On February 22nd, I performed at my improv level five grad show. From my initial impressions, I felt it was the second best of my three grad shows so far. Over the course of my classes, I have become more critical of my own performance. From a technical standpoint, the show was probably the best because of the lessons and skills I’ve learned over the course of the past few months. This was confirmed when I watched a level four grad show the following night. I was seated with three women who were part of our level three show. One of whom has continued on with me up to level six. The other two dropped out but might restart again. The two who dropped out were highly entertained. I on the other hand felt there were only two good scenes. My classmate also concurred with my opinion.
Prior to the show, I was nervous (as always). However, it wasn’t so much the anxiety of performing in front of a crowd but rather concern for the quality of the show. Up until level four inclusively, the framework of the shows were always self-contained scenes with their own parameters. As I described during my first show, level three culminated into “games”. These games are defined by their own rules and tropes. Level four opened up somewhat with open scenes ruled by the inspiration given to us by the audience, our scene partner(s) and our whims. If you bomb on stage, the teacher could mercifully cut it short or give direction. At level five, we had to learn to self-edit.
A long form improv show involves all the performers on stage who will weave a series of scenes based on a single inspiration rather than resetting to query the crowd. Long form involves a narrative structure, cutting away into non-sequitur à la Family Guy, an event in the past or following our inspiration for a concept introduced during the performance which could yield fruit. It is we the performers who had to make our own decisions when a particular scene would segue into another and how. The task of the instructor was to give us the proper techniques to judge when to do so and the most elegant tools to accomplish our transitions from one scene to the next.
Unlike most classes, as per our instructor, we were a very aggressive group when it came to scene edits during class. Our show was to be a twenty minute set. From our practice runs we easily made it into double digits where other groups might struggle to get eight (we regularly hit 14). While this isn’t an issue in itself, problems did occur when some scenes didn’t have sufficient time to even establish platform (who, what, where) before changing into something else entirely. One egregious example involved a scene edit before the performers had even uttered a single word. For the most part, the same individuals took up the lion’s share of the edits. Out of a group of seven performers, we had three very aggressive editors, two were about average in number, one was very timid and finally myself.
Our instructor pointed out I was very prone to make a quick or subtle joke instead of playing the character on stage. I feel the aggressive nature of the edits reinforced this tendency somewhat as I was half-expecting to be edited out at any moment. Improv was about comedy, I reasoned, so I should get in a joke. One scene midway through the session, I found myself glancing towards the others to see if anyone was moving to edit after most of my own lines. Strangely enough, during practice I was usually involved in the longest scenes or series of scenes. Most often, these were when I was playing the situation a bit more straight. I haven’t found the correct balance yet but the criticism is well-deserved and I continue to try to practice on it. Instead, I do feel I was laying the groundwork for others. On the other hand, he did compliment my timing on my edits, particularly with “palette cleansers” set to end a series of scenes or begin a new series. As the classes went on, I took a back seat for the editing and looked more to bookend our performances into “chapters” or “acts” and leaving the twists and turns to the others. I felt this would serve the troupe best.
With an audience of one (our instructor), it was more difficult to gauge when to finish a scene on a high note. We had to judge for ourselves while paying very close attention to each detail should we wish to re-use elements of that scene for a transition or to revisit later. Nevertheless, he was very good at pointing out when a scene ran its course.
The Big Show
Unlike the previous two shows I was involved in, my class shared stage with another class. The show itself was split into three groups, our class performed the second half. The first group was still too large for a single set, and they made two groups although with two members pulling double duty.
As the other class’ performance went on, I felt my anxieties for the show had taken life on stage. To be polite, they struggled. One individual in particular seemed intent to dominate the show through her performance and her editing. I feared something similar might transpire as nerves would get the best of us. My best friend summed it up with a single look of mild disdain when he congratulated me on the success of our part of the show.
We started with three open scenes to warm ourselves up on stage. I was on stage for the third, but did get involved in the second. The scene began with two bar owners lamenting the failure of their bar. When the third performer, a barfly, went to play a song on the jukebox to commemorate the good times, I yelled out “WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?” to a good reaction from the crowd. The women on stage rolled with it and ended the scene with the line: “You really know how to pick the appropriate song.”
For my scene, our instructor gave the audience the choice of location between a church or a strip club. Surprisingly, they voted for the church. We both knelt into a praying position once the lights came up. My scene partner endowed us as an engaged couple. Her character was not religious and was trying to share my character’s faith. I initially blocked the proposal in favour of a quick joke but when she reworded the request to say “I pray and pray and get no answers to my questions.” I caught on. At that point, I decided to have my character offer to pretend to be god and try to answer said questions. In a booming voice, I asked her to ask away and we played a game of her criticizing my character’s habits while I, pretending to be god, was trying to excuse himself. The scene was a big success and got us ready for the long form set.
Our inspiration for the set was “Scrabble”. Each of us then yelled out a word inspired “algebraically”. By algebraically, our instructor explained it as a word association in two steps. So A (Scrabble) to B to C. Mine was “Operation”.
I stepped forward, mimicking a surgeon scrubbing his hands before surgery. One of the women stepped forward, and I endowed her as a nurse, asking her about the surgery. Once she responded, I told her I needed her help; she had to drive me back home as my wife recently left me. One of the other women tapped the nurse out and then played the ex-wife who lamented that I was too intent on scrubbing my hands she feared I’d be left only with bloody stumps. I replied it was a fear I shared since my hands were so important. Off stage, the teacher went to give a queue to talk about the hands although I already planned to do so. I began to explain how as a surgeon my hands were a gift and had power over life and death. I then wanted to tell the wife my character had already explained why he would make love to her wearing mittens, but I mispoke and said “muffins”. The crowd erupted in laughter as I caught myself a half-second too late. Before I could recover, the nurse came back on stage, spread her arms wide and exclaimed: “Make love to me with your muffin mittens!”
We had won over the crowd after the slow start. My confidence on stage grew and I found myself occasionally taking the lead as the crowd feedback was always positive to my performance. It was the only time I was on stage where I didn’t feel any anxiety or nervousness.
I won’t go into too many details on the entirety of the show, but I really liked the contributions of my scene partners in the final scene I initiated to end the show. I grabbed a chair and sat at the fore of the stage. I pretended eating something, moaning loudly in enjoyment. When the first scene partner stepped forward, I did not hesitate and told her: “This birthday cake is soooooo goooooood.” My ex-coworkers, had they attended, would have recognized I was imitating one of them. Pleased at my reception, she endowed herself as a caterer or waitress at a fancy restaurant. When I asked what was in it, she listed out an overly complex list of ingredients for a mild crowd laugh. I extended my compliments to chef Henri for having outdid himself but she chose to endow the role to another person had someone wanted to come in as such. She followed by asking if everything was satisfactory. As she didn’t quite get the hint of me wanting to bring in a third person to end the show, I then added: “Well, I think this cake would be excellent for my 4 year old daughter’s birthday party.” A call back to the extravagant ingredients, but then expressed hesitation. “I think I need a second opinion.” The timid woman did not miss a beat and stepped forward. “I got your text.” I offered her to taste the cake, resulting in:
I began wiping her face she continued to be on a roll with her lines: “No daddy, I’m saving that for later.” When asked if she liked the cake, she wanted it to have ketchup to the horror of the caterer. I stood up from my seat assertively and proclaimed: “If my daughter wants ketchup on her birthday cake, she’s going to get ketchup!” In reaction to the bold move, the caterer cowered in fear and the daughter sweetly uttered her appreciation with a “Yay, daddy!” to close the show.
All in all, I was largely satisfied with my performance except for blocking my partner initially in the open scene in the church and another scene which was cut just before I had the opportunity to build something with it. The moment lost, I chose not to revisit it. After class, three of us went out for drinks. After some discussion, I considered my options for the next session whether or not to move on to level 6. The woman who had watched my ex-troupe’s level 4 show was far more critical of the show than I was. Although, I agree with her assessment on some parts of the show which could have been better, I was disappointed she was “stuck” in bad scenes either because of over eager edits from the other performers. She never got a chance to shine and I think she felt discouraged as the night show went on. After a lengthy discussion, I chose to move forward and to audition for some of the house teams at the theater. The latter will be addressed in my next blog post.