Tag Archives: Under the Gun Theater

What is the Game of the Scene?

I’m a teacher at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater. My job is to demystify improv so it’s easier to perform. The “game” style of improv has really taken off in the last few years and that’s our focus at Under the Gun, so here’s a basic overview of the component parts to this type of scene.

BASE REALITY

This refers to the basic knowledge required to play a scene. You already do some version of this, no matter where you play. As the scene begins, who are you? Where are you? What activity are you doing?

You must establish this quickly and efficiently. Think of it as setting the dinner table. You need cups and utensils and plates and napkins before you can think about throwing the food down. Take a line or two to let your scene partner (and the audience!) know the basics of the scene. If you don’t have the base reality established, don’t go any further.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING

After setting the base reality, you will present an unusual idea. If you don’t have one, simply continue exploring the base reality until something unusual naturally occurs. The unusual thing is an idea or character trait or feature in the world that does not fit what you would normally expect in the base reality.

  • A kindergarten class is a normal place. Arnold Schwarzenegger teaching a kindergarten class is unusual.
  • A motivational speaker talking to a family is normal. A motivational speaker who is 35 years old, thrice divorced and living in a van down by the river is unusual.
  • A teenager in high school is normal. A teenager in his parents’ high school 30 years in the past in order to help them fall in love is unusual.

FRAMING

When one performer introduces the unusual idea, the other performer should “frame” it. Repeating the unusual thing or simply asking, “What?” is a good way to let everyone know that this is the idea you’re going to explore. This step is optional, but helpful in focusing attention.

IF, THEN

If the unusual thing is true, then what else must be true? This is your opportunity to explore the idea. If one person espouses a crazy philosophy, you could question them on it and they could explain exactly why it makes sense.

In my class the other day, two students did a scene about firefighters who were so lazy, they always left the scene of the fire. Two firefighters hanging out? Normal. Two firefighters hanging out because they ditched the scene of a fire? Unusual. If you have two firefighters willing to skip out on work, then how else are they lazy or negligent? The rest of the scene should be greater and greater instances of lazy/negligent firefighting.

An easy way to crystallize this is to look at popular movies. The first act (20 minutes or so in a 90-minute film) introduces us to the characters and the location. Once we know that, something unusual happens. After the unusual thing happens, repercussions must be dealt with until the third act resolution. Most third acts suck, which is fine because we don’t need things to resolve in a comedy scene. We’re mainly concerned with the fun of the second act.

Let’s try this out.

Big

BASE REALITY: Josh and Billy are friends. They’re kids. Josh gets humiliated when he can’t go on a carnival ride because he’s too short. He goes to the Zoltar machine and wishes he were “big.”

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Josh wakes up as a fully-grown man.

IF, THEN: Because Josh’s mom doesn’t recognize him, he flees to New York, enlists Billy’s help, gets a job at a toy company, falls in love and realizes being a grown-up comes with a lot of baggage.

Mrs. Doubtfire

BASE REALITY: Daniel is a voiceover actor going through a divorce with his wife, Miranda. This bums his kids out.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Daniel disguises himself as an older woman and applies to be his own children’s nanny so he can spend more time with them.

IF, THEN: Numerous close-calls where Daniel’s true identity is nearly exposed. He must double-down on the lie so he doesn’t get caught. He also has to cope with his ex-wife dating a handsome guy right in front of “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

The Little Mermaid

BASE REALITY: Ariel is a mermaid who wishes she could live on land and pursue the hunky Prince Eric. (Even though a mermaid is unusual, this is a world where mermaids exist. Base realities can be heightened or exotic, as long as they are consistent. The unusual thing breaks the normal day-to-day routine of a world.)

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The sea witch Ursula gives Ariel human legs in exchange for her voice.

IF, THEN: Ariel pursues Eric, but finds it difficult without her voice. Ursula takes human form and vies for Eric’s attention, using Ariel’s voice to boot!

Karate Kid

BASE REALITY: Daniel is the new kid in town. He doesn’t have any friends, but he is interested in a girl. Local karate bullies try to beat him up.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The handyman at Daniel’s apartment complex is secretly a karate master! He beats up the karate thugs.

IF, THEN: Daniel now wants to learn karate from Mr. Miyagi. But because Miyagi is not your average karate master, Daniel must paint the fence, wax-on and wax-off and sand the floor. It pays off when those chores are revealed as secret karate moves. Daniel gets a chance to fight back and win the girl with his newfound knowledge.

It’s a Wonderful Life

BASE REALITY: George Bailey is the nicest guy ever. He’s helped out tons of people in Bedford Falls, unlike the greedy Mr. Potter. All is well until George’s forgetful uncle loses $8,000, threatening the building and loan. George is heartbroken and heads to a bridge to contemplate suicide. (All of this takes 99 minutes, but the slow exploration of George’s inherent decency is key to making the rest of the film work.)

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: George wishes he were never born and his guardian angel grants that wish.

IF, THEN: The angel shows George what Bedford Falls would look like if he didn’t exist. George revisits all the important moments in his life, only to see a dark, twisted version of the world without him.

Note that in all of these examples, the first unusual thing is something that radically alters the base reality. There’s no turning back after that point. That point where routine gets wrecked is where the fun part of the movie begins.

In an improv scene, we don’t have 99 minutes or even ten minutes to lay a foundation. We want to do it in one or two lines of dialogue. The person initiating should take the lead in establishing the base reality. The initiator also usually introduces the unusual thing. Alternately, the scene partners can discover the unusual thing organically.

As you practice these initiations, you will become better at establishing a base reality and an unusual thing more efficiently. Here are some examples of initiating lines that contain a full premise:

  • “We can’t go to Disney World, honey. They closed forever because of how naughty you’ve been.”
  • “I’m sorry. I can’t operate on you. I’m gluten-free.”
  • “In an effort to improve community relations, all you police officers must turn in your guns. From now on, you’ll be armed with live cobras disguised in cans of peanut brittle.”

In each case, a seemingly normal conversation gets hijacked by an idea that conflicts with our expectations. With any of those three initiations, can you see where the scene might go? A really great initiation gives your scene partner and the audience a glimpse of where this thing might be headed. We don’t know how you’re going to justify your idea, but we know it’s going to be fun watching you try. That’s the game: Defending/exploring the absurd or unusual idea that would never occur in the confines of normal life.

One of my favorite examples is this scene from the Upright Citizens Brigade themselves. The base reality? Two brothers on a golf course. One is nervous about an upcoming presentation. The first unusual thing? Well, I’ll let you pick that out. Then watch as the brothers go back and forth, debating the merits of this terrible idea. That’s the game.

As you watch virtually any sketch comedy, pay attention to the component parts. You will almost always see 30-60 seconds laying the groundwork of a normal world before it gets hijacked by an unusual idea. Watch as the unusual idea is repeated, modified, heightened and justified.

Now, you might be saying that entering a scene with that much initiation is cheating. It’s not. The audience and your fellow performers will thank you for coming in with a clear idea. Which partner would you rather play with: one who calls you “Captain” and informs you that your potato submarine has been hit by a torpedo and is flooding with gravy? Or one who walks on stage and says, “Hey, man. What’s up?”

When playing this style, it’s also important for the non-initiator to listen and offer polite support until it’s clear what the initiator is bringing to the table. If the initiator says, “Johnson, come into my office,” you shouldn’t throw out too much in reply. It seems like there’s more where that came from. So your line shouldn’t be, “Wow, your office is a giant fiberglass taco!” Give the initiator some time, nail down your base reality and if the initiator never brings up anything unusual, look for a natural opening to discover one.

To learn more about this style of play, pick up the Upright Citizens Brigade Manual and join my class so I can guide you through the process! I’m teaching Monday nights beginning in March. It’s just $25 per class, which is ridiculously cheap for Chicago.

Got questions about this or anything else in comedy? Hit me up at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com.

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How to Make Improv Really Hard

I’m shadow-coaching at Under the Gun Theater as I prepare to teach my own class starting next month. (What’s that? You want to sign up? Click here, amigo.) As I watch many, many beginner scenes, I’m noticing some patterns emerging. The big difference between a beginning improviser and a veteran is that the veteran wisely side-steps roadblocks that can grind a beginner’s scene to a halt. But maybe you want to make improv really hard on yourself. If so, here are four sure-fire ways to make improvisation feel like slow death.

HANDICAP 1. Take the suggestion super literally.

The reason we get an audience suggestion is to prove to the audience that we’re creating the scene on the spot. Famously, TJ & Dave skip the suggestion, assuring the audience, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Beginners hear a suggestion of “sandpaper” and start sanding the floor. Or they hear “banana” and start eating bananas. Nobody cares about a scene about sanding the floor or eating bananas. The suggestion need not be literal. Let it be metaphorical. “Sandpaper” might make you think of a gritty, tough person or someone who’s irritating. “Banana” might make you think of someone clumsy or a health nut. The suggestion is there to help you, not to trip you up. After it inspires you, toss it away.

HANDICAP 2. Talk about what you’re doing.

Last night, our students got the suggested location of a cotton candy shop. The scene struggled. I asked them why. They said they’d never worked in a cotton candy shop before. Good news, gang: No one is going to bust you on proper cotton candy shop procedure. You’re two people inside a cotton candy shop. You could be uppity parents discussing how elaborate you want your son’s birthday party to be. You could be estranged siblings, and one is trying to get free cotton candy from the other who works there. Or, yes, you could both be employees. I spent seven years working at Best Buy and my work-related conversations took up about 20 percent of my day. The rest of the time, I talked about girls and sports and college and wanting to move to Chicago to pursue comedy. The movie “Clerks” is an excellent example of two characters spending the day working and talking about millions of other topics. You do not have to talk about your activity or your environment. Please, talk about anything else. The environment/activity is there to help you if/when you need it. Usain Bolt would run much slower if he had to tell everyone he was running the whole time.

HANDICAP 3. Talk about what you wish would happen.

Many times, the performers would talk about things they wanted to do in the future. This is improvisation. Do it now!  One performer doing a scene at a beach resort said he wished he had a frozen drink. He went on and on about how nice it would be to have one. I just told him the bar was right in front of him. He ordered a drink and the scene resumed with the stuff we cared about. No one wants to watch you plan a bank heist. They want to see you carry it out. No one wants to hear about your romantic date, they want to see it. Live in the now. You’re improvisers. You can time-jump forward or backward. If you’re describing something that happened in the past or could happen in the future, you’re robbing us of the immediacy of your imagination. Create it. Be it. Do it now.

HANDICAP 4. Avoid confronting your feelings.

So often, I saw performers make a huge, emotional offering, only to have their scene partner jerk the scene to a non-emotional detour. If someone says they love you, it’s time to deal with that. In the real world, if someone dropped that bomb and you started talking about the curtains, you are either trying to let them down gently or you are on the autism spectrum. You don’t have to be funny all the time. It’s better if you’re not. Give me an improviser who reacts honestly and I’ll be happy. Pay close, close attention to what emotions are coming your way. If someone is staring daggers at you or giving you the silent treatment or making puppy dog eyes in your direction, you have to address it. Failure to do so is a rejection of that gift. Hey, it’s even okay to say, “You’re making me uncomfortable.” That acknowledges the other person’s behavior and shares information about your mental state.

The audience wants to watch you have fun. They want to see you be silly. They want to see characters impacting other characters. To get to that place, please remove these roadblocks! Take the suggestion metaphorically, do your activities without narrating them, take action on what you want to do and pay attention to the immediacy of your feelings. If you do that, you’ll immediately start playing like a cagey veteran.

Got a question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Porn Minus Porn

On Saturday nights this September, a show I created returns to Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater.  It’s called “Porn Minus Porn.”  I give a group of actors a real porn movie script they’ve never seen before.  They have to read the lines, but there’s a twist.  I’ve removed the sex scenes.

“Porn Minus Porn” began as one of eight competitors in Under the Gun’s 2015 Tournament of Shows.  By popular vote over three performances, it was crowned the champion.

Here now, is an interview with the creator: me.

Boiling Point: Thank you for joining us.

Ben Bowman: My pleasure.

BP: Why should we see this show?

Bowman: It’s completely absurd.  The actors are reading along when they hit an idea that seems to come out of left field.  They have to overcome their surprise to finish saying the line while remaining in character.  They break.  A lot.

BP: Can you give us an example?

Bowman: In one of our shows, a bar employee walks up to the bar owner to tell him they’re out of rum.  The two go to the storage room where he tries to grab a box off a shelf and ends up smashing her in the face with his elbow.  He apologizes and she says that she likes that he’s clumsy.  Then they have sex.  Just out of the blue.  Reading it on the page, there’s no hint a sex scene is about to happen, but it does.  It has to.  It’s porn.

BP: How did you come up with this idea?

Bowman: I used to watch a TV show called Up All Night.  In the mid 1990s, the USA Network would show two really terrible movies back-to-back every Friday and Saturday night.  One was usually a bad horror movie where teens on Spring Break were stabbed.  The other was usually a soft core porn movie, like “Bikini Car Wash Company” or something.  When you’d watch these on basic cable, they couldn’t show the sex, so you’d see the bad dialogue leading up to the sex scene , then it would cut to a couple lying in bed together after the deed.  It was ridiculous.  This show brings you the same experience.

BP: Where do you get the scripts?

Bowman: I actually have to transcribe them.

BP: What?

Bowman: Believe it or not, the internet doesn’t seem to offer any adult film scripts for download.  So I have to watch these things and transcribe all the words.

BP: That must be time consuming.

Bowman: It takes about one hour of transcribing for every ten minutes of screen time.

BP: How do you select the films?

Bowman: It was tough in the beginning.  I didn’t know how long a script would be once you took out the sex scenes.  Eventually, I settled on the old Cinemax soft core series, “Life on Top.”  I’ve been using those scripts and the cast seems to like them.

BP: So you’ve been using multiple episodes?

Bowman: We present each episode in its entirety, but if you come back week after week, you’ll be able to follow the characters as they have new adventures.  The first show we ever performed, an erotic model named Bella had a huge crush on her photographer, Vincent.   He shot her down and slept with another model.  Bella was heartbroken.  The next week, Bella made no mention of Vincent and he didn’t appear.  The cast was asking me whether we’d see Vincent again.  Vincent does reappear, but much later in the series.  The people making the show seem very disinterested in episode-to-episode continuity.

BP: What can the audience expect at these shows?

Bowman: It’s a great time.  The dialogue is stupid.  There’s no way those words would lead to sex in the real world.  The actors are fighting to stifle laughter.  And we have an audience participation portion, too.  It’s just a night to celebrate silliness.

BP: Why only four shows?

Bowman: As I said before, this is really time-consuming.  If this run goes well, I could dedicate more time to it, and we could do it more regularly.  It all depends on the audience reaction.  It’s been overwhelmingly positive so far, but Under the Gun is a young theater in a city with tons of comedy theaters.  This is something unique, so I hope people come to see it and tell their friends.  It’s the perfect way to spend an hour in Wrigleyville.  It also makes a great date night.

BP: How do we get tickets?

Bowman: This link will do the trick.  It’s a bargain at $12 a seat.

BP: Is there a way to learn more about the show?

Bowman: Follow @MinusPorn on Twitter and like the show on Facebook.  I’m hoping to turn the live shows into a podcast to spread the word.

BP: Thank you!

Bowman: No problem.

Read more about the show in Newcity Stage, The Columbia Chronicle, Cusp Magazine and at Under the Gun Theater’s News Site.

You can see Porn Minus Porn at Under the Gun Theater (956 W Newport, 2nd Floor, Chicago, IL) on Saturdays.  Tickets are $12.

Auditions Part IV: This is Why You Fail

I find it hard to believe anyone is ever really good at auditions.  You have good days and bad days.  When your fate is being decided by as few as two or three scenes, how do you play from a place of joy and fearlessness?

As I helped Under the Gun Theater run their auditions yesterday, I noticed many, many people making the exact same mistakes.  Take heed, future auditioners.

1. They didn’t care about anything.

Words like “divorce” and “cancer” got thrown around a lot in those auditions, but I never saw them take on any weight.  You have to react to the information in the scene.  If you don’t react to someone wanting a divorce, how will the theater expect you to react to more subtle initiations?

In the best auditions, people found a way to react to even the most mundane information.  In one scene, a girl and her father were talking about her troubles with math.  The dad established he was a mathematician.  His daughter said she was struggling with triangles.  The dad acted thrown.  “Triangles, huh?” he said, “That’s pretty advanced stuff.”  By having a big reaction to something stupid, the dad put extra weight on the issue, and people laughed.

Please find a way to care or react in your scenes.  It helps if you care or react to your scene partner, if possible.  (Important: “Caring” doesn’t necessarily mean “liking.”)

2. They had a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to agree.

When you start improv, many teachers lean on the old crutch of “yes and.”  The longer I perform, the more I believe “yes and” is a gross oversimplification of the process.  Taken literally, this can cripple upcoming improvisers.

Let’s say a scene starts with someone saying they want to kill you.  “Okay,” you say, trying to be helpful.  Where does this scene go now?  Your scene partner kills you while you lie there?  Is that funny?  Or is it just bizarre?

When a scene begins, it’s to your benefit to agree to be in the same time and space as your partner.  As facts present themselves, you should agree to those as well.  You are under no obligation to agree with opinions or behavior, except to agree that what is said and done actually happened.

So often, I watched performers stop what they were doing and abandon character because another performer asked them to complete a task.  One woman began a silent scene as if she was swordfighting her scene partner.  The scene partner responded with her own sword.  So we all watched a completely silent scene where they fenced for 60 seconds.  In hindsight, was this really the best use of that time?  Sure, they “agreed” to duel, but that was the entire scene.  Snooze city.

3. They forced things.

Kevin Mullaney, one of Under the Gun’s founders, helped create the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre curriculum that focuses on “The Game.”  The start of every Game scene should be easy.  Just react normally.  I’ll repeat that because it’s important.  Just react normally.  When you notice something unusual happen, simply highlight, explore and reinforce that.  That’s the game.

Too often, because we’re scared of time running out in an audition, we front-load the weirdness.  We say something completely insane in the first or second line, and that sends the scene to hell in a hurry.

Be sure not to overburden the scene with a massive info dump in the early lines.  Great improvisers make discoveries while they play.  That’s a far more useful skill than throwing down a great initiation and doing nothing with it.

In those first few lines, just establish who you are and what your relationship is with your scene partner.  Once we know that, look for the Game, give gifts to the other actor and explore this world you just built.

Think of the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  We see a shadowy figure walking through the jungle.  There are lots of little signs of danger – a poison dart, a creepy stone carving and bats.  The man’s helpers run away.  One helper tries to shoot him.  Our hero uses his whip to disarm the would-be assassin.  Three minutes elapse before we even see Indiana Jones’ face.  More than nine minutes go by before the big rock chases him down.

Now imagine if the movie opened with a shot of Harrison Ford running away from a big rock.  You’d probably be seriously confused.  Where are we?  Who’s that guy?  Why is he running?  Where did the boulder come from?  The scene earns that goofy moment because it built to it with many increasingly incredible hazards.

Granted, you don’t have nine minutes to impress an auditor.  But you do have enough time to establish and explore a pattern.  When you get the suggestion of “jungle” for a location, I hope you and your scene partner discover a great boobytrapped pyramid to explore.  Just remember, boobytraps are cool, but we care more about your relationship and your reactions to discoveries.

4.  They didn’t have a headshot.

For most improv auditions, you don’t need a professional headshot.  Hell, even a selfie can do in a pinch.  But you should always have an 8×10 photo of your mug lying around.  Several people said the local drug store had trouble printing them.  Find a decent picture of yourself, print it out today and stick it where you’ll remember it.  When that audition comes up out of the blue, you’ll be ready to go.  When you use that one, print another immediately.

The auditors at yesterday’s audition said they occasionally had someone who had an amazing audition, but without a headshot, they couldn’t remember what the performer looked like.  When you’re casting, you like to spread out those headshots and assemble them visually.  Even if you were God’s gift to improv, they are more likely to select someone whose picture is lying in front of them.

Print a headshot.  Print a resume.  Staple them together so they can see your resume by flipping your picture over.

5. They talked about what they were doing.

If your improv scene begins at a grocery store, we don’t want you to spend the scene collecting each item on your shopping list.  If you’re at a bowling alley, we don’t just want to watch you bowl.  If you’re in a kitchen, we don’t want to hear you talking about making your yummy meatloaf.

We want you to bounce off the other actor.

When you’re in the supermarket, talk to your daughter about her grades.  When you’re in the bowling alley, talk about your reaction to something in the news.  When you’re in the kitchen, forgive your brother for getting hammered and setting your lawn on fire.

The environment can give you opportunities to do object work or add punctuation to a conversation.  But if the conversation is about the environment or the activity, your scene is almost guaranteed to suck.

6. They didn’t listen.

Many times, improvisers missed great opportunities because they were so wrapped up in their own ideas.  If you’re not listening in an audition, the theater won’t expect you to listen when performing for them.

For the record, I suck at auditions and I need to remind myself of many of these lessons when I play.  When you see scene after scene with the same flaws, they start to grow increasingly disheartening.

Kevin’s partner in running the auditions (and the theater) was Angie McMahon.  She posted this on Facebook:

1. Fellas (and a few ladies but mostly fellas) don’t call women bitches or the C word in scenes. You only have about 3 minutes total with me. Just make a new choice.

2. Don’t pick each other up or snuggle your head into a person’s bosom (especially if you don’t know them).

3. You are not more memorable if you make the “wacky” choice of being a space alien… or smoke monster. Everyone is nervous and you are making it hard for everyone.

4. Although I appreciate trying to do social and political satire, you are walking in the room with folks of varying levels.  I would save your smart “political” initiation for later when you are surrounded by folks you know have the skill to do an honest and lovely thoughtful scene about a sensitive subject.

5. We are not judging you, I want you to succeed. I want you to have fun. Nothing makes me happier then smiling because I am watching someone who is also having fun… I know that is hard.

The most important piece of advice I can give to any auditioner is never to give up.  When you get smacked down, lick your wounds, take classes and accumulate stage time wherever you can.  Come back and audition again.  Show them how much you’ve grown.  There are multiple paths to success.  Giving up is a sure shortcut to the end of the road.

Previously: Auditions I / Auditions II / Auditions III

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com