Saturday, August 25, 2018

Economics of Organ Donation (and Trade)

"many trades as you can possibly make because that's what a market's for"

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Takeaways from "Long-Form Improvisation and the Art of Zen"

As I've done several time before (especially when this blog was more active), here are some takeaways from a book I recently finished: Long-Form Improvisation and the Art of Zen. Some of this is items directly from the text and some are just thoughts inspired by it.

I'm reading this book to keep myself fresh as I teach the Alchemy Comedy Theater's inaugural Improv 601 class. It's mean to be a conservatory culmination of our previous 5 levels. It had a submission process and only acceptance 6 students. Each January the plan is for the current Artistic Director to end their 1 year term with this class and "graduate" a new class of veterans. Although this book is far from my favorite on the topic, I really appreciate that it's essentially Jason Chin's blog of thoughts on long-form improv (in fact the last third is literally just excerpts from his blog).

Jason was the reason why I purchased this book a while back. He tragically died very young a few years ago and I had always appreciated his perspective and performance whenever we crossed paths. He was so well loved he even has his own improv holiday. The only time I was in a classroom setting with him was while I was in Chicago for a summer doing the iO summer intensive (I believe the best deal in improv training) and he did a lecture/discussion about the history of improvisation. It was great.

Here's a great excerpt from the book:
In the Godfather movie, Michael Corleone dispassionately discusses his assassination of Sollozzo and the police captain, McCulsky. "It's not personal," he says, "It's business." The novel, however, goes one step further: "Tom, don't let anyone kid you. It's all personal, every bit of business."
It reminded me of the classic Del Close quote:
"Nothing we say to each other is innocent of emotional manipulation. Everything that we do on stage, is to effect each other, in some way and if we notice, very carefully, how those swine we are working with are trying to get to us and get at us. Sometimes I suggest we perform on stage as though we are a whole bunch of raving paranoids.  -Del Close
Nothing is more difficult to build on and heighten that big choices (like for example an assassination) with no one taking it personally. Here's a good rule of thumb: inject either a little narcissism or codependence in all your characters.

Improv scenes are never really about very much, but they are always about something. Understanding all the pieces of a scene are great (Relationship, Characters, Environment). Understanding the comedic Pattern of the scene is essential. But above that, the context of the scene lies in "what the scene is really about". Jealousy. God vs. Science. Survival. Etc. That said, you won't be able to preplan or layout that large thematic concept. What an improv scene is actually about is figuring out what it's about.

Here's another quote from the book, from Bruce Lee:
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend. 
This is not only great for the nature of how improvisers should be, it's also a good foundation for how improv shows should work. Figure what what makes the first scene it's shape (example: cup) and then pour it into another context (example: bottle).

Jason has an interesting breakdown in the terms coach or director. It encouraged me to layout definitions for Alchemy's three artistic leadership titles for the stage:

  • Director: Implement the mission of the theater on stage
  • Coach: Implement the mission of the team (as stated by the theater)
  • Coordinator: Encourage the members of the team to implement the mission of the team (as stated by the theater)
Similarly, here are how I've now defined the leadership roles off stage:
  • Producer: Implement the mission of the theater off stage
  • Manager: Implement the mission of the night (as stated by the theater)
  • Facilitator: Encourage the attenders of the event implement the mission of the event (as stated by the theater)
Jason was adamant about doing note sessions after shows (something I've done with success at other theaters). However, at Alchemy we have a culture of not doing that and treating the show itself as a moment of play reward for a period of hard work and practice (all of our House Teams and Company Members are required to attend a weekly practice). I think both systems can work and I wouldn't be bothered if a coach wanted to take Jason's suggestion. He also suggests that scene notes never last longer than the scene. Preach.

Hit a inspirational wall as a coach of a team? Ask yourself, "what are you learning?" and teach that. Not learning anything? Well, read a book or take a class.

Jason mentions a different book I've seen suggested several other times in multiple different contexts: Zen in the Art of Archery. Apparently it has many applications.

Here's a another great quote from the book, this one from Daisetsu Suzuki:
Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes artless art, growing out of the unconscious.
For a long time I've intended this 601 class to be a kind of final review for our veteran players. From here, it will just take time to get the groves in your brain to become second nature.

The biggest (only?) advantage improv has in the entertainment industry is that it's live. For that reason it's important to treat the audiences like heroes and performances like lightning in a bottle. In addition, improv theaters also need to do all the things other forms of entertainment do. Be organized, be professional, be on time, etc. From the author: "Improv [sometimes] lacks follow through".

Near the end of the book there is a list of ten suggestions. His number one is Listen. I don't think I've seen a list that didn't have some form of that at number one. The only thing I'd add to that is the other simultaneous number one rule. Act. If you're really listening and they're really saying something, then you'll really have a reaction.

With so many quotes of other people, I'll end with one from the author, Jason Chin, in the afterward of the book:
Improv is a fascinating art form that continues to evolve and mutate. I believe the trend is toward longer and longer shows with smaller and smaller casts (in number, not height) which allows for more intimate emotions and intense performances.
I agree. The graduation showcase for our 601 class will be duo monoscenes on Friday, February 23rd. At just 55 pages this isn't really an improv book, but more a collection of Jason Chin's thoughts on the topic. I'd be interested to read more mini-takes like this.