Hey guys, Ben here. When I signed up to do a blog post, I, likely to to my shortcomings as a writer, had a hard time keeping my shit to a polite length. I’ve broken up my musings (many of which are unfinished) into a few posts that I hope to get out over the coming weeks. Also, it should be known that this post tends toward the esoteric: OBLIGATORY NERD ALERT.
One perpetual anxiety of any performer is whether the audience is getting it. The funny stuff is easy; humans make a sound to let you know something is funny. But the show? The edits? The stage conventions? What's the litmus test? Granted, I don’t think you will get a ton of laughs from an audience who doesn’t know what is going on onstage, but how often do we think audiences are momentarily lost due to something as simple as a sweep edit?
This churning of thought is fairly typical for those of us who enjoy unpacking improv or suffer from some amount of anxiety (that Venn Diagram is pretty much a circle). This particular post was prompted by a question from my dad. Hugh Walsh saw me improvise (possibly for the first time? sorry if I got that wrong, Dad..) this past week and had a question about the mechanics of the show…
In the show, I played a character who would request a sidebar periodically. I would ask another character to join me downstage while we had a conversation within earshot of the audience and other players, though (through some disbelief suspension) OUT of earshot of the other characters onstage. It’s a pretty easy way to create some tongue-in-cheek dramatic irony: fun for the whole family.
Afterwards, the dadster asked me a very fair question: “Did they teach you that sidebar thing in improv class?”
NO, DAD. THEY DIDN’T TEACH ME THAT IN IMPROV CLASS… GIVE ME SOME CREDIT AS A STAGE PERFORMER COMEDY PERSON THING.
ALSO, DAD? THEY TEACH US HOW TO FEEL AND COLLABORATE AND BE HONEST AND COLLABORATE HONESTLY WHILE FEELING IN IMPROV CLASSES, NOT SOMETHING SO BASE AS A HACKY SIDEBAR CONVENTION.
ALSO, DAD? I LOVE YOU.
(I didn’t say any of this. It’s my overly emotional internal monologue in text as denoted by different formatting (all caps), guys. Conventions, guys. Try to hang with me.)
In all seriousness, his question gave me an opportunity to reflect on the conventions we use in improv...
(Oh my gosh, guys; In the actual question scenario with my father, I reflected out loud with him in discussion form. Can you imagine if he had asked me that question, and I had greeted him with a pensive gaze out a rainy window? Jiminy…)
(Parenthetical asides are quickly becoming a convention of this post.)
We ARE taught stage conventions in improv class. And it’s a strange list. The sweep edit, the tag out, the scene paint, the (freeze?) clap, the sliding (revolving?) door, and the cascade are just a few of a list that generally doesn’t get too much longer. Much of them are more influenced by film (arguably TV) than theater (despite improv being a primarily live medium? A subject for a different day). Some conventions are ubiquitous in improv without being taught. ‘Sidebar’ could totally be a convention that gets on a curriculum (trust me, it gets used often enough; I’m probably the bajillionth improviser to use it) and probably does live on some internet list of things to do on stage while improvising. It’s easy, it’s fun, and the audience can follow it.
So how do we approach teaching or determining typical conventions? It has something to do with what an audience can follow or pick up on. Depending on where you think the proverbial cart and the horse are (or if you’re feeling more organic/hippy-dippy), it also has to be something that the ensemble can agree to quickly, even without speaking about it (hypothetically:
When I walk downstage with another character and tell them something in a stage whisper, I think the ensemble will understand that a third character onstage can’t hear me.
...is easier to understand than...
When I swept the scene chanting ‘Rashomon’, I think the ensemble will understand that the previous scene was not EXACTLY reality but rather a memory as related by one of our characters in a more real passage time.
) in the hopes the audience can follow it.
At the end of the day, conventions have to live in group mind. Conventions through group mind CAN be predetermined (though now I think I’m opening up a semantical can of worms):a common predetermined convention where a group agrees they’re going to attempt to create a series of comic scenes punctuated by sweep edits. OR they can be improvised: a common improvised convention might be that when I approximate your onstage character’s voice OFFstage, I’m speaking your character’s internal monologue.
How predetermined you make your conventions v. how improvised is often a discussion an ensemble has to have as they get further into their work together. Especially those working on a unique form. More on what I think are the benefits and drawbacks are on predetermining convention in the next installment…