It’s been a year since I joined Ohana, an international group of improvisers from all over Europe. We meet three times a year, to work together, to develop, and to build a network across the Old Continent. In the meantime, I had the pleasure to participate in two international festivals, to perform and learn – BIG IF in Barcelona, and IMPRO Amsterdam.
I opened the gate of my backyard and discovered that the world is very big.
But I don’t exactly want to talk about what I saw on the other side of the gate, but what I saw in my backyard, looking from the other side of the fence. So – how I looked at the Polish improv from the distance and what I’ve learned.
1. It’s better than we think. Watching performances in Barcelona and Amsterdam was a relief – there was a lot of great improv, but there were also quite normal, fun performances, and some weaker, a little boring, or annoying. But I’m sure that with our top shelf improv (I mean listening and daring improvisers), we have nothing to be ashamed of. But we are ashamed, and we are afraid. What’s interesting, in Barcelona, where several Polish women performed, I heard at the end of the festival, that we have a very good and strong female improvisers “there in Poland”. I encourage you to explore the world. Many festivals take applications of individual improvisers, so you can perform in mixer shows, with people from all over the world, where no one knows yet. You can apply also with your groups and formats. And if they don’t take your whole group, then (not counting the possible lack of experience and the fact that they get hundreds of applications) it’s probably because…
2. We still have a lot of uncharacteristic improv. It’s not “just improv” anymore, and even Polish festivals don’t invite those who just “do it better than others.” Okay, a little is, still, but that changes. And if you want to be considered in the festival abroad, no one cares how long have you been doing improv, but what idea do you have. Do you play in a particular style? You mix types of art? You have something important to say? Are you one of a kind, or are you like everyone else? The main difference in Polish improv currently is what kind of suggestion from the audience we take. And speaking of it…
3. While talking to the audience – we expect new answers, asking still the same questions. Where are we? Who are they? Give me one word… and then we laugh or complain that we get the autopsy room, church, cemetery and homosexual relationship of two men. There are so many different ways to talk to the audience. TALK – it’s a dialogue, not a monologue. Get off stage. Talk to one person in the audience. Share your story and ask the audience for theirs. Ask to complete the sentence. Ask for a rhyme. A sound. Ask for describing feelings, or places. Why should the audience be creative, if they see, the improviser is not?
4. Keep searching. In Amsterdam, after the main program, there were Late Night Shows, where we could see the performances – specific, new, or experimental. For example, Phil Lunn played improvised recital by Diva, Miss Rodriguez, (Makeup and styling 100%) which began with suggestion Flowers. He/She won my heart from the first song in which she sang to her man, “why you give me flowers that will die in three days? What are you trying to say, that our love will die? Why don’t you give me a cactus, which can survive everything?” (this my poor translation of my poor memory, sorry Phil 🙂 ) Performances could have interesting formats, as our Sidekicks by Ohana, which was about the supporting characters with the epic story in the background (inspired by the play “Rosencrantz and Guldenstern are dead” by Tom Stoppard). Shows could also have a mission, like “The Minority Report” by the Black Out, where improvisers from the USA touched the problems of intolerance and other social issues (I’ve heard that in a hilarious way, I couldn’t see that, because I was on stage at the same time). Other shows could educate and mix forms of expression, such as “What makes you you” of the Romanian group Improvisneyland who were talking with the audience between the acts, about the characteristics of their nations, and were showing films about the different regions of their country. In Barcelona festival, British group Maydays played musical in the style of Tim Burton (the costumes and makeup in this style). Duet Rocket Sugar Factory played the story in the world of Dickens. Americans Parallelogramophonograph (congratulations for the name as easy as our W Gorącej Wodzie Kompani) played improv a’la French farce (also in costumes). Neil +1 played solo improv with the (lovely) member of the audience – it was his first improv show he saw. We have so many ways. Let’s explore the new ones.
5. Let’s rest from the negative emotions, conflicts, and criticism in scenes. This is the main observation that hit me, and I heard it from the outside. Be positive! Like each other! Says Laura Doorneweerd at the beginning of the workshop and reassures me that not only we have this problem. Why so often our characters don’t like each other? Even when we play marriage, we argue. Why the intimacy on stage is so rare? Why we play love in the distance of two meters, nobody touches, no one speaks gently, no one hug? Why, when someone enters the scene, so often I hear from the character who is already there, “oh no, not him…” Why some people think that only when we play heavy, dark scene, as the Polish cinema, we can reach for Art and Theatre? Some students argued with me, saying that they don’t want to play positively, because it’s boring and shallow. Well, that’s a topic for a separate post. But those who think so, I dedicate our international show, which was a final of First International Improv Workshop Festival in Gdańsk (we decided to make it annual 😉 ) I organized it in Gdansk, where we played: Sinimaria Tomperi, Enna-Matilda Kukkola and Markus Kaustell from Finland, Laura Doorneweerd and Jochem Meijer of Amsterdam. Those of you, who were there, think about the balance of negative and positive energy.
6. Listen. Listen. LISTEN. Often I hear, „show didn’t go well, because the stage was too small.” “Because we rarely see.” “Because I didn’t feel the story.” No. It didn’t go well, because we didn’t listen. Because we didn’t feel responsible for the scene that we didn’t take part. Because we didn’t go on stage when the scene needed us, because we preferred to play in a great and fun scene, than to be responsible for all of the scenes. Because we doubted about other players, because when someone offered something, we didn’t react as it was the best idea under the sun, but we hesitated, then said “mm ookay.” I even heard the opinions “when something doesn’t go my way, I get mad at the partners, because they did it wrong.” THIS is wrong. Ohana performances in Barcelona and Gdansk, also a lot of mixer shows in Barcelona and Amsterdam convinced me that you can meet three times a year, and play with 6 or 11 people, like we were training on daily basis. Moreover, people can meet for the first time and perform with success at the festivals. Because they listen. And they make their partner shine. And they play, as Jacob Banigan, and Jay Sukow said at their workshops – improv is taking your friend by the hand and running down the hill. Improv is sliding together downhill.
7. A year ago I said, that the Tri-City (Trójmiasto, 3city = Gdańsk + Gdynia + Sopot) improv came to an end of a „group era”, and entered the era of the projects. You no longer need to have a group to perform on stage. This era will also come to an end, when he get tired of numerous romances and we wish for another permanent relationship. However, this change really brought us closer to Europe. Training with your own group allows you to create an almost metaphysical relationship on stage, but playing with other people allows us to go from the safest corner of your comfort zone, to develop. Sometimes I see as an improviser well functioning in his group, put with others on stage, stops to listen. It occurred to me, that in fact he didn’t listen better with his own group – he knew better other players. He knew what to expect, but often the trained eye could detect the lack of attention and devotion. Let’s create various projects to be better improvisers. Surround yourself with people who give you Energy, and not take it away from you and waste it. Let’s have fun with our temperaments, choosing the cast for specific projects. Why not create a spectacle, as they do in Texas (Kaci Beeler told at the workshop Theatre! Make it happen in Barcelona), for example. In a style of Woody Allen – prepare format, set design and make a casting for the cast to see who feels best Allen’s world?
8. Improv doesn’t have to be limited to people acting on stage . I realized two things at festivals. First of all, musicians. Let’s educate musicians for improv! The number of improvisers is growing, with a few musicians. Some time ago I thought that normal piano during a performance is a limited set of moods, until I heard Sacha Hoedemaker in Barcelona, who used only piano, without any sound effects, and he did everything. But don’t expect that the musician will paint the world, just like that – he’s also discovering and developing new skills. If you are at the beginning of your improv way, I recommend to immediately get a musician (music schools have a lot musicians open to improv) and explore improv together. The Speechless (more about them in the next paragraph) performs with DJ Mom Cutsworth from Canada, lady with her dj decks who creates whole worlds for this mute show, full of music, waves, anxiety, hope. As it turns out, you can do even more, and in Amsterdam, the performances were taking care of, by Emil Struijker Boudier, who didn’t just play the music when it was needed, he also did the lights, creating moods, colors, darkness and light, and he even ended the scenes with blackouts. We don’t even use blackouts. Such people are a treasure for improvisers, because not only they feel what we feel, but they can see more from the shadows. Use it!. Teach technicians about improv, find DJ’s Or learn, how to be a technician and a DJ during your show.
9. Show, don’t tell . It’s one of the principles which we don’t use. Polish language is beautiful and we squeeze out of it what we can. But think of a show in Polish, which you played or seen. How much of it would you understand if you were foreigners? It is good to have in mind, that in the audience you may have someone who doesn’t understand what we say. It reminds us of the body. In Barcelona, Impro Acatomba played in Catalan, and there were moments when everyone laughed at the joke, they were clear with their expression and body! While in Amsterdam we all fell in love with Colombian duo with Canadian DJ – Speechless – who do not use words in their performances. But you don’t have to be a genius to play without words, which showed one of the mixer shows from Barcelona, silent show, with the music – one song corresponds to one story. I observed at home an interesting thing, when I began to improvise in English, and when I watched Polish improvisers talking English at the workshops. We talk less. We do more. Listen more. We say only what is essential, straight to the point, we are emotional. Limited vocabulary seems to be a new force.Speaking Polish, immediately opens the dam and floods with unnecessary words everything else. Learn. Get better, try new things. Dance. Sing.
10. We hurry. We don’t give ourselves time to paint the scene. We’re scared of silence. While being alone on the stage, we panic, we look from side to side, for someone to “save” us, instead of just doing something and giving our partner a reason to come in. Or, when we enter the stage we call someone right away to join us. And this poor man, is entering the void, so we can TELL him our idea for this scene (just standing there). Being on the side of the scene, we don’t give time to the scene. A moment of silence = boredom, we need to save the scene. At the workshop in Barcelona, one of the coaches said, “there is a reason why your character is alone now. Take advantage of this situation. In what moments in life we are alone? “.
11. What you can’t miss, is that we, Poles are the best companions of adventures! We hit the dancefloor, when no one even thinks about the dance, and we MAKE THEM dance, we move the party to the roof, we discuss life in the corridors till the sun goes up, and when the party is done, we can rest, and after a while we go to the workshops. There is no better company.
All improvisers have this common element of the soul, which consists empathy, open mind, sense of humor and seeking for adventures . No matter whether you are from the Poland or any other end of the world.
Integrate. Get to know improvisers from other countries, learn from as many teachers, as possible – besides our common element, there are plenty of differences, which are a mine of experience, adventure and wisdom. And this applies to our home scene, and the rest of the world.
Do not stay in your backyard, the world is so big. Make whole world your backyard .