Wednesday, July 3, 2019

BOUFFON BRAIN, CLOWN HEART

I got tons of hate mail for my last blog post Does The World Need Your Bouffon Show? 
Ha ha ha, no I didn't at all. 
But I did get a few people saying things to me like, "Whoa! That took some guts!" 
That took guts? Really? 
Imagining putting on an unnecessary bouffon show! 
Now that would take some guts. 

But seriously. 

I certainly wasn't saying that nobody should make bouffon shows. 
I was just saying, let's take a deep breath and really consider if our audiences need our bouffon shows. I mean, it's a reasonable question. 

But let's move on. No, wait, actually let's not. 

What bothers me about much so-called bouffon work is that it wants to make a point about how racist/sexist/unenvironmental/queerphobic/etc. the world is, and so it casts the audience as the complicit asshole against which to make that point. But as I've said umpteen times, today's audience both isn't that asshole and doesn't feel like being cast as that asshole just to help you make your deep art.

But one thing I definitely am not saying is that we need to stop combining comedy with societal critique. Au contraire. We need a lot of societal critique comedy. More now than ever. But I do want us to look at the way we are using societal critique in our comedy, and where our standpoint is vis à vis the audience. Aimez-vous mon francais? Bah, oui! Donnez-nous les croissants! 

My favorite comedy has a bouffon brain and a clown heart. 

Evidently, back in the day, Clown and Bouffon were very separate things—actually, according to the Old Guard, they still are. So, for example, a lot of Clown is taught and practiced as if it exists in a completely different time and place in which nobody gets raped or racist-ed. I think that's one thing that rankles me about a lot of clown work I see: the omnipresent striped socks, the weird childishness (let's not even talk about the makeup and the noses). What world are these clowns living in? It's a world of nostalgia, I guess, and it's cute, in its way, but it's hard for me to find it funny because it doesn't feel like it's really going on right now. It's not on any particular precipice right now

That's not to say that it isn't potentially risky for the performer; clown work is always vulnerable and thus risky (if it's any good at all). If the performer is present with the audience and offering something of herself that she doesn't usually show the world, then, sure, she's on a personal precipice, and we have to give her props for that. 

But the thing that separates cute-clown-work-that-doesn't-ruin-anyone's-day, from really-hot-feisty-work-that-the-world-needs-to-see, is the bouffon brain.

The bouffon brain is miserable and furious and howling. It sees the state of things and it shakes its fist. But it reads my blog so it knows that no one wants to meet it head-on. It calculates, it schemes, it makes a plan. It picks up a clown in a dive bar and proceeds to fuck that clown in a dirty bathroom stall. It inseminates the soft brain of the clown with its hot jet of bouffon pain. And thus, a clown is born unto the world that is lovable and relevant at the same time. And lo, the world laughs and soils itself with pleasure.

Sasha Baron Cohen is a nice example. I actually had a fight with Gaulier about this, if we're defining fight as He talked and I listened and disagreed with him silently in my heart, which pretty much defines my Gaulier experience. Gaulier said Sasha Baron Cohen, his most famous protégé, was pure bouffon, and I disagree. Cohen's characters are clowns: they're idiots, they fuck up all the time and do the wrong thing but it's always from a place of not-knowing and meaning-well. But Sasha Baron Cohen clearly has a bouffon brain, and he engineers his clown characters to get into scrapes that are provocative and challenging in very specific, targeted ways. 

Now you might be saying, "Bitch, Sasha Baron Cohen is no clown because he doesn't love his audience/targets. He is tricking them." Sure, sure. But,clearly, he entraps his audience/targets somehow, right? They end up trusting him enough to give him what he wants. Sometimes he goes too far and loses their trust. But he wouldn't have any success at all if he just came at those audience/targets with his bouffon brain out in front for all to see. He must be lovable and vulnerable to them, first. 

So love first, like a clown always does. Audiences are the clown's best friends, their heroes.
Be on their side.
Confirm their generally-enlightened world view; keep it firmly in your mind when you create work.
Love them first, and love them long time.
Way before you tell them how fucked they are.

The best advice I ever got, probably ever, was from my English teaching mentor back at the prep school I used teach at. He used to be a lawyer before he became a teacher, and he was a shrimpy little impeccably-dressed man with an air of total magnetic approachability and intimidating-ness all at once. I loved him deeply. He used to say to me, about my students, If they know you care, you can say anything to them. 

It's a principle that I use both in my teaching and in my performing. My students and my audiences have to know, right away, that I see them and that I love them. You have to see them first, or else they won't believe your love. But if you see them, and then you love them, you can take them through all kinds of hell or harsh critique or whatever. You can tell them the truth, if you see them and love them first.

Remember, too, that in order to teach anyone anything, or challenge them in any way, they have to really love you too. Do you see a sea of delighted faces eating up your character's every gesture? Great, you're in a very good place from which to start fucking with them a lil' bit. Don't see that yet? Get there.

You need to be a great clown before you can be a great bouffon.
And if you're already a great clown, then for Satan's sake don't stay locked in the land of striped-socks and whimsical umbrellas!
Get out there and make a point!
The world needs your hot, angry, loving love! 
Stat! Stat! Immédiatement! 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

DOES THE WORLD NEED YOUR BOUFFON SHOW?


Oh freaky-deaky left-leaning theater artist with activism in your heart, I know just how it is. 

You're a good person and you really want to make the world better, and you carry around the not-insignificant guilt that you weren't born a climate scientist or an abortion doctor. What can eyeeee do to make the world better? you think, every single fucking day. And it wears on you. You can't help that you love the arts. And so, you go through your life taking your performance classes, scouring Goodwill for your freaky-deaky costumes, and just praying that someday, the activist's path and your path will effortlessly converge. That, just by being you and living your truth, EVEN YOU will find a way into social change. And the world will be better for YOU being here. At last. 

Then you discover Bouffon. You learn about its origins in wicked social critique, its ability to skewer societal norms and to mock the status quo. You're like, THIS IS FUCKING IT. You immediately start building a show about income inequity or global warming or #metoo. You're like, this is what I can do to help the world. 

Oh, I get it, freaky-deaky left-leaning theater artist with activism in your heart (or, FDLLTAWAIYH). It's not easy dealing with the reality that you're a spotlight-hogging narcissist whose big want is for people to pay to watch you cavorting about on a stage. It's a tough mirror to face, and we've all been there. It's not unreasonable that you crave more than that. You see the world bleed; naturally you want to stanch that wound. You want your Satan-given talent to be for MORE than just your own jerkoff material.

Sure, of course. And good for you! You know the time is past for Hey I Should Make a Solo Show About That Time I Studied Abroad and Learned About Racism. You know it's gone way past Oo Or I Should Make A Solo Show About My Depression/Anxiety/Bipolar Diagnosis. Yes, and you're right about all that! You know, at least, that the world doesn't need a solo show about you. You want to make a show about something bigger than you, and for that, yes, you deserve praise. 

But hold on there, FDLLTAWAIYH. Just hold on a cotton-picking minute (see what I did there? No, the world also doesn't need a show about the time that blogger offended you with her use of "cotton-picking."). Remember that when bouffon was developing as a codified form, or even before that, when it was just a twinkle in some hunchbacked village idiot's eye, lots of people went to the theater. Before television, it was the only excuse to wear that ascot you really liked. Even when Jacques Lecoq was doing it in the 50's and 60's, normals went to theater shows. Maybe even conservative-type people went to theater shows! So maybe there was a chance, back in the 50's or 60's (which, just to do some math for ya, is over fifty years ago) that "the king was in the room", or, to say it another way—if you were doing bouffon fifty years ago, there was a slim chance that someone who needed to be challenged on their shittyass worldview was actually in the audience watching your show. And maybe, just maybe, that old shittyass dude had the potential to be slightly affected—maybe even changed—by your bouffon show. Just maybe. 

Fifty. Years. Ago. 

Now, if I may, a summary of the last fifty-plus years of theater: those people don't go to the theater anymore. 

At all. 

Or more to the point, if you want to make a show that a Trumper might go to, try making Aladdin or Mary Godfucking Poppins. There will be no Trumpers at your weirdass-looking bouffon show. They have too many sports to watch on TV, they have too much Arby's to eat, they have too many tiny-fetus cookies to bake for their anti-choice rallies. You'll never see them at your freaky-deaky show. Period. 

So who is coming to your bouffon show? Who sees your poster and thinks, This is for me! You already know the answer: freaky-deaky left-leaning theater artists with activism in their hearts! Or if they're not artists themselves, they are in queer knitting groups with such artists, or such artists walk their rescue chihuahuas two times a week, or whatever. The room is full of people who want to support you and feel just as you do about our fucked-up world. Actually, it's very possible that the abortion doctors and climate change activists are even in the room, on a short break from all their making-the-world-better. 

In short, your audience is a room full of people who are suffering from all the news telling them how fucked the world is, and they are all doing everything they possibly can to fix our fucked world every day, or at least just to survive it, and they decided to take an hour off from all that activism and pain to drink a goddamn red wine in a plastic cup and see your show. 

And you think this is your moment to be all activist on their asses and teach the audience how fucked up income inequity or sexual harassment is? Um, no bitch. Because every single person in the room already agrees with you, and they don't need your reminder. It's only going to further bum them out. 

You know what they need? They need the fantasy. They need to live in a beautiful world for an hour, in which the underdog is empowered and bathrooms are all equally unisex and sparkling clean. They need a taste of freedom. 

And you can give that to them! The most radical, activist thing you can do on that stage is be your freaky-deaky self in your freaky-deaky dream world, just be as weird as you are and act as if that is 1000% right and accepted and normal already, feel your fantasy and live it loud (and, of course, curate an experience because we're all tired of shows and now we all want experiences). We need success stories of radicalism, not horror stories about how things are now. We know how things are now. The only way any of us are going to have the strength to change the world is if we see How The World Could Be enacted right before our eyes. There's your activism, bitch. That's what you can do for the world. 

That doesn't mean, of course, that you can't make fun and satirize and skewer... you just have to consider who's going to be in the room and what they need, which is different from what the world needs. That's where you must wield your bouffon power not like a blunt instrument but like a scalpel, as my bouffon teacher friend Nathaniel Justiniano likes to say. It's gotta be surgical and it's gotta be precise. 

Otherwise—no matter how many people are in your audience—you're just screaming into an empty room. 
Don't be that bouffon. 

And while we're on the subject, take those foam pads out of your pants. 
But that's a bouffon gripe for another day. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

YOUR RIGHTS AS AN IMMERSIVE PERFORMER


In the beginning, there was the fourth wall.
And it kept the performer safe, if a bit out of touch.
Now—lo!— the fourth wall has broken! and issuing forth from behind that fourth wall is—behold!—the new immersive performer!
Oh, the mighty power of the immersive performer!
Oh, the mighty FREEDOM of the immersive performer!
And yet, with great power and great freedom—lo! lo!—comes great responsibility!
Verily, it is so! I say unto ye! Lo! 

What follows are a definitely-not-biblically-styled pair of blog entries: one about your rights as an immersive performer, and one about your responsibilities as an immersive performer.

Let's define an immersive performer right now: you don't work with a fourth wall, and so, the entire performance space and everyone in it is part of your performance. You interact with the space and with the audience. You are probably employing some degree of improvisation in your work. You are a rock star of incredible magnitude, and you should be very proud of yourself.

Those of us who perform immersively have needs that are different from fourth-wall performer needs. We have a right to have those needs fulfilled. Our needs need to be fought for if we are to be successfully immersive.

These posts are generally directed at performers who are dealing with traditionally non-immersive venues, producers and tech operators. If you are an immersive performer in an immersive show, with an immersive producer and immersive technicians and one big immersive orgy love fest, well, you're awesome and you're very very lucky—but I'm probably not talking to you.

I'm talking to those of us who are trying to bring immersive performance into venues not initially set up to be immersive. That shit is ROUGH sometimes, and we need to support each other.

As immersive performers, remember, we are on the front line of the Great War between the modern revolution of immersion and the stuck-in-the-mud non-immersion that is taking its sweet time to die. Be gone already, non-immersive performance! But alas, she is stubborn. More on her never.

And so, warriors of immersion on the front lines, on the fault line between immersion and non-immersion, let me list some of your rights— rights no one will hand to you, rights for which you must advocate. Here's the stuff that can get you on the bad side of control-freaky venues and tech operators. Here's where the drama is. But this is also where it happens. This is where we wage the war. You must be brave! You must fight for what is right!

1) YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO GET YOUR TECH/VENUE NEEDS MET SO LONG AS YOU ARE NOT A DICK. As an immersive performer, you are performing heroic feats for an audience that desperately needs you. Contrary to what you want to believe, heroes are high maintenance, by necessity. It's not called Superman's Modest Studio Apartment of Solitude. Being immersive means you have needs: you have sound needs, light needs, staging needs, audience configuration needs. Yes, you've become that performer. Yes, you are higher maintenance than performers who work within a fourth wall. 

And here is the cruel paradox. What producers and venues of historically non-immersive performance want most of all is a wildly enthusiastic audience who will come back and back. What producers and venues of historically-non-immersive performance want is immersive performance, which can touch audience members in a way no fourth-wall performer can! The paradox is that historically non-immersive producers and venues want immersive performance without having to work at it. They know what they want, but they don't know what they have to do to get it, and they don't want you to tell them. 

This is where Being Super Nice, Professional and Direct comes in. You are a superhero with a job to do. Venues and producers and operators can sometimes be super accommodating, and sometimes not at all. It's your job to stand up for what you need, be assertive, be positive, be friendly.

Now, I can be a real snob and a diva. I know what my performance requires from venue techs and event producers, and sometimes I find myself judging the bad ones harshly in my heart. But I'm hoping I don't let them see it. That's when the fourth-wall acting comes in handy! Just drop that imaginary fourth wall between you and that dick venue tech or producer, get what you want, say thank you and hit the dressing room!

2) YOU HAVE A RIGHT TO LIGHTS AND SOUNDS THAT ADD TO THE IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE. Yup, if you are calling yourself an immersive performer, then lights and sounds are not just somebody's else's business; they're yours too. You cannot always do much about lighting in non-immersive spaces—short of bringing your own, which I've heard is a thing some geniuses do—but you owe it to your immersive performer self to do something. You can get the house lights on low, which can help you see audience members if you're on stage, or illuminate you if you're going into the crowd. You might be able to get some sort of special aimed just where you want it. You get to be in charge of the lighting for your performance, and any adjust you can make will make your performance that much more immersive!

And yes, you probably need your own microphone. Sometimes venues have good mics, some don't, but do you really want to leave the sound of your performance up to that much chance? No you don't. Personally, I have an expensive-ass wireless headset mic and I like it that way. I use a Countryman E6 mic and a Sennheiser wireless pack. The Countryman is great because it's super comfortable to wear and it's so small that it doesn't get in the way of my facial micro-expressions. My Sennheiser receiver/transmitter pack runs on rechargeable double A's, which is great because when I give my receiver to the sound tech, he doesn't have to worry about plugging it into power as well as plugging it into the sound system. Sound techs always seem pleased to have to worry about one less plugging responsibility.

Do I have friends who have super cheap mics and like them? Yes I do.
Is my expensive-ass mic actually better than theirs in terms of sound quality? I don't really know. I think so.
Am I better than my friends? No, I am not.
We are all one, and your mic choice is your business.
But yes, you have to soundcheck that shit, either way.

3) YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO DESIGN AUDIENCE LAYOUT (IF IT'S FEASIBLE). Producers and venues think about the bottom line when it comes to audience: how many people can they squeeze in to make that money. They are NOT thinking about maximizing the drama of your entrance. They are NOT thinking about the best way you can be seen when you're in the audience. They aren't really considering the audience's experience—because fourth-wall performance deals in the illusion that the audience is not even there—so of course they don't matter! Producers and venues might even resent you for thinking about the audience's experience, or for daring to interact with them. They may not want you interacting with the audience because that makes them think of lawsuits. So if you want an aisle up the middle, if you want a special reserved chair, if you want the chairs arranged in a loose semi-circle, whatever you want, you gotta ask nice in advance and hope for the best. Seriously, the more in-advance you can contact a venue and let them know what your immersive needs are, the more likely you are to get what you want. And you also gotta be prepared for no special favors, because of ye ol' bottom line. You might be faced with the lamest, most-fourth-wall-enforcing seating plan in the world, and nobody will accommodate you, and you gotta kill anyway. 


Nobody tells you that you have to advocate for your performance to make it as immersive as possible, but you 100% do. The more you can curate the experience for the audience, and attend to every aspect, the more in control of the immersion experience you will feel—and that radiates into your performance. If you have asserted your immersive rights before the show, you will glow in all dimensions when it's your time to shine.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

DEVISING DEMYSTIFIED MWAHAHAAA


I am fortunate enough to be hired on a pretty regular basis to Direct/Co-Write/Dramaturg the devised work of comic performers who do not employ a 4th wall AND who recognize the necessity in having an outside Director/Co-Writer/Dramaturg—henceforth called DCD, by me in this blog post and then, probably, never again by anyone.

So I thought it would be neat to explain a bit about the process, my background and philosophy, and more useful stuff about the DCD lifestyle, in case it's mysterious. Mwahahaa! Whether you're looking to bring in a DCD for your performance work, or are yourself considering the not-particularly-lucrative DCD career path, here are some of my very own DCD concepts for your perusal!

1) YOU NEED ONE YOU NEED ONE YOU NEED ONE. Let's get this little lecture out of the way. If you create theater of any kind, you need some sort of DCD. When I was in the straight-theater world, nobody thought about putting on a show without a director. It was like, DUH. So I'm not sure why, in the world of devised performance, some folks got it into their heads that they can cut corners and leave out... um.... the most important thing? No way, pal. And you can't DCD your own show either. It's too damn many hats to wear, and everything suffers. Performers need to wear the performer hat, and unfortunately, they have to wear the producer hat at least at first because they have to get people to come see what they do. That's enough hats! You can do some of the DCD legwork on your own, for sure, but ultimately, bring in SOMEONE or a few different people to see what the eff you're doing before you go public with it. Outside eyes are the only eyes that can really truly see. 

2) STORY. Ever heard this maxim? There is no story in a clown show. The clown is the story. 
Terrifying, right?
Obviously, complete hooey.
Well, it's slightly true.
But it's sort of bullshit.

The truth is, yes, any compelling comic performer should already be a story—by which I mean, a compelling character has a narrative buzzing around them that an audience can sense, can get curious about. But that doesn't mean that the story doesn't also need to be PLAYED OUT. We might see the story buzzing around the clown, but in a full show, we need to go on the ride. The ride is a story arc, a question to be answered, a lesson learned, an adventure taken. 

If I'm any good at DCDing, it's at least in part because I've spent my life being a story addict. My childhood books have layers of ancient peanut butter stains from being read over and over again (over sandwiches). Scary stories kept me up at night, romantic stories consumed me. I'm one of those people who often narrates my day-to-day life, just to myself, like a lunatic. I've taught high school English and facilitated classic book clubs and written 3 novels and watched way more movies and television than I feel like counting or admitting, from a wide range of eras and genres. Since I was young, I've obsessed about how stories are constructed, what their agenda is, what the conscious and unconscious choices of the author reveal about their times, their environs, themselves. Stories are everywhere, and if you're like me, then you see stories hanging off of every tree limb and sign post, like the forgotten entrails of your friends after the zombie apocalypse.

A massive foundation of stories comes in handy when you're trying to make a new one.

3) THE FOREST AND THE TREES. Let's break down a show this way: you got a forest, and you got trees. The forest is the overall story; the trees are the elements that make up that story. A show needs to have trees—parts, elements, bits, micro-stories—and it needs a forest: a journey, an arc, answers to questions like "what's it all about" or "why did you make people come see this in the first place." But just because you have, say, 55 minutes of trees does NOT mean you have a forest. 

I have worked with artists at all different stages in their processes. Usually, they have already done some work on their own: they have bits, they have a character, they have a concept. What I often notice is that a performer comes to me with trees, sometimes a lot of trees, but when we start to chart out what the forest is, we come up short. We see that the trees all have a similar dynamic, or tell the same micro-story within a larger framework. Sometimes I notice that performers have spent a lot of time making the same tree over and over again in slightly different shades, and that's cool, but when it comes time to make a full show, the same tree over and over again does not a forest make. Or, perhaps more to the point, it makes one repetitive-ass show.

I use index cards a lot in my process. They're super useful both for noting what trees we may already have, and what we may still need to complete a full story arc. We put all the trees on separate index cards. We ask questions of each tree: what new purpose is it serving, what theme does it reinforce, what does it reveal, why do we love it. Those questions often lead us toward bigger forest-type discussions: what are the show's aesthetics, values, lessons, investigations? What do we have, and where are we headed? Forest and trees, man. That old chestnut has never let me down.

4) TABLE SESSIONS. I work with performers using a combination of "table sessions," (as in, work sessions with writing utensils over beverages at tables) and studio time. Table sessions are when the performer(s) and I can think about the forest, switch index cards around, write things down, talk about areas of the show we need to develop further, set goals for studio time, deal with feelings of panic and/or inadequacy, all of it. We talk talk talk and play with index cards and drink hot enticing beverages and talk more. Talk is important, as are hot enticing beverages, and table sessions are the times when the performer can wear the co-writer/co-dramaturg hat, and give feedback on the whole process. There must be space for talk in a development process, which brings me to—

5) STUDIO TIME! Here's a common DCD-less pitfall: performers go into the studio for studio time. They have material they have to develop, so they spend studio time talking big concepts and trying to figure stuff out. They end up spending way too much time talking and way less time on their feet working. They get a little stage time in and call it a night, exhausted. Sure, it counts as a rehearsal, the same way walking to the refrigerator counts as exercise. It's just not the most effective exercise, or in this case, rehearsal. 

Remember when I said wearing too many hats is bad for a performer? It's more than bad. The quality of the material you develop will be nowhere near as good as it could be if your studio time is weighed down with discussion. You know what studio time is? It's a fucking workout for your show. It's when somebody warms you up and gets you going and gives you games to play and side-coaches you as you play them. You play play play and invent invent invent. That's it! And that shit is videotaped! Filming improv is the most important tool performers have. Not necessarily every rehearsal or every minute, but every time we're trying to work something out or develop material, we tape that shit. So many times, something awesome happens, something clicks into place, and if there's a camera on, all you have to do later is watch and transcribe. BAM! MATERIAL DEVELOPED! Smooth it out later. 

Inspiration is, as I'm sure you know, one of the worst assholes out there. It's hard to pin down, it's hard to predict, and it's inconsistent as fuck. If you talk too much, it flees the scene. It needs more than anything to be protected, to have a safe and carefully curated space to do its strange ghost-pony dances. Table sessions are a way of separating "think/talk time" from "create/play time." They should be separate, if you want that ol' asshole inspiration to come haunt ya in the best way. 

6) MONEY!!! One of the reasons, I know, that a lot of devising performers don't use a director is because usually, directors cost money. Not always; you can trade outside-eye work with friends, or find someone who is beefing up a resume and wants the work... but yeah, sometimes you have to pay. Myself, I charge hourly. Sometimes I consider going to a flat-rate model based on the size of the final project, because taking on an artistic project is not an hourly kind of job. You think about every show you work on even when you're not working on it. 

But if you're balking over spending money on a director, perhaps costing you a few grand, at most, allow me tell you about the show I once spent over 15 grand on. It was the first Butt Kapinski show, 12 years ago, when Butt was performing with 3 other guys. The show had a set designer, a sound designer, a lighting designer, a video designer, a costume designer, two week-long artist residencies, 2 years of rehearsing in Brooklyn spaces, rented theater spaces, a producer, all the usual show production costs, not to mention the performers and director who didn't get paid. I footed the whole bill. Mostly, I was so glad that something I wanted to make was getting made. I had lucrative work those 2 years and was able to spend that kind of money.

Where is that show now? Totally dead (rest in peace). I have absolutely nothing to show for it. We did about 12 performances of it, and then never again.

On the other hand, I have a lot of show for it. I learned a ton about how shows get made and what's needed to make them. I learned a lot about what I didn't want to do for the future. And I get to say to people, you're worried about paying me? Let me tell you about the time I spent 15 grand. Don't pity me, just congratulate yourself that you're not spending anywhere near that, and you're getting a show that will hopefully last longer than mine did.


Making a show is NOT a science—it's totally different every time. There are moments during development where I doubt my abilities to pull it together, I lose faith in the vision the performer(s) and I once had, I wonder if it's all crap. We all do. But mostly, it's a magical, mystical process. Watching performers give birth to an art baby—a baby that you have doula'd and midwifed and kinda a little bit fathered too... it's so powerful. It goes up and there's response and you see the relief on the performer's face—the hardest work is done—and the determination to keep going and refining and working... 

Making a show is a marathon, and it doesn't ever seem to quite stop. That's a cool thing about art. And life. Something is always growing—even if it's tiny, a dream, a notion. Something always has the potential to bloom.



Friday, September 21, 2018

FINDING THE GAME: DEMYSTIFIED BY A CLOWN!

After a 15-year hiatus from performing improv comedy, I find myself back into it, and I love it and hate it all at once. 

In the early aughts, I left the improv scene in NY and got into clown. Mainly because the improv troop that I loved, Burn Manhattan, had kinda disbanded and weren't really teaching anymore, and the UCB, swarmy-cult-like bastion of problematic improv, became the dominant comedy force in town. Plus, frankly, it was tiring to always get onstage and try to do earnest scenes with strong setups, and have all these dorky dudes turn every scene I initiated into some creepy sex role-play thing. I imagine some of that gender stuff is better now.

But setting the sexism aside for a moment, trends in improv felt too cerebral and mathematical for me. UCB actually had a diagram. When I see a comedy diagram, this may be just me, but I smell death.

The UCB and its manual-of-formulaic-formulation is probably responsible, too, for the sweeping debate in improv circles about what it means to Find The Game. Oh, you didn't know there are sweeping debates about what it means to "find the game"? Lucky you!!! Stop reading immediately!

But those of us who are improvisers, we know that there is some debate about what Find The Game means. Because UCB got all cute and defined it, and then Annoyance in Chicago was like, Uh, NO! And then everyone else was kinda like, wait, aren't you all actually agreeing with each other? And then we all were like, argh!

I fled all that Game debate when I found clown. But now I'm doing improv again, and I feel like I'm funnier than I used to be. And Clown helped me understand what finding the game actually means, in its simplest terms, and I am ready to share it with you... ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS PAY $99.99 FOR MY VIDEO TUTORIAL SERIES HAHAHAHHAHAH no seriously actually just read the next paragraph. 

In clown, there is one game: make the audience laugh at the fun you are having. In standup comedy, there is one game: make the audience laugh at the fun you are having. In improv comedy—I know, it's collaborative and you want to make your partner feel good and blah blah blah—but when it comes right down to it, come on, there's really only one game. The audience needs to be laughing, and you need to be having actual fun.

Actual fun means play. It means what a dog does with a ball. It means what a Bat Mitzvah girl does with a limbo stick. It doesn't mean just thinking about something kind of amusing. It doesn't mean thinking at all.

You should know if you're having real fun or not. But maybe you don't. If that's the case, let the audience tell you. If we want to get mathematical about it, figure that probably, if you're having proper fun right away, you should get a laugh within the first 25 seconds of your scene.

Let's talk about what should be happening before that 25 second mark, from an audience perspective. In the first 5 seconds, the audience is sizing you up and deciding whether you are in fact going to do something to make them laugh. By 10 seconds in, they are either interested or bored already. If they're interested, which they should be, then let's give you a bonus 15 seconds to do something that will make the audience make some sort of noise to reflect their interest and increasing entertainment.

You know how in those airline safety videos they tell you to put your own mask on first and then assist the child next to you? Right, well, in that first blush of a scene opening, you gotta find your own game before you can find the game between you and somebody else. 

Naturally, there are PUH-lenty of improv gurus who will tell me that I'm full of garbage, that you have to deeply stare into your partner's aura and find the game there. That what you are is Nothingness until your partner fills your nothingness for you. Yeah, maybe. But maybe not. The beginning of a scene is an emergency. The plane is crashing, and everyone is panicking trying to "find a game" before they find theater. Perhaps it's not wise to count on your partner to be your sole game. They just might be too in their head, and you're running out of time. 

I'm not saying that your scene partners don't matter. They matter a lot. I'm just saying, when the air is getting sucked out of a plummeting plane, put your own goddamn mask on first. You gotta find a way to have fun in your own body right away, right as the scene is starting. You have to bring the party before it's too late. 

So how do you find your own game? UP your energy. You wanna walk someplace with your normal, run-o'-the-mill pedestrian energy, consider an intersection or a supermarket. If you're on stage, you are in an UPPED ENERGY STATE. That's right. All the time.

Have an emotion. You don't need to invent one. There is probably an emotion already there, just bubbling like an underground lava spring ready to erupt as soon as you let it. Here's an example. The other night I walked on stage with another player. Before the scene started, he was standing in front of me, and I was like....
Ohhhhh, look, he's showing me his back.
Ohhhhhhhhh, he's trying not to look at me.
Just like that, I felt mad and sad, and a little predatory. That's all I knew when the scene started. But it was enough to put me in a heightened state.

You don't have to do much, you just have to do something fun right away. And the audience will immediately, instinctively respond. When it's working, you find their laughs surprising, because you didn't think what you actually said was that clever. And it probably wasn't. It was just a honest reflection of the fun you were having.

There are lots of ways to have a personal game, but I tend to start with emotion cuz it's right there. I let the emotion send me toward a physicality game that feels fun in my body, and I play that. Then, hopefully, the game becomes a two-hander, and you and the person or people you are on stage with can figure out how to play together. More on that in some other boring improv blog post for which I apologize in advance.

Just remember this: having fun on stage means physical and emotional exercise. It means making actual shapes with your body that you don't make in your day-to-day. It means expressing feelings that you don't share most of the time. It means bringing the most special, most rare, most weird reflection of yourself to a bunch of people who will be grateful for your willingness to share that with them.

The clown in you never has to think about the game.
The game is inside you, all the time.
Breathe. Be brave. Let 'er rip. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

WHAT COUNTS AS GOOD FEEDBACK?

Once upon a time, a brilliant workshop participant sidled up to me on a break and asked a question. "While I was watching someone on stage a few minutes ago," he said, "I had the impulse afterwards to tell him something that he could've done that would've been really funny. But then I was like, Is that good feedback?"

And I was like, "Great question, Brilliant Workshop Participant."

I think we've all spent a lot of time in comedy classes listening to our teachers or even fellow students give "feedback" in the form of This is the awesome thing that should've happened in that scene, but didn't. How useful are these awesome ideas after the scene is over? Can these ideas somehow dig up the corpse of that scene and resurrect it, Frankenchrist-like, into a fresher, more ferocious form of itself?

Unfortunately no, friends and lovers. That scene that just ended is totally dead, and we all know what happens when you try to resurrect the dead: you get angry psychopathic monsters or Christmas sweaters, and none of it's any good at all. Telling a performer what they could've done to make a scene better is not really going to help them. Because think about how people learn. People generally learn by being able to put new information into a file that's already created in their brain for that information. Into what brain file can we put This is how that scene would've been better, besides the brain file of Oh, this teacher or fellow performer is way smarter than dumb ol' meeee?

And that brain file is near to bursting, friends and lovers!

When it's time to give feedback, here are six concepts to consider, as both teachers and fellow artists-at-work:

1)First, the best feedback is not feedback. It's side-coaching. 
For Satan's sake, comedy teachers, when performers could be better on stage right now, and it will only take a word or phrase from you for them to fix it, don't wait! Freakin' tell them now!!! Side coach side coach side coach! When a performer gets to experience a change from inside an improvisation, they learn very differently from just hearing something afterwards and nodding. They learn experientially, which is really the best way for anyone to learn anything. There are limits to this, of course; over-side-coaching stops the flow. Still, most classes I've been in, the teachers have mostly aired on the side of under-side-coaching. Which sounds sexier than it is.

2) Before you say anything at all, ask the person who was just on stage how they would evaluate what they just did. When we are asked to self-evaluate, we start to more carefully consider the different aspects at play in our work. Often, people do a really great job of self-evaluating, and when they don't, then it's easier to see what their particular blind spots are by getting them to talk first. 

3) Define and reuse terms, and limit limit limit.If a concept has been introduced, and performers are trying that concept out on their feet, a great focus for outside-eye feedback is, how did the performer use that particular concept? Keeping terminology consistent can help us figure out how well we are understanding and applying what we're learning. And it may be that other issues beside the concept-on-the-table have come up for you as you watch, but consider letting those go. I know it feels so tough to not give particular gems of feedback, but let them go anyway. We don't need every last drop of your feedback brilliance every time, sad but true. 

4) Look for patterns. Just like I am always accidentally buying myself a new striped sweater that looks like every other striped sweater I've ever bought, people make the same kinds of choices over and over again. Pointing out the pattern is a great way for a student to see what they're doing, and keep it in mind so that next time, they've have more awareness of their tendency toward stripes, and maybe make a decision to do plaid instead. 

5) Look for the ROOT of your feedback.When we watch other people in a workshop environment, we're always "playing at home"—figuring out how we would do it if we were the ones on stage. So it's totally natural that we'd come up with ideas for what could've been different/better. But instead of telling a performer, "you could've done this," go one level deeper into your own idea, figure out the concept behind your idea, and pitch that concept to them, as just one more way to approach a moment. For example, let's say you're watching someone improvise and it seems like they should've gotten very excited at a specific moment, but didn't. Why did you come up with the idea that they should've gotten excited? Is it because you're watching with a lens of what makes characters tick?or maybe what is rhythmically interesting? Suggest one of those lenses to them, not the result of the lens. Give your students the pole, not the fish. Which, again, sounds sexier than was intended.
6) Keep feedback time short. Back when I used to teach high school English, I would watch my fellow English teachers in the faculty lounge covering their students' papers with comments. On one hand, I saw the value in that: it gave students the message that their words were being deeply considered; their words mattered. On the other hand, it was a lot of ink for students to absorb, and they usually got overwhelmed by it. My teaching mentor told me, early on, "Students don't read your comments; they just look at the grade." (He was adorably cynical, but often right.) He told me to give my students more writing homework, and comment less on it. I took his point. I'll say it again: we learn by reps. Fact: the more reps you give your students, the better. It doesn't matter how genius your feedback sessions are; they are still no substitute for reps reps reps reps reps. 

More work, less talk, but more targeted talk—that's what makes us all happier, and also, ultimately—whooda thunk?—funnier too. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

FRINGE DIET

So last summer, I ate quite well during the Edinburgh Fringe month for about 10 US dollars a day.  In honor of touring season coming up in the Northern Hemisphere, I thought I'd publicize my Fringe Diet. I think many of us have trouble eating well on the road, but if you're in one place for long enough to get to the grocery store, and you need some inspiration, maybe this post is for you. There is a lot of satisfaction in making your own food on the road; it isn't hard, and you feel like a healthy yet frugal rock star while still enjoying the luxury of fresh food.

What follows is simply my grocery list with suggestions for how it all came together. Obviously tailor as you see fit. 

eggs 
yogurt

These were breakfast items. Just good to have around the house. The yogurt stayed at home, as did most of the eggs, but sometimes it's also amazing to hard-boil an egg and bring it with you. Whatta power snack!

Extra-virgin olive oil
A packet of prewashed arugula or spinach
Mini-cucumbers 
sugar snap peas
a bunch of scallions
broccoli and/or brussel sprouts and/or yams
fresh sprouts or sunflower seeds (dried)
cherry tomatoes
pickled beets and/or olives
a few lemons
feta cheese

I always carry a good tupperware container with me—one that closes securely with those plastic locks. Each day I put together a big salad with some combo of the above ingredients. I roasted broccoli, yams and brussel sprouts and had them around to put in the salad. I drizzled the olive oil, feta and squeezed lemon on that salad and then when it was time to take it out and eat it I just shook it vigorously and it was ready to eat!

a few hardy fruits: apples, oranges
grapes
berries
fresh mint leaves

I also had a secondary, smaller tupperware that I brought fruit around with. Because it was summer, it was berries and stone fruit slices and grapes. Mint sprigs were just nice to have with it, refreshing, and a little lemon squeezed on the fruit also makes things nice.

Good bread, like bread you'll be excited about
hummus
brie or another cheese that's not feta
smoked salmon
sliced deli meat like turkey and ham
pre-cooked chicken meat if it's good, or if it's not, get raw chicken thighs and asian marinade and make good chicken at home. 

I also made sandwiches which are naturally great to take around. I toasted the bread first just to make it sturdier. Any of the salad things can go in a sandwich too, of course.

chocolate-coated protein bars that feel like both dessert AND protein
nuts
dried fruits

These I carried around in baggies with the tupperwares. So I felt like I had lots of variety with me at all times, and none of it was that heavy.

And that's how I did it at Edinburgh! Seriously, 10 US dollars a day! Except for the last few days, which descended into an exhausted vortex of beige fried things like chips and doughnuts-fried-in-front-of-your-face.

None of us, perfect.