Dramatic Improv with Rachael Mason

This was an amazing course, I really felt I gained a great deal from it, and the class itself was strong and worked hard, just the type of class one is after! Although it was “Dramatic Improv”, there were plenty of laughs, but it was improv taken to a more profound level, improv with greater depth, and creating something altogether more engaging to watch. In a real sense, it was acting and investing reality into the scenes.

If you get the chance, take Dramatic Improv with Rachael Mason!

Laughter is a byproduct of good scene work, even it is dramatic…

Play every scene like it’s never going to be edited. Because you might not be edited – or someone might want to fuck with you!
So, when you are in a scene, don’t look for the edit – although you should see it.

The Heart, the Head and the X factor are what makes up character, and every character is really you.

Being the same as your scene partner is easier, being different is more difficult. There are so many things that we want to be doing in improv, why make life difficult for yourself.

Drama is about Choices, no Conflict.

Reasons give Choices their Depth. So, make sure to make choices, and to give them depth, come up with reasons (even if some of those reasons remain in your head).
The difference between good comedy improv and stella comedy improv is depth.

In improv, 90% of laughter is the laughter of recognition.
So, the burden should shift from trying to be clever and interesting to trying to just be.

Being = listening to others, feeling, reacting to that feeling. Accept the feeling is real, accept the reaction.

In this game, we are looking for no easy choices. We want behaviour over words. This is about respect for content over value. You can hand over a diamond or a turd. Hand people a diamond.
Be in the moment – Listen and React. Do so genuinely.

“You are at your most organic and interesting when you are out of your comfort zone” Del Close

To do, to do
We played this with emotion added. So, in a circle, everyone clicking their fingers to give the beat, one person would say a word to the next person, that person would reply, then everyone would say both words together followed by “to do, to do”, so “apple”, “pear”, “apple pear, to do, to do”, then the second person would turn and say a new word to the next person and round it would go.
When done with emotion, it adds to the complexity of the game, good warm up exercise.

Coming onto a scene, be looking up, at your scene partner, at the scene around you. Looking up says I am interested. Looking down, even though it normally means you are thinking, says the the audience, fear and no interest.

The detail given at the top of the scene is the diamond. We are beginning worlds, and we want to be beginning these worlds in as few lines as possible.

The review ready character. This is something that Second City demand of people auditioning. This is a character that you know so well you can put it into any situation. It is the character, not the situation that makes the funny, because it is the character’s relationships with others that is interesting.

Lay the foundation of relationship down so that we can then layer games on top.
Simply by being on stage with someone, the audience sees a relationship.
Making the same character choice as your scene partner reinforces that relationship to them.
Pick an emotion. The wise choice is to mirror the emotion of your scene partner.

Character plus Emotion plus Location equals Scene.

Changing your body shape changes your inner monologue.

We stood in a line opposite a partner
Going down one side of the line and back up the other, one person chose an emotion (with no words). The partner copied it. The key was to make it very clear, play it at a minimum of 7 out of 10.

An emotional choice is the greatest gift you can give yourself.
A name is the greatest gift you can give your scene partner, so give it with emotion. Try to use the name that you feel your partner embodies. Names and emotion complete the world.

It would be easy to start scenes with, with an emotion, giving your partner a name, and they respond with the same.

The most effective game in a scene is to heighten the emotion.

Then, in lines opposite one another, one would make a bold character choice, would then choose an emotion and would call their partner a name. The partner would then mirror and give them a name back.

Don’t ask a question, copy, mirror etc. Mirroring can be brilliant if you are father daughter, man and his butler, man and his dog. If you have chosen an emotion, don’t change it just because you are now something different than you thought you were entering the scene as – it will be more interesting if you keep your character choice.

A scene is never about what you are doing and where you are doing it, it is about who’s doing it.

There are 3 ways to change character that are Heart:
– imagine part of your body is being pulled in a direction. E.g. eyelashes, throat, belly, nose hairs – the more random the part, the better.
– total body physicality – age, so young or old, disability (maybe a full upper body cast)
– play a human inspired by an animal – the trick is to go full animal first. Feel it before you go to human, to make sure you keep the essence. Feel it with all the muscles, take your time. Try speaking like that too.

All these things merit practice by yourself so that when you come to the stage you can slip easily into them rather than have to feel your way into them like you have to the first time.

The modern attention span is short, so make sure that you are interesting with the whole of the body.

Full body attention and commitment is the easy way into the “WOW” (Desmond Jones style)

There are 3 ways to change character that are Head
– intention. E.g. late, you have just killed someone, you have just been at a funeral.
– emotion with an adjective (you don’t need to say what the emotion is, because you show it
– fully formed character from a genre. Rachael had us feel the clothing of the character, the heat, the smell, any discomfort.

We walked around the room trying on the 6 different ways into character. For the Heart characters, we would say lines that that character might say; For the Head characters, we were to say lines that were not reflective of the intention or emotion; For the Head genre characters, we were to say lines that these characters would say, but that are not from a film.

Remember, you never have to justify an emotion.
Love your scene partner. Never make them crazy or on drugs. If they have a drinking problem, “Yes, and” it – give them even more an the baby to hold!
Of the 6 character changes, only emotion can be mixed with each.

Choose your emotion and don’t change it for anything (particularly for location or situation!)
You can still say things that coincide with that location even if the demonstrated emotion does not.

At Second City, the first line is the creation of worlds for the development, eventually, of satirical skits.
At Annoyance, a line is just a line, once said, it is gone, it doesn’t matter.

With these 6 characters, we don’t need to justify them. That is what the rookie improviser would do.

We did a bunch of scenes as each of these. We started each scene “10 minutes after the start” – not talking about the situation, talking about anything other than the situation. This added real depth.

When the joke is the situation, it is shallow, but a disabled person who is an astronaut or a deep sea diver is interesting. The joke is not the disability, the joke is the character, and the character in an unusual situation has added depth. A surgeon making a sandwich is more fun than a surgeon operating on someone.

“If you are going to play someone in a wheelchair, make them an arsehole” Del Close. The wheelchair isn’t the joke.

If you walk in as an old lady and I make you a superhero, this is a gift. You are now an old lady superhero.

Doing scenes as these characters created 6 great scenes in a row. It allowed really simple choices. Showing rather than telling.

Choosing to be one of the characters makes you free to be a character. Being a character gets you out of your head – and into your scene partner’s head.

Think “why did they say that to me, how does it make me feel, and how should I react?”

We then did some really deep scenes. Rachael painted them around us, really detailed, horrible situations, such as being in a car crash or family has been taken hostage, and we then start the scenes in the position after all reactions to the location / situation are past.
What can the audience see? What are we discovering?

Tension and conflict are interesting. Arguments are hard.

Playing drunk is the opposite to what happens, because drunk people try to act sober. The rookie version of the scene is to play that. The mature version plays the reality.

When there are 2 people on stage = 50% responsibility for the scene + 50% of the listening
When there are 3 people on stage = 33% responsibility for the scene + 66% of the listening

What is interesting is not that clever thing you say. What is interesting is your emotional reaction.

Rookies fill the void of silence.
Silence is sexy. It gives us subtext. It allows the actor to act.

Rookies like to talk. Don’t

Count to 5
Round in a circle, one person gave a line to the next person. That person counted silently to 5 before responding. This was riveting to watch, it looked like the second person was thinking (and it gave them time to think)

Listening; hearing; processing; then responding.

So, to trick yourself, paint the room you are in with this detail.
Think quickly, act strategically.

When we play pirates or wacky characters, play them with integrity. Give them real character. Feel the truth in them.

We are not in competition with our scene partners, we are there to support our scene partners. Care for them with all your heart.

If you are repeatedly given a piece of shit, pinch your nose and eat it – consider it a great challenge. If you ever feel like not getting up, that is the moment you should get out there. If there are people you don’t like playing with, play with them. The fact that they are difficult will make you a better player.

There are no rules, there are just more productive choices.

The only rule is to listen. Receive information and simply be in the moment, react emotionally and respond.

A Harold is where you take a suggestion, that turns into a world, you go deeper into that world, then deeper still into the world. This is like a microscope, and from it we get meaning.

The opening is when we decide the energy and intensity with which we will attack our Harold. Out of our opening, we will conjure up a truth.


Day 2, 23 August 2012

Going for quick laughs destroys the integrity of the scene. Listening is key, listening provides the information for you to use. The audience hear it, they want to see the truth of what you have laid out. Listen and have more emotion.

Calling one another by names almost cements the scene. The audience are more invested in the characters when they know their names, and teh characters know more about themselves when they know their own names. Name repetition is good.

We find the subtlty of a character through their relationships.

The excitement of watching improvised comedy is watching people making choices on the spot.

Good drama is all about the consequences of choices.

In comedy, if you tell me I’m fat, my mouth is too full of butter to reply.
In drama, if you tell me I’m fat, I’ve two choices to answer.
So, make bold character choices and decide the subtext.

There is a difference between improvisers disagreeing and characters disagreeing.

Making clever choices
A clever choice is like jack knifing a lorry. You are being a dick to your scene partner and are forcing them to work harder. It requires a much better improviser to follow in your tracks without being flipped out of the scene. Make the simple choice, and the simple choice is easy to find when you react emotionally.

We did “Word at a time story”. Then we did it again with fewer adjectives, kept it simpler and drove straight at the point.

Then we did
In a circle, Rachael said a word, such as “yellow” and pointed at someone. That person pointed at someone else and said another word from that group (in this case, fairly obviously the group is colours), and so on around the group until everyone was pointing at someone else and everyone had said a different word from the group. We then did a round like that, but just looking at one another rather than pointing.
Then Rachael said a word to give a new grouping, such as “Greenland”, and pointed at someone. The same process, until everyone in the group had a new word and was pointing. A round of that, then that grouping plus the first grouping.
Then another grouping, then another, until there were as many groupings as people in the group. This required massive levels of concentration, was a very interesting exercise to play.

Then, in two lines, we did two line scenes. Firstly as lovers, then siblings, parent / child, Moriarty / Holmes (hatred)
One says a line, the other feels how it affects them and responds. Make sure to use enough detail.

We then did the really dramatic scenes. Each scene started well into it, any chat about the situation itself was long past. Rachael painted the scenes themselves very clearly.

* 2 hostages, tied up, waiting to be beheaded, beaten up. This scene was very serious, with moments of release of tension.

The interesting things about the scene were the taking their time with it. The scene still had laughs. A lot of this is to do with audience expectation, so these scenes done in a Harold would certainly need protecting. Someone coming into the scene would have ruined it, say as a terrorist. That would have been the rookie version.
A whole show done like this would be amazing, but the audiences expectation would have to be set. However, deciding in advance that one of the beats was to be a serious one in a normal Harold would be brilliant to watch.
Dark has hilarious to it too. A favourite album has both fast and slow songs.
The discipline is following the gut, not humour.

* A massive car wreck, the smell of petrol, both are pinned, don’t know if they will survive until the emergency services arrive.

* On the last of the planes on 911, making a last phone call. I was in this scene. It was emotional.

Note to self, it is very difficult not to crack a joke. In the scene, there is no audience. Also, if I was in that situation, my natural reaction might be to try to make light of it, but this is defensive and has much less power than showing the vulnerability. Think what the character in this situation would do, because it is not me.

* Open water scene, have been treading water for a couple of days by now.

* Family taken hostage in their own home.

There is a great deal of show not tell in these scenes. The scene is about what is happening here. Here is where the tension is . Acting is action!

This dedication, focus, feeling, can be put into anything.

Try not to say to clever, interesting, funny thing. Try to feel the emotion and emotionally respond. It is, in fact, easier.
Slotting in the false stuff, the thought through stuff, is no fun to watch. The laughs are much cheaper.

Next, we worked with scenarios that rookies think are comedic, but played them straight.

Both for drama and for comedy, know the person you are in a scene with. If you don’t then you have no relationship. No strangers, no transactions. Just people in worlds.

There are 3 types of 3 person scenes.
Each for themself.
2 on 1.
All 3 together.

That is, least good, second best, and best.

At the start, try to let one of each of the first 3 lines come from each person.
We did 3 lines scene initially. Be patient.

Then we did 3 person scenes, again talking abut anything other than what we were doing. Good spacwork is great to heighten the character

A scene where nothing is happening, we are not talking about the situation, yet it is compelling because the audience recognises it. The fill in the gaps and see loads of subtext that even the players don’t notice.

After each scene, Rachael would ask what the scene was about. This made very interesting analysis.

Starting scenes in the middle with an opinion. You trick yourself by not talking about what you are doing.
The skill in long form is about connecting the braids of themes together.

So, the scene of kids playing with blocks and discussing nakedness was a scene about innocence.
The factory workers discussing the legalisation of pot was a scene about repression.
The rookie version of the factory would have been about the factory, boredom with what they were doing etc. Boring.

2 guys playing computer games discussing the election. Social satire.

Play with your partner, the audience is not there!

Dramatic scenes require getting used to not getting a laugh.

Choosing an action and an opinion is the difficult thing, so help yourself and your scene partner by gifting both action and opinion – and committing to your scene partner.

In these scenes, we were tricked into depth by having the situations thoroughly painted. We can trick ourselves by painting it ourselves.

3 person scene in an horrific situation but not talking about the horrific situation makes the scene all about the horrific situation. E.g. 3 in a car having just witnessed a horrific crash.

You can have no idea of relationships if you’ve not looked your scene partners in the eye.

Rachael demonstrated the spacework addition to a scene. The barber’s shop, someone being shaved, then she came on the scene as the barber’s shop pole and immediately gave the scene more depth.

* 2 on a comfy sofa, 1 in a comfy chair on the other side of the stage. From a fan in the middle of the room hangs a body. No talking about the body.

I was the one on the chair, I offered tea, played very straight. This was not the rookie scene.

* 3 in a room, a bloody pile of money, guns and masks are on the table in front. They discuss having pork chops for supper.

* A couple in a bar at the top of a building, they can see across the way someone who is about to jump off. Who is he? Do they care? Not care? Ramifications? But can’t talk about it.

We fearlessly invested, so the scenes were great.

A novice improviser will fail.
A good improviser will FAIL!

This is playing with fucking up, protecting the freak. This means that whatever is thrown, we can just roll with it and ask for more. It means that no one can ruin it for you, because you are committing and delivering you.

Rachael did some scenes with us, her and one other, and we had to try to fuck it up. She just rolled with it.
It really does take 2 people to ruin a scene. If you hold onto your shit, they really cannot ruin it for you.

So, protect the freak, but don’t say that you are. Show that you are listening. Do so with incredibly big ears. Hear everything.

We played “Show me the worst scene ever” – no one could, because we were all committing to failure, committing to break the rules, but by committing we were unable to fail.

Feel that fourth wall close.


Day 3, 24 August 2012

We started class with the usual warm ups.

Zoom, Schwartz, Elvis, Profigliano
In a circle, we went round it, pointing from one to the next, saying either Zoom, Schwartz, Elvis or Profigliano, where Zoom is a simple point across the circle, Schwartz is a block (requiring the person who’d been blocked to try again), Elvis is a pass to the left, and Profigliano is a pass to the right.

Bippity bippity bob
Here, in a circle, someone is in the middle until they can get someone else into the middle. They do this by looking at someone and either trying to say “Bippity bippity bob” before that person says bop, or by saying one of an agreed set of words, with the person they say it to having to immediately make the correct corresponding move, along with both the people on either side of them.
The words we used, were Mermaid (twirled hair with right hand, sides make hand to waves), Elephant (made trunk with left arm, sides make ears), Jello (whole body wobble, sides make bowl), Charlie’s Angels (points both hands like holding a pistol at centre, sides hold pistols up), Emelia Erhart (makes hands into goggles, sides make wings). You can create your own to add to this.

Remember, in group warm ups, you are responsible for your fraction of the whole. Commit to the energy. If there are 11 of you, you are 1/11th of the room, but 10/11ths of the listening.

We started with basic warm up scenes.
Make a bold physical choice and talk about anything other than that bold choice.

Then one came out and made a bold physical choice, the other came out, mirrored that bold physical choice and started object work. The first person then mirrored or complemented the object work. If you cannot think of complementary object work that is at least as bold as the first person, it is better to mirror – heighten, don’t be the one bringing less to the scene.
And make sure not to talk about what doing!

Final warm up scenes.
1 person out, makes a character choice, then starts object work. The other person comes out and copies. They play a scene, each making sure to gift the other person their name.
Remember, with names it is helpful to say the name several times. This helps you remember their name, it helps them feel their character, it builds the relationship for you both, and it helps the audience connect with both the characters and the relationship.

Next we worked on suggestions and how to create a good scene.
What does the suggestion mean to us? Think wide on the suggestion. This is one of the times when we don’t want to go obvious, not the first thought, but the second or the third.
Then, choose a character (1 of the 6 ways into, plus emotion);
Start object work (our character will do things differently from us ourselves, live the character and do it that way);
The next out, mirrors or complements;
A gift is given – to the scene (where), to your partner (who) or to yourself (who) (a gift because it elicits an emotional response);
An emotional response happens;
The rest of the scene is emotional responses to each thing said.

Within this, remember the character you have chosen is defined. Being thus defined, s/he has a point of view. A point of view doesn’t change, just the emotional reactions that come through this point of view.

Remember, our emotional response should be way past “doing something about whatever this is”. It is about the emotional response within a relationship, hence why it is so much better to “know” the character you are in the scene with.

An example of a good vs a rookie scene:
“Captain, the castle is under siege”
Rookie response = “pull up the drawbridge, load the arrows, prepare the men”
Mature response = “it would be an honour to die by your side”

The mature scene is the scene that happens 10 minutes after the rookie scene.
Don’t respond to the scenario, respond to the relationship.
So, interpret the relationship, who is this person to me? Decide on the motivation for yourself and for your scene partner. Make a fucking choice – and the first choice is fine!

In “Yes, and”, the “and” is the emotional response.
We can go straight past the rookie response, but if we do say the rookie response, make sure to at least say the after part. The after part is where the interest lies.
How does it make you feel? Say that.

The economy of words is better, that is what we are driving towards. The rookie response is unnecessary, so drop it and concentrate on the emotions. Get in touch with them.
“Why did s/he say that to me? How to I make it important?”

“Our son is sure to be a genius growing up in this nursery”
Has so many meanings for you to choose from to emotionally respond to. In a vague order of importance:
1 How was it said?
2 The word “son” – because the daughter was a failure?
3 “sure” – arrogance or sarcasm?
4 “genius” – rather than the other idiots inthe family?
5 “growing up” – what is it about becoming an adult to this person?
6 “this” – not just any nursery?
7 “nursery” – old fashioned / specific word?
8 “our” – as opposed to your useless son?
9 “in” – locked in, stuck here, not at?
10 “to be” – because he’s not now?
11 “son is” – rather than son’s states education of the speaker?
12 “subtext” – what would you dig into this?

How to deconstruct – listen hard, what do you hear? Choose it, react emotionally – I want to understand why you said that to me. How does it make me feel?

In a 2 person scene, the most beneficial gift is to your partner.
In a 3 person scene, the most beneficial gift is to the scene or yourself.

Improv for the sake of improv is different from improv in order to end up eventually with something scriptable.

In 2 lines, we did 2 line, 2 person scenes.
Make a strong character choice. The other person mirrored. The first person made a statement about themselves (their character) – so gifting themself. Their partner responded emotionally.

[It might be an interesting exercise to try this giving the rookie response, i.e. just responding to the words, and then giving the mature response, responding emotionally to the meaning.]

Then, we did the same exercise as above, but in 3 lines, (so that after the first emotional response, the first person responds to that response, emotionally), and gifting our partner with a statement about them.

Finally, we did the above exercise, but gifting the scene with a statement about where we are. This is the trickiest, remember, respond emotionally, do not be talking about the situation or location once that information has been given.

In fact, once a location has been given, physically showing off the scene gives more information to the audience that words, they get to build it themselves.

Remember, there are 3 gifts into the scene. They hit the person on the receiving end differently. The easiest for you to hear is the gift that tells you about yourself.

We don’t have to swing vine to vine in this work. We don’t have to stumble into moments of genius.

In a 3 person scene, you are responsible for 1/3 – but only for 1/3. If you pimp everyone, you are pimping everyone!

Always remember, we want to keep it present, we want to keep it in this room.
-> Relationships, Emotion, Listen deeply, Respond with feeling.

Talking about the “thing”
Talking about the thing is not good. However, if the thing is a metaphor, that is great! (As that way, it is still a scene about the relationship)

Matching always works because it builds the relationship.

Focus, Listening, Dedication, Commitment, all filtered through the relationship.

10 minute scenes. Starting with someone coming out, starting an action, with an emotion. Keep it in the room without talking about the room.

Keep using the name over and over. This helps your partner, helps the audience, helps you. The audience loves you the better they know you. Punctuating a scene with the name builds the emotion. Using “we” rather than “I” also builds the relationship.

Keep up the spacework, use the room.
Bold emotional declarations advance the scene.

Jump into it in the middle. Think about this. Where is the middle? What had gone before? This is dramatic improv, we don’t pull lights, we wait for more – the ramifications of choices.
Specifics, details.

At the end of each scene, ask the questions – who does each pair discover they are? Who does the audience see?
The straighter we play this, the more fun. Go slow enough that the audience can see it.
Let emotional states change, let it vary. Point of view stays the same, that is part of the character, but the character’s emotions can build and fade.

The more committed you are to this, the more it works – and it really works.

When you think location and genre, there is a behaviour associated with this. This can help ground you.
Translate Occupation into Relationship.

A Second City Audition is:
Acting chops, Emotional heightening, Look after your partner, Ground the scene, Commit.

3 person scenes. When given a location, think: How do we know one another?

Visually interesting
It is good to be happy on stage – even when people are horrible to you, take it on the chin. It shows both confidence and vulnerability and is interesting to watch.

The trick to playing negative emotions is to play it that the people in the scene didn’t make you like that.

A bold emotional reveal – laying out completely how you feel – is a great way to initiate a scene, a great way to end a scene, and a great way to give the scene a shot of pathos in the middle too.

Be careful how to use these skills in other things!


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