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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

About Improvisation Part II: Something Wonderful Right Away

"Something wonderful right away" is the title of a book about the Second City. It chronicles the birth of the Circle Players, who later became Second City, and how improv went from backrooms to a formal night club to a diverse national trend in comedy, theatre, television and even film.

It is not a matter of going to a class and simply playing, although it can and should be a form of play. It is not just imagination, although it should tap and well spring of imagination. It is about work, and then using the tools to have fund and create a whole new world, for the enjoyment of others and to help point to changes needed in our overall society.

And it is now a necessary tool of the craft of acting.

Commercials and increasingly film makers are using improvisation both for auditions and in filming. 

The comedy club regular is now a needed tool for acting. 

Everybody who wants to be an actor must do improvisation. It is important on resumes. It teaches your things about yourself as a person and a performer. You confront your own obstacles, blocks, hang-ups and limitations. It teaches you to take gifts and accept the moment of the scene. It also saves your butt in many situations when things go wrong.

Too many workshops, so called classes, and even schools use it for fun or a fast buck, rather than the hard core training and craft that is needed to really put improvisation to use on the stage or on film.

It is not about being funny.

There needs to be honesty not just going for the "funny" or reaching for the "joke". It is humorous, but it is funny by reflecting reality and the humor we have in life. Firemen, police and emergency rooms face great pressure and crack jokes in the midst of those very real dramatic situations. Surgeons will do what they need to to relax in the operating room. Teachers have to have a sense of humor to put up with difficult students and the politics of education.

And just as in real life, things do not always go right.

You have the freedom to fail.

Improvisation is made up on the spot, usually with audience suggestions. You may use some stock transition or ways to end agreed upon by the players. but for the most part every performance is unique and different, reflecting the players and the mood or environment in which they occur. 

Improv requires heightened communication skills. You need to learn how to take the other persons ideas and comments without question (known as accepting "gifts"), to avoid denial (never say "no" or reject a "gift"), and to understand the who-what-where of a given moment or situation. What are the points of views of the character? 

Two dimensional does not work in improv. For it to work you must have a full character with a life, a before and after, a real environment and situation. Put them in situations that are absurd or uncomfortable and create situations comedy on the spot from there.

Sketch comedy is based on brainstorm sessions or ideas drawn from improvisation, but then written, rehearsed and polished. It draws upon and grows out of improvisation or an improvisational creative way of thinking. Sketch comedy is usually a satiric view of the world around us, of current events and what effects your audience in their daily, social or political lives.

Comic reviews are written through improvisation, with a strong local focus on local issues, local people and the audience. Sketches run a few seconds or an hour, as long as the audience is entertained and the statement is made. The trick is to not try to be funny, but be open to it. Use conversation as a base, against situations or locations or both. The ideal is a scene that can have a shelf life of six to eight months, with minor adjustments if needed. Saturday Night Live relies heavily on sketch comedy, and adds music and variety acts to broaden the programs appeal. SNL began by importing the cast of Chicago's Second City, drew heavily on the other full permanent Second City cast in Montreal, and later from other improv groups across the country. 

It is never about being the funniest, or grabbing the spotlight. It is always about ensemble and setting each other up through "gifts" and a situational reality (or absurdity).

Long Form grew out of Second City.  From a single suggestion where you went for twenty minutes to over an hour, creating a full play as you go. A knowledge of scene structure, sociology, psychology, general liberal arts and an openness to both new and often uncomfortable ideas are essential to pull off long form improvisation. Most important, you are an ensemble and the flow must involve almost magic communication between ensemble members.

The "game" of the scene is what is funny about the scene. What makes it funny, and how can it be used in a real situation? You need to ask 'if that is true what else is true'

Short form improvisation can be found in theater games, often in bars or backrooms. It is what most people think improvisation is, due to the popularity of such programs as "Who's Line is it Anyway?"

Improv short form and Long form should reflect the issues of the day, reflecting on politics, social issues, the quirks of people and of society.

Today if you do improvisation, you need to work toward being able to transfer it to the Internet, to Funny or Die, to YouTube, webcast or cable television. Not only is it expected, but it is the most common place to showcase your talents. If you are an actor in Los Angeles, the use of media is an essential part of your career tools. Improv has gone beyond the moment and an intimate audience to something shared with the world, a quantum change for the art form.

Situation comedy is at the core of most improv, therefore it is logical that writers use improvisation when working on situation comedies and even dramas where humor is part of the mix. Actors need to understand the timing, energy and focus of what the writers create, bringing to it the energy of improvisation.

Improvisation requires you being intelligent, empathetic, observant and to care about society and about others. You can then tear them a new "a---hole," but do it with love.

It takes work and study because it is not easy to stop thinking and rely on learned or experienced income. You have to rely on instincts, both natural and learned. 

Learn names. Listen to other people. Observe them in their natural habitat. Improv has much in common with social anthropology. It was in fact there at the birth of sociology and social work as professions. 

Make it real, as real as the first time and as real a "real life.

Four basics that must be considered.

1.Point of view. Always make sure your character is complete and enters with a strong point of view.

2. Personal Perspective. Always make sure that point of view has a wider perspective to support it. Your character has to have a way of looking at and understanding the world that is different than other characters.

3.Environment. Create and use a strong sense of place.

4. Emotion. If you have real emotion, even if overdone for comedy, it will be believed. People will laugh with your and cry with you and relate to your character, no matter how absurd they may seem in the given situation your ensemble has created.

All scenes should have a structure, come from the point of view of the characters and relate to the audience or very current issues and times. Improvisation can help with any acting in any form, and in your own self image. Improv allows you to empower yourself in any situation.

When I studied with Second City in Chicago, the modern improv mania has not spread beyond actors studying improvisation for their greater craft. That was the 1970's. In the mid 80's it began to spread like wildfire. First, as members of the original Second City moved to San Francisco, London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere the form morphed in many directions. Theater games began in San Francisco and jumped to London, where they became the base behind "Who's Line is it Anyways" original productions.

So, just as in the overall society, today when you say you want to do an improv, you are actually speaking as if it were one things, when in fact the term covers a wide range of types of creative forms, all with one thing in common.

You are charged with creating "something wonderful, right away."

There are regional differences.

Chicago and New York are more about the craft and the art, while Los Angles is about "me", "you" and the industry. There are major differences, including less potential for ensemble and less localized social issues and messages for LA companies. The west coast is more about individual stand up comedy and a focus on being funny, whereas improvisation elsewhere tends to be more about ensemble and the story. When Second City set up shop in Las Vegas they found they served tourist but did not have the wealth or depth of the original companies, which drew heavily on local matters and issues in Chicago and Montreal. 

Improv, the LA style, can be stand up comedy. The Midwest and eastern variety must be ensemble and story centered. LA Style talent builds resumes and careers. The artist in Chicago are doing it as a job and a career in a much more industrial mindset.

I invite you to sample all major groups online, to go to improv theaters and showcases and to jump in with both feet and try it for yourself.

It is fun.

-Art Lynch

Check out:

Note: the Screen Actors Guild was born in the backroom of this club, in the name of all performers...

15 of the Guild's original 21 board of directors and officers at the Masquers Club

Seated left to right: Alan Mowbray, Lucile Webster Gleason, Boris Karloff, Ralph Morgan & Noel Madison.
Standing, 2nd row, left to right: Kenneth Thomson, James Gleason, Richard W. Tucker, Clay Clement, Alden Gay Thomson, Bradley Page, Morgan Wallace & Arthur Vinton.
Back row: Ivan Simpson, Claude King. Undated photo, circa mid-1930's.


Both idealism and outrage motivated the Founding Fathers and Mothers who created the Screen Actors Guild. Idealism, in that they believed they could succeed in doing, as Guild President Ralph Morgan once said, "the greatest good for the greatest number" by building a respected organization to protect actors. And outrage primarily over long, grueling hours and workweeks that they found intolerable in Hollywood. 
No other actors' organization had as yet proved able to see justice done, and the founders took matters into their own hands. They were a motley bunch in 1933—as young as 30 (Charles Starrett) and as mature as 70 (C. Aubrey Smith). British (Alan Mowbray, Reginald Mason, Claude King, Boris Karloff, Ivan Simpson, C. Aubrey Smith), and American. Contract players (Ralph Morgan, Lyle Talbot), former contract players, (Kenneth Thomson, Charles Starrett, Boris Karloff, James and Lucile Gleason), and career free-lancers. Young leading men still in their early film careers (Starrett, Leon Waycoff Ames, Lyle Talbot); and seasoned supporting players. Some had acted in silent films for years, while others came to Hollywood with the wave of interest in stage players for the new "talking pictures." 
All were members of the Actors' Equity Association, with extensive professional experience in the theatre and nearly all had appeared on Broadway. 
Most socialized together and were active members of one or more of three clubs in Hollywood: Masquers Club (all-male), The Dominos (Masquers Club' all-female counterpart) and the Hollywood Cricket Club (founded by C. Aubrey Smith). They were an action-oriented, motivated, gutsy group.
Research in this section was compiled and authored by Guild Historian Valerie Yaros

And now to the club itself, not affiliated while historically tied to the Guild.

Poster commemorating the founding of the Masquers in 1925

A Club Is Born

How did The Masquers Club get its start? Just who was responsible for it all, anyhow? Mr. George Read, one of the founders, and a lengthy clipping from the Hollywood News of June 30, 1931, tells of our borning.

To quote Mr. Read in part:
"Prior to the founding of The Masquers, several abortive attempts had been made to form an actors' club here. One of these was the ill-fated "Bears Club" that was ultimately killed off by some 'interests.'

"Then a promoter of Clubs from the east started a money-making deal (for himself) called, I believe, the Screen Actors Club. I was taken for $250 membership - then found that the "Club" owned (!) the old Japanese Embassy building in Hollywood, saddled with a $90,000 mortgage. Without my knowledge, I was made a member of the board of directors - and when I found what we were up against, I suggested to the other board members that we order the Club disbanded - which was done.

"The 'board' then walked out on the porch. There was Bob Edeson, Fred Esmelton, Alfonz Ethier and myself. I did a little cussing and remarked that Hollywood certainly needed an actors' or theatrical club like The Lambs, but I felt sure that The Lambs did not start out with a swank clubhouse and a big mortgage. Bob said, indeed not, that it started with a couple of rented rooms."

Masquers co-founder, Robert Edeson

A meeting was called at the home of Alphonz Ethier, a few days later, where the group met. The Hollywood News picks up the story here with this description of the meeting:

There was no hesitation, no lack of decision. Each man was thoroughly sold on the idea. It was all now a matter of determining the first steps.

"A club should be just like a courtship," stated Ethier. "If there is enough love, there is no need for money."

"You win!" announced Ned Sparks, who had joined the group. "Make it a club founded on love!"

"That's it" fairly shouted Edeson, "A Club of love and loyalty and laughter. We'll laugh to win!" And he held out his hand toward the others.

Each man unctuously extended his hand. Without premeditation, the five hands met - and clasped. They were as one. For an instant, there was a complete silence. Then Bob repeated, "A Club of love, loyalty and laughter - that's it! We'll laugh to win!"

Some of the members of the Masquers Club barely five months into its existence, pose on the porch of the clubhouse for what is probably the first "official" Club photo.
(Click here for a key to their identities).

"We'll laugh to win!" said all of them in unison.

And to this very day, "We Laugh to Win" is the motto of the organization.

Now came the problem of organizing, a clubhouse, dues, rules and the incorporation... and the big question: Could they get members? Two of the men, Read and Esmelton, wanted to look over an old house on Yucca street. Finding it locked they climbed in thru an open window. Within a few minutes, two policemen arrived, but a situation was averted when one of the police recognized Read.

A couple of days later, the "board" walked up to the house (with key in hand), inspected it throughout and sat on the stairs and talked. The first formal meeting was on the next day, May 5, 1925. Sitting on orange crates, they discussed their problems.

On May 18, another meeting was held, this time with 30 members. Among these was Ingle Carpenter, an attorney, formerly from the east. He told the members the necessity of being properly incorporated and offered to look after the legal work, gratis.

6735 Yucca St. (no longer in existence), the home of the Masquers Club for two years prior to purchasing its long-time location on Sycamore St.

Passing into faked unconsciousness, Sparks managed to gasp, "A California attorney doing something for nothing! Surely, there's a chance for prohibition."

Then came the choosing of a name. After days of argument and debate, a suitable one was suggested. The club would be known as "The Jesters." But no sooner had the wheels started rolling than an objection came from the Shriners. It seems that The Jesters was one of the unincorporated organizations in the Shrine.

Another meeting was held, this time over 100 members and, at the suggestion of Earle Foxe, the name "Masquers" was adopted. Now the work was to begin.

"The following week many things were happening" reads the Hollywood News. "Cyril Chadwick was a volunteer foreman for the cleaning and painting crew. Actors who received hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars weekly for their professional services, were busy with brooms, scrubbing brushes and painting equipment. Of course, these men could have donated enough money to have everything done but they elected to do it themselves. It was just the spirit of The Masquers asserting itself.

"Meanwhile, Esmelton, assisted by Ethier, purchased heavy oak tables, chairs and benches. These were followed by cutlery, dishes and other similar necessities. It wasn't long until there was a completely furnished and well decorated house -- with a kitchen and ice box -- even remotely approaching food.

"Everything was quite peaceful and serene until a couple of men who had seen service in France turned loose the familiar old army cry, 'when do we eat?'

"The first luncheon was a glorious affair. Esmelton, who had long been famous in both the theatrical and motion picture professions for his ability in preparing exquisite and delightful foods, prepared the first luncheon -- and it was the greatest sort of a success. It was so much of a triumph that he became the official non-salaried cook --- and he remained on the difficult job until The Masquers was averaging more than 100 luncheons a day.

"Finally, it became necessary to hire a club manager and steward. The dining room became too small for the crowd, so a roof garden was constructed, and was packed to capacity each day. And everybody knew everybody else, intimately, delightfully. It was bad form, and not at all the true Masquers spirit not to know a brother Masquer quite well enough always to address him by his first name."

Early meeting of the Club at its first location on Yucca. Harlequin #2, Douglas MacLean, is standing and shaking hands with a fellow member.

In the meantime, the first officers had been elected, and the official birthday of the club was declared to be May 25, 1925. With the growing membership the present site of The Masquers Club was purchased after two years at Yucca street.

"The whole thing got off to a wonderful start," writes Mr. Read "and a wonderful spirit --- from the very beginning. Masquers gave freely of their time, furniture, money and ideas. It just couldn't go wrong!! Fred Esmelton worked like a dog and watched every nickle for the first 2 or 3 years, and I did what I could to keep our finances on an even keel as Treasurer. We rocked along pretty well until Sam Hardy came along, and then that great guy put on big shows, made pictures and generally raised hell to give us a large chunk of money, which put us on a permanently sound basis."

So here we are! "We Laugh to Win."

"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be." William Hazlitt (1788-1830)

Some further insights into the origins of our motto "We Laugh To Win" are offered here.

1765 Sycamore St. (no longer in existence) Home of the Masquers for more than 60 years

While visiting Knotts' Berry Farm not long ago, Masquerette Dee Carroll saw the following on a 70 year old reading chart in the old school house there.

Sweet wind, fair wind,
Where have you been?
I've been sweeping the Cobwebs out of the sky;
I've been grinding a grist
in the mill hard by;
I've been laughing at work
while others sigh-
Let those laugh who win!"

R.L. Stevenson

The bottom of the chart had been torn but it is widely held to be the work of Robert Louis Stevenson. From an old friend, Masquer Kay E. Kuter, comes another possible derivation. He referred us to Othello's speech in Act IV, Sc I, Line 123.

--- "So, so, so, so:
They laugh that win."
It seems probable to us that Robert Edeson, our first Harlequin, who received his early stage training from his producer-manager father, and who himself was a Broadway star at twenty-one, could have been unconsciously paraphrasing either of the above quotes (which no doubt he was more than familiar with) when he embraced the other founding fathers and excitedly declaimed on that night 50 Golden years ago, "That's it! A Club of love and loyalty and laughter. We'll laugh to win!"