Friday, October 31, 2008

Don't Lets Start

One of the hardest things about getting in to something new is just taking that first step. For most hobbies or disciplines one might want to try, there might be classes or workshops to take, and more experienced folk you can work with to learn your craft. Music for improvised theatre is a bit different, and it can be daunting trying to figure out where to begin.

What makes it tricky? For starters, when you're performing as an impro musician, you're it; it isn't like acting or soccer or pottery - when you're part of the group doing impro, you are probably the only impro musician in the bunch. Soccer players or potters or actors can at least watch each other, learn from each other, and accept adjusting feedback. (Ok, "adjusting feedback" is just a nicer way of pitching constructive criticism.)

It's also quite difficult to just go out and find a class or a book (Update below) to teach you how to do music for impro theatre. I have heard that one of the musicians in the Sydney impro scene runs a workshop series for other impro musicians - I guess the impro scene there is large enough to support enough groups that they have new musicians appearing now and again. Classes for this are pretty unusual though. And a book suffers from the same issue that this blog does - reading about music??

So... where do you start?

I'd say probably the safest way to get in to it is to find and join an impro troupe that practices. It's ok to make mistakes, try new things, and take risks in a rehearsal, since it's just rehearsal. Actually, it's more than ok to make mistakes, try new things, and take risks in a show - it's impro! But if you're nervous about getting started, a rehearsal is a safer place. When the actors you're working with are familiar with working with a musician, they will give you pointers and feedback after scenes.

Rehearsals are probably the best way for you to get your head around how musical games work. Musical games are the one area that winging it musically without respecting the structure of the game can get you in to trouble. Botching one of those in a proper show may make you feel that you've let the show or the group down, and that can be de-motivating when you're just getting started. They're also far more interactive; the muso and the actors are playing off of each other, and that's quite a different skill than playing background music to a scene.

A more confronting way of getting started is to Just Do It! (Hey, that's catchy.) Find a low-stress show, maybe an amateur or rookie show, and jump in with both feet. Rookie shows will often stick to a set format and a set group of games. Everyone's new, and the audience expectation is conservative, so the tolerance for awkward moments is higher. You have to be pretty familiar with the structure for musical games though, so hopefully if you're jumping in like this, you've been to enough impro to understand how the games work.

I got my start rehearsing with a few friends who were doing high school Youth Theatresports at the time, and wanted to practice with a musician. I hadn't ever seen Theatresports before, so it was less than successful. Later, when I was a massive fan of Theatresports, I managed to hook up with a troupe of 4 impro actors, and together we formed Out on a Limb. We rehearsed a lot, and when we did perform in public it started off in small venues with small audiences asking for gold-coin donations. We went on to fill decent venues with paying customers, perform a long-form science fiction impro serial, and record an impro-game-show television series. I'd say working with a group like that was about the best start one could have in impro; it was safe, provided good learning experiences, and paved the way for bigger things!

Update: I don't know how I hadn't stumbled across these before, but there are books on music for impro! Michael Pollock is an accomplished LA-based musician; he's worked for Disney, scored a variety of shows, and performed and taught with many of the big impro troupes in the US. His two books Musical Direction for Improv and Sketch Comedy and Musical Improv Comedy: Creating Songs In The Moment are available at Amazon. You can bet they're now high on my Christmas list, and I'll review them down the track some day.

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