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Just Be On Stage
F*ck the environment.
Yeah. You heard me. F*ck the environment. I don't give a rat's a** about where your scene takes place. And, while you're at it, f*ck object work, too.
But, Joe, surely you've gone mad. Surely, for a scene to be interesting, the audience needs to know where it's taking place. The scene needs to be grounded in a solid environment. The actors need to interact with that environment, and there needs to be an activity! Object work!
For the love of God, what about "Talking Head Syndrome?"
Total, 100%, pure, grade-A bullsh*t. If the two of you just stand there, looking at each other, with your hands in your pockets, talking, for fifteen minutes, fine. As a director, and (more importantly) as an audience member, I'm totally okay with that.
The heck you say!
Perhaps, I should explain. Theatre is about people. Not places, not activities. People. Cheers was not a show about a bar. It was a show about a group of friends, who happened to be in a bar most of the time. Likewise, M.A.S.H. was not a show about medical procedures, or military operations. It was a show about doctors and soldiers, and the very unique and tragic way they were forced to interact with each other. In theatre, the environment, or setting, is incidental to the true (inter)action of the scene. Therefore, it is not totally necessary. The same goes for activities.
If the two of you just stand there, looking at each other, with your hands in your pockets, talking, for fifteen minutes, fine.
What is necessary is the relationship between the characters. Who are these people, how do they feel, and how are they affecting each other? If those questions are answered in an interesting way, I could not possibly care less about where they are, or what they're doing.
As an example, I offer one of the greatest comedy routines of all time, Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" Where the h*ll does this scene take place? In a ballpark? Outside a ballpark? In a sports bar? In an executive board room? Listen carefully. They're talking about a baseball team, and they say they'll be going to New York, but they never mention where they are at the moment. Where the h*ll are they???
Who the f*ck cares? It makes absolutely no difference, whatsoever. Sure, when they performed the routine live, they had a backdrop indicating a baseball diamond. But, Abbott and Costello also knew that this scene would be broadcast on the radio, and yet did absolutely nothing to give any indication to the listeners of where they are. On top of that, when they did perform live, and had the benefit of the audience actually viewing them, they added no physical activity, whatsoever. They just stood there, side by side, talking (talk about "Talking Head Syndrome")!
Do you honestly believe that the scene would have been any better if they said "we're at a baseball diamond," or if they had both been engaged in some trivial activity, like batting practice, or playing catch? Are you really such a p*ssy that you can't just enjoy the scene without obsessing over not knowing where the characters are?
Theatre is about people. Not places, not activities. People.
Oh, come on! Not every scene is like "Who's on First?" There are plenty of scenes out there that are enhanced by having an environment and activities.
Enhanced, sure. There are many elements of your environment that can add to the action of a scene. The context of the environment can affect the emotional state of the characters, and can even influence the reactions of characters to certain types of activities. For instance, a funeral will probably dictate a certain type of emotional state for the characters, and a public school will probably dictate certain emotional reactions to inappropriate behavior. Having a rich environment at your disposal can definitely ground a scene. Putting belief into your environment and object work can help keep you in character, and provide an extra level of realism to your acting. Plus, activities can also provide an excellent channel for expressing your characters (by focusing on how you perform the activity).
However, this does not mean that environment or activity are necessary to the scene. Take any scene that is enhanced by the environment or physical activity, and take an inventory of the characters, their emotional states, and the emotional games they're playing with each other. Now, as long as you keep those items constant, you can remove and/or change the environment and/or activity as much as you like. The scene should still be recognizable and interesting. Sure, it may not be as interesting, but it might also be more interesting. The opposite process (removing the characters, emotions and games while keeping the environment and activities constant) is generally not interesting at all. This is why Shakespeare's plays can be produced in so many different time periods, with different "concepts."
Now, wait just one minute. You can't tell me there aren't a few really good scenes out there that require the presence of a specific environment or activity.
Okay, okay. This is gonna get nitpicky, but I'll admit that there are some types of scenes that do require a specific environment or activity. For instance, the film Berlin: Symphony of a City, or the classic bit from I Love Lucy in the chocolate factory. The thing is, for our purposes, I don't really consider them to be scenes. The first example is a documentary, where the entire film is literally about Berlin. It contains no traditional characters, and so, while it is quite artistic, it is not theatrical. As an audience member, I want to see theatre. The second example is really just a bit that takes place within a larger scene. The overall scene is not about all those poor pieces of chocolate that now have to survive without wrappers, but rather Lucy and Ethel's failure to succeed in the business world. Sure, it's probably the most memorable bit of the entire series, but it's still just a bit. It could potentially be removed from the episode, and as long as we knew that Lucy and Ethel were unable to win their bet with Ricky and Fred, the episode could still be interesting. In fact, if the series had not been grounded in memorable characters, well defined relationships, and strong emotional games, it never would have survived long enough to get to the chocolate factory bit!
Having a rich environment at your disposal can definitely ground a scene.
OK, FINE! Environment and activity aren't totally necessary to a scene. But, you admitted that they can be a big help. So, why are you so angry?
Glad you asked. If used improperly, an environment or activity can kill a scene faster than a yakuza hitman on meth. Far, far, far, far, faaaaar too often I see scenes in which there are no distinguishable characters, zero emotional investment, and actors that treat their scene partners like mindless automatons (sadly, they're usually not too far from the truth on that one). But, boy do those actors have an activity! In fact, it's all they can talk about!
"Look what we're doing! We're [fixing a car, digging a ditch, building a monster, etc.]! And guess what? We're not blocking, we're not pimping, we're not denying, we're not even asking questions! We're 'Yes Anding'! Give me the monkey wrench! Yes, and I'll hand you the wrench! Yes, and now I'll turn on the switch! Yes, and now the monster's alive, and I'll kill it for you! This must be interesting, right?"
Wrong. Drop dead boring. If you're going to interact with something, interact with your partner! If you're going to Yes And something, Yes And how your partner is making you feel! The problem is, when you have an environment in a scene, there is the temptation to just interact with the environment. And, when you have an activity, there is the temptation to only talk about what you are physically doing.
Despite this huge problem, I constantly see improv teachers encouraging beginning improvisers to go to their environment, or improve their object work. Forget the controversy over whether or not to emphasize the traditional rules of improv, it is this emphasis on environment and object work that is the single biggest problem in today's improv training. Now, listen up, because I'm only going to say this once:
If you're going to interact with something, interact with your partner!
Environment and activity are advanced techniques and should only be dealt with by experienced improvisers who have already mastered the real fundamentals of character, relationship, and emotional development.
Make sense? Good. Then, here's my advice for y'all.
To teachers: If your students are boring (sucking), then make sure they're creating (and maintaining) strong characters, and that they're playing (really playing) strong emotional games with each other. Don't (and I mean DON'T, or I'll kick your *ss) tell them they need an object in their hand, or a more rich environment. And, if you're sick of seeing them standing center stage staring at each other, then put them in chairs.
To students: If your scenework is boring (sucking), and your teacher says to go to your environment, or practice object work, then look them straight in the eye, and tell them "No! I'm not ready for that! Help me with the basics, d*mmit!"
Ahh. That felt good to get off my chest. Well, that's all for now. Thanks for listening! And, until next time, remember: There is no right or wrong in improv, but if you disagree with me, your improv will suck.
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