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.