Thursday, October 25, 2012

Head-in-a-Cart Takes an Improv Class: Week #4

If you were looking forward to my bitching about being frustrated, you’ll be disappointed.  Last night’s class was fun and for the most part, successful.  Also, as it turns out, the funniest and most interesting person in the class isn’t in my class.  More about Mitchell the Vising Student later.

After warming up to Zip Zap Zop and the thumper exercises, the teacher informed us that we were going to work on character for the whole class.  And that was it.  One class in the entire UCB improv curriculum dedicated to character.

We were instructed to walk around the stage as ourselves, in neutral.  Then we had to imagine someone pulled us by the nose and start walking by leading with our heads while we thought of a character and slowly became that person.  When the teacher told us to stop, we were supposed to have a conversation, as that character, with whoever happened to be standing next to us.  We repeated the exercise by leading with our chest, then pelvis and then legs.  Each time creating a new character and engaging in these conversations.  I have to say most of the conversations I had were with caricatures and stock characters.  I tried to become people I knew in real life.  I have to do this because I have no choice.  I am not a trained actor and I’m not about to start mimicking and making up wacky people.  I have no choice but to stay grounded and work with what I have.  We discussed the type of character we became with each corresponding physical choice.  Somehow, leading with my chest made me more emotional and with my legs really unbalanced.

Next we continued with the neutral walking but we were instructed to imagine ourselves as having higher status and then lower status, climbing and descending statuses as the teacher instructed.  The lower the status I felt myself in, the more self-conscious I got.  I fidgeted and looked down to the floor.  The higher statuses made me more unaware of the people around me.  I felt bored and unable to relate to others.  I looked around the room and saw a lot of exaggerated body language.  Most people were working externally, not internally.  Their physicality was theatrical and big.  Again, I do not know how to do that stuff, but if I were directing the scene for a film, I would have told the actors to take it down a lot of notches.

After the exercise we talked about how we felt in relation to status level.  I told the teacher that I worked with lawyers and that, for the most part, the most powerful partners are nice and treat people with respect.  This is not the case with younger, male associates who always have something to prove and are arrogant and condescending to the staff.  To reach the highest of statuses is to reach Nirvana; a state where you own the room because you just don’t get bothered by anyone or anything.   

Next we played a really fun game called Chameleon.  We formed a circle and the person in the middle was supposed to mimic each character we presented.  We came in and out acting out characters and tapping each other out when we thought the scene was played out or needed saving.  Then we got our turn to be the chameleon.  When it was Mitchell’s turn to be the chameleon, I remembered a story my ex-roommate had told me about her childhood.  She was the only Mexican cheerleader in a squad of black girls.  One of them hated her and picked a fight, getting in her face and yelling that she was going to fuck her up.  I tapped someone out and got in Mitchell’s grill.  I called him a bitch and repeatedly threatened to fuck him up.  He mimicked me in his own way and it was so funny, I lost it.  It was the first time someone in the class had made me laugh.  Luckily someone saved me tapped me out.  I decided right there that I wanted Mitchell in one of my films.

I hate to admit it but this game was a lot of fun.  The reason why I’m taking the class finally became real to me.  I wasn’t thinking or writing but merely playing.  It was as if I was a different person; a person I never thought I could be.  I was doing something I always thought was out of character.  I’m a bit shaken me because now I have to reevaluate who the fuck I think I am versus who I am or will become.  I thought I was done with that.

During this exercise I confirmed something about the teacher.  He is not comfortable around politically incorrect situations.  After being singled out for my raced-related choices during the first class, I suspected it, but had not yet confirmed it.  Mitchell came in while Chuck (my pizza-making herpes over-acting partner) was the chameleon.  His character spoke slowly and with a lisp and Chuck interpreted as mental retardation.  He went for it.  I scanned the room and saw a few unconformable faces, including Mitchell’s who was trying desperately to downplay it.  Chuck would have none of it and was thoroughly committed to this retardation.  No one seemed interested in saving Mitchell.  Finally, the teacher said laughing, “Someone please get him out of that.”  Yup.  Have to be careful with this one and I don’t like it. 

Next we did a scene with a partner where one of us started at a higher status and then did the scene again switching status.  I stood up and was really happy that Evan, who isn’t an actor, took the stage too.  I wanted to do a scene with him because he’s one of the better improvisers.  We got the word “take” and I decided to let him start the scene.  I started at lower status.  He accused me of taking money from the church collection plate.  I was shocked and asked him if he was sure.  He said yes, we have a surveillance video.

Me:  Are you sure? Did the person have bangs? I’m the only person in this church with bangs.

Evan:  Yes it was you. Please return the money.

Me:  I’m offended at your accusations.

Evan: Please return the money.

Me:  I have absolutely no need to steal money.  My family donates a ton of money to this church.  We’re rich.

Evan:  I don’t care.  Just give me the money.

Me:  I am shocked.  I’m calling mommy right now.

We then switched.

Evan:  Umm, ma’am.  I saw you take money from the collection plate.

Me:  Are you sure it was me?

Evan:  Yes. We have a video right here.

Me:  Ok, show me the video.

We watched the video.

Me:  Oh yes. I forgot.  That’s me.

Evan:  Please return the money.

Me:  I can explain.

Evan:  Please, ma’am, give me back the money.

Me: (laughing) Let’s go talk to the bishop. He can explain.

Evan: I don’t’ need explanation. Return the money.

I reached for him and he recoiled.

Me:  C’mon. The bishop can explain.  He asked me to take the money to buy candy for the neighborhood kids.  We didn’t have the key to the petty cash and he said it would be fine.

End of scene

To conclude the class, the teacher talked about UCB’s three approaches to character.  The first is the realistic, grounded character.  The second is keeping a character that’s very different from you physically as subtle as possible.  Even though you’re on stage, performers should act for a non-existent camera, keeping the performance as small and subtle as possible.  They stay away from cartoonish characters.  The third is when the focus of a scene is around one unusual character.  This is what SNL does.  For instance, the Wild and Crazy guys and Jon Lovitz’s pathological liar.  So I guess my instincts during the character exercises were correct.  I won’t need to act out characters I cannot do.

I left class feeling exhilarated but as soon as I got in the car and started thinking I felt sad. I won’t have anyone to play with like this after this class.  Unless I continue.

Lesson #5:  Just when you think you know yourself and what you can or cannot do, it turns out you really don’t.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Head-in-a-Cart Takes an Improv Class: Week 3

Shitty Illustration by Teri Carson (all rights reserved, that's right)

Part of the requirements to pass the Improv 101 course is to watch two long-form improv shows at UCB.  At the beginning of each class the teacher asks us what show we saw, makes note, and then solicits our thoughts and observations on the shows.  I made it a point to see a show on Monday night because I had an agenda:  to hint at my fellow students that they were not getting it by making smart observations about the process.  I know. It had only been two classes.  But it seems most of my classmates are not listening to the teacher.  Also, the teacher is a lot more patient than I am.

Before the teacher even had a chance to ask, my hand was already waving in the air like one of those annoying over-achieving know-it-alls in grade school. (Ok, that was me back then too.) I said that I had an “aha!” moment where what I was seeing clicked with what the teacher talked about during class, such as keeping things logical and in reality and the combination of normal and unusual characters in the scene.  I also told them that there was a lot of supporting, having each other’s back and rescuing the scene.  The teacher nodded and gave me kudos for my insights.  At that moment, I’m pretty sure I was his favorite student.  The others didn’t have much to say as it related to what we were trying to accomplish in class.  Oy.

Before I get into the content of yesterday’s class, I’d like to get something off my chest.

The first thing I did when I got to class was sit next to a girl I suspected was an actress and that seemed interesting enough to consider for a film.  I’ll call her Haley since that’s her actual name.  Class hadn’t started so we just sat there.  I turned to her and I asked her if she was an actor.  She said she was.  I told her a friend and I were both prepping to shoot films and I thought she might be good for a role.  She was taken aback and said thanks.  She’s very shy, insecure and awkward. I asked her if she was SAG and she said yes. Then I asked for a headshot and she didn’t have one.  Then she said, I’ll give you my agent’s number.

At first I was a bit confused and wondered if maybe she was well-known and I didn’t know it.  But then I remembered how it is with these actors in Hollywood that are just starting out.  They are all obsessed with getting reps and when they do they are told potential employers must go through them.  My ex-roommate, an actress, never got any good leads from her reps and eventually dumped them because they would tell her what to do and what not to do.  That’s not the way to take control of your career, especially when you’re starting out.  And then I was like, oh shit, how do I un-do my request?  So I basically took out my phone and started reading tweets.  I didn’t press her for the contact info and she didn’t offer it even though we were sitting next to each to her the entire class.

That’s such a red flag.  I’m not looking to collaborate with agents. I’m looking to collaborate with hungry, ambitious artists.  If I wanted to deal with reps I would try to cast name actors for fuck’s sake.  I feel bad for Haley but I guess everyone has to learn the hard way. 

So back to class.  We started with exercises.  You’d be glad to know that we are getting a lot better at the Zip Zap Zop exercise.  We did a new one that the teacher said most of us were going to hate.  It’s called Hot Spot and it teaches you to support your teammates.  He’d say a word, then someone got in the middle and started singing a song prompted by that word.  We were to be supportive by singing along and being enthusiastic.  Eventually one of us had to replace the person in the middle by singing a song that was somehow related to that song.  At first there were only three people playing.  I wasn’t self-conscious or afraid of the game, I just couldn’t think of any songs and I’m terrible with lyrics.  Eventually everyone got in the game and I got to sing You Are My Sunshine and London Bridge.  The exercises that followed were designed to help us understand support and keeping a scene contained.

I had a moment of horror at the beginning of an exercise.  We all stood around in a circle and the teacher said find a partner.  Both people to my left and right turned away from me.  I looked around the room and who did I see didn’t have a partner?  Yup. Mr. Pizza Maker Herpes Douche himself.  Luckily the exercise didn’t involve any talking.  We just had to form the letters and numbers the teacher said out loud working as a team.

We moved on to an exercise that to my surprise almost everyone found difficult.  It was pretty basic.  We made two lines and formed couples.  After a word prompt, the first person said a line to establish location and/or relationship, then the second person followed with the same objective in mind, and then the one that started the dialogue ended it.  Again, most of the exchanges were absurd.  Mine went like this:

(first time we had no prompt)

Me: Your honor, here’s the opinion you asked me to write for you. I suggest you read it before the hearing.
Alfred:  Thank you very much, you are a fine….(he couldn’t figure out who I was so I whispered “clerk” to him)
Me:  No problem. I feel very honored to be your clerk which is what I wanted since I was in law school.

(word: catapult)
Alfred:  I bought these two tickets to see the human cannonball.
Me: I think you should take me since I’m your sister and I want a career in the circus.
Alfred:  But I only have two tickets.

(word: towel)
Me:  Sir, let me show you around the spa. Here’s the Jacuzzi, the sauna and the steam room.
Alfred:  I hope they are clean.
Me:  Yes, we cleaned them after that hairy man was finished using them.

We continued working on support.  We did scenes where we were supposed to endow each other with gifts.  The teacher explained that it meant giving each other information about our characters.  He demonstrated by playing both sides.  He said he would tell us when to stop giving each other gifts and just go on with the scene.  The audience would give a word prompt and one by one, each couple gave each other compliments.  The teacher explained that even though his demonstration involved compliments, it didn’t have to be that way.  That it could be bad stuff too.  It just had to be information.

I got paired up with a young girl named Lisa.  On the first day of class I complimented her on her cute dress and she replied: “Thank you. I got it from my mom’s closet. It’s from the 80s.  Do you know the 80s?”  So I hated her a little bit.  Someone in the audience threw out the “Jack O Lantern” and she opened the scene with “Isn’t this pumpkin patch nice?”

Me:  Yes, you really like plants and gardening, don’t you?
Lisa:  Yes mom, same as you.
Me:  You’re confusing me with your dad.  He loved plants and so did you, which makes me wonder why you’re majoring in physics.
Lisa:  I love physics, especially the astro part.  Also since you’re an astronomer.
Me:  You were never interested in astronomy.  Every time I called you to look through the telescope you said you were busy with your dad in the garden.
Lisa:  Well, you’re a witch.
Me:  Yes, I have to do the witchy stuff so I can pay for your expensive Harvard education.
Lisa:  I wish you would do spells to help me attract boys.
Me:  I can’t do spells for myself or my family.
Lisa:  Oh yeah, what about the time you did the spells to scare off my boyfriends?
Me: That was only twice and that’s because they had no jobs and were short.

End of scene.

You see what she did? She didn’t support me.  I’m doing all the fucking supporting.  In fact, she undermined the scene twice.  Some people have a lot of trouble saying YES.

Next came my favorite part of the class because, in my opinion, it had to do with the essence of unique storytelling.  This two-person exercise required recalling memories.  The audience blurted out a word and one of us in front had to talk about a memory initiated by that word and then make up a line of dialogue based on the memory.  I was really paying attention to who was going to stand up next to get up in front.  Miss Fake Boobs went to the front and I thought what the hell and followed her.  She was covered up and wearing those Sasquatch looking white boots, which was weird since it was 94 degrees outside.  Someone said, “snow.”

Sasquatch:  It makes me think of winters in Michigan with my family and our yard blanketed in snow.

Teacher: Ok, make up a line based on that memory.
Sasquatch:  Wow, it has snowed so much. Everything is covered in snow.

Me re my memory:  It reminds me of the first year my family went up to our cabin in Lake Arrowhead.  It had snowed a lot and also it was when The Movie Channel would play the same three movies all day long: Hardcore, Ice Castles and The Shining.  We must have seen the Shining a half a dozen times that weekend.

My line:  Yes, it’s starting to look a lot like the Overlook Hotel.

Sasquatch re memory:  It reminds me of when we were snowed in and my dad would rent movies and he’d pause on his favorite part over and over again.

Sasquatch’s line:  Dad, I hope you’re not going to make us watch your scary movies all day long.

Me re memory:  It reminds me of how much I love to scare the shit out of my niece and nephews.

My line:  Oh, honey, but it reminds me of when you were little and you were so cute when you were scared and you’d run out of the room screaming.

The teacher explained that accessing memories and using them was what was going to make our scenes memorable and unique.  I’d like to think my classmates understood this concept, but I doubt it.  I think for most it’s way too difficult and complex.  I did it the first day of class.  Remember my fender-bender scene?  If you mention a dent in the car I’m automatically going to think “Asian driver” because a day doesn’t go by that I don’t have a close call with an Asian driver.  It’s part of my everyday life.  Of course, the teacher didn’t know and I got chastised for using race again.

Lesson #3:  Be supportive but also on the lookout for your partner to sabotage you.

Lesson #4:  Memories are vital and more precious than you think.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Head-in-a-Cart Takes an Improv Class: Week 2

Illustration by T. Carson

Improv class was uneventful last night.  I behaved and never mentioned any of my race-related fixations.  We did a lot of exercises, which I will write about even at the risk of boring you because I want to chronicle my experience for future reference.

Again, we stared with Zip, Zap, Zop and the name game.  Then we got into miming.  But realistic miming, not like those annoying French mimes.  We threw and caught knives, babies and angry cats.

Next, a bunch of us had to act out tableaus on stage while the rest watched.  Someone would say, “Hey let’s go to the movies” we’d act it out and then someone would say “let’s go to the beach” and so forth.  Then someone had to pick a fight in slow-mo and the fight had to escalate into a brawl.  All in slow motion.  I learned that hitting and getting beaten up in slow motion is very tiring.

We also did a lot of space work, which rattles me because I have to pay attention to what others are doing and I can’t space out to think.  Which is good I guess because that’s the reason I’m taking the class.  Not to think so much all the time.  It’s a struggle, I won’t lie, and I hope I get better.  I’m baffled that I’ve had no trouble letting go and that I’m not afraid of acting like a fool.  I don’t even get nervous and, to be honest, it’s really out of character for me.  I didn’t think it was a big deal until a filmmaker friend who is also taking improv classes told me I was brave.  Me? Brave? I don’t think so.  It’s not like we have a choice at UCB.  You have to do it.  I feel like a new person and it’s very weird.

We did an exercise called How Can We Fuck with This Baby?  Again, the class was split in two, with half being the audience and half acting out the scene.  I didn’t get to do this one.  One by one, the students entered the room and added something to it and then they had to solve a problem using the baby.  One person took a shit and used the baby to wipe his ass.  You had to pick up the baby where it was last left, so you really had to pay attention.  Someone started exercising and picked up the baby and used it for step aerobics.  You get the picture.

For our group, he changed it up.  Now we were mute spies trying to hide top secret documents.  Same concept as fuck with the baby, but each spy had to retrieve the documents from the last hiding place and find another hiding place.  As soon as the documents were found, the audience hummed the theme to Mission Impossible and stopped humming as soon as that spy left the room.  I spaced out once, but luckily we could enter the room whenever we wanted to.  I chose to get a dog off his bed, place the documents on the bed, and then convince the dog to get back on the bed and lie on top of the documents.  I wasn’t interested in creating a piece of furniture or fixture because that’s fucking boring and I’m a terrible mime.  I simply pretended the invisible dog was my dog Pepa and did what I do every night when we are ready to go to bed.

Despite the teacher telling us not to try to be funny or wacky, people still did it.  He explained how and why UCB came about.  The founders were tired of the improv scene where everything goes for a laugh.  There was no direction and scenes always meandered from joke to joke.  So they got together and came up with UCB’s method.  I think the concept is basically just writing on the stage.  You start off and then you have to find the “game” which is what the scene is about.  The teacher explained that when a scene is working, you say something that’s boring, normal and logical to you, the audience laughs and you get surprised.  You don’t know why it’s funny until you analyze what just happened.  I had that experience with the Yes…And…exercise from last week.  So far, the two people I think are the best are not actors.  The actors act and try to be funny.  Us non-actors keep it in reality and try to live the scene.  However, I did notice that the one-liner is really ingrained in me now (because of my tweeting I’m sure) and that I spit them out without even thinking.

For instance, we played Know it All Expert.  You get in the middle and people ask you questions.  You’re supposed to answer them logically and with conviction even if you don’t know the answer.  Again, at the “top of your intelligence.”  Most people spewed out wacky, stupid responses to almost everything.  I did it once but I didn’t mean to.  Someone asked me, what’s the speed limit on the 405?  I answered 15mph.  It just came out.  Of course I know what the speed limit is but I’ve never been on that freeway at 65mph and it might as well be 15 mph.

We ended class with an exercise where two people were supposed to be doing something together, like washing a car, preparing a meal, gardening, etc.  The situation changed with every couple.  We were supposed to have a conversation while doing the actions but never mention what we were doing.  Pairing is usually random.  Teacher says “next two” and you go forward and whoever you get, you get.  I need to be more mindful of who gets up at the same time I do now that I know who I don’t want to do scenes with.  Yeah, I guess I’m directing by trying to cast my own scene but I get frustrated if I think I’m not getting the most out of an exercise.  I can’t work up to my potential if I’m always paired up with someone who doesn’t get it.

Anyway, so we got pizza-making at a restaurant.  You perform the action without speaking for a few seconds and then someone starts the conversation.  I said “Dude, I have something to tell you” first but my partner pretended he didn’t hear me, cut me off, hijacked the scene and said “So, when are you going to tell Joe you have herpes?”  It threw me off and I reacted like anyone would in that situation.  I said “Why don’t you say it louder so that everyone else can hear you?”  He replied “I’m just sayin’,” obviously because he had nothing to say, and I asked him “What is it to you anyway? It’s none of your fucking business.”  This is interesting because I was one of the few people to react like this during this exercise.  You’re supposed to call out people like you would in real life, but most of my classmates just go with it so the scene gets absurd really quickly.

The rest of the scene went on with him forcing the issue and me finally responding that I didn’t tell anyone when he had crabs.  I got frustrated and took it out on the imaginary dough and kept on punching it and punching it.  My partner never called me out on that because he wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing or feeling.  He then said I got the herpes from a girl and that I should tell my boyfriend.  I responded “It’s just mouth herpes, what’s the big deal?”  The audience laughed and the teacher stopped the scene.

I swear this type of selfish shit is making me hate some of my actor classmates.  I guess I have to let go of my directorial instinct when I’m performing, but I wish the teacher would mention generosity once in a while.  I mean, if you want it to be just about you, why don’t you fucking do stand-up or monologues?  And here I thought I was going to be the sucky one because I have no experience performing.  Not that I don’t suck, but I don’t suck that much.

Lesson #2:  Don’t space out.  Listening and paying attention is key in life and even more so during improv.

Bonus lesson: Casting is everything. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Head-in-a-Cart Takes an Improv Class: Week 1

Illustration by Teri Carson

Well, I stressed out and had nervous diarrhea over nothing.  Once I got to class all my nerves disappeared and I couldn’t wait to get on my feet.  After half an hour of administrative lecturing, i.e. The Rules and Regulations, we finally got to work.

The first exercise we did is called ZIP ZAP ZOP.  You say ZIP and point to someone in the circle and they say ZAP and point and so on.  It’s like verbal ping pong.  This was probably the hardest part of the whole night.  You really have to be coordinated and pay attention.  If you get distracted you lose track and interrupt the momentum.  We all sucked at it.  This was followed by a fun game to help us learn each other’s names and other loosening up exercises which really work.  I mean it.  If those exercises work on me, they work on anyone.  There were a couple of people that were self-conscious and, to my huge surprise, I wasn’t one of them.  I decided to make a fool out of myself from the get-go and I sure did.

To learn each other’s names, we were supposed to give ourselves a moniker, a physical attribute and act it out.  Leper Lisa walked like a zombie (I didn’t correct her because she was having fun doing that walk), Rappin’ Richie did a weird rapper thing with his hands, Jumpin’ Jenet, a duck-face blond with huge fake boobs spilling out from her low-cut camisole, jumped up in the air, etc.  And Scary Teri let out a frightening, ridiculous monster scream.  It got big laughs.  Probably not because it was funny, but because it was incredibly stupid.  I’ve never done anything like that in front of people I don’t know and it felt really good.  The teacher told me I redefined the exercise.  I think my self-consciousness left my body every time I let out that silly scream.

The first scene we worked on involved ranting about our pet peeves.  We took turns as a group of four and got up on stage.  As soon as the teacher pointed to a student, she would have to start her rant and not stop until the teacher pointed to someone else.  I could not believe the ease with which the words came out of my mouth.  I didn’t pause and I hardly took a breath. If you have known me a while, you must be shocked at this.  I’m not known as a talker.  In fact, I’ve been quite shy all my life and I don’t let people I don’t know see the real me.  I suspect this is going to end by the time I’m done with this class and I feel sorry for the people around me. I really do.

I guess you’re wondering what my pet peeve is.  I will try to recreate my rant (condensed of course) below:

I’m Mexican and I used to love my people until I moved to LA. Why? Because of the Laundromat.  I hate going to the Laundromat in LA.  It’s full of Mexicans and all of their family, friends, neighbors, kids and they do piles and piles and piles of laundry and it’s really hard to get a machine.  It makes me feel like a loser that I don’t own my own machines but worse, it makes me feel horrible about myself. That I have such horrible feelings towards immigrants.  And then I see they have the same blanket that I do that I bought at the Tijuana border crossing.  And then I try to grab a cart but they won’t let go because they think the carts belong to them.  And then I think, OH MY GOD AM I RACIST? I thought I was a good person and now this.  Going to the Laundromat makes me feel horrible horrible horrible!!! Etc.

If you know me, you know this is a very honest rant.  It had to be.  At least that’s what I understood the teacher meant by going off at the “top of your intelligence.”  He explained it didn’t mean expertise or trying to be smart.  It means that you’re supposed to use everything that’s inside you, like experience, feelings, and opinions.  What you know but that you may be afraid to express.  And that’s what I did and I wasn’t afraid.  Most people kept on repeating the same things in different words and ways because they ran out of material.  They tried to be wacky and quirky.  If, like the teacher said, you perform at the top of your intelligence, you’ll never run out of material.  So basically I’m doing the live extended version of what I do on Twitter.  Keep reading and find out how it didn’t end well.

Next, we did a second exercise where three of us, as a group, were supposed to be talk show guests and the teacher the host.  The rules were that we were all equals, shared a common experience and met in the same place.  One by one each scene descended in to the wacky and absurd.  I knew I really wanted to keep it in reality, but duck-face-boobs hijacked the scene and changed it.  All of a sudden we were on a cruise ship where closeted gays went to come out. HUH?  The captain wasn’t supposed to dock until every single person on that ship came out of the closet.  My character basically stayed in her room puking the whole time and when forced to come out of the room, she puked on duck-face-fake-boobs.

Wow, I thought, so this improv thing really is a fucking struggle between actors trying to outdo each other.  I won’t be casting  duck-face-fake-boobs in anything ever.  I think this is going to be my crux, because as a writer-director, I’m not vying for such attention.  My agenda is quite different. 

I think I'm the only person that's approaching it from the perspective of mining truth and reality for comedy.  Most of the other students, especially the women, were trying too hard to be funny, weird, quirky, whatever.  They hijack the exercises.  It's not like when you can’t think of anything and go with something wacky.  The women in my class do it on purpose and it's super annoying.  So far, the men are more generous.

I did screw up royally but it taught me a lot about what improv shouldn’t be.

We concluded the night with the Yes, and… exercise.  It’s simple but hard to do.  Two people are having a conversation and one starts by making an observation.  Then you say “yes” and repeat what they said and add “and” and another observation.  Repeat.  Mine went something like this:

He: I notice there’s a new dent in the car.
Me: Yes, there’s a dent in the car and I’m sorry but I was hit by an Asian driver.
He:  Yes, you’re sorry and you were hit by an Asian driver and you didn’t get his insurance information.
Me:  Yes, I didn’t get his insurance information and so what, I forgot.
He:  Yes, You forgot and now I have to get a second job to pay for it.
Me:  Yes, you have to get a second job, and it’s okay because you’re my husband and you love me.
He: Yes, I’m your husband and I love you and --.

There was laughter after every line I delivered.  The teacher singled me out.  He told me I had used race a second time and that he didn’t want that to be my go-to thing.  That in this case race didn’t matter.

Of course he was right.  I was doing it wrong because I tried to steer the conversation my way before we even started the scene.  I tried to control the scene from the very beginning.  I wanted to write the scene my way as I’ve always done.  I’m used to being in control. Throughout the night, the only time I was in control was during my pet peeve rant.  I felt like shit.  Not just because of this failure, but because I looked up and there were 12 people, most of them white, looking at me and probably thinking I was a total racist.  When the teacher asked about the scene duck-face-fake-boobs said I came out as a cold, insensitive wife.  That didn’t really matter to me because I’m not interested in niceties.  I guess she would have played it that way.  I simply said what came to mind.  I guess it’s a good thing I’m not a wife.

I thought about this on the drive back and also most of today.  I took an ill-conceived risk and it didn’t pay off because I had never before experienced lack of control in creating a scene.  I’d like to say I’m fearless but that would be dishonest.  At this point I can’t say if I’ll become more guarded or not for fear of what people will think about me.  I just don’t know.  I’ve been so uncensored and carefree on Twitter and Facebook for so long that I don’t know how that is going to play out during this course.  I guess I just learned that Tweeting preposterous one-liners on the internet and acting them out in front of real people are two very different things.

Lesson #1:  If you want to be in control, just write.

Monday, October 01, 2012

I win. Again.

Ok, so my short screenplay 1st and 10 was a winner this weekend.  I can't really say it was a surprise. This is the third time one of my scripts wins at the Broad Humor Film Festival in four years.  I didn't submit last year because I wanted to give someone else a chance to win and I didn't want to win three years in a row.  I thought that would be embarrassing and greedy.

Now, you might think I'm arrogant and over-confident. Not really.  99.9% of the time I'm very insecure, critical of myself and not confident at all.  What I don't do is false modesty.  I have sat through the scene readings at this festival for four years and that's how I knew I would win again.  It's not that I'm a great writer. Far from it. It's that I'm a better writer.

You see, I loathe reading un-produced screenplays so I've learned to have lots of empathy for the reader.  My goal with every script is to color it white.  Wondrous white.  That tendency teaches you to cut out what's not essential to the story.  That usually means taking out dialogue, description and scenes that make you feel clever but that do nothing to drive the story forward.  And that's what most of the scenes read at the festival were like.  I believe that you should be able to enter at any time in the screenplay and, even though you might not know everything that's going on, you should get a really good idea of what's going on in the scene without any explanation.  That was not the case yesterday even with screenplays that were read from the very beginning.  I doubt any of those writers ever heard of the 2 page hook.  Or maybe they did and they forgot.  I wouldn't have read past page 1 of most of them.  And, if the actor reading the description is having trouble spitting out your words, take note. That's a big problem.  Save the big words and fancy prose for the novel if you must.

There was also a lot of telling us what the characters are like.  A lot of expository dialogue and a lot more clever dialogue just for the sake of being clever and funny.  Whatever happened to having the characters do stuff and show us who they are?  Why so much talking, ya'll? Talking isn't funny.  Humans being funny and doing fucked up shit is funny.  Cinema is a visual medium. Please make your characters shut the fuck up!  I know I'm being harsh, but you know what? I used to write like that. (Well, now that I think about it I sometimes still do. : ( )  I thought I was soooooo good at writing funny dialogue. I was so full of myself and my funny characters who had so many funny things to say. Barf. I guess if I had any inclination or any desire I would be writing for a sitcom. That shit is pathetic. No thanks.

C'mon girls.  We can do better.  Much, much better.  We have to. The competition is brutal.  We can't really complain about the lack of female voices in the business if we're not up to par with the best of writers.  And please, please, please, no screenplays about your divorce.  No one cares.

You want to learn how to write great comedy? Watch Buster Keaton films.  Voice, action, pathos and humanity are the key components to great comedy. I swear. For fuck's sake just watch The General.

If you're laughing when you're writing it's shit and if you're not crying and suffering then you're not writing great comedy. I know. It sucks. But it's true.

Here's a clip from His Girl Friday.  Watch it, laugh and forget it. It's been done.  You'll never write something this great. Never. Now get to work and make your characters shut the fuck up.

P.S. Fuck. I just remembered my goal was to be the female, Mexican Woody Allen. Yeah. That bad. I'm embarrassed now.