Part Two, Timing

George Kubler wrote a book called The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. I read part of it in graduate school. When I read a book, I generally remember an idea from the book. Not normally the “main idea” but an idea that resonates with me. I think the idea that I remember from this book goes very roughly something like this: new innovation or art can only be made at an exact moment when culture has prepared the groundwork for it.

Artists are people who see the next logical void and fill it with something unexpected, but what they make can not be totally unexpected or it would fail. And here is the part where I become less totally sure where my own thoughts start and Kubler’s argument ends, but, it would have really sucked to be Picasso in the sixteenth century. Just like it would have blown to be Bill Gates in 1900 or really any other moment besides the one he ended up in. Because not all starting places are equal. What if you had it in you to invent the microchip but no one had electricity? Being before your time isn’t idyllic, it’s tragic really. Not as tragic as being after your time though; Raphael could be born today, and presuming that his talents were fixed or innate (granted this is not a forgone conclusion), he would have little to contribute to our society and certainly no cultural or social clout 1.

So, Timing. I was watching videos of dancers for the last post and it got me to thinking how sad it is that the time to be that type of dancer, at that level of appreciation, is over.


And that got me thinking about my conviction that we New Movementers are explicitly in the right place at the right time. All of us. We have this fresh new art form in front of us and it is begging us to refine it, complete it, exploit it! Milo is fond of saying that what we are doing with improv at this moment is Jazz, but Rock and Roll hasn’t even been invented yet. What will comedy Rock and Roll look like everybody?! Where will it come from? How infectious and revolutionary might it be? I think you know what I’m getting at here: invent the future brothers and sisters! We are on the fringe of the improv world, but we are also on the cusp of what comedy can become. This game, well it’s ours to lose.

People learning improv need to learn forms. Why? Because every artist learns life drawing, though no artist will ever be famous for being an expert at life drawing. Because athletes must run drills and sprints and stretch, though no highlight reel ever shows a good set of sit-ups. We have to learn the classics in order to sharpen our skills and be able to conceptualize how structure works. But look, I think this is a big point, ultimately we are here to invent, not interpret. We are meant not to ask permission for “can you have a show where ___ happens” but to create the kind of shows that get copied everywhere else. Now is the time. Like anything in improv it is about making a bold choice and making sure to bear hug what you have. We could be a form factory over here! We have no need to have groups that modify this or that; the next step is radical stuff, the next step is unique dreams and whims being catered to – because the world already has a few Harold troupes.

Predictability, along with fear, is the mind-killer.
Now, on to the other kind of timing. I was in that long class with Joe Bill last week which I am raving up and down about right now. My favorite note from that class was one that was given over and over again: “Slower and more Intense.” Joe Bill contends that comedy’s root is the breaking of tension. This implies of course the desperate need to create, feed, and grow tension. Tension is a delicious fruit. It holds within itself anxiety and desire, breaking tension therefore creates relief and satisfaction. Boom! Laughs. I have written a lot already about making there be an impact to your choices in a scene. And about giving your scenes legs, so that they can be longer and languish, through strategic offers. However, here I am just talking about pure time and feeling. Silence, umm delicious. Eye contact, juicy. Taking a moment to clearly process the feeling that you are having in a scene, rather than immediately just describing it, delectable.

While watching shows last week I realized really clearly that in a scene there is a big difference between saying “We’ve known each other for two years Stephanie, so I know when you’re being sarcastic,” and acting like I’ve actually known someone for a while and understand their mannerisms. “Calling it out”, whether it’s the game or the details of a relationship, is no good because it kills the tension. There is no point in playing the game anymore if the unspoken tension of the repeating pattern (game) is broken. Likewise, there is no point in watching the relationship of Stephanie’s good friends reacting to her sarcasm if they’re talking about her being sarcastic, instead of being affected by her penchant for sarcasm. Simply put: show don’t tell.

“Showing” in great improv means shutting up, trusting, and building a little tension. Building that tension is hard because what the audience feels the improvisers will have to feel first; if you want them to feel horror, enchantment, tension, or uncertainty there will have to be a seed of that in how you feel. We want to speed up to make the tension we feel go away, but we have to slow down so that the audience has something meaty to sink their teeth into. Well, luckly, we’ve got all the time in the world.

Show 1 footnote

  1.  because film has murdered oil painting


I tried, I really tried. I tried to find an image that would facilitate this analogy poetically. I looked up Kenosis. I typed in pitchers and refilling and replenishing and so on… but hey, what works- works.

Creativity is like a toilet.

Water goes in as it goes out. The apparatus doesn’t work if it is dry or overflowing. There is equilibrium to a crapper.

We are like that:  information, inspiration, experience, teaching, and watching all go in. Creation comes out. If you don’t re-fill yourself you can’t improvise, or create any thought-product of value. However, try to take in too much too quickly and you’ll overflow all over the floor (messy).

I suppose the other analogy that works for this is that of being fed and evacuating; gross! Though I do (and I believe I am not alone in this) often think to myself “I am improv constipated” or “I would like to go dookie all these thoughts or emotions out on stage.” Sorry.

New Movementers, I have been on a journey and my pitcher is overflowing. I had the wonderful opportunity to take an intensive, all day everyday, improv class this past week and I am brimming with ideas right now. Please pardon the mess, and I will at least do you the courtesy of avoiding bullet points.

Gratify yourself.

Messy thought cluster number one is about dancing with yourself. Fred Astaire dances with a coat rack in the movie “Royal Wedding.” It is like similar moments in certain Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies where they are accompanied in a dance by the invisible or inanimate; the point of these sequences is to illustrate the virtuosity of the dancer. If Astaire can dance with a coat rack, and make the rack look elegant and graceful, then his art is put in full relief. You see, a male dancer traditionally has the job of making his partner look stunning; all the flourishes, most of the sequins, and the majority of the visual attention belong to the woman dancing. Astaire and Kelly, therefore, show off most effectively when they dance without a woman sharing focus.

So, what does it mean when something that is done traditionally with a partner, something that is almost inexorably about the fact that one does it with a partner, like dance, is separated from the roles of support and collaboration that normally dictate its shape?  Well, I think about that and improv all the time.

There have been times when I have looked at one of my improv heroes and thought “she could be improvising with a coat rack and I’d still watch her all night.” There have been periods where all I wanted for myself was to be able to handle a scene, with absolutely anyone, and trust myself to make them look like Ginger Rodgers even if they behaved more like a wooden poll.

Then, there are times where that idea is silly to me. I want to dance, not appear to dance. I want to collaborate, not perform by myself – with someone else – on stage.

The word for the night is equilibrium. Balance.

A talented improviser is not co-dependant on stage. But he is also never unaffected, pursuing his own joke at the expense of the scene, or lacking in emotional commitment to what is happening in the moment. A good improviser handles her own perspective while being absolutely paranoid and moved by offers of her scene partner.

Joe Bill is an astonishing teacher. When you get a chance, learn from him.

I have taken two workshops and now an intensive from the dude. He always reminds me to, like a mother on an air plane puts on her oxygen mask first and then assists her daughter, cover my own ass first. Just like in a relationship, you best care for your fellow improvisers by first caring for yourself, so that you have strength left over to give and don’t become depleted.

The practical application is at least two fold. One, Joe had us work on “solo-starts.” That process was complex, but for myself I’ve boiled down the lesson (for now) to “don’t worry about your scene partner’s response before they get there.” I can’t tell you how many choices I haven’t made out of the fear that I couldn’t communicate my ideal path for a scene. “If I start this scene in a café in Paris in 1874 and I’m scandalized by the Impressionism exhibit I’ve just visited then my scene partner will be lost… I’d better have another scene in an office.” That is the mind killer.

If I start this scene with strength — Bewildered and overwhelmed (those are the emotions I would “get” from the idea of the exhibit) — With a character shape and a voice that is informed by what delighted me about the original idea – Well, I am going to have a good scene. It couldn’t matter less if that scene takes place in 1874. My scene partner will delight in my strength and my ability to interact with them through a character; she will not spend the whole scene trying to parse my initiating line. I can trust her and I can trust me. Mechanically, that choice looks like me attacking the stage, sitting down, and talking before anyone even gets there. I don’t have to wait quietly for a scene partner to arrive before the scene starts. She will get there, and when she does the scene will take off from where it already is.

Two, Tami always praises people for giving themselves gifts. You will come on licking your arm because you love the taste of blood and are gross and Tami will give the note “you gave yourself this wonderful gift with the gross-out blood liking- Sweet!” Somehow I always feel guilty giving myself gifts though. I end up feeling like “Oh, well shouldn’t I have given my scene partner a gift?” Guess what everybody! Giving your scene partner the opportunity to do a scene with a gross-out blood/puss/booger licker is a giant gift for them! I want to do that scene right now! I don’t want to be in the scene where we look at each other for twenty seconds, while we try to figure out if either of us likes anything in the scene. Nope, I want to watch you lick your arm and I want to freak out (with joy, disgust, or arousal? I don’t know yet!?)

The most selfish thing I could do in a scene is come on as a silly Victorian girl, or an insecure dictator, or horny – but, I am also realizing that this is probably the most generous thing I could do as well. So don’t dance with yourself, but do give yourself a big present, of emotion and perspective, every time you get on stage!  /advice

( Spoiler: Part Two is about Timing)

You are Perfect.

Asking for what you want is hard.

It wasn’t when we were kids. Back then we all said

I want you to be my best friend   or   I want a Tonka Firetruck with the silver hubcaps   or   I want to be a mermaid      Without hesitation.

But then one day we didn’t turn into a mermaid     or we got sox and greenstamps for Christmas     or our best friend broke our little heart.   Then we started getting scared of saying what we want.

Maybe someone even taught us to hate what we wanted: to fear our own power and desire. It almost doesn’t even matter what it was. Somebody said you could never get into film school, that ballerinas ruin their bones, or too many kids want to be marine biologists. Maybe someone tried to convince you to be a pharmacist or an ESL teacher or a lawyer when you had no passion or proclivity for any of those professions. Maybe no one encouraged you at all. It was never about jobs though was it? It was about desire, and the question of whether desperately loving and wanting things is good or bad. Maybe you got taught it was bad to some extent.

Your “hobbies” got derided and everything you wanted seemed to be in spite of the world. Your dreams turned slowly into secrets. Even if somehow you had the strength to take people or ideas that challenged your needs with a grain of salt, one day the insidious thing happened.

The worst thing.

The call is coming from inside the house! The voice is coming from inside your head. And the voice says No. The voice says keep it a secret, because then you may never have the things you most deeply want, but at least you won’t have tried and failed.

And I say: Mr. Quiet ‘No’ Voice, 

 In this song I say “shylapie approves” – you should substitute your own nickname for yourself.

Ask for what you want. Want more. Be in love with your own want.

Then bring that to the stage, ‘cause that’s the show I need to see and the show I burn to be in.

You are Perfect.