santa Cruz Improv Festival

The Santa Cruz Improv Festival runs every Friday and Saturday night this month at the Broadway Playhouse in Santa Cruz.

My troupe, Six Wheel Drive is performing on May 19th.  See you then!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

All I Really Need to Know About Improv I Learned from Playing Ball

I love playing ball.

If you haven't trained with BATS, you may not ever have played ball, and that saddens me. Ball is played with a soft, bouncy ball (like this one). The rules of ball are simple:
  1. Everybody stands in a circle.
  2. Keep the ball in the air by hitting it.
  3. Once you hit the ball, you can't hit it again until someone else has.
  4. Everybody counts aloud the number of times the ball has been hit.
  5. The ball is in play until it hits the floor. (That is, the ball is still live if it bounces off a wall, chair or table.)
  6. When the game ends, you start again, counting from one.
It's a very simple game. But just as a Japanese rock garden contains the entire universe, ball contains all of improv.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from playing ball:

Once you go, give someone else a turn. You do something, and then it's someone else's turn to react. You don't shove an entire scene down your scene partner's throat. You do something. They do something. You do something else. You build the scene up line-by-line.

Always pay attention. You can’t sit back and admire your last shot, because as soon as someone else touches the ball, you might have to hit it again. In a scene, you can't (as I often do) stand back and admire the clever move you just made. Because you have to be ready to do something else. Possibly sooner than you think.

Up works better than down. New ball players sometime try to apply their volleyball skills by spiking the ball downward. That works well in volleyball, but in ball, it puts a quick end to the game. Similarly, in improv people sometimes "spike" scenes by being negative at the very top. You'll get a lot further if you try to get your scene to go up, not down.

There's a platform, then a tilt, then another platform. For a while, everything in ball is going well, then suddenly something unexpected happens, then the team adjusts and the game reaches another steady state. This repeats for the rest of the game. This is just like an improv scene. You start positive, and build line-by-line and then suddenly there’s a tilt and the players deal with the tilt and recover. A scene that’s all tilt all the time is no fun, just like a game of ball where the team is alway trying desperately to recover from the last hit.

One ball is plenty. One ball is plenty for ball, and one idea is enough for a scene. It’s really easy for a scene to have too much going on. People keep littering the stage with new offers, instead of addressing the offers that have already occurred. In ball, that’s the equivalent of everyone constantly throwing in new balls that everyone has to help keep in the air. The game ends quite quickly.

Be specific. When I’m best at playing ball, I hit the ball to a specific person. When I don’t make up my mind, the ball goes wild. Specifics are at the heart of improv. The difference between a scene on a generic city street and “the corner of Hollywood and Western” is palpable. Don’t just pick up a pen. Pick up a well-chewed Bic, or your grandfather's silver fountain pen.

There is no “you got it,” only “I got it”. You can’t decide to let someone else get the ball. You can only decide to get it yourself or not get it yourself. In a scene, you can’t make someone give you the offer you want. You can only make that offer yourself, or not make it.

Make sure everyone gets to play. In ball, as in improv, you may find the same few people are always the ones hitting the ball. Keep track of who’s gone recently, and make a conscious effort to hit the ball to somebody else.

There is no “I” in ball. I like to say that my personal best score at ball is one. That’s the highest score you can get in ball when playing by yourself. Ball, like improv, is a team sport. Remember that.

It’s just a game! At the end of the day, ball and improv are about having fun. Remember that. Be serious. Get good. But never forget to have fun!