Sunday, May 06, 2007

Improv Definition

I asked Nazira my improv professor to define Improvisation and she said:
Improvisación para mí es hacerte caso, es fluir, es este poder entrar en un estado, a ver le digo como un trance de percepción entre tu cabeza y tu cuerpo y tu corazón y decir que sí. Es decir que sí a una situación y creertela y jugar y fluir jugando.
To me, improvisation is to pay attention, to flow, it is to be able to enter a state [of mind/being] it is like a critical moment of perception among your head, your body and your heart. And it is to say yes. It is to say yes to a situation and to believe it and to play and to play as you flow.

Careful with the Menu

When I was travelling Northern Peru, I went to a restaurant to have a meal. I decided to go to a nice restaurant and they had candles lit on the table. Everybody looked at me since I was obviously a foreigner and it wasn't high tourist season. I asked for the menu and I opened it and put it near the candle to read it. But I put it too close to the candle and so my menu caught on fire. I didnt realise at first but when I realised I panicked and so I start slamminng the menu on the table to out the fire. So the people are looking at me like Im a maniac but the fire wouldnt go out so I just took the glass of water and threw it all over the table. And the fire went out. Of course I was really embarassed and everybody in the restaurant was laughing at me. Then the waiter brought me a new menu and once he moved me to another table he moved the candle away from me to avoid another 'fire' and as he stifled his laughter, said 'Cuidado con el menu por favor.." (Careful with the menu please). I was like 'ok.'

Friday, May 04, 2007

Improv in Peru: DI QUE SI! [SAY YES!]

So before I got to Lima, I had no exposure to improvisation as a branch of comedy apart from the Drew Carey Show. For some reason, I had neglected to even look for an improv group when I was in other parts of Latin America but I finally took the time to do it when a friend of mine told me he was taking classes at an improv school. I decided to take classes and interview the professors to learn more about what it means to do improv and its function in the peruvian context.

Improvisation has not been in Peru for a really long time but it has become increasingly popular within the last five years. I started taking improv classes with a group called Keto. Doing improv requires complete coordination of your mind and body. The first warm-up exercise was to walk around the room and to point to an object and to call it a different name for each step that you take. This is a means of getting you to rethink what you assume to be 'normal' or 'basic' knowledge and to open your mind to re-creating things.
Then you have a conversation with someone where you must make up a story from what the person says by starting each sentence with "si y..."("yes and..."). For instance, a conversation would start:
Person 1: John went to brush his teeth
Person 2: Yes and then he ate his breakfast
Person 1: yes and he did not finish because the breakfast was not well cooked
Person 2: yes and so he ate his shoe
So you basically create a whole new story for about 5 minutes without hesistating at any moment in the conversation or you have to start over and when that happens, your partner usually wants to kill you.

They then have you climb on top of a ladder and fall back into the arms of fellow students standing below you. I didn't have a problem doing that since I had already done bunjee jumping and I felt like there was no real danger involved but some people really couldn't let themselves fall back from the top of the ladder. But then again, I may just be a psycho in love with physical danger.
The purpose of these basic exercises are the following:
1. Mind and body coordination
2. Teamwork
3. Trust

The exercises often seem simple at first but they require you to think on your feet. They also have exercises where they have each student come up with a 2 minute story about any one topic. My first day at class each person had to tell a story about a carpenter but they would change the terms of telling the story once you stood up to talk. So when you get up to tell the story they will say: you must sing a song about the carpenter and the genre of the music is a western...Go!" Or they will tell you that the Carpenter is a Science Fiction movie and you must lay out who directed it, where it was made and give a summary of the movie in 2 minutes.

Director Sergio Paris explained that many scholars, actors or directors often look down on improv until they actually do it and they realise it is even harder to think on your feet in front of a paying audience when there is no script. Improv is probably the hardest form of theater that exists because it is so spontaneous. However, there are actually structures to doing improv that they teach you but they will all tell you the way to be good at it is through practice and experience.

The Relationship between Improv and Humour
So the intention of improv actors is never to actually produce humour. Humour is usually a bi-product of the improvisation itself. Every professor and every student at the improv school told me that they do not consider themselves comedians and that in trying to come up with a response or in trying to tell the story and often generate inadequate, senseless responses, you end up being funny. There was a game that we played where you had to tell someone some important news and the person would say "Que dijiste?" (What did you say?) and you would have to say something that rhymed with the last phrase you said. So for example, we created a scene where a guy had to tell his best friend that he was in love with the best friends' girlfriend. So he said:
"Guillermo, estoy enamorado de Ale." (Guillermo, I'm in love with Ale)
-"Que dijiste?" (What did you say?)
"Si quieres tomar un cafe?" (I said do you want some 'cafe' [coffee])
And the conversation continues until the other guy hears what he says and his angry reaction to the news is tempered by the fact that he has to rhyme the swear words that he said when he tells off his friend.
I hated that exercise because I had to rhyme in Spanish on my feet and that was NOT fun because at one point I just started inventing words but the professor thought that it was pretty funny so it wasn't that bad.

Because improv requires you to think on your feet, it means that any knowledge you have--even the most random knowledge-- becomes useful. According to a fellow improv student Teresa, she told me that she was learning to cook and she sometimes used knowledge about cooking when she needed vocabulary or needed to invent things in her improv stories. This was particularly necessary when they would have you act as a deaf mute translater as someone explains an arbitrary question like "Why do bees instead of ants make honey?" Obviously, nobody actually knew this which is why the explanation was usually very funny and became even funnier as the translator uses his/her body and face to 'translate' each phrase or word that the person said. Teresa used her cooking knowledge to tell the story and it made absolutely NO sense which is why it was so funny.
Humour as a bi-product adds to the fun of improv and is what keeps the audience entertained. So it is never the trying to be funny, it is to let humour happen organically. In many ways, improv has a strange relationship to humour because it is not like stand-up where you want people to laugh, nor is it like cartoons where you're using humour to communicate a message; humour is not at the center of the art of improv itself but is naturally produced in the development of an improv story.

Improv and Social Change
Keto as an improv group did not have some romantic vision about changing the world but the professor believed that improv was a way of working and changing the way individuals see the world. Nazira, the improv professor explained that the Carpenter exercise is about 'possibilities'. She believes that through that exercise her students will see how many different, interesting possibilities can come from any single idea. She says that when people see the various possibilities coming from the Carpenter story, then they can apply it to their daily lives and open their minds to new things. She said that the carpenter exercise coupled with the falling from the ladder exercise is how improv is a way to 'generar confianza' (generate trust). She told me: "El tema de ayer era la confianza y las posibilidades entonces las posibilidades eran el ejercicio del carpintero no? Cuántas posibilidades hay con una sola cosa? A veces uno en la vida se hace problemas y no puede salir de ellos pero si estás en un estado más positivo, encuentras respuestas y para una pregunta puede haber muchas respuestas. No todo es blanco ni negro. " [Yesterday's theme was trust and possibilities so the possibilities theme was the carpenter exercise right? How many possibilities are there with just one thing? At times one has problems in life and you can't solve them but if you are in a positive state of mind you can find answers and there may be many answers to that one question. Everything isn't black and white]

In response to my question as to what impact does she want improv to have on her audience she said: "Que la gente disfrute... y que la gente sepa que hay más formas de ver la vida y si viendo un grupo de locos que se paran allí, y no saben qué mierda va a pasar, y que [el grupo de gente] se lanzan al vacío y todo el mundo la pasa bién, uno también va a decir “hoy día voy a decir que sí a más cosas no?”...Hoy día voy a aceptar más. Voy a aceptar más al otro, voy a aceptar más a mí. Creo que si se pueden llevar algo a eso sería genial. " [may they (the public) have a enjoy it and let everyone know that there are many more ways of seeing life. And if watching a group of crazy people standing there without knowing what the hell is going to happen next, but those people launch off into an emptiness and have a good time then maybe the public too will say "today I am going to say yes to more things." Today I am going to accept more...I am going to accept someone else more, I am going to accept myself some more. I think that if improv can push them to that place then it would really be great.]