Part I of the April A-Z Blogging Challenge, where every day this month except Sundays, I'll be talking about things I love - one thing for each letter of the alphabet.
I'm usually pretty good with dates, but I can't seem to track down the date I had my first ever improv workshop. I know it was sometime in December 2014, after a new friend I'd made through stand-up sold me on the idea of coming. Cut two four months later. It's the Adelaide Fringe Festival and I'm having a conversation with the lovely Kirsty, one of the mainstays of the Adelaide improv scene.
'You seem to be coming along nicely with your development,' she said.
'Yeah, thanks! I've really just dived in head-first with this stuff. I went to my first workshop and then I was like "I guess I'll do three nights a week of this now."'
'That's awesome, how long have you been doing improv now?'
'Four months,' I said. Kirsty leaned forward in shock.
'Four months! Really?'
'Yeah, is that long or short?'
'It's short!' she exclaimed. 'It feels like you've been part of the scene forever!'
That made me feel all warm inside, like I'd been accepted.
And it was true, I'd taken to it very quickly. Coming from stand-up, there had been very big and obvious mistakes that I was making. The main one was that I valued getting a laugh over clicking with and supporting my team mates. Thankfully I would usually get the laugh, but it left others high and dry on what to do next. Maddy - one of the other major players in the scene - explained it to me.
'I know that coming from stand-up, the temptation is to just go gag-gag-gag. But but that's misconception number one in improv - that it has to be funny. Improv is only funny half the time, the other half of the time it's dramatic. In improv, it's more about the unfolding story than anything else.' It was impressive how easily I thought "Yep, makes sense," and shifted my focus away from the gags. I know another stand-up who did improv for a while and it was a lot harder for that person to get their head around the concept.
If you asked me what I like about improv, I'd give you the standard answer - the idea of coming up with something really compelling and engaging on the spot. A well-done improv show will often be more captivating than any written piece. I'll always remember the character I created that Fringe season during a 24-hour soap opera. The show had a fantasy theme and our story had happened to take place in a medieval English setting. I took on the persona of a merchant who was greedy, sly and ever hungry for more money or power. Trying to manipulate every situation to my favour and having something to gain from every relationship meant I had a lot of room for my character to move.
On the other hand, there can be some embarrassingly silly moments on stage. Around the same time, I was in a show where four teams of two players each had to play out a story from four different genres, taking it scene by scene. My partner and I got given the Jane Austin genre. So I played a father and my partner played my daughter. I (as the father) decided she was too tomboyish and should become a lady and be married off to a respectable gentleman. In the next scene, I played an impoverished boy who met with the daughter and we fell in love. In the third scene, the boy and the father had to meet.I'd worn a vest in the first scene as the father and taken it off in the second scene to differentiate them. So in the third scene, up on the stage on my own, I jumped back and forth from the left of the stage to the right, holding my unbuttoned vest together when the father was speaking and holding it behind my back when I was the boy. I tried to make that funny and farcical, but all I got was staring for the whole scene. I was told afterwards that it was interesting to watch (in a good way) but it certainly didn't feel like that at the time. I called my daughter back in the room, sat her down and tried to convince her to stay away from him. Here's how:
'Why don't I throw you a ball!' I said cheerfully.
'A ball?' said my daughter apprehensively.
'Yes! And we'll invite every eligible bachelor in the kingdom to attend!'
I was standing next to her with my hand on her shoulder and was staring excitedly out over the audience. The audience burst out laughing. Then I realised - someone would have to play all these eligible bachelors. After struggling my way through being two characters at once, I'd just condemned my self to playing ten of them. The audience realised that before I did and then the actors from the other scenes realised a split second after me. They burst out laughing themselves. When you're paying attention, you can tell what someone's thinking quite easily. And right then my body, while trying to remain in the moment, was saying "Oh shit, this is going to happen."
Luckily, the actors from the other scenes came in during our final scene to play as the other bachelors. The scene was shambolic and in my attempt to remain in charge, I ended up doing things that were weird and out of character. At the end, acting once again as the returned impoverished boy, I tried to bend down and lift my partner to carry her off stage. Then I realised that not only was she a bit too big for me to carry easily, she was also really not okay with me lifting her. We eventually kind of shuffled off the stage with me holding onto her ankles. It's the most embarrassed I've ever felt on stage.
It's all in the ups and downs of improv. The art form has taken me to Canberra where I've made plenty of new friends, had unique experiences and learned a lot. But my favourite thing about the art form is the community around me. The first rule you learn in improv is the idea of "yes, and". It's where whatever happens on stage, the other people must accept it as reality and add to it. When I'm with the players of improv in Adelaide, I feel like I'm "yes, and-ed" as a person. One time I was asked to be a scorekeeper for a short-form improv competition. I decided I wanted to play a bit more of a role in the show, so I came as a character - I dressed up as a pirate complete with tri-corner hat and knee-high boots. If I had been with any of my other friends - even my best ones - they would have asked "Michael, why the FUCK are you wearing a pirate outfit?" But in this case, the host actually brought me on-stage to introduce me to the crowd. I gave my pirate character a kind of depressed, exasperated demeanour and the crowd and other players thought it was hilarious. They brought me back on every couple of rounds to announce the scores and by the end of the night, they were chanting my name.
That's an example of being "yes, and-ed" and it's why I love these people so much.