Coaching and improv: more musings.

Coaching and improv–the parallels and overlapping techniques keep on coming.
Last night, my improv pals and I started rehearsing for this year’s run of Spontaneous Broadway.* In this improvised musical format the actors improvise eight or ten songs in act one, then the audience votes on their favorite song.  Act two is a 45 minute improvised musical comedy play that includes a reprise of the winning act one song.
Improvising a play, musical or not, demands a high level of presence and awareness on the part of the improvisers. We have a basic plot formula to help put together a workable structure, but, since the play is improvised in real time in front of the audience, it can get confusing–an actor may not realize at first that she is the protagonist.  Or a different actor may think that he is, and then realize  that no, he isn’t…adjustments must be made almost constantly.  Consider an actor in the wings, who has an incredible idea.  He may get excited, he may relish it and focus on it for a few seconds, but then, because of this turning inward, he loses focus on the onstage action. Just for a few seconds.  a twist of dialogue renders the great idea useless—if the improviser isn’t listening, holding on to this preconceived idea and embellishing it, he can make a serious boo-boo.
Style is important.  If one actor is broad, over the top, and the other is subtle, nuanced—the scene probably won’t work.  The actors need to be aware, and adjust to each other—in improv terms, make each other look good.
There’s also the pitfall of “over offering.”  An improvised play must begin very simply, because everything–everything! is an offer. In a good piece of theatre, there should be nothing that is extraneous. In fact, playwriting teachers will tell you that the vast majority of scripts by new playwrights are attempts to squeeze two or even three plots into one play.  So in the improvised play, we, the writer/actor/directors, must learn to let go of impulses to over offer, and instead focus on receiving what is already there and working with it.
So it is in life, eh? Essentially, we are all writing, directing and acting our own improvised plays. Our scene partners are our families, friends, and co-workers.  How often, as we go about our day,  do we miss an opportunity to maximize our life by being too focused on our old ideas, instead of being fully present and working with the real interaction in front of us—now?
Knowing, here and now, what scene we are in, and whether we are the protagonist or a supporting player–is crucial to success in real life situations.
Yes, I hear you—“aren’t I always the protagonist?” Well, in the grand story arc of your life, yes. But in a given scene–a little one act play-within-the-play, you may serve your goals better by being a spear carrier.  Or you may miss the call to play your finest scene because you didn’t get the cue. It’s all about awareness…
The coaching session can be like a little breakout vignette, a little offstage interview, if you will, where the coach and client can examine the action creatively, and perhaps come up with an adjustment that will make the next act work better. A good coach can help a client recognize the times when the client’s awareness has drifted away from the important action happening now. Or perhaps, to separate a lesser plot structure, and set it aside, so that the really juicy important plot, the client’s success, can be better served. The client/coach relationship is improv, on the stage of life. It’s as creative as anything that happens on stage. And in a good coaching relationship, there is always the potential to produce a hit.

I am offering free sample coaching conversations. If you’d like to explore coaching with me, drop me an email at michaelburns@mopco.org

*Spontaneous Broadway Is a service mark of Kat Koppett and Freestyle Repertory Theatre.  Used with permission, all rights reserved.

Improv, Creativity, Coaching, and the "No Questions Rule"

For years I have trained actors, improvisers, and others in using improv techniques for both on and off stage purposes. Most of this work has been with groups. Now, using improv techniques and new concepts and techniques I’ve picked up in classes with the Coaches Training Institute, I coach individuals.I specialize in coaching people who are developing themselves creatively.  This new facet of my career comes out of my great love of helping people discover and nurture their inner improviser. I have seen that discovery bear fruit in delightful and unexpected ways.

The happiest, most fulfilled, most balanced people I know have one thing in common: they are creators. I’m not just talking about artists–I’ve worked with all kinds of people who are in no way artists, but they are people who habitually approach their lives and work in a creative way. They look at a challenge on the job, or in their personal relationships, or in their day to day living,  and see the chance to make something new happen instead of an impassable roadblock.  They perceive imbalance, and through creative inquiry, find a way to adjust and create balance. They hear dissonant noise, and through experiment, find the way to make a pleasing chord.

These folks tend to know a lot about themselves and about people in general. Paradoxically, this leads them to know that there is a huge amount that they don’t know, not by a long shot. They are comfortable being curious about themselves and others. They aren’t afraid to delve into their own minds and see what surprises are there. They ask questions of others all the time, because they genuinely want to know the answers. They never consider that not knowing makes them look stupid or less-than.

So: a key part of my coaching involves celebrating curiosity, mine and my clients’. We ask questions together, and in those questions and the thoughts they lead to we find the fuel for  the engine of positive change.

This curiosity, this openness to discovery relates to an ongoing discussion I’ve had for years with improvisers and other improv trainers. There is a fairly widely accepted  improv “rule” offered to beginning improvisers that states: “no questions.” Now, I don’t really believe in many of the commonly accepted hard and fast improv rules, because they are all too easily broken, often with excellent results. The “no questions” rule was developed as advice to new improvisers, in an attempt to avoid a certain type of anxiety-based question that tends to shut down a scene.

Its an oversimplification, but I talk to my students about “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” questions. The “bad cholesterol” questions are caused by blockage. The “good cholesterol” questions are lubricants that facilitate creative action.

In a typical rookie improv scene, you might see the following:

Character One and Character Two are on stage, and they are scared. Painfully conscious of the audience, the lack of a script, and the driving need to be funny and clever, they have both shut down. In a panic, they have forgotten all training. Character One turns to Character Two and says “What should we do now?”

Character Two: “I don’t know!” Both stare helplessly at each other, unable to think of anything “funny” to say…and the scene dies a slow and painful death.

Now, the problem with the “no questions” rule is that it is an attempt to fix the symptom, instead of addressing the real issue, in the above scenario. Before the question is asked, the two improvisers are already outside of the creative space, and adding that negative rule just adds to the things they are doing wrong. The last thing they need is to be wrong. But as soon as the question is asked, Character One remembers the rule, and beats herself up for breaking it. Character Two remembers the rule, and resents her for asking.  Both players are stuck in a negative wasteland, now even farther outside of the creative space.

I shudder to think how many times I’ve seen that scene, and I’ll admit it–played that scene, in life and on stage.

Consider, then:

Character One and Character Two are on stage, and they are scared. Painfully conscious of the audience, the lack of a script, and the driving need to be funny and clever despite the advice that they don’t need to be either, they are both on the verge of shutting down. But suddenly Character One, remembering something from her training, breathes, relaxes, and opens up to really seeing Character Two. Without stopping to think, she says: 

When are we supposed to be at the party? It is tonight, right? Did you print out the email?”
“Character Two frantically pats his pockets…”Here it is! Yes, it’s tonight. And we’re late! We’ve got to hurry!” Character Two, delighted at having something to do, has remembered to say yes, and…

Suddenly the scene has someplace to go.  Character One has asked not one but three questions, questions that came from a genuine acknowledgement of the mutual fear that she and her partner feel, and perhaps from some unconscious connection with something she noticed about her scene partner–perhaps a patting of the pocket or a look around the stage.  Their adrenaline now has an outlet–frantic preparation for the party, or a mad dash for the car, or perhaps, some more of their training returning to them because of the release of their panic, they do a time dash to the party itself…

As they progress, these improvisers discover that the fear that fed this first scene is not necessary, that they won’t, in fact, die up there on stage. They learn that the “good cholesterol” questions that spring to mind are greatly liberating. As they get more comfortable, their natural curiosity can serve as the launch pad for hundreds of successful scenes.

So, the “no questions ” rule, for me, is a blind alley– a way that we can heighten the anxiety, rather than feed the natural curiosity of ourselves.  So, in true coaching fashion, I leave you with a few questions:

Where are the equivalents to the “no questions rule” in your mind? What symptoms do they address, and what state of discomfort is the actual root of those symptoms?  When do you find yourself open and curious when you face a challenge?

I am offering free sample coaching conversations. If you’d like to explore coaching with me, drop me an email at michaelburns@mopco.org.

 

The Driver’s Dilemma

Recently at Mopco we’ve been rehearsing Spontaneous Broadway, a show that consists of improvised songs in the first act, and a long form musical built around a reprise of one of those songs in the second.

It’s a show that requires the impossible, which of course is why improvisers love it.Having little more than a handful of ragtag costumes and an agreed-upon title and opening location to go on, the cast must write, edit, direct and perform a musical play in real time, in front of the opening night audience.

It’s a form that brings out the driver in some of us. And the wimper, and the bridger.

If you don’t know what the heck I am talking about, apologies. Driving= moving the action forward by overwhelming the offers of your partners, and therefore blocking them. Wimping= not doing anything for fear of making a mistake. Bridging= putting off an inevitable outcome for fear of the unknown results—“I am going to shoot!….some day…..really! I mean it…..” If you are going to shoot, shoot. If you enter a scene, do something, simply and definitively. And if your partner makes an offer, don’t ignore it because you have a better one…the audience will sense that conflict/tension and become uncomfortable.

So, the other night in rehearsal we were discussing driving. Kat Koppett (Mopco co-director and creator of the form Spontaneous Broadway) had this to say about driving: “When you feel as if you know exactly what should happen, and feel compelled to make it happen—don’t. Chances are you are wrong, and someone else, who actually does know, will do the right thing if you let them.”

Zen and the art of improv, summed up by Kat Koppett.

Someone is thinking: but–if everyone followed that advice, we would never do anything, right? Nope. Kat went on to say (Kat, please forgive the paraphrase)”When you feel that way, it’s because you are writing instead of listening. We must listen to each other, and be scrupulous about yes-anding the offers that are out there—that way, the story goes forward organically, and the audience is amazed.”

So, the driver’s dilemma is: I know I know what should happen, but I know (because Kat told me) I am wrong. But…but…but…. Like a creaky overloaded computer tricked by Mr. Spock into meltdown, this improviser freezes, and essentially leaves the show. (Wimping/bridging and driving being, after all, two sides of the same coin.)

What’s the prescription? Same old thing. Listen. Relax. Breathe. Create no action; rather, allow yourself to be moved to action by the action of others–in the moment, not after planning. And don’t be fooled: Even if you only plan for five seconds, you are still out of the now, and therefore probably not right about what you intend to put out there. Look to the person who is totally in the moment, and let yourself be changed by them, in the moment.

A post to be written soon: How do I know when my partner is totally in the moment, if I’m not? hmmmmm……..

It’s very, very simple. Easy? No. But simple.

That’s what I love about you.

Recently I have been working a lot with new improvisers from a variety of backgrounds; some totally new to performance, some experienced pros who haven’t improvised but are very versed with scripted work, and many from various areas in between. Predictably, I’ve seen an old nemesis pop up in the work.

That nemesis? The dreaded “make your partner wrong/bad/less than/look silly” thing. You know…..It’s an anxiety reaction. If I am out there, nothing to grab hold of, and I am scared—here’s my partner. I am drowning. Lifeguards know: I instinctively look for the way to pull myself up. The only thing I have to pull against is my partner. So I pull my partner down, into the water with me. This leads to a series of hostile, boring scenes.

So, I created this:

“That’s What I Love About You”

Player A is instructed to make a series of self-denigrating or low status remarks.

Player B is given the task of yes anding the CONTENT of the remarks, but starting these yes ands with the words “That’s what I love about you!” Then, player B spins the content, making it into a positive aspect of character A’s personality/being.

This isn’t always easy: Sarcasm can creep in, as can “yes but” or arguing. The challenge is to truly yes and, AND put a positive spin.

There will come a point in the exercise, when player A starts to agree with a positive spin—a great point to call attention to, and perhaps discuss. You can actually run this twice and set up that the group look for that point and call it when it happens.

After running this exercise, a quiet sidecoaching of “That’s what I love about you” will often get a scene that is veering negative back on track.

Presentation Coaching

photo copy 10Sometimes, life should include a dress rehearsal!

The right tweaks can make a huge difference in the success of your presentation! 

If you want feedback and the chance to run through and hone a critical presentation, we can work with you to bring out the best in your message. My spouse and partner, Kat Koppett and I, offer presentation coaching at your place or ours–our studio/office, home of The Mop & Bucket Co improv troupe, includes a private room designed specifically for rehearsal.  You can work out your presentation, see it on video,, and get honest, helpful feedback before your big day.

Brainstorming and Idea Generation

chairs copyStuck for an idea? Is your group caught in a rut? Talk to us about

  • Facilitated brainstorms
  • Creativity development
  • Team building
  • Sales training
  • Presentation coaching
  • Executive coaching
  • Organizational development and training

Whether your organization is large, small, national or local, Michael and his colleagues at Koppett& Co. can provide the facilitation that will work for you.

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Coaching

Becoming certified as a Co-Active™Coach was an intense and wonderful year and a half process. During this certification process, I learned a huge amount about myself and the power of curiosity. I believe that my clients, while unique, share something in common: They are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole, and with a curious partner, can explore themselves in a way that can and does yield positive transformation.

While in certification, I charged very low fees; clients were helping me and taking a risk on an untried coach.  I believe in my services being attainable, so I still charge on a sliding scale based on client income.

You can book a sample session here: sample sessions are free of charge. (You’ll be sending an email to Bridget, our Chaos Control Specialist!)

Why coaching? 

A coaching relationship is an ongoing conversation between equals. The coach has the primary function of listening, providing feedback, and asking honest questions of the client in service of the client’s goals.

Coaching–Isn’t that just another way of saying therapy? 

Nope. A foundational premise of this kind of coaching is that the client is creative, resourceful, and whole. Coaching isn’t based in problem solving or the treatment of illness—the idea is to maximize success.

How do you choose the right coach? 

The relationship between client and coach is where the real power lies. I strongly urge potential clients to try out more than one coach (many coaches offer free sample sessions) and go with the person about whom they feel the best.

If you can answer yes to the following questions, you might want to get in touch.

  • Is it time  to transform your business?
  • Would your life be better if you were more present in the moment, more ready to take the offers that life gives you?
  • Do you have a dream, but you keep putting off turning it into reality?

My goal is to help you unleash all of your creative power, to make the most of your life.

Services

Michael Burns can offer you services, yes he can, services that can make your life better.

Michael Burns does Co-Active Life Coaching, and Coaches on other areas too.

Presentation Coaching

Sometimes, life should include a dress rehearsal! If you want feedback and the chance to run through and hone a critical presentation, we can work with you to bring out the best in your message.

Brainstorming and Idea Generation

Stuck for an idea? Is your group caught in a rut? You can schedule a one time facilitated brainstorm session to get the ball rolling again!

Corporate Services

Koppett & Company bring the skills and spirit of improvisation to corporate clients, including many Fortune 500 companies.

Entertainment

Mop & Bucket Theatre Company is upstate New York’s premiere improvisational comedy troupe and are proud to be the Improv group in residence at Proctor’s Schenectady.  Mopco offers classes on Improv techniques to everyone from school children to professionals to performers, many of whom have gone on to performance careers.

About

I currently wear several hats. (As you can see, as I continue to lose my hair, this becomes more important.)
I coach, I work as a corporate trainer, and I run a performance improv company.
It’s safe to say that most of my life has been improvisational.

In mid 2013, I enrolled in formal training with CTI,  and now have opened my coaching practice. I work both in person and over the phone. In person, I like to work in my studio/office in Schenectady NY.  By Mid 2014, I expect to have completed the process of becoming a certified CoActive™ coach.  In the meantime, I am taking on clients at a reduced rate.

I am not a particularly New Agey-coach. I’m just a smart, interested, caring person who will listen to my clients with full attention, honor their wishes for fulfillment, balance, and healthy process in their lives, and do my best to ask the powerful question that will help them make that next quantum leap.  Oh, and I find that my clients and I laugh, and cry, and sometimes holler. Making noise seems to be really good for moving things forward in life.

If you’d like to book a free sample session, send me an email. I’d be delighted to talk to you.

 

The $40,000 technique

My friend Dion Flynn recently taught Mopco a master class on “The Tao of Improv.” At the start of the class, Dion gave us a $40,000 nugget. Dion is a gradate of NYU, with a BFA in theatre. He told us that throughout his training, which he figures cost him about $40.000, his teachers repeatedly tried to get one simple concept across. Once he got it, Dion said, he realized that is was THE most important concept he was given throughout his education. And then he gave it to us, free.

So I shall now pass on this pricy concept. Ready?

Relax your shoulders and breathe.

That’s it.

Dion shared that, and I flashed back many years, to being a freshman acting student playing theatre games in George Morrison’s class, listening to him admonish us to “get in touch with your breathing…be here now.”

New improvisers (actually many new actors, scripted or not) tend to think they must be DOING something, every second, on stage. So they create “characters”, by twisting their bodies, faces, and voices into awkward postures, and they create “reactions”, mimetic rituals that serve to prevent them from actually reacting to the environment. They create “business”, which is often intended to be funny, and isn’t. They feverishly dream up “clever” things to say, ignoring the natural, obvious replies that spring unaided into their heads.

As a result, they create stiff, stilted, semi-people, who are as awkward as they are boring. (I know. Harsh. But true.)

To stop doing this, and start just BEING, is a big, and critical, hurdle.

We are human beings, not human doings.

Viola Spolin, in her seminal book Improvisation for the Theatre, prescribed that we should show someone listening by…that’s right: listening. Not by cupping our hand to our ear, or bending forward at the waist while squinting our eyes. These are things people may naturally do as they try to listen—but they aren’t “listening.” Shakespeare spoke to the issue: “…but if you mouth it, as many of your players do,
I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus,
but use all gently…” Hamlet, Act III sc ii

To be interesting on stage, be interested. Do less, be more, and; (all together now:) Relax your shoulders, and breathe.

A short time ago I saw this beautifully illustrated in a scripted play. Gorman Ruggiero, a friend from way back, mounted a production of Of Mice and Men using professional actors and local, amateur actors. It was an impressive production; the local amateurs performed handsomely. Yet for the most part, it was easy to pick out the amateurs, because they did the most. They posed, scratched, mugged; they had “character” voices. These performances were very effective—the actors in question portrayed the characters they were playing in a way that we the audience understood…if we really willingly suspended our disbelief. But they were clearly amateur performances. However, one of these amateurs, who happened to be my friend’s son, was different. As it happened, he was playing Lennie.

Many years ago I saw Of Mice and Men on Broadway, with James Earl Jones playing Lennie. I couldn’t stand Jones’ portrayal. Didn’t believe it. Probably because he was DOING so much to make us believe that he, James Earl Jones, an actor with natural dignity and high status, could be this simple-minded farm worker.

Thirty-odd years later, Brynn-Wolf Ruggiero, this young, untrained actor, was totally believable. I assumed, since he was Gorman’s son, that he had followed in his dad’s footsteps, and was professionally trained. After the show I learned that this was not the case. He is not an actor. Yet he was the best Lennie I have ever seen. Why, I wondered? I came up with a few answers. First, he didn’t do a cartoonish Lenny voice. He spoke, simply, when he had something to say. Next, he didn’t do much! He listened, when he was listening. When he pet a mouse, he pet the mouse. He didn’t “show” us Lennie’s love for soft things. He just pet the mouse.

I’ve never seen a Lenny do less. Never believed one more.

So, improvisers and script actors alike: When you don’t know what to do:
Relax your shoulders. Breathe. Allow your real reaction to happen. It not only isn’t “stupid” (as our censor likes to tell us, whispering away up there in our head) it is probably fascinating. To relax your shoulders and breathe is to say that you are here, now, and receiving. That’s always fascinating to watch.