Episode 107: Morning at the Improv
Rehearsals aren’t going well for the Greenies’ upcoming show until Ellie Kemper teaches them how to listen and work together with the help of improv.
Featured Art: Improv
The art of improv combines two of our most important theater elements: acting and story. It’s no surprise then, that many acting curriculums list improv proficiency as a class goal. The ability to utilize space, act convincingly, and come up with lines and characters on the spot all contribute to a well-rounded theater artist. In fact, most theater warmup games are inherently improv games, as they task the players to come up with clever new responses. Theater students may not realize it at first, but they’re doing improv all the time.
Of course, improv has an incredibly valued place in the world of comedy. Improv forces participants to think on their feet and prepares dedicated students for a life of constantly pitching or performing jokes. As one would expect, a sizable chunk of famous comedians and television writers all got their start in an improv class. Ellie Kemper, star of Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and our improv Greenroom guest, is herself a proud graduate of the Upright Citizens Brigade. Other famous comics got their start at Second City, The Groundlings Theater, or a number of others.
At its core, improv is about making things up. But within the art are important acting lessons like space work, pantomime, and body control. Since improv often uses no props, performers are tasked with summoning settings and objects all out of thin air. And in order to fill the limitless demand for new characters, improvisers practice all kinds of voices and accents. But because the Greenies are just getting started, Ellie starts them off with the basics of scene building.
The foundation of improvisational scene building is the phrase “yes, and.” The goal of building a scene is to expand the world, rather than contract it, and accept the offers that other players give you. This way, performers are focused on teamwork, rather than coming up with their own material ahead of time and guiding the scene towards it. “Yes, and,” keeps improvisers from growing complacent, and teaches them to roll with the punches. That way, when the Greenies forget their memorized lines on stage, they’ll be ready to improv their way out of it!
The Groundlings Theatre and School has been the foremost training ground for improv and sketch comedy in Los Angeles since 1974. The Groundlings has been the springboard for countless bright careers including Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Phil Hartman and Jim Rash.
Warm Up Game: Storm Noises
Improv needs more than just quick one-liners. In fact, much of the fun from improv comes from the world building that happens with pantomime and makeshift sound effects. That’s why Gus leads the Greenies in summoning a huge storm together.
This activity warms up bodies and voices, channeling all that creative energy kids have bouncing around. Gus starts us off:
There was a breeze and the breeze was blowing, blowing everything round and round, listen to that breeze a-blowing, hear that WHOOSHING breezy sound.
Wave your arms side to side as you make the “whoosh”-ing noise with your mouth. The effect should feel like the wind. Now comes Ms. Julie’s verse:
Then the rain, the rain starts falling, falling hard upon the ground.
Listen to the rain drops dropping, hear the pitter-patter sound.
Take your fingers and imitate the raindrops as you make a pitter-patter noise on your own. Added to the waving and whooshing, it starts to sound like a real rainstorm.
That’s when the thunder started crashing, crashing loud across the sky
Listen to that thunder crashing, hear that mighty thunder cry.
Add a CRASH and a downward swing of your arms to the storm. With the wind, the rain, and the thunder, everything is (loudly) coming together. Ms. Julie finishes things off:
Now the mighty storm is raging, loud and strong, a storm most foul
Listen to that storm a-storming, hear the mighty storming howl!
Howl like a ghost, bringing everything to a loud crescendo. It’s a full-fledged storm! Remember to repeat ALL the storm elements for the full effect. Gus winds things down:
Now the mighty storm is breaking, breaking up to clear the skies.
The clouds move on, the sun is shining, all is calm and the whole earth sighs.
Let out a big sigh: the storm is over!