Friday, October 15, 2010

Cake! Caaake!

A dear friend of mine sent me a link to this post by Hyperbole and a Half, which chronicles our hero Allie's psychological meltdown when she can't have cake.

I felt this way about improv in the year after graduation. Rather, I would have felt this way if I hadn't been too sick to do stand up without passing out for those first few months. After that was over, though, I had crazy, get-out-of-my-way improv withdrawal.

Improv is my cake. Cake is also my cake. The following is improv nerdiness, interspersed with cakes!

Lauren and I made this for a friend's birthday. My mom probably helped with the icing.

I've used baking as a metaphor for improv when people in my workshops ask me why their scenes aren't working even though they're working hard on accepting, heightening, making strong offers, what have you. It's because that's not improv, really; those are just tools to help your improv be less sloppy.

If improv were a cake, technique would be the wooden spoon and mixing bowl and spatula. It'd be really messy to make a cake without those things. But if all you have is a really great bowl and spoon and spatula, you'll still go hungry. At least, hungry for cake. 

Time would be the oven, the form would be the cake pan. Cupcakes have the potential to be as delicious as bundt cakes, layer cakes, or crazy sculpted cakes; short form can be as fun as Harold and Armando. They're different shapes in which to pour your awesome scene work.

I made this cake for my friend Meredith, who is a vegetarian.

There is no definitive list of what to put in a cake to make it a good cake, just some general guidelines. Most cakes have some combination of eggs and flour and sugar and milk. Some have cream cheese or carrots or cocoa; some are vegan or gluten-free. It's a lot of stuff that wouldn't necessarily taste good on its own but works in combination with the other flavors to make something new. There's flexibility there, as long as you keep your proportions reasonable and your ingredients are good quality.

Most scenes have some basic ingredients, too: relationship, character, environment, game, and probably more I can't think of. Or fewer, depending on the kind of scene.

If your milk's gone rancid or your sugar has ants, your cake will be awful. Your cake pan and egg beaters might have been fine, but that doesn't save your cake. There's no sense investing in an expensive Kitchen-Aide mixer if you're not going to bother with your ingredients and proportions.

And once in awhile, for some inexplicable reason, a cake with all those great ingredients still doesn't turn out the way it's supposed to, and you can't always know why. You just have to double-check your ingredients, clean up your tools, and try again.

My mom probably did not help with this icing. This is all me.

FURTHERMORE. You don't have to have icing for a good cake. In fact, bad icing will ruin an otherwise good cake, and good icing won't save a gross cake. If I have to chose between a cake with bad icing and a cake with no icing, I'll pick no icing.

And I'll take a good, interesting scene that doesn't me laugh over a weak scene dripping with gags. Even good icing doesn't make up for bad cake, and funny jokes don't make up for shoddy scene work.

Truth: Icing is my favorite part of cake. But it gives me a stomach ache to eat it by itself. Good icing on good cake, though? Life doesn't get better. I mean, improv doesn't get any better. That distinction keeps blurring these days.

I wonder if the same could be said for many art forms, like writing and painting. Technique helps so much. But if there's not something the technique is serving, if its for its own sake, then you have some lovely shiny clean dishes and nothing to eat.

This is from when my mom pretended it was my birthday so my friends would come over and watch Schindler's List.


Caleb said...

Laterly, I'm convinced that trust is one of the most important elements. With it, you can do amazing things together; without it, you've got mushy, half-baked batter. You might compare the level of trust to the appropriate oven temp. It sets the atmosphere where good improv can happen.
I've been in a couple of pick-up gigs lately. The players have never even met before, but we did some great improv together because we willingly extended our full trust to each other. And when I jumped on that guy's back, he just flew me around the stage. Did I know his name? Not really. Did I believe that he would play along? Absolutely.

lauren said...

Great. Now I want cake!

Alyssa K said...

Re: Caleb - Oh, I like that! It's strange but true that trust does not necessarily have anything to do with how long you've been playing together.

Martyn Wendell said...

Meredith is a vegetarian???

Steve said...

This changes EVERYTHING!