Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mysterious Whisper

Working with actors who are unfamiliar with musicians

I'm lucky that I mostly work with experienced players, players with skilled in working with musicians. They know how to handle themselves in musical games, and they understand the give and take they should have with the music. I also spend a lot of time working with high school kids in Youth Theatresports, and often they have little or no experience with a musician at all. Throwing in that extra unfamiliar element can be tricky for them. How do you, as the musician, handle that situation?

Stay out of the way!

If you figure out that a bunch of players are generally confident, but are uncomfortable with a musician, perhaps let them lead and stay right out of their way. They've probably developed strategies and tools to work sans-music, and adding musical accompaniment can just derail them.

Easily the best example of this is how folks attack Opera. If the team is busy sing-speaking and butting in to one another, the last thing they need is for you to go barging around the scene as well, banging in to them at every turn and splitting the focus even more. In that situation, I'll hang back, provide embellishment, fill the (rare) gaps with something subtle.

On the other hand, you might have people that are not as confident, and may not have those strategies and mechanisms in place. As always, be careful - if you see they are responding to what you do, keep that support up; if they keep looking over at you with the "What are you doing?!? You're RUINING EVERYTHING!!" face, they're not coping and you might want to step back.

(In practice, I find the "You're ruining everything!" face is remarkably similar to the "Help! Help! Save us!" face. Good luck with that one.)

Sometimes there are games that really rely on that give-and-take, like Musical Hotspot or Soundtrack. Hopefully if the performers picked the game, they understand the handle, and are ready to listen and react.

Providing underscoring behind a non-musical game remains more or less the same, except that you really can't count on them hearing musical offers and responding to them. And inexperienced improvisers sometimes feel like they have to fill the silence with words; when they figure out that you are always there to support the scene, they will hopefully break up their dialogue a little more and let the scene breathe.

Brisbane Youth Theatresports

In our Youth Theatreports season, each night sees us performing at a different high school. And by "us", I mean an MC, musician, and judges all skilled in impro, along with as many as six teams of kids from different schools. We run a set of heats, quarter finals, semi finals, then a massive Grand Final, usually at a professional venue like the Roundhouse Theatre (aka the new La Boite theatre).

Something I always do with the Youth Theatresports kids is get together with them as a group before the show. The MC usually has a spiel to explain how the show is going to run, where the kids will come on, where they will sit, how the flow of games will work, that sort of thing. I'll talk to them as well, introduce myself, explain my job, when I'll be playing and when I won't be. I'll explain that my job above all is to support them, that I will be paying attention to them, and giving the show what it needs musically. I'll ask them about their team intros, find out which teams are considering playing musical games, and hopefully make them feel like they know me a little bit - so they'll let me in as that extra team member while they're performing.

I might be giving the impression that the performers at Youth Theatresports aren't up to scratch - that's not the case! In every bunch there will be kids that are good and kids that need to work on things. There are always standout teams, where it is evident they have spent the time to work well together, learned how to play the games, learned the "rules" (and when to break them)... There are always kids that are obviously going to develop in to fantastic improvisers. A great many of the pro improvisers I work with now got their start in school improv, and I can't help but think that without Youth Theatresports they would have found another calling.

This is all relevant to me at the moment - next week sees the start of the Youth Theatresports 2009 season. It's a long season, and there are a lot of shows, but it's very exciting to see some of these kids discovering their talents and creating amazing stuff on stage.

In the end, your job as a musician is the same - support the players, make them look good, give the scene what it wants. As long as you're on the ball and paying attention to the impact you're having on a scene, and adjusting your playing accordingly, it will go great.
Photo by tojosan

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