The Groundlings School – Hollywood, CA – Level One: Basic – Days 11 & 12

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I can’t believe how fast my six weeks in Basic of The Groundlings School came and went. I’m a little homesick and still looking forward to driving back home to Arizona, but I’m also already feeling Los Angeles withdrawal knowing that I will be soon departing the land of entertainment dreamers like myself. I want to come back. After graduation, I will definitely be looking for jobs out in L.A. to finally make the move.
I was in redemption mode during the last week of class, in delusional hopes of redeeming my gradual performance regression throughout the course. I signed up for the twice-a-week for six weeks version of Basic, where our class met up every Wednesday and Friday afternoon from 3:00 pm to 6:30 pm. On the second to last day of class, we began with our usual Character Walk exercise on stage and used facial expressions this time to develop original characters and monologues. Next, we did “Last Letter” scenes, in which the first letter of the first word of a character’s dialogue would be based on the last letter of the word that the other character used in their dialogue. This took a lot of concentration and brainstorming on my part, but it was also a fun challenge for me. The following bullet points are the notes our instructor gave:

  • No frequent spacing between sentences.
  • Don’t look like you’re thinking. Stay in character’s emotional state to cheat the fact that you’re still thinking of what to say next.
  • Even if scene didn’t end up taking off, maintaining the use of improv techniques makes scene forgivable.

The last new thing we did that Wednesday were “Types” scenes, in which two students were each given a specific character trait that the others in class were not used to seeing them portray. Due to my frequent unrefined character choices, the suggested trait given to me was “classy.” =P This scene was yet again another scene in which I didn’t help establish the who, what, where and why right off the bat, but at least I was able to try and exercise a character choice I’m not used to doing. We were told to work on paying off the traits given to us a little more.

Then, Friday, June 14th came along: the final day of Basic in which I would find out my fate of one of the following results: passing and moving on to Intermediate, not passing but repeating Basic, or not passing and being dismissed from The Groundlings School forever. (Although, I’m sure the last outcome is reserved for hopeless and incorrigible troublemakers.) As much as I wanted to hear that I passed Basic, I also didn’t want an undeserved pass if I didn’t meet the high expectations. We began the last day of class with another Character Walk warm up where we each started out moving on stage like real animals (panthers). Then, we took some of those movements and personified those mannerisms into human characters with original monologues along the fourth wall. Finally, we each began the two rounds of scenes leading up to our one-on-one conferences with our instructor to find out our fates. In both of my two final scenes, I was paired up with a partner chosen for me. In the first scene, I played an Asian-American mother who had just finished sewing her daughter’s wedding dress, only to end up admitting to her daughter that she was biologically her mother but was originally conceived using her egg to be the child for another couple. Due to her strong attachment to her egg, my character had stolen her biological daughter from the couple to raise on her own, and hadn’t admitted this to her daughter until now. I know, pretty crazy story, but according to our instructor, it was the best work I had ever done in class, especially with my emotional escalation and commitment throughout the scene. To hear him say that I had finally met my “rite of passage” required for class was music to my ears as this is what I had been trying to figure out how to do. Too bad I hadn’t figured this out and been consistent with it earlier in the class, but hey, we each learn at our own pace. In my second scene, I fell back into my old habits of not being believable; not establishing the who, what, where and why at the very top of the scene; and not sticking to the first main idea/game introduced in the scene. I played a friend and/or babysitter (not clearly established), and I was at F.A.O. Schwartz with my friend/babysitting client in awe of all the toys because my character was not allowed to have toys as a child. This was definitely not the stronger scene of the two, but I was glad the first scene went well. After every student did their two finals scenes, we all left the classroom and waited in the break room down the hall to find out our results one-by-one.

Finally, my turn rolled around, and I sat once again in the “hot seat” with our instructor for my final conference with him. He asked if I had anything I wanted to say before he continued. I thanked him for everything I learned in class, and that even though this was the most challenging improv class I had ever taken, I was glad that it allowed me to grow. Then, he revealed my fate: I did not pass, but I’m eligible to retake Basic. I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I was going to feel since I also wanted to pass only if I deserved it, but it made me wish I had pushed myself harder in the beginning to get these concepts down to spare having to pay for this class again in the future. I was told that I am a funny person (thank goodness), but that I need to, of course, establish the who, what, where and why quicker at the top of the scene; work on matching my emotions to what I’m saying; consider taking acting classes, work on escalating emotions to a 10, and to work on being consistent overall. Then, our one-on-one conference pleasantly ended with a warm good-bye and send off back to my school and life back home in Arizona, and a quick promotion of this blog on my whole Basic experience. 🙂

Our whole class and our instructor all ended up hanging out at a local place called The Dark Room where we conversed, ate and drank before the The Groundlings School Advanced Improv Student Showcase on the new G3 stage at 8:30 pm. It was there where I found out that I was one of two people in class who had not passed to go onto Intermediate, but it was reassuring to also find out that two of those in my class who did pass had also not passed the first time they took Basic. I’m just glad I was given a second chance to prove I can do this. I will miss everyone I met during this L.A. improv journey, and I’m grateful for the mistakes I made and the knowledge and experiences I gained from taking this risk. This “groundling” will try again to climb out of the pit and onto that stage in the future. (I know, I couldn’t think of a better way to conclude this blog entry.) Thanks for reading!

– Angelie

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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 Eight

We spent the first half of class doing an exercise meant to help let us let go of the need to be perfect and prepared when it comes to initiating a scene. Our class formed a circle on stage, and we went around the circle by having each person loosen up either verbally or physically and then organically coming up with either an organic word, organic space work or an organic character. Notes I received on this exercise included play characters that are your own gender and have a “blank” brain when initiating anything on stage. Avoid pre-planning. I really enjoyed this activity because it took away the pressure of having to say the “right” thing when initiating dialogue, space work or a character.

After the break, we began a four-person exercise that involved three separate scenes on stage. I was one of the first four people to try this exercise, only to crash and burn. Our instructor was frustrated with us, especially me for not asking questions when I didn’t fully understand the exercise. Honestly, I felt embarrassed for screwing up, but I tried to bounce back by trying the exercise again in the last run, and I did okay. The following were the notes given in class:

  • One character leaves scene with same emotion, but makes sure next scene is unrelated.
  • More emotional commitment.
  • Each person is adding something by entering new scene.
  • Make sure to understand directions before we begin. Ask questions. Don’t waste time by being confused.
  • Jumping up and down to express happiness is not believable.
  • Only emotions transfer scene to scene.
  • Have a better and specific reason for leaving scene.
  • No racial stereotypes.
  • Fan the flames your partner’s emotions!
  • Find organic and realistic ways to fan partner’s emotion.

I felt a little bummed after class, but I got a confidence boost by attending a presentation at Groundlings on the following Tuesday called “Good Girls Aren’t Funny” by Holly Mandel, which basically addressed biological and historical reasons as to why women in comedy tend to hold back or react passively in improv performances. It was empowering, enlightening and motivating, and I highly recommend it to all female improvisers.

I wanted to change up how I blog here on WordPress, so I leave you with a short and sweet vlog that I shot the day of this class. Enjoy!

– 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