Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Del Close on Harold and Rhymes

I stumbled upon this 1986 video of Del Close talking about Harold.

"By this time, the scenes are beginning to relate, ... to rhyme with each other in some mad, conceptual way."

I love that idea, the idea that scenes can rhyme with one another. I'm horrible at actual rhyming games, where I'm asked to make up a song and have it make sense and be in rhythm on top of making it rhyme. I'm always the first out in elimination rhyme games like "Da Doo Run Run" and "Beastie Rap."

But I am good at seeing patterns within individual scenes and over the big picture of the show. I had never thought of those patterns as rhymes before, but they kind of are. Different scenes that have the same taste to them, characters whose motivations echo one another's, status interactions that parallel each other, objects and gestures that take on new significance each time they are used.

I love mad, conceptual rhymes.

Fellow improvisers, can you spot the following in the Del interview?
  • At least one sentence that is quoted word-for-word in Charna Halpern's Art By Committee
  • A performer who is currently famous (by improv standards) but is not mentioned at all in Del's monologue
  • An unattributed Keith Johnstone quote
  • A thinly veiled criticism of 1980's Second City

Friday, November 12, 2010

Harold with Your Eyes Closed

When I teach improv workshops or coach troupes, my first order of business is to get them comfortable with Harold. Harold is the simplest long form, but it is not necessarily easy. To an audience, it looks like an improvised play. To an improviser, the breakdown looks something like this:

Infographic by Dyna Moe, via Story Robot
Harold gets a lot of flack. Some workshops and troupes have told me Harold is too basic for them and they want to move on to something more sophisticated. (Ironically, those are usually the groups who don't do well with risk, and their Harolds are dull as a result.) Others have told me they didn't want to do Harold because it was impossible. (Maybe it is impossible, but I've seen it done so many times, and I've done it myself.)

Harold is an excellent barometer for how a troupe is really doing, especially when it comes to spotting games and patterns, heightening, and reincorporation. No one moves past Harold. Your Harolds get weirder or more elegant as you grow as a player and as a troupe, but a good Harold is never boring. If you can do Harold, you can do anything.


Some friends and I have been getting together for the past several weeks to work on our improv. There are six or seven of us, depending on the night, and we are called Stradivarius and the Other Kinds. We were each in wheatonIMPROV, but we had never all played together. We were in different eras of the club and on different troupes. Given the range of experience, I foresaw our practices being a little rocky as we fought to reconcile our various approaches to improv and life.

So I was wonderfully surprised when, twenty minutes into our first practice, the group mind clicked. I think it was because of the following two things: (1) We respect one another, despite not have much shared stage time under our belts, and (2) we all have a thorough grasp of Harold. We could do a Harold with our eyes closed. In fact, that is exactly what we did. ...  More on that later.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Relearning Church through Improv

Confession: Church did not teach me how Christians should act.

Church -- at least, the two churches I grew up in -- modeled for me that when two Christians disagree, one of them is wrong and needs to repent so the other one can lord their mistakes over them and call it forgiveness.

I learned that the best response to conflict is to quit and start another church two miles away and force people to choose whom they like best pray about where God is leading them.

I discovered that the key to avoiding these kinds of conflicts is to seem pulled together and in control. One easy way to do that is to volunteer to give announcements at youth group. Anyone on stage must have things all figured out, right?

Especially, I saw that the more you respect and trust a leader, the more devastating it is when they fail or they turn on you, and that those relationships are irreperable.

There were a few bright spots -- Heartbeat in seventh grade comes to mind, as well as some good conversations with youth leaders -- but those were the exceptions. Mostly, I collected compelling reasons not to trust people.

I didn't unlearn all of this mistrust until I started doing improv at Wheaton. I saw that if people trust one another, it's possible for them to be honest about their struggles, forgive one another's mistakes, and help one another grow.


This is another one of my favorite books.

You can buy it here. And you probably should.
Wells writes:
[One common] assumption is that improvisation is trivial and self-indulgent. This is perhaps because it is associated with humor and the ephemeral, and also because it can create intensely committed communities that seem united by no substantial goal, only the formal means of interacting. ... Underlying it is the assumption that Christian ethics is an intensely serious, somewhat earnest, and decidedly difficult discipline, weighing matters of daunting substance, and only to be entered reverently, soberly, and after serious thought. In this perspective, improvisation sounds suspiciously like a joke, an artifice -- an insult. Such a view risks being more solemn than God.

Throughout the Christian drama there is joy and playfulness. .. The church can afford to concentrate on details, because God has given her time to follow him. Taking time for the trivial is therefore a sign of faith, not foolishness. The church can afford to take the risk of the humorous and the ephemeral, because the joke is God's and the laughter is divine.

Some of my improv friends gave me rides to their church, where I found a community of people who don't seem to be pressuring me to have everything together or to agree with them about every tiny detail. They treat seasons of celebration and joy with as much importance as those of waiting and repentance. I learned that church didn't have to be as constantly traumatic as the churches I'd known. I've now been a member for more than five years. 

I know I am amazingly blessed to be part of a church that values the differing gifts of its members, even if those gifts are in the arts. Our artists at Church of the Resurrection write music, yes, but also stage dramatic interpretations of scripture, paint altar pieces, and film comedic announcements. I love it all.

So when I wanted to teach an introductory improv class as a ministry through Rez, the church told me to go for it. I'm SO glad that five wonderful ladies decided to take a risk and play with me these past few weeks. I am not a preacher, nor do I have extraordinary gifts of healing or tongues or evangelism or any of those big impressive ones. But I know God has met me through play more than in any other way, and play is something I can teach.