Friday, August 20, 2004

DCM Workshop, August 1st, 2004, Matt Besser

As per my usual pattern, notes come way late. Maybe I just need that amount of time to process. Maybe I just procrastinate. I’ve waited long enough now that I will surely confuse the sequence of events, and I’m also trying to capture the experience more than the particular things he said, because, frankly, there wasn’t a huge amount of new information here.

We’ve all read the books and taken the classes. We can repeat the words. Internalizing them and making them our own is the real challenge. Learning and internalizing things is often just a result of experiencing the same facts in different ways, holding them up in different lights so we get all the nuances.

I really enjoyed this workshop. Matt Besser. Holy cow! It’s cool to get second hand Del. I feel a little strange admitting that I disagreed with a number of things Besser said [in my mind, not out loud. Well, out loud the one time. Hey, he asked, I answered].

[The brackets indicate my own thoughts about what Besser was saying].

He started out talking about the fact that there are a number of different approaches to teaching and performing improv, and that we should pick one, because they don’t mix together with each other. [Here is one place where I disagree. I think DSI’s particular style is very successful when it comes to choosing the best elements of the different approaches and blending them into its own unique style.]

He talked about how the most important thing about finding the game is just finding what’s funny and doing it. He said we should make improv as easy for ourselves as possible, and just doing what’s funny is the easiest thing. [Yeah, right. It’s easy. That’s why I paid 50 bucks for the workshop.] We don’t need to go into a Harold to try to tackle the monster; we should just lean back into the improv. Relax into it, and it will be easy.

We do three minutes scenes instead of trying to do a thirty minute story because it’s easier. He said if he knew someone who could improvise thirty minute stories that were funny he would tell them they were really talented and should be writing sitcoms because it’s really hard to do that. Three minute scenes make the improv easier. That being said, you should be able to take some scenes from a piece and write them into sketches. If there is nothing in a whole show that you can write a good sketch from, it wasn’t a very good show [eh, maybe, but I don’t think that’s necessarily so].

We didn’t mess around with a lot of talk. He got people up right away to do a pattern game. The first one kind of shot off into space and didn’t really identify any ideas. Besser doesn’t like the word “theme” when it comes to improv openings. Finding a theme doesn’t really give enough information. He likes to find ideas. He talked about pitching a show to a network. They don’t want to hear themes – they want specific ideas. [I can definitely see where this line of thought would make improv easier. Specificity always makes things easier.]

He talked about the purpose of the opener being to explore the suggestion to get different ideas, and said each loop in a pattern game should go out about eight words before it came back to the original suggestion. [I refrained from teaching him about clover nipples.] The group that was up there tried it again with more success.

We talked about the ideas generated from that game, and then he had others get up and do a scene based on one of the ideas and we talked about ways to heighten and explore the idea. This particular scene was basically about adolescent views on sex and birth control but it was a bit out in left field. Matt asked us to give examples of things we believed about sex and birth control when we were young.

People offered a number of suggestions, and then I finally found my voice and described how my aunt (only 4 years older than me) had told me you could prevent pregnancy and std’s by shaking up a warm bottle of coke and douching with it after sex. That was the first thing that everyone laughed at, and Matt seized on it as an example of looking for what’s funny, and how real things are funny.

Then he asked me why I had waited so long to speak up. I told him I was shy and he looked me in the eye and said, “You’re not shy, or you wouldn’t be here.” [That was cool, and I should remember it whenever I start to tell myself I’m too shy to do something.]

We talked about identifying the game. You should be able to describe it in fewer than five words, but if you only have one word to describe it, you only have an idea, not a game. The game should be specific and interesting and funny.

He had someone do a monologue and then two people do a scene based on it. The monologue was about how the guy went to a baseball game with a friend who was heckling because he just wanted to get a response from one of the players. He didn’t dislike the player; he just wanted to piss him off. The scene was about a guy who was heckling at the opera between bits of conversation with his girlfriend. What he was doing was hilarious, but his scene partner completely ignored the heckling and just focused on the conversation.

Matt talked about denial, and how it isn’t just saying no. Denial can also be an unrealistic reaction to the situation (or in this case, no reaction at all). He stressed the importance of playing real, even in a strange situation.

The girl said she had a particular idea (I’ve forgotten what it was now) but it wasn’t working. Matt said it was because she didn’t let her scene partner know what it was and we can’t expect our scene partners to know what we’re thinking unless we find a way to tell them.

He asked for another monologue and someone did one about cutting himself and debating whether to go get a tetanus shot because he didn’t have insurance. He got scared he’d get tetanus, so he finally went to the emergency room and got the shot, and then he was annoyed with himself for overreacting.

Matt asked for two people to do a scene and I got up. I was nervous and when I get nervous my tremor can get very obvious, so I had to make it part of the scene. I initiated with “I’m terrified I have brain cancer”. When my scene partner commented that my hands were shaking, I (my character) panicked because I must have Parkinson’s (I had actually calmed down by then and had to exaggerate the tremor to match the level it was at when I first got up). Then I just kept heightening the hypochondria with everything the guy said.

At one point my scene partner asked me why I was telling him all this stuff. We hadn’t identified each other, so I wasn’t really sure, but at that point Matt stopped us because the scene had kind of stalled (remember this, it’s important later).

He talked about why UCB teaches two person scenes – they make improv easier. It makes finding the funny thing easier, because you’re each just building with one person. Then he talked about tag outs and walk ins and how they can be used to heighten and explore. He doesn’t use the word clarify, and seemed to feel like clarification wasn’t enough. A tag out or walk in should explore the idea. [I think maybe that’s just a different way of saying the same thing. To explore something is to learn more about it, therefore clarifying it.]

Also, it’s important not to do a walk on unless you’re sure you know what the game is. If you don’t clearly know the game, in five words, then don’t walk on or tag out. [I totally agree with this. I dislike random scene interruptions, whether I’m playing or watching].

He brought my scene partner and me back up and asked me why my job was easy at that point. I answered that I already had my thing and all I had to do was keep letting my scene partners give me reasons to think I was sick. He had us continue the scene and had someone tag my scene partner out.

The new guy played a funeral director, and I was planning my own funeral. One of the first things he did was tell me not to look in the next room, then we started talking about other stuff and we had fun with me wanting to know what people had died of, but Matt stopped us and pointed out that I had ignored that wonderful other room. That was where the game was. I let the conversation with the guy distract me from what everyone wanted to know – what was in that room and how would it make me panic?

We played group games then. I forget the suggestion, but someone initiated by smoking a crack/hash pipe (it was never clearly identified). I stepped right out and asked for a hit. Picture me, in my soccer mom sweater and rhinestone earrings, hair up, smoking hash (ok, now picture me as if you don't know me). Brian said everyone was startled when I actually knew how to mime taking a hit of hash. There was a collective gasp. I enjoy surprising people.

We played a silly game of how smoking the hash outside a school playground was shocking because we were being unsanitary. It was fun, but Matt had us talk about other ways the game could have gone. I forget a lot of that. A nun was involved. I don’t remember the rest. That’s what smoking hash will do to you. Don’t do drugs, kids.

One thing he did talk about a lot was building and using the environment. We can use our environment to enrich our scene, but also to buy time without just standing there thinking. He used the hash pipe as an example. I took a hit and used the time spent miming to think of what I wanted to say. We can plump pillows on a couch or make a bed. When we give ourselves an environment we give ourselves information.

We sat down and Matt took questions and just talked for a while. He talked about how all the different members of an ensemble have different roles, different ways of playing. This makes the improv easier because you know what you can expect from your scene partner, and what you shouldn’t expect, after you play with them for a while.

He talked about the rules and how they aren’t hard and fast. No conflict? Why not? Conflict can be funny. Most sitcoms are about conflict. If it’s funny, do it.

Know your scene partner? Not necessary. Don’t funny things ever happen between strangers? Of course they do. Relationships are not necessary.

Of course, this view generated some questions, because so many of us are taught that we must have a six month relationship with our scene partner. Matt challenged us to give him an example of when a relationship might help a scene. So, having gotten over my shyness, I gave him one.

I said that in the hypochondriac scene, we would have been able to move it along better if I had known who my scene partner was, and that I knew that when he had asked me why I was telling him all that stuff. Besser asked me who I thought the guy was, and I said I wasn’t sure, then he asked me who the audience thought he was, and neither I nor anyone else knew. In his mind, this was evidence that identifying the relationship was unnecessary. [In my mind, it was the reason the scene stalled]. Matt says we don’t need relationships. “This isn’t fucking therapy.” [The hell it isn’t!]

He talked about character development and how we all only have a certain number of characters we are able to do. The challenge is not in creating thousands of different characters, but in adapting our characters to the scenes instead of having characters with the same bit all the time and shaping the scenes with those bits.

He finished by telling us again to relax into the improv, just do what’s funny, and to remember that if there isn’t at least one scene worth writing down, we didn’t have a very good show. [Way to inspire, dude.]

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