Truth in Comedy

July 17, 2014

The book I relied on as our guide this spring as we all tried to learn about Improv was a book called "Truth in Comedy: The manual of improvisation by Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim "Howard" Johnson. As I lie here, immobile and waiting to see whether the injection the doctor put into my spine will heal me or not, I thought I'd re-read the book. (Woman cannot live by Netflix alone, although I come close.)

 

It's a worthwhile book to read, and I will be assigning chapters to the Improv Team this fall.  Throughout my book I marked questions, underlined key concepts, and occasionally wrote little notes in the margins, as I often do.  One page inparticular stood out, as I went on a screed that wrapped around the whole page, filling all the blank space left by the publisher with my own thoughts.  Here's what the book says, and then what I said.

 

TRUTH IN COMEDY: Another example of "finding the game" within a scene is a one-upmanship game Charna discovered in a scene with Scoot.  The scene established that they had been dieting for days when the pair sat down to their three ounces of lean protein and one cup of vehgetables. Scott took a slice of bread. Charna scolded him, because he'd eaten his daily serving of bread at breakfast. To spite her, Scott took the bread and put a whole stick of butter on it, toped with a second slice of bread.

 

To retaliate, Charna put four teaspoons of sugar in her coffee. Scott picked up the sugar bowl and poured it into his mouth. Charna ran to the refridgerator to get the cake she baked for their party and began shoving fistfuls of it into her muth. Too food war "game" escalated until it could build no more.

 

Hearing and Listening are two different things. When a player is given an initiation, he must let the words resonate inside his head for a moment so that he can decipher the underlying meaning and all potential implications of the offer.

 

WHAT I WROTE IN THE MARGIN:

This kind of listening, responding, and building can only happen when/if you are willing to be 100% available to your partner and to the scene. If you are one of those actors who needs to hide something about yourself; if you are desperately invested in never looking foolish, ugly, weak, or undesireable, you will never, ever, ever, ever, ever succeed on stage.

 

*    *     *     *    *

 

The first impulse for many student actors, (certainly in our company, if this spring's unending fight to explain to me that I was wrong when I said "negation does not help a scene" is any proof) is to find a way around what I wrote, to lawyer out of it. The hope, the belief is that there must (MUST!) be some way to cling to all those insecurities and a desire to control one's image at all times while still "being good" at being an actor.  Well, in my experience (I've been directing theater for around 15 years and have only spent about 5 of those as a professional actor) the best actors are not at all interested in protecting their images on stage. The best one are recklessly invested in trying new stuff, in making choices that expose their characters' vulnerabilities and foilbles--especially the comic actors. The best actors are the most generous with the human condition--unwilling to polish it or retty it up, but to publically present all those little private observations and behaviors that people do when they think no one is watching.

 

There are, of course, actors who need desperately to be in control all the time on stage, who won't make interesting choices because they are afraid to expose themselves as dumb, or ugly, or they worry that they aren't graceful or accomplished enough to do anything physical onstage.  These actors succeed insofar as their physical attractiveness continues to net them roles. (So if you insist on being boring, you have to stay hot.)

 

Now, having watched theater and audiences closely for as many years as I have, and having had a front seat to the rehearsal process much of the time, I can tell you that the actors who are more interested in creating an exciting and moving experience for the audience than they are in indulging the constant question "what will other people think?" are the ones who ultimately throw down the performances that we remember. They also have a hell of a lot more fun, since they aren't locked in the Great Prison of Adolesence, also known as "What Will Other People Think of Me?" (And yes, there are lots of adults who left Adolesence but stayed in its prison.)

 

Listen, we all worry about what the neighbors will think. I certainly do. But I've learned not to let their thoughts affect my choices when it comes to my art. I've been in rehearsals for shows where every single person in the room was a lot more accomplished than I was, when I was scared to be so far out of my league, and where I felt I didn't deserve the role I'd been assigned. I told myself I was allowed to worry about all of that during the social part at the beginning of the day, but once the work started, it was time to work. So I threw everything I had at it. It goes back to Tim's elegant description of why "Lunch" was so awesome: everyone in it was reaching 90-100% of their potential given the script, the director, and their own experiences. Nothing is worse (and honestly, it's really the only thing that makes me furiously angry at you) than watching an actor hold out on his/her scene partners and give up on him/herself because of fears of what "might" happen if s/he unleashed everything s/he was capable of.

 

One more anecdote: I went to a 7-12 grade high school (That's how they did it in the rural parts of the state, rather than building a separate middle school). So as soon as we hit 7th grade, we were elligible to try out for varsity sports and theater productions and anything else. There was no pity and no handicap for us youngies, and middle school aged kids rarely made it to the high school teams. But since I wanted desperately to make the play, I knew I had to throw 100% of what I had at the audition. I can still remember standing there on that stage, one of only two seventh graders (yay Liz Chang!) in a mix with kids old enough to grow beards--BEARDS! I was terrified of them.  But there was also that tiny voice in my head--the voice that is responsible for all of my accomplishments in the arts--that said:

 

"you can blow the roof off the room if you decide to."

 

I never worry whether this voice is "arrogant" or whether I "deserve" to show how much I'm capable of when surrounded by people with more experience or skill. Their experience and skill is something I want, and unless I throw everything I'm capable of, I'm never going to get better. 

 

I did get a role in that stupid play. It was called "Motel Massacre" and was a student-written slasher-pic in theatrical form.  The playwright even re-wrote the ending of the play and would only tell us our cues so no one onstage knew who the murderer was until the performance. (it turned out to be Shannon Alcaro, who played the final girl.) I was the bitchy wife of a pyromanic, and I was so embarrassed to have a stage husband who was in 10th grade! But for me, being on a stage and having a chance to work with an audience was more powerful than my fear of Tom Case (10TH GRADER!!!)

 

So that's how I did it.  Now, you may or may not have that voice in your head, but I'm willing to bet that you do. What would happen if you listened to it? What would happen if you realized that more than anything--more than coolness, more than athleticism, more than intellectualism--teenagers respond to authenticity. If you are 100% of who you are, even if you worry you're weird, people around you will give you a pass because you are authentic. Don't believe me? think of your teachers. The authentic ones get a pass whether or not the kids like them. The ones who are trying to be something they aren't do not get a pass.  Same thing with kids. Be who you are, be all of it, and everyone will recognize that it is authentic.

 

I'm already on record as being a fan of all of your authentic selves. It's time for you to join my fan club and allow yourself to think: just how powerful would you be if you took all the time you spend putting yourself down and limiting yourself, and instead invested that time into giving 100% of yourself to the task at hand?

 

I believe it would be stunning.

 

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