Longterm Improv Investments

There’s nothing more I love about Seattle than seeing August Wilson at the Seattle Rep, and so I was excited to attend The Piano Lesson today. Every time I see a good show there, I’m reminded that there’s so much potential for theater that we improvisers lose when we stop growing as collaborative story tellers.

I’m in a lot of strong shows and I have the blessing to work with tons of great improvisers. That said, I’ve been in few shows, including successful ones, over the last couple of years where most investment in storytelling and stakes was immediately spent for a few laughs or to fill space when a performer wasn’t sure how to further invest in the story. I’ve seen a lot of performers advance straight through the most dramatically interesting parts of stories because we didn’t trust the moment. And I’ve seen a lot of disdain (or at least lack of appreciation) for performers who play the quiet roles, the slow stakes-building roles, the roles that simmer for a long time before they burst into flame.  And so, as successful as these shows have been, it’s hard to see the potential for how much greater they could be.

August Wilson’s a great storyteller, so I don’t want to set too high a bar, but a lot of what happens in great plays could be achieved by a group of truly collaborative improvisers. The majority of the cast of characters in The Piano Lesson is in place to heighten everything around the central conflict, as embodied by just two characters. And all those support character actors are great! The best acting in today’s show came from those roles. Many of them spent large portions of the play offstage, or sitting at a table, reacting quietly and giving focus to the rest of the scene.  When they did have focus, they were engaging and entertaining, but rather than heightening their own character’s story, they used those moments to reinforce the weight of the conflict, before handing all that investment right back to the main drama of the show.  In the end, the weight all falls onto the two descendants who have come to own the piano and must decide what to do with it, so that at the end, the piano (and therefore the outcome of the show) has a full two hours of invested weight.

The best metaphor I can come up with is that every story has a piggy bank. Any time we expand long enough in an engaging way and the audience gives us their attention, we take that gold, and we have the option to spend it immediately for a laugh, or we can add that gold to that bank. When we have enough gold in the bank, the audience starts leaning in more.  They give us more gold.  Over the course of the story, you start spending some of that gold you’ve invested in the bank: characters have minor epiphanies, there are funny moments that arise out the story, etc.  The gold left in the bank earns interest.  You can measure how much you’ve invested by how much the audience cares about the outcome of the story.  And at the end of the story, if we nail the ending, we hand that gold back to the audience.

Great. There are a lot of performers out there who have learned the audience likes it when you give them money. New improvisers learn to earn gold and hand it right back to the audience, and they enjoy the reaction they give.  New improvisers who are greedy might learn to earn some quick gold at another performer’s expense and throw it right back to the audience by bluntly commenting or playing a character who doesn’t give a crap: both guaranteed ways to get a laugh and usually let the air out of the scene . Experienced improvisers might invest in expanding on a relationship in an engaging way and add gold to the bank. The best performers are engaging enough to save gold and also give some back to the audience as they do so. But experienced improvisers who are greedy start taking it on themselves to listen well enough to be able to take gold from the bank and spend it ahead of time, before the whole cast has time to grow that gold.  Thus arises that performer who gets feedback from audience, students, and even other improvisers, but who collaborators don’t really enjoy playing with.  The Janitor who already sang a song about advice, who suddenly jumps in front of the two lovers with another funny song, interrupting the big kiss the audience was waiting for. From that greedy performer’s point-of-view, the money in the bank is there for the taking, and the other performers just aren’t quick or bold enough to reach into the bank and take it.  From the other performer’s points-of-view, they were trusting the other improvisers to allow the story to reach the point where the time was right.

Now, it’s true that there are also performers who are green enough, or haven’t learned the confidence, or aren’t listening well enough to take gold from the bank when it’s time to do so.  But I think a lot of greedy, experienced improvisers assume that of their fellow players far too often, and start to believe their role is to spend the money on their fellow performer’s behalf. Eventually, performers who invest become disillusioned, and so they either join the greedier performers in spending the gold sooner, or they move on to other things.  I believe this is the reason I rarely see groups of more than a couple of improvisers really transcend this pattern and learn to invest as a group, and only then, silently as a group, allow the appropriate characters to spend the majority of that invested gold.

I think improv directors and groups can spend a lot more time exploring and investing in these dynamics simply by paying attention to it, and letting it be part of notes and direction. Players who invest but don’t get a big laugh need to be appreciated and supported for what they do. Most of us were drawn to performing, at some level, by a desire for appreciation: the “funny” improvisers get theirs from the audience on stage. The performers doing the work behind the scenes need to receive their share off stage.

Les Miserables, Prufrock, and Imagery

I saw Les Miserables at Village Theatre opening night.

I had a good time, so let me say some good things first: The set is fantastic, and a lot of the performances were wonderful (I know Kate Jaeger, but don’t think its bias speaking when I say that she, Nick DeSantis and Victoria Ames Smith made for some of the strongest Les Miserables scenes I’ve ever seen staged). Everyone involved should be proud of the piece. Go see it, and you’ll almost certainly be impressed.

Ensemble performing Lovely Ladies. Les Misérables production photo. © 2013 Mark Kitaoka. Property of Village Theatre.

Ensemble performing Lovely Ladies. Les Misérables production photo. © 2013 Mark Kitaoka. Property of Village Theatre.

Here’s the rub : I spent the whole time marvelling at the technical spectacles of the show. And that’s the problem. I was rarely very emotionally invested, and when the revolution came, it seemed compelled by the needs of the show than the needs of the characters. I barely paid attention to “les miserables”, because I was so distracted by the machinations of the stage. It was as if the title characters of the piece didn’t quite fit in with the level of production, so they were either cleaned up, or shipped out of the city so a nicely produced revolution could take place.

Of course, that’s almost always a problem with the musical version Les Miserables, and I still consider it one of my favorite musicals, but it certainly doesn’t achieve an ounce of what I think Victor Hugo set out to achieve when he wrote the book.

Today, I ran into another example of this pattern in art, where excess robs the audience of their ability to connect, when Slate posted this comic versionof T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by Julian Peters.

I like artist, and I love this poem, so it caught my attention when I didn’t like the piece as a whole.

Poetry has a bad reputation for being inaccessible, which is too bad, because the core of the art is the opposite. How does the artist make their experiences and feelings accessible to the reader?

Consider the lines depicted to the right, but alone, without the image:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Good poetry depends on the reader imagining the images described. And imagination is not creation, it is re-creation. The reader recreate the visual images out of their own experiences. When I read “certain half-deserted streets” I create the image out of the certain half-deserted streets in my memory, and suddenly I’m there.

When you hand me the image, I’m robbed of the process. These are somebody else’s half-deserted streets. When I read the comic, I notice how clever it is that “streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent” winds through the illustrated city, but when I read the poem, I actually connect to the memories about tedious arguments I’ve been part of, and I feel the connection.

At any rate, if I were to stage Les Miserables, I’d want to find a way to allow the audience to empathize with the people of Montreuil-sur-Mer and Paris. In this production, I never really did. And maybe that’s not what the Village audience wants. The Thenardiers work well, because the show makes us all Thenardiers, greedy for more spectacle, and taking advantage of the story in order to get what we want. But the poor of Paris disappeared, crushed under the massive set.

Actually, there was one moment that absolutely achieved what I’m looking for: Victoria Ames Smith’s “Castle on a Cloud”.

Victoria Ames as Little Cosette. Les Misérables production photo. © 2013 Mark Kitaoka. Property of Village Theatre.

Victoria Ames as Little Cosette. Les Misérables production photo. © 2013 Mark Kitaoka. Property of Village Theatre.

Little Cosette, standing in a small pool of light, while the massive set receded into the even larger darkness, really felt alone.  And when she sang beautifully, it felt like she was overcoming that isolation to connect with us. Maybe she was truly nervous to be on stage, or maybe she’s one of those rare children who can truly embody emotional acting, but when she sang, she was beautiful. The whole spectacle of the piece disappeared, and I was watching young Cosette stumble through the woods with a bucket alone on a mostly dark stage, and I was transported to my own woods, far scarier than any that could be built for a stage.

Production knew to get out of the way.  The woods were made of trees I’ve walked among, not the trees of a highly-skilled carpentry team, and I wasn’t impressed. I was moved.