Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Relying on Tricks

Are rehearsed tricks and shticks ok?

Just because you're improvising a show, it doesn't mean everything you do is new. Most of the time it is. But every improviser has been in the situation where they can fall back on a gag or a shtick that they might have used before.

To some extent, this is just applying your acting skills. If you put on a French accent, or start walking like a caveman, you're applying some straightforward skills to augment your character. You're still giving yourself plenty of room to make stuff up. But... there's a point where it becomes more than that, where you're pressing play on a recording of something you've done before.

We see this often in Song in the Style Of. You might have a smoky jazz number, and the singer has clearly set up that it takes place in a club. So another character comes on during the song as a waiter, holding a tray of drinks. That fits, right? Was it improvised? Not really... There's a stronger example in a gag that we do during country songs. Maybe 50% of our country songs find they're supported by another player miming riding a mechanical bull. (We have that absolutely down pat now. If you need to hire a mechanical bull rider mime, let me know.) Audiences go crazy for this stuff, but it's a routine that you draw on rather than improvise.

Is that ok? I tend to say yes - you're there to entertain, and doing something that supports the scene and entertains can't be bad.

Musicians also have a bag of tricks they can draw on. Again, I'm not sure if it's a completely good or bad thing, but I fall back to those tricks quite often.

The best example I can think of is this: When we do a scene in the style of Shakespeare, I will inevitably call up a harp patch on the keyboard, and launch in to some nice flowy stuff when the scene starts. We quite often kick those off with a soliloquy by a narrator, and the two combine quite well. The harp fits, it serves the scene, but it is probably less improvised than other stuff.

Similarly, I will use a cheesy organ for a soap opera scene. It's a strange choice; I don't think any soap operas actually use cheesy organs. Daytime soaps use strings and dramatic piano. There's just something very melodramatic about using that organ sound; I suppose it reminds me of radio serials.

Are there tricks you use and fall back on? Do you think it's ok?

Picture by Anthony Massingham, used with permission


Girl Clumsy said...

One word: BOOBS!

Dan said...

When I'm playing impro music I pretty much never use chordal progressions I'm not already familiar with. Most of what I do is stuff I already know I can do and have done many times before.

On the flip side, performing, I always do my utmost to avoid doing something I've done before in "Song in the style of" otherwise, why am I doing impro?

Girl Clumsy said...

Oh for goodness' sake Dan, are you too perfect or what?

You absolutely have styles and forms of singing that you use on a reasonably frequent basis. You're the king of the set-up rhyme and punchline.

Music and song games are great places to have "tricks" because they're good audience pleasers. I'm trying to learn a few more myself to help strengthen my ability to do musical games!

The Wah said...

I've never met an improvisor that didn't use tricks or schticks to some extent.

The longer you play with someone the more you know how they will react to a scene.

Is this bad? (I suppose that is the question you are framing)

Within reason, it is fine. You will have scenes/shows you are phoning in, either consciously or subconsciously. Other times some real honest-to-goodness raw impro will happen. It depends on the the performer's mood, the other performers' moods, the structure of the show, and the type of audience in attendence.

You should start to worry when other performers, especially ones that don't perform with you regularly, can rattle off your shtick(s). It might be time to branch out and try something new if you are known for doing X or Y and nothing else.

Girl Clumsy said...

Hang on... so I should probably try something NOT-boob related?

Oh no! I'm stuffed!


Dan said...

Stuffing your boobs? IT'S INSPIRED!!!

Yes, I do have schtick. Mine requires that I'm wearing my good underpants whenever I perform.

But in Song in a style of, I'll always try to pick a genre I've not done before. I'd much rather fail at doing a signing Dalek than Ace another Country and Western.

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