Don’t fall in love with what you’ve constructed. You need to make sure the audience is the most important person in the room.
Anyone watching the Flying Circus for the first time in 2014 and expecting non-stop hilarity will be rather confused and perhaps a little disappointed. Sketches fail on a regular basis, sometimes quite spectacularly; extraordinarily long periods can pass without anything funny happening (the studio audience tittering nervously from time to time, to compound the embarrassment). Once considered dizzyingly fast, bits of Python now seem painfully slow.
But that doesn’t matter much. Python isn’t meant to be a procession of quickfire gags – rather, it calls to mind the words of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid: “My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit’s egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame but a load of rubbish.” The aim is to create a flow of unnerving and bewildering ideas, an unstable atmosphere which may produce hysterical laughter, or merely dumbfound. Those longeurs are part of the deal. Python is not about wisecracks and pithy one-liners – it’s all about the swirl.
There is, or was, another side to Monty Python. Back in the day, that celebrated silliness was only part of the picture; this was adversarial humour, part of the counterculture (in effect, if not necessarily by intention). Very rarely was Python political, but it was a protest all right – a protest against bullshit and bullying, sloppy thinking and humbug, a gleeful assault on philistinism and pseudery. What’s more, it was weird. Not “wacky”, not “delightfully loopy” – really, really weird. At its best, Python could be a disturbing experience, disquieting, disordered, disruptive… something close to Dada. It was not just absurd, but absurdist: cosmic satire, a mockery of meaning.
And yet, like all popular avant-garde art, its appeal was beautifully basic. This was comedy stripped to its root: two incompatible ideas colliding, noisily and painfully. Comedy returned to its primary purpose: to inform the powerful, the headstrong and the vainglorious that everything is bullshit – life is a joke, your finery is meaningless and worms will be feasting on you sooner than you think. Partly out of devilment, partly in the hope that once we’ve got that straight, we can all move on from there. That was the funniest thing of all: deep down, under the warm embrace of bad taste and the cold contempt, Monty Python cared.
What these auteurs truly have in common, though, is that they have systematically boiled away many of the pleasures previously associated with comedy — first among these, jokes themselves — and replaced them with a different kind of lure: the appeal of spending two hours hanging out with a loose and jocular gang of goofy bros. (Also: ritual humiliation. Humiliation is a big part of it, too.)
I played someone more stupid than me in a game before he died. It took hard work and I enjoyed it.
Damodar worked on a silk farm and escaped to become an adventurer. He had intelligence of seven and wisdom of six. I like to think of my intelligence as twelve or thirteen, but apparently everyone does this so it’s more likely I have an INT of ten, or, possibly eleven.
Every time Damodar had a problem I had to think about how to solve it. I could never solve his problems like I solve my own. If I did things he couldn’t do then the character wouldn’t work.
We have lots of ways to think about someone less capable than ourselves. People like to talk and argue about this a lot. Very few of those ways involve you creating those people from random numbers and parts of yourself and then taking responsibility for both their survival and the integrity of their personality. Except possibly becoming a parent.
I knew when bad things happened and Damodar didn’t. I knew when people lied to him and he did not. I did not find it frustrating, but powerful and energising, my mind worked constantly. I had to protect him with the only tools I had. The ones inside his character.
He asked a LOT of direct questions, because he didn’t know much. (I never do this in real life, I remain silent.) People usually answered because he seemed obviously stupid and innocent. He happily accepted the social superiority of his co-adventurers. (You won’t see me do this.) That made them happy and made him popular. I interpreted his low WIS as courage so he became impetuous.
I found him nicer than me. And a better human than most of my characters. And probably a better person than me. Perhaps that only happened because of the action, inside my mind, of protecting him.
Damodar died defending his friends.
In Dogs In The Vinyard I play a highly intelligent, fundamentalist teenage girl. With Basemeth most of the creative tension comes from her 19th century pseudo-christian morality and my 21st century vague liberalism. Again we must solve problems together. She thinks faster and deeper than I can. I have more time to think of her responses so she acts in the upper range of my own capabilities. But we have different perspectives on the world.
Like the same scene viewed from different points, we share only certain ground. When events moves out of this ground one of us will become upset. Since we live in the same person, this ruins things for both of us. But if I let her collapse into a sock-puppet for my own values then she dies. So we must work together on remaining creatively different.
Every character I play feels like a powerful living exchange between me and this created thing. A waterfall looping like a lemniscate through dual poles. I never know which parts of me will surface and crystallize. Like meeting a new person every time.
I’ve been writing and curating The Occupational Digest for over three years now, time that has flown by.
It’s been a voyage of discovery: discovery of valuable journals previously unknown to me, of inspiring presenters at the Division of Occupational Psychology’s annual conferences, of new findings and rigorous investigations that I’ve been lucky to cover across our more than 200 reports.
We’ve always strived to walk a line that informs experts while bringing psychology to life for a general audience, and at times I think we nailed it, in posts about disagreeable men winning the ‘earnings war’ or how negative mood can kick-start the creative process or – our most popular post – how tiredness leads to more online time-wasting.
I take satisfaction in our move towards more systematic coverage of issues, through an increased focus on review and – where possible – meta-analysis, plus our ‘Further Reading’ references that provide the interested reader with a route in to a deeper understanding of the topic.
Most of all I’m pleased with the collaboration between this blog service and that of our parent, the Research Digest: sharing tips, co-hosting content, discussing the future. The Research Digest is a fantastic fixture of the science blogging sphere, virtually an institution, and it’s been fantastic to steer a new venture such as the OD – a specialist-yet-mainstream evidence-based site – using the RD’s success as our guiding light.
So I’m very excited that from next month I’ll be contributing my BPS writing fully to the Research Digest.
The psychology of the workplace will remain a core part of what I do, and it will be great to communicate what I find so exciting about this area to a new audience. Together with this, I will begin to cover other areas of psychology, a return to the kinds of things I tackled at Mind Hacks (in the book and occasionally the blog) and in my research career in cognitive neuroscience. And I’m eager for the chance to get in front of the Research Digest’s much larger readership, in partnership with a new full-time blog editor.
If you’ve been following the Occ Digest via twitter, or through the blog on rss, then please do follow @researchdigest and http://bps-research-digest-blogspot.co.uk if you don’t already.
If you prefer accessing content by email, the subscription for the Research Digest email is here.
This site is now on hiatus, although it will remain as an archive for the time being. Thanks for reading, and find us at the Research Digest.
We’re talking about competitive impro – see Part 1 here. We left off with a nice account of how Theatresports, with its ‘contest’ of team versus team, is well positioned to create heat and energy in the audience
Obviously, not all competitive shows need to be the same. You might decide to play with an energy and vibe different from wrestling/sports, or even deconstruct it in some way. And I should note that Theatresports is carefully designed to produce its atmosphere, through Judges-as-bad-cops, scoring often taken out of the hands of the audience, the ‘Horn for Boring’, the basket. The Maestro format certainly has less ‘heat’, on the whole – although if you have a couple of mischievous players, like Daniel Arantia and Shawn Kinley, then all bets are off. But the core point remains: competition isn’t, really.
In actual fact, sometimes for the good of the show you need to take a risk that may provide you with a lower score, like doing a differently-paced scene to avoid pushing the audience to the limits of what they can take, or even just doing something crazy experimental with a strong likelihood of ‘not working’ to show the audience early on that the show can take any twists and turns, and we’re ok with that – and ok with their honesty on what did or didn’t work.
I remember a Theatresports final way back when – this is second-hand reporting; I couldn’t make the final (anyway we got kicked out in the first round, which is a typical Theatresports for me. Maestros treat me well, though). Somehow, an audience member managed to get entered onto the scoreboard as if they were a team, awarded points each round, and ended up winning the show. Apparently the front-runners were incredibly gracious in awarding them the trophy, but in the days that followed there was some wondering (perhaps not from the group but from friends or fans) whether this prevented them from claiming the bona fide champion title, for their press/flyers etc. It’s an understandable instinct that is also symptomatic of how easy it is for real-competition to creep into play-competition.
Similarly, I remember operating lights in another show and bringing a blackout three seconds into a scene because the very first line was a clear, funny button. (I would have been too chicken to do this on my own; the director correctly waved me down.) Again, I got the sense of a little dissatisfaction from the players: the scene got a good but not great score, I guess because the audience felt they hadn’t earned max points, and the team were very strong, so may have felt that possibility was stomped on.
And in terms of fair competition? Absolutely, they were (possibly) robbed of a point (or we saved them from mediocrity, who can really say).
But in terms of the show? The show needed a short scene, some contrast, a surprise. If the show is constrained by ‘fairness’ and due process of the competition, this puts those impulses in tension. It allows recrimination. Forget an early blackout, what about when a player from another team comes into your scene with a call-back, some meta-commentary, or even just to be mischievous and steal your chair while you aren’t looking? How can we as a collective ensemble – all the players in the show – be free to take risks when it might be perceived as sabotage or bad sportsmanship?
In addition, when we stress, we fail. The best shows are the ones where we feel the most effortless, where we feel even-handed towards whether we are doing it ‘right’ or not. When you pile on the pressure onto yourself, when you feel more judged by others, or less safe, you are very likely to do worse work on stage. J and I were asked to fill a gap in the last 5-aside, but were simply too knackered to feel we could put in a showing. For the hour or so we toyed with it, we decided we would have to set our own criteria for success: most pretentious group; fewest words spoken, most scenery in other people’s scenes. Anything but ‘winning’ or god forbid, ‘our best improv.’
It might seem like genuine competition has a function, to identify strong teams, but I think that’s a red herring. The strongest players should be making others look good, regardless of whose team they are on. And on any night, our function is to give the audience and other players a good time, and learn something along the way. That might mean doing a calmer scene/set than you might have done, because the group on before went wild and wacky, and you want to give the audience the gift of a moment to regroup, and the other group the gift of contrast, setting their piece apart rather than outdoing it. (And sometimes the opposite, attempting to outdo their crazy with ridiculous bravado and swagger – to the point of breaking down or looking ridiculous – might be the right decision for the night.)
We can’t be mischievous or risky unless we feel safe, and it’s difficult to feel safe when other people are in some way ‘against’ you. The best competitions I’ve seen have involved a great deal of mischief, but it does depend on that safety: if there are people on-stage who take the competition at face value rather than as a conceit, they may well resent it or even view it as gamesmanship.
Let’s sum up. I find competitive formats great because:
- they can generate heat
- they can allow more people on a single bill than would normally be practical, using elimination (eg Maestro)
- they give a clear shape to the show – people understand competition, eliminations, points-scoring et
- they encourage mischief and make it mean something, as the mischief can be punished and ‘justice’ done
- they give playful ways for different teams on a bill to interact – challenges, helping, sabotage
- they can provide authority figures with high status to look after the show and give freedom to players to act out – kids need the adults around to really be seen as such
- it’s a great way to tells a second story (another Tom Salinksy insight for me): the story of the performers as well as the stories within the scene. Grudges, gratitude, the whole shebang.
And the advice I try and give myself before a competitive show:
- Set yourself a fun goal
- Don’t attach too much meaning to the prize
- Form a one-off group to play with. Then you won’t subconsciously worry about winning or placing well.
- If the conditions make it safe to do so, be mischievous.
- Warm up together – regardless of whether you’re on different teams. Get together, you are the cast of one show.
- Try to make other teams look good.
The next Impro 5-a-side is coming up on 23rd March.
The next London Maestro will be at the Camden People’s Theatre on Sunday 4 May – details to come at the Spontaneity Shop.
The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite. These people as unworldy as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material, to construct in miniature a strange and utterly individual image of the world.
Last month London kicked off the first of a series of 5-aside competitive impro events, and by all accounts it went really well. This prompted me to muse a bit about the benefits and pitfalls of a competitive format. This got big enough for me to split: here I’ll focus on a useful pointer for competitive impro, and one of its biggest benefits.
I’ve played in competitive formats in Europe, the UK and Canada, mostly some derivation or other of Keith Johnstone’s formats, specifically Maestro and Theatresports. I’m repeatedly impressed by the evolved and considered philosophy that sits under them. There is a lot that could be said – Patti Stiles runs workshops on ‘How to do Theatresports better’; Maestro now has a (very unpretentious, helpful) guidance manual. But the idea that made the most impression on me is really very simple.
You shouldn’t be competing.
I heard this first from Tom Salinsky in the run-up to our first Maestro in the pleasant Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. (I walked past the Theatro Technis, another occasional Maestro spot, on the way to the bar in which I’m writing the first draft of this.) In the next post I’ll get into why this is so important, but to make sense of a show that is both Competition and Not Competition, it’s worth turning to Keith Johnstone, who recounts how he was inspired to create Theatresports by watching wrestling shows. As we all know, the outcomes of wrestling are fixed, but the experience isn’t fake. Wrestling generates ‘heat’ – provoking the audience into an excited, passionate and even angry frenzy – and that kind of experience is a rare one within a theatre. Fake competition generates authentic emotional results. Julia witnessed a Theatresports at the Loose Moose Theatre that epitomises this.
Performers from Calgary and Edmonton were playing each other in ‘The Battle of Alberta. (In reality, the Edmonton team was topped up by some Calgarians, something you wouldn’t normally see in a Derby match!)
In Theatresports, teams get points from a set of serious judges, who are the grown-ups in the room to contrast with the players. Early on, the judges made a fairly harsh call for one of the teams, docking a point for use of the word ‘Bum’. The team made a show of resentment at the call, echoing ripple of dissatisfaction in the audience.
As the show went on, that team started to act out more and more: running into competing scenes, using ‘Bum’ as a punchline, and provoking the judges, who responded unemotionally by docking them points and giving players time-outs – the Theatresports ‘basket’ worn upon the head for 5 minutes.
Both teams were getting on with doing scenes and giving challenges, both doing good work, but with the misbehaving team taking risks in and out the scene, whilst the other team played up their role in the show – the nice, diligent participants.
The audience started getting furious. “Give them points, that’s so unfair.” “They basketed all but one player – how are they going to do a scene? Oh, you’re making them do it on their own?????”(Solo scenes are actually a gift to a player, but within the theatre of Theatresports, they can appear a daunting challenge.) “What? They are all punished? They are all in the basket? Now they just miss even doing a scene!!!” They yelled, roared together, stood up and booed the judges.
By the time the ‘bum’ player basketed for the 2nd or 3rd time, his run through the aisle to the timeout area was met by audience members leaning out to hi-five him, like wrestlers or a baseball game. Thing is, no-one turned up with a strong desire to support that team and boo the ref – to this day, I’m not sure whether the punished team was the home team or the ‘Edmonton’ one. The game ended at 30-7 – the mischievious team were crucified. But everyone got a story out of the show.
And make no mistake, the players of the losing team would have left the show knowing that they had – together with their rivals and the judges – spent the night winning in every sense imaginable. In the next post, I spend a little time exploring why this spirit is so important.