As a Young Boy, I Dreamed of Being a Baseball.

by Chris Petersen

A student asked me recently: “What is meant by having grounded scenes?” I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever said in a class “make this scene more grounded.” What I have said - over and over - is to make a relationship between the characters who are present, and this creates grounding. This gives us a point of human connection that engages us with the human beings onstage, making us more likely to care about, pay attention to, and enjoy whatever activities they do. I do not care about two people on a stage pretending to be lizard robots in 14th-century France. I do care if they are played as two human beings with the range of emotions and motivations that I know human beings to have. 

For a more concrete example, I’m not going to refer to an improv scene. I’m going to refer to The Simpsons:

This video tracing one man’s view of the trajectory of The Simpsons (that trajectory is downward, by the way) touches on this idea nicely. As far-out and ridiculous as the scenarios on the show got, there was a solid framework of human relationships. Homer had very clear motivations for his behavior: he’s a glutton, but a glutton who loves his family. This backbone helped make any flight of fancy (monorail, talking coyote, Japanese dish-soap, what have you) compelling, engaging, and, yes, funny. Moving away from that backbone has made any weird occurrences just, well, weird.

Grounding is being able to see the ground no matter how far you’re flying from it. How else would you know how high up you are?

Posted on July 10, 2019 .

All Right Class...

by Chris Petersen

At some point in your intro improv classes, you’ll have an instructor tell you to ‘avoid teaching scenes’. It’s an odd piece of advice out of context. Does this mean you should never have an improv scene take place in a classroom? Should you never have one character imparting wisdom to another? 

The quintessential terrible teaching scene that you’ll often see beginning improvisers do has one performer telling the other how to do something: make a pizza, do yoga, build a killer robot, whatever. And that’s it: one person (of unknown identity) gives another (also unknown) instructions which they then follow. And there’s the problem: we end up watching two unknown people with no personal connection to one another. You’re essentially watching a recipe for bread reenacted onstage. 

So what’s the easy fix to turn this into a compelling scene? Like most (read: all) improv scenes, we need to have some sort of relationship between the two people up there. And remember that ‘relationship’ in this instance is more than just a definition of their roles (ie: “Teacher and student”); we need a bond between these individuals beyond occupational obligations. Maybe this student has been studying under this great bread master for years and is ready to break out on their own. Maybe the teacher is a parent, trying to pass on the family recipe whether their kid wants it or not. Fundamentally it comes down to: what do these people want from one another? Why are they here with each other? Why would I watch these two when I could watch anything else in the world?

If you find yourself in the midst of an impersonal teaching scene, make a relationship. Call someone else in the scene by name and give them a life beyond just teaching. Otherwise I will throw something at you from the audience.

Posted on July 2, 2019 .

Do You Have Any Notes for Me?

by Chris Petersen

“Do you have any notes for me?”. It’s perfectly understandable that improv students ask this all the time. The performing arts are difficult for self-assessment. As reasonable a request as it is, it can be an effort for a coach or teacher to fulfill it.

So perhaps a performer could do a little homework before reaching out for feedback and ask some questions of themselves:

  • What’s the problem you’re trying to address? Is it a few bad sets in a row? Not getting cast in a troupe when you thought you should be? Is it a general sense of improv malaise? There are always things to work on with improv, but you need to address specific issues to make any progress.

  • Have you gotten notes before related to this problem? If so, you’ve already gotten feedback on this. Ask yourself honestly (and I do mean honestly)  if you’re just asking around to prove yourself right, or if you just didn’t understand the feedback you got.

  • If you didn’t understand the notes you received before, get to the heart of that. Is it confusion about a concept (like ‘game’, for example)? Is it confusion about when this problem comes up for you?

  • What do YOU think you need to do? The ability to effectively self-assess is crucial for growth as an artist (and yes, improvisors are artists). This is what people do once they’ve taken all available classes and workshops. Of course it’s legitimate to pull in a coach or director for help, but the first analysis should come from you.

  • What show/class/audition do you want to get feedback on? It’s never very helpful to ask for ‘general’ feedback on your work as a whole. The person you’re asking probably hasn’t seen it all, and certainly hasn’t been watching it with an eye towards critiquing. Yes, it’s true: sometimes that person you’re asking for feedback wants to watch improv without being a teacher or coach.

This is not meant to dissuade anyone asking for notes. Do! Growth and development comes from observation, analysis, and then taking action. But useful observation and analysis (and a clear plan of action) comes from planning and answering questions like the ones listed above. And once you have that feedback, take action. And buy your observer a drink.

Posted on May 8, 2019 .