Theatre Thursday: The house is dark tonight

As of now, Los Angeles is six days into the lockdown, it has been eighteen days since I last worked box office for ComedySportz L.A., and seventeen days since I’ve done improv on stage, and I have to tell you that the last two have been the hardest part of the whole social distancing and isolation process.

Not that I’m complaining, because shutting down all of the theaters, bars, clubs, sporting events, and other large gatherings, as well as limiting restaurants to take-out only, are all good things. Yes, it does cost people jobs — I’m one of the affected myself, and dog knows I have a ton of friends who are servers or bartenders — but California has also stepped up in making unemployment and disability benefits much more readily available.

And maybe we’ll all get $1,000 from the Federal government, maybe not. The down the road side benefit of this human disaster is that it may just finally break our two-party system in the U.S. and wreak havoc with entrenched power structures elsewhere. And, remember, quite a lot of our so-called lawmakers also happen to belong to the most at-risk group: Senior citizens. So there’s that.

But what is really hurting right now is not the loss of the extra money I made working CSz box office (although if you want to hit that tip jar, feel free — blatant hint.)

Nope. The real loss is in not being able to see and hang out with my family regularly: the Main Company, College League, and Sunday Team; as well as doing improv with the Rec League every Monday night.

And with every week that passes when I don’t get to take to that stage, I feel a bit more separated from the outside world, a bit less creative, a bit less inspired.

I know that I shouldn’t, but honestly, improv in general and Rec League in particular has added so much to my life for the last two and a half years that having to do without it is tantamount to asking me to deal with having no lungs. And no heart.

185 coronaviruses walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

And no one laughs. It’s not a time for laughter, but it is a time for support. And while I can’t do improv in real life with this wonderful funny family of mine, I can at least reach out to them all and say, “Hey. How are you doing?” I can also reach out to my loyal readers here and ask the same question.

It’s been amazing, because several of my improviser pals have started doing podcasts or the like. I can’t name names or link here, but I’ve got at least one improv friend who has been doing virtual shows in which he somehow manages to broadcast phone-to-phone routines through what must be a third phone.

Another friend of mine has been reading various scripts, screenplays, or fan fiction live online while also getting twisted on various intoxicating substances, and it’s been hilarious. Then again, he’s hilarious, and although he’s fairly new to the company, he quickly became one of my favorite players.

Okay, so the upside is that I’m now free Friday through Monday evenings again. Yay?

Maybe. The downside? I still don’t know who, out of all my friends and loved ones, is going to die. And that includes me.

But when you have fiscal conservatives like Mitt Romney suddenly advocating for what is pretty much the Universal Basic Income idea supported by (but not created by) Andrew Yang, you can easily come to realize that what we are going through right now, in real time, is an enormous paradigm shift.

More vernacularly, that’s what’s known as a game-changer.

The current crisis has the clear potential to change the way society does things. It may accelerate the race that had already been happening to make all of our shopping virtual, as well delivering everything with autonomous vehicles or drones. In the brick and mortar places that do remain, you may be seeing a lot fewer actual cashiers and a lot more automated kiosks.

This is particularly true in fast food places. McDonald’s alone has been on a push to add kiosks to 1,000 stores per quarter since mid-2018. Compare that to Wendy’s, which the year before set a goal of putting the machines in only 1,000 stores total.

They’re even developing the technology to let AI make recommendations based on various factors, like the weather, or how busy the location is.

But as these jobs go away, ideas like Universal Basic Income and cranking up the minimum wage become much more important — especially because people in these minimum wage jobs are, in fact, not the mythical high schooler making extra cash. Quite a lot of them are adults, many of them with children and families to support.

We are also already seeing immediate and positive effects on the environment due to massive shutdowns of transportation and industry. Scientists had already shown how airline travel contributes to global warming because the shutdown of flights for three days after September 11 gave them a unique living lab to study it in.

And remember: That was pretty much a limit on foreign flights coming into the U.S. What’s happening now is on a very global scale. We’re suddenly dumping fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, using less fossil fuel, and generating lower levels of greenhouse gases — and it already has been for longer than three days, and is going to be for a lot longer than that.

One of the must sublime effects, though, has been in one of the hardest-hit countries. In Italy, the waters in the canals of Venice are running clear for the first time in anyone’s memory, although this didn’t bring the dolphins to them nor make the swans return to Burano. The dolphins were in the port at Sardinia and the swans are regulars.

While a lot of the specific environmental recoveries are true, a lot of them are not. Even NBC was taken in by the hoax that National Geographic debunked.

There’s something poetic in the irony that, as humans have been forced to shut themselves inside, animals do have opportunity to come back into the niches we displaced them from, even if only temporarily.

It’s not always a good thing, though. In Bangkok, the lack of tourists — an abundant source of free food — led to an all-out monkey war between two different tribes.

All of this is just a reminder that all of us — human, animal, and plant alike — live on and share the same planet, and what one does affects all of the others.

The ultimate example of that, of course, is a pandemic. It now seems likely it all began with patient zero, a 55 year-old man from Hubei in Wuhan province, who was the first confirmed case, back on November 17, 2019. But the most likely reservoir from which the virus jumped to humans was probably the pangolin — just more proof that it’s the cute ones you always have to beware of.

It may seem strange to start on the topic of theatre and veer hard into science via politics, but like everything else on the planet, it’s all interconnected. Art, politics, and science are opposite faces of an icosahedral die that never stops being thrown by the hand of fate.

Or by completely random forces. Or it’s a conspiracy. Or it’s all predictable if you have enough data.

Stay safe out there by staying in, wherever you are. See you on the other side but I hope to keep seeing you through it on a daily basis. I’m not going anywhere, dammit.

Image Source: Fairmont Theater, (CC BY-ND 2.0) 2009 Jon Dawson. Used unchanged.

All the world’s a stage…

Once upon a time, a certain G-word was so commonly applied to theatre people that there’s even a famous musical with it as the title, and it was casually tossed about to refer to Broadway performers for ages. It’s now pretty much considered to be a racist and derogatory term, but how it came to also be applied to theatre people says a lot about the commonality between one profession and one ethnic group of uncertain origins.

That group, properly known as the Roma (although that G-word actually splatters over to several other groups) is mostly known for being itinerant workers, often fortune-tellers, who wandered from place to place, with no fixed location, and that is how the term spilled over to actors and theatre people in general.

Like the Roma, actors and theatre generally didn’t get a lot of respect throughout history, and they didn’t tend to stay in one place for long. During the Medieval period, acting troupes would go from place to place on pageant wagons, which you can think of as primitive RVs or tour buses that opened out into stages with scenery and entrances and exits and the whole shebang.

It really wasn’t until the end of the Medieval period and beginning of the Renaissance that rich people started to keep troupes of pet actors to entertain, although these troupes still might tour, and acting wasn’t their day job, per se. Ironically, the need for these players to go tour and play elsewhere planted the seeds for the commercialization of the profession.

Things stabilized by the time of the late Renaissance, and especially by the time of Shakespeare and, through various ups and downs, companies of actors became the norm.

But not venues. For some reason, most performers seem to be denied owning real estate, and that’s where we get back to the late Medieval/early Renaissance model. “You can entertain us, but you have to pay for the privilege now.”

And this brings us to modern day theatre in America, and the reason for this particular post. I’ve written many, many, many times here about the improv company I belong to, perform with, and work for, and as has happened before and will happen again, a company is pulling up stakes and leaving its current theatrical home, but that’s okay. This happens all the time.

There’s an interesting irony here, because just over twenty years ago, near the end of the last century, I joined a group called The Company Rep, which is now so defunct that the only way to find them online is to know the names of shows they did and get very specific. They were born from the ashes of a group called Actor’s Alley, and the latter ended and the former began on the second stage of the El Portal Theatre.

This is significant, as you’ll see shortly.

The Company Rep (or TCR) did a couple of shows there before moving on, and our next location was at was then called the American Renegade Theatre, where we put on shows like Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, The Comedy of Errors, and a war protest reading of Lysistrata as part of a world-wide project on the propitious date of 03/03/03.  Hey — I still own the T-shirt!

After that, we moved to Deaf West to use their space while they weren’t because they were on tour, and did some great shows, finally folding in 2005 after the world premiere of the original musical Rosenstrasse.

In the case of that company, I think it was that we were a little to out there to manage to capture a large audience. Oh, we had a small base of loyal fans, and shows I acted in during those few years were among my favorites. I mean, where else could I have played Glitter Jesus, a riverdancing Irish cop, a depressed unicycle riding bear, a bunch of 19th century British types, and Death?

Well, okay, in improv, all that and more. But the significance of the space this company was born in is that it was exactly the same theater where I first met that improv group, ComedySportz L.A. Hell, not just the same theater, the same space within it.

And that is part of the reason that both TCR and CSzLA chose to move on. It’s great to have a nice performing space — which it definitely is — but it can be really hard to establish your brand when the building your in has a different name splattered all over it. Sure, CSzLA got marquee space (which I don’t remember TCR ever having) but it was on the south side of the bay window shaped marquee only, which means that it was pretty much only seen by commuters coming home from and not going to work.

Important distinction, because if you plant the idea in the morning, people are going to remember and wonder about it during the day and maybe find out how to see the show. Get them in the evening though, and the only thing they’re focused on is getting the hell home.

The other thing that made both troupes move out was that their ideals did not exactly line up with those of management. TCR and CSzLA were and are not about making money. They are about making entertainment.

Flip that to figure out what they were dealing with, and the supreme irony is that the Dickens villains in both stories two decades apart were the same damn people.

Imagine that.

But… our moving on is a good thing. This is the beginning of a summer tour, traditional a time when audiences fall off. But now, unencumbered by a permanent location (and having to pay out the nose for it), it’s time to put the L.A. back into CSzLA.

Both experiences remind me what theatre people are all about. Theatre. And maybe that’s the age-old story continued. Rich people who own shit really hate poor people who create stuff, and so it’s the perpetual destiny of the performing artist to have no fixed address for their art.

But you know what? We thrive on that. It’s impossible to name any theatre company in any city that has not been through at least one change of address (if they’re relatively new) or through more than a handful if they’ve been around a while. It’s the nature of the beast. And, sometimes it’s necessary to fire up the pageant wagons and hit the road, and that’s okay.

Or to borrow space from other thespians and do the equivalent of theatrical couch surfing, and that’s even better.

It may seem paradoxical for me to say that having no fixed location is better, but it really can be. Why? Because if we perform in one spot, there may be people in another who will never go there.

This is an infamous L.A. problem. It’s hard to get people from south of Mulholland to come into the Valley for damn near anything, and nearly impossible to get anyone from outside of the Westside to go there or people from the Westside to venture out to anywhere not there.

People in the West Valley won’t go farther east than Encino or farther south than Ventura Boulevard. Meanwhile, nobody wants to go downtown or into Hollywood unless they’re there already (proving that they’re completely ignorant of how easy Metro makes that), and Glendale, Pasadena, and beyond might as well be separate states if you’re in any of the aforementioned places, and vice versa.

So here’s the big benefit. If our company has no fixed home, we can go anywhere. We can haul our pageant wagon, so to speak, to where the audiences are, and we can do what the big-ass fixed places can’t: Get out there and directly meet new people and develop audiences that we just might get to defy the traditional L.A. “no go” rules.

And we’ve already seen this work with our college league, because we’ve certainly gotten regular audience from places as not so far away as La Crescenta and as hell-and-back far as Riverside/Upland. It’s all about incentive.

Yes, and… a theatrical troupe is not the building it’s in . It’s the people who are in it. Um… the troupe, not the building. So don’t worry. We are going to be more than fine. We got this. When we heard the news, our reaction wasn’t “Oh, shit!”

It was and always will be, “Yes, and…?”

The second oldest profession?

Acting is an odd profession. It’s all about pretending, but doing it in a very real way, at least emotionally. Stage combat, physical injury, death, making out, and love scenes are all faked, of course, but done in a manner that makes them seem real.

In one play of mine, the finale of the first act was one character shooting another in the forehead from across the stage right in front of the audience with the blood and apparent bullet hole appearing live, without cover. It was a brilliant piece of work by the director, tech crew, and actress.

A different play involved a man apparently being murdered in his drunken sleep by a young man wielding a metal hammer, and this was a simple case of misdirection. Timed to a black-out, the younger actor raised the weapon, apparently aimed at his victim’s head, then brought it down — and missed just as the lights went out, hitting a part of the bed rigged to give us the sound of the impact.

That one got gasps from the audience every night.

Another odd thing about the profession of acting is that it’s about the only mainstream one (not counting stripper, prostitute, or porn star) in which a person can get nude in front of their coworkers and customers and not be charged with sexual harassment. Well, at least as long as they keep it in the context of the show. (Note that I’m lumping models who do nude photoshoots or who sit for artists in with actors, because what they do is a form of acting.)

This “nudity in acting” thing has actually led to some interesting exceptions in the public decency laws. Los Angeles County, for example, specifically exempts “persons engaged in a live theatrical performance in a theater, concert hall or similar establishment which is primarily devoted to theatrical performances.”

Other jurisdictions have similar laws while some others don’t. This situation arose when the Supreme Court basically punted on the issue of obscenity in 1973, leaving the decision up to local communities. At the same time, there really aren’t any Federal prohibitions on nudity in places like National Parks, although if they are co-run by a local state or county, then the latter’s laws will take precedence.

But the subject was acting, and one of the very necessary things any cast, acting company, or other assemblage of performers absolutely needs to have is trust — in themselves and in each other.

Trusting yourself comes from within and grows as you train and progress, but your fellow players can also help build your self-trust even as you come to trust them more. Any dramatic production, particularly theatrical, can be compared to a company of soldiers preparing for battle. This isn’t to trivialize what soldiers do. Rather, it’s to emphasize that what happens on stage relies on a cohesive unit that functions as one.

With scripted performances, the emphasis is on following that script and the blocking, not deviating from what was rehearsed while bringing full emotional truth to it, all while experiencing it as if for the first time.

Improv is a little bit different creature because, of course, there is no script. I know there are people who doubt that, but trust me, it’s true. If we do plan ahead, the extent of it is to decide beforehand which particular games are going to be in the show, but this is really more to make sure we don’t bore the audience by having a lot of similar games being played in one match, as well as to make sure that our players and referee are familiar with the rules of what they’re going to be playing that evening.

Otherwise, we really do make up everything on the spot.

And that takes a special kind of trust because we’re going in without a script and without a safety net. Well, without a safety net beyond each other.

One thing about improv that can actually be a problem for some people at the beginning: Anybody can be anyone. That is, when you jump on stage with one or more scene partners, you won’t necessarily be playing your own age, gender, or orientation. We once had a very delightful moment in which a (real-life) father and college-age daughter wound up playing a father and teen-age daughter — except that she played him and he played her, and it was hilarious.

I’ve played boyfriend to a girlfriend played by a younger straight man; mother to a pair of daughters, one played by an older man; and niece to an uncle played by a younger woman, to name just a few.

Improv can also get very physical very fast, especially when we’re sending up particular genres, like romance or a Tennessee Williams play, or in some games that demand it physically, like Big/Little and Moving Bodies. Then there’s always the infamous “cleave” move when the genre that comes up is Shakespeare. It’s basically an abrupt pull in and embrace that looks like the cover of a bodice-ripper, and can be hilarious when it happens between two men in a context other than anything romantic.

“ANTONIO: Nay, thou villain dog, dark not my door, lest I draw sharp steel to you implore.”

“PETROLIO: What, good knave, a threat do you intend? ‘Tis just one way to bring it to an end.”

[PETROLIO cleaves ANTONIO to him. ANTONIO drops his sword and gasps.]

The key point is that one of two things happens. Everyone establishes what their boundaries are and everyone else respects them, or everyone makes it clear that they don’t have boundaries. Surprisingly — or maybe not, because improvisers are all a little weird — I don’t really hear a lot of boundaries being set among our team members.

Or maybe it just gets back to that really trusting each other part.

Since last Monday was the first Monday of the month, it was workshop night for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League, and it was all about team-building through creating trust, which generally makes for a pretty intense and physical night.

One of the more interesting exercises involved us forming a giant human knot with fourteen people. Step one: Stick out your right hand and take the right hand of somebody in the circle not on either side of you. Step two: Repeat with your left hand and a different person. Step three: Untangle yourselves from the knot.

One of the things that becomes obvious from the get-go is that this is not a trivial problem. You’ve got arms over arms and under arms, and people that seem impossibly blocked from swapping places with each other. But, eventually, we start to figure things out and give each other instructions — “You step over their arms, but duck under theirs.”

“Turn around to your left, then bring your right arm over your head.”

“You get low and we’ll pass over you.”

And it didn’t seem to take all that long until we’d managed to untangle the knot. The big surprise is that we wound up in a circle with every other person facing out except for three people together all facing the same way, which was probably the point where the last two hands joined.

In the second round, the only rule was that we could not talk at all, and we didn’t even manage to do much in the way of untangling, which was a fascinating mini-lesson in communication. Even though we were trying to communicate through body language and facial expression, that somehow didn’t translate, and we only seemed to be able to make the knot worse.

We also did a sort of circular version of a trust-fall, although I prefer to think of it as vertical crowd-surfing. Called “Willow in the Winds,” one person stands in the center with everyone circled around, and then they fall. The rest of the group catches them and pushes them in another direction and the process repeats. Basically, it’s a game of pass the person while letting them almost fall but never really.

To the group’s credit, most of the people on the outside (yours truly included) eventually opted to go into the center, and I have to say that it was a very Zen experience, at least once I learned to just let go and let myself actually fall and trust that everyone would be there. And they were, even if a few times I wound up dipping pretty low, and it also became obvious which parts of the circle were physically stronger than others.

The most surreal exercise also turned out to be the most relaxing. I think it was called “Belly Circle,” and it was pretty much that. One person lied down, then the next person lied down with their head on the first person’s stomach. The third person did likewise to number two, and so on until we’d made it all the way around and the last person wound up with their head on the stomach of the first person.

I wound up with my head on the stomach of one of the tinier women and the head of one of the tinier men on mine, and like I said, my reaction wasn’t discomfort or anything like that. Rather, it was very, very relaxing. And why not? I was suddenly a sandwich, and the bread happened to be two people I already trusted a lot in the group. I could have easily fallen asleep then, and I think a lot of other people on the team felt the same.

And that’s kind of the ultimate trust thing, primate edition: The ability to fall asleep with one of your fellow “monkeys with thumbs” somehow touching you.

Full circle back to the “acting is weird” thing. It’s really only weird if you aren’t an actor or improviser. If you are, then you get it. We travel in a different world, have different rules and boundaries and, oh yeah — mostly only share those with our fellow performers.

And, anyway, it’s all just pretend, right? Except for all of the real that happens right there on that stage in every performance.

Going completely out of my head

I took a circuitous route into the world of improv performance and although I’d had acting training as part of my minor in college and have appeared in various theatrical productions both then and in the more recent past, my primary focus was behind the scenes as a writer. I hadn’t had any formal improv training up until a few years ago.

Now, as an actor, I didn’t have a problem developing and holding onto a character, and as a writer I was creating them all the time, generally acting them out in my mind as I transcribed their words. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do it in these situations because you have the one luxury that improvisers don’t. Time.

So when I was playing an entire Shakespeare show with an Irish accent, I had the time to learn it and practice it and make it stick because it had become second nature. Likewise when I played a bear, or the trippy Spanish-speaking mystical Jesus stand-in in Tennessee Williams’s weirdest play, I had rehearsal time to make all of the discoveries in the text and the performance in order to hone the character.

Contrast that to improv, where if you’re lucky you might get a character prompt and have twenty or thirty seconds to think about it while the referee explains the game to the audience. More likely, though, you only get mere seconds, if that, as the ref turns to the audience for a scene suggestion and you won’t know what it is until they turn back and shout, “Your suggestion is earbuds. Players, are you ready?”

“Yes!”

Whistle. “Begin!”

And that’s all of the character development time we get. Early on, it would always trip me up and I’d wind up playing myself because I was too busy trying to come up with the “platform” of the scene — who, what, and where — for however many of us went on stage to start, or to fill in  if somebody provided part of the platform.

What? Create an entire character on top of that? Are you crazy?

As I’ve written about previously, I learned that my big challenge was letting go of thinking, but it wasn’t until our ComedySportz Rec League coach and improv mentor shared a particular technique with us that I suddenly started to make big breakthroughs.

It’s called VAPAPO, but I’m only going to discuss a couple parts of the acronym so you can get a taste. If you really want to know all about (and get some great improv advice that applies to life as well), you can go buy Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv for only five bucks plus two dollars shipping. It’s only fair, since she created the method.

There’s a logical split between the two halves, with the APO being a more advanced and trickier take on the VAP, so I’ll just explain the first three letters and how they helped me.

In case it wasn’t clear already, VAPAPO is a quick character development technique, one that can be activated instantly at the top of any improv scene and quickly drop you into a character. And remember, it doesn’t matter what character you land on. It’s even good to surprise yourself, because that will take you further out of your head and lead to more discoveries and surprises for you and the audience.

So… what do the V, A, and P stand for? Voice, attitude, posture. Pick one, dive into it, and boom. Instant character.

And it really does work. We recently spent an entire workshop practicing each one of the letters, and I surprised myself with what I came up with. For example, Voice is simply that, and a great place to just play around. Experiment with what it’s like if you speak higher or lower; use an accent or dialect; alter the natural rhythm of your speaking between staccato and drawn out; whatever you can imagine. Then take whatever voice you landed on and live it the character it creates.

You’ll find that focusing on the voice affects everything else you do in the scene. For example, in one exercise, I started playing around with a very drawn out, Mid-Atlantic sort of accent, and it wasn’t long before it affected everything else, so that I was standing very upright with my chin in the air, literally looking down on everyone else, and boom — judgmental, elitist  critic of everything was born.

Of course, quite the opposite happened when I let my voice become very become very… stutter… and doubtful about… everything, doubling back, restarting, repeating, etc. And suddenly I found myself with very submissive and docile body language, though still a lot of energy. It’s just that all of that energy was suddenly be expended in self-defense, self-deprecation, and justification attempts of everything. Instant neurosis!

The second letter, A, is for attitude, which just means picking a general outlook on life. Is this person optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, cynical, naïve, jaded, or whatever? Grab one and run with it. Now imagine how it can change a scene. Let’s say the other performer begins with, “Margaret, happy birthday. I made your favorite breakfast for my favorite daughter. Pancakes!”

Grab an attitude and stick to it, and you could reply with…

“Pancakes, mother? Seriously? You know I’ve eliminated gluten.”

“Pancakes? Oh my god, my favorite. I love you mommy! Did I mention that’s why I’m never moving out?”

“Pancakes. Waffles. Toast. Whatever. Brent dumped me. Life is bleak and meaningless…”

Or so many more, because in improv there are no right answers.

Note that not only do these give your character a strong point of view, they give the other improviser something to react to in an equally strong way, It’s a gift in both directions.

And this brings us finally to P, which is for posture, although you can also think of it as physicality. Basically, it’s everything your body is doing and, personally, I’ve found it to be my strongest “get out of my head” tool. If I just throw myself into some odd shape or movement and follow that, voice and character tend to follow automatically.

Of course, it does work the other way around, where the voice or attitude will tell the body what to do, but for be the advantage of working from the body up instead of the brain down is twofold. There’s the obvious and aforementioned getting out of my head, but the other advantage is that it’s often good to start a scene with some silent space work instead of just launching into the dialogue, so taking the posture/physicality approach kills two birds with one stone.

It gives you something to do and creates your attitude about it in silence while allowing a moment for the voice and character to emerge.

There’s an old joke from my stage acting days that usually emerged when doing period pieces that were not in modern dress, and it was this: “When in doubt, play the costume.”

Funny thing is, it works. Why? Because the costume can dictate your posture or physicality without you even having to try. Imagine that you’re playing in some Victorian era show that has all of the women in bustles, corsets, and high-heeled buttoned boots. Or that puts the men in high, tight starched collars, waistcoats and tails. That gives you a much different physicality than, say, a cast in jeans and T-shirts, or full Elizabethan regalia, or doing a nude scene.

In every single case, you’d move differently as a human and an actor. The trick for improvisers is that we don’t actually have the costume, we have to imagine it, but if the suggestion for your scene is, say, “hazmat clean-up,” what a gift from your audience is that? Because, from the get-go, you’re suddenly wearing one of those bulky hazmat suits, and everything else about you comes right out of that.

Or it should. And the best part is that even if you have three or four performers onstage all doing the hazmat suit thing, the experience of being in it will affect each one of them differently, so that you won’t get a cookie cutter. Rather, you’ll get a smorgasbord.

The following quote is apparently from Jill, but it came via my improv mentor and I can’t find a link back to an attribution for her, so please take this as another plug to buy her book, because it’s full of gems like this that, again, reply to the real world as well: “The fact that you don’t have the same life experiences or perspective as everyone else on your team is your superpower. The ways in which you are uniquely you are an asset. Improv that stays the same and draws from the same well is dull and will die out. You’re necessary. Shoot across the sky and illuminate the night.”

And that, dear readers, is how you get out of your head and experience the wonderful juggling act that is doing improv.

Lifting the bus

One of our improv mottos is “Get yourself in trouble.” In other words, if a problem comes up in a scene game, don’t try to find a solution. Try to find ways to make it worse. If someone tries to solve it, make the solution become a bigger problem.

An example. Say that a loving couple, Pat and Kelly, are out hiking in the woods, when one of them, Pat, cuts a finger on a bush. Kelly puts a bandage on it, but Pat is terribly allergic to latex. Meanwhile, another friend of theirs, Sam, a botanist, comes along, and points out that the plant was something awful, like poison sumac. Kelly happens to have some spray that instantly neutralizes sumac and spritzes it on Pat, but then Pat grabs the bottle and looks at it, seeing that it expired two years ago. “Oh no!” declares Sam. “When anti-sumacization spray expires, using it actually makes the problem worse.” Kelly meekly says “Sorry,” Pat screams in pain, the ref blows the whistle, end scene.

Notice what was happening in the story above. We know who the people are to each other, and where they are, and then the complication of the cut finger happens. The performer playing Kelly keeps coming up with solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, the performer playing Pat comes up with reasons that the solutions are worse. The performer playing Sam gets this and comes on to help with the mayhem. Ultimately, we get the tragic but funny story of one partner trying to do everything to help the other out of a jam, but only causing more pain and agony.

What’s the alternative? Pat: “Ow, cut my finger.” Kelly: “Let me put this bandage on.” Pat: “Oh. All better. Thanks!”

Where does that leave them? They now need to come up with a new complication, or else the scene is over. And yes, they could create a scene in which another problem comes up after they solve the first, they solve that, and then another comes up, and so on. This… could work kinda sorta maybe, but it wouldn’t be as engaging because it would suddenly be about the location instead of the people. The only way it could work would be if one of the characters had endowed the other with the ability to solve every problem at the top — “Oh, Kelly. You know how to fix everything!” — but then everyone started to throw more and more ridiculous problems at Kelly to solve.

Now this latter choice can work as well, and it’s a type of improv that we call (off-stage ‘cause our shows are suitable for everyone) “Screw your buddy.” That is, one player will suddenly toss something ridiculous at the other player. A recent example our team coach gave was from an actual match, where one player said something like, “Don’t say it. Sing it!” and so the other player did.

The key to making this work comes from another one of our mottos, and something we say to each other right before we go on in every show: “Got your back.” That is, it only looks like “screw your buddy” from the audience’s point of view, but that’s not what’s really happening.

If you’re playing with someone you know can’t do accents to save their life, for example, then a comment like, “Oh. It says that whoever drinks this will suddenly start speaking in random accents” would not be a good choice. They’d either wind up ignoring it and disappointing the audience or, more likely, try to do it, get into a place totally into their head, and roll the scene right off of the rails.

But… if you know that your scene partner can do any accent perfectly, then you definitely toss something like this at them because then it will engage the audience. They’ll immediately feel sorry for the other player. “OMG. How are they going to do that?” But then they will be thrilled to death as the other player suddenly pulls out half a dozen or more flawless accents for the rest of the scene and end up wondering, “What magic is this?”

It can be daunting as a performer until you’re aware of what’s going on. In fact, the first time it happened to me, I wasn’t, and I was getting a little annoyed at the player doing it to me. We were playing a singing and rhyming elimination game called Da Doo Ron Ron that I’ve mentioned here before. Funny story: Before I started doing improv, I loved to watch this one as an audience member. Once I started doing improv, playing this game scared the hell out of me and I would usually be out no later than third elimination.

That’s when I learned a very counter-intuitive trick for it, which is this: In a game where you have to come up with lots of rhymes, stop thinking and start listening. And it’s true. When I’d go into the game and start reeling off all the possible rhymes in my head for the suggestion (Bob… cob, dob, fob, gob, hob, job, knob, lob, mob, rob, sob, blob, etc.) I’d stop listening, so that I’d totally miss that someone before me said “Ty Cobb,” I’d use “corn on the cob,” and (clap clap) “outta there.”

But when I started listening instead, it all changed because I was mentally ticking off the letters used, so it made it much easier to latch onto the ones that hadn’t been, as well as looking for diphthongs, diglyphs, and other oddities but, again without thinking ahead. End result? The less I planned ahead, the better I got, and this went from one of my most feared games to one of my favorites.

This probably makes no sense without an explanation of the game, so here it is. It’s based on an old song with a repeated refrain of “da doo ron ron,” and the audience suggests a name. The pattern repeats in threes. The very first player always says the name, and then the second player rhymes the name. The third player has to come up with three rhymes. It repeats from there with single rhyme, single rhyme, triple, until somebody repeats a rhyme, can’t come up with one, falls off rhythm, uses a slant rhyme (e.g., flan and Spam), or the ref just gets tired of them.

So the first trio would be:

Player 1: “I met him/her on a Tuesday and his/her name was [suggestion]”

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron

Player 2: Match up the rhythm and make a [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron. Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s a little [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s another [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s the final [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.

Repeat.

Ideally, if we start with eight people, the person who gets number three will keep shifting as we get through the line, although it’s rare to make it through the starting line more than two full times. After that, the third player rotates equally for 7, 5, and 4 players remaining, although a ref can still determine who gets the first three via whom they pick to start and, if they’re really good, they can target the second three, although it does involve a lot of memorization.

This leaves three and six, and these are the special positions, because however the ref starts it, the same two or one players will always get the third rhyme. All the ref has to do is start two players to the left of their target, and boom. Buddy screwed. Or thrown under the bus. Or whatever you want to call it.

Long set-up, but here’s how it paid off. We were doing Da Doo Ron Ron for a fairly big audience, starting with eight players, and the first couple of rounds it seemed random. But as soon as we hit six, that’s when it became obvious that the ref was starting every round so that I would get the three spot and, since I was on the red team, which starts from stage left, it also made it easier for him to put me in the second three spot in each round.

At six and three, same damn thing. But a funny thing happened when we got down to three players and me being the only three rhymer. We made it three times around and I survived, and every time the audience went crazier and crazier when I’d pulled off my third. It was only on my fourth time around that I made two and then whiffed it on the last.

But I was pretty annoyed with our ref when I went back to the bench until our coach explained it to us post-show, and this brings us back to the title of this piece, because that’s the metaphor he used.

A good improviser, he explained, “Will throw their teammate under the bus under one condition. They know full well that their teammate is capable of lifting the bus, so the audience will be amazed when they do it. He got more specific and said that the only reason our Ref kept putting me in the three spot was because he knew I could do it, so it would give the audience their money’s worth and make me look good.

And… damn. Looking at it after the fact, that’s exactly what it did. He kept putting me in trouble but with the unspoken endowment of “You can solve anything,” and so it made me look like a goddamn wizard or words. Of course, it also gave me permission to play the hell out of feeling picked on and nervous, which, again, made me look good by making it look like I was overcoming insurmountable odds.

I wasn’t. I was playing a game that I enjoyed and was really good at. And in retrospect I realized that our ref knew that too. And he only threw me under the bus because he knew damn well that I could lift it.

Image credit: Author’s photo © 2019, Metro G Line at the NoHo Station, March 24, 2019.

 

The only way is ‘Yes, and…’

Improv isn’t just a way for performers to entertain an audience. It’s a way to improve your social and interpersonal skills, which is why taking classes in it can be so useful and why it’s also a valuable tool for people in business. It’s also a great way to create an interactive holiday party or group outing for any occasion.

Okay, shameless plugs are over, but I do believe all of these things about improv because I’ve gone through the classes, I regularly perform in improv shows myself — something I wouldn’t have thought possible just three years ago — and I use the skills I’ve learned in the real world all the time.

And I also get to watch as people regularly fail at those skills. The first of these is a skill described by Keith Johnstone: “Listen like a thief.” What this means is pay attention to everything anyone else in a scene says, because you’re going to need that info at some point to keep the scene going. Listen for names as they are introduced, as well as other “endowments,” meaning characteristics assigned to characters. Did Player A refer to the other player as Aunt Nancy, and wonder why she’s so nervous? Did Player B mention that they’re both waiting for Uncle Ralph to come around with Sunday dinner? Every one of those details creates the character that you might get to enter with, but if you’re not listening intently for every little clue, you could miss something which can lead to the far too common improv faux pas of calling a character established as Nancy by the name Sally, or walking in to a Sunday scene on Tuesday.

Aside from Johnstone’s aphorism, there are two big rules in improv. The first is Make Each Other Look Good. That is, your job is to make sure that you’re doing what you can to support your scene partners and give them stuff to work with. If you walk into a scene and say to the other character, “Hi!” then you’ve given them nothing. But if you walk in and say, “Hi, Mom. Let me help you with those groceries,” you’ve suddenly taken a lot of pressure off the other person by telling them who they are and what they’re doing.

Very much related to this is the concept of always saying, “Yes, and…” to anything that happens on stage. To do otherwise kills the forward moment of a scene. You should never reply to another player’s offer with “Yes, but,” and should absolutely never reply with “No” (with a very specific exception.)

This is one of those examples best taught in the negative, and a common exercise we use to teach it is to improv planning some hypothetical event. For example, say it’s a birthday party. Each person in turn suggests something, and the next person “yes, ands” it. So the first three steps might go like this:

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, and that’s why we’re hiring the world-famous party planner Dante of Miami!”

“Yes, and we’re giving him an unlimited budget!”

That party gets pretty cool pretty fast, right? And the scene will just build from there to ridiculous and wonderful heights. Now, let’s see what happens with “Yes, but.”

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“Yes, but it didn’t go so well the last time you tried that.”

“Yes, but that’s because no one helped…”

And you can feel the energy and momentum fall away immediately and everything gets small. As for “No,” that pretty much kills it instantly.

“I want this birthday party to be the best ever.”

“No.”

And… scene.

It’s not even necessary to literally say “yes, and,” “yes, but” or “no” in order to have the same effect. For example:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Oh my god, he’s beautiful. I’m so glad you brought him.”

And there’s a yes, and.

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“Did you see the sign that says ‘No predatory birds allowed?’”

That’s a yes, but. It might seem like a no, but it’s not, because it does acknowledge the bird, but just gives a reason for it to not be there. The other player may be able to work around it, but it does throw up a roadblock and add another step. Finally:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“What falcon? Are you okay, or did you stop taking your meds?”

And this is a hard “no,” because it doesn’t give the other player anywhere to go.

The one sort of exception to the “No” is this:

“I decided to bring my falcon, Jimmy, to the picnic.”

“No, David. You know allergic I am to birds!”

While this starts with “no,” it doesn’t deny that Jimmy is there. Rather, it’s a backwards “yes, and” that gives to the other performer, because now the person endowed as David knows that he’s got a thing he can trigger your character with, namely a bird allergy — and he has a bird. And since one of the things we love to do in improv is to constantly make it worse — either for our own character or others — this kind of fake “No” is just an enormous gift to give to the other players onstage. “Here’s what my character would hate, not have  at it so can get to play.”

Beautiful, really.

Now keep all of this (or most of it) in mind as we segue to part two: Why and how these skills are so important in everyday life, and especially in the working world, because here’s what I see constantly in Muggleville.

First off, no one listens like a thief. In fact, no one listens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard as a conversation has started with one person asking a very specific question, only for the other person to have clearly missed all of the details, and then go on to either “Yes, but” or “No” the asker.

Imagine this improv scene.

Player A: “Oh, Mom, I’m so glad you invited us all to this picnic, and my wife, Loretta, is going to be so happy that you did.”

Player B: “We’re not having a picnic. And David, I told you, put that topiary on the other side of the yard. You’re my gardener, you should know better.”

Hard “no” there. And that’s pretty much how it goes — “I didn’t listen to what you just said, so I’m going to respond with whatever I was thinking from the couple of words I paid attention to, okay?”

This leads to a conversation that may be something more like:

Player A: “I talked to so-and-so about buying radio model A, but they really like model B.”

Player B: “If they’re interested in drones, then you should have just taken a message and referred it to Player C.”

Player A: “They’re not interested in drones. What does Player C have to do with this?”

Player B: “Player C handles drones.”

Player A: “I know. I’m asking about radio.”

Player B: “Player C doesn’t handle radio.”

Player A: “So should our customer buy radio model A even though they prefer model B?”

Player B: “(Sigh.) Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

Me, on the sidelines: (Head/face/desk). Over and over and over.

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of listening like a thief, “Yes, and,” or “make each other look good” going on during this, either.

To abstract it a bit, try this convo:

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“No, I don’t sell toothpaste.”

“I don’t want toothpaste. Where’s the bathroom?”

“Yes, you can brush your teeth there.”

“Right, but where is it?”

“Why didn’t you ask me that then, instead of about toothpaste?”

“I didn’t ask about toothpaste.”

“Then why did you ask about the bathroom?”

“Where is it?”

“Down the hall two doors, on the left.”

That went nowhere fast, didn’t it? Way too typical of way too many conversation I overhear everywhere.

If this sounds like your co-workers no matter what field you’re all in, consider turning them on to improv one way or another. At the very least, it’ll turn all those work spaces into much safer, saner, and more fun spaces. And remember: You can’t spell “improve” without “improv.” Cheesy, but true.

185 improvisers walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry. We’re closed.” And the improvisers say, “”Yes… and?”

 

 

A/B test

Linguists have long debated the topic of whether the language you speak affects and changes the way you think, or indeed creates it, but Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky believes that it does, and about a decade ago her studies did indicate some surprising things about how language can change the way a person perceives space, time, and relative location.

I won’t go into them here in detail since that’s not the point of this post, but there is an aboriginal tribe in Australia that gives spatial directions in absolute terms, based on compass directions — “What are you holding in your northwest hand?” Consequently, not only are they always aware of their location relative to the compass points, but they think of time this way as well. Ask them to arrange a series of photos in chronological order, and they will do it from east to west no matter which way they’re facing.

If you think about it, that makes perfect sense: Time measured from sunrise to sunset; from dawn to dusk.

She did also notice some cognitive changes when they taught English speakers to use the same kind of terms as other languages. For example, they’d ask their subjects to think of durations not as “long” and “short,” but in terms common to Greek and Spanish speakers: little, a lot, and big. They also had English speakers think of time the way Mandarin speakers do — not horizontally and left to right, but vertically, from top to bottom. Yesterday is up and tomorrow is down. Once they started to think in these terms, English speakers started to perceive time vertically as well.

Different languages can change personalities, too. Someone who is shy and reserved in one language may be outgoing in another, and their degree of fluency may also affect the type and depth of change. It’s also a matter of whether someone is bilingual but monocultural, or bilingual and bicultural. In the case of the former, it’s generally a speaker of language A learning language B in their own A-speaking country, largely free of cultural influence from B. For example, a native-born American studying Japanese, but only in the U.S. in school.

In the latter case, the speaker of A will grow up either in the original country of the A language and culture before moving to learn the B language in the B culture, or will grow up in the B country with parents and possibly grandparents who grew up in the culture of A. For example, someone who was either born in Turkey or born to Turkish immigrants to Germany, who either learned only Turkish during their early schooling and then German after emigrating, or who grew up in a household in Germany where Turkish was the primary language, but learned German in school.

I know from my own experience that my personality changes when I speak Spanish. Me hace mucho más coqueto. It makes me a lot more flirtatious. And while I’m technically bilingual but monocultural, the culture of Southern California is so heavily influenced by Latin America in the first place that it takes actual effort to be monocultural here. Then again, the western third of the U.S. used to be Mexico before we manifest-destinied the shit out of it, and two whole continents belonged to the natives and their expansive empires before the Spaniards and Brits toddled along and screwed that up.

Yeah, in English, I tend to digress to lecture a lot. I don’t do that in Spanish so much, either, unless it’s explaining some fascinating thing I discovered about the language to a fellow learner.

Onward!

Another aspect of language is the one that creates group personalities, and part of successfully joining any particular group is picking up on their own specific terminology and slang. Not knowing the terms will immediately peg a person as an outsider. This is very true of improv, and at ComedySportz we jokingly say “We are not a cult,” because some of our warm-up games certainly sound like we are.

But if you eavesdropped on a conversation between a couple of improvisers and had no experience, you’d be totally left in the dark hearing terms like Bunny Bunny, 185, Canadian cross, heel and face, “lean into it,” space work, VAPAPO, Harold, scene game, jump out game, head-to-head, brown-bag, groaner, piano torture, and (#) things.

Some of those terms are even unique to ComedySports and improvisers from other companies might not know them unless they’ve seen CSz shows. Now, if you’ve read my previous post, you probably know where this is going.

Since I started working in the field of health insurance, I’ve been learning a completely different set of words and expressions, a lot of them initialisms or acronyms, and by now I can reel them off by memory: AEP, Part D, MAPD, Plan F, Plan G, effective date, “Original” Medicare, Med Sup, HIPAA, ePHI, open enrollment, re-shopping, CMS (with a whole different meaning than in the internet world), guaranteed issuance, birthday rule, SEP, and on and on.

In all likelihood, unless you’ve ever been on Medicare, worked in a related field, or have helped an older relative navigate its rapids, you probably don’t know what many or any of those terms mean. I sure didn’t just over a month ago. Now, I’m rattling them off fluently with my co-workers.

But, at the same time, I’m now taking on more and more responsibility for explaining the things that I legally can to clients who phone in (I’m not an agent, so can’t recommend plans, or quote prices, or that kind of thing), and the calls are becoming more frequent since we just sent out a massive mailing to let everyone know that it’s time to re-evaluate their Medicare Part D, which is the insurance that covers their prescriptions. Long story short, insurance companies change their formularies, or lists of drugs that they cover, every year, and announce the changes effective January 1st on October 15th. These can make huge differences in cost, especially if a plan suddenly drops a particular drug, or another one has a price increase for a certain tier.

Thus begins the AEP, or annual enrollment period, which runs from October 15th to December 7th. Have I bored the hell out of you yet? It’s actually a lot more fascinating than it might sound, and for me it’s a good insight into the monster we’d be up against with any attempt to make Medicare for All work, especially if it maintains its weird four-part structure.

This brings me back to the language thing, though. In essence, I’m helping people understand a foreign language that I’m only just learning myself, and when I’m on the phone I can already feel my personality change. For one thing, I speak a lot more slowly than I usually do, and my entire manner slips much more into friendly but neutral customer service voice.

And yes, it’s a lot different than my phone personality when I was doing customer service for the Dog Whisperer’s website or when I’m dealing with customers who call the ComedySportz L.A. office or box office because, again, those are different worlds and different languages.

I’ve also quickly learned to become much blunter with people who aren’t clients. It’s amazing how many sales calls the office gets, especially with sales people who try to do so in the guise of already having some sort of business or client relationship with the boss, and he taught me a great question to ask: “Are you calling to buy something from him, or to sell him something that will increase his business?”

Not that this will get them through, but at least I’ll take a message instead of hang up on them.

The real trick, though, is to not get caught up in the confusion that a lot of callers have — and they’re totally right to be confused, since this is either entirely new to them if they’re just turning 65, or because every so often there’s one sudden big change (like this year) and I’m dealing with a number of people anywhere from their mid-70s to mid-90s. A lot of them at that age don’t like change, so they just try to shut it out. Plenty of them don’t mind change and don’t shut it out, of course, but I don’t seem to get those calls.

The end result of it all, though, is that I find myself in the same split-personality world I was in way back during my first office job right out of college, before I went into that almost-exclusive entertainment-related career: normal person by day, creative freak show by night. Bilingual and bipersona, to coin a phrase. The secret is being able to switch back and forth.