Last week, SCIT welcomed actor, improviser and artist Arthur Simone of Coldtowne Theater in Austin, TX to the stage for a workshop on “character.” Simone took us through different exercises on discovering a character, emoting that character, and informing that character in a scene.
At the beginning of a scene, Simone explained, there is a moment of creation where you feel out a character. Until you determine a character, the audience will forgive you for any “experimenting” you do; but once you establish that character, it’s your responsibility to stay true to it in the context of the scene. Just because your character is a bank robber doesn’t mean he should rob the coffee shop that the scene takes place in. Instead, maybe your character is hyper-vigilant; maybe he asks questions about how many people work there or is nervous about the wad of stolen cash in his pocket. How would a thief act in a meeting with his boss, or while running storytime at the local library? I have the tendency to take characters from 0 to 60 (i.e. crazytown) in moments, but Simone explained that sometimes, the potential for anger (or another emotion) in a scene is so much more interesting to watch.
After warming up, we started off with an exercise where everyone was onstage walking around as ourselves. We observed our walks, what part of our body leads when we walk, how our arms swing, etc. Then we chose a different body part to lead with. We played with dialing up and playing down this character’s walk from a “10,” being the most cartoonish we could be, down to a “1,” where nobody but us would notice the difference between this character and us. For me, playing a character at a “1” was challenging, as I normally don’t play someone that close to myself in a scene. I think I would feel more awkward playing that than I would a character that is the polar opposite of me.
I had the most fun during the next exercise, where we individually went onstage and Simone gave us a letter of the alphabet. We explored the stage and that letter, repeating it over and over again, playing with inflection, volume, sound and quality. Once we got to a point where we weren’t just saying the letter, but feeling where in our bodies that letter was coming from, we improvised a monologue and went into a scene based on that monologue. My letter was “V.” I can’t really explain it, but I ended up in a state of frazzled frustration and delivered a monologue about how I have to cook Thanksgiving dinner every year, and nobody appreciates all of the work and planning I put into that meal. Simone called another person up to the stage and placed our scene in a confessional, with me as the priest. I still felt the emotion I had during the monologue, but I had to keep that in-check. It was so interesting to see how a letter, a sound, could evolve from a noise into a character. SO COOL. Simone suggested if you’re in a scene to just start with a syllable or a sound of a word and take it from there to discover your character, and, ultimately that character’s place in the scene.
What I really learned was that it’s not always about the bold character choices in a scene, but rather, it’s about that character in the context of that scene. The team I’m a part of just started doing Harold form, so I have a lot more time to explore a character now. I’m looking forward to playing with what I’ve learned in practice and onstage in the upcoming weeks.
Arthur Simone is an artist, actor and co-founder of ColdTowne Theater in Austin, TX. A graduate of Oberlin College, he has studied improv at Chicago’s Improv Olympic and has appeared on-screen in Days of Delusion, Jigsaw, The Evil One, A&E’s Faith of My Fathers, Big Momma’s House 2, and has been featured on the series Friday Night Lights. He was recently named Best Actor by the Austin Chronicle for his performance in his one-man show, Dear Frailty.
Next Thursday, Steel City Improv Theater welcomes Arthur Simone to the stage for a workshop on character. Get to know him a little better, as he takes five of our questions:
Tell us about your first improv experience. What inspired you to start?
I had seen improv before, but had written it off as goofball “low art,”
devoting myself instead to pursuing a super expensive degree in
theatre. I put it to use stage and film acting in Chicago before
taking a suggestion from my agent and trying classes at Improv
Olympic, where I discovered “everyday” performers making amazing
truthful in-the-moment choices that trumped anything I had ever seen.
I still value my college degree and it gives me great insight into
emotion and characters, but boy, do I wish I had gotten into improv
You wear many hats, creatively—acting, improv, art and even air guitar—is there anything you haven’t done that you would like to do?
I never want to choose the One Thing I’m good at, so I guess that
means I’ll be flitting about in perpetual anxiety about where my next
paycheck is coming from for some time yet… I generally work in one
discipline until I feel I’m beating my head against the wall, then
drop it entirely to delve into something else that recharges my
batteries. In the immediate future, I’d like to try my hand at working
behind the camera instead of in front of it.
Who/where do you think are some current improv innovators (people, troupes, companies, cities)?
Austin is a great melting pot of styles and allows for lots of stage
time and cross-pollination. I’m not a huge fan of the
industry-obsessed landscape of Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, but
you will find some pretty amazing and elite talent to watch if you’re
looking for inspiration. TJ & Dave, 3303, Dasariski and Death by Roo
Roo have all at one point blown my mind all over the floor.
What are some of your favorite improv resources?
While I don’t really read many books on improv, I do love books on
theatre’s place in culture, like Antonin Artaud, Peter Brook and Jerzy
Grotowski. Humans are fundamentally social animals, so there’s a great
deal of insight to be found in nature documentaries as well, I watch
Your workshop focuses on character. What do you hope the main takeaway will be?
A character is more than just a silly accent or even a deeper
motivation, it’s a unique skin into which the actor can step to see
and experience a world. Realistic and absurd characters alike can be
deep wells of material, and there’s no feeling quite like bringing one
Author’s Note: We’re hoping to make this a regular column, so you can get to know our instructors, frequent players and guests a little better. If there’s someone you think we should “take five” with, let us know! -Kat
I was equal parts nervous and excited about the class show. I perform in a musical context much more often than in a theatrical one; and often, I wake up the morning of the gig totally freaking out and wondering why I ever thought I could play in front of an audience. Unexpectedly, when I woke up the morning of our class show, I felt relatively calm. I went to work, managed to not drink a single beer at my office Christmas party (I wanted my brain to be at its top processing capacity), and was feeling good, even when I walked into the theater. We did our warm-ups, which included a rousing and spirited game of Samurai (a game where we pretend to cut each other down with swords, involving a lot of yelling and throwing of imaginary weapons). With my family in the lobby area, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through their heads as they heard the sounds of violent death echoing through the theater.
Our class was split into two teams (my team was “Taco Bar, Attack!”) and Karen taught each team a new warm-up game. We stood in a circle with our arms around each other, closed our eyes, and tried to count to twenty, one person at time. If we talked over each other, we had to begin again, and we couldn’t say numbers in the order in which we were standing; we had to jump around the circle. As we were playing that game, I realized how much improv is not about me. All of my anxiety up until that point had centered on myself–how I would feel onstage, and what ideas I would come up with. But I realized in the circle that whether I did a good job or a not so good one, my individual performance didn’t matter that much at all. What’s important are the relationships you form on stage and how your character interacts with your partner’s character.
I felt good right up until we were called onstage. When we walked out, I saw a lot of more seasoned improvisers, a few of whom I knew already, and that’s when I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. At that moment, it didn’t feel supportive to have the whole community there—it felt terrifying. However, as we began the warm-up scenes, I started to feel good and to stop worrying. I even began to feel peaceful onstage, and I felt my team members relax too. The audience was great—they were supportive in their suggestions, they laughed a lot and applauded us after every scene. Every time the audience laughed at something I said, I could hardly believe it was happening. “Me? Seriously? They’re laughing at me?” I’ve never been the class clown or the funny friend, so it was extremely satisfying to be able to make people laugh.
My favorite moment from the performance was a scene I did with Russ. It was a warm-up scene and the prompt was “old married couple.” We walked onto the stage and made eye contact. Russ changed his face to look unhappy and disapproving, and in reaction I started to hunch over and make an old, cranky face back. My facial expression and posture made Russ change his posture to match mine. As we began talking, it truly felt like we were reacting to each other, and discovering ourselves and each other’s characters. I thought to myself, “This is improv. This is how it’s supposed to be.” It felt so organic, and the scene was entirely about our team work.
After the show, a few of us went out for the promised margarita. I’m sad to see this class end, but I’m already looking forward to Level Two in March!
Throughout the last eight weeks, there has been a series of highs and lows. There were moments where I felt a click and thought, “Aha! I get it!” Then, the next week, I found it difficult to think of anything interesting and thought that I hadn’t made much progress at all. After last week’s click during the monologue deconstructions, this week’s class felt easier the whole time. As always, there were better and worse scenes, but on the whole, I felt more comfortable and that my ideas were better than they have been in the past.
There’s so much that goes into making a great scene; sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on what happened, but you know that it was something brilliant. In some scenes, it’s as simple as “poop.” To me, a poop joke is the quickest way to my comedic heart. However, this week I think we overused poop just a turd—oh, excuse me—a tad. And here, I continue to do it! In other scenes, for most of the dialogue, the situation seems relatively normal; then the last line turns everything on its head, leading to hilarity. These twists and turns often elicit raucous laughter. In some scenes, the story line that’s happening is so absurd that you can’t help but laugh. In these kinds of scenes, even if the players are doing something completely normal, their acting normal in the context of absurdity is funny.
I’m nervous about the class show, but also excited. It’s a strange experience to try to prepare yourself mentally for a performance that you can’t prepare for in any other way. I guess one solution is to watch a lot of improv or to practice with your team. But in terms of personal preparation, as in accepting the fact that in a week’s time you will walk onto a stage with absolutely no idea of what you’re going to do once you get there, it’s a trickier task. I have no idea how I will react under the new condition of having an audience present. Will our team dynamic change? What if I’m on stage and absolutely nothing comes into my head? From what I’ve learned throughout this class, improv isn’t ultimately about any one person’s performance, at least when you’re part of a team. It’s about communicating and supporting each other. However, that’s an easy thing to forget when you’re faced with the performance anxiety of improvising in front of an audience.
Whether the show goes well or not so well, at least there’s a team margarita with my name on it afterwards.
Similar to last week’s class, I was frustrated with myself for not thinking of funnier punch lines or interesting ideas throughout the majority of class. I didn’t have any new ideas at all. It seems crazy to say that because I have twenty-two years of life experience to draw from, and yet, when I walked onstage, all I could think about were scenes that people had already done.
Everything changed when we began to do monologue deconstructions, which will be the format of our class show. In a monologue deconstruction, the audience provides a word to inspire the improvisers. Someone tells a real-life story based on the word that might be funny, but doesn’t have to be. Then, three scenes are performed in response to the monologue. After the three scenes, another monologue is performed, and the whole process repeats three times.
I find it a lot easier to do scenes in the context of a monologue deconstruction than in warm-ups. I’m not sure why, but I feel more comfortable and energetic when the scenes are in response to a monologue, rather then when every scene starts new. During that part of class, trust began to develop between me and the other members of my team, which led to an improvement in our collective performance. When one person walks onstage to do a scene, someone else walks out to support the first person. That means that when you walk out with an idea, you have to trust that someone will meet you, support you, and provide their own ideas. That trust seems to create better and more interesting scenes, and it made me feel more comfortable with my teammates. The difference between how I felt at the beginning of class and how I felt during the monologue deconstruction was surprising, and it seemed that time and my brain slowed down, leaving me ample time to think of something interesting to say. There was another “aha!” moment where I felt comfortable and started to enjoy myself onstage without worrying about future scenes and how they would go.
It’s hard to believe that next week is our last class, and that in two weeks we’ll perform our new skills for an audience. With the comfort and trust that’s developing in our teams, I’m not as nervous as I was the first day of class, when the class show seemed like a terrifying and insurmountable challenge. I’m even getting a little bit excited.
Reflections from an Improv Newbie, Week 6
Class felt a bit lower-energy than usual this week. From my perspective, there were a few people in the class who did a really great job, but the rest of us simply weren’t as energetic as we usually are when we get onstage. Maybe I’m just projecting my own experience onto other people, but I would imagine that my lower energy affected at least the people with whom I did scenes.
I felt a bit frustrated with myself because I found it harder to commit to scenes than I usually do, and as a result, I didn’t have as much fun as I typically have in class. For the first time, I experienced moments onstage when I thought to myself, “I don’t care about where this scene goes, I just want it to be over.” I’m not sure where this feeling came from, because my classmates were trying just as hard as they usually do, but I for some reason was not as enthusiastic as usual. Maybe some of it was that I still am inconsistent in that some days I have a lot of good ideas, but other days I struggle to think of anything interesting to say. I suspect that some of my problems in class originated in frustration that I’m not progressing as quickly as I would like to. Karen, our TA, told us at dinner later to give ourselves a break because in taking this class, we are rewiring the way our brains work, and it takes time to do that.
On Monday night I went to Totally Free Mondays and saw a few of the house teams perform. I was struck by how natural their performances were. I kept forgetting that no one onstage had any idea what would happen later in the scene, how it would resolve, or that the characters I was seeing had just been created, some purely as a response to an idea that their partner offered. In performances by some of the house teams that have just been formed, there wasn’t the same ease of interaction, probably because the improvisers haven’t worked with each other for very long yet. The more experienced the group, the more natural the scenes looked. When talking to people like Karen or other experienced improvisers, they say that when they go onstage, they’re not nervous because they’re just being themselves and performing life. It seems to me that you have to get past the point of rewiring your brain and worrying about being onstage and reach the point of comfort that you live your life with, and that’s when great improvisation happens. When you’re performing life, scenes become more natural.
A quick Thanksgiving anecdote: Over Thanksgiving, we had thirteen friends and family members at my house for dinner, some of whom I see every year, and others who were relatively new faces. I have to say, people laughed at my jokes and stories a lot more than they used to. Maybe this was simply the result of the fact that thanks to some unexpected change in my humor, people now find me funnier than they used to. More probably, it was the result of being around hilarious people and interacting with them in improv classes for three hours every week.
– Jillian McCarthy
James Rushin, keyboard accompanist extraordinaire for The Lupones and member of Oxford Coma at Steel City Improv Theater, is on tour this week with musical improv group Baby Wants Candy. During their weeklong tour, the group is visiting the Seychelles Islands off the east coast of Africa. This is Rushin’s first tour outside of the U.S., and he’s pretty excited about it. He met the members of Baby Wants Candy after they shared time slots with The Lupones at various improv festivals over the last three years, and through that connection, he landed his first international gig:
“These are the kind of gigs you just can’t turn down. I have three years of training at SCIT to thank for that. [Baby Wants Candy] hired me on the basis that I’m not just a Musical Director but also understand the workings of improv acting and have a good deal of experience with musicals in their scripted form.”
Tell James congratulations when you see him perform this Saturday with The Lupones, assuming he’s willing to return to Pittsburgh’s chilly temperatures after a week in the sun. “I’m very excited to see Dubai and step into NYC again along the way, but I’m also packing my swim trunks for the trip!”
Reflections from an Improv Newbie, Week 5
During last week’s class, everyone did a great job and had a lot of fun. Throughout this week’s class, Justin helped us to reel in that fun by providing constructive criticism, which was at times a bit hard to hear. Our class is at the point where we can all get on stage and think of something to say, and now we need to take our scenes up to the next level. We are more comfortable with each other than we were at the beginning, and it makes the scenes more fun. It also makes critiques and comments easier to hear. At the beginning of Level 1, hearing criticism might have destroyed my confidence, but at this point I welcome it because I want to improve.
In one scene about tattoos, I had an idea for where I wanted it to go, but my partner made a funny comment that changed the direction of the scene and was better than what I was thinking of. However, I was so concerned with filling space by talking that I missed what she said. Justin paused the scene and asked if I knew what she said, and when she repeated it and we continued the scene, it was much funnier when I committed to her idea. It is still extremely challenging to slow down and listen at times, but hopefully after that critique I will remember to take it slow in future weeks.
I started a new job last week, and as I was walking into the office I found myself panicking about how things would go when I walked in. Would I talk to my boss first? Would someone tell me what to do or would I be expected to know what to do on my own? Would I meet all of my coworkers before doing anything else? Then my thoughts wandered to improv and I contemplated my situation before I walk onto the stage for a scene. I never know where I will be, who I will be, or who I will be with, and I have to figure out all of these things on the spot with my partner. While I have a momentary experience of panic before walking onstage, I get over it pretty quickly. Walking through the halls before entering the office, I was comforted by the fact that I do something much more challenging than walking into a new office every week, and if I can do improv, I can most certainly negotiate an everyday situation in real life.
– Jillian McCarthy
Reflections from an Improv Newbie, Week 4
I felt a lot more comfortable in class this week than I have in previous weeks. However, before coming to class, I had a strange feeling of dread. Often when I do something that seems challenging or difficult that I end up enjoying, right after the activity I think to myself, “That wasn’t so bad, I could do that a lot more often!” But when the time comes to do that challenging activity again, it seems like an insurmountable task and I wonder how I got through it the first time. I felt like that going to improv class this week. I didn’t want to leave my house when I got ready to go, and I worried that I would merely be surviving class rather than enjoying it. However, that was not the case. As soon as warm ups began, I remembered how much I enjoy class and started to have fun.
This week something clicked in my thinking, and my brain was able to slow down, which enabled me to do better scenes. I felt more comfortable onstage and better able to communicate to my partner and to the audience what was going on in my head.
After class, my classmates and I went out to get a drink. I had a great time with everyone, and a number of people stayed to see the Lupones show at 8:00. While watching the Lupones perform, I kept putting myself in their shoes and imagining how I would feel if I were in their place onstage. When a new scene began, I could picture myself feeling anxious and wondering where the scene would go, and whether or not I would think of something interesting to say, or if I would think of anything at all. These reflections made me reconsider how I think about my life in general. Often, when I’m planning my day or even my week, there are certain things that I expect will be unpleasant, and I look at them as burdens that I must get through. There are other things that I expect to be a lot of fun, and if they’re not as fun as I expect them to be, I feel let down. Improv is a challenge to this kind of thinking because it requires that you think and act in the moment at all times, so there’s no time to put a value judgment on anything that you do. You only have time to react and create something new, and that seems like a pretty good way to live. Rather than constantly judging everything I have to do as good or bad and then worrying accordingly, I might as well react to things as they happen. Improv is just a shorter and sometimes crazier version of everyday life.
– Jillian McCarthy
The third week of improv classes began much like the second, with stretching and warm-up games. After, Justin told us we’d do some quick warm-up scenes to get our creative juices flowing. We would act out three or four line scenes in pairs.
Know that feeling of panic when someone tells you to do something difficult or intimidating? Well, I had that feeling. I knew when I decided to take the class that there would be moments like these. I told myself that rather than clench up and waste my energy worrying about them, I would instead let myself feel the momentary panic and then move on. I did that, and I think my two scenes went pretty well. I don’t think I did anything brilliant, but I was able to think of a response to what my partner said, and just being able to do that felt like an achievement for the week.
Later we played a game where two people were given a situation and had to improvise a scene by replacing language with numbers. The purpose was to feel the emotion of the scene and read your partner’s body language without using words. I’ve found that I do pretty well with deciding to be a character and beginning the scene, but I’m very slow at times at reacting to what my partner does. It’s difficult to respond quickly. Again, the lesson always seems to be to slow down and give yourself time to respond. It’s a simple idea, but sometimes very difficult in practice.
I have some serious doubts about my ability to be funny. In the SCIT shows I’ve seen, people are featured who think and react to plot twists on the spot. The actors excel at creating a situation that seems normal and then twisting it at the last second to create something very far from normal. I wonder if there are people who never get to that level of mental agility, and sometimes I fear that if they exist, I might be one. It’s hard to imagine being so in the moment and thinking so freely that I could emulate the people I’ve seen onstage.
Only time will tell.
– Jillian McCarthy
My First Class (aka Week 2)
While attending a party a few months ago populated by SCIT students, a few people suggested that I take an improv class. Everyone raved about them, and I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about. A week later, I went to the Lupones’ Saturday night show and laughed through the hour-long performance. The group improvised an entire musical about a grocery store complete with themes, recurring jokes and interesting harmonies. I thought to myself that surely they had some idea of what they would do, which characters they would be or at least had decided who would do scenes together onstage. To my astonishment, the musical was entirely improvised. I decided that night to take SCIT’s Level One course, Foundations of Improv.
I missed the first week of class for a family wedding and was a little nervous coming in the second week. What if everyone had already made friends with each other? What if everyone there already had theater experience? I acted a bit in high school but never in college, and while I love public speaking, improv is something much less planned and to me, much more intimidating than performances I’ve done before.
The class began with stretching and telling a bit about ourselves, and then we moved on to some warm-up games, which served as both ice breakers and lessons in improv. Right from the beginning, Justin, our teacher, told us how important eye contact is because it enables you to be on the same page with your partner when you’re trying to figure out a scene together. I started thinking that even if I never took another session of improv classes after this one, the basic lessons of improv are good life lessons for communicating more effectively with other people.
For me, the most challenging part of the class was an activity called “The Attic,” where one person walks into an attic and finds an object that they interact with in some way so that the audience knows what that object is. The second person finds the first person’s object, then finds a new object, and finally leaves the attic. The process continues so that the last person interacts with all the objects found by other people and then finds her or his own. I’m not in the habit of interacting with invisible objects on a daily basis, and it was much harder to do than I had realized before walking onstage. I went second, and the first person had found some kind of a map or scroll that they unrolled and looked at. It was difficult onstage in front of my peers to think about how I would open a scroll. Should I lay it down on the imaginary table? Should I hold it up in the air and let it unroll itself? I found that I rushed a lot onstage, and the people who did the activity best were those who were able to slow down their actions substantially.
I decided that the next time we did an activity like that, I would be better prepared. The Monday after class I found myself wandering around my house finding invisible dresses and trying them on, brushing my teeth with invisible tooth brushes and generally partaking in activities that would make an outsider question my sanity.
We’ll have to see if my efforts pay off in future weeks.
– Jillian McCarthy
Below are the top 3 reasons to take improv classes at the Steel City Improv Theater. These also the reasons we teach improv. YES. Improv makes you a better actor, comedian, and performer. AND it also makes you a better parent, teacher, boss, employee and person. Improv helps all aspects of your life. And it’s a great way to make new friends.
#3. LEARN TO SAY, “YES.” The most important principle of improv is the idea of “Yes. And …” So often in our lives (work, home, and even recreation), our instinct is to say, “NO,” or look for the negative aspects of things. This is learn as we grow up. Improv works to reverse this process and teaches us to accept our partners ideas and add to them.
#2. PRACTICE BEING PRESENT. Being truly present has become more and more difficult with so many distractions we encounter every day. Whether we’re distracted by technology, something that happened in the past or something that may happen in the future, improv makes you focus your attention on the present moment. You have to listen (with a Capital L) to each word that’s spoken and watch every movement in order to effectively participate.
#1. LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE. You’ll be laughing about every 5 minutes for two hours a week. That’s about 200 CCs of pure joy. Rough days melt away the minute we start to warm up. And you can up your dosage by seeing great comedy for free. Students get a SCIT ID card that allows them to get a stand-by ticket to all shows at the Steel City Improv Theater subject to availability.
We are super excited to announce our NEW Steel City Improv Theater House Teams. This weekend we had a blast witnessing new talent take our stage and impress the heck out of us. And we’re happy to report our roster is now Three Long Form Improv teams strong. Congratulations to all our new house team members!
Come see these groups fill our theater with laughter starting, Mon, Nov 11 @ 8pm!
Ciarán Ó Conaire
Donald J. Kingsbury
As Levar Burton used to say on Reading Rainbow, “Don’t Take My Word For It!” So goes with choosing an improv or any other acting class.
Recently we asked our students on Twitter: “SCITizens! Tell us your favorite thing about taking improv classes @steelcityimprov theater.”
Below are a few of their responses:
Karen Forney (@kayforn)
“My confidence has absolutely soared and I’ve found my own voice. It’s a place where I feel pure joy.” 7/25/13, 10:56 AM
Jordan Zankey (@jzankey)
“It’s the most positive and encouraging environment I’ve ever been in. It changed my life.” 7/24/13, 11:17 PM
Lorin Kozlowski (@Cassidy2099)
“Taking classes at the SCIT led to me discovering a whole new aspect and passion in my life that I never knew was there.” 7/25/13, 5:01 PM