Oberlin Blogs

I Like to Think We Grew Up a Little...

June 5, 2011

Joe Dawson ’12

Even though our ExCo ended a week before finals week with a lovely performance by the members of the Advanced Short Form Comedy Improv ExCo, I neglected some business until commencement week. Luckily, the matter I had failed to attend to was a wrap-up exercise I had planned to do in the last week of class, and it helped me to have a little time to reflect on this semester before doing it.

During our first meeting, Greg and I had the students each give a personal goal they had for the class. This way, we could get a sense of what people wanted to get out of the class, their existing notions about improv, and perhaps get ideas for how we should structure the class for the students. Last week, sitting on the floor I had been sleeping on for commencement (Get a job for commencement week if you can; they supply you with a bed, a room, and meals for the week which is infinitely more convenient than finding a floor and not sleeping for a week on it), I reviewed the goals I had jotted down during that first meeting, trying to decipher some of the scribbles I had made trying to keep up with people's words as they talked about their goals. Here are the goals we came up with, along with some notes I gave to the students in my last email, some regarding the rationale behind the goals, some addressing how well I thought the class achieved them. I show them to you here, now, because I have literally nothing else to talk about.

When I say "we," I mean either the class as a whole or me and Greg. When I say "You guys," it means the class. When I say "Ho!" you say "Hey!"

  • Get better at improv. Mission... accomplished? I think this one was pretty inevitable, because so much of getting better at improv is just doing it. By coming to class every week and doing the thing itself for an hour and a half, you were all bound to get better. And you all did. Pats on the backs are in order, I believe. Okay, that's enough. NO MORE PATTING!
  • Lose inhibitions in scenes. This one's tough. It's one of those global goals that all improvisers have. I think there are times when you are really keyed up and great ideas just seem to be coming out of you and your partner so easily that all you have time for is carrying out those ideas and moving forward like a 18-wheeler. It's easy to not be inhibited then. The tough part is not letting fear get to you when a scene is in its infancy, or not going quite as smoothly as you would hope. You won't always be getting a constant stream of great ideas, but if a great scene has great ideas coming from people who aren't afraid to sell them, any halfway-decent scene is going to need its ideas carried out fearlessly so the audience gets sold on them, even if they aren't the best.
  • Get better at generating spur-of-the-moment ideas. Ideas are tough too. I think the actual 'getting better' at coming up with them is a mixture of two things: using the parts of your brain that generate ideas more, so coming up with new ones is easier, which is probably what we had in mind when we came up with this goal; and judging the ideas less as they come. The second part becomes less uncomfortable as you get better at improv, and we already established you guys are all better at improv now. Pats on the b-- maybe we'd better not.
  • Create a place to lose outside stress. This is one thing that I love improv for. It needs such a focus and an energy that you can't really afford to be distracted by what came before or what's coming after. Lots of improv warmup games are designed to distract your consciousness and let your creativity work while your mind is occupied making sure your next line starts with the next letter of the alphabet. With all of that brainpower being used, it's hard to find time to thing about outside stresses.
  • Bring the attitude of openness and comfort into the broader world. I can't exactly speak to whether this happened for you guys in the class over the course of the semester. It's a very personal thing how much you bring the concepts of teamwork, listening, and acceptance to your everyday life. Maybe your homework helped push you a little more dramatically into using the techniques in your day-to-day (for blog readers: Homework in the improv ExCo is different from homework in other classes. Often homework was something like,"If you see someone from the ExCo in the outside world, jump into a gibberish conversation with them," or "Act like you are a character in a soap opera at lunch one time this week"). You at least have some games you can play with your friends when you're bored.
  • Know and be known among people in class. I'm not sure what 'be known' means exactly, it conjures up a Fonzie image in my head. You guys are tighter than mosquito netting now, congrats. It can only improve your life to have more creative friends. You may have seen the troupe Octavarius come and perform at the Oberlin College Improv Conference, those guys got together in college and are catching fire in the Chicago improv scene. You can never have too many inspirational people around.
  • Get therapy, grow as a person. I compiled lists of those who did and those who did not grow as people this semester, and they are as follows--kidding. Improv can be an awakening of sorts for people. Once you've got your foot in the door, the changes are smaller. I do think the losing stress thing helps a lot to get rid of accumulated stuff, especially as a weekly ritual. It's freeing to be able to go a solid two hours with a much lower level of self-consciousness.
  • Do scenes of all types. This one was well done. I loved the range we had in this class, and how game everyone was to try things a that were little different. Our 'written' sketches are pretty indicative of this: we had a rather frenzied, largely physical crab boat scene; a dramatic love story during nuclear fallout; interpersonal politics and high stakes backstage at a Kanye West concert; and an intimate look into a treehouse full of pre-pubescent sexual tension.
  • Live in the world of the scene. It's hard, like so many things are hard, because so many other things have to be in place before you can do this. When you improvise you are a writer, a director, a choreographer, a songwriter, and an actor. You want a good story, you want strong characters, you want people to laugh. You get flashes where everything else is taken care of and you can actually live in the place you've created, but usually (for me, at least) the writer starts to say 'How can I get a laugh off of that?' or 'All right, let's start to look for a way to put a little bow on this scene and get offstage...'
  • Go do things you tell yourself you'll do. I think this was Quinn's, and I think it had to do with taking the class in the first place, like telling yourself you should try improv, then taking the class instead of doubting yourself. I like this one, especially since I've been trying to do the same thing. Again, having good, inspiring friends can help you do these things. If you have an idea for a short movie, you've got actors right there in your improv class. You don't necessarily even need scenery, props, or fancy editing software. We're used to making a lot out of very little.
  • Tell a story. Just one?
  • Be witty. Yeah, it helps. It's not everything, though. There's something to be said for good, old-fashioned As well as solid object work, listening skills, and undying support for your partner.
  • Spontaneity. Like when everyone thinks one thing is coming, and another thing actually farts (I was tempted to leave that one out, just because it's so damn juvenile, and we've actually managed to stay away from fart jokes almost entirely this semester. Couldn't resist that parting shot--farting shot?).

Curious about improv on campus? Look no further than here, here, here, here, here, here, here. We've got it covered pretty well. Also, if you're interested, I will be teaching the Core Skills Improv ExCo again in the fall with a new partner, Obehaver (Obehavior?) Megan, so sign up for that!

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