From Spymonkey to Actual Monkeys
I did a clowning course with Spymonkey in September and I am still absorbing the week (it was great, go and do it). My main note was to show my pleasure more, which is not surprising to me. I used to be really shy, and I still get shy in large groups sometimes. Performing standup and improv helped me to change that a lot, but it was not my habit to show emotions freely. So it was a big lesson to learn that when I started and I’m still working on it. I used to find the idea of showing emotions on stage terrifying, and it can still be intimidating but overall I’m grateful I get the chance to practice it and do something that I love. It’s really useful for characters and its fun to explore that on stage.
Showing my pleasure. That made me think about people I have seen sharing their pleasure. All the great teachers I have had, at school and later, all the best speakers and performers- they all obviously love what they are doing and love to share it. It’s a good path to follow.
What does this have to do with human evolution?
I read an article in Scientific American Mind (Vol 25, No.5) called Let’s Talk, that made me think about how performances work. It’s about the common rules of languages across the world and what they tell us about human communication.
One difference between human and animal communications is that animals rarely require a response. For example, if a chimp shouts an alarm call it doesn’t expect another chimp to reply, but a lot of our communication directly requests a response. “Hello, how are you?”. If you don’t get a response you get confused or annoyed at the other person for ignoring you.
But I think sadly a lot of communication is mixed up in real life. Not a lot of our cultural dialogue is about vulnerability and honesty so we learn to close it off. People drop hints and talk sideways then get surprised when nobody understands. Then we go to the movies or a theatre to see raw honesty played out in front of us. That’s back-to-front way of doing things.
So in my humble opinion, combining the teachings of Spymonkey and current linguistic evaluations of the true nature of human communications, I deduce that showing pleasure is a really pure form of communication. It’s saying “I am enjoying this,” and inviting the audience to come along for the ride. It’s weird and its humbling to do something that is essentially asking people to accept and trust you, as you are. It’s not always comfortable but it is always effective.
What’s your pleasure?
(I also love story-telling so check out my Epic Tales workshop this Wednesday in London. Only £5 for a taste of my secrets. Full details here.)
The first in a series of musings on comedic duos.
R2-D2 and C-3PO. I was thinking about why I prefer the original movies to the later prequels, and the difference in these two is a good example. I won’t go into a lot of detail about episodes 1-3, that has been covered in detail elsewhere, but I will pick out an incident that exemplifies why I don’t like the prequels.
There is a scene where the two robots are going through a factory and R2-D2 knocks 3PO into the works and they get knocked about. 3PO gets his head pulled off, later it falls down into the floor and he says “I’m beside myself!”. It’s funny because its true figuratively and literally. It’s also not funny because its meta and you can see the scriptwriter being clever. Personally this is the kind of meta-humour that really turns me off in improv too, its always a distancing from what is going on.
On the other hand the comedy in episodes 4-6 comes soley from their relationship and personality. They were originally planned to be bickering bureucracts, that dynamic survived their transformation into droids. R2 is headstrong and not afraid of anything, 3PO is anxious and terrified of everything. They are the perfect odd couple.
The really great thing about them is that the audience can’t understand R2, which is a pretty brave thing to do if you think about it. 3PO is the straight man, R2 is the quick-witted one who always has a cheeky comeback, and the audience rarely finds out what it is. Imagine an episode of Morecombe and Wise where you had no idea what Morecombe was saying, only Wise’s reactions would sell the humour.
It also makes me think about scenes in gibberish where one character can speak normally and translates or reacts to the other person. I know I always prefer it when an improviser reacts as if they can understand because it adds a whole new texture to a scene.
Which reminds me that the straight man role is incredibly powerful in comedy. You can make anything funny just by having a characteristic reaction to it. It makes me think about sudden reactions and how they can totally flip the meaning of the last sentence in a scene.
I think this study is great. It shows that innovative engineering breakthroughs tend to come in small steps, rather than in large leaps.
By recording conversations and analysing them they found that brainstorming sessions work on the principle of ‘Yes and’. One person proposes something, which sparks off the next step from somebody else, and it continues until they reach a completely new idea. An idea they could not have come up with on their own.
That’s group creativity and I think it’s fascinating to see proof of it in technical fields. It is something that I already believed, that ‘creative’ and ‘scientific’ fields are just overlapping parts of the same human endeavour- an enquiry into how the Universe works and what we can do with it.
A great article about improvising stories and how to connect to the audience. Concise.
Practicing improvisational comedy for a couple of years has granted me the experience of created hundreds, if not thousands, of stories alongside my friends. Along the way, I’ve stumbled upon some principles of storytelling help me to elicit strong reactions from an audience, whether it consists of a two or fifty people.
Make the audience care about your character. If the audience can’t relate on some basic gut level to your character, then everyone is going over their weekend plans in their heads instead of listening to what you have to say. Give your character a very human quality, so they feel like they know the character; ideally, they feel like they have hung out with your character for the duration of the piece. Give us the gritty; others will enjoy ticking off a checklist of virtues and vices
Include enough details to relay your experience on a visceral, nearly-tangible…
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I like museums. I just realised a particular reason this lunchtime. I’m working in the back office of a museum at the moment and I headed out to the exhibits for a break. It was immediately relaxing because I just started wandering and peering at stuff, whereas I don’t feel that freedom when I walk out from an office into the street. I was allowed to be.
If you walk around the street peering at things like the architecture and objects around you, then people assume you are a tourist. That or they follow your gaze because they assume you are looking at something unusual. Yes, I am looking at something unusual, The World. There is only one of it.
It is strange that we create specific zones where we engage with the world. I feel the same way when I watch a movie, I become more sensitive to the ambient sounds of locations like pubs and train stations. When I am actually in those locations I don’t hear 1 percent of that information. Unless I stop and listen. Then I hear it all and it passes through me like the wind rustling trees.
That’s what makes things come alive on stage as well. When I stop and consider the imaginary terrain and the events around me I am drawn into it more. It’s fun.
I like museums because they are a socially acceptable place to walk around peering at stuff. I like improv because it’s a socially acceptable place to walk around being affected by stuff.
I have a vivid memory of one of my very earliest improv workshops. It was a seven-day intensive class taught by Dylan Emery, culminating in a performance of an extemporised musical. I look back on those days with great affection. Due to the fact that I had no idea what improvisation was, I made mistakes with greater confidence than I ever have since. It was the steepest learning curve I have experienced in my life.
During one session, Dylan had noticed a tendency (which, after all these years, I have yet to overcome 100 per cent) of rehearsing my words in my head before allowing them out through the front of my face, so he side-coached the scene by yelling out ‘New choice!’ after everything I said. Everything. The great thing about this was that I was unaware that ‘New Choice!’ was a well-worn shortform game and exercise designed to take you to an uncensored and unprepared state of mind. But in my ignorance, I simply assumed that everything I was saying was wrong, and that he was discounting every line I came up with in an attempt to steer me towards the perfect line. The memory of myself sweating and struggling, thinking to myself, ‘What on earth does he want me to say?’ makes me smile now. But eventually I reached the end of the list of things my brain could think up in advance, and Dylan was able to coax something genuinely spontaneous from me, perhaps for the first time in my life.
I was thinking back to that episode the other day after running a rehearsal with Luke. It’d been a while since I’d run a rehearsal, so beforehand I sat down and prepared ten different exercises to help us approach our chosen topic, which happened to be ‘creating strong initiations’. I wanted to make sure we had plenty to do, and that we wouldn’t get bored. At the rehearsal, we blasted through these exercises, and each one gave us a little glimpse into a particular technique, a way of thinking about how to create strong initiations.
But afterwards, I couldn’t help but think that we’d have achieved more if I’d just picked one or two exercises and we’d drilled them continuously for two hours. For me, exercises like ‘New Choice’ and ‘Endless Box’ only seem to work if they go on longer than I want them to. In fact, I often find that it is necessary to get bored of an exercise – to go through and past that moment when I’m starting to wonder what the purpose of it is – in order to reach the point where the rational part of me has entirely given up, and I’m learning with my instinct.
So while it’s fun to come up with lots of different exercises – which might be useful if I were introducing a new group to a range of things for them to go away and practice – I’m learning the value of taking a single idea and pushing it just a bit further than my comfort zone allows. Everything was like that when I was first starting out, and it was amazing.
I read a great blog on the Harvard Business Review Site, all about how to hear useful feedback from criticism.
Everyone finds it difficult to listen to feedback, because emotional triggers overwhelm the process of listening. That is obviously true and I notice that in myself and others all the time.
This is important because if you want to get better at performing you need to get feedback from somewhere. In my experience, clear and specific feedback is very difficult to come by, especially in comedy or improv. Even really perceptive teachers might only see you for one workshop, so it’s hard to get the kind of long-term coaching that can point out common habits of yours. Which is why I found changing my attitude to feedback fundamental to learning more. I’m the only person that can invest in my long-term growth as an improviser and performer. I can’t make other people get better at giving feedback, but I can get better at hearing feedback.
Here are the pointers that I recognise most in myself.
Truth- I find this comes from audiences or improvisers who have different tastes. Especially when people are new to improv or have only seen one side of it. It’s tempting to discard an audience member’s opinion because he or she hasn’t done the same training, but I need audiences to be a performer.
Relationships- This is true, also connected to audience members again. I think when I started I immersed myself in improv so tended to listen to other improvisers or teachers more, whatever they said. It took a while to learn how to filter advice from people I look up to. They are human too.
Identity- For me, as far as improv, this was the largest trigger. I used to be intimidated by physical work beyond all reason, so getting feedback on that froze me up and brought up a lot of self-doubt. Now I choose to work on my weakness I find it less scary. I want to get better, so it makes sense to get the most feedback there. Otherwise it’s like polishing the toes of your shoes and letting the rest fall apart.
There are a couple of the steps which I want to expand on, because you can use them on yourself. We give ourselves feedback all the time.
1. Tendencies- This is a big one. We all pick up habits that help us, then carry on doing them even when they start getting in the way. I used to argue a lot, I loved engaging in debates about political or philosophical points. I got bored but I kept some of that habit around when taking feedback. It’s tempting to prove somebody wrong if they say something that doesn’t appear right at first, but I get more out of listening to their point of view instead of repeating myself. Telling somebody they are wrong will never make me a better improviser. Considering a different point of view might make me a better improviser. It’s just being practical.
3. Sort Towards Coaching. This is one of the most important things, for life. There is a difference between evaluation and coaching.
Evaluation just tells you somebody else’s opinion. Coaching tells you something you can do, an action that you can take.
When I started performing I heard everything as evaluation. That’s a dead end. That just tells you where you are, it doesn’t tell you how to get anywhere.
I was in a clowning class and we did a simple movement and the teacher noted I took the least amount of risk doing it. Back then I just took it as personal trait. When I learned how to translate that into action it blew my mind. The action is taking more risks. If I feel stuck in an exercise, I purposefully take a risk and find something new. Because it isn’t a habit of mine, I am guaranteed to find something new by pushing it. It’s so obvious and yet so genius.
Decent teachers translate that for you, I remember that Mark Beltzmann told me to take more risks. Not everybody understands the impact difference between “You don’t take many risks” and “Take more risks”, which is why as a performer you need to learn how to do that.
I think all the tips in the article are great, but for coaching yourself learning how to understand your reactions and listen to them is most important.
You might find it useful to note how you react to difficult shows or exercises, then see if you can sort that into coaching. Instead of defining yourself by where you are, look to where you want to be, and come up with actions to get there. If you don’t like singing, maybe you want to sign up to a singing class so you can practice it without having to improvise at the same time. Maybe you just don’t like singing. It’s the same with physical work or any other part of improv, there are always places you can go to isolate and practice a single skill.
If you tell yourself you are rubbish at a certain improv game, that could mean that you want to understand it better and need to practice it more, or it could mean that you just don’t like that game. Neither one is better or worse, they are just facts. Taking the time to treat your inner signals with respect and understand them leads to increased awareness and confidence.