10 Days with Keith Johnstone Summer Intensive, 2008


maskpoint

Notes from Class

July 21st, morning session.

Please Don't Do your Best! If you have to do your best, something is wrong. That's stage fright operating.

This is one of the main messages of the morning. Another is a reminder to create relationships with your fellow player, not with the audience. There are some interesting comments about the perils of audience participation, but when they do participate the focus of the players again should be to make the audience members look great. All of your focus should be on making that happen.

Our attitude is an important communication. You need to be happy to be there, not anxious (sigh). If things screw up, you need to remain happy.

We play a Spolin game in which one player sits down, and the entering player has to endow the sitting player with a character. Neither can talk until the sitting player understands who he is as endowed by the non-sitting player. What matters is whether the sitting player understands you. Know what your partner wants and needs.

We do a story telling scene. A version of "What happens next". The story teller's goal is to move the story along based upon what the other person wants or would like. If the other player likes the "offers" they say, "what happens next", if they have to stop and think about it they say "no", gently and then the next person tries to move the story along. The goal of this game is to learn what each other likes, and responds positively to. In a second phase of this game, when the person says: "no", you can ask them,"what happens next" because if they said know they must have an idea of what the would have preferred.

Play this scene 500 times and you will become a different improviser, focused on your partners.

Did your partner have a good time should be a key question.

Don't start a scene with antagonism or negativity. That is better to come at the end of a scene if it is needed.

Search for the ELUSIVE OBVIOUS. Whatever seems the most worthless to you is at the heart of you.

We do party scenes in which people endow each other with the characteristics of funny, menacing, sexy, and stupid. All of the players chosen for this do very well.

Oh, yes, one more pearl of wisdom I need to remember: "Improv turns into work as soon as it has to go well......, your attitude is important. Screw up and stay happy!!

July 21st, evening session

Improv is the art of being altered. The art of being obvious. The art of connecting rather than disconnecting

There are cameras filming tonight. It is not calming, but what we are supposed to learn is detaching our ego from the process. It is good exercise.

Change your face and you will change yourself.

We practice talking with small pinched mouths. We practice talking with elongated upper lips. We practice talking with our eyes opened as widely as possible. As it turns out it is easier to improvise if you change your face. If it is your own face you present, we tend to be more cautious, for fear of being judged. If you fear being judged it impairs your spontenaity. We have two personnas: the Spontaneous self and the well behaved self.

If you look positive and relaxed on stage, you look appealing and even naughty.

We practice the classic master/servant scenes, with balloons as slapsticks. We throttle each other with the ballons.

We practice a more classical master/sevant relationship and look for a tilt in the relationship. We study the power of watching characters change.

We object to offers because to say yes to them gives power to the other person and we want to reject that to protect ourselves from their control. The problem is that it is the moment when people change on stage that the audience remembers most. In a conflict, the audience is waiting to see who will alter who. They are not waiting for no one to be altered, for nothing to change, for nothing to happen.

I participate in a master/servant scene and Keith spends time instucting us on the messages behind our body language. Which way you cross your legs and open your body toward your partner.......and toward the audience.

Keith discusses the Circle of Probability. You establish a world, say walking in the forrest. Many improvisers will want to break the cirlce of probability and see a penguin, but why? Because the want to be original and inventive and bring up something that is not in the audiences frame of mind. Keith believes that you want to think what the audience thinks. Do something predictable. It is very satisfying to the audience. If you try to be original it is outside of the circle of probability and makes for bad scenes. If you come up with something clever to say, say something else instead.

Everything funny should be inside the circle of probability. Give the audience what they want.

Next we study tilting. You establish a stability in the scene, then one character upsets (tilts) it. Most commonly improvisers will try and re-establish the stability. When one takes control, the other will try and re-assert their position. This prevents change. Instead, when a tilt happens, try accepting it and being change by it.

A few closing thoughts for the night:
If you are talking, you are not being altered by the offer or tilt;
The more you're changed, the more control you give to the other person;
Our impulse is not to be altered.

Improv is the art of being altered.

It is only day one!!!

July 22nd, morning session

Negativity destroys talent. Much of this morning reflects back on the problem of fear for the actor. If you care too much about how you appear, it impairs your ability to be spontaneous. You have to not care. This, of course feels impossible to me.

We practice picking up balloons and handing them to partners. If a thought comes to us to make the balloon into something we do. If not, we pass it off and say "it's still a balloon". You should not think about what to make the balloon, but take the message that comes to you from handling it. Your action with the balloon object should proceed your knowledge of what it is. Take the message from your body.

More about fear. People spend a lot of time trying to be better than who you are. You are what you are. Your effort to be your perception of something better gets in your way.

I have fewer written notes for this class, i'm sorry to say. We practice changing the body to change how we are perceived. There are a number of scenes that people play with high and low status

Keith says, if you are afraid of other people, you play high status. If you match the other person's status, people will like you. We play status raising and lowering games with friends, not aquaintences.

We practice scenes in which the goal of the two players is to match status, to have equal status. While we do this, others watch and let us know when we need to raise or lower status to be equal to each other. We all get opportunities to direct and participate. Maintaining equal status with our fellow player requires you to really concentrate on them and not on your thoughts. It is difficult and I absolutely love it. Not only does it make the other person look good, the quality of the scene improves.

There were a lot of books referenced this morning. We also did exercises justifying the other persons' body positions, and physical exercises to release muscles. Wonderful stuff, but I did fall down on my note taking this morn. Class begins again at 6 this evening. The temperature has fallen about 15 degrees from yesterday and it is lovely here. Talk to you soon, Olympia.

July 22nd, evening session

The Mantra. Say I love you, I love you, I love you over and over in your head. While repeating the mantra, you have lines to say. It is of course, odd and difficult to do both at the same time, and it produces a very interesting result. When done properly, as a few of our members do on stage, it produces a remarkably realistic and interesting scene, though the improvisers are struggling, they are not able to control the environment and so there are silences and all of the lines appear to be fraught with meaning and are interesting to us.

It is an interestingly powerful way of getting our mind to shut up and not think ahead. It is not an exercise in which you feel "in the zone" as a performer, but it is startlingly interesting to watch. One scene tonight looked like a fully realized Bergman film. These difficulties can yeild a better performance. Keith says: "If you have trouble talking, the acting is better". He notes that it is a great technique for cinema.

Keith states his belief that everyone is amazingly talented. When things don't work, you wonder what went wrong. He notes that You don't teach spontenaity, you try and remove the obstacles.

Our life strategies are all about being safe, to keep us and our families from suffering. Our life strategies do not teach us how to be good improvisers. A story is about someone who is going to get into trouble and what is going to happen with that, not about keeping us safe.

We play "What comes next" again. This time we get to play the full context. It is all about learning how to please our partner. When it works it is an ecstatic exercise because you have such a pleasurable interaction with your fellow performer. If you play this exercise over and over with a fellow group memeber You will know how to be with them on stage in the way that makes them happy. And they you. Like the status equalization exercises, it is about being in alignment with your fellow performer.

An artist needs to work in a state of absorption "be in the zone", or more accurately "be in a trance". Unfortunately we are an anti-trance culture.

The moment you raise the stakes on yourself and performance is the moment you introduce stage fright. The moment we think we are not good enough is the moment we start to do extra stuff. When a person feels a twinge of fear, they put in adjectives.

We do one word stories and Keith shows us the way to teach this properly and do it properly. First you have people do a scene which ends quickly and will be unsatisfying, which demonstrates later how important it is not to bail out and stay in the story. You get a tangible sense of the poverty of bailing out.

In scenes you should try and remain positive for as long as possible. Postpone the negative thing to near the end.

The session goes over time. It has been massive fun from beginning to end. I was not on stage at all but had wonderful performances with my conferees. Wonderful, wonderful fun.

July 23rd, morning session

Make mistakes, even intentional ones right in the beginning introduction of the show. If you give a perfect introduction, you set the expectation that the performances will be perfect. Perfection is not something you want when you are looking for miracles. If you try to be perfect you will have stage fright and no miracles can happen.

Scenes done in verse are another way of abandoning thinking.

We do scenes with Parents and a teenager returning home late for curfew (Kari and Kathy will remember this from Banff.) In this instance, however we choose numbers in our heads from 1 - 3 with one representing high status. We do the scenes with a variety of status mixes.

We go back to Master/Servant scenes and study physical comedy. The last person of the class has arrived from Venzuela today. We examine the impact of space for comedic effect, and the relationship with several servants in decending status. Keith talks about Comedia del Arte and Moliere and we practice a Lazzi, which is a classic comic set up. Keith discusses the structure of jokes and status The great old silent film comedians. It is all interesting stuff.

Keith returns to the concept of stage fright, and how to respond when things go badly on the improv stage. When things go badly, our tendency is to exert effort to try to do better. We should, in fact, do the opposite. We need to try to be less good. He tells us a story of two years of perfect Micetro work at Loose Moose. He felt they had conquered the form and could rely on their process. One night, two Hollywood agents show up. The director tries to keep that information from the players rightly concerned that is would distract them. When the word gets out, sure enough they all try to be their best and the show is a disaster. Don't try to be your best.

We do another routine that is about pleasing your partner. It is a basic set up, one bringing the other home to their house. Whenever either of you feels uncomfortable in the scene, you snap your fingers and three goons back stage drag the other player off who screams "but I'm a good improviser". The goal is to learn to please our partners enough not to be snapped off. It is a great exercise about learning to work with each other and learn what each other needs. As people get better at this they become better improvisers.

Here's another pearl regarding effort. Keith says: Caring passionately about getting it right is not a good attitude for a performer. Screwing up on purpose will make you better."

Tonight we will do mask work.

July 23rd, evening session

Mask Work

I have less notes to share with you about this session because I can't really describe it in words. I'll describe what I can, but let me assure you at the same time that my description will not be able to convey the experience.

We work with Steve from Loose Moose and others who are expert in this work. The table is full of a series of half masks. One by one we select a mask, are invited on stage where we stand. One of the professional masks gives us these instructions in their mask persona:
OK I'm going to "turn you on". I'm going to lift a mirror up to your mask and I want to to make a large face and whatever large sound the mask needs to make, and hold it. And that is what we do, and it is a trance like experience.

Also during the evening, the professional mask folk from Loose Moose perform pieces with and without Masks to demonstrate the effect and the possibiltiies.

Keith directs the professional masks in a scene. Makes up the text. Has them rehearse it a few times Has them play it straight. Then the masks play the scene. It is one of the most wonderful pieces of theatre any of us have seen. It is competely disorienting and wild, and wonderful.

Steve does a Shakespeare sonnet without mask very well. With his character mask, it brings us all to tears. What can I say. Quite an evening.

No improv tomorrow. We are taking a bus tour up into the mountains

I'll blog more when we start again on Friday.

July 25th, morning session

It's good to do a scene with a stuffed animal! It is better to work with a doll that someone who is secretly trying to be comptetitive. Other actors are always trying to compete with you for space and control of the scene by being clever. When you are playing, you need to know who's scene it is and give yourselves over to that. Scenes appear to be focused on one player in the beginning and the shift to the other but ultimately who the scene is about must be clear. If you are not the focus of the scene you may not have to do much at all.

The stuffed animal needs to have large eyes. In this instance we use an Ernie Puppet from Sesame Street. The puppet's stillness has power in the scene

A few people do scenes with Ernie, and they are wonderful. Many of the pitfalls, over talking, disconnecting from each other, etc are not as apparent in these scenes.

We do more work with "What comes Next"

We then do work with "Group Yes". At first glance this is similar to "Yes Lets", but the focus and purpose of the game is quite different. It once again is about pleasing your team mates. A group of five get on stage and one makes an offer. The other actors swear themselves to honesty and agree to leave the scene if they don't like the offer. The risk here is to make an offer which will drive everyone out of the scene. Then the goal is to remain cheery about it. The ultimate goal is to have people want to honestly stay together up here as a group. Often the solution is to suggest the obvious next step. Obvious solutions are the ones that will keep the group together. Obvious is not the same as dull.

As improvisers we are taught to think ouside the circle of probability and not to do what the audience expects. These are mistakes.

Next we work on advancing. "Make it more Interesting". This exercise, again may seem familiar, but has an entirely different purpose than I am used to.

We are instructed to do a simple action, like rub your nose, open your eyes, sit on the couch; something without using props. You have an instructor and a timer for 45 seconds. You can advance the scene by changing emotion, talking about the problem or getting a volunteer from the audience. Our tendency is to be too fast and to throw too much stuff in. It is a good clown exercise and tries to get our brain adjusted in a different way. It is difficult for me to just stick with the simple action and not tranform the action into other stories, for instance. We break apart into twos and help each other with this. It is very useful

During all of these exercises the consequences of making negative offers and selections too soon is getting through to me. It is really important to push negative selections to near the end of the scene. Negative selections are also a way not to deal with the interaction.

Keith gives us instructions in scenes based upon the way the actor reacts when they hear them. If they light up, the instruction is good, if not he looks for another instruction. He also teaches us some about how to introduce volunteers into the work. Say their names. Ecourage applause. Make them look good. Thanks them.

July 25th, afternoon session

You only learn by making mistakes. Instead of saying "I can't do this" you should cheerfully say ""I screwed up again". Something goes wrong when we stop wanting to learn. At Pixar one of the animators noted that everyone has 10,000 bad cartoons in them. People are just not willing to go through the 10,000 mistakes. Keith tried drawing 5,000 faces to try and learn to remember faces better. So what if the first 200 drawings a crap, you've got 4,200 left to go. And then when you think you'ved done a good one, your pride gets in the way of learning more. Pay attention to the mistakes. Don't ignore them. If you do a bad scene, it shouldn't depress you. You've got 4,900 left to go. Learn from what went wrong. You are responsible for your own learning.

You can teach anything if you make it into a game. Lower your standards, just make the other person look good.

We do more master/servant scenes, which are really scenes about the oppressed of the earth.

We do Gibberish Scenes. Keith has written out gibberish cards. If you use these and pay attention to your co-player's gibberish you will gradually build a believable gibbrish vocabulary. Gibberish scenes help actors transcend language and talking as a barrier. The scenes we do are simple entry greeting scenes and work best when people are altered by their fellows.

We play a game called Small Voice in which one person plays the small voice. The other actor who is enroute to somewhere. That person has to see the voice, define what it is and then address the problem presented by it. In this exercise, we see the value of just saying what ever comes up rather that being frozen in fear to come up with an intelligent response.

Keith is a great advocate for props and objects as opposed to miming. He believes in couches and beds and cups and, of course balloons. Keith also believes that there should be Popcorn at improv performances so that people are clear it is not a cultural event!

We are going to see Loose Moose Improv tonight.

July 26th, morning session

Stay with the Problem - - Don't Avoid it. If you stay with the problem that you run into, you will eventually solve it. If you avoid the problem, however, you will not be able to progress.

We study the role of M.C.

If you are acting in the role of M.C. slow down - Be cheery, make some mistakes (even plan a mistake if you have to) and show that you don't care about having made them. This sends a sub-conscious signal to the audience that no one is going to be punished for making mistakes. Keith says that if you arouse an erotic state in yourself and then suppress it, it helps to banish fear. The audience has to be cherished. It is a good idea to have the group do some preparation or practice on stage before the show to let people know that this is not "show-biz". Talk directly to the audience. Go ahead and have individual eye contact. Serve the audience food. Let them know that they have not come to witness a cultural experience.

We do an exercise that would work very well as a management game. A semi-circle of 6 people is formed sitting in chairs. The "storyteller" sits in the middle and has the goal of making eye contact with each of the six people. The six people have their arm raised above their heads. Whenever they are not being looked at by the presenter they begin to lower their arm until if falls to their lap, at which point they say beep beep beep. The presenter has to try to make eye contact with each individual so that none of the individuals gets their arms to their laps and starts beeping.

Improv is an act of courage. If you know the future, you should probably throw it away. Once you say the tilt (the event/action/premise known) say it as quickly as possible. Everything after that is improvised.

We do a variation on "What comes next". This time there are three improvisers. One acts what comes next to first the one improviser and then the other. The asker then either does the activity of one, the other or neither. The successful answer to what comes next gets a point. Again it is all about learning how to please the other improviser and is an excellent exercise.

Back to fear. Keith says: " When you are frieghtened of the audience, you can be pretty sure you'll try to do your best". This is because you are in a fearful status relationship with the audience. If you get into a status relationship with your partner, however, you can lose your focus and fear of the audience.

In contrast to the Second City book, Keith suggests the title should be "Something Average Right Away"

Now we play the King Game. The servant tries to please the King. Whenever the King/Queen is unpleased, he snaps his fingers. The goal is to please the King/performer for as long as you can. Once again this is to learn how to please the King. It is excellent practice and you can figure it out after a while. Figure it out and you know how to be on stage with that person. A mature improviser is a specialist in what the other person wants.

Next we do simple coming home together scenes. Either of the improvisers can snap their fingers when they are not happy with the scene. After a while we add a panel of experts so that when either improviser is stuck they can ask the panel what they should do to please the other person and move the scene ahead.

July 26th, afternoon session

The Life Game.

We spend the afternoon session doing parts of the Life Game. This is not the "Day in the Life" game that you may be familiar with from the Improv Encyclopedia. It is a complex and fascinating structure, and my notes on it are very poor. In any event, the parts that we did learn would be excellent practice for an improv group. As Keith remarks "self-exposure is something you should do on the stage a bit."

Cast of characters includes: Interviewer, Director, and a cast of 5 - 6 improvisers who will play parts in the subject's life. The main character of course is the person who is being interviewed about their life. This person is normally selected a week before the show to give them time to think about things. You do not want to choose an intellectual who will present ordered analyses, but someone who is interested in talking about themselves and interested in being part of the game. Interviewer comes out first and introduces the interviewee who has offered to share a few scenes from their life with us. They are placed downstage on a couch. The interviewer encourages them often that they don't have to talk about anything that is too personal or that they don't want to.

We try out this beginning for a while. Important things that are said by the interviewee may be written up on the wall. As members of the family are named, improvisers who are going to play that family member step into the spotlight as they are being described by the interviewee. The improvisers can ask questions to the interviewee about that family member: e.g." How did your father talk". At some point the director may say, I'd like to see some of that scene acted out. The interviewer asks the interviewee to help set the stage for the re-enactment.

During the re-enactment, the interviewee has a bell to signal the the improvisers are portraying this part of their life correctly and a horn to honk when they are not. It is excellent practice, once again, to learn how to present as improvisers what the interviewee wants. It is not about being original. it is about honestly trying to please the interviewee by honestly and accurately portraying their story. This game will make you a better improviser.

We head back to Loose Moose this evening. This time to see Guerilla Theatre. As I write, there is a hail storm outside.

Tomorrow is a half day, then only three days of class left. So much to learn......

July 27th, morning session

There is only a morning session today.

If you are a wonderful improviser, you screw up less often, but you still screw up.

The vision behind the Gorilla Theatre form is that it teaches people to direct.

Games are invented to test out ideas.

Keith says: "I have a vision that after I die, I arrive in hell and they say 'Ah, Mr. Johnstone, the Theatre Sports tournament is just beginning' "

We are in general, afraid of the future, afraid of what comes next. Gags stop stories. A gag is a laugh you get that destroys the story. It can be OK at the end. Keith says: "I think you should insist on completely positive offers and see you far you can go on them. Finally theatre is what bad things happen to people. We need to care about them however, so it is important to be positive for as long as possible."

We practice advancing scenes. You take a simple action like putting a worm on a hook or opening a bottle of wine, and then make it more interesting. You can make it more interesting by changing emotions or asking for a volunteer to help you. I do one of these with a partner and we completely get stuck. Asking for a volunteer helps gets us out of the mess, and of course Keith tells us to make it more interesting.

Next we work on Character Lists. These lists are included in the appendices of "Impro for Storytellers". We do large party scenes in which each person has a primary goal and a list of complementing activities that they are to act out with the others in the party who all have their own lists. Having a list of instructions and actions takes us off the responsibility hook. You were told to do these things. Also it interrupts the necessity of thinking of original and creative things to do. You start with lists you are comfortable with and gradually expand your lists to extend your range of comfort.

We practice this in large groups, and smaller groups and then break up in groups of four. In the large groups, half of the class is in the party, half sitting. After 45 seconds or so, the sitting group all shouts "Look Again!" to pay attention to a new action on the list. In the smaller groups and later In groups of four, two actors act out the scene in which one brings the other to their home. Two actors have separate lists. Each actor has a corresponding director who prompts them on activiites from the list to do.

Sunday Afternoon Bar-B-Que. A feast is set up outside our residences. A huge hail storm breaks out. All adapt with beer and massive food........

Tonight we are watching the classic silent movies.

July 28th, morning session

Teaching Improvisation, improvisationally

Keith remarks that he often does not know what he wants to do when he gets in class or where to start, so he starts with "lets have one person up on the stage". I could think about what wanted to do, but if I see that person up on the stage and look at them I come up with a better idea than if I think about it.

Last evening we watched a series of silent film classics: Chaplin's "The Circus", "The Kid", and "The Gold Rush"; and we watched some wonderful Buster Keaton. Keith pointed out things during the movies and talks some more about them this morning.

He also talks about some of his interactions with Beckett, the peasant roots of the ballet and a series of other interesting topics that I cannot do justice to in this blog.

The key lessons are repeated:
You want to make other people look good.
If you find something clever to say, say something else
The clever thing is outside of the circle of probability.
Originality is disconnected from the relationship or situation.

We do another round of "What comes Next" with one person on stage as individuals in the audience try to tell a story that will please the stage person. At first we try to get to five actions before the stage actor says "no". They we move the limit up to 10 and then 15. People do much better than at the beginning of the class. There is a better undertanding of what people want, what pleases and what makes for an interesting story

Keith notes that children that are younger than about 8 are excellent at this story because they always move the story forward.

Keith says: "Conflict is not dramatic unless it achieves something.......someone is altered"

We play a four person status game. One couple arriving at another couple's house. One of the 4 is going to be excluded and you need to make sure this is not you. The game is to teach social skills. It is also a game not taught early in a class for obvious reasons. Our tendency in this game is to protect the weaker individual who would be hurt by being thrown out.

We watch a few versions on stage and see some of the dynamics of group status. In the second version, somone is actively excluded, and people have much more fun.

We break up into groups of five and play this game. We have an observer. In my group, we do some protecting of each other in the first round. The observer comments on that. Then in each of the successive rounds, it becomes a much more active and competitive game. Different people are excluded each time. It is a great deal of fun

Keith notes that people feel more friendly and closer with each other after playing this game, and it is true. This mirrors his comment that you only make fun of people you are friends with, not acquaintences.

Keith reviews with us the history of Theatre Sports, which I will not relate here.

A few interesting comments that I would like to pass on, however, are that other forms of improv are translations of traditional theatre. They form their groups of professional players to keep other people out. Keith's idea was to start with completely untrained people in the first games where everyone blocks each other, move onto better work and then to the magical.

Try and get the audience to talk in one voice. Present improvisers doing that game and then ask the audience: "Do you think you can do this game?". They will reply in one voice: "No we can't"

July 28th, evening session

Improvisers learn how to accept ideas, but you don't learn to give the other person what they want!

Rules are for beginners

Exhaustion is setting in. I hereby disavow any more semi-coherent blog posts.

We work little voice scenes. In this scene one player is going somewhere when they hear a little voice off stage. The improviser stops and interacts with the little voice, which is by turns: a chipmunk with crutches, a martial arts mouse that is protecting the forest, and a nazi mouse that is set on ethnic cleansing.

Once an action is completed. Get the chipmunk some nuts. The scene is over and a second scene happens. We also practice these scenes in pairs.

As performers we do all kinds of things to avoid the relationship, the interaction. What is startling to the performers is by and large the audience knows what it wants to happen. When the nazi mouse asks the person where they are from, they don't want him to be from Edmonton, they want him to be from Isreal. But the improviser wants to be original more than he wants to give the audience what it wants. This is a persistent problem we deal with. It is so obvious when we are watching others work, and is is so inaccessible when we are up working ourselves. When we are working ourselves, we have no idea what the audience wants, we are only focused on being creative. Sigh!!!!

Keith relates some stories of great performers who have left the work because they were just "casting pearls before swine". Keith believes that we should not be trying to give pearls in improv, but acorns, and over time you can give them better acorns.

We spend the rest of the evening doing a variety of master/servant scenes. Scenes that are hundreds and hundreds of years old in appeal. We all want to see the servant batted about. At one point, Keith prompts an actor to say "I have a great idea". The audience will always think your courageous, and if the idea is stupid, they will just think we are playing in character as the servant.

Keith is generously providing another movie night after class, but I am spent.

I miss you Olympia. Two more full days of workshop. I plan to suck every piece of knowledge I can. I wish I were 20 and just beginning this. I give thanks I still get to do it now.

Later, and more yet to come...............

July 29th, morning session

Shawn Kinley

Shawn Kinley teaches us the first half of the morning. Shawn specializes in the connection between the body and tension, mime and movement.

The first exercise we do is hold fists out and move our tumbs left and right in unison. We then do if faster and have a much more difficult time. Shawn asks us to recognize what else is happening with our body and notes that some of the increased difficulty is because of the increased tension we feel in managing the exercise.

Next we do an undulation exercise with our arms and hands. As Shawn demonstrates the movement and describes what to do, he also uses his other hand to point out the position of the undulation. We do the exercise and then Shawn asks who used their other hand to put their arm into position. A few of us raise our hands. Shawn notes that the pointing of the other hand has no impact on the ability to do the undulation, but it does point out who the visual learners are. The visual learners copied the unnecesary movement.

Next we do an exercise, where we draw a triangle in the air with one hand and a square in the air at the same time with the other hand. Shawn then asks us to find five ways to approach this problem, then ten ways in 60 seconds.

We get in a circle. Shawn has us stand on our toes, then go down. We are given the exercise to do only what he says, and not what he does. It is like Simon Says in a way, and the visual learners like myself go down quickly. We are asked then to adjust for this problem, so the visual learners close their eyes and just respond to the auditory cues. Shawn then ends up using patterns, for instance a series of up down commands and then skips a move in the expected pattern and a number of us go out as our expectations are updended.

Another circle game. It is a passing game. You slap an arm to your oppposite shoulder. The person who is next to you in the direction of the slaped shoulder then, without thinking, passes the shoulder slap with either to the right or the left. If you hesitate or miss your pass, you are out.

We lay on the ground and put both palms out. We create a wave around the circle as the palms are closed in order around the circle. This is the same game we play at Olyimprov Play Dates, though in this exercise we start many more series of consecutive waves.

Next we play Mafioso. We are in a circle. Shawn calls out someone's name. That person ducks and the people to the right and left turn and shoot each other. The one who shoots last is out, or if the person does not duck soon enough they are out. The person who gets out calls the name of someone else in the circle and so it goes. You gradually learn all kinds of strategies to survive in the game. If the person who is out looks in the direction of the name they are going to call, you can shoot much more quickly. Many of these games are about sharpness, and awareness.

We move to verbal games next. Shawn will point at one of us and we say a word. If we have pre-thought of our word, we should say something else. At times he will go back and forth between two people. We need to go faster than our brains can operate to manufacture answers and instead just blurt out anything that comes out. Next, Shawn points to people with just a letter. We say the letter sound and then let the word form. This helps defeat the pre-think, since you don't know the letter than is going to come.

We practice saying disconnected words in small groups. Others watch us and when we repeat a word or make a word connection, the other tags us out. There are clearly strategies you can use to come up with these words. My classic strategy is to use whatever is in the room. Shawn urges us that once we have something that works, push ourselves into more uncomfortable terrain. Abondon the easy way. Learn new approaches. As improvisers we all get stuck in things that work for awhile. This quickly makes you stale. Push yourself into learning new ways, to a further level of risk. It is essential in improvisation.

A person goes up on stage and starts telling a story. We are to tag them out whenever they hesitate or get lost. We are supposed to save them. It is better to tag out too soon, rather than too late.

We break up into groups of four to practice the tag out. We try to go for as long as possible without needing to be tagged out. We try to tag out when necessary. It is timed. We try and go a minute.

Shawn's session ends with a lovely contact improv piece. We sit facing a partner. Close our eyes, touching the backs of our hands to each other. Soothing music is put on. We try not to initiate movement, but we follow movement that happens. We each think the other initiated the movement. No one wants to session to end.


Judgement screws up spontenaity! Keith returns for the second half of the morning.

A goal of comedy improv is to have interuppted actions. If you complete an action, you need a scene 2. Who, what, when, where improv is based on traditional theatre.

Commentaries are useful, like the function of a sports comentator. We play "Just a minute" which has been on BBC radio for more than 30 years. There are 4 people on the couch and a commentator, judge. It is a good game for developing verbal skills. A topic is given to one person in the panel. There is a timer. The person starts talking about the subject and can be interrupted by any of the other contestants for hesitation, repetition, or deviation. The goal of the game is to be the one talking when the 1 minute timer ends. When individuals interrupt the commentator can uphold the objection or overrule it. The judging is not fair and that is part of the fun.

More verbal games. You need to be able to respond as a improviser to anything that is thrown at you.

We have an interviewer and we have an interviewee who is an expert at some impossible task. (yes I know, you've played a game close to this) The interviewee has to act as an expert and the interviewer keeps throwing new disconnected and impossible questions at them. (a variation on what you've experienced)

We play another interviewer/intervievee game but this time the focus is not on the expertise of the interviewee, it is focused on the ability of the interviewer to constantly change course and ask questions that do not have a simple yes answer. The inteviewee's goal is to connect the disconnected questions of the interviewer. In this case the interviewer's job is much more difficult.

Keith notes that judgement screws up spontenaity. This last game is a good way to get into a psychotic state which makes for good improv.

July 29th, evening session

Well behaved people attend the theatre to see badly behaved people on the stage.

Keith says: "When you are on stage, you should be bright eyed, bushy tailed, mischevious and cheeky!" The defense systems you utlize in life don't look good on the stage.

"If you believe contradictory things, you are likely to be closer to the truth."

We study the Boris game, an older game that Keith rarely uses any more. He refers to it as archaic. Still it is a good exercise to drag unconscious material out of the person, which will be the theme of the evening. Boris is an invisible punisher who assists the interregator to get the truth out of the victim in the scene. If you use it well, it produces a narrative. It is most often done by young men who use it for athletic display, but that is not its point.

There is brief discussion of the alphabet game which Keith hates but has used in Micetro if an inexperience player likes it. In micetro, it is fine to start with a poor game and improve as the evening goes along.

We spend more time on the Life Game. One scene which is set at the gates of heaven after the subject dies. This poses an opportunity to discuss life events that might prevent the individual from getting into heaven. We then try a few scenes that happen before a person is born. The baby is filled with ideas about what his life will be. The gate keeper gives him information about weather those particular hopes will actually come to pass.

We return to the function of the tilt in a scene. We practice with a doctor's office, establish a stable foundation and then throw in a tilt. Improvisers will often throw in a joke or sing in order not to be altered, but people come to see people altered. We should look for the opportunity to be altered. If you head for comedy instead of responding to the tilt and the relationship, you will get less real comedy in the end.

We return to the party game with 4 improvisers. Each one endows others with the attributes of attractive, someone who wants to hit you, or someone who makes you laugh. You don't have to show the audience how you feel. There is something fake about trying to show emotion. The story tells you the emotion.

We do the party scene with attributes and with gibberish. We do it again without gibberish but with the addition of each person selecting a status level while retaining the endowment of attributes on the others.

Keith says: "In the end you really don't know what your're doing. You hope automatic behavior kicks in. If you screw up, you know you've learned something."

Keith talks about the function of scenographers, people who enhance the story by moving and adapting scenery and props.

The last thing we do for the evening is return to the Mantra exercise. You use the mantra of either "I love you" and want to keep away from the person, or "I hate you" and want to posses and dominate the other person. We work with text that Keith creates. The process of repeating the Mantra makes the speech difficult to say, but has wonderful effect. Keith notes that actors want to make things easier, but he believes that it is necessary to make things more difficult, so that we can remove the thinking ahead, artificiality and fake theatricality out of our work and concentrate on being and reacting.

Sparce notes tonight, I know. Can there only be one day left to go?

July 30th, morning session. The last day of the intensive

If you can get past the ego, all kinds of interesting things can happen

We talk about a training exercise for improv groups. An individual will go on stage and try to hold the audiences attention. If audience members are intersted they sit and wait. If not, they quietly leave. Because we don't know what the audience wants, 15 seconds of keeping them around will be a success in the beginning. If the performer looks like they have something, the audience stays out of curiosity for a while. If the performer is at all scared, the audience will leave quickly. This exercis is even more difficult to do in pairs. We do not practice it because we are such a large group and the room is not set up well for exiting.

Keith notes that it is a good thing to get an Audience member up on stage when the show is going well and then to treat them very well. This establishes benevolence. That good will is then increased throughout the audience.

Rely on your own obviousness. Your obviousness is not like anyone elses. It is when you try to be original that you end up the same as everyone else.

We play at status equalization exercises again. The women do this much better than the male players. The easiest way to equal status is to physically mirror the other player. It is more interesting to achieve equal status where this is not possible. Leveling status without physical mirroring looks like nuanced acting. The closer the players get in status, the more sensitive they look.

We then move back to mantra work. You either say "I love you, I love you, etc" as your mantra and your attitude toward the other player is to be distant from them; or your mantra is "I hate you, I hate you, etc" and your objective is to dominate them. It is difficult to speak at all if you are doing the mantra as it interrupts pre-thinking and an overly inventive mind. The results of this work are wonderful scenes. I love this exercise. It is wonderful training. One danger using the mantra, is that actors tend to want to use the mantra as the objective and that defeats the exercise.

Mature improvisers know that you don't have to justify the situation before you speak or act.

Next we play at commentators. One person plays a commentator, another the color commentator, and the third an athlete at some absurd olympic game in slow motion. The slow motion must be very slow, barely appear to be moving at all. We do several of these scenes and they are good fun. After teaching how to be a commentator, this same role is applied to a normal scene that we have done a number of times in this class and the effect is very interesting. It takes a lot of pressure off of the actors and it is a good technique for fixing scene problems and learning how to share the stage.

Next we return to gorilla theatre and teaching people how to direct a scene with a strong vision. Learn when to prompt actors and get what you need and want to fufill your vision of the scene. We do a few scenes that work well, and completely bomb with others.

The final work of the morning is learning about the gerbil exercise which is intended to teach commedians how to hold back on getting laughs from the audience. Each re-run of the scene the laugh should come a bit later. We bomb at this as well. We are too analytical at this point to make a decent audience.

July 30th, afternoon session. The last class!

You start by getting rid of the fear

Keith brings some masks. A few of our fellow participants also bring masks for us to try once again. It is magic. We put on the mask, know it won't look like it did when we held it. Keith puts a mirror to the mask and we let the mask make a sound and we try to hold it. We let the mask pick up objects from he prop table. Some of the masks have particular resonance with people and in such cases the trances are deeper and also more transformative. Keith mentions that small eyes in masks are particularly good for beginners because they cause you to move in a particular way. Masks tend to have the mental age of 2 1/2 or 3 years old. In teaching ourselves to use mask, one key is to stay longer with finding objects before you teach it to speak.

You don't know when you are in a trance, because you are in a trance. Shamans trick people into thinking the real world is magical. And it is.

We leave the masks for awhile and do an interesting exercise. You go around the room or outside and point at objects and yell at them a dissasociated name. I point at a couch and yell "Peach". We all point at differnt objects and do this for 15 seconds or so. We come back together and Keith tells us to look at each other, and asks whether we look in sharper focus to each other or are more blurry. Do we look smaller to each other or larger. Is there a broader spectrum of color on their clothes or fewer. Everyone appears to have the same answers to these questions. Why would that be so? It seems that the interruption of our normal brain perceptions has a trance like effect. It is like drugs. It is surprising and lovely.

Next we do a "What comes next" solo exercise. In this exercise the individual asks a mean parental voice "What comes next" and the mean parental voice (which the individual also voices) tells them what to do. Next we do this same exercise with a couple, one bringing the other home, each with their own mean parental voice as well as their own. This exercise is intersting to watch and also frees the actors from thinking. Starting out with the mean parental voice seems to the be easiest way to teach this exercise, but later you could move on to seductive voices or others.

These scenes are good for variety and contrast. Another way to approach or address the topic.

We return for a second series of interactions wtih the masks. These sessions evade language, but are wonderful. The mirror activates the mask. The training with masks is to sustain the state. The mirror helps sustain the state. After a while you don't really need a mirror, it just becomes a habit. Every once and a while you come upon a specific mask that has a profound effect on you, and it will be able to take you a long ways.

We now do the teenage scene. Two parents and a teenager coming home late from curfew. The parents fret over this tardiness. The teenager comes home and wants to go to their bedroom.

First the scene is played straight. Next Keith instructs them to make frightened yelps and sustain them all through the scene. In this version the people seem to automatically know what to do and have a difficult time stopping the scene once it is over. The teenage scene is done again with teeth bared and growling with a different interaction but still wholly involved. It is done again with heavy breathing. They are all more alive and interesting than the straight scene.

We do a simple exercise we did perhaps the first day. You touch the person next to you. In the second step, you touch the person next to you and make a satisfied sigh. There is a palpable difference.

Keith mentions that to a great extent talent is procedure, and lack of fear.

We are winding up the course and Keith repeats the main lessons.


  • Fear destroys talent

  • Start with fear and get rid of it.

  • Stop doing your best

  • When things are going badly, trying harder will not work.

  • Focus on Relationship, on making the other person look good.

  • If you focus on releasing the power in your partner you will get much better very quickly.

  • The key is to remove our blocks. Our desire to get it right.

  • Problems you run into are associated with your perception of other people's opinion of you.

  • It is all about how you can get yourself out of the way.

  • When it is wonderful, somehow it happens.

  • How in the hell can you get out of your own way?

And so the course ends. We have dinner tonight. The notes are a pale and partial reflection of an amazing experience that I know each of us will treasure, try to hold on to, and hopefully apply for our growth and that of our fellow improvisers.

Amen