S-I-M-B Squirrels In My Blog!

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Trying to find a topic’s that new…
S-I-M-B Squirrels In My Blog!
So many choices, what to do…
S-I-M-B Squirrels In My Blog!
Better really think it through…
S-I-M-B Squirrels In My Blog!
Or else bad comments will ensue…

As you may have guessed I’ve decided to write about the use of rhyming within improv.  My little prelude is a paraphrase of a rhyming warm-up called S-I-M-P Squirrels In My Pants.

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The use of rhyming within improv mostly pertains to improv performance games involving rhyming (Holy Tautology, Batman!)  There are, of course, exceptions.  One might choose to play a character for whom rhyming is a character endowment.  And careful use of rhyme can enhance some genres type scenes like Dr. Seuss or Shakespeare.  In that latter case, for example, rhyming couplets are often used to indicate the exit or entrance of a character.  But at the end of the day the vast majority of rhyming within improv will occurs as part of a game that involving rhyming or another skill for which rhyming is an optional component, e.g., singing, rapping, and poetry.  Some relevant example games include:

  • Da Doo Run Run.  In this elimination game players rhyme with a one syllable audience member name within a repeating 1-1-3 pattern based on the titular song name.  Players cannot repeat rhymes; doing so (as well as hesitating or falling off the beat) results in elimination.  The beat increases gradually with each new name until one player wins.

  • New Rhyme! (aka Rhyme It!).  In this variant of the classic game New Choice, the emcee can signal a player to replace his or her last line with a new line that rhymes with the previous offer.  For example:  I just came back from the camp.  {New Rhyme!}  Hey, our tent got a little damp.  {New Rhyme!}  Boy, that hike really gave me a cramp.

  • Word Up From Our Sponsor.  During breaks from interviewing an audience member, players appear from backstage to rap a series of rhyming couplets as advertisements based on audience suggestions.

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I made the decision to become stronger at rhyming early into my ComedySportz career after choking at the Austin based 2000 ComedySportz World Championship (then more often called Tournament or The Tourney in the local dialect).  Early into a game of Da Doo Run Run I failed to rhyme with can.  My friends Patti and Alison, visiting all the way from San Diego to support me, playfully provided me with a list of 100 words that rhyme with can after the show.  I mean, I was already a decent rhymer; the nerves of being a newbie at Championship definitely got the better of me.  Nevertheless, I vowed to improve.

Since that moment I regularly practiced rhyming and paid close attention to any moments when an improv instructor offered learning.  Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years from those coaches, from observation, or on my own.

One - There are five words that rhyme with miss:

  • The word itself

  • A real word that actually rhymes with miss, e.g., sis, this, Swiss, etc

  • A so-called slant rhyme, i.e. a word that almost rhymes with the word and sounds close, e.g., cyst, hissed, etc.

  • A made-up word that actually rhymes, e.g., chiss, fliss, etc.

  • A word that doesn’t even remotely rhyme with the word, like chimichanga.

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Note that pulling off these two last cases typically requires a great deal of commitment, a generous or flexible audience, and an emcee willing to play along.  For example, the emcee might ask you to define the made-up word.  If the audience enjoys the bit, she might let it slide because most emcees don’t want to invalidate positive audience reactions.  Even with the chimichanga scenario, the audience might laugh enough that the emcee doesn’t interrupt the game play.

Two - You don’t need to rhyme when singing, rapping, or doing poetry as part of a scene or as part of a game.  While rhyming is a frequent component of those other skills, it is an optional one.

Three - When playing a rhyming based game for which the players are working through an exhaustive list of rhymes (meaning players cant’ repeat rhymes, e.g., Da Doo Run Run), consider words that start with consonant blends and multisyllabic words.  Often other players go for the simple or easiest rhymes.  For example, if the base word was Jane consider words like grain, strain, complain, disdain, entertain, etc. vs. a quickly vanishing basket of low hanging fruit like lane, mane, cane, etc.

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Four - When playing a game involving sequential rhymes, it’s a nice bonus to continue a theme or tell a little story via the rhymes.  For example with Da Doo Run Run:

Player A:  I met him on a Sunday and his name was Pat…{da doo run run run, da doo run run}

Player B:  He drank lots of milk by the vat…{da doo run run run, da doo run run}

Player C:  {da doo da doo} So did his cat… {da doo da doo} It got really fat… {da doo da doo} Broke a chair when it sat {da doo run run run, da doo run run}

Four - It is also very important to pay attention to meter. Try to keep the same number of beats in consecutive lines that rhyme. In some cases keeping consistent meter might require eliminating or adding filler words. In other cases, for example, you might need to equate a four syllable word in one line with two, two syllable lines in the next line. And as with all “rules” there are exceptions. Purposely breaking the meter can be an artistic choice used to punctuate a particular offer.

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“S0…
Play!” calls the Blogger.
He writes something down.
It’s an Improv Seed.
One of many around.
You’re in charge of your own Improv Seeds.
And Improv Scenes are what everyone needs.
So create a new scene.  Treat it with care.
Make a few offers.  Say “yes, and” in a pair.
Grow a whole show, protect it from denials that hack.
The audience
and all your friends
may come back.

Zip, Zap, Zop Variations

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Recently well known improv blogger Jimmy Carrane wrote an entry on 3 Improv Warm Up Games To Try.  I’m really glad he included one of my favorite games, Zip, Zap, Zop (or Zip, Zap, Zup, as he called it in his article).  Zip, Zap, Zop is a very well known and widespread game within improv and acting communities.  Several years ago while listening to an NPR story about African prisoners performing Shakespeare, I heard the actors in the background warming up with Zip, Zap, Zop.

The basic game is simple: participants stand in a circle, then pass the offers zip, zap, and zop sequentially among each other by pointing and saying the words. Example: Mckayla points to Kameron and says zip, Kameron then points to Sierra and says zap, then Sierra points to Matt and says zop. The cycle then repeats. The game represents making offers during scenes.  When lazy students don’t point, I remind participants to point, make eye contact, and speak clearly just as they would want to make clear, committed offers to scene partners.

Carrane mentions a few variants of this game in his article. But there are several others. Here’s a list of variants I’ve enjoyed over the years:

Emotional Flow. The participants alter the emotionality of their offer based on the previous offer. The idea is to make gradual changes instead of abrupt changes. If the zip I receive seems kind of sad, I might make my zap sad as well. You can also play with character voices.

Number Of Zips. The number of zips determines the number of zaps and zops. Therefore, after the first zip, the next person can issue another zip or move on to zopExample: Adam sends zip to Audrey. Audrey sends zip to Chris, who then switches to zap when sending to Evan. Evan sends a zap to Carissa, who then switches to zop when sending to Kameron. Kameron finishes the cycle by sending to a zop to Leo. In this case there will are 2 zips, 2 zaps, and 2 zops.
Example #2: In the above situation Chris instead sends a third zip to Evan, who then swtches by sending a zap to Carissa. In this case there will be 3 zips, 3 zaps, and 3 zops.

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Multiple Offers/Clockwork. The first person issues simultaneous zips to two people. Those people then issue zaps independently, and play continues. If a person receives both offers at the same time, she then issues the next offer to two different people. This variation only works if everyone synchronizes the timing of offers, i.e., remains on a beat.

Holding Wrists. The participants make the circle smaller. Each participant puts her right hand around the left wrist of the person standing to her right. She then controls the pointing of that person, who still vocally says zip, zap, and zopExample: Christian, Kori, Seth, Gary, and Annabelle are in a circle in that order (Annabelle is also neighbors with Brooks).  Christian’s right hand holds Kori’s left wrist, Kori’s right hand holds Seth’s left wrist, Seth’s right hand holds Gary’s left wrist, and so on. Gary starts by saying zip as Seth moves Gary’s left hand to point at Christian. Christians say zap as Annabelle moves Christian’s left hand to point at Seth.  Seth says zop as Kori moves Seth’s hand to point at Annabelle. For an added challenge, switch right and left hand roles every time something goes amiss.

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Swig Swag Swop. The offers swig, swag, and swop replace zip, zap, zop. During swop, the send and receiver change places. Note: yes, I know swop is typically spelled swap. I choose to preserve the vowel sequence over spelling…

Zig Zag Zorg. This variation is so different it’s often called its own games. The offer zig, zag, and zorg replace zip, zap, and zop. During zorg, the send claps as he points. As a later challenge, the clap rotates sequentially from zorg to zag to zig, then resets.

Warming Up To Warm-Ups

I just joined a helpful new Facebook group dedicated solely to sharing improv warm-ups.  I’m always astonished when I hear some improvisers say that they never or don’t like to warm-up before a practice or show.  I value warm-ups as a way to prepare you body, mind, and spirit as well as well a way to connect with your fellow performers.  Plus, they’re often fun!

The term warm-ups is a bit of a misnomer because many so-called warm ups are in and of themselves effective exercises that teach or reinforce specific improv craft.  Even deceptively simple games like Zip-Zap-Zop have an analog to scene work, i.e., making strong, clear offers.  Plus, did I mention they’re often fun?

Many well known warm-up games are, or are derived from, children's games (from school, camp, scouting) and drinking games.

Many well known warm-up games are, or are derived from, children's games (from school, camp, scouting) and drinking games.

There are many types of improv warm-ups designed for various groups sizes, from just pair to giant circle of 20 or more performers.  I think in many cases it’s important to play these games with speed and commitment vs. worrying about getting the rules right.  It’s a reminder that failure is a wonderful and important component of improv (even so far as I’ve encountered some audiences that were otherwise stone faced until the performers began making mistakes with scene work and games).

For example, consider the warm-up Zoom-Schwartz-Profigliano, a game reknowned for having an extensive, rich set of commands often differing among different improv groups (for example, while visiting ComedySportz Portland last week, I discovered they did not know the command bork, which is routine in both ComedySportz Sacramento and ComedySportz San Jose).  When I observe performers getting too caught up in the rules, I suggest a morbid mind scenario to encourage them to play faster and fail.  I tell them to imagine machine gun armed enforcers are standing around the circle.  The enforcers won’t shoot you if you get a command wrong, i.e., fail.  They will shoot you if you go too slowly and don’t commit to your choices!  Another technique is to limit the command set to a core set (maybe 5 basic commands) to encourage speed and commitment.

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My general love for warm-ups being said, I should also point out that I think that there is such a thing as warming up too much.  I’ve particularly observed this when coaching zealous high school teams who want to warm up for 45 minutes before a show.  The problem with an overly long warm-up is that it might take away from the energy and freshness available for a show.  I personally find 20 minutes is the sweet spot for warming up a group of 6-8 people.  You can adjust depending on groups size, i.e., a little shorter for a smaller group, a little longer for a larger group.  Of course, it also depends on the mix of exercises and games.

For The Love Of Games: Replay

Many improvisers enjoy improv games because the challenges of the game make play more fun and stimulating for them as well as the audience.  Those happy, game playing improvisers often have their favorite games, and I am no exception.  Today’s entry begins a new series in which I discuss some of my favorite games.

One of my all-time favorite games is Replay.  In a typical Replay, the players first create a short set up scene (really a story since it can consist of multiple scenes) about 1-2 minutes in length.  Then the players replay that scene 2-3 times in different ways.  While I enjoy all Replay variants, my favorite is classic Replay with emotions, genres/styles, voices, etc.  I like Replay for two main reasons.  First, it requires strong scene work to create an entire story in just 1-2 minutes.  Second, it provides a lot of opportunity to explore variations and ways to use existing offers in new ways.  Here’s a list of many ways to enjoy Replay.

Emotional.  For one of the replay scenes, each player performs with a different emotion or state-of-being.  I use that latter phrase because some audience think things like thirsty or constipated are emotions.

Genre/Style.  The players replay the scene in specific genre or style, e.g., horror, sci-fi, western, etc.  Possible genres sources include movie, television networks, literature, plays, etc.  I’ve observed two ways teams perform genre replays.  One approach is to use a different sub-genre for each team member or for each part of the overall scene.  For example with the genre of mystery, one person might be a Sherlock Holmes type character while two other people take on Shaggy and Scooby.  Or the first part of the scene might a CSI type crime scene while the second half of the scene might be an Agatha Christie type summation. While this approach can be fun and successful, I’ve observed that sometimes the replay scene becomes too messy or chaotic due to the different sub-genres.  The second approach is to choose a specific subgenre within the genre.  For example, for sci-fi, all of players perform as if it were a Star Trek episode, or as if it took place within the Terminator film franchise, etc.  I’ve observed that this latter approach is more likely to produce a cohesive replay scene.

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Historical - The players replay the scene as if it took place in a specific historical period, e.g., the Renaissance, the 1920s, etc.

Voices/Accents - Each player performs with an accent or the well known voice of a celebrity, cartoon character, etc.  I find this type of replay works best if the player performs as if that person were cast in the scene vs. inserting a random collection of famous lines from roles that person has played.  For example, if the endowment is James Earl Jones, perform the scene as James Earl Jones vs. randomly injecting Darth Vader lines or “This is CNN.”  Of course, I’m as guilty as the next player for slipping in the occasional reference just for fun.

Animals - The players act like animals (no talking, just animal noises).  Either the same animal for all players or a different animal for each player.

Distance - The players have to be a specific distance from another player, e.g., 6 inches, 3 feet, 7 feet, when speaking to another player.  Sometimes played as it’s own game.

Alliterative - Each player says all of her lines as if it starts with the same letter (a different letter per player).  For example, the line “I saw a ghost in the barn” would become, with the letter F, “Fi faw fa fost fin fe farn.”  It works best when players don’t over think, go fast, and screw up (just like a lot of improv games!)

Words Per Line -  Each player has to speak a specific number of words per line, e.g., 2, 5, 10. 

Generational/Age - Each players behaves as if she was a certain age, e.g., 5, 13, 45, 78, etc.

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Highlander - During each replay scene, a player is eliminated and sits to the side.  The remaining players have to fill in for the eliminated player.  The replays continue until one remaining player has to perform the entire scene solo.  Named for the Highlander films and TV show phrase: “There can only be one.”

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Replay-At-Bernies - Named after the 1989 cult comedy Weekend At Bernie's, this variation in similar to Highlander.  However, eliminated players do not sit to the side.  Instead they remain on stage as dead bodies that the remaining players manipulate as puppets.  In a variation called Spinning Wheel Of Death the ref or emcee periodically changes which players are dead.

Replay-cement - I invented this variation a couple of years ago at CSz Sacramento, but it’s quite possible other people came up with the same idea (see my previous entry Lighten Up Francis No One Stole Your Improv Game).  In this version a key element (item, setting, character, etc.) is replaced with an alternate during each replay.  For example, a lost dog in the set up scene might become a lost dinosaur in the replay scene.  All other elements remain the same, and the replacements do not stack during each subsequent replay scene.

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Groundhog Day - Named for the titular Bill Murray fan favorite film, Groundhog Day features a main character caught in a time loop developed during the set-up scene.  Typically the first replay scene shows that character’s reaction as she experiences the loop for the first time.  The second and third replays show the character after perhaps ten, hundreds, or even thousands of loops.

Naïve - All but one player leaves the room.  The one remaining player performs the entire scene alone as if the other players were on stage with him, i.e., leave room for other lines, reacting to possible physical offers, leaving empty stage for other scenes, etc.  Then each player enters separately for each replay and gradually fills in the story.  It’s important that the established material repeat the same way each time; the players should not adjust to try to make the scenes work better.  The last player has the special job of running around trying to fill in all of the blanks.

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McFlys - Based on the Back To The Future movies, this variation is exceptionally difficult to play well.  In fact, I recall having only seen it played well once, I think by the team that demonstrated it at a ComedySportz World Championship several years ago.  During the set up scene the main character, the McFly, tries to solve a problem.  But he either fails, or the solution produces an undesired byproduct.  So during the second scene, a second McFly is send back in time into the original scene to try to fix the problem.  More problems result.  And thus a third McFly is injected into the third scene to try to straighten everything out.  Of course for the sake of the time space continuum it’s important the McFlys never meet!

Lighten Up, Francis. No One Stole Your Improv Game

Most improvisers I know who invent new games are happy to enter their creations into to the public domain for others to enjoy.  Yet I’ve also met improvisers who were upset and convinced others had stolen their games without giving credit.  George Carlin once quipped about how humans are prone to assume theft, even when simply losing things of questionable value like banana guacamole.  In the case of discovering others playing "your improv game," the answer likely has less to do with theft and more to do with the old saying great minds think alike (at least in the popular, truncated usage of the full saying) .

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Around the time I took my first improv class I was managing a large company’s small division of consumer products based on high tech ceramics.  We mostly operated on a business-to-business level (one notable exception was the famed magician Teller, half of famed duo Penn & Teller, who had somehow become a direct customer.  So I got to talk to famed silent magician Teller before he much later revealed his voice to the world…).  I shared some customer service reps who supported a few other product lines as well.  These reps sometimes sat in another room (the company, a Japan based multinational, placed its office workers in large areas without any dividers like walls or cubicles; was not a fan…) and typically wore headsets since they spent a lot of time on the phone.

Often I would walk into the customer rep room to speak with someone.  Noting his or her silence, I would begin talking to find out suddenly that that the rep was actually on the phone.  I often thought: it would be great if the headset had a little read or green light on the end to indicate if the user was busy or not. Today such indicator lights are readily available on headsets.  Sadly I’m not making nice royalties from a patent.  Someone else clearly had the same idea.  I’m willing to be lots of people and headset companies had the same idea.

Throughout history many inventions and discoveries emerged separately from multiple sources.  For example, evidence supports the independent development of the numerical zero among several cultures.  This concept, multiple discovery, applies to improv games as well.

Several years ago during a ComedySportz Sacramento match, I challenged the Blue Team (I know it was the Blue Team because I always play on the Red team for reasons…) to Four Square.  Then I had the idea that the players in the back would dub the lines for the players in the front.  Thus, the game of Four Square Dubbing was born.  Except that it was probably born within a few other improv groups at a few other moments as well. Given that there are only so many ways to alter a scene, that there are a finite combination of alterations, and that improvisers are mega-creative, it’s a foregone conclusion that multiple discovery of improv games happens.

So should we stop trying to invent new games?  Of course not!  It’s fun, and you might just strike upon something new.  At least new for a little while.

Costumes In Improv: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

COMEDYSPORTZ PLAYER GARY WESTON AS A DRAGON DURING DATING GAME

COMEDYSPORTZ PLAYER GARY WESTON AS A DRAGON DURING DATING GAME

Since weekends tend to be very busy for me with shows and workshops, I often try to make Monday a day off.  With that in mind I’m going to be a bit lazy for today’s entry.  Instead of writing something wholly original, I’m going to dust off an old piece I wrote about the use of costumes in improv.  My inspiration to post this piece was not actually laziness, it was player Gary Weston’s awesome portrayal of a dragon during Saturday’s ComedySportz match.  And now...off to the past!
                             .           .           .
During a recent show I saw a very inventive use of costumes during Dance Party.  In this game players make up dances based on random words suggested by the audience.  Two players showed a ketchup dance.  One player used a trench coat and other items to portray a bottle while the other player used a large red scarf under a coat to show spreading ketchup.  The resulting effect was clever and fun.

So I thought I'd talk a little about costume use within improv.  It's a subject that sometimes evokes strong opinions.  Some performers decry any use of costumes while others believe that costumes are near essential for certain games.

My feeling is that costumes, while not needed per se for improv, can at times add nice accents.  That being said, I think it's also very important that performers never rely on costumes.  Any given improv scene or game should be able to stand on its own with or without costumes.  For example, during that same Dance Party, a third also dazzled the crowd with a costume-less owl dance. 

Over the years I've seen two main problems resulting from performers relying on costumes.  First, they sometimes put less effort into the other key components of character creation, e.g., voice, emotion, posture, etc.  Second, I've seen players delay entry into a scene because they wanted to put on a costume.  Such delays have caused awkward pauses or worse, bare stage moments.

But with careful use, costumes can be a fun, extra component though which the performers can express their ideas and delight the audience.  Character centric games like Advice Panel and Dating Game are particularly costume friendly.  I've been amazed at clever uses of simple costumes to simulate historical outfits, animals, objects, cartoon characters, and more.  Costumes can also be helpful for scenes featuring a specific genre or historical period.  And certainly some genres and/or games like Shakespeare or Gibberish Opera are natural fits for costumes.

Costumes also seem to make many audience volunteers less nervous in games like Foreign Movie and Gibberish Opera.  I don't know the psychological explanation.  But for some reason most audience members relax more when outfitted with a fun costume if they have to perform in an actual scene.

Finally, a few thoughts onchoosing costumes.  I've found that generic pieces are often more useful than specific items.   For example, I've seen our very large silver poncho become armor, a cape, the outside of an anthropomorphic appliance, and much more.  Likewise, a tan trench coat has doubled as a book, camel, bottle, dirt road, etc.  By contrast, a loud plaid jacket would have relatively limited use.  Generic pieces are also good because available space for costumes is often limited.