Thursday, April 22, 2010

Improv, Brevity, and Brecht

I recently took an improv class at Second City. It was great getting to do some comedy again and I haven't performed in a long time so it was a really fun class. A lot of people told me it would be great for my writing and for a while I didn't know what they meant. I learned an important lesson eventually, but Brecht got there first.

In The Good Soul of Szechuan (opening Sunday at Strawdog) there's a great scene where two characters decide to sell a tobacco shop. At that exact moment another character enters who wants to buy it. It's funny when you read it because it's so precise, but it's theatrically necessary since it moves the story along. On TV, there would be a cut-scene, then an establishing shot, then a conversation about selling it. Brecht cuts to the quick.

This is true in improv too. My teacher Rob made us do an exercise where in three lines we got all of the exposition of the scene done. Who we were, where we were, and what our relationship was. This makes for a lot of hilariously to the point opening exchanges, "This is the worst carnival ever, Mom", "You're a hell of a best man, Carl", etc. Less information tends to feel more natural-

A: Hi.
B: Hi.
A: How are you?
B: Fine.
A: Did you sleep well?
B: Ok.

-But way better is:

A: You look tired, honey.

This says volumes more about their relationship in less time and moves the scene forward. Peter Brook writes about the danger of the "any-old-how", meaning that onstage we're looking for something more than life. I'm biased, but I'm inclined to agree. We don't have a lot of time, and we know how people talk. You're free to get to the point. You want to tell a story. You are not bound by anything. Why would you be required to do anything other than what you need to do? One of the most deadly things onstage is describing the immediate future and then delaying it. If a character says, "Let's get some ice cream" you can have stage crew hand them ice cream. You can have them mime it. You don't need to blackout, strike the set, set up the ice cream shop, and then have the characters waiting in line, selecting a flavor, paying, waiting, getting it. We know.

In a world of waiting, brevity is magical.

1 comment:

JonnyMatt said...

In regards to the "any-old-how" I think you're right. Improv scenes should be real and truthful, but these are the most interesting points in these characters lives... You wouldn't write a play about two characters talking to each other about the weather and how much they like pumas.