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BBIF 2005 Reflection

23-24 September 2005, Atlanta, GA
Let's Try This! hosted the second annual Black Box Improv Festival. On Friday, there were two shows featuring eight improv troupes. On Saturday, there were three sets of workshops and another two shows featuring eight improv troupes. Overall, it was a really nice event with a good mix of college and professional troupes in attendance.

The variety of performance styles being showcased was impressive. When I visited the first Improvstock in Athens, everyone was doing short-form (i.e. games). Things have changed quite a bit since then. At BBIF 2005, there were a few traditional short-form performances, but there were also several novel formats. Topping Haggerty of The Kihckercast Project performed a one-woman long-form. Diversionary Tactics, a new improv troupe of LTT! alumns, performed a long-form based on predefined characters: Rocket Man, Well-Dressed Man, Spoon Man, etc. One of the funniest moments was when a well-meaning, clueless Spoon Man transported a kid to the moon. The kid always wanted to see the moon, so Spoon Man sent him there. That the kid would immediately die of asphyxiation was an unintended side-effect. Choke Up performed a continuous two-man long-form involving many characters. It was impressive. The Basement Theatre performed a musical. Robert Lowe directed a show where he cast the show in an unusual way: He turned his back and counted down from 25; anyone on-stage after the countdown was in the show. It ended up being a cast of about 30. Only Robert Lowe can get away with that kind of thing. 7↑ performed a long form (more on that later).

The reason I really liked this festival is the lack of ego. Often, semi-professional troupes and directors have quite an ego. They feel that college troupes are beneath them and that the quality of improv is something that they alone can determine. It's a pretty nasty attitude which I can't stand. Improv festivals should be about comraderie and learning; giant puss-filled egos only get in the way. I felt less of that at this festival than any previous festival I have been to.

I attended Topping's workshop on managing an effective object-space universe. It was a nice introduction of how to deal with imaginary objects in scene-work. How do you deal with an object that your partner has created, but you don't know what it is exactly? How do you make an action more defined, so that people get it? Topping is extremely good at doing this on-stage, so she was a good person to teach it. The other two workshops that I attended were ones I directed on scenic archetypes.

7↑ - A New Improv Troupe

7Up's LogoMy main involvement in BBIF 2005 was as a workshop director. I directed two two-hour workshops on Scenic Archetypes, a long-form improv technique I've been developing. I had roughly the same people in each workshop and then cast those workshop participants in a show we performed later that night.

Essential to art is the need to challenge oneself. I believe that. When the idea of performing a show with workshop participants occured to me, I thought "hey, that's something I've never seen anybody else do; I'll go for it." I figured that I could even convince Matthew Falkenberg, organizer of BBIF 2005, to let me try this. It actually didn't take much convincing; he was cool with it almost immediately. Awesome! Then, the panic set in. Is it really possible to take strangers and, in about 5 hours, teach them something completely new and have them perform it? Performing improv in front of an audience requires trust in your fellow players. Can you really establish that trust in two workshops? Performing improv also requires being comfortable with the material. Are two workshops enough to feel comfortable with the new material? Then, there were the practical problems: What if noone wanted to do it? What if too many people wanted to do it? What if the improv skill levels were not high enough? There were many times that I wanted to chicken out of the performance, but you have to challenge yourself. I'm so glad I did.

Call it good karma or luck, but everything turned out better than I could have hoped for. Initially, not that many people signed up for my workshop and I was a bit worried. Matthew asked for some more volunteers to sign up and I started the morning workshop with six participants. One of them was Robert Lowe. I've been to about 50 workshops led by Robert; it was nice to repay the favor. Robert was not going to be in the latter workshop or the show, so that left me with five cast members, a nice number. In the first workshop, I introduced everybody to the concept of scenic archetypes. I tried to make it less about talking and more about doing. I wanted to give the cast as much time playing with each other as possible. By the end of the workshop, people were feeling pretty comfortable with scenic archetypes, but a bit nervous about the show. In the second workshop, Robert was replaced by Hoyt. I faced a dilemma: Should I cast Hoyt in the show? I decided to go for it. In the second workshop, we developed and practiced the scenic archetype we would perform in the show. By the end of that workshop, the cast was really starting to jell and they felt fairly comfortable with what we would perform. We also selected a name for our new group, 7↑ (seven up). There were seven of us (including myself), so it made a lot of sense. I hurried back to the lab and created our logo and wrote up a guide to follow during the show.

Thirty minutes before our show, I gathered the cast to do warm-ups. I refreshed everyone's memory about the specifics of our scenic-archetype play. Then, my main goal was to ensure that we went out there as a team. By the beginning of the show, we were in the same group mind. We even sang "Breakfast at Tiffany's" together. Finally, we hit the stage:

The 7 Up CircleI went up and introduced that we were a new troupe and this was our premiere show. Kevin yelled IPRMØV (his term for the communal nature of improv) and we all scurried into a line at attention. "Hut, hut, hut, hut, hut...", we scurried into a circle. One by one, we threw a hand into the circle and counted up. "One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six." After the final "seven," we collectively raised our hands in triumph, shouting "UP!" It was a neat bit we invented previously. We started the show with a Calvin Klein based on the suggestion of philanthropy. Then, we proceeded to tell the tale of a life-guard wannabe and his godfather-like mother. Like most of my scenic archetypes plays, it was a tragedy. It ended with the wannabe and his best friend in jail and the mother's reputation ruined. As the show ended, I informed the audience that this was also our farewell performance. It was an entertaining, sound show.

I was extremely proud of what we accomplished. That being said, I can't take much of the credit. The cast was amazing. Individually, they had mad improv skills. As a group, they worked together better than I could have imagined. Everyone was willing to work together for the common good. These were the members of 7↑: