In order to play improvisational theater, we need the courage to portray scenes and characters with rough strokes. The sometimes subliminal, sometimes explicit promise “we play everything” puts the bar enormously high. We play the security adviser of an American president, we improvise a Palestrina-like madrigal or a satire on gender relations, we create a two-hour four-act situated in Poland in the 1920s, we tell Kyrgyz tales and dance improvising in the style of Pina Bausch. These presumptions can be met only with courage and assertion. Of course we will fail again and again, but the audience loves our courage to accept this failure.
It becomes problematic if we take the laughter of the audience as a yardstick for our game. The audience laughs equally about the courage of the failing as well as about the successful comedy of the scene. The laugh about failure is faster to achieve, simply by playing cheap. The courage to accept the rough strokes, the unfinished character is then transformed into farce, into deliberately bad acting.
We deliberately play badly when we
– choose deliberately stupid characters,
– overact emotions and reactions,
– consciously sing or dance badly,
– sacrifice stories and scenes for a gag,
– serve the cliché instead of exploring the specific.
The courage to accept your own limitations and still improvise does not mean that we have to hide our physical, intellectual and artistic abilities in order to be good improvisers.
Improvisers who take the path of deliberately bad play are not particularly brave, but choose the path of the quick laughter for fear of actually daring and then actually being confronted with the limits of their own ability and true failure. They deliberately play badly because they shy away from the unknown because they are afraid of improvisation.
Ian Parizot from Montreal commented on my last post on the differences between Johnstone and Close.
1. I think that the theories two gurus both have their blind spots. For example, Keith Johnstone’s format Theatersports is a playfully competitive, yet highly funny form which makes it possible for a performer to fail gracefully and still be entertaining. On the other hand it leads some performers to be competitive or to play dumb – to fail for the sake of failure. Del Close’ Harold focuses on Group Mind which is a good thing but it undervalues contrast and may lead less talented performers to dull copying scenes or a foreseeable Harold structure.
2. Contrary to Ian, I think it’s valuable to learn all kinds of styles. I think it should be obvious, but I spell it out. Knowing different approaches and styles has many advantages. First of all, I can get along easier with other performers, for example f I perform with a UCB alumni, I know that I have to keep my eyes open for certain game structures. If I play with a large Harold team, I know that they’re very likely up to group games. I know how I’m expected to behave when my Theatersports team wins or loses. But even more important, knowing different styles gives me a better grip to understand theater in all of its forms. There’s more than just one approach to comedy. There’s more than just one approach to creativity. To give a common example: The Beatles in Hamburg had to play all kinds of styles; when the drunk audience demanded a Bossa Nova, they played a Bossa Nova or at least they played it the next night. It was precisely that multi-style approach and their openness for new sounds that enabled them to create their music which was different from every other pop band. In film you can think Stanley Kubrick, in literature think Goethe.
Keith Johnstone: “Be average!”
Del Close: “Play at the top of your intelligence!”
These two requests seem to contradict each other. But we should look a little deeper: Who are the addressees? And what are the situations?
Keith Johnstone’s foremost goal is to tickle our playfulness, to cut off our controls to let us dive into the unconscious, and hence to accept if not even reach for the surreal. However, we have a censor implemented into our adult thinking, we urge for security and perfection. Many of Johnstone’s games are focused on playing tricks on that censor. If we want to be “good” or if we want to do it “right”, we block our stream of associations. If we try to evaluate our lines, we become unspontaneous, we almost freeze physically. But if I tell myself that I don’t have to be “good”, that I just have to perform on an average level, it relieves me from any high expectations. I will give myself permission to surprise myself.
As far as I can see, Del Close, didn’t take such preliminary considerations. Also, he didn’t care too much about surrealism but about true-to-life comedy where some valuable truth can unfold. However, if we want to go that way, we have to turn on our intelligence, because limitless free association might lead us into unrealistic strange lands or into the realm of boring clichés. If you have problems with being spontaneous, just draw on your own real life experience. If you don’t have a real life, stop improv and get one. If I can trust the few reports on Del Close’ workshops, he didn’t have problems with mediocre scenes, but he did have problems if you got pretentious or if you refused to commit.
Anyway, I think there’s no need to decide for one of those impro gurus. We can learn from both of them and integrate their insights into our own systems. First of all, Johnstone’s approach is very useful for beginners and for actors who get repeatedly blocked by their need to control themselves, the scene and their partner. Close stands for intelligent improvisation (which, of course, doesn’t mean that you have to get a university diploma in order to perform intelligent comedy).
I reduce it to the formula: “Think, don’t ponder!” Be awake and use all your channels of association. Don’t go for the cliché, but don’t fear it. I think with this double approach we can use our empirical intelligence as well as our imagination. Putting the two approaches together expands our improvisational options enormously. Be average! Play at the top of your intelligence!
Should beginners play Freeze Tags? Both, Johnstone and Spolin rejected that game: Spolin, because actors actually to tend to freeze and stopped breathing. Johnstone, because the game destroys ideas.
I don’t really buy the latter notion. Ideas don’t matter. I teach my students to join the game with no idea at all and look what happens. Also, the co-player has to get used to the feeling that his ideas are changed or even “destroyed”. If you want to practise exploring ideas and building upon them, there are other games.
I take Spolin’s objection more serious. Indeed, even experienced players tend to freeze almost literally. This leads to returning scenes like “Help! We’re stuck on the ground!” Or “Doctor, I can’t move my arm anymore.” The body freezes – the mind is searching for a justification, and on the other hand, the mind gets stuck if the body can’t move.
When I teach the game, I tell my students not to freeze, but to stay loosely in the position and to continue breathing. If you’re the one who enters, you don’t have to get exactly into the position. An approximation is okay.
Typical Freeze-Scenes are:
– Dancing lectures: “You’re doing very well. One-two-cha-cha-cha.”
– Any kind of doctor scene or scenes about the body: “Look! What’s that thing that I have on my nose!”
– Photo-model scenes. (The posing is being justified.)
– Mugging scenes. (The “Freeze!” is being justified.)
However, I still believe that Freeze Tags are a valuable game. Has anybody ever pointed out that the great advantage of this game isn’t necessarily justification but the huge amount of mini-scenes we can play as a group? It’s a phantastic warm up that gets us into play.
When I teach Freeze Tags to beginners, I let them have their doctor, photo model, and dacing coach scenes. For them it’s the first time. Little by little I set some limits (don’t talk about your body, don’t talk about posing). As a consequence their opportunities expand.
Soll man Freeze Tags (Tag Outs / Abklatschtheater…) überhaupt mit Anfänger spielen? Wie ich hier bereits vor längerer Zeit ausgeführt habe, haben die beiden Impro-Gurus Spolin und Johnstone dieses Game abgelehnt: Spolin, weil es tatsächlich zum Einfrieren führt, man als Spieler nicht mehr atmet. Johnstone, weil es Ideen zerstört.
Johnstones Einwand kann ich nicht recht gelten lassen. Ideen sind unerheblich. Ich lehre auch, ohne Idee in das Spiel zu gehen und zu schauen, was dann passiert. Als Mitspieler muss man sich außerdem daran gewöhnen, dass andauernd unerwartete Ideen präsentiert werden. Zum Gedanken- und Ideen-Fortführen gibt es andere Games.
Schwerer wiegt der Einwand Spolins. Tatsächlich wird das Spiel oft (auch von erfahrenen Spielern) so gespielt, dass beide regungslos einfrieren. Das führt dann zu immer wiederkehrenden Szenen nach dem Schema “Hilfe, wir sind am Boden festgeklebt!” oder “Herr Arzt, ich kann meinen Arm nicht mehr bewegen.” Der Körper friert ein – der Geist sucht nach einer Rechtfertigung; und umgekehrt bleibt der Geist stecken, wenn der Körper sich nicht bewegen kann.
Ich unterrichte das Spiel so, dass die Spieler beim “Freeze!” locker und auch nur ungefähr in der Haltung bleiben. Die Haltung ist auch nur ungefähr zu übernehmen und eher als Inspiration zu verstehen, nicht als sklavisch zu rechtfertigende Position.
Weitere typische Freeze-Szenen:
– Tanz-Unterricht: “Ja, das machen Sie schon sehr gut. Eins, zwei und Cha-cha-cha.”
– Jede Art von Arzt-Szenen und Szenen, die den Körper oder die Körperhaltung thematisieren: “Sehen Sie nur, ich habe hier was auf der Nase!”
– Foto-Model-Szenen: Das Posing wird gerechtfertigt.
– Überfall-Szenen: “Keine Bewegung!” (Das Stillstehen wird umgekehrt gerechtfertigt.)
All diese Tücken sind aber hinnehmbar. Denn der große Vorteil des Spiels (hat das eigentlich mal jemand ausgesprochen?) ist, dass wir in kürzester Zeit einen Haufen verschiedener Mini-Szenen spielen können. Es bringt einen also wunderbar ins Spielen.
Wenn ich Anfänger unterrichte, lasse ich sie ruhig auch ihre Arzt-, Tanzlehrer-, Fotografen-Szenen spielen; denn für sie sind sie schließlich neu. Nach und nach setzen wir Grenzen – den Körper nicht thematisieren, das Stillstehen nicht thematisieren – und erweitern durch die Grenzen die Spielmöglichkeiten.