Monday, December 13, 2004

Book Review: Batch of Improv Books

Put four experienced improvisers in a room and you'll have five different theories on how it works. (But they'll never argue.) The two main schools are: Follow the rules! and Rules are bad! Within each school there are a multitude of factions. What rules to follow? How to follow them? How to learn them? If you are to follow no rules, how do you achieve that? How do you learn something with no rules? Or are you learning the rules but only by example the way children pick up language.

The odd thing is, if you put a "Follow the Rules" improviser on stage with a "No Rules!" improviser, you are no more or less likely to get a good scene. The outcome is not so much to do with the underlying ethos, but the interaction between the two performers. Each performer will find the theory that works best to explain the way that they perceive the underlying system. But on stage they will play and support their partners just the same.

Other people's theories are very interesting because they show you a little how they think about performing and give you a new perspective.

"Improvise: Scene from Inside and Out" is the book of the theories of Mick Napier, founder of Annoyance Theatre and Resident Director of The Second City. He belongs to the no-rules school, believing it is best not to teach rules for improv as it gives people things to think about when they should not be thinking. He does, however, offer guidelines of things to avoid but stresses to apply them without thinking about them.

The book is not very thick, but this is mostly due to Mr Napier's succint style. Not for hom the flowing prose and endless examples. He makes his point and moves on. Mr Napier's theory applies more to the teaching of children or for people well able to practice extensively, in my opinion. But his dismantalling of the importance of the rules is very interesting. It tallies with my theory (of course I have one) in that there really is only one rule, and all the rest are guidelines.

One of the most interesting chapters, and actually annoyingly short, is the one on Improvisation and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I would love to see this expanded to really explore the analogy. There is a whole book in this idea, I think. The other useful thing is a list of exercises to do on your own at home. I found I have already been doing them for years, but it was nice to feel that I wasn't mad. Or at least not alone.

The other book I have been reading on the subject is "Musical Improv Comedy" by Michael Pollock. Mr Pollock is Musical Director of The Second City, LA, so probably knows Mr Napier quite well. Mr Pollock does not come to us with a theory. He comes with a slightly thinner book and a CD full to the brim. Instead of theories, you get a practical guide on everything music improv. Despite the thinness of the book, it really does cover everything. And with the minimum of fuss and nonsense. Where the real content is on the CD. It has over [an hour and a half] of excellent examples and sample music for you to practice song styles and techniques with. In that respect it well is worth the asking price. There are about 10 examples of different musical styles which you could easily use in a show if you don't have a musician. (PS I do not advise doing musical improv without a musician. It's usually the musician that makes the singers look good.)

As a student of improv, I urge you to read a little on the subject, and go to see as much of it as possible. "Musical Improv Comedy" is great for groups who want to get into doing (more) musical improv and "Improvise: Scene from Inside and Out" is interesting for those who want to explore the world of improvised theatre in relation to modern theories of energy or who like to improvise best in the shower.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Gay Day

Early in August occurs one of the year's most fun days - The Gay Parade. This is when Amsterdam's gay community (and friends) gets together in gangs and each gang commandeers a boat, decorates it (and themselves) as flamboyantly (or as nakedly) as possible and cruises down several of the canals. The rest of the city lines the canals and watches, waves and cheers. Come late and it's hard to find a spot to see from. The sides of the canals are mobbed.

It's a fun day and there are remarkably few police to be seen despite there being so many people around. This is testament to the complete good-naturedness of the day. There's never trouble. There is frequent outbreak of same-sex kissing. And the only thing that gets thrown at you is condoms.

The party lasts on into the night. Stages erected around the city blast out dance music and kitsch classics. Bars overflow into the streets, the streets overflow into alleyways. Loud happy music is everywhere. Ironically, the grounds of churches seem to be the places the best parties are set up.

Later on there are more police to be seen, but it's not always easy to spot them. Especially the motorcycle cops who are just another group of guys in uniforms and leather trousers.

I finished the day with a beer in the middle of a street surrounded by drunken, exuberant lesbians. Amsterdam is a great city.


Coinciding with the above, but unrelated, is Parade. It's a Dutch word, so remember the rule: if it looks like an English word, it is pronounced very differently. Par-rah'-da. It's a touring mini festival, a bit like a theatre circus, that sets itself in the major cities for a few weeks at a time before moving on. You pay a little to get in and it's like a festival - with food stalls, bars and amusements. Then you can pay a little more and get into one of the mini-theatres and watch some local artiste(s) doing their thing. The only piece I saw was called Vlieg (Fly). It was about (in as much as it was about anything) a man who wakes up and finds he is possessed by a fly. He buzzes a lot, has sex with a fridge which produces an egg which he drops. Then he flies around the room on a wire. It was more entertaining and less bizarre than it sounds. Mainly because the chap doing it was very engaging.

The best bit about the day was that we went their by boat. By far the best way to get anywhere. I am fortunate to know a few people who either own boats or have access to them. And, on a nice summer evening, there is nowhere better to be than out on a canal in an open-top boat.

Book Review: UFOs Are Coming Wednesday by Eric Sykes

Eric Sykes is a great screenwriter. The writer for many shows, as well as short and long films. Star of his own series and director of several films, notably great silent shorts such as The Plank and Rhubarb.

But for some reason, it didn't translate into books. It failed to be more than mildly amusing, it failed to be original, the characters failed to be interesting and it failed to drag me in. I gave up.

I don't often give up on books. Normally I plow on. Taking forever to get to the end, plodding through in grim determination because part of me is interested in it. I think the last time I did give up on a book was Lord of the Rings part 1 when I was quite young. It is a long and complicatedly written book that is not accessible for kids. Even kids such as myself who had lapped up The Hobbit. So I put it aside thinking I'd go back when older. 20 years later, I have seen the film of the book, and can happily say that has satisfied me in that department. The book is just too long to embark on (and that's just the 1st part). UFOs Are Coming Wednesday doesn't have that excuse, but demonstrates the new less-patient me in action.

In short: don't buy this book. Rent a copy of The Plank instead.