Enseignement, Improvisation et créativité

Awake the sheep-Master!

This post is an English summary of these articles (part one, part two and part three), as Stefan Pagels Andersen kindly asked me for a translation. I thought it could be interesting for european students that are interested in the iO improv philosophy.

In September 2014, Strasbourg’s Theatre de l’Oignon organized a three-day intensive with the iO West organization (see here for more information about them). Fort those not familiar, let’s say they’re the inheritors of Del Close’s legacy, the Harold format. Twenty people for all over France, one German actress and one Swiss (me).

Lyndsay Hailey was the teacher for this workshop, a splendid southern belle, a mix between Geena Davis and Angelina Jolie – everyone was in love after 10 minutes. Most of the workshop took place in English, as we could choose to perform the little scenes either in French or English.

Lyndsay began with a 30 minutes talk about the iO improv didactics and fundamentals. She compared their philosophy with other schools of improv, without being judgmental – a very good point indeed. She explained the basic rules:

  1. The “Yes, And” principle, which his to be taken for its core value: you “yes-and” your partner in the way he builds reality, but you can of course create conflict or refuse to do things.
  2. No judgement from your part on any aspect on the creation: don’t judge your ideas or the quality of the production of your partners. This element would become a mantra through the whole workshop: your partners are geniuses, artists and poets.
  3. The improviser has to be ahead of the audience, at least for a few steps: that doesn’t mean you have to plan. It pushes you to avoid “predictable space”, where the audience will probably know also where you’re going. You have to surprise your partners to surprise yourself (and the audience).
  4. Shoot the grandma: for a dramatic conflict to become comic, you have to raise the stakes to a cathartic point, and make the conflict “explode”. Lyndsay took this metaphor from her very conservative grandma who would always argue up to an unbearable point.
  5. The 3-7-10 rule: you have to heighten a game through several degrees, to overcome it in some way. Each occurrence has to be slightly bigger than the previous one, to build dramatic tension (or comic relief).
  6. Base reality: who-what-where: iO improv is very much based on relationships, hence on the quality of the link between the two partners. Avoid transaction scenes, or talking about past or future. Take for granted that you’ll know each other for at least six months.
  7. No plot. Scenes will never go further than 3 minutes, so you don’t need to look for a big dramatic structure. You are rather looking (from the aisles) for the best moment to end the scenes by editing it.
  8. The group is always right, and should always follow its first idea: don’t add to much to what is already there.

After having exposed these basic principles, Lyndsay proposed a few presence games: word-at-a-time stories, Die Game, organic storytelling, exercises where you have to mirror your partners’ energy in order to get to an “organic” state of group mind. Through this process, we trained the four dimensions of listening: literal listening (the words), local listening (the acting), emotional listening (empathy) and global listening (the game). There would be a fifth dimension to consider: intuitive listening (energy, mystery).

In the afternoon, we continued to work on listening (“In real life, we only listen to 10% of what is said – we’re usually busy already working out an answer.”). Lyndsay made us lie on the floor. “You are sheep. Really a whole herd of sheeps: you think like sheeps, you breathe like sheeps, you move sheepishly, and you’re going to sleep as sheep. When I say so, you’ll wake up. You’ll do as the whole herd do: if someone moves, you’ll move. If someone yawns, you’ll do the same. Now, go, wake up as sheep!”

This is a game of pattern repetition, where an idea get to be explored: the snore becomes a yawn, which evolves in a sniff, then everybody stands up and sniff a each other. The force of the group mind, of team spirit. Lyndsay pushed us to maintain eye and physical contact, to breath together, in order to get in a kind of light group trance. A state of complete presence and availability to the partners.

We worked then on very short two-persons scenes, trying to “continue the scene which is already taking place”. This is another way to think about scene initiations, stemming from TJ and Dave’s conception: you don’t simply build a scene out of nothing. You “jump” into one that is already taking place. With this in mind, we worked on the primal energy, the core of the relationship with the partner. Slow-impro like. It looked very much like Meisner’s teaching. Then we began to work on the first two stages of a Harold, from an ensemble game that looked a bit like the sheep-game.

On the second day, we went on working on the Harold structure (three beats of three scenes, each beat being initiated by an abstract “game”). Lyndsay made us work hard on listening: “Your primary focus is your scene partner. Your secondary focus is your other partners; and don’t forget that the audience is also your “other partner”.

Use the whole buffalo: explore your first idea, and use it thoroughly, deepy, developing it into a climax (the 3-7-10 rule); avoid looking for heterogeneous ideas that would dilute the focus of your scene: everything in it should have a use (even an absurd one).

Lyndsay identified for us the main pitfalls of scene development: struggling for control (physical fight or sterile arguing), asking questions (in order to know where the improv is going to), leading your partner (in order to be certain of where the improv is going to). You have to be present to your partner, and that’s all (the “theatre of the heart”, iO-style). There is another school of improv which is less organic and more intellectual, where you don’t look for anything but the game (UCB-style).

Look into the eyes of your partner! You will get all your emotional impulsions from there. Relationship is fundamental. A character can live anywhere; a plot cannot : you don’t need to focus on the narrative, the four core plots or the hero’s journey : short scenes will arise from the connections between the characters. Get away, you Aristotle fans! Improv is not the bastard of well-scripted theatre, you have to make it a bit dirty and to focus on the joy of creation and connection! Do not worry about a well-balanced play about a protagonist getting his way around a narrative.

Rituals: you have to take special care to quit your daily life and enter the stage area. Get in / Get out of the role with a special ritual. Lyndsay shows us kundalini yoga, which puts everyone into their body.

Lyndsay introduced us to two initiations game: Soundscapes (where participants have to build a musical loop) and Hot Spot, where participants are in circle and take turns singing one bit of a song, joining the leader in the center, each tune being somewhat linked to the previous one. If you have no idea, you come center all the same, and “save” your partner by singing “Happy Birthday” to everyone.

With the third day came skills integration: we worked deeply on emotional initiations and talked about the show of the previous night (there was a show organized at the Onion’s venue). “The show had a good level, but there were to many dead spaces and the scenes were going for too long. An iO principle is that you never edit the scene you’re in – it’s always the job of someone in the aisles, like in the Hot Spot. You should never hesitate to edit a scene that needs to be killed, even if you have no idea what to do after (just trust your partners).” Lyndsay presented us to the three kinds of possible edits: fluent edit (where the initiation game naturally morphs into a scene), title edit (where a sentence or a slogan comes to summarize the game/scene and ends it), and the sweep edit (where an improviser – from the aisle – sweeps the stage on foreground).

We worked on environments: Lyndsay was amazed how European actors succeeded in creating reality through miming skills. We worked with “private moments” (a solo in a room of our actual home) and short scenes: this is the kitchen from character A, who invited character B to stay for the fortnight. You had to interact emotionally, without erasing the physical game you were initially developing (“Talk through your orange juice!”). Here again, the aim is to heighten an existing (physical) game.

To get to a conclusion, Lyndsay gave us four ways to create characters from scratch: play yourself, play from an emotion, take you environment into account, play from your spine. We practiced these anchors with silent, short duets in an environment. Focusing on yourself at first, and then integrating the actions of your scene partner.

In conclusion, three days of dense teaching, where I could revise my opinion about the American longform (which we Europeans usually call shortform) and where I got a nice reminder about the usefulness of emotional anchors. Lyndsay was a great teacher, full of resources and fresh insights. Thanks and congratulations to the Théâtre de l’Oignon (Strasbourg), Stefan Pagels Andersen (Copenhagen Improv Festival) and the twenty participants for making this happen.

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