Improv is a bit of a boys club, so we’re getting all the improv ladies together to throw down some awesome sets. No coy sweet things here, these ladies are bad asses that will bring the noise and maybe even the funk. Give it up for Lady Business!!
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.