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DSIF 2004 Reflection

26 February 2004, 8pm, Chapel Hill, NC
My improv troupe, Let's Try This!, was the first to perform at the Dirty South Improv Festival 2004.

Early in the morning (~8am) on Thursday, 11 LTT! members met at Adam Johnson's place. Unfortunately, it had snowed the night before. In Atlanta, this is a rare occurance and means trouble. For example, there was a huge tree that fell over just before Adam's apartment complex, so we ended up leaving more than an hour late due to arrival problems. We split up into three cars (Ryan, Mike, and I driving). It was a problematic ride. The snow storm preceded us and caused chaos. Just outside Atlanta, there was a wreck which caused us an hour delay. I ended up getting a speeding ticket in South Carolina; it turns out that their speed limit is 10mph lower than I am used to. Then, there was more slow traffic around Charlotte. We barely arrived on-time.

I directed the show. It went OK. Most of the players were frustrated with the drive and constraints of the show format. It affected the performance a bit. I elected on doing a fairly standard short-form show as we had 9 performers and only 25 minutes. It was not our strongest suit to play, but I wanted to give everyone who wanted to perform a chance to do so. However, you just can't do that much with so many players in so few minutes. I, with the help of my fellow performers, chose games that were either original to our troupe (Calvin Klein, the Improv Song) or involved many players (Machine, Last Line First, Challenge). To compensate for the mundane choice of format and games, we also did a 5-minute Harold. We had heard that long-form was king at DSIF, so doing a parody of that seemed appropriate. It was probably the highlight of our show.

The festival ran from Thursday's evening show to worshops on Sunday mid-day. I attended two workshops on Saturday: Jeff Griggs's workshop on "Group Mind / Ensemble Scenework" and Asaf Ronen's workshop on "How to Direct." Both were useful. The best part of Jeff Griggs's worshop was doing short monologues based on real life that were seeded by previous monologues. His point was that the suggestion for a long-form should seed the development rather than constrain it. So, the suggestion should be a starting point for a journey that opens up new possibilities. I don't think LTT! has problems with creatively going somewhere, so I'm not sure this is a big take-away for us. On the other hand, he emphasized keeping the scene real. We are so good at doing things weird that we tend to forget the power of keeping things real.

At the end of the workshop, we did a six person scene, starting from a simple suggestion. Jeff muted individual people (your character can speak, but you can't make a sound) to highlight different characters in the scene. While the muting was an interesting workshop technique, six people starting a scene at once is just a bad idea. Basically, making a strong choice, which is generally a good thing, becomes problematic; your strong choice is going to conflict with the strong choices of your fellow players. Unintentionally, I ended up controlling the scene without speaking.

Asaf's workshop on directing was interesting. I disagreed with some of the things he said. For instance, I don't believe in delegating warm-ups as managing focus and energy are two of the fundamental tasks of the workshop director. Warm-ups are a great way to manage them. We ended up splitting into even groups. One would improv and the other would take notes on the patterns they saw in their counterpart player. Then, that group would give suggestions of how the performing individuals could break out of their routines. So, for instance, I was told to start the scene with balls out (i.e. a strong opening line). My pattern was that I tended to be reactive and physical in a scene. The suggestion forced me to be initiating and cerebral. That is not how I tend to improv. This technique was a great way to allow players to move out of their comfort zone. The point of finding the patterns is not that the patterns people fall into are wrong, but rather that they are limiting. Forcing them to break the pattern will allow them to grow.

He also had a great point on side coaching. As a side coach, you shouldn't make suggestions about the choices players make, but rather about how well they commit to those choices. You should see the good in what is happening and ask for that to be amplified. Another take-away is that you should give one suggestion to each person when giving feedback. Giving more than one is overwhelming. Giving no suggestions to some people leaves them with nothing to work on.

I left early on Saturday to see my aunt who was in town from Germany. I was kind of glad for this, since, after seeing eight hours of improv performance (four each night), I was sick and tired of it. I like long-form, but I tend to agree with Ryan that I didn't want to see another long-form show.

I'm a bit surprised at how different LTT! is from other improv groups. While I knew that we did things differently, I didn't think it was that differently. I think we have invented our own style of improv which is quite different from the current paradigm. When I went to Improvstock in Athens (circa 1996), all the groups did a short-form show. At this one, almost everyone did a long-form show. It seems that there has been a Kuhnian paradigm shift in the improv community from short to long-form. Yet, it amazes me that almost everyone is doing long-form in a similar way. The paradigm is clearly strong. What was missing was the innovation. There was nobody doing anything particularly new. I'm now interested in how to find that new direction. My current intuition is that the current paradigm is an extension of Stanislavski's method acting. What would extensions to Brecht, Grotowski, or Meyerholds's methods look like? My work on scenic archetypes is fairly in line with Brecht's. I wonder what it would look like to develop it more along that line.

I've been told that this account is unenthusiastic; this is because I did feel a bit unenthusiastic for myself and these are my reflections. On the other hand, the trip was a great experience for the troupe. We all got so much inspiration out of the experience that it will revitalize much of LTT! for some time.