The other day, I wanted my Harold team to work on incorporating moves from the opening into the rest of the show in order to infuse not only the content of the opening but also its style into the whole piece. The exercise I put to them was this: do an organic opening, then choose three (and exactly three) style elements from that opening (a gesture, a sound, a stylized statement, etc.) and use them a) in the initiation of the first scene, b) at some other point in the first scene, and c) in the edit from the first scene to the second scene.
It was a very specific exercise, and there was some confusion. “If we’re working on organically integrating these moves through the show, why would we be so rigid about how we integrate them in the exercise?” My initial answer was this: “It’s just for the exercise. We won’t do it this way on stage, but I want to isolate the skill right now and work out how we might use it when we actually do perform.”
Of course, it can be disconcerting to hear that you’re going to rehearse something for an hour and then never do it like that on stage, and the group was still a little reticent. That’s when a member of the team, Sasha Goldberg, stepped in with a more elegant answer than I had given: “Scales and arpeggios, guys. Scales and arpeggios.”
I’ve talked before about not treating rehearsal like a finished product, and instead as a place to work out ideas, experiment with styles of play, expand your skills toolbox, etc., and this experience was a beautiful sub-set of that concept. In this case, I was purposely setting up a scenario that was not meant to be a finished product. I would never want the team to actually go into the show with that kind of overly-specific directive. They’d be, as we like to say in the biz, “all up in their heads.” But, I did want them to feel how they might integrate those moves and when. And without a specific directive for the exercise, I wouldn’t have gotten the data I needed as a director in order to set the team up for performance success. I needed to see how these moves were going to function, when they were and were not successful, which types of moves yielded the best or most natural repetition in the scenes, etc. in order to coach the team toward the successful executions and away from pitfalls that might hang up the show. Additionally, without practice the team might have gravitated to one type of execution again and again (only using the opening moves in the edit, for example), and wouldn’t have gotten practice with how the move might work elsewhere, or how different moves might work in different ways.
Improv is one of those strange art forms (like abstract painting) about which people sometimes proclaim, “I could do that.” Since everyone coming to it is fully capable of having a conversation with another person, of “playing pretend,” and—on the whole—of “being funny,” there’s a mistaken perception that all you need is a little push in the right direction and some stage time then, poof—you’re an improviser. We’d never claim that a five-year-old who’s had two piano lessons is a “pianist.” We wouldn’t even claim a teenager with years of lessons is “a pianist” (unless they happen to be a prodigy). My daughters spend most of the time they practice piano playing scales and chords, practicing rhythms, etc. And even the “songs” they play are short and isolate the skills they’ve been working on (not that they know that). They are nowhere close to being “pianists” yet, but they can’t get there without this isolated skills practice.
But skills practice isn’t just for beginners. In fact, professionals spend even more time working on scales and other skills exercises in order to maintain their fundamentals and refine their techniques. Walk by the practice rooms in a conservatory and you’re more likely to hear exercises being played over and over than full-out musical performance pieces.
And so it is with improvisation. With new improvisers, it’s the basics (agree, have a relationship, be in a defined space, etc.), but as you grow as a performer, you keep adding new skills to your arsenal, and each time you do, you’re a beginner again. And so you isolate skills, practice them in steps, talk over what worked and what didn’t, and work on it some more.
And then, when you get on stage, your director probably says something like, “Okay, now forget everything we worked on and just have fun out there.” That’s also a unique and strange thing about improv—a stage play director doesn’t say, “Forget your lines and just wing it!” A football coach doesn’t say, “Now forget the plays and just do what feels right!” But in improv, there’s a necessary level of “mindlessness” that you need to have on stage in order to be present and affected by your fellow players and the show. Which may be why, for me, being mindful and thoughtful in rehearsal is even more important. I’ve mentioned before the importance of intuition—as we know, intuition is something that must be cultivated and reinforced, and it’s something that filters though the intellect, but then finds a home in a deeper place—in fact, once an intuition embeds itself deep into the psyche, it is nearly indistinguishable from instinct. And that’s why it’s so important to create experiences that allow you to practice the behaviors you want your brain to “mindlessly” replicate on stage.
Most people hear a great jazz solo and think there’s some sort of magic or instinctive gift that allows to player to execute it. The truth is that almost all of the jazz greats had a deep understanding of theory. And they’d practice those scales and arpeggios until they became second nature, so that when they would improvise on stage, those coherent musical ideas would express themselves in a way that felt totally spontaneous but also grounded in the inherent rules of Western music. Sometimes we as a culture like to tell myths about preternatural talents (Robert Johnson learning to play the guitar from the Devil himself, or red shoes that magically turning you into a prima ballerina), but those mythologies represent a fantasy, not a reality. In reality, it takes a whole lot of time and effort to make art look (and feel) effortless in its execution. Anyone who says differently is doing something wrong.
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