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Thinking 'bout: Improv Knowledge

Directing "Aida" at Franklin High School, Spring 2014

Today's post:

1. Brief background on me.

2. Brief discussion about why I made a chart.

3. The aforementioned chart I made.

4. How I hope people use that chart.

The Guy Behind the Chart

I come to improv with a pretty extensive history in theater. I've been involved with over 30 theatrical productions as either an actor, director, teacher, stage manager, choreographer (unfortunately for all involved), and de facto designer for just about any element you can imagine. I'm also a trained and certified educator, currently teaching secondary English after six years as a Theatre teacher. Currently, I'm pursuing a Master's Degree in Educational Technology, which is where the chart below comes into play.

The "Why" Behind the Chart

This chart is inspired by TPACK. If you like nerdy teacher things, click that link. If not, know that it's a chart that aims to define the areas of knowledge that the most effective teachers have: technology knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and content knowledge.

TPACK gave me language to think about teaching differently. It's encouraging, and the visual is a nice reminder to vary my focus on a day to day basis. Since much of my day to day involves an improv show or practice, TPACK started to seep into my brain while nerding out with my friends about improv-- what we do and how we think when we make things up on stage.

Also, I like teaching people, but I'm about to have a baby, so adding more teaching and time at my improv theater (BIG), isn't the move right now. The internet might be. Let's see?

And so, I present my chart on improv knowledge, with some disclaimers and guidelines on how to use it below. In future posts, I plan to break down each circle of knowledge and their intersections further, so consider this post an overview.

The Chart

Mapping Improv Knowledge

The Chart: Main Skills

The core skills of improv which, when blended, make for good made up things.

Directing: Scene work, stage picture, and overall design. Blocking, movement, and general consideration of the audience's experience. Highlighting, leaving bread crumbs, and sign posting to communicate clearly to the audience and your troupe.

Acting: Doing. Listening. Yes-ing. Playing characters, animals, objects, concepts, or anything else your troupe or the scene demands. Fighting the fear, following the fun.

Writing: The "and" in "yes, and." Lines, callbacks, narratives, and story arcs. Formats and formulas, patterns and openings. Premises and half ideas turned full.

The Chart: Crossover Skills

Skills that happen when main skills interact. Good improv can happen when two main skills overlap. Great improv happens when all three do.

Initiating: Good initiations tell your troupe mates what to do and establish the audience's expectations for the scene. Who, what, where--at least. Initiating requires a director's foresight and an actor's gumption.

Justifying: In good writing, every character should be real. Real people have wants, needs, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and beliefs. Justifying (finding the why of a scene) requires a writer's clear objective and an actor's commitment to achieving it.

Editing: Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Edits save shows and troupe mates. Good editing requires a writer's ability to "kill their darlings," and a director's commitment to the audience's experience.

The Chart: Improv

When it all comes together.

It's worth mentioning this chart utilizes a lot of terms from a very UCB and Game approach. Therefore, the improv center is where heightening and exploration happen, and/or the "if this is true, what else is true?". The center of this chart is usually reached by means of a good initiation which is then locked in by a good justification which locks in one funny thing which is then heightened and explored which is then a fun and funny experience for the audience which is then edited on a laugh (in first beats/scenes, at least. Later beats/scenes can rely on skills demonstrated earlier).

How You Should Use This Chart

1. Encouragement: This is meant as a tool to encourage, not discourage. Don't let it get you in your head. Focus on what you do know, then focus on areas of growth. Identify your current area of comfort and your current area of fear. Expand your skills from the former to the latter.

2. Identification: At BIG, we get lots of notes. That can be daunting. Start identifying notes as notes for "director me," "actor me," or "writer me." These boundaries help you to take notes less personally, and instead focus on growth and skill in different areas. Further, this can help you define the role you tend to play on a troupe...just don't get too prescriptive about giving yourself and others "jobs" on your team (consciously or subconsciously).

3. Context: There's a lot to learn in game-based improv. Hopefully, this gives you language and a visual to sort it all out.

4. Giving Notes: Was the show really lacking direction? Did people need to get off of the back line? It's my hope that coaches can use this chart to hone in on specific areas of need for their team and its players.

Concluding This Chart

Improv is hard, in part, because it asks us to write, direct, and act all in the same moment with any number of other people.

My argument is that the best improv happens when all three of these elements are present, provided either by each individual performer and/or by members of the troupe together as a collective. Improv can happen without all three skills, too, but it's not the best improv.

Note, too, that everything on this chart is a progressive action. I originally wrote it as "writer, director, and actor" knowledge, but found that restrictive. Instead, I decided to view each area as a process we do and continue to do. Labels are scary. They hold weight and responsibility. Actions are more inviting. They can be done in small amounts and can be progressively practiced.

So, I've been thinking 'bout improv knowledge...

Drop by again next week. I got more thoughts.

If you're into the blog, check out my podcast with Kerri Shannon, Gettin' Biggie with It. We interview a new member of the Baltimore Improv Group every Thursday! Get it where you get your podcasts!

#improv #acting #improvement #improvknowledge