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Guest Blogger: Improvisers are Great Humans

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In writing this segment of Yes, And! I found I was a bit perplexed. There were so many great things about Improvisation, how could I pick only one as my next topic? I thought about all the time spent in the Playgrounds and Workshops and realized that, as always, I had too much to say.  After all, how do you sum up an entire month of Tuesday Playgrounds, working on what’s called a Henry, in just one sentence? So imagine this: I’m one character, playing with two different people, each playing one character, all of us playing our same character in two different scenes.  Challenging, right? Speaking for myself, only at first, but once I got the hang of it, they were fun, flowed well, and led to their own conclusions.  But that hasn't been all we've learned! While we have worked on different material every time and characters and characteristics develop every time, the people with whom we play don’t change. The names and faces may change week to week, but the underlying sincerity of those people has not.  Maybe it’s the fact that everyone tries so hard to get along with everyone else. We need to be nice, polite and sincere for this whole Improvisation thing to work. In other words we need to work and play well with others. In fact, even from my novice perspe
ctive I can see that the longer and more often we play together, the better our scenes become. One word you hear a lot of is mindset. When everyone is on the same page mentally scenes can just flow. It’s communication at its silent finest. But how did they, you or I get to be such great improvisers? I went searching for the answer and I found the answers by research and within myself as I determined that a great improviser exhibits the same traits as great human being. Since I know how I like my humans (crunchy and with ketchup).

 

Positive Traits of Great Improvisers and Great Humans
  • Whether improviser or human, I think the best thing is to listen to others.  The importance of this was personally felt by me, when the green football hit me in the head while somebody yelled lasagna, because I stopped paying attention during warm up games.
  • A great improviser and human, Yes Ands!, on stage and in life no matter what your partner (me) asks. In a recent Playground, I was doing a scene and asked my partner if he wanted to rain dance. He went with it and it turned into a really enjoyable scene involving Greek Mythology (and giggles!).
  • I believe as great improvisers and humans we all need to work together. I can’t think of one particular example, but more like 1000.  We are all grown-ups, most of us, but if you’re old enough to be in here, you’re old enough to follow the rules. We are all expected to play well together and take turns, just like in kindergarten.
  • I believe a great improviser/human radiates good energy. We’re not having kumbaya circles, but no one has yet to make me cry.  As a matter of fact, I have yet to not be laughing and in a great mood at the end of the night.
  • A great improviser and human should be silly. Perhaps I picked this up from being a stay-at-home mom and playing with kids as they've grown up, but I've always loved silly. And as long as I live I will never forget watching a show of Yadda Yadda Yadda that involved day-old birthday cake being eaten off the floor by party guests who had over stayed their welcome. It was actually at this moment that I realized I can do this! It wasn't the day-old birthday cake.  It was the presentation and collaboration of the improvisers that brought back memories from my own younger years. And they were funny.
  • Great improvisers and humans make their partners look good. Whether on stage or in life, it is our job to make our partner shine and prove to the world that we’re in this together. For in the end, that may be all we have.

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Lisa Wildman lives with her husband, two teenage girls, two dogs and a cat in the foothills of Placer County. Lisa enjoys Taekwondo, reading, time with her family, staying active, and most recently improv. Keep up with her adventures in her personal blog.

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A Wildwoman's Journey to Funny: Guest Blogger Lisa Wildman

Please welcome improv student and guest blogger Lisa Wildman and her chronicles of YES AND! Lisa will be contributing on a monthly basis to our blog.

It was Date Night again, and we were fresh out of ideas.  Then my husband found us tickets to a little place in Roseville called Blacktop Comedy. I didn’t know what to expect. One thing I wasn't expecting was to fall in love with improv. I had seen "Whose Line Is It Anyway?", but the show was incomparable. I must admit, it took a few shows to build my confidence, but it was right around show three that I knew I wanted to do what the players onstage did! They were providing and having so much fun.  After nearly a decade of martial arts competition being on stage was not new. I always knew I could laugh at myself, some of my early martial art years were quite the demonstration of that fact.  My girls, however, were my biggest confidence booster. It was like a routine. I would say something and if it was funny I would get the double teenage-girl eye roll.  Some days those eyes rolled so high I thought I must be hysterical.   Approval only a mother could love.  I have now completed Level 1 and 2 Improv, attend the Playgrounds on a regular basis, and am waiting for Level 3.  While I may still only earn a cackle here or a chuckle there, the most important thing is the amazing techniques I’ve learned. I’ve learned to cooperate, listen to others, say “yes”, and a myriad of other skills.  In essence it feels somewhat like the journey toward my black belt. You start with the skills of an infant, but with steady practice and perseverance, I'm going to be unstoppable.

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"We'll Take it From Here"

There’s a tall overpass near my home. I cross it every morning on my way to work. It’s a graffiti free, homeless ignored, sterile grey overpass. It’s only distinctive factor, and I use distinctive in the loosest sense, is a chain link fence that runs the length of the overpass. Even the chain link fence is unassuming. Well, it was unassuming. This morning, while zipping across the overpass heading to work in Sacramento, I noticed a huge gash in the chain link fence. It was an enormous hole through which I could see the steep embankment on the other side.

I was late to work, so I was driving quickly. I took this scene in for less then a second. As a accelerated away I thought, “Wow. I hope the person driving survived the accident.”

I realized, however, I had no idea if an accident did occur. I was speculating, from…what? A missing fence? There wasn’t a Roseville ambulance, tire tracks, or hazard cones. There wasn’t anything to suggest some car rocketed over the curb, and tore through the fence. I was just making up a story, and I had not even tried.

The missing fence was a nice reminder we are all very capable of sitting back and creating a story. We don’t need to consciously butt in, elbow our unconscious out of the way, and say, “we’ll take the story from here.” I’ve done it though! I’ve stood on stage, during improv shows, trying to make something up, manually construct something brilliant. "I can make comedy! I will make incredible theater!" It didn’t happen.  Our unconscious brains want to put the pieces together, to figure things out. We should step aside more often, and let our instincts, “take the story from here.”

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Storytelling Tips from Pixar

At Blacktop we love telling a good story. Improvisers are storytellers. We're actors, and actresses, and we have lots of stories that want to be told. I fell in love with improv because we don't know what stories we're going to share, until that moment happens. We're all discovering this together! Audience and performer are on the same "where-is-this-going," page. Yes, we definitely love making the audience laugh, giving them something to talk and smile about the next day, and we've found the best jokes are tied in with a story. "Well, how do we best tell a story?" good question! Blacktop Comedy definitely has our techniques and methods, but those always evolve. There's no one way to tell a story. Our performers take classes, read books, and listen to new ideas. We study the approaches of UCB, iO, Annoyance, BATS, and many, many more. We also come across some real gems online, and want to share everything we learn with you.

Pixar are masters of storytelling. They've created many classics (Toy Story, Up, The Incredibles, WALL E). I recently came across a list of 22 Rules of Storytelling. The website, io9 was nice enough to compile the list from the tweets of Emma Coats, Pixar storyboard artist. It's a really brilliant list, and I hope it helps you in your storytelling and improv!

 

22 RULES OF STORYTELLING:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

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