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.

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!

Some Takeaways From The ARC Improv Final

WHAT SOVIET ERA HORRORS LIE BEHIND THE MODERN FACADE OF THE PRAGUE AIRPORT?

WHAT SOVIET ERA HORRORS LIE BEHIND THE MODERN FACADE OF THE PRAGUE AIRPORT?

I don’t have a lot of time today to blog for two reasons.  First, I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to navigate the health care system in search of a doctor who takes my new insurance.  It is one of two times I felt I had a glimpse into what life might have been like under the old Soviet bureaucracy (the other was when I went to the Prague airport to recover a suitcase that had arrived late after being lost at the Amsterdam airport.  After leaving the snazzy, modern area used by actual passengers and going through an employee only door, I found myself in large cavernous, dusty room where a 100 year old man keeps a handwritten log of every bag in what was clearly 1,000 page giant book that predated human flight by as many year.  I wrote keeps because I bet he’s still there…)

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The second reason is that I spent a couple of hours watching the Improv Class final at ARC (American River College), a popular community college here in Sacramento.  Quite a number of wonderful CSz Sacramento players started at ARC, and the improv instructor often asks me to help judge the final.  So I thought I’d list some quick takeaways based on today’s final, which consisted of some each team playing two short form games before performing a Harold. 

But first, good job to all the students and supporting alumni who played.  There were many wonderful moments, and I liked that everyone seemed to be having a good time.  It was also nice to see that improv is accessible to everyone regardless to gender, age, culture, and physical ability.  And now, some takeways.

  • Delight In The Absurd.  At one point the emcee (CSz Sacramento player extraordinaire and ARC alum Kameron Schmid) asked for an unusual activity to go with the location of freeway.  I offered Easter Egg hunt.  The crowd reacted with a mixture of shock and concern, as if the players would struggle with such an absurd combination.  Later when I offered hydroelectric dam as an object for Dating Game, a concerned audience member tried to over ride my suggestion by yelling How about a wig instead?  Now, keep in mind that I was not trying to give these performers tough suggestions.  I was trying to give them fun suggestions (and also keep in mind that I waited for otherwise dead audience times to yell out my choices).  And in both cases, the scenes and games turned out to be a lot of fun.  As some one once suggested: You can do improv about whatever you want.  But it’s probably going to be more fun for you and the audience when you do improv about things that happen seldom or never in a lifetime.
     
  • Obvious Can Be Funny.  Creating a fun character or delivering a line a certain way can transform an otherwise simple or confirming offer into gold.  Yes, the ski lift does go to the top…
     
  • Watch The So’sSo is an overused, infectious, and often unneeded word that can become annoying repetitive when over injected into story based monologues.  Explore different ways to starts and advance stories.
     
  • Inspiration vs. Reenactment.  Again, performers are free to choose their Art, e.g., what a scene is about.  But I believe that monologue based long form is more fun for everyone when the performers utilize monologues for inspiration rather than merely reenacting the stories told by the monologists.  For one, the audience has already heard the story; seeing it acted out doesn’t add much.  But applying elements of the stories to new and different situations often delights the audience and challenges the performers.

Anyway, thanks to Pam Downs, ARC, and today’s performers for a fun time.

What's The Difference Between Short Form And Long Form Improv?

You might have heard the terms short form and long form improv at some point.  Some people think these terms refer to the relative scene lengths, i.e., short form features relatively shorter scenes (3-5 minutes) while long form features relatively longer scenes (10-30+ minutes).  These definitions don’t make sense to me because many so-called long form shows consist of a series of short, 1-3 minute scenes.  Instead, the key difference to me is whether or not the improv include performance games (note: not the game of a scene; more on that concept below).  My working definitions: if improv includes performance games, it’s short form.  If improv doesn’t include performance games, it’s long form.

What are performance games?  They are restrictions and challenges places on the players intended to make improv more fun for the audience and the players.  You see performance games in shows like ComedySportz and Whose Line Is It, Anyway?  Examples:

  • Advice Panel – Players give advice as object, animals, famous people, etc. suggested by the audience.
  • Replay – Players show the same scene in different genres, time periods, emotions, etc. suggested by the audience.
  • Five Things – Using mime and gibberish only, clue givers try to get a guesser to do and guess different activities with substitutions, e.g., vacuuming, the vacuum is powered by a cactus, and the dust is a whale.
FIVE THINGS EXAMPLE ACTIVITY WITH SUBSTITUTIONS; DO NOT TRY AT HOME!

FIVE THINGS EXAMPLE ACTIVITY WITH SUBSTITUTIONS; DO NOT TRY AT HOME!

So how did I arrive at these definitions?  Let’s take a step back. Over the years I’ve encountered some people who I will call, for lack of a better word, long form snobs.  They think that short form is just about playing performance games.  What they don’t understand is that most short form performers are just as, or even more concerned, with doing good scene work as they are in playing the game well.  The extension of that reality is that scene work is at the heart of all performance improv regardless of format.

Once improvisers can build scenes, there are several things they can do with those scenes:

  • Tell a story.  I call this narrative improv.
  • Play a performance game.  I call this elemental improv.  I chose the term elemental because the games focus on different elements of the scene  Forward – Reverse focuses on the element of time.  Blind Line focuses on the element of justification (incorporating random information added to a scene).  And so on.
  • Explore a pattern.  I call this thematic improv.  I chose the term thematic because the scenes focus on a theme or pattern instead of a story per se.  These type of exploration is also known as playing with the game of a scene.
IMPROV ECOSYSTEM

IMPROV ECOSYSTEM

Combining these three types of improv yields what is generally considered short form and long form:

  • Telling stories + playing performance games = short form improv (ComedySportz, Whose Line)
  • Telling stories + exploring patterns = long form improv (CSz’s Shower Thoughts, IO, UCB).  Some long form leans more toward story telling while other long form leans more toward patterns.

You might be wondering about the third possible combination:

  • Playing performance games + exploring patterns = ?

I’ve rarely seen this combination though on a handful of occasions I’ve seen a few brilliant performers weave pattern play into a short form scene.  I think there are two reasons.  First, this combination is extremely challenging to a performer.  Second, I think the story component is a near essential foundation that holds together the other components.

Anyway, that’s my view of what I call the Improv Ecosystem.