Second City, first impressions.

26 Jul

Second City

I just finished a week of improv classes at the Second City training centre here in Toronto. Led by the redoubtable Marjorie Malpass, I and 17 other willing victims laughed our way through an exhilarating 20 hours of theatre games, wordplay and improvised scenes.

I’ve always thought singing and translating have a lot in common. You take something that’s already been created and interpret it for a new audience. You need to pay attention to the style and tone of the original, and you have to keep in mind the needs and expectations of your public. In both disciplines, you become known for a particular specialization, and you build your career around that area of expertise.

When translating, I write my first draft fairly quickly to avoid being bogged down by details that often iron themselves out later. But it takes effort to ignore the voice of doubt that whispers in my ear, the one that makes me question myself and stifles creativity. You know that voice. Everyone has it. It’s annoying, it’s persistent, and it’s responsible for the success of Facebook as the world’s most popular procrastinator time-suck.

But with improv, you get to shut that voice up. Improv forces you to work on skills that are crucial to writers and performers: spontaneity, attentiveness, focus, acceptance, and the willingness to trust your instincts. This week, I learned some tried-and-true techniques that improv performers use every time they’re on stage. Watch for these tactics the next time you see a great comedy — they’re pretty universal. And I think they’re very useful for writers, too.


Mirroring. We’ve all played that “lame mirror game” in drama class. You know, the one where your partner contorts his body into ridiculous poses and you’re forced to mimic him. Well there’s an important point to this very basic exercise. When you’re on stage with someone, the best way to connect with him is simply to pay attention to what he’s doing. When you pick up on your partner’s behaviour, you can either chose to imitate and magnify it (very funny) or go the opposite way and create a foil for whatever character he’s creating in front of your eyes. It’s the simplest improv technique there is, and it’s easy to grasp because we do it In Real Life all the time. When you meet new people, you unconsciously echo their body language to set them (and yourself) at ease in social situations. Don’t believe me? Next time you meet someone new, see how quickly you start using a common body-language lexicon.

Yes, let’s! Improv is all about accepting everything and running with it, no matter how unexpected. If you enter the stage, and your scene partner tells you she’s preparing dinner for your mother-in-law, she’s offering you a location (kitchen) and a relationship (married couple) that you have to agree to. It’s incredible how tempting it is to say no and impose your own clever idea — “what do you mean, my mother-in-law? I’m a police officer and I’m here to arrest you!” This evil twin of acceptance is called blocking. It’s guaranteed to kill the scene and leaves your partner hanging. Shame!

Point of focus. What can you focus on to help advance the narrative? Is it an object? Is it an argument? Is it the alien growing out of your chest? Too many points of focus and the scene can dissolve into a soup of unrelated events and characters. This happens when actors stop paying attention to their partners and instead try to drive the scene all by themselves. Guaranteed awkwardness.

Punning. In one of my favourite exercises, we were made to come up with ridiculous and outrageous (and often eyeball-rolling) plays-on-words. “What kind of music does a cat like?” “Meow-sic.” I hear you groaning already. It may not be worthy of a Stephen Fry twitter post, but the guy who came up with that answer actually got a big laugh because it was so impulsive. You could see the word forming in his mouth even before his brain knew it was being said. No matter how corny, a pun will make us laugh because it forces us to go from A (different people like different music) to C (cats make a meowing sound) while skipping over B (cats don’t listen to music!). In other words, it gives our brain a vacation from linear thinking. This is really refreshing, and takes us to far-off, magical improv lands full of wonder and amazement.

The tilt. Related to the pun, the tilt takes a situation and heightens it with an unexpected twist. “I’m preparing dinner for your mother-in-law” takes on new meaning when you respond that your mother-in-law was a victim of the zombie apocalypse and now only feasts on brains. That’s not a block — you still accept the offer that you have a mother-in-law. But you throw it back in a fun and unexpected way. This is actually a generous gesture that takes the narrative to a great place with lots of potential (your flesh-eating mother-in-law is still likely to criticize your wife’s cooking, after all). Is there a “mother-in-law” waiting to come onstage? You’ve just handed her a winning performance on a silver platter. You will be much loved by audience and performers alike.


So how do these improv techniques relate to translating a 2,000-word press release? Well, writing certainly requires the ability to trust your instincts. When you say yes to a new client, you need to have faith that your skills will carry you through the next assignment. It also takes guts to sit down at a blank screen and just start typing (at least writers don’t have to do it in front of an audience). Acceptance teaches you not to worry if the first thing you put down on the page isn’t Pulitzer-worthy, or even if it makes any sense. Mirroring reminds you to remain faithful to the original author’s message, but to make it your own and to be creative without straying from what’s been offered. Point of focus is also something every writer needs to keep in mind. If you lose track of  your message you can also quickly lose your reader (you’re still here, so I guess I did something right). Finally, improv helps you develop a knack for non-linear thinking, for knowing when to drop in an unexpected tilt that catches your reader off-guard and wins them over with a smile.

That little annoying voice in my ear got a lot quieter this week. It also became easier for me to squelch it whenever it starts whining. When that voice is silent, you’re free to play. That’s when you really start cooking. And this leaves room for those flashes of genius that come when you’re not even looking.

Wow, see how that rhymed? Felt good. And I didn’t even plan it.

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2 Responses to “Second City, first impressions.”

  1. Marcia July 26, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    Great Blog! I loved the talk about BLOCKING …. we do it in so many ways (on stage and in our daily lives). I’d be curious to know how it changes your everyday interactions, and your future stage work. Continued success to you!

  2. Jamie McLennan July 27, 2011 at 2:29 am #

    Thanks Marcia – been enjoying your blog too. I intend to keep going with classes at SC. It’s a fun group of people. I highly recommend any class taught by Marjorie!

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