By Doug Kayne
Went to the movies to see The Meg. I enjoyed it. Ira tolerated it. He wanted more sharks. Go figure.
In the movie, Ruby Rose plays Jaxx Herd, one of the key personnel on the Mana One underwater research facility. Rose has also recently been cast as Kate Kane/Batwoman in the Arrowverse shows on the CW. Unfortunately, her casting as Kane has come under criticism from some because she is not “lesbian enough”. This is not long after Scarlett Johannson came under fire for being cast as the transgender man Dante “Tex” Gill in Rub and Tug (she has since dropped out of the project).
This is a disturbing trend, because the question remains as to who can play what roles? How is Rose, a member of the LGBTQ community “not lesbian enough” to play a fictional character? Now, I recognize the can of worms I am opening up here, but bear with me. Did people complain from 2005 to 2014 when Neil Patrick Harris, a gay man, was cast as the VERY heterosexual Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother? Have we forgotten the rave reviews the not-gay Chyler Leigh received for playing coming-out-of-the-closet Alex Danvers on Supergirl? Should we be appalled by the gay actor Jim Parsons playing the asexual-but-married-to-a-woman Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory?
Now, I understand that, as a white, heterosexual male, I have no real dog in this fight. But, that is where you are wrong. It might be alarmist, but there is a dangerous slippery slope here. Using the logic of those against Rose’s casting, I would be unable to appear in a production of Fiddler on the Roof, because I am “not Jewish enough”. Are actors and actresses only allowed to portray roles that they are easily identifiable as?
Performing onstage with Split Decision, I have portrayed characters including – but not limited to – a hunchbacked lab assistant, a drag queen, Stephen Hawking, a morbidly obese man, Jesus, a long-haired aging rocker, a blind detective, a fairy godmother, a caveman, Jar Jar Binks, a bottle of ketchup, and a sarcastic heckling shark. I do not easily identify with any of these with the exception of one (I’ll let you figure out which one that is). And, in improv, all of these character choices are valid, so long as they fit the scene. No one is there telling me that I cannot play these characters. In fact, we all encourage each other to play a wide variety of characters, not once saying we are “not _____ enough” to play them.
I remember being in improv class a few years ago (before we came to our current home at Joy Theatre). I was performing onstage with a man who was old enough to be my father, yet labeled him as my fourteen-year-old son. It was a fun scene. We both “yes and-ed” the shit out of it. And, yet, one of the notes we received from the teacher was, “He’s too old to play your son.” Luckily, my compatriots in Split Decision are more encouraging to each other. We want each other to play different types of characters, whether we fit that type or not.
While I recognize the improv-on-stage experience does not translate to the larger entertainment world (and politically correct world in general), it is a slippery slope. Does this mean I won’t be able to play Shakespeare’s version of Richard III in film because I’m not “rudely stamp’d”, “deformed, unfinish’d”, or am able to “strut before a wanton, ambling nymph”? If so, I suppose I’d better throw away my aim to play a superhero, since I don’t actually have powers. And heaven forbid I get cast as the next Wolverine, since I’m taller than 5’3” (come to think of it, Hugh Jackman, at 6’2”, is also).
Maybe it’s time to recognize that the inclusion of Kate Kane/Batwoman is yet one more positive step towards showing a further acceptance of LGBTQ superheroes. And, congratulations are in order for Ruby Rose who, as a member of the LGBTQ community, gets to play a role she would have loved to have seen on television when she was growing up. She now gets to have a positive impact on others while playing a dream role.
I am reminded of an often-told story regarding the movie Marathon Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. The story reads as this: Hoffman’s character had supposedly stayed up for three days. He admitted he had not slept for 72 hours in order to be sufficiently in-character. “My dear boy,” Olivier replied, “why don’t you just try acting?”
By Doug Kayne
I clearly remember when George Carlin died. He was (and still is) one of my comedy idols, and I take great pleasure in not only having met him at a book signing of his book, Brain Droppings, but also having made him laugh at said event. I related how I used his HBO comedy special, “Doin’ It Again”, as a source for a research project I completed for a Language Differences and Language Change class for my teaching credential. He was amazed that I got an “A” on the assignment, even remarking that, and I’m quoting him here, “Whenever I used my own shit, I always failed. Maybe I should have quoted Danny Kaye.” He then asked if I wanted him to sign the album, in addition to the book (I’m not an idiot – I said “yes”). In fact, Carlin has quite readily admitted that Kaye was an inspiration of his.
I’ve gotten to meet a few people whose work I admire: Carlin, Stan Lee, Christopher Titus, Garry Marshall. Even ran into Kevin Pollack at a swap meet. Later saw him at a celebrity event, and he gave a hint of recognition to me. Then again, he may have mistaken me for someone else.
For the most part, the celebrities I’ve met have been friendly and gracious with their time.
There’s also a list of people whose work I not only admire, but also want to meet and work with.
Monday afternoon, I learned of the death of Robin Williams, someone on that list. I was a fan of his since “Mork and Mindy” (which was a spin-off from “Happy Days”, the episode of which I also watched -- yes, I’m that old!), and his “Inside the Actor’s Studio” appearance (whereby he performed what amounted to a version of the improv game “Props” with a woman’s pink scarf) had me in stitches. I wanted to perform improv onstage with him, knowing that I would be left in his dust, serving as mere window dressing near a man with his caliber of talent. But, I also know I would have learned so much from that experience, emerging as a better improviser. And, while Williams was another comedy idol of mine, he himself has admitted that he idolized someone as well – Jonathan Winters.
I count myself lucky to be able to share the stage with the members of Split Decision. They constantly challenge me onstage, making me into a better performer. I learn a lot performing with them, as they all bring something unique to the table.
I don’t know if I will ever be anyone’s comedy idol. But, if asked who the influences on my comedy are, I would no doubt have to include the group I perform with on a weekly basis.
But, don’t tell them I said so. Let’s just keep it amongst ourselves.
It's the season to give thanks and provide help when others are in need. We actually need a season to set a mandate for kindness - but that's off topic. This will not be a personal commentary on society's humanity. No, this will be a simple message to all comedians: love what you do.
It happens so often that we get wrapped up in what we're doing, where we're performing, who we're performing for, attendance numbers, payment, "making it", etc.; that we lose sight of why most of us even started doing this. We started because it felt good to make others laugh; to bring joy for 15, 20, 30 , 90 minutes at a time. It's not about being loved, it's about releasing the pressure people have on themselves, and in the same action relieving our own pressures for a time.
So I am issuing a challenge: I dare anyone reading this blog to make me laugh. Submit any post you want that will make me laugh. If it's REALLY good, we'll add your submission into our next show somehow. But mainly, this is for the love of the game (or comedy).
Come on comedians. You're on in 3...2...1...?
Character Creation: It's Alive!!!
Having characters is essential to doing improv. They can be high energy, low energy, somewhere in the middle - it really doesn't matter as long as they 1)complement your scene partner(s), and 2) don't interfere with the scene, but enhance it.
Everyone goes about creating a character differently. For some, it starts with the body. Perhaps the character has a certain walk. Does Christian Bale as Batman have a different walk than Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne? He should - because they are different characters. Perhaps the hips or stomach sticks out more or the butt pushes backwards. Maybe the hands don't hang perfectly at the side, swing oddly when walking, or have a particular habit when talking. Are the shoulders up by the ears? Does one sag to the side more? How does the face look? Is it pinched? Saggy? Vacant? Intense? These are all the elements that should be thought of when developing a character for the stage.
Some performers start their character with a voice. Sometimes they use an accent or a different dialect. It shouldn't be anything that is too difficult to understand. How will you do a scene with a partner when they are speaking English and no one has any idea what's coming out of your mouth. Unless you're playing Translator, this can thwart a scene quickly. Voices can also be used by simply changing the pitch of your voice to higher or lower. You can change the volume in which you say things. You can add a slight stutter or even add a nasal-sound. Explore the range of your voice and see what you're capable of. Not every character has to have a foreign accent.
Still, some performers are a little more tactile in their development and will create a character around a prop. What happens if you put on glasses? Does your posture and voice change? A certain belt or jacket? What about adding a cane? Sometimes a prop can help you to envision a character in your mind that you can immediately imitate - but be sure that the prop doesn't hinder your stage work.
You can also pick someone that you know or have observed and imitate them. Naturally, your imitation will become almost a caricature of the person you are thinking. Everything seems a little exaggerated but the character is still based on a real person. The odds are high that someone in the audience has met or knows someone like that character. Remember, it's the reality that makes the mockery funny. If the audience can't relate - if they're not in on the joke, so to speak - then they're not going to get it.
At the end of the day, whatever your process for character creation, the important thing is that you continue to develop who this person is. The look and sound of a character is only half the battle. Making them a plausible person is step two. Create a kind of backstory for them in your mind. This way, you are playing an actual character in a scene and not just yourself with an accent and a jacket.
There's No "I" in "Improv"
By Doug Kayne
Improvisation is a team sport. Yes, you can do it by yourself, but it’s much more rewarding with a partner (Yes I’m aware this sentence can also apply to a handful of other activities, no pun intended, but let’s stick with the subject of improvisation
for the purposes of this blog entry).
I’ve done stand-up comedy. I keep threatening myself to do it again. My hat goes off to those who find success at it. It’s just you and the audience. One of the things I enjoy about improv the most is that you are a part of a team. When you have a good scene, it’s not about which person has the most laughs, the most lines, or anything that points to the individual’s performance. It’s about teamwork.
Take, for example, the following video clip from our July 26, 2013 show. The game is Rubik’s Revenge. The players are Chris Clarke and myself (Doug Kayne). The situation is “The Signing of the Declaration of Independence”.
There are a few things you should have noticed. For one, Chris and I received the longest sustained laugh so far by any members of Split Decision after I uttered my first line. What’s interesting, though, is this: Chris gave me the credit for the laugh,
since it was my line and I got the situation from the audience. I give him the credit, because my line by itself would not have garnered the laughter. It was his reaction
that sold it. Those fifteen seconds or so of laughter was the result of the two of us working together to create a situation.
I owe the success of the situation to Chris. He owes it to me. We owe it to an audience who let us take them on the journey.
So, who gets the credit? That’s an easy one: WE do.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Baptism By Fire
I was surfing YouTube the other day and came across quite a few "How To" videos for improv. I found this rather interesting - the idea that you can learn improv from a video. Not something I would recommend to anyone. Especially since there is no shortage of theaters to go to and learn improv. There's the well-known (and very expensive) Second City, UCB, of course LA Connection (our theater), and so on. But how and where it's learned aside, my personal take on becoming a proficient improvisor: perform it.
I know it sounds like baptism by fire - and in a way it is - but rehearsals are nothing compared to the real thing. This isn't sketch comedy where everything is laid out for you and there are no surprises. This is improv, which means EVERYTHING is a surprise. Audiences don't always give you the best "gets", or the most appropriate either. You have to learn how to phrase your "asks" so your audience knows exactly what type of "gets" you are looking for. You have to know that it's okay to tell them in your "ask" that you don't want something, or give examples of things you do want. And if you still don't get something that is appropriate or seemingly workable, then you need to be clever and think outside the box to make it work.
Don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying rehearsals are a waste of time. They are absolutely necessary. Rehearsals are where you fine tune characters or try them out for the first time. They are where a group works together to learn or develop games or tweak and adjust them. Rehearsals allow you to become familiar with the elements of scene work so that you can walk onto that stage confident and capable. Basically, rehearsals teach you the games and their gimmicks - they make you competent but not cultivated; ultimately, the shows teach you how to improvise. If you go to a theater and pay a lot of money simply to learn the games, how will you ever prepare yourself for an audience? Like anything learned, it has to be applied to truly be ingrained and understood.
Contrary to popular opinion, performing improv is not about being funny. It's about being creative. And nothing tests your wits and creativity better than a room full of strangers expecting you to improvise a scene using their suggestion.
An SD Decision
As a group, we would be fine performing with just the seven of us. A strong group of seven - six - hell even four, is better than a mediocre group of ten. Unfortunately, SD is being pushed to taking on at least one more performer. But who?
This doesn't seem like it would be that hard of a decision given that we belong to a theater that has an ample amount of talented people. But we don't want just anyone. We want a performer that cares more about the scene than about trying to be funny. We want someone that wants to be challenged and will bring something new to the group. For SD, it's not enough to be funny. We don't want a "show boat". We are looking for someone that WANTS to be in a group, that WANTS to work on their craft, and is WILLING to share the stage.
We're picky, I know. But when we find our prince(ss) charming, it will be perfect. We'll walk along the beach off into the sunset and live happily ever after...or maybe we'll just perform kickass shows.
Even the Best Can Always Be Better
When you do something every week for months, even years, at a time, it’s natural to find yourself disengaged from the activity. It doesn’t matter how good you are at it or how much you really love doing it; eventually, your mind “checks out” without you even knowing it. This is what we call a rut. Granted, the term is overused these days – especially in marriages – but that doesn’t invalidate the existence of this inadvertent complacency.
I bring this up, not because I’m having marital issues (this would not be the blog to discuss that anyway), but because this unfortunate phenomenon struck our group recently. We had suffered a few weeks of consistently “okay” shows. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t great either, and we couldn’t quite figure out why until someone said it…we were going through the motions. We were playing the same parts in the same games we always play – and why? Because we each play those roles well. But where was the challenge? Where were the butterflies?
We decided that the next couple of weeks, we would only cast each other in roles that were out of our comfort zones. So, do you think we had magnificent shows? Of course not. But we had fun. We were trying something new and encouraging each other to grow beyond the talent we already knew each other had.
Which brings me to my point: whether we are talking about an improv group or just life in general, you should always strive to be well-rounded. Even the best can always be better.
One of the things that most differentiates improvisational comedy from stand-up is that the former is done with a group of people, while the latter is usually a solo act. Sure, there are other contrasting characteristics such as the format and pace, but the number of people on stage makes a difference.
The positive attributes are pretty apparent. For one, there is safety in numbers. Where you might get stuck in a scene, your cast mate is there to help pick you up. Also, there is a less pressure to always be "on". Someone may have a better connection with the audience one night than you. That changes your job to simply feeding them great situations or lines. Probably one of the most benficial aspects of group comedy - from a performance stand point - is the idea of play. Essentially, you are just playing make-believe with each other on stage. The more fun you have with each other, than the more fun your scene is to watch. The audience can feel that synergy.
Of course, there are some negtives to performing with a group of people. For one thing, you have multiple personalities and opinions. Everyone wants a say, but often times few want to listen. This can be a problem. It's rarely ONE big thing that breaks up a group. It's a series of little things that happen that start to accumulate. Seemingly insignificant things like rehearsal times, tardiness, a tone of voice while giving suggestions, number of one person's lines in a scene versus others, etc., etc., etc.. Sometimes being in a group can be exhausting, especially if it's tempermental.
What I've found, however, is this: it is better to have a group that cares enough to disagree than to have one that simply acquiesces and inevitably falls prey t0 the mediocrity of indifference. Sure, you have to be alert as to what you're saying and how you're saying it. Sure, you have to deal with a variety of tempers - aggressive and passive-aggressive alike - but you have to stop and realize that if there is a problem, then someone sees something to fix. And if you've been together for multiple years, and still find little things to fix, then you are all - as a group - trying to be better. That is what makes group dynamics work: the acceptance of each other on the basis of a shared goal. So battle on.
Laughter Brings Levity to Life
Comedy is hard, don't be fooled. We've all marveled at the magic a truly gifted comedian makes out of the mundane. George Carlin and his "Stuff", Abbott & Costello, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Gabrieal Iglesias, Richard Pryor, the list goes on and on. Comedy has a way of skipping through time unscathed. You can watch Richard Pryor in your twenties and still find that same show hilarious in your forties. The clothes change, the references are outdated, but the connection to the audience is there. They're storytellers. You laugh because you relate...though that particular situation may not be funny when it actually happens to you.
Comedians provide us relief in life by bringing levity to our every-day mishaps while simultaneously proving that you are not the only person to have ever done that, felt that, thought that, or experienced that.
I perform comedy because I truly love the idea of making a person forget who they are - yet laugh at what they've done - for a small amount of time. It's not easy. It takes a lot of hard work, discipline, and courage - but damn if it isn't worth it.