Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Setting the Scene in Song

Sometimes a song can inject information in to the audience's minds and hearts far more efficiently than a spoken scene. I'm not sure why that is... Perhaps something about delivering those words with the cadence and emotional weight of music.

Tamzin McCauley, Brisbane improv actor/teacher/MC/legend-about-town, often provides the following mnemonic for high school kids about to jump on stage for Youth Theatresports: CROWS. To set a scene, you should be hitting Character, Relationship, Objective, Where, and Status. (CROW seems a common improv teaching tool. I do like the addition of Status though. Status seems like that important extra bit of oil to grease a scene.)

I highly doubt experienced improvisers are on stage whispering "Crows! CROOOWS!" to themselves... Doing this stuff should be second nature for someone with a lot of improv stage time.

I thought it would be interesting to take a "setting the scene" song from Worst Side Story, and see how it stacks up.

Amy Currie as Salad Fork

The Hoity Toitys

After the opening introduction song Table Manners, the gangs dispersed. First, Fingers' gang had a scene to better introduce that gang; immediately following that was this scene introducing The Hoity Toitys.

Listen to The Hoity Toitys first, then we'll discuss it.

Character: The scene clearly establishes Salad Fork (Amy Currie) as the tough-as-nails gang leader. About the only softness she shows is towards her kid brother Napkin Ring (Luke Allan); he comes across as goofy, naive and enthusiastic. Tea Cup (Alex Reichart) is the tough of the gang, unabashedly roughing up anyone in his way.

Relationship: Napkin Ring is clearly established as Salad Fork's kid brother. Tea Cup appears to be a very strong #2 to Salad Fork's gang leader role. The relationship between Tea Cup and Napkin Ring is vague at this time; it comes out later in the story.

Alex Reichart as Tea Cup
Objective: Each of them has a slightly different gang-related personal objective. Salad Fork uses the gang to elevate herself above the less cultured members of society. Tea Cup is similar, but appears quite keen on intimidation and beating people up. And Nappy seems to have achieved his objective: Joining the gang.

Where: The show was already pretty well established as being in a bustling city, by virtue of playing off of the West Side Story tropes. This song adds a strong sense that there are (unseen) inhabitants of the city other than the gang members.

Status: Salad Fork and Tea Cup both take high-status roles, towering over the low-status Napkin Ring. Later in the story we discover that Tea Cup opposed Napkin Ring's entry to the gang. I wonder if a gang composed of just Salad Fork and Tea Cup, both high-status characters, would have been as fun to watch.

Luke Allan as Napkin Ring
I think the guys pretty effectively painted the picture of their gang - they built a strong platform for the rest of the story. That spoken line to finish off the song, about nothing coming before the gang, is vital to the conflict that we knew would come later in the show.

My favourite bits of the scene:
  • Amy stepping in to the vamp to start the song. She's awfully good at that.
  • I really liked rhyming 'scum' with 'drum'. Rhyming words buried in the middle of subsequent lines? Brilliant!
  • Alex's line about helping the old ladies. Alex makes me laugh and laugh; he surprises me, and I'm a pretty old and jaded improviser now ;)
  • The interplay about clicking. Finger-snapping was an important trope for the genre. I didn't realise that it would be so exhausting!
  • Stepping out of the song at the end; the guys took the music-slowing cue and ran with it.

Perhaps the character that had the least development in this scene was Napkin Ring. At the end of this scene, Luke set himself up nicely for a solo scene, and I think a lot more of Nappy's character came out in that scene. You'll get that next week :)

Photo by Al Caeiro

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