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Improv Blog: The Openings of Shannon O’Neill

Improv Splendour

Now I am a bit stressed with work and all, but nonetheless it seemed insane not to take advantage of the proximity of some top drawer improvisers in the UK last week. I’m too busy to get to London for Slapdash but we were able to spend some time with the delightful Shannon O’Neill from The Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. Lloydie’s expensive improv whoring about has been highly advantageous for MissImp. We’ve been playing with Armando style formats of late in Fisticuffs so we sought some advice and commentary on our scenework and play.

Personally, I find it hard to take direction well – I have a well developed dislike of being told what to do (though this is mainly the result of being told to do things by people scarcely admissible as sentient). I was delighted to find Shannon friendly and easy to engage with. I also get a little shy around people who I regard as having authority (note – that’s not someone in authority. It’s funny the things that make one bashful. So we did a few Armandos and played with each other as we’re wont to do. It’s especially nice to do so in front of an amiable stranger with great experience. She was able to point out some improvements but I guess it was very clear how used to each other we are and how nicely we can play together with our improv toys. Then we moved on to new stuff.

Learning and Doing

For most of us our improv training has been ad hoc and although influenced by other schools of improv thought, has lacked the structure and development of that taught in an established school. In many respects I’m just fine with that; we’re all the product of our experiences, and we might not have ended us as marvellously weird without our informal process. What I haven’t had is anything like the UCB introduction to longform and such things as the Harold. I’ve read about them, but I haven’t found the descriptions of openings and pattern games terribly useful or insightful. That’s what we got from Shannon – new ways to get our ideas generated; many of them taking us that desired hop skip and jump away from the suggestion. As is often the case, being shown and instructed in a task is easier than reading about it.

Pattern Games

We’ve played simple pattern and memory games before; word association and disassociation. Just a few weeks ago I ran a workshop on inspiration getting pairs of improvisers to start with and return to their suggestion. I was pleased to get more of that with Shannon. The classic pattern game they play is to start with and return to a suggested word three times as a group, relating ideas, concepts, phrases and short exchanges. They build up beautifully and we did some nice fast scenes from them with far more content in our heads and so far more to get into fast and funnily. Next we tried out invocations: describing a thing using “it is”, making it personal with “you are” statements, advancing to “thou art” – fancily describing the thing’s essence in metaphor and finally to “I am”. It feels a little theatrical (which is my preferred improv style I think/at the moment), and I’m curious about what an audience might make of being presented with such a stylised introduction, but I loved doing them – especially the clarity of concept and issues that we were able to start our scenes with. It pushed us even closer to being on the same page than we normally are, but with almost no effort. Pretty cool.

The last form of opening we tried was the documentary. It works as a series of pairs describing each other to camera; offering huge gifts of detail and personal qualities to each other. Once enough has been done they get tagged out and we have another pair. It’s fun to do on its own, let alone for bouncing into scenes afterwards. It’s seems like a great way to set up a dozen or so characters for further use, or just as a way of ripping through ideas and getting a huge amount of inspiration. Very, very cool. We were also pretty good at them, which was satisfying and an indication that the closed nature of the team and time we spend together has paid off. We also had a good time in the pub afterwards!

Shannon’s great – you should follow her on Twitter:

Gorilla Burger

The night after was Gorilla Burger – our seventh monthly show/jam all on stage and drinking funfest. I was unfortunately a too ill and fucked up to participate fully, but I could at least collect money before phasing in and out of consciousness! The show opened with Lloydie’s most recent Intermediate class doing the class show – they were great. I’m so pleased and excited to have another ten improvisers enjoying themselves and getting applause and laughter from the audience for inspiring each other and generating lovely short scenes. After that the rest of Fisticuffs took to the stage with Shannon for another string of marvellous invention. I was very satisfied to see our players working so well with one of New York’s finest. I deeply resent my shitfuck day for removing me from the team. Never mind, I did enjoy the scene I had later on, with one of my beginners – a filthy but snappy scene about unicorns.

Monday Was Soooo Long Ago

An ace night, and a great week (evenings only). Oh crap – I forgot to mention mine and Parky’s Improv Beginners on Monday! Damn but they’re getting good. We encouraged them to give each other huge offers and indulge in patterns and switching off their minds while playing. They do some mean pimping. Very funny though. I think teaching is making me into a better improviser. I’m really happy with their progress and rather proud (with brood-mother Parky) of our little bundles of comic chaos.

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