The Groundlings School – Hollywood, CA – Level One: Basic – Day: Two

Lifting a heavy, gigantic and imaginary manhole cover together as a class was the first thing on the agenda for day 2 of Basic. The point was learning how to use eye contact, visual awareness and mirroring to maintain continuity and preserve the believability of SPACE WORK. In improv, just what is space work? Space work, also known as object work, is basically pantomiming or pretending to use imaginary objects in space, typically along “the fourth wall,” to help establish the location and any other contexts of the scene. For those reading this who don’t know what the term “fourth wall” refers to, it is the fourth open plane facing the audience that serves as the “window” into the lives and environment of the characters in a scene on stage. It is preferred that space work be done along the fourth wall to allow the actions of characters and the interactions between characters to be easily seen by the entire audience. When everyone can see what is going on onstage, it helps to keep everything going on in context. For more on space work, watch this quick YouTube video:  The main notes given in class on space work were to use eye contact with scene partners and visual awareness of what others are doing to match what we are doing. Does the thickness of the part of the manhole cover I’m holding match the thickness of the other parts of the manhole that other scene partners are holding? Does my reaction to how heavy this imaginary cover is match the reactions of my scene partners? Checking in with others to match during space work helps to make the object more believable by maintaining continuity.

An emotional molding-imaginary-clay energy pass exercise and human machine group exercise followed this space work activity. These activities mainly helped us reinforce the Groundlings philosophy of “playing emotions to a 10” and how the energy and style of a group can be influenced by suggestions such as “Be ape-like.” Also, for the sake of variety and interest, group members should place themselves at different heights and positions during the human machine group exercise.

We took time during midway through class to all sit down and write notes. Here’s what they were:

4 THINGS YOU WANT TO GET OUT FIRST IN A SCENE BEFORE MOVING SCENE FORWARD

  1. WHO: Give characters at least names and relationships.
  2. WHAT: The actual activity. Answer the question “What is going on between them?”
  3. WHERE: Answer the question “Where am I within arm’s reach?”
  4. WHY: This is the most important piece of information. Answer the questions “Why is this happening, and why does this relationship exist as it does?”

5 WAYS TO ADD INFORMATION

  1. SPACE WORK: This is often neglected. Make sure it’s purposeful. Commit. It’s supposed to aid you. Use it to move scene forward.
  2. EMOTIONAL ADJUSTMENT: Express the most logical form of that emotion to the highest degree. This is Groundlings philosophy – “play to a 10.”
  3. CHARACTER: Another important aspect of the Groundlings philosophy. Finding ways to say things as this character would put it. See the world from their point of view. Allow them to have opinions. BE COMMITTED.
  4. STAGE MOVEMENT: Should be purposeful, NOT CONVERSATIONAL. Make statements with purpose. None of this “Hi, how are you?” or “I’m fine!” rubbish.
  5. DIALOGUE: Most naturally gravitate toward this. BE SPECIFIC and PURPOSEFUL, NOT CONVERSATIONAL. Again, make statements with purpose.

THE DON’TS

  1. DENYING: This is the cardinal sin of improv. Do NOT deny. Go along with whatever is offered. Do NOT have flat reactions on your face to whatever your scene partner does or says or else you will be an a$$hole.
  2. DON’T ARGUE: Just another form of denying. All this is is 2 people bashing heads; however, conflicts and arguments are different from each other. A conflict is a different point of view of an agreed issue. An argument is hostile nay-saying or anything that feels defensive like “No, I didn’t.”
  3. DON’T INSTRUCT, CONTROL OR TEACH: When you do these things, you’re basically turning your partners into puppets. People end up doing these in fear of reacting in real time to what is offered.
  4. DON’T ASK QUESTIONS: Make declarative statements. People end up doing this out of fear of not knowing what to do.
  5. DON’T PLAY CRAZY, DRUNK, ON DRUGS OR LITTLE KIDS: Not making these choices moves the scene forward. Making these choices makes the information from these characters unreliable. These character choices are bad choices as an actor. It’s okay for a character to be buzzed, but not overly intoxicated to the point where information given comes off as unreliable. Use characters who can give reliable information.
  6. DON’T PLAN: Even if you have a great idea, let it go if someone has already labeled key information about the scene. Talking about what’s going to happen in the future does nothing to benefit the scene.
  7. DON’T GO FOR THE LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR HUMOR (GOING BLUE): Bathroom humor/d!ck and f@rt jokes. These choices are made out of fear and panic. These choices are just low-brow, and hoping for the best in a dire moment to find something to say. It’s an uncreative way to go for a quick and cheap laugh. However, these choices are not completely out of the question. They just shouldn’t be random and come out of nowhere. Only bring up these topics if they are within the context of the scene and called for.

THE DOS

  1. YES, AND: Accept everything offered. Everything presented is TRUE!
  2. WATCH: There is something innate about watching. Check in and look at partner to know where everything is going to fit in.
  3. START EVERY SCENE WITH EYE CONTACT: It forces you to check in with what is going on in the scene. It’s innate and natural. As soon as you make eye contact, the situation becomes “well, this is happening.”
  4. DISCOVER: Emotional reactions can allow you to discover something about yourself.
  5. COMMIT: THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN IMPROV. If you commit, you will NEVER have a terrible scene. Granted, improv is a batting average, and you’re still going to suck sometimes. However, don’t sell yourself short.
  6. RAISE THE STAKES IN SCENES: Make things matter more and more. This does not mean incorporate conflict. “Peas-in-a-pod” characters are fun to watch.
  7. BE SPECIFIC: In space work. In emotion. In dialogue. In labels. BE SPECIFIC.
  8. TRUST: It can get panic-y on stage. Trust that your scene partner has good ideas. Trust yourself.

Toward the end of class, we did a lot of scene work, emphasizing the importance of expressing emotions to a 10, doing space work, establishing who/what with the first character, and establishing why/where with the second character. As I watched others’ scenes and heard feedback from our instructor Ian about the scenes I was in, I made a list of notes:

  • More fun to watch people who are vulnerable.
  • Physically hurting yourself as a response to what has been said is a choice done out of panic. Only express emotional reactions.
  • React to big emotion. Don’t just stand there!
  • Think about the context of what has just been said in relation to the relationship. EMOTIONALLY REACT TO IT!
  • Everything we do on stage is a window to every relationship/connection like in any television show, movie, improv show, etc. We watch the connection between or among the people in front of us.
  • Sense where the energy is going. In particular scene, the relationship shifted from a mother/daughter dynamic to a sisterly one.
  • No back-and-forth bickering.
  • No eye contact = unconnected
  • Have a reason for expressing an emotion. Don’t randomly react. Have a reason for doing so.
  • Don’t lose the energy after initiating it.
  • Have good characters.
  • Be okay with being vulnerable. Don’t always automatically choose to be a character who is uncomfortable with everything going on.
  • Confess your want as soon as possible. Don’t hold off for too long.
  • Close the physical gap between two characters at some point if relationship calls for it.
  • When in doubt for a character’s wants, FALL IN LOVE! If there is gray area, FALL IN LOVE!
  • It’s nice to add variety by not starting scenes with dialogue right away.
  • Don’t let emotion die.
  • Don’t linger on cute moments like long drawn-out hugs.
  • Choose to agree rather than attacking with sass from the get-go. No arguing.
  • Embrace labels.

At the end of class, we were all given a homework assignment. For the next class, we have to be prepared to pantomime a casual and real daily routine from our life such as brushing your teeth. We have to make sure we present it as natural as possible and that the imaginary objects we interact with are in the same places in space as they are in our real lives. We will mimic our everyday lives with real human emotions.

With all these significant improv rules presented, I leave you with a link to a video of the best improv performance ever recorded in human history: Puppet Blog Master of Improv Space Work. Enjoy!

– Angelie

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