I signed up for Introduction to Comedy Writing at The Second City, but the class has been pushed back two weeks. So I'll further indulge myself with theory.
One of the precepts of improvisational theater is that nobody is to ask questions. Players who ask others for the identity of the characters, the setting, what they are doing, or why, are trying to relieve themselves of their responsibility to advance the scene. They are asking the others to build the scene without them.
Taken to an extreme, a scene might open with
Simplicio Who the hell are you?
Salviati You don't know who I am?
Simplicio No more than you know me.
Salviati All right, who are you?
Simplicio That should go without saying.
This opening fails the three-lines rule (see below). After five lines, the audience knows that the characters are peevish, arguing, in no place in particular (though the audience may wish it were Hell); they cannot guess why there is an argument, except that pointless argument is a sign of peevishness.
I don't think literally every interrogative sentence hampers the scene. I can imagine a scene that opens with one character hugging the other and saying
Sagredo You know I love you?
Portia You're my brother, you have to love me.
This opening implies a lot about the characters and their inner lives: Sagredo may be a little insecure, or may be comforting Portia. Portia's response suggests he has reasons to be insecure; and they are brother and sister. The opening line is a question in form, but together with the hug, it conveys information and advances the scene. The question is a declaration in disguise.
The setting of the scene, if made clear by business* or posture, can also turn questions into actions. The Simplicio/Salviati lines above would advance the scene a lot, if it were clear the scene opened with the characters in bed.
* Business is a stage term meaning "unspoken action by one or more players." The word may appear as a direction in scripts to indicate visual gags too elaborate to describe — as scripts for Harpo Marx often did.
|@ May 11, 2006 12:33:47 PM CDT ( )|
Tell me — what's this:
It's a circle, right? Well, no, it isn't: It's a crescent of varying shades of gray. But your brain and eyes don't work like that. They were designed to see things, not marks. Artists spend years learning to decompose what they see into constituent shapes and shades so you can look at paint and see a picture.
In my peripheral vision I see a bookshelf and the books in it. Except I don't. The acuity with which I think I see the world is available only in a few degrees of arc in the middle of my field of vision. Because I know the bookshelf is there, and because I know what a bookshelf looks like, my visual cortex fills in the details. I can directly gather only a little of my surroundings at a time. My brain fills in the rest so the world makes sense.
Improvisers have three lines, at the top of a scene, to establish who they are; where; and what they are doing. From those three lines, the audience must understand — see — that the characters share an extensive context, and that this is the next moment in that context. This is impossible.
Further: Before, or even after, the first of those lines, the players usually have no idea who or where they are, or what they are doing. When an actor utters the first line, the other actors have not agreed on an answer to those questions. He himself may offer that first line without any notion of what scene will come of it. Two lines later, the setting, the characters, and their immediate business are to be set in the minds of every player in the scene. This is impossible.
And yet, it seems, it happens all the time (or at least half the time). The players toss out opening lines in near-desperation, and the audience really does see unique people who share a history. The audience sees this for the same reason they can look at a gray crescent and see a circle: It's not so much that they want the events on-stage to make sense; they can't help making sense of what they are seeing.
The hardest thing for a new improviser to believe is that saying anything, promptly and with conviction, is better than waiting to craft a "good" line.
Prospero I hate fish.
Bang. First line. Do you know where this is going? I didn't when I wrote it.
Salviati Hate him all you want, but Fish is a good cop, and I'm not taking him off this case.
Salviati Mr. Johnson, you hired me to organize a five-course dinner. Fish is the traditional first course.
Salviati So do I. We must destroy them all.
Bang. The players are detective and lieutenant (or are they mayor and lieutenant?); if they are smart, they'll start talking about each other, or doing something in the office they've conjured up, to bring the focus back on-stage, and away from the absent Detective Fish. Or, the players are a social climber and the snob he hired to present a high-class entertainment; their relationship of master to servant is of opposite status from their relationship of novice to expert, and experienced players will make something of each character's efforts to uncross the relationship in his own favor. Or, the players are mad scientists of some sort; Prospero's job on the third line will be to establish whether he is colleague, master, or servant, and at least suggest where they are. They both have to work out why, by their own lights, they aren't crazy, because crazy characters might do anything, and the point of the exercise is to have actions come from character, not mental deficiency.
To come back full circle: Improv players come naked, into a naked set. One offers a line — any line — and the other tries to make sense of it. Usually this succeeds, because brains are sense-making machines. The audience has sense-making machines of their own, and because they do they are naturally on the players' side. So long as the players give the audience enough support, keeping a consistent who, what, and where, the scene will make sense. The audience will, by necessity, fill out the remaining arc of the circle.
|@ May 7, 2006 5:50:54 PM CDT ( )|
Yes, writing at The Second City. The Second City Training Center is in the comedy-instruction business, and writing sketches, screenplays, and TV scripts is part of the comedy business. There's a market, and a reservoir of expertise, so they teach it.
Second, the resident (mainstage and e.t.c) and touring shows at The Second City are at least 80% scripted, formally or informally. Pure improv fails about half the time. If you're good. If you're an improv aficionado, even the failures are interesting, but most of the audience wants to see a show that is reliably funny. It is no small achievement to be reliably funny; it is in fact a good and honorable thing. The Second City process for developing revues uses improvisational skills to develop scenes that will make up a good show.
In some few cases, a scene will start as a script; trial and rehearsal will change it considerably. In most, a scene will be born in improv before a live audience (or in rehearsal), and go through the same process of refinement (possibly beyond recognition). The goal is to preserve the authenticity of sentiment and character that come of good, pure improv, but shave out the irregularities and dead spots, and enhance the scene's relation to the theme of the revue.
So writing, even if by a group process, goes on all the time in the preparation for sketch comedy shows like the Second City mainstage. That's not a bad thing, and is worth learning.
|@ May 5, 2006 2:57:13 PM CDT ( )|
It is good to have goals. Goals give you something to work for, and a sense that what you're doing accomplishes something. What is my plan for my return to The Scene?
- My principal, and ultimate, goal is to step up to Rachel Dratch and make that woman mine. I've been crushing on her since 1995, and I think this entitles me to priority. Only debilitating shyness kept me from making my Move in the late '90s. Of course, this goal is not entirely within my control, but on the upside it does not strictly depend on any of the rest of my plan.
- Next (and as a practical matter, probably ultimate), I want to take The Second City Training Center's Directing Program. Anne's book leads me to believe I might be better as a director than as an improviser. My handicap at improvising was always that I stopped to analyze and mentally write what I was saying, producing noticeable gaps and crummy scenes. These traits should not hamper a director, whose job is mostly asynchronous. Also, the great Mick Napier is said (by Anne) to be into Physics and computer programming. I majored in Physics, and program Macintoshes for a living. QED.
- The problem is that the Directing Program's class size is very small, and the students are described as "select." I've been out of The Scene for over six years, and there are significant gaps in my training. I am probably not "select." So I have to build my credentials, and rebuild my skills.
- Naïvely, this would suggest I dive back into improvisational acting classes and keep an eye peeled for opportunities to perform. However, there is a complication: I'm fat. Really, really fat. Fat enough that I'm considering, and am a candidate for, bariatric surgery. That I'm fifty already limits my play with other actors (who seem to average 22); being slow and awkward makes it that much worse. Improv is a contact sport: I'd expect a player to be able to dive to the stage and stand back up, without injury or noticeable strain, within three to five seconds. I'm not gonna make it as I am.
- So. How to fill the time I'll be losing weight (one way or another) while renewing and advancing my skills? Fortunately, there is an interim solution: The Second City Writing Program. (The Directing Program description says the trainees will undertake improv and writing classes, but remember I'm trying to become "select.") There are two choices, at the start: Accelerated Writing, eight weeks for experienced writers and Conservatory graduates; and the Core Writing Program, four terms of eight weeks each, for everybody else. Strictly speaking, I qualify for the accelerated course, but I'm inclined to the longer one. Remember I'm stale, and in need of the extra time.
- With my weight (I hope) significantly reduced, I can contemplate improv courses. In principle, I might simply retake the Second City Conservatory program, but it would be a repetition. I think I'd get more out of it a second time, but there'd be too much temptation to act as though I had nothing to learn. Besides, I am weak on long-form improvisation. The place for that is what used to be called the ImprovOlympic, and is now known as the i.O. Theater. That will take a little over a year.
It is interesting to guess how long it will be before this plan becomes a complete goddamn embarrassment. I'm guessing the over/under is twelve months.
|@ May 5, 2006 1:27:06 PM CDT ( )|
So I'm thinking of getting back into improvisational theater. If you've read my résumé — as who has not — you know that between 1996 and 1999, I took the beginning and Conservatory courses at The Second City. I also took two classes at Mick Napier's Annoyance Theater, but stresses in my real life made me spit sparks, emit smoke, and generally collapse there. I've been out of The Scene (but for an abortive audition at The Playground) since then.
Why go back? In the rest of my life, I was at my best when I was in The Scene. I don't mean I was so awfully good at improvising (though I was high-average as a Conservatory student), but my interactions with work and others were unusually good. Second, I've just read Anne Libera's Second City Almanac of Improvisation, a fine book that recaptured the feel of the improv world for me. So it's back to The Scene for me. The question is: how?
|@ May 5, 2006 12:15:14 PM CDT ( )|