OK, so now we're getting some place. Can I be totally honest and admit that I'm feeling both won over and slightly annoyed? For the first two weeks of the course, as I've described, the participants were thrown in the deep end with improvising scenes, and the desperate and rushed process most often ended in a lot of confusion, stressful moments between the Type As in the groups and those who care less about the rules than the result, and lots of not-being-funny. Earlier each day, we were learning basic things and performing small improvisations in front of Antonio in duos and trios, during which he gave us notes about how to be more correct with our physical presentation, how to be clearer with comic reactions, and how to walk the line between the 'logic' of this world and the fantasy of it. These exercises got progressively longer and involved more and more characters, but still the work on the 'canovacci' - literally the 'canvases' where the participants were left alone to take a sketch and fill in the details - felt miles away from the short improv sessions. Granted, groups were working on these scenes outside in the park. A lovely park, but with temperatures in the 90s, swarms of mosquitoes, pine needles and broken glass on the ground, not the kind of place that leads to peaceful problem-solving. And for me, knowing a little bit about the complexity of the full late Renaissance commedia dell'arte plots, it's been difficult to let go of that complexity in the name of just keeping up the rhythm and doing something funny.
At the end of last week finally, we started actually improvising full scenes in front of Antonio, and it was like someone finally turned on the lights. For starters, it was made explicit, for the first time, that a canovaccio was an opportunity to study possibilities, not an attempt at making something that you could put on stage today. I'd been feeling a lot of pressure to invent something that 'worked' as a story from start to finish as the first step, and that perception led me to want to be sure that I understood the whole trajectory before we tried to improvise, so that it (a) made sense, (b) followed the instructions we'd been given, and (c) had a potentially funny plot. Now - in a show, do we want a scene that makes sense and is funny? Yeah, duh. But the process of study isn't about filling in a story with funny things; it's about knowing who the character is, looking for interesting consequences to the actions of other characters and discovering the story that comes out of these consequences.
So - a new way of thinking - and we did our first canovaccio of the week yesterday. The result, still not smooth. I'm looking for the wins, because I've got a week and a half left, and there's no excuse for me not to leave doing something - anything - better than when I got here. Win #1 - I helped someone make a physical comedy bit that was singled out as good. Sort of win # 2 - I tried to listen and be flexible in the performance and respond. And I completely changed a bit during one scene, because it just felt like, based on what I was hearing, it was the right thing to do. The partial loss of this was that I let someone else's dominating presence on the stage back me down, and I could have gone with it and tried to rise to his energy. If I could set my sights on one goal for the next week it's to figure out how to spin out time in ways that are non-functional. By that, I mean that, when I feel like what's going on on stage is not furthering the plot, I want to get the hell off stage or, worse yet, I want to lower the energy around me, because I'm afraid that, if I do something that isn't functional, I won't know how to keep it up or how to end it when it's time. And I can see how being more comfortable with going in a direction that's not strictly functional and discovering incidental opportunities for humor could be a good skill to have, not just on stage. Goal #2 - Have more to say about rhythm by the end of this. During our session with Cecilia, she talked a bit with us about keeping up the rhythm of a scene, specifically that, if a character is about to enter, don't wait until you think the previous vignette is losing steam. Go before it loses steam. Then again close to the end of class yesterday, Antonio said something great about the rhythm of a sketch. He encouraged us to speak up if we felt that the middle of someone else's scene is losing energy, and to be ready to look for another line of inquiry. Also, he said that good rhythm isn't just fast. As a viewer, it seems easier to keep the audience engaged if it is fast, but there's more subtlety in this work than simply making sure everyone moves at top speed. There's joyful energy. There's tragic energy. There's lots of different specific kinds of rhythmic energy we can use. So - lots more to ponder.