Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Improv and I Don't Mix

I bailed out on my Improv Retreat. I feel like my friends think I’m a freak for bailing, but I believe the most precious thing I have is my time and I have to use it as best I can. It also is a great example of me being rational! (From our book - Predictably Irrational.) Most people would think - I have paid for this, I am staying. I figure - the money is spent whether I stay or not. Should I throw in another three days of time or eject now?

I work for myself - three working days is huge!

In our predictable irrationality we often throw good money (or time) after bad to justify the original decision. This is why we have such a hard time ditching bad investments. But back to improv.

Upon arrival in the Catskills (i.e. a DAMN long way from Raleigh in no man's land), I was pretty unhappy to discover that my accomodations involved no cell phone coverage, no AC, a tiny creepy room with no phone, and a group bathroom. I knew we were going to have to share bathrooms, but this one was nasty. Call me a wimp, but I like to stay in decent places - I've done my time in creepy hotel rooms, and I work hard so that I'll never have to stay in one again. But, I figured I could suck it up. It would only be for a few days.

Then we had our first session (there were about 40 people there and we were broken up into groups of 8). My group consisted of me, a guy who has been going to these for 14 years, three professional actors, a girl who looked like a fashion model, a lawyer who also does improv and a 17 year old film maker. They were all nice and VERY talented. And very serious about their “craft”. (In other words, no silly nuts like me. Let's just say this group would not think Peeps are funny.)

The first session we had was with Michael Gellman – the Second City guy. He did a bunch of exercises with us. He said, “Everybody stand and just walk around the room. Now I want you to walk as if you are feeling joy. Now sadness. Now anger. Now jealousy. Now envy. Now boredom. Now ennui.”

I’m trying – I’m walking and trying to do what he says – changing my facial expressions, my walking speed, etc. as he calls out a different emotion. I want to ask – what the hell is the difference between jealousy and envy? Between boredom and ennui? Is this guy insane? I also want to know - am I doing this right? Are my expressions good? How can I do better?

After each exercise, he would tell us something like “There is no right or wrong in improv – whatever you do is okay. Don’t judge yourself.”

Everyone else is nodding – like this is the greatest thing ever – like he is so wise. I’m thinking “If everything I do is right, then what do I need to be here for? How to I learn how to get better? What about the apparently subtle nuances between boredom and ennui? What the hell is this guy talking about?"

Then he tells us to walk again and imagine the air is full of color – yellow, purple, blue – it’s sparkling –feel the color - etc. etc. (What the hell? I feel like I've walked into a really bad feng shui seminar.)

Then he has us all build one giant pretend sandcastle together. Not saying anything, just shaping it. I realize that some people are making it about two feet tall, I’m building it life size – there’s no coherence. He says "Great!" – has us stop and asks people what they think. They all say it was a great experience – they could really see the castle, etc. etc. I’m thinking “Castle, my ass! That was a confusing mess!” But I’m trying to figure out the point of all this and not be the problem child. No one likes a whiner/complainer. Who I am to question "The Process"? I am totally outnumbered by “artists." My brain hurts.

Now don't get me wrong - there were many VERY talented people both attending this retreat and teaching it. I was awed by their talent. And this format apparently works for people who - well, who are not me.

That night all the groups unite and two guys from Broadway lead us through some singing improv. Some of these people are obviously professional singers. I do a few things, then sit this out – I’m way too uncomfortable to get up there and sing with professionals. I start to realize that some of these people are totally into themselves – several are SO trying to be the center of attention and show off their talent. Nonetheless, some of the skits are really good. Several are flat out awful. I go back to my crappy room and the nasty bathroom and think, "What the hell am I doing here?" I have so much work to do at home………AND I have AC! And a nice bathroom…with a hot shower and no bugs.

I actually load up the car that morning, but decide to stay for at least the first two classes and wind up staying the whole day. I want to see all the instructors before I decide what to do. (And I thought about rush hour traffic around Manhattan on the way home. That completely cooled my jets.)

Class One – voice stuff. This instructor has us start by pretending we are opera divas and singing. I suck it up and volunteer to start and belt out opera to my group. Feel like an idiot, but I really try and do all the crazy stuff they ask me to do. She has us do a lot of stuff – silly voices, funny motions, etc. But remember – anything you do is okay. Nothing is wrong. I don’t see how I’m going to get better at anything. I can't tell if anything I do is working or not.

Class Two – this guy completely screws around for two hours. Tells us about all the famous people he’s worked with. We do one exercise – you close your eyes and walk and the other people form a circle and keep you in it and safe from walking into anything. It’s one of those trust exercises like when you fall back and people catch you. I’m thinking – whee – this is fun, but how is this going to make me a better speaker?

Class Three – this guy is a dialog guy. He asks two of the experienced actors (that would be everyone except me and the 17 year old) to do a scene. He gives them a scenario (they are brother and sister, they are at their parents’ house). They do a great job and act this scene for about 30 minutes. Again, I’m thinking – how can I apply this? I can’t do what these people are doing, they are experienced actors. Even if I could do it, what do I do with it? How can I learn from this?

Class Four – this lady teaches you to breathe through dance. Yep – she played music and we had to dance. Some was classical, some was jazz. We even had to do a dance solo to ballet music. (I’m thinking what the hell does this have to do with anything?) If I’m not learning anything, I’d rather be dancing to music I like. I ask her about this whole breathing thing – told her when I was in the zone – when I was in the middle of a great speech, I didn’t even notice my breathing. When I was having a tough time with an audience was when I noticed my breathing. How do I work with this? She just nodded and repeated the “don’t judge” mantra. At this point, I was wondering if maybe these people had drunk just a little too much of their own Kool-Aid.

That night we all got together and another instructor had us acting out characters – old men, young women, etc. etc. etc. I couldn’t tell if my characters were any good – I wanted help to make them better, but everything you do is okay, don’t judge. How the hell can you learn anything if everything you do is okay? Why even have classes? I didn’t get it.

I'd tell some of the people that they had done a really great job and say something like - "Wow, you were awesome! Are you a professional singer?" And they would say yes and look at me like I was a paparazzi. Maybe they were trying to do gratitude, but it sure looked like condescension. I wanted to tell everyone to lighten up. I should have brought some candy. But I feel I would have been casting Peeps before swine.

It was fun, but if I’m going to take a week off work, it’s either going to be for a vacation I want to take or I’m going to be learning something to be a better speaker. I’m not taking a week off to dance to classical music and make faces in the woods! I’ve got stuff to prepare for filming in Chicago next week; I have real work to do! I did talk with some of the instructors and told them I was having a hard time figuring out how this could be applied to speaking. I said that in speaking, you have to really connect with the audience. Gellman told me the audience didn’t matter, in Improv it was all about the actors. And when I realized that no one was going to give me any instruction – because whatever you do is right – I really felt like it was a frustrating waste of time.

I dunno – maybe I should have stayed – I just felt like I was from another galaxy. In my galaxy exercises have outcomes or points they illustrate. In my galaxy, the audience is everything and what works is what works for them. If I was trying to express ennui, and the audience thought I was expressing sadness - it didn't work. Oh - and in my galaxy - there are clean bathrooms, AC, and working phones! And we laugh at Peeps - and ourselves.


Heidi said...

It sounds to me like you wouldn't have to fake "ennui" at this conference ... Good grief! How horrible. You were right to get in your car and drive as far away from those freaks as possible.
It sounds like a scene about hell from the book, "The Great Divorce" by C.S. Lewis.

Anonymous said...

Oh you troubled spirit. Improvisation is about allowing yourself to create. The mantra is accept and heighten or "Yes And". So you know you did it wrong because you were too concerned with doing it right.

Since the moment we start school, we are taught to hide feelings or are told to judge if our feelings are appropriate to reveal. In acting, feelings must be revealed for the audience to have empathy.

The activities were meant to provide a safe non-judgemental environment to promote this process. There is no finish line, only the journey.