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

Ten classes down, two to go. The feelings I walked away with after dismissal were enlightened, urgency (partially because I had to use the bathroom) and some discouragement, as oxymoronic as that sounds. I have maintained my enlightened feeling since starting classes at the Groundlings because the specific, detailed and demanding curriculum has influenced me to only make purposeful and detailed statements in improv scenes and has shown me how high emotional stakes really make a scene more entertaining to watch. However, I also feel a mixture of urgency and discouragement after being called out in class for not committing in certain exercises and by not paying attention to details, such as where someone left off in their space work. I feel an urgency to reach both my full potential as an improviser and to pass Basic. I feel discouragement because given the detailed negative constructive criticism of my less-than-stellar performance in class, I now feel that I have blown my shot at passing this class as there are only two classes left, and I should have instilled the philosophy of commitment in myself at this point in the course. Even if I’m granted another and only chance to retake Basic, it would be a lot more satisfying to know that a Groundlings teacher trusts my abilities as a performer to take on Intermediate, but I know I have to prove myself first. Hopefully I haven’t blown my shot at passing, but I will find out the truth and verdict on the last day of class: Friday, June 14th.

For class #10, we did the following activities: character walk (leading with body parts), cues (highlighting each performer’s idiosyncrasies in scenes), movie translating (the activity in which I crashed and burned and where two people do a scene of a foreign movie speaking in jibberish and the two other people sit down and translate for the audience in English) and finally a round of general improv scenes to close out class.

Until next time,

Angelie

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

Class began with a two-line exercise with one half of the class on one side of the stage and the other half on the opposite side of the stage. In this exercise, one student from one of the lines would initiate space work as well as exhibiting non-verbal character traits. Next, another student from the opposite line would come further downstage to observe the other student and proceed to name that person and describe their character’s personality and physicality. The whole exercise was a great way of demonstrating how a person moves and carries herself or himself communicates a huge amount of information about their personality, life experiences and how they see the world.
Next, we did a run of two-person scenes in which each person was given a different personality trait to continuously express throughout the scene. The first group was given the personality traits of stuck up and lewd. The following notes were given:

  • Eye contact!
  • Immediacy of why we are watching this moment.
  • Pay off the trait way more.
  • For sad characters that may be withdrawn, they have to find some way to talk.
  • Don’t forget the “who.”

Then, we did a round of two-person dramatic scenes, which was definitely different from what we’ve been working on in class so far. We were told that we were good at not portraying characters as cartoon-like or outlandish, and that we just need to work on specifics, making more vulnerable choices and raising the stakes (exploding).

Then, it was back to doing a round of comedic two-person scenes. One note given was to be aware of what our body language expresses, such as crossing arms communicates defensiveness. We were also praised for our very supportive energy in class today! Other notes during this exercise included the following:

  • Stay in character.
  • We want to see big reactions.
  • Making it matter is a choice. Most people wouldn’t overreact, so we have to find the characters who will.
  • Have a compelling reason to be there. Don’t make the audience feel like you want to leave.

Lastly, our class was introduced to long form improv. (Even though some of us are familiar with it. I’m looking at you Torch Theatre in Phoenix!) The only difference in style at the Groundlings is that loud claps are used to edit scenes besides touching another improviser to tag them out of the scene. We were told we had an entertaining run, but that we just had to be careful not to dwell on one idea in scene after scene and to not depend so much on “blue” humor, although he found it funny. After those notes, class was adjourned. Seven classes down, five more to go!

– Angelie

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