Monday, December 1, 2008

Song in the Style Of

We play a game at Impro Gladiators that works every time, and is a massive crowd favourite. Song in the Style probably isn't going to qualify as "proper" impro, but it uses many of the same skills, and is a hoot to watch. We play it as an end-of-the-first-half game, as a nice big tag to the first part of the show.

In Song in the Style Of, the players take a well-known song, and perform it in a variety of styles. Of course, none of it is rehearsed; the MC provides the song at the start of the game, and gets a bunch of styles from the audience. A few of the players pick one of the styles, come out and perform the song (or bits of it) in that style. When they're done, another batch come out to perform it again. After a few goes, and hopefully after a song with a big audience reaction, finish the game.

Generally the MC gets a "well-known song" from the audience. Usually getting a few offers for songs and letting the players choose works well; if the players simply don't know the words to the song, the players have to work a lot harder. Alternatively, the MC can choose a song before the show, and print out lyrics so the players can read them while the MC is getting style offers. Pre-choosing the song and providing lyrics results in a more professional scene, perhaps at the cost of looking less improvised. (I pretty much never want to know the song early - I have more fun when I find out at the same time the audience does.)

When the MC gets musical styles, it's either usually just a standard musical genre (jazz, rap, country, ...) or a particular artist that can be parodied (Michael Jackson, Bjork, AC/DC, ...). Again, it usually works well to have the MC get a big bunch of styles (10 or 15) so the players can choose the ones that will work the best (5 or 6).

As the musician, it's much more important to nail the style than the song. If they're working with a song you don't know, that's ok - just make sure your jazz sounds like jazz and let the players do the work of fitting the song in. If you do know the song, that's great - it's very effective to include bits of the chord progression or signature riffs when you copy the song. For example, if you're covering Time Warp, the audience will hear that chord progression for "Let's - Do - The Tiiime - Waaaarp - Agaaaain!" regardless of the musical style.

If the musical style is an artist, rip off one of the artists songs - their signature song if they have one. If the style is Britney Spears, that piano riff at the start of Hit Me Baby One More Time is a good start. If you were copying Billy Joel, rip off Piano Man; if it's Nirvana, starting with the riff in Come As You Are works a treat.

Of course, the players aren't just up there singing, they're acting in the genre suggested by the music. The persona the singer projects for a torch song is quite different than for heavy metal. As long as they commit to the style, it really doesn't matter what they do, it's going to work out ok. A player really comfortable with holding the audience attention can spend a minute just setting up the scene and their character, to great effect. There's plenty of room for singer-support too, with actors playing band members, or doing genre gags with roles like "the waiter at the piano bar".

The MC can make the musician's life a lot easier by announcing the style well before the players get up there. While the first act is on and the MC is backstage, they can get the style from the other players about to go on. When the MC returns to the stage in between songs, they can announce the style, introduce the players performing it, get a clap while the players come on... giving the muso enough time to get the right sounds up and ready to go.

This game is one that works well when the muso has access to a variety of instruments, kits, and combo patches.

To finish the overall game, make sure you end on a big song! If performance #4 brings the house down, finish it there. Finishing on a low energy or failed song takes away all of the goodness of the game; if you're using the game to finish the first half as we do, ending on a low-energy note can really hurt the audience.

We have some crowd favourites that are requested when particular players are on. Kiesten McCauley and Louise Brehmer do an uncanny Chipmunks impersonation (and probably wish they didn't!). Dave Eastgate and Al Tomkins, both fluent in conversational Japanese, do an incredible Japanese Pop, and it's a pretty frequent request when they're playing. And Andy Foreman does professional character work as Richard Simms, so occasionally when someone in the know requests Richard Simmons as a style, his performance is always magnificent.

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