By Rebecca MacMillan
Magnus J. MacMillan wearing team colours!
It’s great to get back to working with the Maydays again following the birth of my little boy Magnus. Sleep dep does funny things to your improv; it turns off the over-thinking bit of your brain that tries too hard to be clever and funny, but sends you straight back into your old carefully ironed-out go-tos if you aren’t careful – in my case asking too many questions & always initiating with high-status characters.
My new tiny scene partner, 3 months old today, is now starting to enjoy expressing himself (as you can see). He smiled at 4 weeks or so, but it’s only in the last fortnight that he has learnt to laugh, which as an improviser was a milestone I was really looking forward to.
Very cute - but what’s all this baby stuff got to do with improv? Well, being a bit of a perfectionist I am completely unable to just ‘wing it’ with parenting and have been reading a careful selection of books to point me in the right direction. One of these books is interesting for parents and non-parents alike: Playful Parenting
by Lawrence J. Cohen talks about the importance of children’s play to help them work their stuff out, bond with each other/parents, and generally learn about the world and how to function well within it. There's loads of great advice about getting stuck into play with kids to help maximise its benefits, remembering to reconnect with them and ultimately fixing things that are malfunctioning in their lives and the modus operandi of the family. It’s also one of those books where you wish you could meet the person that wrote it because they sound really nice and their anecdotes are so heart-warming.
Back to the point: it struck me that actually much of the advice resonated with ideas and techniques we use when teaching adults improv. In the first stages of, say, a beginners’ course we are often just teaching people how to play again after years of striving to appear grown up and sensible, and giving them the space to do this; and I guess it’s not so surprising that students use improv classes as a catalyst to change their lives, and to work through stuff that’s bothering or blocking them, as much as to actually become improvisers.
Certainly improv can be very useful as a therapy – but just as children’s play can become aimless and stuck, or repetetive, or disconnected, or even destructive, so can your improv. For our improv to be alive, vibrant and joyful, we need to strive to stay in a space where it is still challenging but, above all, genuinely playful. Not try-hard playful in an ‘I’m crazy me so I’m going to have a very silly voice and use the word BADGER loads’ way, nor indeed going beserk in a disconnected and ungrounded way – rather, I mean having the sense that, strongly connected to your fellow improvisers, you could go anywhere – you could even end up flying on stage, seamlessly supported by your scene partners. That edge where you are fully engaged in play is scary as well as exhilarating, and it is very easy to lose it to ego, to the comfort of familiar forms, skills or characters, to concentrating on something like the framework of your show (for instance, in a Harold, finding yourself thinking ‘what happened in the last beat?’ is a warning sign). It is natural when you are concentrating hard on mastering something new to lose your sense of play for a bit, but I think it's really important to make sure that’s temporary.
As I get back into rehearsing I'm going to need to keep all this in mind. I’ve been nervous about ‘catching up’ with the group following the maternity gap: complete with three new Maydays-in-training they have been working together intensively with two specialist improvisers from the US, and they have been developing a brand new show for the Brighton Fringe, ‘The Fringe Show’. I must make sure that I don't concentrate so hard on getting my skill level and group integration back on spec that I lose the joy. They say that you teach what you need to learn, so here's some thoughts and ideas for individuals and troupes who feel the need to find the play again. Have fun trying these - any other ideas or suggestions please stick them in a comment.
- Always warm up before rehearsals - use this time to reconnect with each other. There are lots of things you can do, but physical and eye contact is important, as is the chance to have a quick personal verbal catch up on what you’re feeling and what you’ve been doing since the last rehearsal. If you can hang out together after rehearsals and shows, or even better have fun outside of improv (book a booth at a Karaoke bar or go to Laser Quest, or something), then all the better.
- Your warm-ups don’t really need much structure and should be beautiful and silly – here are two examples
1) Lie down in a circle with your heads on each others’ stomachs. Once someone starts laughing, the person’s head on their stomach bobs up and down starting them laughing – it’s great, try it.
2) ‘Kick the can Marco’ – one person shouts out ‘let’s play [insert name of random made-up game here]’ and everyone else shouts ‘yes, let’s’. Without instruction, in freeform style, you find how to play the new game together in the same way that children would – establishing rules and playing until it feels like it’s the right time for someone else to shout out to play a new game.
- Appoint an artistic director and let them be preoccupied with and manage the serious stuff around what you are doing and how well you are doing it. Beyond the ins and outs of artistic development and direction, make sure that things that feel like admin or business gets dealt with in a distinct time slot and preferably entirely separately from your rehearsal.
- Artistic directors: make sure that in your efforts to hone specific skills or crack a specific form the troupe have not lost their playfulness, and if they are in danger of this plan in some sessions purely devoted to getting it back – either by dedicating time to exercises in playfulness and reconnecting, or alternatively by doing something entirely different but that is both scary and fun - like getting in someone to do some improv music coaching if you don’t do singing in your shows, or if you aren’t a particularly physical troupe get a dance instructor in for a session. Sending people off in small groups to come up with some new game or form and then getting everyone back together to do a show and tell is a great one too.
- If you are focussing hard on form, skills or something that’s bothering you whilst improvising, then you’re probably too in your head to have fun. I’ll never forget what Jet Eveleth, one of our teachers from iO in Chicago, said about this: “Your mind has police, your body doesn’t have police – so go with your body”. Get physical.
- Constantly change up what you are focussing on and actively set yourself challenges - be it accents, status, singing, whatever – stay in that ‘scary but exciting’ place. If you find this hard try improvising as impressions of other people – famous people and people you know. It can be secret or you can get people to guess at the end of the rehearsal.
- Inspiration trumps obligation – especially in rehearsal give yourself permission to go for the slightly risky but really fun thing to do, rather than safer options.
I was teaching a while ago when one of the students, started to look at me in a strange way, with an almost mystical look in his eye. When I asked why he told me that the excercise I was describing was almost exactly what he had been taught by his Aikido instructor a few weeks before. We talked after class and this led to me investigating a little further into what I have found to be the many links between Japanese Martial arts and improv (the links between Buddhism and improv have already been well documented) so what follows are my top 10 philosophical and strategic martial arts concepts which can also be applied to your scene work:
1. MUSHIN– Without mind.
‘Achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger fear or ego during combat OR everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgement so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without disturbance from such thoughts.’ Surely this is the state that all improvisers strive for (or Should do), the best improv happens when you stop listening to your inner critic and just inhabit the scene or character in the moment. I think when Improvisers start out, it’s almost impossible to achieve this state, as they are constantly worrying about what they are doing wrong. The beauty of improv is that you can’t do it wrong.
2. AIKI – Joining energy. Energy matching.
Oh, how I was excited to see the term energy matching used within a Martial arts context. This is the exact term we Maydays use to describe the technique of mirroring from within a scene. Here it is in the context of your opponent but in improv, matching your scene partner’s energy, demeanor, stance and point of view can be an extremely strong place to start your scene. Quite often we’ll go for conflict right at the top of a scene whereas sometimes it’s nice to just see two characters in their world going about their business. How often do we see conflict in everyday life? Whereas we see energy matching everywhere in groups of people e.g the football fans, the Hen do, the WI meeting. It’s always interesting to watch.
3. KOKORO – Heart, character, attitude.
It’s essential to enter any scene with a strong point of view, whatever that is, even if you’re working from nothing. ‘Character’ also doesn’t necessarily have to be about your ability to play different roles. Del Close spoke of wearing characters like a thin veil, so while Character is a great tool, some of my favourite improviser’s only ever play themselves. However they will play themselves afraid, agitated, happy or themselves as they really would be in space for example. An attitude to what you’re doing will transform the scene.
These are hard (goho) and soft (juho) methods or initiations - just like improv! We talk about hard initiations as verbal offers or clearly formed premises. Whereas a soft initiation might involve starting a mimed physical activity or merely making an emotional noise with NO idea of what your scene is about. How do you initiate your scenes? Do you always come on with a fully formed idea or do you always follow your scene partner? While in this case juho method refers to a counter attack, it can often feel sometimes in a scene that one improviser will wait to ‘counter’ the opening scene offer of the other. Does every scene need an attack and counter attack? Probably not, but it is always good to notice if you are habitually doing one or the other Interestingly Shorinji Kempo say ‘as the degree of training increases, Goho and Juho progress toward becoming a single body of techniques.’ Hopefully as we become more experienced as improvisers it also becomes imperceptible (at least to an audience) what role each improviser is playing.
5. Fudoshin - Immovable mind, immovable heart
In improv terms this really reminded me of the old adage of ‘don’t drop your shit.’ (Incidentally, the internet attributes this saying to Susan messing of The Annoyance in Chicago). Not ‘dropping your shit’ can be an incredibly powerful tool for making your character’s more grounded, believable and invested. We often talk about the importance of allowing your character to be changed but it can be equally important to stay with the offers you made at the top of your scene. If you do or say anything, the audience sees it and wants to believe that every move has a special significance to the scene. I will be blogging about ‘not dropping your shit’ again soon.
6.Zanshin - Awareness – of relaxed alertness
This idea seems to parallel well with the importance of listening in improv. So many listening excercises aren’t necessarily about hearing but about a deeper awareness of noticing every signal being given off in the scene. I stumbled across this saying; "When the battle is over, tighten your chin strap." This refers to constant awareness, preparedness for danger and readiness for action - I love this!
7.Shoshin - Beginners mind
This term is used also used in Zen Buddhism and encourages openness, eagerness and a lack of preconceptions. I hope this is especially relevant to very experienced improvisers. We are lucky enough to be striving for the holy grail of the perfect scene or show but no matter how long you do it, you’re never guaranteed to have cracked it. This impermanence is what makes improv especially exciting as an art form and also means that wherever we are on our improv path there is alsways a level playing field in the scene.
8. Shuhari - 3 stages of learning
Shuhari roughly translates to "first learn, then detach, and finally transcend." and is a way of thinking about how you learn a technique. The idea is that a person passes through three stages of gaining knowledge. In improv we are ultimately striving for a state of mindfulness when we are on stage but this can be hard at first. While there are many accepted rules for improv it is easy to ask the question ‘How can there be rules for something that is made up?’ There are some principles that will help and guide us in the beginning that we need to stick with it at first e.g avoiding questions, saying yes. Sometimes once an improviser has heard that you must say yes on stage it’s likely that they’ll delight in telling you when you haven’t. First off, it’s never cool to pass judgement on someone else’s work (unless they’ve asked you to!) but second of all once you’ve been improvising a while then I actively encourage you to break the rules.
9. Suki – timing
Suki is all about timing. In martial arts Suki refers to the moment a mistake is made by your opponent and provides your opportunity to strike. In improv these ‘mistakes’ are gifts and provide an opening for us to discover what is unusual and interesting about the scene. If a word is stumbled over for example then in improv this could be the invention of a whole new word. From my tiny amount of research this also relates closely to the concept of ‘maai’ meaning the level of engagement with your partner - another concept which is essential for improv.
Is described in Japanese martial arts as ‘an early glimpse into Enlightenment’ Carrying on with my mixed religion holy grail metaphor I would describe Kensho as the feeling you get in Improv after HAVING A GOOD SHOW!
Stayed tuned for part two when we do Aikido with a bunch of Improvisers and Improv with a bunch of Aikido masters and find out just how inaccurate this blog really is!
In our current era of information overload and instant everything it seems that our attention spans are getting shorter. Much of our mental processing gets taken up by screening out input in order to find the information that we need. Personally I find it extremely difficult to use a browser that does not have Adblock Plus installed - and also set to exterminate graphical ads! At the same time we are constantly seeking opportunities to connect with like minded people and engage in meaningful and beneficial ways. This requires us to focus our attention in the present moment and bring as much of ourselves to the conversation as possible. The balancing act we are called upon to carry off is one of staying sane under a barrage of stimuli while being open to the possibilities that arise through engaging fully with clients and colleagues. It is my experience that the practice of simple improvisation techniques support the resilience to forge through the clutter while retaining access to the flexibility and enthusiasm that opens doors. Listening is a basic requirement for human interaction and the bad news is that real listening seems to have become a lost and mysterious art practiced only by a select few. The good news is that it only takes us a split second to recognise that we are not listening to another person and use the awareness to jolt ourselves rapidly back into
the room. Opportunity appears and disappears on a moment to moment basis and the habit of relaxed alertness means we are here for more of the time and therefore for more opportunities.
I was fortunate to take part in a recent workshop where the Maydays were coached in one specific improvisation technique by the superb Brandon Gardner from the Upright Citizens Brigade. We focused on "Game of the Scene" which meant that we were identifying the patterns that naturally arise in conversations in order to consciously use them to construct satisfying comedic situations. The game of the scene is the structure that underlies such classics as the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch or Four Candles by the Two Ronnies. By establishing a pattern that the audience recognises comedians let them in on the joke and simply have to repeat the pattern to elicit increasing doses of laughter. The audience is subconsciously saying "Do it again!" once they have spotted the pattern. The energy between the performers increases as more emotion is evoked by playing the game e.g. John Cleese's rising and unsuccessfully suppressed frustration at not being able to name a cheese that was in stock. To be able to spot and play the game of a scene while improvising the scene requires discipline, trust and practice and when it comes together we are truly in the flow with our stage partner, the audience and ourselves
When we are able to identify a pattern in a conversation in our regular or professional lives we have an invitation to increase rapport with the other person and to explore and to mutually create new possibilities which would otherwise be missed. By listening for the golden moment we can add our "yes" and start to build a foundation to support collaborative creativity and shared opportunity. Every manufactured material object in our physical environment began as an idea that the inventor said "yes" to and then got agreement from someone else. If you reach out and grasp a man made object right now then you are holding the result of an improvised string of "yes's" - including the "yes's" that lead you to be in the proximity of that object right now. Every project, team or company is the result is a string of "yes's" and continues to exist through an unfolding stream of "yes"
When we fully embrace, create and share success then we must embody the basic principles of improvisation Listen, Say Yes and Commit. Otherwise everything fizzles and dribbles away into the ether. So whether you are listening intently to a client talking about a big exciting new project or a knotty problem that needs solving or you are just having a laugh with a friend, then in that moment you are merging with the underlying miraculous creative pattern of the biggest game of the scene we know of - life on Earth. Enjoy the ride!
by Joe Samuel
One of the joys of improvisation as a musician is the freedom from the ominous accuracy required when playing written music. So much store is set by striving for perfection when playing pieces that are written into the universal psyche of pianists across the centuries. How can I even dare to sit at my keyboard and bash out Bach’s Goldberg Variations unless I have at least a 99% hit rate on the notes? Our ears are trained by listening to the best players in the world calmly trotting out fiendish pieces on recordings. Often a few recordings spliced together just to make sure that there is not a missed semiquaver hidden somewhere.
So when I sit down and improvise, the imaginary audience of critics, eager to pounce on my every mistake vanishes, and I am left free to make my own mistakes and justify them however I like. Does this mean that less accuracy is acceptable when improvising? How should I sit down and practise when I don’t know what it is I shall be playing? Here is the downside, for nothing in life is free.
Playing music from a score provides an instant measure for how much I am improving. It also provides a tangible structure to my practise, rewarding me at frequent intervals with mini-achievements. If there is a bar of music I cannot play, I need only break it down into its component parts, practise them and then stitch it back together. The only prerequisite for improving is time.
If I come across a passage that is technically beyond me, I can work on exercises that train my fingers towards that skill, and then apply the skill to the piece. In this way I improve through a series of quantative tasks, enjoying hearing each step of progress.
Practising for improvising feels like a far fuzzier affair. After all, I cannot improvise beyond my own abilities, so I can only hope that by playing and improvising more, I will get better at improvising. There is a far less immediate sense of satisfaction, and far less sense of improving technically at what I am doing. So it is easy just to think that I will get better by osmosis. This is a critical error of thinking.
I cannot learn a piece of music that is beyond me technically simply by trying to play it. I know this because I have tried it. I have to break it down and drill into the specific technical skills required. So it is with improvising, and not just musical improvising. We have to run those skills, drills and exercises constantly, and also push our core skills to new places in order to improve at what we do on
stage. Practise is not just about repetition either. Research has shown that there is a zone we can achieve when practising where we learn extremely efficiently. Here is a quote from a New Scientist article on the subject:
“Flow typically accompanies these actions. It involves a Zen-like
feeling of intense concentration, with time seeming to stop as you focus
completely on the activity in hand. The experience crops up repeatedly when
experts describe what it feels like to be at the top of their game, and with
years of practice it becomes second nature to enter that
So we must create an atmosphere in rehearsal that allows us to focus completely on a specific skill, and we should be aware what
that skill is. If we are focussing on listening then we should warm up with listening exercises while thinking about listening.We are trying to adhere to this in our rehearsals with The Maydays at the moment. It is not easy when you have a room fool of talented people, and all you feel you want to do is scenes and songs and having fun. It is not easy when we do not have a finely calibrated measure of skill levels. It is not easy when you
can’t see the results immediately.
But since when was the easy