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Author, teacher, and improviser Michael Gellman was given a mission by Del Close himself: “[T]o create improvised one-act plays of literary quality from scratch.” Already steeped in the world of improvisation, he took it upon himself to do this, in the form of a class for other improvisers in which they would build the skills necessary to execute such a seemingly tall order. Scruggs and Gellman’s book, modeled after Stanislavski’s timeless An Actor Prepares, follows a fictional young actor taking Gellman’s ...
Author, teacher, and improviser Michael Gellman was given a mission by Del Close himself: “[T]o create improvised one-act plays of literary quality from scratch.” Already steeped in the world of improvisation, he took it upon himself to do this, in the form of a class for other improvisers in which they would build the skills necessary to execute such a seemingly tall order. Scruggs and Gellman’s book, modeled after Stanislavski’s timeless An Actor Prepares, follows a fictional young actor taking Gellman’s real-life class.
Scruggs and Gellman introduce readers to Geoff, who has just moved to Chicago to pursue acting. He undergoes the standard trials of audition and rejection before he takes the advice of a fellow actor and turns to improv classes at Second City. At first, Geoff thinks improvisation is about laughs and loosening up, but he soon learns that it is a powerful tool as well as an end in itself. Through Geoff’s eyes, the book introduces readers to key tenets of improvisation: concentration, visualization, focus, object work, being in the moment, and the crucial “yes, and.” His experiences with the basics of improvisation do serve to get him a few roles, but his real breakthrough comes when he signs up for an improvised one-act class with Michael Gellman. He and his classmates arrive unprepared for the challenge, but with Gellman’s prompts and advice, they slowly move through process to performance over the course of three seasons in Chicago. The class culminates with their final project: a completely improvised one-act play performed in front of a live audience.
WHEN I SIGNED UP TO AUDITION for a workshop being led by Michael Gellman at The Second City Training Center, I wasn't sure whether I was acting on faith or out of desperation. I'd been through an awful year in Chicago-and not just because of the brutal winter. I had come to this city to be an actor-and by "actor," I mean someone who actually gets paid to act. After a particularly bitter setback, I had more or less given up hope that I would ever achieve that goal.
I stood back and looked at my name on the sheet-Geoff Hart-and realized that I wasn't finished with my journey. Like a shipwrecked Odysseus I had been hiding out, allowing my resentments, my wounded pride, and my fears to strand me.
But I should probably go back to the very beginning of my journey, which began four years before I even got to Chicago or The Second City, when I entered college. I majored in theater at a small college in the Midwest-which meant I had a nice, well-rounded liberal arts degree. As a theater major, I still took lots of required core classes-literature, world history, philosophy, sociology, even a couple of science classes. But my favorite classes were the theater classes-playwriting, directing, history of the theater, scene and costume design, and, of course, acting.
In retrospect, I realize that my theater classes focused more on theory and text analysis than on practical work. As a result, I knew how to examine theater, and I knew how to discuss theater. I knew to call the art form the "theater" and the physical area you did it in "the space." But I had no idea how to work in either. Even though I was lucky enough to get cast in several plays in college, those bloated renditions of Aeschylus, Marlowe, Ibsen, Sam Shepard, et al. gave me no real idea of the working actor's process.
And I didn't know this when I first arrived in Chicago.
I thought I was playing it smart by coming to Chicago before trying New York. I knew that a lot of actors had started out in Chicago-Dennis Franz, John Mahoney, and Gary Sinise. I also knew there were a lot of ad agencies in Chicago. So I figured I'd do commercials during the day and real theater at night-my top picks of theaters to work at included the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Chicago Shakespeare. In about a year or two, I should be ready to go to New York with a fat portfolio of glowing press clippings and a reel.
It was a good, sensible plan. I had to keep telling myself that, because I was a bit terrified at first. After all, I had little money, no friends, and no contacts.
The first order of business was survival. With my shiny new bachelor of arts degree I quickly found a soul-deadening day job as an administrative assistant at a law office in the Loop. Then I found a cheap place to live, and I learned how to use the CTA.
I gave myself two weeks to settle in, and then I was ready to start my assault on the Chicago theater scene. I picked up the local free weeklies that listed auditions for the non-Equity theaters. I made half a dozen appointments and spent an entire weekend going to auditions-a little worried about how I'd juggle multiple offers.
It ended up being a great weekend, though. I was well prepared, I was confident, and I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment from finding my way around town on my own. I got four callbacks-all of them at night during the following week.
At one of these callbacks I was teamed up with a girl named Kristin for a cold reading. The director handed us a few pages from a new play and told us to go in the hall to work on it a bit. While the director talked, someone I assumed was the playwright paced the back of the theater, scowling at us, saying nothing.
Kristin and I went into the hallway, where other pairs of actors huddled over script pages, urgently rehearsing in hushed voices. I glanced over the pages-the director had told us nothing about the play.
"So, I guess we're soldiers in Iraq," I said, flipping through the pages. Kristin didn't answer me, so I looked up at her. She seemed like she might be a couple of years older than I was-but probably not thirty yet. She had short, wavy brown hair, and her hazel eyes were bright and energetic. I wondered if she was new to Chicago, too, but I didn't want to ask, because she was studying her script, her fingers pressed into her lips. When she finished, she drew in a sharp breath and looked up at me.
"The Gulf War, not the current one. And you're a marine, and I'm a medic. But let's stop analyzing it to death and just dive in."
She was pretty bossy, but I decided not to call her on it. I didn't know how much time we had to prep the scene, and it would be pretty stupid to stir up trouble with a scene partner in an audition.
So we read through it, and afterward she said, "I really like how you explored Mike's lower status in the scene-but I'm not sure I responded to that fully."
I wasn't sure what she meant by "lower status"-she used the term as though everyone did when talking about acting. I'd never considered status as a dynamic in the scene-but it made sense.
"I think he's lower status in the beginning, but by the end it starts to shift," I offered, hoping I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.
"Yes!" Kristin grabbed my arm. "That's what we missed. Let's do it again."
Bossy or not, I couldn't help but like her. She took acting seriously, and she was good. I thought she was going off script, because her reading sounded so spontaneous.
We didn't even finish the second read-through before we were ushered back into the theater to perform it. I was nervous at the top of the scene, and then I felt the character take me over. I felt his fear of enemy snipers course through me, and I was surprised by an almost overwhelming urge to protect Kristin's character. By the end of the scene, I thought we were both brilliant. I even thought that the playwright's scowl had loosened a bit around the edges.
As we walked out together, I asked Kristin if she wanted to go grab coffee or a drink somewhere.
"I promised some friends I'd meet up with them," she said. "But maybe some other time."
"Maybe after the first rehearsal," I suggested.
"Oh, Geoff," she frowned. "We're not going to get cast."
I laughed. "I guess that sounded pretty arrogant. But come on, I think we have a shot. We were pretty good."
"I think we were okay," she said. "But it's not about that. These small theaters just cast their friends."
"So if you can't get in a show unless you're in a clique, why did you audition at all?" I asked.
"I took a class with the playwright last year," she confessed. "You just have to keep showing up places, and sooner or later people get to know you. And once they get to know you, it's much easier to get cast."
"What do they need to know other than I can act?" I asked.
Kristin didn't say anything, she just raised her eyebrows. I knew I sounded defensive, but her attitude bugged me. And I sounded even more defensive when I asked the inevitable: "Okay, what? Is there something wrong with my acting?"
"No, it's not that," she said quickly. "You've obviously got some training. But ... you really want to hear this?"
"Yeah," I said, even though I didn't.
"You need to lighten up. You were a little stiff in there."
"Have you ever taken any improv?"
Now I was really annoyed. "No," I said. "I'm an actor, not a comedian."
"That statement right there tells me you need to check out Chicago improv. You need to go to iO, the Annoyance, and Second City. Watch their shows. Take classes. I think you'd be good at it."
I told her I'd think about it-but I didn't mean it. I didn't want more classes. I wanted credits on my résumé.
It turned out that Kristin was right. I didn't get cast in that play or in any of the others I'd been called back for. So I just kept auditioning. I kept going to callbacks. And I still didn't get cast.
I also sent my picture and résumé to several agents. A couple of them actually called me in, but they weren't very encouraging. I performed my monologues, and they smiled and said nice things like, "Ooh, I just love The Cherry Orchard," or "Send me a postcard when you're in something," or "You must be six feet tall!" They told me my hair wasn't a clearly defined color-I should go blond or dye it black. They told me I should gain forty pounds and try out for character roles. They told me I should wait until I grew into my looks a little more and could play leading men. They all seemed to think I needed better headshots.
Finally, one agent took the time to really talk to me. She told me that I needed to start auditioning at smaller theater companies. She also told me to get more training. I asked her what kind of training I should get, and she smiled and said, "Improv. Everyone in Chicago takes improv." Improv again. I was frustrated. I had just completed four years of studying Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Chekhov, and now everyone was telling me that what I really needed was comedy classes.
But I also remembered the other thing Kristin said, that it's important to get to know people. If everyone in Chicago was studying improv, it made sense that taking classes would be a good way to make contacts.
So I Googled improv classes and found this one class at The Second City that looked right for me-Improvisation for Actors, or IFA.
I went in skeptical, but by the end of my first class I had dropped my suspicions because I was having so much fun. After barely introducing himself, the instructor had us all up on our feet playing a game to learn each other's names. Then we passed imaginary objects back and forth to each other, letting them transform into different objects. My partner and I started with a baseball that turned into a cupcake, then a kitten, then a cactus.
What I liked the most about the class was that we didn't spend a lot of time talking about the exercises. We just did them. The instructor called things out while we were doing the exercises, like "Is that a live kitten or a stuffed kitten? Make it specific." We made adjustments to what we were doing while we were still engaged in the exercise. In a three-hour class, I was performing more than half of the time.
I ended up taking a few of these Improvisation for Actors classes because I liked the work so much. The games I learned laid a foundation of playfulness, creativity, spontaneity, and connection to others. We played games to explore the emotions and personalities of characters, as well as games that simply explored the physical attributes of characters. Working as an ensemble, we created elaborate environments-forest clearings, the cargo hold of a ship, an international scientific laboratory in Antarctica-and we created characters to play in those environments.
And we created scenes-that was the part I enjoyed the most. We walked through imaginary doors and into worlds where every moment had the potential of surprise, and my classmates were fellow adventurers exploring the unknown.
After I learned the basics of improvisation, I felt released from the burdens of analyzing and memorizing text. Through improvising, theater became much more alive for me. I felt bound to the other players on the stage in a way I hadn't experienced before. I started to realize how much I had been buried in a sort of artistic self-absorption that revolved around text analysis, creating my character through a solitary process, and then trying to bring that character's thoughts and emotions into rehearsal and performance. The more I improvised, the more I felt that my previous approach to acting had involved more manufacturing and less creating than I wanted to admit. No wonder I'd been getting such tepid responses to my work. I hadn't been alive within it.
I also made a lot of great friends, including this guy Marty, whose roommate had just moved back to Wisconsin and stuck Marty with a lease on a two-bedroom apartment three blocks from Wrigley Field. Marty asked me if I wanted to move in, and since I was on a month-to-month lease at my current place, there was no reason why I couldn't. The offer came at a great time, because having a roommate cut my expenses, and I wanted to audition for Second City's Conservatory Program, which meant another year of paying for classes.
I was excited about the Conservatory. I had really enjoyed the improv for actors classes, and I felt they made me a better actor. But I was starting to get interested in improvisation as something more than a way to improve my acting. I liked working collaboratively with an ensemble. I like creating scenes. I liked the spontaneity and energy of good improv.
And I liked the challenge of it-that's why the Conservatory excited me. I saw it as a step up. You had to audition to get in. The Conservatory was for people who were serious about what they were doing, like me. Plus, I was hearing from everyone that it was a very important credit to have on your Chicago résumé.
I knew going into the audition that about sixty percent wouldn't make the cut, but I wasn't worried. A lot of those people didn't have much training outside of Second City classes.
The audition was short and simple. First we all had to improvise a three-person scene. Mine wasn't the most inspired or original scene-we were three siblings in a kitchen making dinner-but I felt good about my contribution. My partner had established that her character was really nervous about her Jell-O mold turning out okay, and I built on that by bragging that I had an excellent technique for unmolding Jell-O. I ended up destroying my imaginary Jell-O, which really started to move the scene forward when the third person in the scene tried to salvage it, but then we were stopped anyway.
For the second part of the audition, we played this fast-paced performance game called Freeze Tag, which is a staple of improvised shows. In Freeze Tag, a line of performers stands at the back of the stage. Two people step forward and start a scene. At any time, someone on the back line can yell, "Freeze!" That performer then steps forward, tags out one of the frozen performers, takes the exact position of that performer, and starts a new scene.
The whole trick to Freeze Tag is to take the position of one of the performers exactly. The big mistake everyone makes in Freeze Tag is to stand on the back line and try to think up clever gimmicks, then jump in and impose them on the scene regardless of what's actually going on. For example, if I tagged in for an actor who was patting another actor on the back for a job well done, it wouldn't make sense for me to start the new scene by immediately dropping to the ground and starting to crawl while doing a bit about seeing the world from an ant's perspective. The fun of watching Freeze Tag is watching the transformation. A bunch of random scenes isn't fun.
The other mistake people make is to rely on all of the Freeze Tag clichés to explain the physical posture in the scene: "Let me show you this new dance move," or "I told you not to put superglue all over yourself and then run into me," or "I didn't know you were gay."
At the audition I only tagged in once, because I didn't want to hog the stage. And I felt so confident about my scene work that I was able to play Freeze Tag exactly how my instructors always told me to do it-just tag in, take the position, and let the idea come to you in the moment.
I called, "Freeze," just as a guy and girl were moving toward each other to embrace. I tagged out the guy and took his position, arms outstretched toward the girl. I said the first thing that came into my mind, which was simply: "Ta da!" And the girl smiled and started walking toward me with wobbly toddler steps. "Good girl," I said. "Come to Daddy! Daddy's gotcha! Daddy's ..." and the girl tripped and fell on her face. I was tagged out right after that, and I didn't tag in again before my group was released.
I got in.
Excerpted from PROCESS by Mary Scruggs Michael J. Gellman
Copyright © 2008 by Michael J. Gellman and Mary Scruggs. Excerpted by permission.
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