Improv 101 — What Are You Doing?

What Are You Doing? is one of the more simple warm-up games for improvisers and, really, just actors in general. Unlike many warm-up games, however, this can be modified for a performance. It is both a group game and a large group game, but really this game is anything you want it to be. For my purposes, I’ll explain how it would work for a performance first, and then propose modifications for other needs.

Performing What Are You Doing is a high energy hoop game that would generally require at least six people, but works better the more people you add. Generally in a performance the troupe won’t have more than ten members present if you even have that many, but there’s no maximum number of improvisers. You have them get into two lines representing their respective teams, and the goal will be to eliminate the other team. From the audience, you get a suggestion of some initials. It can be any pair of letters, but that’s not the important thing. (You can also get a suggestion of a theme for the game, such as ‘holidays’, or ‘beach fun’ or things like that, but that’s totally up to you.)

The game begins when one person starts pantomiming (it doesn’t really matter what, but often we stick with brushing one’s teeth). The person from the front of the other line will jump on stage and ask “What are you doing?”, to which the person pantomiming will respond with something that is completely not what they are doing, using the initials as inspiration for the action they are describing. “Wrestling koalas!” for your initials of ‘WK’. The other improviser will then begin pantomiming a wrestling match with some koalas. At this point, tooth brusher will stop pantomiming and ask “What are you doing?”, and this goes on until one of them messes up, stalls, or says something too similar that was stated previously, up to the ref’s discretion. The game continues with improvisers interacting one-by-one until one team is entirely eliminated.

For more seasoned improvisers, I ask them to make every sentence a distinct pantomime. How does pantomiming “wrestling koalas” differ from “wrestling rabid koalas”, or “wrestling pygmy pandas”? You can, of course, incorporate speech into the pantomime, but really, these three actions should be distinguishable from one another.

In a performance, I like to challenge my improvisers by steadily increasing the number of letters I force them to use in the game. Suddenly, it’s not just “wrestling koalas”, it’s “wrestling koalas sleepily” or “wrestling koalas sleepily never”. You’l notice that the more letters you add to the game, the less these actions make sense. People find that it’s often easier to add words to the end of the action rather than just add adjectives in the middle, but hey, if the right letters are used, it doesn’t matter all that much. As a side note, this game should be played very quickly in a performance. Any stalling at all (such as “I am wrestling koalas!” should be met with elimination.

As for non-performance applications for this game, it’s pretty simple. The easiest thing to do is remove the elimination aspect of it and have everyone be in one big line. As soon as you mess up, you go to the back of the line and keep playing. Also, using a general theme works better than initials with larger groups, as there are more readily accessible actions associated with “beach fun” than there are with the letters “WK”. The main thing to remember here, though, is that everybody should be having fun, which means it needs to go quickly. It doesn’t matter if people are bad. It’s meant to inspire quick thinking and help with pantomime practice, but beyond that it gets the heart going, which is (almost) never a bad thing.

 

Improv 101 — Two Line Vocabulary

Two Line Vocabulary is a little weird for a couple of reasons. It’s a fundamentally simple game, particularly because the scene is generally only about two minutes long. This is a scene game for three people, and it functions much the same way as Actor’s Worst Nightmare. This is often low energy because the humor derives from the things that are said, but sometimes the actions can be funny, too.

The way it works is that one person, the main character or “anchor” of a scene, has to justify everything that is being said by the other two people in the scene. The only caveat is that the other two people in the scene can only say two phrases each. For example, one person might only be able to say “Don’t touch that!” and “I love you.” and the other person can only say “Where are we?” and “Not again!”. Since the third person can say whatever they want, they have to make each of those expressions make sense given the context every time it is said. So, once you get a suggestion (typically of a location, but anything works) you go on your way and establish CROW just like any other time you would play a scene game.

As with every game, there are a few things actors should keep in mind as they play. The first is that for this game in particular, there are no stage entrances or exits. All three actors are on stage the entire time it is being played. This can be difficult, as it means nobody can come in to save you, but since everything should be tied around the anchor who can do whatever they want, this shouldn’t be a big problem.

The second thing is that the anchor is always the focus in this game. Since the other two improvisers are so limited in their dialogue, it’ll be impossible for there to be any meaningful interaction between the two. This means that the anchor should be talking roughly half the time, as after either of the other two says something, the anchor should be replying to it. (The anchor doesn’t have to reply to everything that is said. If the natural flow of the conversation doesn’t call for a response, it isn’t necessary.)

While it’s the primary job for the anchor to justify anything the other two say, it’s also important for them to carry the scene forward. Make sure all three people are dealing with (but not solving) the conflict as the game progresses. This can be the hardest thing for new improvisers to achieve, so when in doubt, move the scene to a new location. It’s also important for the anchor to not ask questions as, outside of silent gestures, each of the improvisers can only respond in two ways. So as long as the anchor carries the scene justifies statements without denying or asking questions, this game is a cinch.

Here’s a link to WLIIA performing this game a few years back.

Improv 101 — Actor’s Worst Nightmare (355)

Actor’s Worst Nightmare is another one of my personal favorites, but requires some specific things in order to play properly. Many improv games require nothing but enough square feet to perform on, but there are a few that require materials (ex. Blind Line requires strips of papers with quotes on them).

This game is a scene game of four people where three of the improvisers have scripts or books, and the fourth person must justify everything that everybody else says. The improvisers with the scripts can only speak using lines in the books they are holding. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to the person with no script as the “anchor” because they need to be the anchor (focal point, main character, etc.) of the scene. The other improvisers will be “script-holders”.

This game is played like any other scene game: all of the aspects of CROW must be established, and the anchor has to make everything the script-holders say make legitimate sense given the context of the scene. It sounds simple, but the scripts the improvisers have can be anything from Beauty and the Beast to Othello. This game typically works best if every script-holder has a different kind of play/work, however.

One person should have a script from a contemporary play or scene: this allows them to talk “normally” and interact with the anchor without any trouble. The second person should have a script that is not conversational. This typically means giving them a Shakespeare play, but anything old can work (Greek plays serve the same function). Obviously it will be more difficult for the anchor to justify why somebody who says something like “Cowards die many times before their deaths” (quoting Julius Caesar), so that’s something to keep in mind. The third script-holder can have something weird. I’ve given people biology textbooks, children’s books, or simply fantasy novels. This is the hardest role for a script-holder, because while they have the potential of being the funniest character in the scene, something that is not a script makes finding a line that serves as appropriate dialogue can be quite hard.

This game is largely a trial for a good anchor. Since the game focuses entirely on them, the success of the scene is entirely dependent on the skill of the anchor and how well they can justify the rest of the scene. This isn’t to say the script-holders have it easy, simply that the audience will never be focused on them. As the anchor, one needs to think as a puppeteer. The other improvisers on stage need to listen to you and follow directions.

Let’s say somebody walks in and quotes Shakespeare. The anchor can reply with “Sally, you know I can’t understand you before you have your coffee, leave me alone”. This sentence serves several purposes. It justifies why ‘Sally’ said something weird, it establishes the relationship between the two characters, and provides a setting as well as giving a stage direction: telling Sally to leave. When she returns later on in the scene, the anchor can now comment on how she still hasn’t had her coffee, creating a running joke throughout the scene.

As the anchor, one is also not allowed to ask questions to the script-holders. One should avoid asking questions in improv as a general rule, but in this game, the script-holders have no easy way of responding to any question you give them: since they can only say what’s in the book they’re holding. This is why giving them stage directions is so important: following orders doesn’t require a response.

As a script-holder, there are a few rules of thumb to make everybody’s life easier. First and foremost, for any script, you should stick to one character. If you have Julius Caesar, don’t say a line of Brutus’ dialogue, then a line of Cassius, etc. Try to stick to one character, because this gives the character in your game a much clearer personality. (If you make a stage exit and return to the scene, you can return as a different character. You can even come on saying the other half of the scene you were just quoting. Very few people would even notice it’s the same scene.)

The script-holder should also stick to talking to the anchor. Dialogue between script-holders is very difficult because your lines are so restrictive, so while it can work, it’s best to avoid doing it too much. Along the same lines, though, any lines can be used for anything given the right inflection. Remember, your only restriction is the words that you’re saying, not the way you say them or the actions they’re accompanied by. “Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”, for example, can be used as both a stage entrance or exit. (Now, I realize this line translates to “Why are you Romeo?” not “Where are you, Romeo?” like many people think, but it still works.) Pro-tip: the use of names from any script is a good way to define characters in this game. For example, the anchor can reply “I’m right here! You must be going blind!”

As long as all the actors on stage are listening to each other and following these rules, the game is easy (for the script-holders, at least). It’s guaranteed to be a blast, but the anchor will probably have a stressful time if they don’t know what they’re doing (hence the name of this game.)

Me –Being a Dungeon Master

(This week’s audio recording: “Fortune’s Fool“, is one I wrote back in April. I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and I hope to revisit the story someday.)

 

I haven’t talked about Dungeons and Dragons in some time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the game since I’ve brought it up last, but admittedly, the most important things I’ve learned about running a proper campaign is about myself and what I’ve been doing wrong! I’m not upset, though. Progress has to come from somewhere, after all, and knowing where to improve is the best place to start.

When I planned out this campaign, I started with the big stuff. Who’s the overarching bad guy, what is the party going to have to do to stop him, that sort of thing. I set up this huge story, and when the first session began, all I had was big reveals. This meant I had to force both of my parties (they’re running the same campaign) onto a quest with no information. No motivation, just “I need your help, thanks bye!” Obviously this wasn’t ideal, so while big reveals are cool, you need a solid foundation with which to base them on.

For me, this means preparing the sessions more thoroughly. I thought “Hey, I have a lot of experience with improv, I don’t need to prepare dungeons or characters off the bat!” so I didn’t. It was here that I’ve learned something about improv: since it’s all about justification (and not about trying to be funny), often one will take the easiest route. I can make up new characters and buildings all day, but just because I can bring things up on the fly and have it make sense doesn’t mean it’s interesting. That’s where the preparation needs to come in.

Specifically, I need to prepare two things. Primarily, I need to develop the characters I introduce more. I need them to have motivations and personalities that are distinct from each other rather than have them all be furniture for this grander story I’m trying to tell. Now, if you’re anything like me, you hate outlining characters. I’ve tried doing that for novels, and man it just ruins what enjoyment I can get from writing. So for this instance I’m going to try to establish “what this character wants” as a solid goal for virtually everyone I introduce. Goals are important. Everyone has them. Furthermore, having several dozen character names to pull from a hat whenever somebody is introduced isn’t enough. I’ll also need a slew of personality traits and distinct characteristics to help make each person different.

The second thing I need to prepare is the locales. When I set my players off to the grand quest of magical vagueness, they were tasked with getting information with no leads. With large locations, there needs to be large landmarks. Interesting or large buildings and structures that stand out that make a place more memorable and provide a convenient place to start (or return, as the case may be).

Those are the big things I need to work on. The part that I’ve done right from the beginning (and simply need to improve upon) is the theme of the campaign. For the entirety of the issues the party has come across, I’ve tried to force them to operate in moral gray areas. When forcing people to choose between two bad decisions, a dungeon master can have a lot of fun toying with the consequences of what occurs. It forces your party to think when it isn’t simply “go to the cave and kill the evil dragon”. The whole fun of Dungeons and Dragons is the choice and openness in every action you take. When you give your party a clear goal, it gets boring. So don’t make it boring!

Me — December Update

So, things are finally calming down. Soon I can start really breathing, and the anticipation is killing me! I can relax, which means its time to buckle down and get some real work done, but before I do that, let me talk about about these past few months.

First, school was stressful. It wasn’t difficult so much as taxing. There was a lot of reading and writing involved. Between two classes alone I had to read six books, not to mention dozens of short stories and poems. In fact, these past two weekends have been consumed by writing two longer (eight to ten page) essays in those classes. Not particularly difficult, but somehow I found working up the motivation to get into gear and churn them out very difficult. I would have thought writing over five hundred pages (virtually) every day would have helped overcome that, but perhaps since blog posts are easier to write then essays it doesn’t translate perfectly. But at this point, I have two exams and one small assignment to finish, and after that I’ll be completely done for the semester.

As far as improv goes, I’ve cut down on that a little bit. I’ve called a hiatus for the performance cast (meaning I only teach them once a week), and until things get sorted out a bit better that’s where we’ll be. I still feel like I’m progressing, especially since writing an improv blog post every week has multiple purposes, but for now that’s not where I want my life to be focused.

novielDungeons & Dragons is at an interesting position right now. I honestly didn’t expect both of my two campaigns to retain the traction they have, and the universe I’ve created (an alternate version of Nacre Then) is getting bigger every day. I almost can’t control all of my ideas for that world, and now all of my Google Docs and spreadsheets are woefully short compared to all of the ideas I have. I’ll need to find the time to polish them out and write some more soon (before the next session I need to iron out quite a bit). I can’t say I’m upset, however. Worldbuilding is my passion, after all, so playing in a sandbox of my own alternate universe is both weird and delightful. In fact some of the things that have been established into the lore of Therros have made it’s way (in some small details) into Nacre Then!

Over these last few months of school, improv, and writing, I took a break from listening to audiobooks. I haven’t forgotten 2016’s New Year’s resolution to read fifty books, though! I’m about halfway through my forty-sixth now, so I’m not worried about hitting my goal. In fact I already have the rest of the year’s books planned out. I don’t have plans for another New Year’s resolution, but we’ll see.

Lastly: writing. I’m super excited Iimage27.png found the… strength? Willpower? to write the second novelette in my anthology (maybe titled The Aftermath of the Rupture?). I, regretfully still haven’t found a suitable name for Aluvalia’s piece, and I’m already over halfway done, but I know it will come in time. The Dawn of Night was the perfect title for the first story for a lot of reasons, and I’m afraid it may have set some unrealistic expectations for my titling skills of the next shorts! In any case, I’m also already thinking about the third novelette, which takes place in Zephira. I’m super excited to start writing it because it has a very interesting set of characters (one of which wasn’t even created by me!) and I can’t wait to play with some new tools. It’ll be the first time Koh Liirans appear in any short fiction I’ve done! But before I even think about writing the third novelette, I really need to go back and make some edits to The Archive. There’s a lot of information that has been added since I finished it last year. It’s time I revisited it and added on to the Cedria and Aluvalia sections!

That’s all for now! The next few weeks will likely include a lot of video games. I need to play more Heroes of the Storm to finish the ‘Nexus Challenge’, but I also plan on giving my farm in Stardew Valley some more attention, as well as working hard at improving myself in Overwatch and reaching platinum rank again!

Also: audiobooks. Many books will be read over the next few weeks. Including some more Brandon Sanderson and (finally) Patrick Rothfuss! I cannot wait.

 

 

Me — Making Life Changing Decisions

One of the best and worst parts about my current position is that there are so many things I could do with my life, and I have no idea how many paths will make things worse. Right now, where I am doesn’t work. My blog needs changing (as always seems to be the case), my improv troupe is–let’s just say–unsatisfying, and day in and day out, I’m honestly sort of lonely. Problem is, what do I do?

The blog is the easiest fix. Right now I’m thinking of changing the weekly schedule, adding a ‘Learning!’ section to the blog and replacing Tuesday Life posts with another fiction section (meaning I’ll be writing fiction at least twice a week!). There, problem mostly solved, if all goes well. As far as the loneliness thing, it’s not a big deal. It’s a tertiary problem to the ones I already have, so I’m not too worried about it. I suspect it’ll solve itself eventually, anyway.

The biggest problem in my life is my improv troupe, in all honesty. I don’t want to get into any details (since, however unlikely, it’s possible some could read this) Imagine you work at a coffee shop, and the original employees were all best friends and every day you worked was always a blast. You have some great memories, and you can look back on it with a smile. But eventually, as you work, people leave, find better jobs, move away. Eventually you’re the manager and you have to teach all these new people how to make the coffee and they’re just not up to your own standards. What do you do? Quit? Fire people that are under-performing? Is hiring new people justified in that case?

I don’t want to quit. The people in that troupe are pretty much the only friends I have. On top of that, improv has changed me so much for the better, and I don’t want to let go of that part of myself. In the beginning of that theater class, I was looking for a way to leave and avoiding social interaction completely. Now I regret not having taken a second theater and even considered auditioning for a sort of game show (albeit briefly). There’s no doubt that my life would be vastly different from the way it is now, and in all likelihood it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is now.

So, I don’t really have any clue where I’ll be standing a few months from now. I really think some big change in my life is on the horizon, but I don’t know where to look for it. I feel like in some aspects of my life, the foundation I’ve built my position on is cracking. At this point, filling in the gaps isn’t working. It seems to me the most logical solution is to find a new foundation to start over, and while it sucks to begin again, fixing all the cracks in something that hasn’t been tended properly for so long is simply not worth the cost, if its doable at all.

Do you ever get that feeling?

Life — Creativity

One of the most frustrating things I encounter consistently is the idea that creativity is a talent. Society seems to reinforce this mentality, which of course doesn’t help. “Some people are creative, and others are not”. While I do think some aspects of creativity can be tapped more easily by different minds, the entire concept of how creativity works in the minds of the general public is simply wrong.

Many would define creativity as the ability to pull good ideas from nowhere, or perhaps being able to invent completely original meanings in new contexts. If you’re not capable of thinking “outside the box”, you’re not creative. I would go so far as to say this is the exact opposite of what creativity truly is.

As a writer and improvisational actor, I’ve learned that creativity isn’t the ability to pull something out of nothing. Creativity is actually the learned ability of working around a set of previously defined constraints. “There’s no way that can be true,” you must be thinking. “What constraints were J. K. Rowling, or Van Gogh, or Leonardo DaVinci under when they created their masterpieces?”
As it turns out, quite a lot. Let me pose it this way. Creativity is controlled chaos. Perhaps a joke is lined up in such a way that its audience is led to believe Assumption A. But, since a joke is often meant to subvert conventions, the punchline turns out to be Line B. It’s amusing because it seems out of the blue. There’s no way you could have expected it, right? Not necessarily. If it truly came out of nowhere, perhaps the joke would have ended about some irrelevant line about how zebras can’t fly, or why you should never eat flowers that are pink. If it was really out of the blue, it wouldn’t be funny. So Line B is a way that is in line with what had already been said, but changed things in a way you simply didn’t expect, not in a way that was completely unimaginable.

J. K. Rowling was under the constraints all writers fall under: the limits of writing an interesting story. There are only eleven basic plots, and every story you read will fall under one of them. It’s the author’s job to make it sound like you’ve never heard that story before.

Van Gogh had the constraints of the canvas, limited colors, and his own perception of reality. Painting is always constrained by the real world. If random colors were thrown onto a canvas with no rhyme or rhythm, its resemblance to anything tangible would be flimsy at best, and no meaning could be drawn from it. So a painter, most often, must create something that resembles what is real, yet perhaps places it in a new light to evoke new emotions.

Inventors like DaVinci are, perhaps most unerringly under the constraints of reality. He can’t very well design something that doesn’t abide by the laws of physics. What would be the value in it? I can draw myself a spaceship that uses spray cheese as propulsion, but what good does it do? Inventions are creative because they are a combination of things that didn’t exist before, allowing something new to happen. They are a twist, a manipulation of reality, but reality has to be used as a foundation. Controlled chaos.

It’s the same thing with improvisation acting. I don’t teach how to be random and ridiculous. I teach how to operate under various rules. Here are a few examples of some games we play. Numbers: “Every time you speak your sentence must contain six words.” Ninety Second Alphabet: “Perform a scene in which each sentence starts with the next letter in the alphabet, and do it under the time limit.” Chain Murder Mystery: “Convey three different ideas using only pantomime and gibberish, no words, in the time limit.” Improv has restrictions, too. It seems like its purely a creative thing, but that really isn’t the hard part. And it isn’t just actors. Whenever I ask the audience for a suggestion, I always say “Can I get a location/occupation/relationship?” If you ask for any suggestion at all, such an open window leaves people speechless. You have to give parameters to operate under in order to produce results.

So when you’re struggling to be creative, you actually make it harder for yourself when you broaden your scopes and allow for more to happen. Try setting an extra rule, instead. Maybe your main character somehow loses the ability to speak. How is she going to convey that important message now? Maybe you don’t know what to draw. Give yourself the rule of only drawing straight lines. Or maybe only put pen to paper once per minute.

Humans are a creative species. You are just as creative as everyone else on the planet. All you have to do is learn how to give yourself the right obstacles to jump over. Make some chaos and learn how to control it. Creativity isn’t a magic muscle you’re born with. It’s simply something you have to learn. Get to it.