Monday, December 13, 2004

Book: 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

Book: 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.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Book: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Probably the best-known of all of Sherlock Holme's adventures, it's the tale of an old legend which begins to have deadly consequences for inheritors of an estate. Not very original, and probably not even so 100 years ago, whenn it was written. But of course, there is no dark magic, only a master criminal at work. Even this has been done to death since, most notably by Messrs Hanna and Barbarra, creators of Scooby Doo.

I'm glad Sir Arthur resisted the urge to bring in a younger, (supposedly) hipper assistant unlike Messrs Hanna and Barbarra. The exciting adventures of Scraplock Holmes never made it to press.

But it's always good to check in with the world's most popular detective. he's not as clever as the myth surrounding him suggests. But maybe he is more cautious in his later stories. In some of the early ones, he can tell all sorts of things from a coupld of scratches on a piece of wood. Things modern forensics would have trouble telling you.

Sherlock also lays off the drugs for the duration of this story. Something Scooby Doo could never manage.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Book: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The heroine of this book, Fanny Price, does nothing. Basically she just sits and hopes her cousin falls in love with her. Stuff happens in the book, don’t get me wrong, but Fanny is not proactive, not active, and not even reactive, except on an emotional level. It’s a very psychological book - Austen’s most Virginia Woolfish work.

And even when stuff does finally happen in the book - illness, elopement, adultery - Fanny is miles away and receives all the information in letters. But in the end, the heroine who does nothing wins through, marries the family member of her choice and sees off all those not pure of heart. Sounds terrible the way I described it, but it’s a damn good read if you like Austen’s gentle, satirical style.

This is not to be confused with Austen Park by Jane Mansfield in which the heavily endowed heroine is much more active and more prone to bikini-wearing. She too gets the man she wants. And his brother.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Film: Napoleon Dynamite

This is an odd film. A series of episodes and slices of quirky life, in which a plot is discovered quite late, but is really not so consequential to the piece. It was nice to see a film where all of the main characters were such utter odd-ball weirdos. It was amusing and interesting, but it didn’t grab me nearly as much as I would have liked it to. There are some good moments and some nice lines: “I caught you a delicious bass,” is delivered as a kind of nerdy chat-up line. I’m going to try it next time I get a chance. It’s a pity I went to Coronado beach before I saw the film, otherwise I could have used such a line and landed me some one just like Marilyn Monroe. Or at least like Joe E Brown. Conclusion: this is a film you may or may nor like. It depends on your taste. I have heard of people loving it. I thought it was diverting and sufficiently different to recommend it, although it was a little unsatisfying.

Film: The Bourne Supremacy

This is a sequel. That doesn’t mean it is a bad film. Being a sequel doesn’t always mean that. It just means that sometimes what often happens, you are made to feel cheated about something from the first. Usually this is the romantic interest. Usual story: In film 1, as well as defeating bad guys and saving world / school / Christmas (delete as applicable), said hero falls in love with someone. The end, after said planet / institution / season have been saved, the hero pops off sunsetwards with said love interest. Now comes the sequel. Hero needs a reason to act despite being felicitously happy with said woman / man / porpoise. Thus the usual answer is to kill her / him / it off. Thus giving the man reason to act and, frequently, the chance to fall in love all over again.

I haven’t seen any of the original versions of this film, but was given a summary by a friend which in the end wasn’t necessary, as the film gave its own quick-cut summary. The basic story is man with memory loss tries to find out and then come to terms with what he did. He used to kill people for a dirty branch of the CIA. He was very good at it, and is still the master of any situation. He won’t call anyone unless he can see them. It would make him an irritating friend, but a great guy to have in a crisis. And being trained by the CIA and authored by Robert Ludlum, his life is just one big crisis followed by another.

The film is shot in wobble-cam which helps make everything more exciting because it’s like you’re there being wobbled around or running with him. The car chases are spectacular and really show that cars are so much tougher in films than in real life. I was particularly impressed at the resilience of Russian taxis. Forget Volvos, these are the new ‘tanks on wheels’, able to stand anything you can throw at them.

The Bourne Supremacy is an exiting piece of film not stupid but not so believable. Likely to spawn several sequels: Bourne Again, Bourne: Free and of course the prequel: Bourne Yesterday. You chuckle derisively, but can you prove it will not happen?