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The show has begun.

I love improvising for many reasons. Without a doubt, my life is better because of my improvisational experiences — I am a better friend, wife and mother because of them. I’ve learned so much about being flexible, open-minded, saying “yes!” to opportunities, taking risks and on and on. AND it is my extreme sport.  I am probably never going to jump out of a plane or go spelunking or diving under wild conditions.  Yet I’ve found the place where I can get an amazing adrenaline rush — stepping out onto the improv stage to create something from nothing.

The adrenaline balanced with the frame of the improv show creates this lovely state of mind and body.  I am alert, aware, having ideas and inspirations and acting on them or holding back depending on what the show needs.  While onstage, my brain and body are fully engaged in the storytelling moment, actively accepting and making offers with my fellow improvisors while juggling all my inner reactions and ideas.

Backstage (or in the wings, depending on our stage set up) a different version of this occurs.  We are an improvisation company that strives for no backstage discussion. We want the creating to happen in front of the audience and engaged with them. ( We do always have a whiteboard backstage to keep track of  audience suggestions, character names and important details as they arise. So sometimes when I’m backstage, I’m looking at the board to remind myself of those details.)  While watching the onstage action, I may have 10 ideas or 100 or more AND as the scene continues my ideas must constantly change to incorporate what has happened.  We never “know” when we are needed onstage so we have to be constantly available.  I love it when a fellow performer points at me and walks onstage to start a scene.  I don’t anything about their idea and off I go, trusting in the moment.  At most someone might point and then whisper one word like “office” or “volcano” but then the rest takes place in public.

Backstage during a scene, I find myself watching and on my toes. Ready to go on if I’m needed and ready to stay off if I’m not.  It can be quite a beautiful experience of flow…especially in a show that is going well.  When I’m not needed onstage, I also get the thrill of enjoyment from watching the skill and talents of the other actors.

In our dress rehearsal for Secret Identity Crisis, there was a stunning experience of group mind backstage. The premise of this show is the life behind the mask in the world of superheroes.  We had just reached the climactic scene and the main character was in the spotlight. Suddenly her mentor appeared on the stage and without a pause the rest of us disappeared backstage.  Without a word to each other, we watched the scene between the two of them unfold in the main character’s inner world and then without a pause, all four other actors jumped back on stage and we were back in real time for the final battle moment.  That to me was one of the powerful experiences I’ve had of group mind backstage.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Behind the Scenes week.  If you’re interested in reading more about performing and other things from the improvisor’s perspectives, here are some recent blog posts by wonderful improvisors I know:

“The Circus Bow and other Lessons from the Big Top, Part 1 – Celebrating Failure” by Kat Koppett on the Improvisational Storyteller

“What the Audience Knows” by Rebecca Stockley on the Improv Lady

“Space Object Work in 2 Simple Rules” by Rich Cox on Improv Notebook

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I’m an improvisor, not a fighter.

I have never really thrown a punch to defend myself or shot someone or drawn a sword to do battle.

Yet sometimes, an improvisor needs to be fighter, and throw a punch or do a roundhouse kick or wield a sword or a staff or a gun.

Stage fighting is an area of improvisation that has been quite challenging for me.  Not only am I having to get over my pacifist impulses and do what my character needs to do, I also have to get over my self-consciousness and imagine myself into situations that are challenging for me. Some imaginative challenges are easier than other…I’ll make up songs on stage until the cows come home, or do Shakespeare-style improvisations or any other hundred things that are primarily mental.  When it comes to creating physical realities that are far from my own, I have to work harder.

I flinch — even if I’m the one throwing the punch or wielding the sword. And really, nothing breaks the illusion quite like flinching. It is telling the audience “I’m uncomfortable and so I’m letting you know this isn’t real.” One of the improvisor’s greatest skills can be commitment and if I can be in stage fight with full commitment, the audience will join me and color in the details to make it rich and wonderful.

I find it is one thing to think that (and I do!) and quite another thing to get over my flinching self-consciousness. To do that, I need opportunities to practice fighting and to learn how to use my body to fight in different situations.

Over the years as a performer, I’ve had some great opportunities to learn but I have to admit it is an area of practice that I don’t keep up on so I remain uncomfortable.

Enter the slo-mo fight scenes of Secret Identity Crisis.

Recently, Bryce (producer and cast member) ran us through a series of warm-ups that got the whole cast moving in pairs, following body motions through and playing with making contact and avoiding contact ALL in slow motion.  It was fun and I made many discoveries about what I could and couldn’t do with my body in slow motion. It was so much easier to follow the flow of the motion instead of thinking “where should I be falling if I get hit on this side?”  It also helped to have that connection with my fighting partners;  with that level of connection I felt safe and that I was not going to end up in a situation I wasn’t ready for (in one show, Bryce picked Michael up in a fight and it was phenomenal and not something I’m ready for!)

Then he had the inspiration for fighting four against one.  Here’s the video clip of the first time we used it in a show (I’m in the black and dark purple):

Bryce found a way to teach fighting that embraced the cast’s very varied skill set and comfort levels and it has made it much more fun to do. (I might even look forward to doing it again in another show.)

Last chance to see Secret Identity Crisis is this weekend…more information and tickets available at www.un-scripted.com.

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Welcome to Behind the Scenes week!

In honor of closing weekend of Secret Identity Crisis, I’m writing a series of posts about what improvisors are up to behind the scenes — in rehearsal, preshow and backstage.

First up — rehearsals.

“If you’re making it up on the spot, what do you do in rehearsals?” (or some version of that question) is one of the most often asked questions.

The answer: it depends on the show.

The Un-Scripted Theater Company follows a rather standard theater schedule of 6-8 weeks of rehearsal, then we open and have a run of shows for 4-8 weeks with rehearsals continuing through the run.  There is a director (or co-directors) for each show who come up with the vision and design rehearsals to train the cast in the skills needed to make a successful show.

Secret Identity Crisis takes place in a world of superheroes, specifically inspired by the world of comic book superheroes.  One aspect of rehearsals (and research outside of rehearsals) is getting the whole cast on the same page of what that can mean.  I have to admit to probably never having read a comic book as an adult and it was really fun to be introduced to the range of what is out there. (Did you know Joss Whedon also writes comic books?)

In rehearsal, we worked with exploring the archetypes of the genre (the hero, the nemesis, the sidekick, the love interest and the mentor). By exploring them in rehearsal, we get through the easy references and common storylines so by the time we open we are ready to explore a wider variety of story arcs.

We worked a lot on endowments; always critical for an improvisor, an endowment is something an improvisor says or does that provides color and specificity. It can be about the location (“I’ve never seen so many posters of bears in one room.” or “Watch your step, there’s a sudden drop into the abyss over there”) or your own character (“I’ve never told anyone this before, but after the accident I started to have psychic visions.”) or someone else’s character (“I love you even if you never let me see your face behind the mask.”)  Since we perform on a basically empty, black stage, we need to create the set in our audiences mind and communicate with each other within the scenes all of the ideas in our head.

We also practice the specific structural elements of a show. In Secret Identity Crisis, the show always starts with a climactic scene that ends with the main character in a spotlight. Then the story moves back in time and we work towards that moment for the rest of the show.

And we practice specific skills, like stage fighting which is its own post later this week.

Most importantly, the weeks of rehearsing together gives the cast time to know each others strengths and weaknesses and how to play together.  There are 13 cast members, some of whom have played together for years and others who are totally new to each other. That’s a lot of playful relationships to develop. Rehearsal, for me, is an amazing time of growing appreciation for each persons’ skills.

Once the shows open, there is focus on how to go farther, tell more sophisticated stories, bring in more skills and achieve our goal…which is that our audience on any given night leaves feeling not only satisfied with the superhero show they’ve seen but that they feel like they’ve seen a play that just happens to not have a script.

If you want to hear from other cast members and see rehearsal footage, check out the fantastic vlogs  that cast member Aaron made:

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LP is in that wonderful stage of flowing from being one character to another.

She’s a waiter, a duck, a gosling, a panda, a red visor, Ernie, a dinosaur and a singing chicken all in the blink of an eye.  She dresses up in her rainbow “wandering cape” and wears a tutu to be a beluga.

Sometimes she has a role for me too. I’m waitress to her waiter, multicolored visor to her red one and the Count for her Ernie.

This spontaneous character play is  a wonderful chance to act together.  Even every day tasks become more fun when done in character. LP is much more willing to wash her hands as Ernie than as herself! And helping empty the dishwasher as the waiter was a total hit.

Some little people like to stick with a script. So if they are pretending to be a character from a book or tv, they want to do exactly what they’ve seen already.  (This is also more comfortable for some big people too…if that’s you, start by playing to your strength!) Playing characters together is a great chance to stretch their (and our) imaginations.  If you are ready to see what can happen, invite your little person character to do something new (i.e. off their “script”).  It can be an set activity or craft project OR a story adventure that you act out…what happens when Ernie and the Count find a jewelry box? Or learn to fly?

You also may find that you create new scenarios that your little persons loves to repeat (because oh, how they love to repeat).  LP and I told & acted out a story about a glass multicolored visor that broke into 30 pieces that she had to fix using 30 bandaids.  We’ve acted this out many, many times. Sometimes I throw in a new detail or ask her for more details just to keep in interesting for me.

I do find that her more imaginative (i.e. non-commmercial) characters delight me more. I’m happier pretending to be characters from books or made-up on the spot or objects from around the house. Fortunately for me that is the bulk of it (probably the happy result of being a low media family) AND I realize that’s my head trip.  For LP,  the commercial characters are just part of the delightful offerings the world makes to her imagination.

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