I recently saw a great performance at the IO West in Hollywood:
Visiting IO West
Have you explored how much you can learn from improv? The more that I explore drama, improv, music, and the arts the more opportunity I find for learning and applying that learning across my other fields of play.
This week I was in Orange County doing some training and it provided the perfect opportunity to see one of the great active improv venues in the world, IO West (formerly known as Improv Olympic West) on Hollywood Boulevard. An outgrowth of the IO Theater in Chicago that was founded by Charna Halpern and fueled by the late Del Close (a Chicago legend an "inventor" of the now classic long form improv technique The Harold) The I O West sits right on Hollywood Boulevard and acts like a magnet for some truly great talent. It's a fun place to visit and you can feel the excitement and enthusiasm for improv the moment you walk in the door.
One of the participants in the class that I was facilitating, John Bowers, mentioned that "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" was his favorite TV show so naturally I invited him to come along. The IO focus on improv is entirely different than "Whose Line..." yet both have great value, both are great fun, and both are worth catching.
After a stop and go rush hour trip thru Los Angeles to Hollywood we grabbed a quick bite to eat at the Pizza-by-the-slice nearby and eased into IO for some free thirty minute shows. My expectations were mixed, based on the DVD that is included in Halpern's great little book "Art By Committee, A Guide To Advanced Improvisation". While the DVD is a treasure because available recordings of The Harold are rare, it is also a difficult transfer from live theatre to TV. Once in the tiny theatre, though, the improv takes on a new diminesion and fills the space with magic.
The improv groups that we saw were young, enthusiastic, and talented. What fun to see thirty minutes of surprise connections develop out of one audience suggestions (some of the one word suggestions that lead to the main themes that night included "pizza", "college", and "movies". There were also extensive riffs on Kris Kristofferson and class reunions). The groups we saw included TrophyWife, Squadron, 86 Olympics, and King Ten. With another class in the morning we decided to leave before Mission Improvable took the stage.
The crowd starts out small and gathers size as the night goes on. Many in the audience are other actors and avid improv enthusiasts, so the crowd is super friendly and supportive. The groups fed off of that support and offered brilliant pieces that tied together in unexpected and humorous ways.
The quality of the Harolds (essentially a series of three short scenes and occasionally monologues that feature the characters over the course of different time periods) was outstanding with only an occasional obvious joke or scatalogically cheap line. The actors did an excellent job of "accepting all offers" (taking the ideas offered by other actors and building on them) and stretching each other's energy to the maximum level of interest and delight. You could spot the one actor who seemed to be new to the technique because he was what Paul Sills would call "too much in his own head" trying too hard to invent things when other offers were out there to build on, but the more experienced actors skillfully adjusted, adapted, offered, and built on the combined ideas creating wonderful, unique, entertaining half hour masterpieces.
That's part of the thrill for me, knowing that what you are watching is brand new, has never before been seen, and is a type of high wire act of the soul for these actors. While you can't fall far off the stage, you could certainly fall on your face. These groups, on this night, were flying.
I even saw an improv techniqe I'd never seen before. During one scene an actor appeared from offstage, waved his arms, and said "Poof! You're wearing top hats and tails!" to the two actors on stage, who promptly used that idea and played it into a major theme for the rest of the piece. One actor even adopted top-hat-maker as his occupation and purpose for being on stage and did a wonderful flowing physical take on assembling a row of large top hats. It was his shining moment and a crowd pleaser.
One actress offered a marvelous radio segment using a distinctive voice and pace that was fascinating. When given the "stretch" sign by another actor, she riffed on messages of women's rights and the stuggle for equality and choice. It was a funny dynamic. She also recalled an odd reference to a certain part of a woman's anatopmy that was refered to earlier at "23" by saying "My 23 is on fire...I need some ointment". It might sound incredible, but she actually did that tastefully.
That Harold evolved into a flashback scene told thru a dance that became a filmstrip presentation for the "grandchildren" and connected plot lines that seemed previously unresolvable. The actors made it look both effortless and fun. A studied playwright couldn't have written a better ending with four weeks of reflection and work.
The site lines in the small box theater can be strained, especially if you're not tall, but the closeness of the talent and the shared joy of the art make for a fun and fascinating evening.
So what did I learn?
- Improv's focus on the ensemble is the perfect team model: whether or not you are an individual star, the rest of the team can pull together something to be truly proud of.
- Music is one of the toughest parts of improv to deliver and it takes a distinctive and disciplined talent to pull out the right notes at the right tmes. This is a skill that I expect to work more on to be able to combine the immediacy of relevant musical "soundtracking" and an occasional spontaneous song to match or enhance the mood. Done correctly, the music becomes the unseen player.
- Leave your "internal judge" behind and a night of theater is even more fun. Might this not apply to other endeavors as well? When I stopped wondering "how good are they" and started simply following their artistic offers, it felt like being a child again watching a new form of entertainment for the first time.
Who has rescued you when you've been "too much in your own head"? How did they do it? How did you respond? How can you help rescue others as well?
How do you practice to be spontaneous? How can your pull yourself away from cliche's and toward innovation?
Improv, while spontaneous, requires a certain depth of knowledge about many different topics. What are learning that you hadn't focused on a year ago? What are you doing to increase your personal growth and knowledge?
More about "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" at Wikipedia.For a full description on how The Harold works I recommend reading Truth In Comedy .
There are several other great books on improv available.