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.