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.)
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.
I am teaching a workshop on the 28th November, 7pm to 9.30pm as a brief taster of my approach to story. It is only 12 of your earth pounds, 10 if you pay in advance. Only 12 spots.
Who is it for?
Improvisers with any amount of experience who want an introduction into how I approach story. This workshop is for people who love telling stories and want to practice that, or people who haven’t found a fun way to do that yet. I think narrative is about enthusiasm and invention, it never has to be about mechanical plot progression.
What will you do?
- Practice telling stories with feedback so you learn more about your story style
- Learn what to pay attention to in stories; emotion/motivation, action, and details
- Experiment with story elements in scenes
What will you walk away with?
- More confidence in understanding/telling stories
- The perspective to take apart stories in your own time and see what makes them tick
About Luke Beahan
I fukken love stories.
This bit is a good taster for my approach because the About Me section is never about me, it’s about you. I read this section when I check out a workshop for many different reasons. Sometimes I have never heard of the person and want to know if they are related to any big name institute that increases my confidence. Sometimes I am on the fence and I want to get an idea of their personality and if I would like them. Sometimes I’m reading the bio of somebody I know wondering what angle they are using to present themself.
So you are reading this for what? Security, reassurance, some kind of clarification, a phrase that resonates and persuades you, idle nosiness. A multitude of motivations mix around in us all the time and if you identify what you are looking for it makes decisions a lot simpler. So too in improv and storytelling, if you identify what is moving you early on it makes what you are doing more focussed and fun.
Real Details: I have been performing and teaching improv for 5 years now, I have studied at iO Chicago’s intensive as well as hoovering up all random workshops that come to London. I will lead you through some exercises, encourage you to reflect and identify what you want to do and then give you tips about how to do that. I will be enthustiastic. I love telling stories and playing them out through improv and think it is a learnable discipline.
Time: 7.00pm to 9.30pm
Price: £12 on the day or £10 if you pay in advance.
Location: Marylebone Gardens, 35 Marylebone High St, W1U 4QA
To Book: Contact me on lukeDOTbeahanATgmailDOTcom or 079 7221 2883
After a quiet summer, I was in need of a pick-me-up. I get very grumpy and introspective when I don’t get the opportunity to do improv. My improv drought recently ended with a flood: a five-day intensive longform improv class, taught by Charna Halpern.
Along with Del Close, Charna founded the iO Theater in Chicago, developed The Harold as a longform structure, and wrote the book Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation. She has had such a wide influence on the artform as it is practised worldwide that there was always a danger of her reputation getting in the way of the work. In my experience, when improv teachers are held up as “gurus”, people approach them less as facilitators, and more as physicians or priests, offering either health or salvation through their access to privileged wisdom.
Charna didn’t give many personal notes. She certainly never said “Don’t do this” or “Don’t do that”. She sometimes said “I loved it when you did so-and-so” and “You’re good at such-and-such”, but only when it benefited the whole group practising a specific form. She spoke about the things that helped each performance, rather than what might help each of us in turn. Steve Roe has written a great list of some of these tips.
For me, the week was all about operating as a group rather than as an individual. It’s rare for me to get up on stage in a team of more than five people. I was initially wary about being taught in a group of nineteen – I guessed that the class would involve a lot of sitting down watching two-person scenes – but the larger group gave me a different and useful perspective to the work. “Everybody up on stage!” became the signal for some of the best stuff of the week.
The focus away from myself turned out to be the most refreshing thing about the course. I didn’t come away with tips on how to make myself a shinier and more attractive improviser. It was all about how groups can make shinier and more attractive performances.
When I performing with a larger group, there will be moments when I am following and other times when I am initiating. (There are also those sublime organic instants, when the two modes are indistinguishable from each other. They’re still my favourite.) But I still have a tendency to attach some egotistical weight to my own initiations. When I step to the front of the stage, I change my focus. On a semi-conscious level I shift from thinking: “I’m supporting the others,” to “Now the others are supporting me.”
With Charna, I had the opportunity to practise with my body and voice what I already knew in my head: that an improviser should be equally supportive whether they are following or initiating, whether they are in a spotlight at the front of the stage singing a song or at the back miming being a wardrobe. I’m massively grateful to her, and to my classmates, who were a magnificent team: Alex, Chris, Hettie, Jacob, Jason, Jules, Julia, Katie, Maria, Maria, Mario, Murray, Nicola, Pippa, Sarah, Steve, Tony and Veronika.
This autumn I will be starting one or two new improv projects. I will be busy, which is good.
Knowing what you want is fundamental to approaching anything in life. I say this because sometimes I’ve tried really hard to learn a new skill or attitude and it hasn’t really worked, and that can be very frustrating. What I have identified is that knowing what I am trying to get out of an experience helps me to learn a lot more.
I think I have a useful story to share, and what that means about learning.
I used to be (literally) paralyzingly shy, to the degree where I would freeze like a deer in the headlights in unusual social situations, be unable to talk to women or loud extroverts, and just generally be seconds away from clamming up and spending a night out in silence.
When I started doing standup I found that gave me a bit more confidence, but I still felt really out of place in conversations. I had also been doing public speaking with Toastmasters and performing improv so I gained loads of confidence being in front of people, but still I found large groups of people overwhelming.
To address this fear I worked for a ticket office in the west-end for a week, approaching people on their night out and persuading them to buy cheap tickets to certain night clubs. It was horrible. I thought that because it was the most intimidating thing I could think of doing that it would help me get out of my comfort zone and get me more confidence, but it didn’t at all. I just got more and more dispirited as the night went on, usually till 2 or 3 in the morning, till it got to a point where I could hardly go up to people. Then I got a night bus home. Still, I did it for a week just to make sure I was rubbish.
I didn’t get better at selling tickets and it really didn’t affect my social confidence. This is because I didn’t know what I wanted. I knew that I didn’t want to sell tickets to a nightclub. Looking back, what I really wanted was the ability to relax and be myself in any social situation. Having a goal to sell tickets does not support that. Having an agenda in the back of my head was what caused me to be nervous in the first place, thinking things like: “How can I get them to like me and know that I am cool, what can I say to show that I am an interesting person?”
What did help me feel more confident in social settings was learning how to listen and learning how to speak up for myself, because those two things are tied into being relaxed and being myself. I also realised that confidence is not an attainable thing, like a fluid that you pour into yourself, it’s the outside appearance of an inner state. It wasn’t outside me, it was inside me and I just needed to connect to it.
In comparison, standup really helped me was because I was doing something I wanted to be doing, I don’t think it was getting up in front of people so much. I was doing something I had always wanted to do as a kid, and I was learning and audiences were laughing. Doing it in front of people definitely helped because it’s always more difficult to learn with people watching you.
Similarly with improv when I realised what I wanted I got a lot more from it. For 2 or 3 years it was very frustrating and I felt very lost, but when I sat down and thought about what I wanted from it, I realised all I wanted was to get better at it. And even beneath that I wanted to understand what getting better meant in terms of improvising. There is a lot of contradictory advice in improv, just like everything else in life, what some people say is interesting others say is boring. I didn’t know what to listen to.
But when I realised I just wanted to understand my whole attitude changed. I knew it would take years and that gave me more patience for myself. I didn’t have to prove anything in workshops or shows, I could just experiment and see what I learned. Also boiling that experimentation down to what I want has been useful. I want to develop my own creative voice.
Developing my own voice means I can do a show or workshop, take away what resonated for me and then go and work on that. Learning means changing. It means recognising what I avoid and then chasing after that in a show.
So a couple of tips to identify what you want:
1:Ask yourself “Why am I doing this? What do I want?” -be specific & personal.
2:Ask yourself “What do I need to do, in order to get what I want ?” -turn it into action(s).
Identify what you want, in specific and personal terms. If you want to do long-form, ask yourself: Why? Because you want to tell stories, because you want to work in an ensemble of like-minded people, because you love the discovery of narrative? Because you think it’s harder and want to challenge yourself?
Then investigate that urge. If you want to tell stories, find the urges underneath that. Because you want to move an audience emotionally, because you love sharing stories with others? If you want to challenge yourself, what does that mean? Does it mean playing faster, playing more slowly, being more physical, learning how to be more verbally witty?
What is the internal state or skillset that you really want? For me getting better at improv means being able to play with anybody. I want to be exposed to different ways of improvising. Getting better also means being well-rounded, I want to stay competent at longform and shortform, and I want to feel comfortable playing slow intimate 2-person scenes and madcap farcical set-pieces that involve the entire cast.
Defining this is an ongoing process. You won’t have all the answers straight up, and you don’t need to worry if you don’t. Wanting to know what you want is actually one of the most powerful and useful questions you can ever ask yourself. You are giving yourself the respect and time to consider what really matters to you.
What are specific things you can do that will train those skills? For specific skills there are always workshops, improv or otherwise. Read poetry out loud and feel how the words work if you want to become more lyrical. If you don’t know what will help you then finding that workshop or book can be the action. Keep looking.
You can also choose to do things in shows to train those specific skills. I know that I tend to stay away from high-energy or loud characters, so if I feel slow in a show I run into the next scene and go over-the-top. I accept invitations to play in different groups so I am always getting a different style of improv.
When I realised I was more comfortable talking than moving around on stage I started doing physical workshops. Just the practice of productively working on what scares you makes you feel more confident, never mind the result. Plus I have found that learning sticks a bit more precisely because it is imposing at first. I’m sure I’ve picked up verbal tips that I just stored away casually because saying things doesn’t scare me, but I remember vividly all of my hard fought lessons in physicality and emotion.
I don’t care how many tickets I sold (or didn’t sell) over that week in the west-end. I do care about all the personal goals I cracked in shows and rehearsals, and it just makes me hungry for more. Every unsold ticket then was just frustrating and discouraging, every missed beat in a show now is an opportunity to learn and a self-revelation. Because I know what I want. I want to get better at improv by doing it for as long as it takes.
I think if you take time to identify and articulate your motives then you can take action that will support your most honest desires. That sounds pretty cool.
I was in Brighton the other weekend visiting my brother and his family. Following a deliberately catastrophic night out drinking, we spent some relaxing time on the Saturday morning with their youngest daughter, my niece, Orla, who is a little over one year old.
Orla is currently learning to walk. At the time of writing she can manage about five steps at a time. Not bad, eh? We played an endlessly joyful game in which she would be helped to a standing position a few feet away from her dad. She would then totter towards him, collapse, then he would pick her up, plonk her in his lap and she’d slide down his legs. She’d then scamper away on all fours. Every stage in this process would be encouraged by the grown-ups: “Woooh!” Yeeah!” “Aaaah!” She never got bored. You’ve seldom seen a happier baby.
How amazing to learn something new by being supported by people who help you find the joy in what you do. I found myself envying Orla.
We joked about what it would be like if Orla were learning the way grown ups learn. “Her technique’s all over the place.” “She’s got a long way to go before she can seriously expect to impress anyone with her walking skills.” “Her progress shows what great teachers we are.” “She needs to show more commitment.” “She needs to aspire to be one of the great walkers.”
When we turn into “adults”, we are expected to have the basics covered – walking, talking, feeding ourselves, going to the toilet unassisted. After that, learning new things becomes a serious business, a chore, work. We are supposed to be motivated not by the joy of the thing itself but by the utility of the task, the desire to compete, to impress others, to gain acceptance or to chase a distant objective.
Not every lesson can be a carefree romp with people telling you how great you are all the time – obviously the rewards from analysing technique and putting legwork into improvement towards specific self-generated goals are often greater than can be got from pure unguided playfulness – but I think it is important never to lose sight of how all learning begins: the pleasure of the thing itself. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that. Unless we can find joy in a task irrespective of success or failure at it, why do it?
I think this is especially true of learning improv – for two reasons. Firstly, by definition everything we do we are doing for the first time, so failure must remain a joyful possibility. An improviser who relies too heavily on their tried-and-tested skills isn’t improvising as much as they could be, and risk-free improv is a contradiction in terms. Secondly, I believe that basic improv skills are as fundamental to human development as those a baby learns: breathing, controlling our bodies, being present and attentive, empathetic and supportive, playing creatively, following ideas, communicating emotions and saying yes. Modern society drills these skills out of us as we get older, and adult teaching methods are insufficient to drill them back into us.
How to Learn