Unexpected Rewards

Yesterday was one of those days where I forced myself to go to the drop-in class at iO even though all I wanted to do was sleep. I was rewarded with an experience I’ve never had on stage before.

Several of the students wanted to work on acting/realism so that was our focus. I had this moment where I was squared off with a guy and we were just looking at each other, trying to let whatever was already there bubble up and build something from the natural feelings without judging them or trying to categorize them.

So anyway, we are doing that and Lyndsay was giving us a lot of side-coaching. Telling my partner to breath and to quit fidgeting, that he was defusing all the energy that needed to come out as an emotion through moving around. The same note she gave me several times when I had her during the intensive. So I took it as a note for me as well and doubled-down. Forced myself to stand perfectly still. Both feet flat on the floor, both hands flat on the sides of my legs, no swaying or nodding or chewing on my lip or anything else that would let me move around.

It was freakin’ hard! But I had the chance to work on it because she was talking to him. So I kept staring, and kept forcing myself to be perfectly still. As we finally started talking I wanted to move. Very much. Then I opened my mouth to say something and the urge to move was so intense I felt like I simply couldn’t hold still another second. So I blurted out something instead.

I just opened my mouth and words came out that I didn’t expect, that I would never have said because they didn’t make any sense. But it was that or move and I’d already decided I was NOT going to move. I couldn’t say what I’d planned, to further the story, because that would have meant moving. I think Lyndsay would say that it was because what I planned to say wasn’t honest to the scene, so I wanted to shift around to defuse that dishonesty. Like a little kid.

He blinked. I think I surprised him too. But as soon as I said the unexpected words I felt this rush of energy sweep through me. In that moment, when I chose to not let it out any other way, the reward was stunning. I’ve never like that on stage. The rush lasted the rest of the scene. I was buzzy, electric, with energy. I felt dizzy with it. I kept going with what we’d already started, I didn’t have to think about my answers. I felt like I had control, in a good way. Like, even if he had flipped and done something unexpected I could have held onto my own stuff. Something I tend to not do.

I’m not sure where the balance is in this. I can’t simply stare down everyone on stage without moving. And I tend to come off as nervous quite often, that’s where my energy seems to come from. So I need to figure out how to get that sense of power even when I’m moving or gesturing.

Starting the Week With Awkwardness

iO Summer Intensive

Week 3

Instructor- Lyndsay Hailey



It’s going to get weird in here this week.

That was how Lyndsay greeted us this morning, with a big smile that seems entirely too knowing. This is scene work week, the hump week of the intensive.

We started with Soundscapes that led into openings as our warm-up. She told us this is a common warm-up with her so we should be ready to do them every morning this week. We also did a “song” version, which I like a lot better.

From there she told us to settle down and get comfortable on the floor because we were going to talk for a while. Notebooks not needed, this was sharing time. So I set down with my normal wariness, which was founded. Lyndsay explained that the deepest, richest, truest stuff we can bring to the stage is from our own lives. Our own personal, and deepest, fears, failures, goals, embarrassments, dreams, rejections, etc. That we should be sharing these things with each other outside of class so that we all have each others lives to pull from, so we can access the collective accumulation of “stuff” from our lives.

To foster that she had each of us tell the most embarrassing/humiliating story we could think of from our lives. To the entire group. And when it was over we each got a new nickname, decided by the group, to remember the story with. There was terror on most of the faces around the circle. Mine included. That is a level of intimacy that is uncommon in day to day life. But we did it. People told stories so horrible that I felt uncomfortable for them, or wanted to cry for them. Rejection, failure, mistakes, stupid choices- all of it. And the resulting nicknames included The Navigator, Gunslinger, Shit Storm, Leg Press, Not Funny, and a host of others. What’s interesting is that it did bring us closer together. Fast. And everyone has, as far as I know, been super respectful about what was said in the room. We tease each other, sure, and use the nicknames. But I can’t imagine I would ever spread one of those stories to anyone outside of the group. And even within the group I noticed something weird- the nicknames seem to lessen the embarrassment. Like, getting it out there and being accepted anyway takes away the burn of it. Strips the story of it’s power.

After that was over, and despite the wonderful therapeutic aspects it was still emotionally rough, we moved to Walking Around the Space. We started in neutral and evaluated each other, so we could hear how other people see us when we think we’re not giving off any emotions. I think this would be so useful in life! Several people look angry as their default and they had no idea- how often does that go on in “real life”? Imagine is you could honestly tell someone that they look angry all the time and them not be upset by that feedback? Then they could legitimately deal with that instead of being unaware. Anyway, we did scenes that way, to get a baseline for our work.

Then we scattered around the room and got silly. As silly as we could be. That was all the instructions we got. This was VERY hard for me. The we paired up and got silly. Then four together. Then eight. Then all sixteen. Lyndsay asked us where we felt the most and least comfortable, and then why? Said it was something we should think about and see if we could find an answer because it will help us understand ourselves a lot better. I know where I felt best- pair or four. Worst was alone or sixteen. Alone, I felt so dumb I couldn’t even relax, in sixteen I felt like an outsider trying to keep up. In a pair, or in four, I felt like I had permission but wasn’t being left behind either. Which I didn’t articulate to myself until I wrote that just now. Interesting… that’s something to think about.

Snatches from the day–

  • If improv feels hard it is because I am looking for all the answers inside myself. The answers are in my partner.
  • We have all we need on stage in each other- we are all artists, poets, and geniuses.
  • Find what happens between you, don’t create it.
  • Instead of trying to find a way to determine if person A or person B’s reality will win out, just accept things as-is at the top and move on. They are compatible.
  • Don’t react! Respond! Reaction stays in the top of the lungs and the head. Response comes from deep, full-lung breaths that allow the emotion to settle into and come from the gut.
  • No one talks about their environment while they are doing an activity. Stop it in scenes.
  • Is it easier for me to start with dialog and then add space work? Or the other way around? It’s important to know for our own sakes, to help ourselves out. (Mine is space work first, by the way)


Armando’s for Everyone

iO Summer Intensive

Week 1

Instructor- Tara DeFransico




We started the day out by learning the Armando. Interesting, since only yesterday I was saying I didn’t care for it. We warmed-up with an insane version of Bunny Bunny, the Estonian guys taught it to us the way they play it and it’s very tribal and loud. High energy too. My favorite way I’ve ever played it.

The day started with 2 or 3 person scenes, in a loose Montage. We were still limited to sweeps for editing, which clearly rankled some of the guys who really wanted to do more. However, as soon as we were done with out Montage Tara grinned and pointed out that the very next thing in the book was edits. This was met with celebration.

We did tags, in various forms (all of which I knew) and French Edits, which I didn’t know. You come up off the back wall, through the center of the scene, and start a new scene as the old scene drifts off to the sides. Like a French door opening on stage. I can see the appeal but I think it would be hard to do at a jam or something, no one would get it. It would have to be with a group that understood what you were doing. Of course, I say that like everyone knows sweeps and tags. The first time someone tried to tag me out in a jam I just looked over my shoulder and said “hi”. I thought they were joining the scene because I didn’t now what I tag was. So there is that.

We started the Armando work with an “I Love” Line. Each person stepped forward out of the line, named something they loved, and then started talking about it until someone else stepped up. This is an exercise designed to teach more than I realized at the start. I thought, practice for monologues. Sure, it is that. And it can also be used as an opener. I got that.

After we were done, however, Tara started asking questions and I saw a new side to it. It’s a lot to do with focus. How do you know it’s your turn to step up? How do you know when it’s time to let someone else talk? Focus. And it’s not just the back line taking it, the front line can give it by stopping talking. That’s scary. To stand in front of a group, talk, and then stop, trusting that someone else will have your back and fill in the silence.

The Armando, true Chicago style, has the following characteristics-

  1. The monologist remains the same throughout the show (Unlike ASSCAT)
  2. Stories told must be 100% true, the more intimate the better
  3. The monologist breaks the 4th wall, addresses the audience directly
  4. 2 acts, of 45 minutes each (very long form), the monologist gets up as inspired (averaging 2-4 monologues per half, but that’s flexible)
  5. Cast is inspired by the stories, but NOT reenacting them- you are following single word, or the emotions and/or themes you sensed
  6. Stories must be personal and specific, no opinion bits (For example- the suggestion of “water” should be used as a launchpad for the story where you almost drowned, not to express that you like water and think it is good)

We did several short Armando’s, a handful of scenes based on a single monologue. We then did a full half, about 45 minutes, with the monologist getting up as prompted internally (4 times). I was in the back line for a couple of the short ones, and I was the monologist for the 45 minute one.

Tara talked about how it seems that the more serious the monologue the truer and funnier the scenes seem to be. Something about the tension the audience feels after hearing something intense/sad/scary/heart-breaking makes the following scenes easier to laugh at- all that tension needs to go somewhere and laughter is a release valve. This came up because one of my classmates was very open and shared a deeply personal, very conflicted/sad story. We, or at least I, didn’t know what to do with that because making what she said into a joke felt cruel. It wasn’t funny.

That’s when Tara explained her view on it. I’m paraphrasing, of course. But basically, the scenes that follow a monologue, especially a painful one, are a way of releasing the pain and even allowing healing to take place if needed. It’s not turning their pain into a joke, it’s acknowledging it as real and valid, and then taking the chance to offer something back as a thank-you. She said that she’s had friends break down and cry on stage and when she gets up to do scenes after that it isn’t a feeling of ignoring their pain. Rather, it’s saying, yes, that sucks. Let me offer you this and see if it can make you laugh anyway, if it can help you feel better.

That was driven home when I was the monologist. I didn’t tell any heart-breaking stories, but I did tell one that made me choke-up. Which surprised me. I think it was trying to be real and honest in the moment, coupled with having such an attentive audience. Felt weird. And another of my four was a personal admission I didn’t mean to make. But each time I saw what Tara meant- the scenes that followed didn’t feel bad from my side. If anything, they felt really good. I felt supported. They heard me, really heard me, and were now working from that. I felt great, emotionally, by the time they were done. My class then went on to discuss my monologues objectively, as they did with all the others, while I listened. That was weird. However, I got some positive feedback on them that almost made me cry so it was all good.

I’m still not sure that I love watching Armando’s, but I enjoy being in them! And at least now I get the point, and I have a better idea of what I haven’t liked about ones I’ve seen in the past.

Random notes from the day-

  • When you ask a question you are stealing from the scene! Stop stealing!
  • 10 giant laughs are worth more than 100 medium ones. Don’t pull the rug out from under the scene for a cheap laugh.
  • Laughter is one of three things 1)Release of surprise 2)Release of tension 3)Politeness
  • The Armando can be seen as a loose poem, wisps of story getting tangled together in the moment, not to meet again.
  • The bravest improviser is often the one who stops.
  • Use the idea of short form, only having 3 minutes, to start long form if you are prone to wander around and do nothing.
  • Start with a bang! Don’t just talk and putter. Put your heart into it from line one.
  • We too often take away our own power or rights on stage. We must say what we are thinking or feeling or doing for ourselves, instead of just hoping the other person will figure it out.
  • Train your improv tuning fork to go off when someone says something that needs to be followed. You should feel a vibration with something twinkly gets said, or there is a chance to tag, or when there is something big about to get tossed aside.

The only show I caught tonight was Dummy. It’s a real couple, who also do a duo on stage. They are brilliant. They did a Monoscene, and until the very end there were only two characters (another character showed up for the last 2-3 minutes). They’ve been hailed as “the next TJ & Dave”. I haven’t seen TJ & Dave yet but Dummy was mesmerizing.

They started slow. Very slow. It was real, and it was interesting, but aside from a few short lines it wasn’t very funny. It was almost boring. Not quite, but almost. It was a feeling of, what the heck are they doing? Nothing, that’s what.

It didn’t stay that way. Slowly, almost painfully slowly, you began to realize that he was crazy. Maybe dangerous crazy. And she had let him move in as her roommate. And then you felt very scared for her and what was probably going to happen. And then they kept talking, boring stuff like classmates they had as kids and their recent break-ups and hobbies. But through it all there was a feeling like, shit, he’s going to do something awful to her before this ends.

Yet, something was weird with her too. And the more they talked the more you realized she wasn’t completely what one would call sane. Then, speed picking up, he was still just as scary/weird but she had far surpassed him and you got a feeling that he was the one who was going to be in serious trouble soon ’cause she was flipping insane.

That was when it peaked, and you knew something bad had to happen.

But it didn’t. And they calmed each other down. And it was very organic and real, but the audience, myself included, were sitting forward waiting for something, anything, to happen because emotions were high. Which was when Richard, her ex, showed up. And in that last 30 seconds before the set ended we all came to the same realization as the couple on stage- Richard was going to die.

Very satisfying show. And hilarious. I want to see them again as often as I can get in.

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