Big Forker Jim is currently in Chicago for five weeks, where he is undertaking some intensive training at iO, the theatre that is widely considered to have invented the Chicago style of improv. The intensive program at iO brings together over 150 improvisers from around world to spend five weeks immersed in the improv and comedy world. This blog is the fourth in a series where he talks about his experiences in Chicago.
Week four begins with a class at the Annoyance Theatre which was set up by someone in the summer intensive cohort to give us an idea of the style at that theatre. The Annoyance is helmed by Mick Napier, who has written several great books on improvisation, including Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out. The Annoyance approach to improv is to say that improvisers should take care of themselves, and not their scene partner, first on stage at all times. The rationale being that if you are confident in what you are doing, the offers you're making to your scene partner by proxy will be stronger. Most of the exercises we do can be summarised into "Make a choice at the top of the scene and play that choice", which sounds obvious but sometimes can be forgotten when your main focus is on reacting organically at the top of scenes. While I'm unlikely to become an Annoyance acolyte, it's a useful look into some of the other approaches in this broad church of improv.
Week 4 Classes
Week 4 begins with me falling victim to a wicked flu. Seriously, it knocked me out for nearly a week. It's outrageous. As such, I have to miss a day and a half of class, and a bunch of shows I'd been really excited for. With my unexpected couch time I binge Jessica Jones and Master of None on Netflix, both of which I would highly recommend.
Week 4 is Harold Week and our teacher is Bill Arnett, who performs at iO but also is the man behind the Chicago Improv Studio, one of a few smaller indie improv theatres that have popped up around Chicago as an alternative to the big players (This article is a good primer on this trend). The week's work stresses the importance of first beats, deconstructs the Harold and starts to get us thinking about how we might be able to diverge from the training wheels Harolds we've been doing to this point.
I was especially interested to look at how the audience suggestion for a given Harold might inform the structure and content of the show more dramatically. For example, and to use a fairly obvious example, an audience offer of deja vu may lead to a show where scenes are replayed with different actors, or runs of dialogue from the very first scene are incorporated into subsequent scenes in different contexts. Similarly, an audience suggestion of 'democracy' may prompt a group game which encourages the audience to vote for who they want to see in subsequent scenes, or which of two competing paths for the show they would prefer (which might then lead to a demanded recount or a coup later on in the show).
One particular pearl of wisdom that I took from week 4 is on the use of the terminology 'opening' for the group game that begins the show after the audience suggestion. It was suggested that the term 'opening' should be thought of less to mean the 'opening' of the show and more to refer to the 'opening' up of the suggestion to all of the inspiration that lies within.
We also looked at the importance of theme in the Harold. There's so much going on in the improviser's head during the Harold - looking for support moves that are required, thinking about initiations, being present, remembering different characters, looking for edits etc etc - that adding on this overriding thing of trying to distill a theme from the first beat and how to articulate that through game to the rest of your ensemble really puts it over the top, difficulty-wise. I know in time it will all be second nature, but for now it's quite overwhelming.
Top 3 Things I've Done This Week
No top 3 this week, as I've only seen a handful of shows given my flu-ridden state.
Shows I've Seen
Dummy: Jason Shotts and Colleen Doyle are Chicago vets (and persons married to each other) who moved to LA and now run iO West out there. Their two person improv show is called Dummy, and is hilarious.
TJ and Dave
Batsu: Short form improv combined with a punishment-based Japanese game show. Can't think of a line for a da-do-ron-ron? Paintball to the stomach.
The Second City's e.t.c. Revue: A Red Line Runs Through It
Hung out on a rooftop, as is the style in Chicago.