danieldwilliam: (Default)

I’ve recently finished running a series of classes on Improv for Beginners.


I’ve enjoyed teaching them. I’ve learned quite a lot about the theory of improv from teaching the practise. Preparing the sessions took quite a bit of time despite having helpful notes from one of my colleagues. He’s done much more improv and improv teaching so his notes were more of an aide memoire whereas mine were more worked up. My output was okay.  I think the next time I run them it will be good. I’ll have some extra time to think about how the sessions could link together and how to coach people to get the most out of the sessions and the games and exercises I’m using.


The Illustrator ran a very good session on How To Get the Most Out of the Games. It was very practical guidance on what to be thinking about when you start on a scene and how to make them work well. For example, in a Secret Endowment game (one where one player does not have know what they have been endowed with, like Repair Shop or Actor’s Nightmare), you get a better result if you keep making Offers to the other person. If you are passive and wait for them to give you clues the game is a little dull. Not only are you not really playing the guessing game that lies at the heart of the handle but it tends to make you a passive character and that’s dull. If you take action it is easier to shape in the right direction.

I’m finding some of the Fixture Secretary stuff hard going at them moment. I’m not getting much input about what we should be working on this term or how we might work on it. I’m certainly not getting any volunteers to do anything. I want to avoid the situation where I do all the thinking and all the doing. I don’t have time. I’m not a good enough improviser or teacher. I don’t know what these guys want so I’m not going to guess (although see para above on Secret Endowments).

I still enjoy it and the difficulties are far far outweighed by my enjoyment of the actual work and the value that I get from the group working well.

The other big improv wrestle is what is our overall objective. Do we want to put in the effort to improve our quality? Should we be a small, very committed group of improvisers who aspire to excellence or do we want to have an open access policy? There are pros and cons on both sides. More I think on this anon.

Over the next few months I want to work on narrative and character based games, some long form stuff and being snappier about how we do operate on stage (Get On, Get A Laugh, Get Off).

I'm also very excited about the prospect of doing a devised piece. (This is a piece where the performance is static but the content is created through a process of improvisation.)

danieldwilliam: (Default)

 A really good improv session last night. Excellent. I am so pleased with it.
I was leading a session on Endowment )

I was leading a session on Endowment. Endowment being the giving of attributes about a character, an environment or a narrative. It’s about making and accepting Offers and Chivalry

The handles worked well. Things by and large had a beginning, a middle and an end. They were funny. The new people seemed to get the concepts. Everyone seemed on good form, enthusiastic and keen to be involved. There were some good performances and some good contributions. Many of the old hands were giving bits of side coaching to new people, explaining why certain handles are structured the way they are or why certain guidelines apply. It was good to see.

I was pleased that the container I had built worked well and everyone felt able to do good work. I must ask one of the participants to tell me some more about why she thought it worked so I can build on the success. I was a little intimidated by having the Illustrator there as he taught me this series of classes last year. My how I’ve grown up in a year.

If I were being critical I would say that the characters and the narratives weren’t unique or deep but that’s okay because these are beginners’ session and people are still learning the handles and the Improv Guidelines and Concepts and how to create a narrative. There is a lot going on. What’s important is that things worked. Success is a good thing.

Of particular note is one scene in a handle called Here Comes, where two players on stage discuss the next character to arrive, endowing them wildly. Two newbies were on stage, let’s call them Eric Newby and Ernie Newby (they can own their own involvement in this if they wish). Eric set about endowing the next person to arrive, The Illustrator, as a deaf foreigner who spoke almost no English. Then Eric exited the scene. That’s a tough call. Especially as Ernie left on stage with the Illustrator had never done improv before. I winced when I saw what was happening. It worked out. The Illustrator came on and mimed the characteristics of the next person to arrive, a strong person they were going to need to move an object on stage and thus end the overall handle. Ernie guessed that that the next person to arrive would be a monkey. A strong monkey turned up and shifted the object to the rapturous and concluding applause of all. What really impressed me was the Illustrator’s flexibility and mastery of his craft and how Chivalrous he was. He knew this was going to be challenging so made a big entrance giving everyone time to settle into the situation. I was also really, really, really impressed by Ernie who could have gone to pieces but didn’t. Characters were retained, narrative was developed, offers were made, the next entrant was endowed as a monkey. One of the key bits of learning for new improvisors is that there is no wrong answer, except no answer.  If you think your partner is miming a monkey, say monkey, and trust that between you can make it work.

Key learning points for me were chivalry is important, how useful it is to keep calm and carry on and just how good my improv troupe is. You could describe endowing someone as a deaf foreigner as Pimping (deliberately putting someone in a difficult situation through endowment). Being someone who struggles to communicate and with whom other people struggle to communicate with makes it difficult to carry on any dialogue.  On the other hand, it was a very strong clear offer. No one could be in any doubt that there was a defined character ready to walk into. A tricky one to play but something inhabitable.

 It just so happens that the Illustrator is one of the best people I know at gibberish games so could do a non-English speaker superbly. If I had done this to the Illustrator you could argue that I knew he could carry it off and I would know I would have to work with him to help him out. For Eric you can argue (and I totally do) that until you see the difficulties that Pimping can create it’s difficult to see when you’re doing it. Until you’ve had something technically difficult or really strange launched at you it’s not easy to grasp how discombobulating it can be. The difference between Pimping and a challenging Endowment is subtle and a lot depends on the intention.  All in all it was a great learning experience.

It also made me reflect on my own Chivalry or lack or it. In the same handle I endowed Ernie as being from Govan. Ernie is not good at accents. I didn’t know this. I had (unintentionally) put Ernie in a difficult position. Had I done it deliberately I would be very cross with myself. Doing it by accident was careless and I should have been more careful. I know better and should have been thinking further ahead. This is why one of the important things about improv is learning the strengths and weaknesses of your colleagues. The improv group is a safe place to explore this.

I notice that I feel different after leading a session to how I feel after participating in one. Participating in a session, especially a really good one usually leaves me highly energised. Leading one I notice doesn’t leave me energised. I feel like I’ve done some hard work. Enjoyable work. Work to a good purpose. Work nevertheless. I feel like energy has flowed out of me. Not a lot of energy and I’m glad I spent it. That’s one to think on 

I have been discussing if Improv is a eudaimonic activity or not and I wasn’t sure. I enjoy it so much that I find it difficult to pick out the enjoyment from doing from the doing good and being connected happiness. I think it probably is eudaimonic, for me at least. It’s certainly not empty enjoyment. You have to put work into enjoying it and the amount you get out depends on how much you put in and how well your group works.

danieldwilliam: (Default)

Inter alia this emerged in a fascinating conversation with [livejournal.com profile] star_tourmaline  last night. It’s primarily directed at her but, obviously, anyone can play.


We were talking about alpha males and pack behaviour, me from an improv status games point of view. Neither of us wanted to divert the conversation but here is the cul-de-sac that I was strolling up.


Pack behaviour is an evolved behaviour. As social animals it’s a behaviour we fall back into. People often behave as if they lived in a pack or a troop and not in a city. (Civilisation is the art of living in cities where you don’t know everyone). Through the application of reason and wisdom we can learn to live and work together better. I don’t mean we only tap into our reason and only deal with thoughts not feelings. I mean we consciously go about designing the society or organisation that we want to live in and set about encouraging the behaviours that support best living, rather than revert to instinctive behaviour.


Instinctive behaviour is often not your friend. Your instincts are largely designed for a small number of environments and a limited set of emergencies where your personal survival is only required on average.


 Here is why I think it might not serve us well to rely on pack instincts. Firstly, pack behaviour is about the strength of groups directed against other groups and individuals. It’s  about structured co-operation. Nothing wrong here. Mainly, it is about rationing access to sex and breeding opportunities.  Your position in the hierarchy determines how many breeding opportunities you have and how much group resource is put into supporting your breeding success.


I put forward the testable hypothesis that the closer the kinship relationships between group members the more curtailed access to breeding opportunities for non-alphas will be and the more rigid the hierarchy will be. If we are all related there is no need for all of us to breed.


I also think that the more opportunities there are for either functional specialism or different ways to make a living the less rigid the hierarchy and the more open access to breeding opportunities.


So in a pack where members are distant cousins rather than siblings and where there is more than one way to make a living there will be more individual freedom. I offer a comparison of mole rats and chimps.



I am wary of a placing reliance on a system which is mainly evolved for preventing fraternal bloodshed over access to sex for anything more complex than stopping us killing each other all the time. Constitutional democracies are a designed system for a reason (and with reason).


This is my second issue with relying on pack behaviour. It is an evolved system. So it has emerged from what has come before, which was not perfect. It hasn’t been designed from scratch to suit the current situation. It is cobbled together out of the bits left over from the last attempt to do something new. Evolution is also brutally indifferent to the wants of the individual. It follows a satisficing strategy (good enough with the resources we have) to get as many genes as possible into the next generation. It cares not a jot if you are happy, or even if you die. So long as on average some genes are passed on, the individual is not important.


I think pack behaviour is therefore unsuited for the large communities we live in with their rich and complex abundance of ways to get by and with our self-aware focus on the wants of the individual.


It’s why I am wary of any one who tries to lead by being an alpha male. As a way of leading a group it rather went out with the stone age.


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