Improv C I

After watching Qian’s Level C public improv performance on Sunday, I was doubly inspired and looked forward to my first level C class. Happily, everyone from my Level B class stayed on, and one more guy joined the class. We had a new instructor, Jason, and from the get go, we liked him already – he was loud, clear, and offered constructive criticisms, lots of it.

After a quick warm up game, we dived straight into object work, one of my weakest areas to date. Jason had us go onto the stage, one by one, and pick up three different objects in the kitchen, at least one of which has to be an object that was initiated by somebody else who had already gone up. Kathy started off the scene at the sink, where she washed her hands with soap and dried off with a towel. Colette then came on, and she initiated opening a fridge, plucking out a fruit and washing it at the sink before eating it. When Alex came on, he initiated walking to a trash can in the corner of the kitchen where he stepped on the pedal to open the can, and reached in to grab some kind of food and proceeded to munch into it. I went into the kitchen, opened the freezer, got out the tray of ice cubes, shook some loose, and dropped a couple cubes into the glass I next obtained from the cabinet to the upper right of the sink. Then filled the glass with water before walking out of the kitchen. Santi got a banana out of the fridge, peeled it, threw the peels away, and broke bits of the banana into a blender to make a shake. Lauren picked up a kitchen phone that was hung on the wall, and stretched the cord to the limit when she walked to the fridge to get something. Rob went into the kitchen, got a broom and a tiny little duster out of the broom closet that was next to the fridge, and started sweeping. George, the last to enter the kitchen, tied up the trash and took it out with him.

It was a good exercise. We focused on the object we were holding and learnt to slow down our gestures significantly, deliberately pausing before each change of motion to give it weight. It’s incredible how unconscious I am of my surroundings, of my actions. After I got home from class, I tried mimicking opening the fridge door, playing with the TV remote, taking off my clothes to shower, and I found that I could only accurately mime 50% of the actions I take for granted everyday.

We played Freeze Tag next, and I jumped out into a scene that found me kneeling on the ground, begging Colette for forgiveness while she prepared to whip me. Rob then tagged her out, and he became the golfer who was annoyed that I was in his way because I was begging him for change so that my son could board the bus for his first day of school. It’s still hard to jump in into the middle of a scene, especially since I’m always trying too hard to come up with an idea before I start, instead of trying to go with the flow. Or, in Jason’s words, letting our bodies lean forward until our feet naturally steps out to catch our fall. We found out that we had some bad habits of asking questions – Jason diligently stopped that and made us rephrase our questions until they became statements. Though we’ve played plenty of question games before in the past to drive home the point, it was infinitely more effective having him constantly interrupt the scene so we could strengthen the conversation. E.g. A: “What are you going to do about the spilt beer? Are you going to clean this up?” Jason, interrupting: “Answer your own question!” A: “You are going to clean up this spilt beer!” Our scenes were definitely a lot stronger after we reworked our lines, and our partners found it easier and more natural to respond, without having to rack their brains to come up with some clever retort.

In the next series of games, we practiced giving and taking focus from one another by going on stage in groups of three/four to act out a scene randomly suggested by the audience. For the first game, the catch was that we were given a water bottle to hold onto, and we could only talk when we possessed the bottle. That turned out pretty funny especially in the one scene where Vanessa, Colette and Maddy pretended to be brides-to-be fighting over bridal gowns at Filene’s Basement annual sale. Half the time, we couldn’t figure out whether they were reaching out to grab the water bottle to speak or a dress from someone’s hands.

We tossed the water bottle away the next game, but this time, we could only speak when we kept and maintained eye contact with another person in our group. Lauren, Colette and I were the first group on stage, and we had a tough time remembering to maintain eye contact with the person we were speaking to while we concentrated on changing tires/filling up gas in a pit stop. Consequently, the scene ended up being funny not because of our witty lines, but more because of our constant fumbling and repeating our lines to keep the eye contact. The acts improved progressively though, as each group went up. Maddy, Rob and Santi’s scene was hilarious. Their scene was inspired by Robinson Crusoe’s Treasure Island, and Santi was the resident Friday whom the other two ordered around to catch fish, and build a fire.

We took the focus level up a notch in the third game. This time, we could only talk when we had physical contact with someone. Jason allowed the first couple of groups to place their hands on one another’s shoulders and arms; afterwards, people had to initiate contact with another area of the body e.g. the stomach, legs, ass. My group, the last to go up, had to make contact without using our hands. Our scene was set in a Dickens novel, so I started the scene playing a beggar who grabbed Kathy’s legs, asking for change. Then Dan and Santi pretended to be long-lost family, reunited on the grimy streets of England, so they began hugging. Not knowing how else to interact, Kathy and I joined in the hugging, and soon we were all four people in one giant mess, all legs and arms and happiness at the great family reunion.

The next game was one of the harder games we played. Sitting in four chairs on stage, we had to pick a blank spot in front of us and stare straight ahead, and someone would start the game going by describing an audience-suggested scene. We had to pretend that we were watching the scene unfold from behind a glass wall, and therefore had no way of knowing who the characters in the scene were, their relationships to one another, and their reasons for their actions. We just had to describe the scene as it played out. What made that game hard is that we’ve all fallen into the trap of unconsciously labeling people, judging them, and assuming we know their rationale for their thoughts and actions. And partly as a consequence of that, we’ve neglected to drink in the minute details, forgotten how to fully describe a scene without the liberal use of adjectives, metaphors and similes. My group had to describe a scene in a playground, where a little boy sat playing with a ball. Jason made us go into the intricate details. Don’t just say playing. How is he playing? Don’t assume we know what playing means. The little boy is tossing the ball against the wooden frame of the sandbox he is sitting in. Describe the wooden frame. It has a rusty nail in one corner. The boy tosses the ball against the nail, and the ball explodes. How does it explode? Bits and pieces of the ball disintegrate in an instant, flying into the boy’s face. He is hurt. How is he hurt? He is bleeding. How? He is bleeding like he – no, don’t say like. Describe exactly: how is he bleeding? His face is scrapped, trickles of blood are coursing down his cheek. Slowly, he lifts a hand to his face. A pause, and then he bursts out crying. How is he crying? His eyes are squeezed shut, his mouth is wide open, and tears course down his cheeks. His mother comes running up to him. How do you know she’s his mother? A woman runs up to him. She picks him up, hugs him to her chest, and gently caresses him.

Did you know that when someone is talking to you and he looks at a spot towards the upper left corner of his eye, he’s telling a lie? But when he is looking at a spot towards the upper right corner of his eye, he’s actually recounting facts? That’s why Jason had us stare straight ahead, not left, not right. Interesting tid bit. George, who used to work in HR consulting, affirmed that it’s a pretty useful tool of the trade to determine of interview candidates were lying about their resume. Hmm. Good to know eh?

Before we knew it, class was almost up. Almost reluctantly, we formed a line at the back of the stage to play the last games: World’s Worst and History. For World’s Worst, Jason would toss out random suggestions of occupations and we each had to step out, say a line/mime an action that would suggest we were indeed the most ill-suited for that occupation. One suggestion was mortician. We’ve played the game before in Level A, with World’s Worst one-liners, sailors etc. Pretty short and fun.

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