Improv 101 — Being Somebody Else

Every year, when I meet the new class of high school kids I teach improv to, I always give them a lecture. Most times I’m teaching it’s a gauntlet of “what game is he teaching us this week”, but the first week is always different, because I mostly just talk. About me. You might think that’s asinine or narcissistic, and well, maybe it is, but I think my story with improv is important.

I was always the introverted kid in class. Okay, I am the introverted kid in class, but in high school it was even worse. I was so bad I would be reading fantasy novels in my theatre class any chance I could, as long as the teacher wasn’t talking. And yeah, I got my book taken away by multiple teachers over my high school career. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly fast friends with anyone I met.

But then my soon-to-be improv coach started coming into the class as a guest teacher. He’d teach imrpov games just like on Whose Line is it Anyway?, and I loved when he came because then we’d get to play improv. You’d think the story ends there right? I jump on stage, come out of my shell through improv, then I started teaching, right?

Well, no. It took a lot more work than that. I wouldn’t even go on stage to play games when he asked. I just liked that he was there because I enjoyed watching improv, not because I wanted to do it myself. Me? An actor? Yeah, okay buddy.

A few months go by, and he eventually states that he’s recruiting students for an improv team. Nothing school related, but we would be joining a non-profit that helps high school kids perform on stages (most often by singing, but well, that part of the story isn’t really important). Against my better judgment, I signed up. I could watch more improv that way, at least.

And so, Kollin the audience member was forced to become Kollin the improviser. I’m not going to pretend I was the best on the team, (in fact I would argue against it), but my best moments tended to last the longest in our minds.

After a few years of our improv team doing great and going strong, old faces leaving and new faces joining, our coach told us he was moving. We had two options: hold our own or quit while we were ahead. We made the mistake of trying to hold our own. The only people that were left were just out of high school, after all, and neither of us had the resources nor the charisma to lead a team of teenagers.

But, I did accept the mantle of improv coach. And so Kollin the improviser became Kollin the teacher. Freshly graduated, I started joining my coach as he went into the high school to teach, and when he did move, soon it was just me.

A few years of that and here we are. An introverted Kollin standing on stage talking to a bunch of high school freshmen about what improv is. This is only the first half of the lecture, but I think it implies a lot about what improv can be. Yes, I’m still the introverted guy who won’t speak to a stranger unless spoken to. But through improv I’ve gained the ability to don a mask. The mask of who Kollin would be if he was extroverted. I wear it well. It suits me, in a way, and though I can’t wear it for long, people are often surprised when I tell them I’m introverted. I’m still working on being able to pull out that mask in non-teaching environments, but it’s the only time that version of me is really comfortable.

Improv really helped me find myself. For some people, it takes them out of their shell and they blossom into an entirely new creature. Sometimes it’s just a confidence shift. I think I might of changed the least of all the people from my improv team, but the new skills of being able to pretend I’m slightly different versions of Kollin would make people think I’ve changed a lot.

Improv changes you, but it’s always positive. I’ve never seen anyone negatively impacted by the experience, and though I’ve certainly seen people so embarrassed they’ve cried, they really did learn a lot and had some profound personality growth because of it. Improv is one of those things that I think everybody should try for a while. Even if it’s just a simple college class later in life.

D&D — Dungeons & Dragons as Escapism

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while now. Technically, at least eight years, but I’ve only been serious about the hobby for the last two or so. I would attribute two things to this. The first is Critical Role, which I think is self-explanatory. If you play D&D you probably know what that is. The second was a surprising amount of interest when I offhandedly commented the possibility of running a campaign with my improv friends. Those two things put together suddenly made D&D a much bigger part of my life, and it wasn’t until then that I realized the untapped potential the game had for me.

Before I got serious, D&D was a hobby; an incredibly complex board game in which you made your character and then cast the spells you picked out on the monsters the DM picked out. But then I realized that it didn’t have to be simply a video game. It could be a stage. It isn’t just about numbers and statistics and jokes. It could be a place to become somebody new and then behave as they do. You work in a headspace not your own in a world so different from the one you live. It isn’t the natural 1s or 20s that interest me anymore, it’s the choices the players make at the table because of a world we all created together.

I had a dream recently where I ran down a steep hill and turned into a bird, gaining speed as I swooped down and feeling the air press against my wings as I soared upwards and over everything else. I have never flown in any of my dreams. The closest I’ve gotten was jumping like The Hulk or being thrown from point A to B. But the feeling of flying was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I am under no illusions: it is because my current D&D character is a druid that can shapeshift.

I don’t play to win anymore. In fact, the concept of “winning” D&D seems silly to me. Even if you and your friends are playing through a story that has a definitive beginning and ending, you can’t really “win” in the same way you don’t “win” when watching your favorite movie. It’s just an experience.

So nowadays, when I make decisions in this imaginary world, I don’t think “what is the optimal play”. I don’t even think “what is the optimal play given the information my character has”. Instead, I think “what would Taldarrin do in this circumstance?” For me, I get the most out of the experience by making the situation as believable as possible.

For example, at level 2, Circle of the Moon druids are basically the most powerful class in the game. Among other things, they can turn into a brown bear, which could probably fight off 3 other level 2 characters at the same time. Taldarrin has only ever turned into a brown bear once, and this was for intimidation, not power. He used to turn into a giant spider a lot, but every time he has, he’s rolled very poorly. So canonically, Taldarrin simply does not understand how to accommodate for all those eyes and legs, and thus doesn’t turn into that anymore. I think that makes for much better story telling than “when we fight I always turn into a bear, and if I roll badly it’s just a bad day. I’ll turn into a bear tomorrow”.

I don’t begrudge other playstyles. D&D is amazingly versatile, and any way anyone likes to play is certainly valid. I’m merely stating that I got a lot more out of it when I moved it from “video game” to “acting” in my head. I think all of us like being somebody else every once in a while, and Dungeons & Dragons is a great way to do that.

Review — Voice Acting Mastery

A few months ago I started listening to Crispin Freeman’s podcast, Voice Acting Mastery. Crispin has done tons of roles in both anime dubs and video games. I’m personally most familiar with him for his role as Winston in Overwatch and Itachi Uchiha in Naruto, but he’s also Alucard in Hellsing and prominent characters in Fate/ZeroFate/Stay Night, and Young Justice.

Voice Acting Mastery is a podcast about learning the fundamentals of the craft of voice acting. It includes tips on everything from learning the craft to establishing a professional career to interviews with actors in the field.

The primary reason for my interest in this podcast is not of vocational purposes. Mostly, I want to learn how to use my voice to become different characters in both Dungeons & Dragons and my acting career (as a hobbyist and instructor). Also I’d like to be a better narrator for my own stories when I record them.

That said, much of the content of the podcast is irrelevant to me, so here’s the disclaimer. I don’t need to know how microphones work, I don’t need to look for an agent or anything technical or “business”-y about the field. I was mostly looking for tips on how to change the quality of my voice.

So I was a bit disappointed to find out that most voice acting roles are signed based on the natural speaking voice of the actor. I may be pulling this number out of thin air, because I can’t remember if Crispin said it or not, but I believe I remember something along the lines of “80% of your booked gigs will be booking you for the emotion you put into your real voice, not for having an amazing pool of voices to pick from”. This isn’t the podcast for that.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t have useful knowledge. Most of the tips he provides are useful for any professional in the creative fields. It’s also never a bad thing to hear about the personal experience from anyone trying to break into industries of this sort.

So with as many podcasts exist in the world right now, is this one worth listening to? Well, it depends. For somebody looking into becoming a voice actor, absolutely. This teaches so much valuable knowledge about what it’s like, it’s a good tool. For somebody like me that is only recreationally interested in the craft, it’s not that great. My recommendation would be to go through all the episodes (there are currently 134, and the pre-100 episodes are only 20 minutes long), look at all the titles, and if they don’t sound relevant, they probably aren’t. The interviews are cool to listen to, but typically Crispin brings on specific people to talk about specific things, so if you know you’re never going to do motion capture for a video game, you can probably skip the interview with the actress he brings on for it (though she is a lot of fun).

If nothing else, I’ve learned a lot about what I need to look for in my pursuit for utilizing different voices, so I at least have that to thank Crispin for. He’s also a great teacher, and since he lives in my area I might consider taking a class or two with him to get more direct instruction.

Improv 101 — Genres

Genres is one of those games that is deceptively difficult because of how easy it is to explain. It’s not one of my best, simply because it allows for a lot of openness and there aren’t really any constraints. Despite that, it can be a lot of fun as long as the improvisers know the fundamentals of how it should be played.

This game is a scene game for a small team, so three or four works. It’s energy levels varied based on the suggestions, but often it can be on the higher end since it can get a little ridiculous. This is how the game is played. You get a suggestion of anything (I like ‘well known fairy tale or story plot’ for this one in particular), and then the improvisers build a scene based on that suggestion. Then, throughout the game, the ref calls ‘Freeze!’ and asks the audience for a new thematic suggestion. Often ‘genre’ works really well (it’s what the game is named, after all), but other suggestions can work, too. As soon as a new suggestion is picked, the actors continue their scene adopting the elements of that genre into their story. If Little Red Riding Hood suddenly becomes a western, the actors playing those iconic characters might start speaking in accents and pull out revolvers. Maybe people jump on horses and begin a chase scene. The key thing to remember here is that the original suggestion: the plot of the scene, should remain consistent. You’re still telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, only the medium through which it is being told changes roughly every forty seconds.

If you’re familiar with the game, this is very similar to Eggs. The biggest difference is that instead of performing a given scene multiple different ways, you’re performing one scene that is constantly in flux. You aren’t just adapting to the suggestion, you’re applying that suggestion to the thing you’ve already made as you make it. In some ways it’s easier, because you’re not constrained by predefined actions or lines. But as I always say, creativity isn’t empowered by the lack of constraints, it’s hindered by it.

The fact that the character and the story is always concrete is probably the hardest part for my troupe in particular. It’s hard to move the scene and use the same characters when creating new ones is so much easier. It’s difficult to follow a plot structure in so many minutes while also hitting the key elements of whatever genre you’re fulfilling, and it’s for that reason that I don’t teach this game to beginning improvisers. (Start with Eggs. It’s the same idea, but it’s much easier, especially if your actors don’t have a firm grip on how to establish a scene with CROW.)

In order to really nail this game, it should also complete the story arc of whatever original suggestion you were given. It doesn’t need to end the same way as Little Red Riding Hood does, or any other story for that matter. In fact, I would argue that it shouldn’t, because humor often derives from subverting the conventional norms. This does mean that you have to tell this story in three to five minutes, which is why fairy tales and nursery rhymes work better than “Lord of the Rings“, but either way, it has the best ending when it has a natural conclusion, as opposed to the typical conclusion of improv scene games where you end it by referencing something that happened in the beginning.

Improv 101 — Stand Bend Sit

Stand Bend Sit is one of those games that is really easy to explain, but actually playing it successfully can prove quite challenging. It requires a lot of coordination with the rest of your cast, but regardless of how well you know each other, everybody is going to end up confused in the end. My troupe has never gotten the hang of Stand Bend Sit. Again, it’s a simple game, but it’s really tough to nail. You’ll see why.

This is a high energy scene game specifically for three people (but can be modified for a fourth). Here’s the whole game: Construct a scene in which one person is standing, one person is bending, and another person is sitting. If one person changes their position, the others must change their position so that every position is always being fulfilled by somebody. With a fourth person, you would add ‘Lay’. Usually you get a suggestion of a location, but anything can work here.

Sounds easy, right? Only, as soon as one person starts standing up, the other two people will move to fill the gap, adding multiple seconds to get into the correct positions once more. It isn’t easy to make sure one of every position is fulfilled at all times, but what’s more is that in the context of the scene, these positions must also be justified. Why did one character stand up and make another person start bending?

One of the problems with this game is that it is very difficult to move a scene forward like this. You have no stage entrances and exits, and two of the three positions are low-energy, not conducive to making an audience laugh. You can’t very well move the scene from whatever the location is, because people have to be sitting and whatnot. You could, perhaps, jump in a weird clown car that allows for standing position, but what I’m getting at here is that it isn’t easy to establish and maintain a conflict.

The kicker here is that there isn’t anything this game brings to a stage that another game can’t do better. I classify this as a high energy game because this game always ends with people switching positions back and forth and confusing the entire scene (which, admittedly, can be hilarious). But games like Four Corners and Chain Murder Mystery can confuse the improvisers while entertaining the audience much more reliably and effectively. If you’re looking for a high energy scene game for a performance, this wouldn’t even make the Top 3.

Of course, it could simply be a case of practicing this game wrong. I’ve never seen it performed, and maybe there’s a piece I’m missing to truly understand it. As with all games, there is certainly quite a bit of fun to be had, but as far as “successfully performing for an audience” goes, this game falls short too consistently.

If my mind ever changes on this, I’ll be sure to edit it (or even make an entirely new post) to fix whatever I had gotten wrong or missed entirely.

Improv 101 — Arms Through

One of the games that Whose Line is it, Anyway? is most famous for, Arms Through is sort of a gimmick game that I don’t play a lot, because it requires a few variables to be in place before you can even try it out. Now, when I explain it, I’m not going to explain how WLIIA plays it, because that’s a different environment than what most improv would provide.

Arms Through is a team hoop game with a varying energy level. It’s humor can derive from both the things that are done and the things that are said, so really it just depends on that specific game. The setup for the game is pretty simple. Four people get into two different pairs. One person from each pair folds their arms behind their backs, and the other person from that pair goes behind them and puts their own ‘arms through’ the gaps in their sides. Each pair in this game is one person in the scene, with the body of one person and the arms of the other. You get any suggestion at all, and the scene progresses as if it was two normal people doing it, if those people were excessively prone to touching their faces and generally being “handsy”.

So, why does this game not work well in all situations? Well, for obvious reasons, it requires you to know and trust the rest of your cast. IF you get two strangers to play this, they won’t be very comfortable with one another. You want the pair of people to work as  a team, following hand gestures and all, but if they’re so uncomfortable they’re standing a foot apart from each other, their arms won’t even be long enough to accomplish anything, and any audience would practically be able to feel the discomfort that would cause. Another thing that I specifically have to consider is that I’m working with a lot of teenagers, and without really getting into it, I have to be careful because things can go from uncomfortable to sexual harassment really quick. (When considering this, I always make the pairs the same gender, but this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.) Really, though, as long as the cast knows each other, these aren’t things anyone would have to worry about.

So, how do you actually play this game? Well, it really is a normal scene. It is the “body’s” job to allow the arms to be as involved in the scene as possible, and it’s the “arms'” job to be entertaining. Obviously moving around can be difficult because each person is actually two, but this game wouldn’t work with stage entrances and exits in any case. As a result of this, this game is often shorter than most, because having two people interact nonstop in one scene starts to get a little stale, even if the scene itself is entertaining.

Whose Line plays this as a gimmick, with Colin making Ryan eat awful concoctions and having him justify those things in the scene. There’s never any movement, and since they only have one body-arms pair, all the focus in the scene is given to them. In a conventional improv performance, however, improvisers almost never have props to use in any game, and it makes the game different each time you play it. I don’t like the way Whose Line plays it because it’s always done the same way, which isn’t in the spirit of improv, but to each their own.

Improv 101 — World’s Worst

World’s Worst is most easily described as an alternative to 185, where instead of making bad puns, you act out a joke. It is at its best played as a high energy group game, with very quick and short segments with at least six people participating.

There is basically nothing to explain with this game, really. All the improvisers stand in a line, and the ref gets a suggestion of a profession. Then, one by one, the improvisers step forward and do their best impression of the “world’s worst [suggestion]”. This continues until the improvisers have no more ideas, and a new suggestion is taken.

Let’s say your suggestion is doctor. You could step forward, pantomime being in an operating room (which can be done a number of ways), and then yell “Screwdriver!” in the same way a doctor would ask a nurse to hand them a scalpel or some other tool. Or, they could pantomime unplugging an ICU outlet in order to charge their phone (and yes, I realize that’s not how it works, but the audience will laugh anyway). You could also pantomime somebody playing the Operation board game. Throwing in a Doctor Who, Dr. Doom, or Dr. Horrible reference could be hilarious, but keep in mind that your audience may not know those characters.

This game is a lot harder than 185. In that game, all you have to do is come up with a punchline. The setup is all there. But in this one, you have to actually act. You have to establish Crow in less than five seconds just to set your joke up, and you have to do it without slowing the momentum of the game and the energy of the audience. This is why more improvisers makes this easier; you simply have more people to come up with jokes.

You can also bring in other improvisers to make short little scenes. Obviously, it will be hard to brief them on the joke you want to tell, so ideally you’d only want to do it if you just need a person there. This also works better the more familiar you are with your cast, because they will be able to play along with whatever your idea is easier. This can be hard, especially if you don’t know your cast, because something you do in the scene might prompt them to respond, and you run the risk of jeopardizing the setup to your joke if they don’t know what you’re trying to go for. In these instances, it is okay to whisper something to them quickly as you’re walking up to whatever your stage is. This is for entertainment, after all. You’re not going to be booed off the stage for quickly collaborating with your fellow actors.

The best way to practice this game is actually to practice other games in conjunction with 185. This is basically a much more advanced version of that game, and it functions the exact same way in a performance, so beginning actors should stick to coming up with jokes until they’re comfortable developing those mini scenes. Also, as a side note, this game is generally not as entertaining as 185, for whatever reason. In my experience, it’s more fun as an actor, but the audience doesn’t typically enjoy it as much as they would have liked 185.

And also, this comedy skit by Studio C does an amazing job illustrating the sort of things you should be doing with this game.