Last night, I took a last minute trip to see Magic/Bird on Broadway.For the uninitiated, it’s a play about the rivalry and friendship between basketball players Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. For those who don’t personally know me— this is the nexus of the two non-human things I love most on Earth: basketball and theater.
The play was just ok, and probably didn’t do all it could with such fruitful subject material, but there were some really fascinating moments of exceptional theater. One of the most interesting things that happened onstage was whenever a character picked up a basketball. There was an NBA regulation basketball hoop onstage, and every once in a while the characters would play. Nothing fancy- usually just layups- but it sucked the audience in almost instantly. It’s like the fact that they were actually going to play basketball onstage was some kind of exceptional thing- like a daring feat of theatrical experimentation.
And I’ve experienced this before. Last year, I saw a play by Donald Margulies called Time Stands Still. In the play, a character goes to get himself a cup of water. He turns on the sink, and running water comes out. And there were audible gasps from the audience. The principle isn’t hard to understand. The audience recognizes the artifice of the theater, and so when we as theater makers refuse to recognize that artifice, they are taken aback- in a good way. There’s nothing fake or manipulated about water flowing from a faucet- it’s exactly what you might see at home. (This is the same principle behind Stanislavsky’s cat. Stanislavsky talked about how putting a cat onstage would electrify an audience, because the cat has no idea people are expecting something of it, so it keeps on living its damn life.)
Now, in improv we don’t have the benefit of a basketball hoop or a faucet or a cat. BUT, we can do everything we can to act like real humans, just like people see every day in their lives. We can accomplish this in so much of what we already do onstage— justification, object work, initiations, physicality, shared history— but we often take a shortcut through a path of detachment or wittiness. Being a human and reproducing identifiable human behavior will immediately get the audience on our side, and make us more interesting onstage. Regardless of how funny we are, being more interesting will definitely help. And sure, we can deviate from that human behavior later in the scene/set, but only because we’ve established with the audience that we are real humans, so they’ll trust that whatever we do from there is human behavior. But if we never act like a human, or if we start from a place of clearly nonhuman behavior, then we’re doing ourselves a disservice. It’s much harder that way, and we reduce the chance of getting empathy from the audience, which is worth way more than laughs.
This seems like a strange question- but in my case, it’s always the same answer- on the far, stage-left side. Certainly this doesn’t happen every time, but I would venture to say that roughly 90% of my sets- in class, in performance, in practice- occur with me starting out on either the far stage-left or far stage-right positions along the back line.
I noticed it for the first time yesterday, and I’m not entirely thrilled about it. In fact, I think it might subconsciously lead to the cementing of habits. I think there’s something to be said for starting the show in a new position every time, because that variation in spatial arrangement is just enough to make your brain start afresh. Basically, it’ll feel new, and it’ll feel fun. And in my particular case, standing on the end isn’t helpful at all, because I’m separating myself from the group. I’m not in the middle of it all, and that’s not such a great thing.
Now, will this make or break my set? No, of course not. But, will it make a difference in my energy and the point of view I as the improviser bring to the set? Maybe. Am I over thinking this? Definitely.
HOW DO YOU SAVE A TV SHOW?
Ugh. There was a time when TV shows really got a long run to prove themselves before the networks decided whether to yank them off the air. When I was a little kid, I was aware of shows that were deemed complete failures, like the Dukes Of Hazzard spin-off Enos and the Three’s Company spin-off The Ropers. (Yes, I am old. But still well within the coveted 18-49 demographic, so there.) At the time, I remember hearing about those shows being total ratings disasters, and yet they were allowed to make it to 22 episodes and 28 episodes, respectively.
Likewise, the big hits of the 80s and 90s, Cheers and Seinfeld, were both low-rated in their early seasons, but were given time to find an audience.
We live in a different reality now, obviously.
Everybody’s heard the news about Best Friends Forever being yanked from the NBC schedule until perhaps this summer. And It’s easy to assume the worst— anyone who is a fan of quality television shows has had their heart broken more than a few times over the years, and we’ve all seen a lot of “save our show” campaigns end in disappointment.
Petitions and twitter campaigns are one modern tool at our disposal. You can also send “scoops” to NBC, certainly. I’d imagine that fans are developing all sorts of ways of getting NBC’s attention to let them know that there is a passionate audience out there that wants to see more of this show.
I have one suggestion, for anyone who’s interested. First, two examples of shows that met very different fates:
CASE #1: ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT
I was one of the frantic ones while this show was in peril, and I was practically apoplectic at what I perceived to be FOX’s non-existent efforts to grow the show’s audience. (Before anyone tries the knee-jerk “FOX gave it three seasons” argument, it has been documented by NYTimes TV writer Bill Carter that Rupert Murdoch personally hated the show, and it was therefore not in the best interest of anyone at FOX to help the show do better. It was too critically beloved to cancel it quickly, so they let it die on the vine instead. Case closed.)
One of the specific things that most frustrated me was that Arrested Development was not available to purchase on iTunes. The fans were begging for ways to show their support, and for ways to demonstrate that the Nielsen ratings didn’t tell the full story. Meanwhile, the #1 show on iTunes was…
CASE #2: THE OFFICE (U.S.A. version)
The Office was not a hit at first, not by a long shot. The ratings weren’t that good for the brief first season, and a big part of the reason that they finally got a full order for a second season was that NBC put the show on iTunes, where it did great. It was easily the most popular show, almost instantly, occupying 17 slots of the iTunes Top 100 downloads. Now, years later, it’s one of NBC’s top rated shows.
This is a long rambling way of saying: one thing you can do to help save Best Friends Forever, if you are so inclined, is to buy a season pass on iTunes. It’s like 13 bucks for the whole first season, which is basically the same price as if you were to individually buy the 4 episodes they have for sale individually.
It might sound like a dumb idea— after all, if you like the show, you’ve presumably seen the 4 episodes that are already up, and they’re available for free on the NBC website or hulu. The idea of paying money for TV shows that are available for free already is ridiculous. I feel dumb typing this.
BUT: it is one way of showing support for the show, and it’s basically like paying for a movie ticket (if you live in a big city where movies are crazy expensive) or a pizza or some other thing that costs as much as a pizza. And if the goal is to convince NBC that there is a devoted audience that wants this show on the air, then maybe BFF selling a lot of iTunes downloads is one way to get their attention. It’s like voting with your dollars to say “keep making more of these, please. Here is some of my money!”
I know if FOX had put Arrested Development episodes for sale on iTunes back when it was on the bubble, I would have happily bought them all if I though it had even a small chance of saving the show. It worked for The Office. Maybe it can in some small way contribute to keeping BFF on the air long enough for more people to discover it…
I agree with all of this. Please make some noise for this excellent show, everyone.
Something I’ve been seeing (and doing) a lot lately is meaningless justification, or a sort of justification for justification’s sake. Now I am a huge fan of Asking Why, and I really strongly believe in getting the Why out in the scene. However, I think what that we often treat justification as a requirement, not as an organic element of the scene. What I have found myself doing (and what I saw in a show recently) is justifying unusual behavior and then going right back to the scene that was already in progress. And unfortunately, in that situation, the justification is just a meaningless break from the action of the scene, instead of a fulcrum that opens up the possibilities and the world of the play.
What I’m saying is that if we simply throw in a justification because we know there should be a justification, we’re not helping anyone. If we obligatorily justify and then move on as if that never happened, we might as well have never justified at all, cause now the behavior is less unusual. BUT, if we take that justification and heighten and explore (“If this, then…”), then the justification is helping the scene grow. I think we as improvisers often see justification as an obligation, not a tool- and we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
Let me see if I can articulate this better:
So a guy is acting like a cat onstage, and it’s getting laughs, because humans are hilarious when they act like cats. Some astute improviser justifies by remarking that “Oh, his Mom loves cats, and he’s trying to get her to notice him.” Now, in a mediocre scene, the improviser heightens the cat behavior in his mom’s direction, and the audience laughs. In a great scene, the improviser takes that justification to heart, and the scene isn’t about cats anymore. Suddenly, the world has expanded outward, and this guy is reenacting the best Allison Janney scenes from The West Wing, cause his mom loves CJ Cregg, dammit. And then there’s something going on, and the justification is transforming and enhancing the scene. And that is when you find the really special stuff, at least I think so.
(As always, forgive my horrible example, which is essentially a thinly-veiled excuse to talk about the Aaron Sorkin canon.)
I worked on my buddy’s short film this weekend, alongside an older actor with questionable set etiquette. The guy was a jerk and a pain in the ass, but something cool happened: as the day went on, his crazy behavior heightened perfectly, complete with justifications and . Basically, an improv scene unfolded before my eyes. It was pretty cool, and I thought I’d share it here, cause it was that great.
Let’s run it down:
1. I walk on set with my script, only to find out that there were several changes to the script, courtesy of this actor, who has (this is perfect) a beard and a long grey ponytail. None of the changes are particularly good, but I go with it. It’s not that unusual, but it’s annoying.
2. He sits down for make-up, and begins to rattle off a list of Do’s and Don’ts to a makeup designer who is clearly very good at her job. He says things like “No rouge” and “Do you have any black eye shadow? No? Grey? No? Blue? No? Brown? Ok” and she is politely going along, but clearly annoyed.
3. We step into the shot, and he starts spouting off instructions to the director. Stuff like “You should probably punch in and get a tight shot here” or “Oh, we’ll get that in the ADR booth.” Meanwhile, the subgame of his complete lack of preparation begins to emerge, as he asks the camera operator to hold his script and repeatedly misses cues.
4. The child actor arrives at the set, and this guy takes charge! He rolls out what he believes to be his effective manner of dealing with young talent- again, bypassing the director and complicating the shoot. Except he’s being counterproductive, because again, he has no idea what his lines are. Everyone (everyone) is uncomfortable- except him.
5. The day continues and he repeats this behavior, somehow loses even more of a grip on his text, and commences instructing with even more complex (and misguided) instructions. When he’s out of the room, people talk about him and reveal more about his personality.
5a. The line situation devolves into a later period where we can’t shoot entire scenes- we have to do them in chunks so he’ll remember.
It unfolded so perfectly and neatly that I felt I had to share it here. It’s a good lesson that sometimes, when we say, “Oh no one would actually act that way,” we are wrong. Some people ARE that crazy. And you know what? He had a good justification- it was a student film, and he (who, as he rather bluntly noted) has shot over 400 films. He needed to show the immature NYU urchins how to run a film set.
Now, what wasn’t good about this? Well, because of the environment, no one could ever really say how we felt about what he was doing. The circumstances forced us to be coy, which would not have helped the scene. But the heightening and the logical progression of behavior was perfect.
Also, to actors: Don’t be a dick. Trust your director. Do what is asked of you.
If you came to my class show for any of my classes 101 through 401, you would notice that I would definitely, without a doubt, initiate a scene. In the fact, there’s a damn good chance that I would initiate the very first scene, and probably a group game too. I was that kind of player. I was preternaturally confident at a time when many improvisers haven’t developed that confidence. And it was a pretty good thing, because I usually got what I saw as the pick of the litter in terms of premises off of the opening, and all of my unearned confidence served as a pretty great energy boost at the top of the show for the rest of the team. Of course, it was a double edged sword- I became a pretty controlling improviser, one who was used to his idea prevailing in the scene. And it made me a pretty shitty listener. After some time, I became aware of this, and consciously made an effort to receive initiations more. But here’s the thing: I haven’t regained that sense of confidence that I had when I was just an asshole taking 301. And honestly, I miss it. I miss being the guy people can count on to just blindly throw himself out there and try something for the benefit of the group. Because really, every member of the team needs to be that improviser. At least in my mind, every person on the team needs to be willing to step out at any time, for the greater good.
I think it’s time that I brought some of that foolish, unfounded confidence back into my improv. Because I have made such a concerted effort to be a better listener in the time since, I think it might be possible to infuse some of that old bravery into my newfound technique. One thing I hate to see in improv is that awkward 3-4 second pause between every scene. I think it’s unsavory and it’s not necessary and a little bit boring. Before I worried so much about what I was going to do on stage, I always sought to eliminate that pause. But now that I’ve come to hold myself to a higher standard, I’ve given myself some leniency. Here’s to merging that higher standard with more aggressive, risky, balls-out improv.
As always, I look forward to lamenting about how I failed in achieving this goal.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote something on here about the importance of activating scenes- making sure that scenes were relevant right now and between these two people in this particular place. It’s been something I’ve been focusing on in my improv the past couple of weeks, and I’m starting to see changes in my approach. I’m seeing real positive results, and I’m happy with the moves I’m making.
But here’s the thing: It’s been easy for me to recognize how to activate a scene from the back line, but not quite as easy to do while I’m in a scene. Of course, this makes sense- it is hard to remove yourself from the scene enough to recognize that it’s passive while you’re in it. So what’s been happening is I’ve had a series of great walk-ons and tag outs that are great, but are much better than the actual scene work I’ve been doing. There are worse problems to have, but it’s not a trend I’d like to see continue.
So here’s my new resolution: Let’s make it active and relevant from the very beginning. If possible, start with an initiation that is active and interpersonal, or make a strong active choice that involves the other person way up top, so that the scene acquires momentum and I don’t event need to think about activity, because it’s built into the DNA of the scene. Again, I’m a broken record here, and I’m only saying things we’ve all heard a million times in class, but I think I’m progressing here, so give me a frickin break, you putz.
Laughing on the Backline
I don’t get why someone would say this to you (maybe I’m missing the context).
Laughter shows you’re enjoying a scene. It’s an expression of happiness. Why would anyone want to suppress that?
People who think you shouldn’t laugh on the backline are doing this for the wrong reasons.