Thursday, January 25, 2007

Zoinch! Zoinch? And The Art of the Circus Bow!

The games. Boy, the games. They were hilarious.

Tuesday evening was a first for me. Improvisation 101, my first class. Going in, I was both excited and nervous. I love to laugh and I love to make people laugh. I knew this was going to be fun. But I was worried that I wouldn't be able to pick it up -- that I wouldn't be able to think quickly enough.

Why take improv? Well, besides loving comedy, an article I read over Christmas break about improving communication for technologists suggested taking improv classes (I wish I could find the link). A week or so after that, I was talking to my friend Tim, and he mentioned that he was taking a highly recommended improv class in Austin. That was it -- I was in.

The classes are at the State Theatre School of Acting. Our teacher, Shana Merlin, or "Shapely Shana", as she came to be called in our alliterative adjective name game, led the class in a series of games designed to challenge common tendencies that are barriers to developing improv skills.

A big one is the fear of failure. Early on, Shana gave us a technique to deal with this, called the circus bow. You raise your arms, exclaim, "I have failed!", and take an extravagant bow. It's great for turning failures into celebrations, and the class would burst into laughter and applause every time. And there were many times, though I never obliged, partly because I kept forgetting.

One of the early games was the invisible ball. Everyone is in a circle tossing around a make-believe ball that makes a sound when you throw it. The thrower makes up a sound and throws it, and the catcher has to repeat the thrower's sound upon catching it. Then the catcher becomes the thrower, and must voice the ball's sound as it is thrown. It may sound simple, but it's surprising how easy it is to mess this up. Bows abound. There's also that desire to plan out your sounds, instead of reacting in the moment. That must be tempered in order to develop spontaneity.

Slow-motion samurai got us moving around. Each person's first two fingers are samurai swords, and their outer forearms are shields. A sword to any other part of the body means instant death. Oh, and everyone moves really slow. Lesson learned: It's hard to fight the temptation to speed up to dodge or block an incoming blow. This was about learning generosity: by dying, you're playing a part in the scene. Instead of making it about competition, it becomes about contributing to the scene -- dying becomes a great chance to express yourself and make people laugh!

And how can you not crack up when someone says, "Slow motion -- it's a bitch!", or someone else lets fly the first "fucktard"? There were quite a few games, and it was interesting to see the class grow more comfortable with failure and commitment with each one. I found myself thinking, 'If all we do is play these games, then this is a great time.' But Amateur Andy's developing mad new skillz at the same time!

Shana's Rule #1: Have fun. No problem!

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