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improv charts - Roy Janik [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Roy Janik

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improv charts [Mar. 7th, 2008|02:44 pm]
Roy Janik
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It's weird that my brain tries to think about and logically break up improv into analytical components, but it totally does. My mind is constantly composing little charts related to different aspects of improv. Here are a few:

This is a chart I used to think of a while back. I did a poor job of representing it, but it's supposed to be something like a 3-D graph, with the lines being the axes. Anyhow, whenever PGraph would come up with a new format or start working on a new skill, I'd think about where you'd plot us on a graph like this. Like when we did After School Improv, we were sort of moving in the Cupholders direction.. narrative, but playful and loose, kinda... but when we did the 1930s, it moved our little PGraph dot towards 3-for-All's more theatrical style. And Family Portrait was a deliberate attempt to work on our Chicago character skills... aka, to move along the Frank Mills axis.

It seems kind of depressing to think of things in these terms... that I'd be judging our troupe in how much we're like other groups, but it's not really about that. I just thought of these groups in particular of being at the height of some particularly distinct styles... and the goal was to be in the positive zone of all the groups... that's why it's a graph. Moving towards the frank mills doesn't mean moving away from 3-for-all or the cupholders, you see.

Of course, as my opinions on improv strengthen, and as the group continues to grow, I think less and less in these terms, and more about the PGraph axis, and what it means to be heading in -that- direction.

Of course, once I start plotting crap like this in my head, it makes me think of The Dead Poets Society, and that book that tried to analyze poetry in a very similar manner... which pissed off Robin Williams to no end. Obviously, this stuff is useful only up to a point. It's never something I think a lot about, but it helps me figure out what I'm trying to do, anyhow.

Now something I do find useful in coaching, rehearsal, and in notes is the good ole "Circle of Expectations". I think the idea comes from Johnstone originally. At the center of the circle, you've got the scene/story, as it's happening now. In this example, we've got a couple on a 3rd date, a fairly typical scene set up. And within the rest of the circle, you've got an infinite number of choices of WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. More importantly, the choices within the circle are things the audience might expect to happen next. The closer you are to the center of the circle, the more reasonable/expected the possibility is. So for instance, a couple on a 3rd date is very likely to have an awkward conversation, since they're still feeling each other out, so that's closer to the center. A more dynamic choice is that the guy is a jerk, and shamelessly flirts with the waitress. It's a little more unlikely, but still well within the circle. At some point you reach the event horizon of the outer edge of the circle, past which is everything the audience isn't expecting at all, and which is basically a non-sequiter.

Now Johnstone contends, and I agree, that the audience wants to see a satisfying story, and thus wants to see stuff something within the circle. If you throw them something like zombie ferrets running the restaurant, they're thrown out of the story and have to play catch-up.

The MAGIC of the Circle of Expectations for me is that everyone's idea of what lies within the circle is different. So if you made a chart of everyone's circle, it'd be a venn diagram type thing, with lots of overlap. SO, what this means is that if you play obvious, and stay close to the center of your own circle, your choices will still wind up in the outer areas of other peoples' circles and YOU'LL LOOK LIKE A GENIUS while doing less work and less thinking. Always nice.

Plus, there's a nice correlation to group mind here. As your group works together longer, your circles of expectations start to overlap more and more, and so when you're all playing truthful and obvious, you all just KNOW together what happens next.

*WHEW*. I'm not trying to preach anything here. These are just my thoughts on how I think about improv sometimes. There are a billion ways to approach the art, and far be it from me to begrudge anyone their method. Also, please note that I don't think about any of this stuff during actual shows. That would be insane.

Finally, here's another chart. This always comes up when we're being interviewed by someone, especially by someone with no experience in improv. Inevitably they ask what our troupe's style/philosophy/goal is, and I say something like "Imagine a line. On one end you have a comedy club, and on the other end you have a theater, the kind that has plays and stuff. Now improv is interesting, because it kind of exists between the two, somewhere on the line. And some troupes fall closer to the comedy club end, and some fall closer to the theatre side of things. Right now, at least, PGraph is interested in moving further toward the theatre end of things." Maybe from now on I should just draw a picture:



And those are just 3 of the charts in my brain. It's a good thing I try to get out of my head when performing, or I'd just be a professor all the time.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: andreay85
2008-03-07 09:00 pm (UTC)
pgraph could be the time axis of your first graph. oh man. pgraph==4th dimension. seriously. plot that shit.

note: this is my favorite improv post of all time.
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[User Picture]From: orangepaisley
2008-03-07 09:17 pm (UTC)

I heart charts

This piece totally rocked! I was nodding in agreement the whole way. :-)

BTW, my circle of expectations included an angry zombie Chef Ramsay.
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[User Picture]From: zinereem
2008-03-10 04:20 pm (UTC)

Re: I heart charts

See? Everyone's circle is different!
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[User Picture]From: acrouch
2008-03-08 03:52 am (UTC)
yesyesyesyesyesyesyes
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[User Picture]From: jefpeanutbutter
2008-03-08 06:30 am (UTC)
I love your description of the magic of the circle of expectations.
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[User Picture]From: majcher
2008-03-08 06:35 am (UTC)
Huh huh. P-graphs.

All of those are sweet, and tickle both the improv nerd and nerd nerd parts of my brain. Yes to everything.
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[User Picture]From: biscuitpig
2008-03-08 08:03 am (UTC)
Hey this is Jill I found your lj through Facebook.

That circle of expectations is brilliant. I want to steal it.

Do you ever read http://storyrobot.com/improv/ ? You think like him, he makes little charts too, only his have stick figures.
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[User Picture]From: zinereem
2008-03-10 04:19 pm (UTC)
man, that storybot blog is awesome. I love the idea of using comics to teach improv.

As for the circle of expectations, it's straight out of Impro, I think, though I made up the date example, at least.
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[User Picture]From: space_princess
2008-03-09 11:17 pm (UTC)
I like this. Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: zinereem
2008-03-10 04:19 pm (UTC)
You're welcome.
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