Matt Besser Lecture Notes (in collaboration w/Will Hines)

May 21, 2012

This past Sunday, founding member and owner of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Matt Besser, gave a talk at the Chelsea theater about what his concept of “UCB-style” improv is and what he’d like to see taught here in New York and what not. I have my thoughts on all this but that is not what this post is about.

Instead, here are (w/Will’s permission) the notes that I took at that lecture that were organized and clarified by the Associate Academic Supervisor of the UCB, Will Hines, and sent out to some staff and performers.

I hope you enjoy and maybe (hopefully!) discuss.

-Nick

***

Outline of 5/20/12 Besser Meeting, courtesy of Nicholas Feitel:

MINDSET
I’ve been talking a lot about mindset, what’s your mindset when you enter a scene and start improvising.
When I started I was standup, so I already had stage confidence.
Charna told me that I wouldn’t be good at improv because of stand up. She was right, at least at first.
Difference between standup/short-form, the game is already given.
In short-form game is explained to the audience, details fed into comedy machine
Short-form more selfish, who can do it “the best”, less group dynamic.
ImprovOlympic didn’t work when it was competition based
Long-form improvisers listen to others, the most important note an improviser can get. You listen to others.
My mindset used to be dueling stand-up, you say something funny and then I say something funny. Two separate thought bubbles.
I didn’t trust or give in to listening, I didn’t have trust that it was funnier to build off something someone else created with me as opposed to me being funny, trust in the group mind.
I was on stage with someone was good and I thought the other persons idea was better so I shared it. One shared thought bubble — group mind.
Stand up and longform are different muscles, different mindsets

IMPROV and SKETCH
At UCB, a great improvised scene is the same as a great sketch .
You don’t always do A+ scenes, just like we don’t do perfect Harold’s
Everyone else is doing improvised plays, narrative, with silly people and that it wouldn’t work written down. It stills works because the audience loves improv but we are trying to get away from that.

SEMANTICS and TERMS
We have two kinds of long-form: organic and premise-based. Equally as good.
Organic coming off a suggestion and we start improvising not off of an opening. We are “yes-and-ing”
We build a base reality (who, what, where) from yes-and-ing.
Base, what you’ll build a scene on, reality so we know what’s normal, and what the first unusual thing is.
Once we find that unusual thing, we don’t need a yes-and, we just need to say if this unusual thing is true, what else is true. That’s the difference between UCB and other schools, other schools have “yes-and”-itis.
Game doesn’t happen until a second person reacts.
If someone says I’m going to “kill myself with potato skins”, you then say “yes let me help you” then we have two unusual things because of yes-and, because then we have someone who is helping people kill their friends (unusual) and someone who wants to kill themselves with a potato-skin (unusual). It can’t go down the two paths.

I want you in the mindset of this: “if this one unusual thing is true, what else is true”. It’ll take you through that sketch of any show you like.

TOP OF INTELLIGENCE
Maybe yes-and-itis is caused by people who don’t play at the top of their intelligence, that fear leads you to play not at the top of your intelligence to say something funny
Del said two difference things that get lumped together
-Treat your audience like poets and geniuses, don’t “dumb down” the scene for your audience.
-commit to playing a doctor the best you can.
Your character isn’t necessarily as smart as you are, they’re not necessarily. If I’m an 8-year-old, I’m not as smart as who I am normally.
The intelligence is our intelligence of how people behave towards one another.
That’s not what a person would say (I’ll help you kill yourself), because no matter who you are, you’ll deal with the unusual thing. The top of intelligence choice is dealing with the unusual thing.
You have to get into the mindset of how would I respond in that scenario, most of you are not truly reacting as you would react.

OPENINGS/INITIATING OFF MONOLOGUES
A good monologue lasts about two minutes, we need to slow down and tell a little bit more.
The purpose of this initiation is to let them know where you are coming from, so it’s your take on what was funny from the opening.
We use the opening to come from a common place, I like to think of if as the pitch meeting from the sketch show.
What makes a memory a memory is that they are unusual things in your life.
I want to get pretentious words like “emotional” out of your vocabulary. Let’s use the words from our curriculum.
Could be the point of the story, the way someone told the story, some part that got laughs.
It would be idiotic not to use the parts of the opening that got laughs, we have to find our own way to flag to, but we want to find a way to flag 3, because it’s more efficient. 4-5 are too many to remember, 1-2 is not enough because other people may hopefully use them.
With my initiation line, in an opening there’s chaff (doesn’t bring us anything, words equal to suggestion word), premise (when I can really gel what I found funny in the opening and who,what, where), half-ideas (no premise but at least directing towards what we think is funny off the opening).
If you see immediately that you’re joking, or bringing in your own idea, let it go.
People talk about emotion or relationship, but really just commit to being real. Either that or commit to being peas in a pod which can be helpful and you could be a slight straight man (ala Cheech and Chong), the straight man is the one who gets to explore. You have to be your own unusual thing.
Our opening is the pitch meeting for the sketch show, I wouldn’t pitch something at SNL that I didn’t think was funny. We don’t like to imply that one person brings the whole game, but that funny thing from the monologue is the thing we should heighten and explore.
Why did a scene peter out after the beginning? Because we let the truth of the funny thing go.
Really explore why something is funny, ideas off a suggestion, otherwise why are you doing the opening, you’re not honoring the audience’s ideas and the group mind you just built if you go out there with nothing
You’ve got to give the initiator their real chance to say what they think is funny before laying on your own thing.

HEIGHTEN/EXPLORE
Like stair steps
NOT raising the stakes! Don’t say raise the stakes. For exploring, when we started in Chicago, we were told to raise the stakes in the second beats, it seems to take us to the same places (doctor’s office, white house), INSTEAD: what’s another great place to play this game?
Raising the stakes imply that second beat is better than the first, and that’s not necessarily true.
After Wiig’s Penelope/”the one-upper” they weren’t thinking how to raise the stakes the first time the character premiered for next week, they thought about where else to put her.
What’s another scenario that’s full of potential?
I need another place that has other details (not better, funnier, a lot of potential in this new place/situation).
Second beat may be better based on better handle on the game.
Find what’s funny and make it funnier- heighten
If you heighten without exploring, then we lose the reality, it’s over more quickly.
Explore= figure out why this crazy thing is happening / justify
Exploring allows our scenes to go longer.
The “sillier” something is the quicker the truth runs out.

PLAUSIBLE CRAZY PEOPLE
When I was doing Crossballs, the character debating the real person has to be a lawyer for their absurdity, explaining the premise.
Ex: a guy who kills ducks with a rocks because a guy who’s kill a duck with a gun is a pussy.
It takes longer to get through the scene arming ourselves with more specifics.
The earlier on in a scene, the more grounded and logical I have to be, have those slower builds, because if you heighten too much you play out the scene to end.
I try to give the initiator more respect, so you try to give the initiator more respect, if it’s premise based, you really try to find what the person’s idea is and clue-in on what they’re doing. Sometimes when things get messed up, the second unusual thing is more unusual than the first, so you have to drop the first thing and play the things the audience chooses
Don’t aim to find the flaw in someone’s logic, there are flaws in all logic, just keep heightening and exploring.
Make sure you stick to your guns even if someone questions or calls out your logic.
You’re allowed to be selectively oblivious about one unusual thing but if someone lays on a second unusual thing, it’s bad, but give up and play their thing.
Some people like to juggle two-three games, as the other player in the scene just try to focus on the one most unusual thing. Sometimes organically a new game can come up and you can play that if you heighten enough (not in a Harold).

AVOID THE TERMS EMOTION/RELATIONSHIP WHEN ANALYZING IMPROV
I hate hearing the word emotion, relationship, this is a sketch, not a movie or a film. Who is this person, what do they want from me is acting, we don’t need that, we need base reality, commitment to that, an unusual thing, ability to heighten explore.
Just try to react as yourself in situations and maybe really ask yourself how you’d actually react.

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Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Week Final

April 27, 2012

It’s been a rough week or two for me.

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Anyway, my Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Class is now over. I got a lot out of it, I feel like, getting better at drawing premises from openings, really finding the emotional commitment in my harolds that I struggled to find before, learning how to respect the other people in my class and deal with my own expectations of myself. It was all difficult, but in the end, like many things in life, I grew.

As I’ve said here before, the point of writing down these notes and putting them on the internet was that Neil is a performer who is very highly respected, within the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and beyond, who does not teach classes often anymore (he said he would not teach another class here until at least August), whose philosophy I admire and so I thought I could (with Neil’s permission) share.

If I were to take the one thing that I got from this class, it would be to take things personally in scenes. Be real and in the moment and react as you would in life if this was important to you. Doing so will lead you to the sort of emotional commitment that will lend itself to interesting scenes and games that will not be cliched because they will be filtered through the lens of your experience.

That said, that’s my extrapolation.

So here, for the last time, are the notes from our last class. Hastily scrawled, certainly incomplete, almost definitely inaccurate. Use them for what you will.

And thank you to my classmates and especially to Neil, for the experience and the notes.

***

This week try to put it all together:

What we are shooting for is to do truthful high commitment invocations which lead us into truthful emotionally committed scenes and fun games. Commitment is the name of the game.

For second beats, follow the fun. You can follow tangents as damage control, but only do it if it’s the more fun thing, otherwise let’s reinvest in one or both of these characters or go analogous if we earn it.

On Anxiety And “Pressure”: all of us are very concerned about how well we do in our performance or on stage, but it leads to second-guessing and selfish play, you may steam-roll over someone’s ideas or invent. The trick is genuinely to make your scene partner look good and make their ideas look like genius. If you take yourself out of the equation and are really doing that, which is hard to do, then you’ll be doing the best work of your life, even if the thing you did was something your scene partner set up. Then the credit you get is funny, because you’ll be getting credit for other people’s moves, them yours. Because the stitching behind the tapestry you’re showing everyone is everybody helping each other, everyone owns the laughs.

There’s no way to teach that or to make people do that, but if you do that your anxiety will be taken care of.

Warmup: character telephone, match in the moment, not call and response and then match, pass it on.

You want to make sure if your behavior is interesting or funny, we want the philosophy behind it to pass the bullshit test. Just like anytime you’re talking to someone and they are blowing smoke up your ass, is like a weak justification on stage.

The why behind the why- you can always justify something on a surface level, the worst example of which is “because you’re crazy”, But if you give the why behind the why, we get to a playable attitude.

For instance “I like paper because paper is awesome” vs. “I believe in physical things, everything is too impermanent”.

What’s the thing behind “It’s not you, it’s me”. The reason why that’s so cliched is because even if it might be true it doesn’t reveal a deeper philosophy or reason.

When you cease to do what you love or be who you are, that’s one step towards selling out. Object monologue warmup (tossing around a mimed object and telling a truthful story about it) gets you towards remembering truth.

If you’re gifted as sleeping in dog shit, find something that you remember that’s important as opposed to “I like the smell of shit” but if I can convince you that I’m the guy that likes that for an interesting reason (“because I want to get back to animalistic nature”) then we are there.

Do a Harold with invocation then do an  “I believe” Harold. Both characters in a scene should say at some point I believe____. Shouldn’t be inelegant because that is often what game is, a point of view or reaction. Every character that’s a good character can say that

Take big swings for thou art. An invocation gone wrong is when people leaned on silly voice or phrasing. Of course you can rephrase what you already said but if we’re not saying anything new we’re not using it for what it’s good for.

Make sure we’re not playing too glib, even if we are having funny philosophies, make sure to acknowledge reality/the other side even still

When you’ve got a simpler game from the opening, don’t ignore it in favor of other games we’ve played before.

Be careful of treating something that might be close to an improv cliche (candy for drugs, for instance), we can play it, but then we need to treat it even more seriously/personally.

You can’t be resting in thou arts, we should feel like we are increasing our speed and our momentum, not just casually rephrasing things. Take the idea from the mundane to the sublime, take it there with the delivery and the content. When you get to the big ideas, we find things we can play in our piece.

Doing three line scenes where we get “who what where” out is clunky and should not necessarily be how we start scenes, but it’s to make you miss those things when they are going in to your scenework.

I always say to earlier level students that audiences are so happy to hear what they are looking at that they will forgive clunkiness.

In that way, even a clunky explanation is better than a meaningless pattern.

It’s not a rule that we always connect the scenes in the first third beat. Never play for the blackout at the end of your pieces.

The trick of this class is step out and mean business immediately, be emotionally committed and real and then play what’s actually fun, not what you thought would be. Once we’ve got our game, push it and don’t let it die.

 


Neil Casey Advanced Study Notes Week Seven (w/special guest Will Hines)

April 20, 2012

Hey everybody.

Here are the notes for Week Seven of my Neil Casey Advanced Study Class, this week guested by Will Hines. These are also mostly referring to second beats and “the game” specifically.

As always, these are hastily scrawled, mostly inaccurate and incomplete. Use them for what you will.

For what it’s worth, it was a good and enjoyable class for me. Will has a style of noting that really tries to unveil your style of improv. The only thing he asks is agreement and most notes put the onus on him, going so far as to begin many notes and directions with: “help make me a better teacher…”

I also really enjoy his style of play and think of him as one of my favorite teachers.

That said, the notes:

***

I think there are two kinds of second beats where you just do the same thing again a little different like the second verse of a song and that can be fine
Sometimes formulaic., but good because it’s clear and simple
Another second beat can be if this is true then what else is, maybe seeing another part of the world, following the consequences of that world
There’s still time-dash and analogous but other options too.
One type of second beat should be the same way again with new specifics, it makes your long-form feel like it has depth to it
I try to find a moment that’s iconic when doing a “different specifics” second beat, the moment I would put in “the trailer” of that scene.
The way to tell if you did it is the audiences laughs or nods
An “if this, then” second beat,
We coach against going plotting, but plot is a good tool to use if you are taking game with you.
The reason we coach against plot is because too often the audience thinks what could happen, but we want the audience to see our choices make what “did” happen.
TiC- Improv is like driving with a windshield blacked out, only rear-view mirror.
Only something that reflects backwards is satisfying in a second beat.
I’ve heard gasps from the audience because when they make the connection, they love it.
Take the same urgency/energy/atmosphere of that high point in the first beat.
In European Vacation, Eric Idle keeps getting more and more injured, whenever he enters the seem, he’s friendly, it’ll still be a new landmark, but he still gets messed up
That’s the only type of second beat I really see.
Even if it’s different types of fucked up (physically, emotionally, et cetera) its still the same pattern
Another part of the world, playing a similar game or very informed by that game.
If you’re doing the same thing, it’s a challenge, but have better specifics, be funnier.
When you have a script, it’s hard to act like you’ve heard those lines for the first time, make them your own. So is improv, finding lines.
There is something forced and writerly about second beats, but people want it, so it’s good to give it to them.
I’ve never had a class where I talked about openings, second beats, et cetera and it’s like do it this way, it’s like do it and if the audience laughs, know it can work. That’s my lesson.
“Hey everyone get in here” group games can work as second beats but not so well in the group game slot, because we know that a second beat will be planned a bit in advance, so the audience will forgive you for that premise.
When in doubt from the back line, on an empty stage, just jump out there. The improv gods will reward you.
Make sure we are not pushing too hard towards our objectives/goals in a scene. We need to be able to dance back and forth for our scenes to work.
It is bad to ask for an edit in a scene but if somebody does you have to be on it.
In a second beat, make sure to start with your spin on the idea so the audience can get on board.
If you don’t know how to do it, but you can tell me what the central part of the first beat was, I think it’s not terrible to just say that in character to the other principal in the scene.
It’s ok to fight as long as you’re aware of what you’re saying to each other and yes-anding but don’t care about winning the fight, be aware about being sensitive to the dynamic.
Make sure to capture the irony of the first beat, if not the second beat of A Christmas Carol would just be that everything was fine in the town and that Scrooge was nice now
I’ve seem great reality and emotional commitment in this class and choices to drive the scene forward but make sure that you are paying attention in some part of you to the irony of the scene when you are in it.


Finding The Balance

April 17, 2012


This is the video store which I grew up with, well, at least the second or the third.
Previous video stores like Evergreen and Hudson Street Video went out of business in their cavernous depths throughout my West Village upbringing, sings of the changing times even before Netflix, the gentrification of my neighborhood, the transition from VHS to DVD which already then was too much for some places it seems to overcome, the eventual rise of the neighborhood boutiques that would take over the place of my upbringing turning it into yet another mall for tourists, a transmogrification of Bleecker Street from “quaint” to the fetish-izing of that word, just another route to the meat-packing district, the acceptance that the neighborhood I knew is gone in a way.
People have similar complaints about 42nd Street describing its grit, real-ness, it’s trouble pre the early 90s revitalization of it into its current “Disney-fied” incarnation, the place of “bright lights, big city”, but I feel like that must be different as the West Village I knew, transvestite prostitutes or no, was never in need of a “fix”. In all honesty, looking back, we could have still used the video stores.
But this was the last one, World of Video, the place I tried unsuccessfully to maintain a membership at through my film school education and after, which I failed miserably at because I, like so many of the past generation of Americans before me, am epically terrible at returning DVDs, the same reason I no longer take books out from the library (other than the functional illiteracy that comes out of emerging from a world of a structured education).
Going in there, it was full of the type of misanthropes I envied in my youth and feared in the wake of my film school education, people working at a video store, failures of a type in my eyes. Clinging to a past with no foreseeable future, bitter for the sake of what left not to be about.
As I looked over my last entry, I saw (unsurprisingly) how close I feel to the last time I wrote, just in an inverted fashion. As opposed to last week, where I looked back on a week of accomplishments , I look back on this week with the difficulties I’ve faced and as opposed to feeling conquered, I find myself through the looking glass, not worrying, at least initially, about how bad I feel, but how much it’s alright to be ok.
That might sound confusing, I should probably explain. On Friday, I went to a party, got drunk off a flask of Evan Williams I got to avoid the keg provided (finding “alternatives” still a part of my dietary lifestyle) and did what people in such a place are apt to do, I tried drunkenly flirting with people, got upset over stupid things and eventually just got sad walking home (though not crying sad). I felt bad in the moment, but fine the next day, when I had lunch with my family talking about difficult stuff, I took it with grace, being even more “okay” than they were, using my yoga practice for self-kindness and then kindness to others. Saturday, I bombed a show I really cared about, Sunday, I struggled heavily in class and through a sketch show. The only place I could be, I told myself, was where I was, where I am. That is my mantra. We can only be where we are, be in the moment, pay attention, give our all and then forgive ourselves for our shortcomings.
I did a private session with one of my yoga instructors, Sarah Bell, last Friday because I always felt like I was doing things wrong in my practice or at least not as well as I could be. I looked at my downward facing dog, the simple upside-down v-shaped inversion that you see a lot in people who practice yoga and in all of my practice I could never straighten my legs, always bent. I told Sarah my concern and showed her my pose and she asked me, after a moment:
“Alright, would you mind clueing me into what you think is wrong with your downward facing dog?”
“Well,” I replied. “I can never straighten my legs. So I feel like I must be doing something wrong.”
“You’ve been practicing yoga for 6-7 months now. How old are you?”
“24.” I replied.
“24.” She repeated back. “So for 22 of those years you’ve stored tension in your legs and I’ve seen your progress and you’ve improved so much, in what, those 6 or 7 months. Look at yourself in a year, look at yourself in 10 years. Look when others are getting lower back issues. For now, look at yourself with kindness and be proud and be okay.”
And I felt GREAT coming out of that, I felt so happy, just as I felt when after another romantically-blah evening out my friends took me aside to point out how impressed they were.
“Dude,” my friend (who wishes I would refer to him as “my extremely funny friend”) Sebastian told me, looking seriously. “You were just being yourself and goofy. Usually you’re so aggressive, no middle ground, but you were really being chill tonight. Just letting it come to you.”
And it was such a nice gift. Just feeling like I could see myself in my practice, like others could see me. That even in failure, I could notice my improvement, regain balance, see the world and not get bitter.
This morning I was cut from a sketch group I was asked to join, a major accomplishment and opportunity. I had the feeling the cut was coming and voiced that opinion to friends and my roommate Teddy, who didn’t think so, but didn’t deny it either. I did feel terrible as I did this morning, heading to therapy, a process I described to my therapist as the feeling when you get close to your house when needing to use the bathroom: your bowels get tense, your body telling you “Run!” as the discipline with which you held yourself disappears so close to the finish line, as you rush to take an “emotional dump”. My therapist, a less crude person, likened it to getting sick after a big project.
I let out my feelings there in therapy, voiced my concerns, tried to be aware, but my therapist wondered if I was too analytical still. What is the boundary between detachment and self-kindness, what is long enough to be in your emotions?
These are the same questions (as I’ve pointed out repeatedly) that I think we face in improv. There are no “right” moves, but there are moves feel right in the moment, things that are good or bad, ways we learn to trust ourselves and our choices, not second guess ourselves, be more in the moment and less insular. They are things I struggle with, as we all do. But I can only make the choices I can make, which is not for a lack of responsibility (which I think could be alternately called “self-awareness”). So how does one be okay with not being okay?
I feel like that’s what my blog is all about.
I don’t offer an answer. I already was cut from the sketch group I was in. Lots of great things are happening too in my attitude, in the way I look in the world, in the stupid ways that people look or react to me, or even in the opportunities I’m given.
I can think about reasons. I can think about the “whys”. I do in my life try to be mindful and reflective.
But it’s difficult to look critically at self-kindness and be kind when looking at self-criticism, to take the note, make the move, known when to be aggressive with a girl or a job or a group, know when to hang back and wait. A great many people are happy and a great many are not.
It’s confusing this life.
It helps, you know, to talk about it.
***

I don’t much have to say about this except that it was a fun party.
On Saturday, my friends dragged me out to Astoria to my friend Will Quinn’s birthday party at his last-stop apartment shared with a bevy of other comedians from Virginia. It was a “Game of Thrones”-themed party renamed “A Game of Wills” replete with grapes, a cape and some dude holding a foam-core version of Thor’s hammer the Mjolnir, because a more appropriate Game of Thrones reference was not forthcoming.
I, surprisingly to the nerd that I once was/still am, have never seen A Game of Thrones, probably a vestigial grudge left over from when I used to play at the RPG/collectible-card-game store Neutral Ground, where the people who played the Game of Thrones CCG (Collectible Card Game) were even weirder and lamer than the people who played Magic or the incredibly ghetto kids who played “Yu-Gi-
Oh!” an anime-based CCG that somehow tied into a hyper-sexual ancient Egypt.
Anyway, I just showed up in a plaid shirt and got real messed up and silly. Eventually, my friends making fun of me suggested I fight the other kid in our other group of friends (a Fordham contingent), a kid named Adam Twitchell who usually did not party and so was being real goofy out-of-his-mind, while I just sat outside on the patio in a lawn chair, enjoying the late-spring breeze in my anti-social tendencies. What began as me grabbing the foam-core Mjolnir and just randomly hitting Adam eventually devolved into us slow dancing to “I’ll Make Love To You” by Boyz II Men in order to make up for the aggression.
Like I said, this all is a small thing, but I feel like usually on a Saturday Night I’d be out seeing or doing improv shows or at nearby bars talking about improv or thinking about it or even just walking, heading home, as I do so often now.
So, it was nice to just get out to the outer boroughs, drink something and be silly in a crowd of similarly aged people also not knowing what they were doing with their lives, peppered by occasional personal conversations and some extensive chair sitting.
Adam, I’m sure this will be a treasured memory for you, for all time.
***

I’ll make this as brief as possible.
This was a very embarrassing moment for me.
Hanging out with some of my very funny improviser/writer friends in the improv ghetto around 30th-26th Sts bet 6-8th avenues (further if you count rehearsal spaces), everyone seems obsessed with the new Panera.
It’s a throwback to people’s suburban existences. It offers ample seating and bathrooms for an area low on those things. It’s relatively cheap, people bring things to your table, no tip necessary. It can be difficult to spend even 10 dollars there.
Still, it always looked goddam awful to me and I would usually bring in my balled-up Faicco’s sandwich when my friends would go.
This time though, I bit the bullet and ordered a “Thai Chopped Chicken Salad” just hoping it would not be awful fake meat like Au Bon Pain.
It was not fake meat. It was relatively low-calorie. It was very filling.
But man was it average.
I guess guys, if you need something to eat.
Or if you find yourself in a desperate situation.
You make the best of it.
But it’s like when you walk in to Chili’s and you hear about things being “fire-roasted” and stuff, you can at least somewhat imagine that people are doing those things in a Chili’s, even though they are obviously not.
But definitely not in a Beige-clad place like Panera.
It did have real chicken, peppers, edamame and some nut sauce though.
And maybe, for some people that’s enough.
What has my life become?
***
PANERA
Thai Chopped Chicken Salad (w/ “fire-roasted” edamame, red peppers, lettuce, peanut sauce, etc…)- $8.29
7th Avenue bet. 28th and 29th Sts.
1 to 28th St.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Six

April 11, 2012

A rough one.

This week we did a character wheel exercise focussing on second beats off of a character monologue and Neil was not pleased. None of us did particularly well and even the Harolds were a little bit of a slog with some second beats getting restarted (including one I did). We then did a final tag-out exercise like a La Ronde to build off patterns and blow-out games, focussing on taking “big swings”.

It felt difficult to get into the groove of it and everyone seemed dejected leaving. Some times are just like that.

I felt fine, in going with my notes from last week, knowing that even if I performed less well this week, I could feel the stretch. I felt like I was getting second beats drilled more into me.

Anyway, here are the notes from this week, abbreviated, hastily-scrawled, typo-ridden, mostly inaccurate.

Use them for what they are worth.

***

Strong emotional commitment will carry the day in your first beats and invocation.

Today is about encouraging simpler stronger second beats and then simpler stronger third beats

Harold exercise without connections

Last line/first line edits: I like editing on the lines, I think it’s nice to pivot on that line, it feels like we’re building a chain between the scenes.

Playing real vs. making things important: think back to park bench of truth

If you and I sit somewhere and have a conversation, something playable will come up if you’re being aggressive about observing and seizing things.

The artifice of playing it real is yes-anding, because if we were in real life we can just sit around and not doing anything

If you’re at my house and we are sitting around and making iced tea, we can sit at that in real life, but as improvisers we have to provide verbal information into the scene while still being in the reality

Sometimes if my big note is play it real, I’m not noting people on plateauing and not adding things. I’m not going to barge in and say “yes, and” but if you’re playing it real and not getting to funny you are probably not yes-anding

Follow your instinct about how big of a choice to make, don’t sell out the first thing you make, just trust yourself. There is no such thing as too big of a choice, but such a thing as a false choice, if something is contrived and shoe-horning a sitcom premise. Make sure it’s actually flowing from what’s going on on stage. If I step out with you and have a moment with you it sucks if I back out of that to do an initiation.

Threes going to be something that’s already there when we step out together and it’s easy to see people reject that, hard to point out what’s right.

What’s always going to be new is you and me looking at each other talking about what’s on our minds.

Why is it that when I say characters people do half-crosseye and insist on playing morons?

You can play characters that are dumber than you, but have a good reason. Your instinct shouldn’t be to knock 10 IQ points off.

Play someone you know, our instincts to play characters is to play goons.

If I’m an idiot then my fundamental game is that I’m an idiot and you can’t play anything else

A real blockhead is an unusual thing, they don’t exist in real life

People say I wanna play a big character and so you play stupid

Note on second beats:

We don’t want to get vaguer with a specific game, we want to get more specific with what we are doing.

And don’t miss the beats, the builds of first beats.

We don’t want to be second-beat robots, if you expressed something in a certain way in the first beat, that will probably be a big part of your second beats.

It’s ok to play unoriginal games, you just have to act the hell out of it, because if you are doing it the same way we’ve seen it done before then we lose interest.

We have to honored what we’ve been labeled with, one way or another.

We don’t want to do second beats where we are more detached about the things that are cool, we want to be even more in the shit.

I’m trying to draw out of you second beats that peel the onion away as opposed to pass them around

I want to do second beats that you do first beats that are hit or miss but second beats you know what’s coming so really hit that pitch

I would rather you guys la ronde or push your second beats, if the move is lateral. If your second beat isn’t clearing the bar that your first scene met, then work it

We want clear, simple more hard-hitting attacks on the game

If not, let’s take group ownership w/ tag-outs and walk-ons to mold things


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Five

April 4, 2012

Ah man, I killed it this class and this show.

Coming off last week where Neil was sick and everybody was so depressed about him not liking us that they wanted to form a practice group just out of desperation, it was nice to have a week where I felt good about my performance.

But a note about that, even before.

My friend (and excellent improviser) Jed Teres recently re-posted an article he read about a frustrated writer working in publishing. (EDIT: realize not all of you may be able to see this link, so here is a picture of the page) He talked about how much the writer hated his job seeing these shitty manuscripts in his pile and how it eventually gave him writer’s block too just being in that place of anger. He only was able to get through when he was able to realize that there was no reason to be angry at these people and that in fact he was externalizing his own insecurity on to them.

In improv and in life, we judge other people harshly because we are very hard on ourselves. As long as we do the work and are trying and we see others do the same, there is no reason for harsh judgement (probably even not then).

So regardless that I felt awesome after this show or that Neil praised the fuck out of me, I should get to that place where I’m happy having a shit-class, maybe not immediately, maybe not even the next day, but I’m happy for that place to grow from. I don’t go and blame my fellow improvisers or blame myself, I show kindness to all involved. I thank myself and others for doing practice in this body at this time.

When that day comes I will know that I am a better improviser and probably a better person, in that power to be ok and learn.

Anyway, here are the notes for week five, as always, abridged, incomplete, often incorrect, abbreviated, scrawled hastily.

Use them for what they are worth.

I’ve also bolded a few things this week, looking over them.

-n

***

Today we are working on the idea of who gives a shit while we are improvising and digging for “because” in our scenes.

You can phone in a game you’ve done before and get away with it but why?

The good stuff is when we are not just playing a funny/not funny pattern in a vacuum (you’re the guy who loves buttons, but who cares?)

The question is how do we avoid the instinct to play empty patterns

Answer: always bring things back to emotional core or philosophy of a character.

Maybe guy loves buttons because he loves campaign buttons, middle school political involvement

Way we get from boring to interesting is by getting to personal involvement

Which gives me the right as a director to ask who gives a shit during your sets if we get into those pointless conversations

Because we don’t want to see people juggling robotic concepts between us, it fails as theater, a bad bit, no heart or meaning.

We play patterns that could pass for game but instead end up being nothing.

We will play Harolds today where everything has to be justified

Chicago calls us jokey and we call them based solely on performance and there are truths and fallacies in both. They place faster than even us now and we have some shows that play slowly.

But I will miss Let’s Have A Ball. It’s nice to do two person scenes, really dig in to the relationships and know no one will walk through the door.

I think 4 is perfect size for an improv group. Twoprov you need a lot of balls, group mind. The things that nice about improv is surrendering to group mind by checking your baggage, but in two-prov the amount of effect that any little thing has on you will be brought to the show.

I only feel two-prov that I am comfortable with is someone I’ve worked with for 5 years (i.e: Ryan Karels)

How do you play with honor when this is the only time you get to perform? How do you play nobly when you know this is the one time you’re in something in a month? How does the selfish bastard not come out when you’re putting in cash?

Answer: It’s like being in a relationship or a family, you’ve got to be willing to just play support of that’s what the group needs.

I don’t think that our whole system of getting together and being the sum of our parts  works well with most two prov.

8 person thing is artificial, based on class size, but works. I still think 4 is perfect number.

Neil Casey- “Indie foursomes. I endorse them. Let’s see more of them on our stage them. Blog that.”

I do twoprov with people I don’t know for bar sets but it would be easier rolling with another person.

In your improv, you’re always going to fall short of the ideal, get easy/cheap laughs, you just have to do the work and keep trying 

Its when people settle into it that’s hard. It’s that you never stop the effort. It’s impossible to do the perfect thing, but it’s when people are satisfied with that, that it’s disappointing.

I totally reject improv as therapy or melodrama

But what we do does mean you have to tap into memories/emotions

Because if you be fake or impression then it will ring false

As actors or performers we have to be willing to remember instead of invent

A good improviser has to be able to pull from emotion, we develop an intolerance for people who do weak civilian bits as part of their personality

A lot of people get away of being full of shit but when you put that on stage it rings extremely false

Rather than playing a left brain pattern or an imitation of another scene, invest with the emotion of a memory, imbueing it with that, will give it that voice that you have that no one else could give.

I remember buttons as running for president because that’s what I have.

It’s not therapy, that’s bs, but being as much of yourself to the table. If you’re being broken up with, remember the last time you got dumped or whatever.

True-story invocation- you imagine whatever is closest to you about this object

Improv is not therapy, but how you play believably is recall things that are true to us

Those scenes where impenetrable characters argue about nonsense, I want to avoid

If a kid is being annoying, react emotionally. Everyone has their breaking point. Sometimes, our instincts are to be nice to play it real, but if a line is asking for anger or annoyance, play it truthfully, show the emotion you might suppress in real life.

We want our character to play realistically while we want to be funny.

The template I always want to avoid, is when we are in one of those scenes when we are discussing nonsense as if it was something, acknowledge it is nothing.

Don’t treat something as important when it is not.

Your philosophy doesn’t have to be great as a justification, just what you can get

I don’t care until you drill down until something that interests and what interests me is the truth

When you have a strong emotional choice that doesn’t make sense, the game will be rooted in how you make it make sense.

When you find yourself in a scene when things don’t make sense, keep asking yourself why and you’re more apt to get to something.

Don’t let people stand out there running out of lyrics in hot-spot, same thing in Harolds.

How we express ourselves via specifics is an interesting pattern/game. It’s not robots and zombies, it’s slice of life. People constantly express their real emotions through proxies. People can’t be honest so they talk about money, where to eat, et cetera

How many times do I say I want something to care about? A dead dog?

I’ve never had anyone told me I have a small dick or saying that they are getting fat, because people in relationships are much more cruel to each other.

There’s a Louis CK video where he’s talking about George Carlin saying I did the same act for 15 years and it sucked because it was his little observations but then he started throwing them out every year and if you do that your cute observations go away and eventually all you have are your balls, things that are attached/true to us. 

We get to be that special class of people that gets to replicate a reality most people don’t have: talking about real emotions that are true.

Del- the smallest emotional discovery is better than the best invented idea

When you start bringing up things that are true real, people respond

Bill Hicks- If you get on stage then you have supply and demand covered, but I’d you’re trying to be something else then you’re trying to be a commodity, if you’re yourself no one else can give me that. 

If my game is that I’m apathetic it’s incumbent on the backline to give you more and more to be increasingly apathetic about.

Lessening the strangeness of other people’s behavior, while giving the same emotional reaction can be a good second beat

Why Grandma’s Ashes is so good if someone initiates a second beat dumbly we all get on board to support someone’s ideas

I hate to watch shitty scenes where is whiny people complaining about nothing.

I’d rather see a scene about an abusive domineering relationship than another scene about bickering talking about nothing.

One of my favorite things about improv are the moments when we earn making up nonsense. Be sure to seize them.

***

I won’t share the group notes because I try to leave personal notes out of here but I did a very silly run of scenes about a guy who wanted a piggyback ride very seriously and Neil pointed to it as being great because it was a super-dumb (but real ala R. Crumb) idea played with super emotional-commitment. He also talked about the important of emotional commitment in the Invocation as an opening to bring that same level of emotional commitment to our Harolds. I’m sure we will keep working on that.

One last note from the end of our Harolds, from Neil:

***

I have one souvenir, for you.

Michael Delaney- Connections, Callbacks at the end of a Harold: It’s all dessert. You can have a great meal without them. Don’t force them if they don’t come naturally or aren’t earned. I’d rather see new scenes or unconnected third beats than false connections.

For second beats, clear simple game should move you, don’t out-clever yourself!

You’re all clever enough to do analogous, but why do it unless necessary, there’s no greater glory in them.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Four

March 29, 2012

Ugh, guys, this was a rough one.

Not a lot of notes here. Neil was sick and we did two fairly terrible Harolds at the top of class where we had to do each others second beats. These Harolds caused Neil to sigh so much that someone actually is trying to start up a practice group called “So Neil Doesn’t Sigh At Us”.

We then did an exercise drilling second-beats, doing three different second beats off a source scene.

For my personal struggles, I did a tag-out in the Harold where my move was either not understood or unclear, which hasnt happened to me in a long time and which caused Neil to note me hard.

I was even stiff in the second beats, not initiating any of them and basically letting my partner define and contextual games.

I even had a freak out on stage as a put-upon mom during a bad group game that drew concerned looks.

I’m feeling really good today after writing the last blog post, so I won’t beat myself up too much, but man. Geez.

Anyway, here are the notes. Hastily scrawled. Mostly inaccurate. Use them as you will.

-Nick

***

Today, take a break from commitment and focus on game
Drill second beats. So that you focus on game in second beats, as opposed to plot or fun character patterns that ucan just get you by.
When you are doing an interview opening, if they are being honest, be on their side

Everyone loves to initiate scenes with dead dogs no one cares about, but people don’t care enough to sell it.
How would you really react to grief/tragedy, let’s see it.
If you make a move and a person doesn’t react the way you want them too, do it harder or roll with it, don’t freeze.
Don’t play characters who are morons, play to the top of your intelligence means play characters who are at least as smart as you. Otherwise, if we’re playing dumb people who are emotionally impenetrable, commenting on the situation without being invested, we’re just going to be doing bad improv.
What’s the emotional reality of this scene? Act like you would or justify it.
If you’re in a scene and nothings going on, decide what is going on. Don’t be too willing to let things drop.
If you touch on something dark, commit to it, don’t back away. We can all see it when you apologize for your choices.
It’s constantly going to happen that the two of us are going to be in two different dimensions in scenes. It’s what we do that matters.
If you make a move that I don’t understand I will make you explain it to me and if you don’t then I will label it explicitly, just to make sure we know where we are/who we are/whats going on.
The most important thing is playing relatable characters on stage. I don’t care how funny it is if it’s bullshit.
I’ve seen this become a thing of college-educated white people doing funny voices on stage and it makes me ashamed to feel this is what I spent my life on.
Heightening stakes to crazy places in second beats can seem forced or too big as opposed to putting a fine point on what was funny in the first beat.
I want to see you working all the time.
It’s perfectly fine to have flawed first beats, but you have to be smart and forward with what you bring from the first beats.
We do second beats so we can do the perfect version of our first beat, it’s why we teach the Harold.
In the best case, it allows you to pick up what the audience loved after a respite.
But, in the more common case, you’re getting a second chance to attack that game in a way we didn’t before.
A lot of time our instincts are to make a lateral moves or mad-lib it, it’s not something we do for the hell of it, it’s for a second chance.
Try and sum up the headline of what was funny about your first beat.
The way you sum it up is unique to you, there’s wrong if it doesn’t sum it up but your sense of humor defines that.