Baby User Manual: 2017 Edition A highly accurate piece from the New Yorker.Also on:
Lately, I’ve been feeling rutty/restless in my improv. I had a run of shows that didn’t feel great, AND they were my last shows for the next few weeks so I had of course wanted them to be amazing. What’s that saying? Expectation goeth before a disappointment?
I had a conversation with Bianca
Casusöl a few weeks ago where she said that when you feel that way, it’s right before you’re about to grow. I knew she was right, so when I started feeling this way about a week and a half ago, I tried to keep that foremost in my mind: this dissatisfaction with my own performance meant that I was about to take a leap, to jump up higher on the improv learning spiral.
I started the jump yesterday, but I hope it’s not done yet.
The Improvised Whedon Company is preparing for a show inspired by the movie The Cabin in the Woods. Last night, we were working a scene where Sean Williams and I were two workers in The Facility. The scene went something like this:
Sean: Uh, I’ve got 300 crates of waste here, where do you want me to dump them?
Me: *flipping through pages on imaginary clipboard* Hold on a sec… There’s so much paperwork in this job. *flip flip flip* Uh, looks like those should go to Level 7.
Sean: Level 7? They just sent me down here! It’s always like this. I had to drive through all of these levels, and past all the monsters and the werewolves and through these ghosts just floating around, and I’m really getting tired of it. Well, I guess I’ll go back to Level 7.
Me: Uh, wait – go back a bit. Did you just say there are ghosts just OUT, floating around?
Sean: Yeah, they’re just floating in the hallway.
Me: That isn’t supposed to happen! *goes over to pick up imaginary phone and call someone to fix this*
Now, let me explain why I’m proud of this.
One of the most basic things we learn is to listen to our scene partner, but it’s also one of the easiest things to forget. Obviously with only a year and a half of experience under my belt I’m still working on it, but I’ve seen it be a struggle for improvisers much more experienced than myself. And the key symptom of not listening is failing to latch on to a thing your partner says in the first few lines that is a gift that can be the foundation of your whole scene. A new improviser will sometimes be so eager to get to the AND, they forget the YES.
It’s a classic piece of UCB-style play to be grounded in the real world and then latch on to that first weird thing that pops up. It’s not a super-advanced move, but it’s one that requires sharp attention, clarity, and quick thinking to actually do on stage. In the world of Cabin in the Woods (SPOILER ALERT!), monsters belong in boxes. Ghosts should be carefully contained. Ghosts in a box are mundane; ghosts in the hallways are A PROBLEM. I was immensely pleased with myself for accepting Sean’s offer. Was my move to get on the phone with someone the best thing to do next? I’m not sure – but I’m proud as hell that I recognized that offer and grabbed it and didn’t let go.
It feels weird and a little wrong to admit this, but my favorite part of performing isn’t the performance itself.
Now, obviously, that’s key to the experience. And I love doing it.
But my heart flutters most before a show and after a practice or, in the case of improv, show. (In the non-improv theater, you stop getting notes after previews are done. In the improv theater, you may or may not get notes after a show. But I’m always happy when we do.)
I have a problem with presence, i.e., the being in the moment kind. (And now, we can begin a run of presence/present/presents puns! I’ll let you do that. Come back when you’re done.) I’ve got a bit of a Janus complex, always looking back and looking forward (at this very moment, I’m frustrated with myself for not focusing harder in statistics class today, and excited about having my team over for a movie night), and struggling to be in the moment. So, it makes sense that my favorite part of performing isn’t the actual moment when I’m most in it (though I’m proud to say I am present-as-all-get-out on an improv stage, saving analysis for after the show’s over).
I think one of the reasons I like the getting-ready and the getting-notes is because they are small, shared experiences. When you’re on the stage, yo’ure having a big shared experience: you, your fellow performers, and the audience are all in on something together, and it is MAGIC. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. BUT. When you’re in a dressing room or green room or backstage, or when the house is empty and it’s just you and your fellow performers and the director and crew on the stage, that’s it’s very own brand of magic, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world, either.
In my very first community theater production, I would arrive at the theater an hour before call, just to have some extra quiet time in the space. I was 13. It actually ended up causing a problem for the company; they got charged for the extra time I spent in the dressing room. Oops!
At the improv theater now, sometimes I get called down for notes for a show I didn’t even perform in – I’ll have crewed it, or I’ll just be around, or it’ll be a show with a format similar to the shows I’m on even though technically I’m not on the team – and every time – EVERY TIME – I get a warm feeling of contentment. I think it’s because GIVING & GETTING NOTES, as an activity, is targeted toward continuous improvement, and continuous improvement is pretty much my favorite thing. One of the reasons I’m skeptical that I’ll ever “outgrow” doing improv is that there’s no ceiling on it. You can always keep getting better. There’s always the risk of a bad show, and as devastated as I am when I perceive I’ve had a bad show (I’m usually wrong and at worst have had a mediocre show), I find it oddly exhilarating at the same time to know that 20 years from now, I’ll still be having bad shows and still be finding new ways to be better.
Improv is crack for productivity hobbyists, I guess, is what I’m saying.
I’m two sessions away from finishing Sketch 201 with DSI Comedy Theater. Since January, I’ve spent most Saturday afternoons sitting around a table with other sketch students, talking about what makes comedy work and figuring out how we can make ours better. Why am I doing this? One, because Tina Fey is my hero. Two, because I’ve always liked writing funny stuff. Three, because I felt like it.
But more important than why I’m doing it is what I’ve learned. I’m not done yet, so I’m sure I’ll learn more, but here are some of the things I’ve taken away, that aren’t necessarily about the mechanics of sketch writing.
I can sit down and write if I must. I’ve always been that idiot who thinks academic writing can absolutely be forced, but creative writing can only happen when the muse strikes. All of the writing books will tell you that you just need to put your butt in a chair and write, but like many people, I always thought, Maybe that works for you, but not for me. Nope. Turns out it works for me, too. But what I’m writing at that first pass might not be great, and that’s okay, because…
Sometimes the first draft is really the outline, and that’s okay. In addition to taking this class, I’m working full-time, taking a graduate level Digital Humanities course, and just finished performing in an operetta. That means writing time must be squeezed out, and there was one day when I had about 45 minutes to get my sketch done. This meant I didn’t have time for careful planning and brainstorming. It meant the writing was the brainstorming. I weekly send my instructor a note that says, “This is a very rough draft, I’m so sorry, I’m still working out my ideas.” But of course, that’s what drafts are for. In a research paper, you might be able to create a detailed outline before you sit down to write, but you’ve done a lot of the intellectual work already. In creative writing, the writing is the intellectual work.
The best comedy comes from pain. The funniest things I’ve written have consistently been when I’ve taken on something that depresses me. A sketch about how desperate librarians are to prove their relevance – how hard they are working to demonstrate their natural awesome – while at the same time not losing track of how much they really love the work? Hilarious. A commercial parody recruiting teachers to work in North Carolina, taking every change the legislature has made to gut the career and making it sound like an enticement instead? Priceless. Sometimes I actually feel worse after writing these – but they’re still funny.
I’d rather write satire than anything else. I’m very content to view fluff, but I want my comedy to mean something. I’d rather be South Park than Family Guy. (Which is not to say Family Guy is never satirical, but I think if you run the numbers you’ll find South Park is satirical more often.)
Specific = funny. A librarian pulling her pants down to show people her hip tattoo? Funny. A librarian pulling her pants down to show people her hip tattoo of Ranganathan’s laws of library science? Funnier.