Saturday, September 15, 2012

Throwing yourself in there - improv at Groundlings. And being a know-it-all at Paramount...

I definitely wanted to try acting while I was here in L.A., figuring that it could only make me a better writer. Particularly if, like me, you tend to write comedies! It helps to know what makes people funny - what makes a good comedic performance.

So I went to the place that churns out the funniest people in Hollywood, The Groundlings improv company. Everyone's been through this place over the years, from Will Ferrell, to Lisa Kudrow, Paul Reubens, Cheryl Hines, Jon Lovitz, Edie McClurg and Will Forte, to pretty much the entire cast of Bridesmaids.

It's based on Melrose, so I staggered down there on Monday (Monday was HOT) for the first of six three-hour improv classes. I didn't really know what to expect from my fellow improvisers (there's about 15 of us) but they range from people who seem to be professional stand-ups to people like me who've never acted before.

Our teacher, Julie, got the ball rolling by making everyone stand up and say their names. She made us do this about thirty times, which was good because it took some people about that long to learn to pronounce my name. Sometimes I have whole days where no one has any problem saying it and then there are days when I literally have to keep writing it out. This was one of the bad ones.

Improv is so weird because when you describe the things you've been doing to someone who hasn't been there, it sounds like some kind of abuse! Here are some of the exercises we've had to do:

  • Standing in a circle (they're big on circles), saying a word that the next person has to repeat, while copying the extreme emotion you delivered it in.

  • Tossing an imaginary ball around, again with strong emotion.

  • Sitting on stage pretending to be a world leading expert on something mad, like nuclear fusion, and taking questions from the floor.

  • Pretending to be part of a giant imaginary machine with 3 other people, each having to do different movements and noises.

  • Sitting knee to knee with a scene partner in front of the whole group and maintaining eye contact while making up a joint imaginary story (kind of like some dates I've been on).

  • Standing with a scene partner while the group think of a horrible scenario for you to act out ("You're signing the Constitution!" "You're beekeepers!") and then having to improvise a scene based just on that. This was the worst one to start with. It was terrifying. Because you can't help but let go and know that you're going to look like an idiot. But then about twenty seconds from the end, I realised I was really enjoying it and didn't want the scene to end. You get a real buzz afterwards, no matter how it went.

Yesterday, Julie gave us some tips on improvising, some of which I think are just as relevant for writing comedy in general:

  1. Before you get into the scene, make sure you've established who, where and what. Otherwise the scene will descend into confusion. And be specific! If you're in a department store, what section are you in? What imaginary props are to hand?

  2. What is the emotional crux of the scene? Why is it worth watching?

  3. Use spacework - use the props as if they were there, and remember to maintain the integrity of the space no matter what. If there's a "table" and this has been established, don't walk through it, or if you do, make a joke about it!

  4. Show, don't tell. Don't rely too heavily on dialogue.

  5. Characters - take a cliche and put a different spin on it. Make the people you play original.

  6. Arguing about the facts in a scene drains the life out of it. If someone makes an accusation against you, sometimes it's funnier to acknowledge it and say, "Yes, that's true!"

  7. Don't ask questions - assume everything. You already "know" the person your scene partner is playing, and what you're both doing.

  8. Don't play crazy, or dead drunk. Or a little kid. Any of these people might do ANYTHING. There are no parameters. Don't go there.

  9. Raise the stakes in your scenes and always commit to them. Even if an idea doesn't sound promising or seems to be tanking, you can turn it around.

  10. Listen to your scene partner, respond, and make eye contact (being Irish, this is a hard one for me. We don't even make eye contact when we're clinking glasses. We watch the glass to make none of the precious booze spills...)

  11. And the hardest of all for me - don't plan your scenes! You can't, so don't even try. Throw yourself in there.

And that's what I'd say about improv in general - it's about throwing yourself into it. I'm loving every minute of it, even the minutes where I feel like throwing up...

I went to see some short films showing as part of LA Shorts Fest on Tuesday night. A friend of a friend's movie was showing - I highly recommend it (It's got the intriguing title A Conversation about Cheating with my Time-Travelling Future Self). A great script and very cleverly shot.

This being Hollywood, there were also shorts directed by Shia LaBeouf and ones starring some well-known faces like Roger Bart and Thomas Lennon. I saw six films in total that night and they were a really high standard. Best of all, the theatre is a two-minute walk from the North Hollywood subway station - nice one, Shorts Fest!

Today, I went to another studio, this time Paramount. And this time, for the official tour. Paramount is the only studio still in Hollywood itself, taking up a huge 65 acre site. It just looks like a studio should - which is why it's used so much in movies itself.

The tour was me, two middle-aged Brits, two young Germans who never spoke and an unfortunate tour guide named Brian from Wisconsin. I say unfortunate because it emerged early on that I knew at least as much as Brian simply by being a huge film nerd, and I find it impossible to keep facts inside me.

So every time he hesitated and couldn't remember some actor's name, or mentioned some movie, I'd pipe up. I know, but what can I say. I'm my mother's daughter.

Eventually, an hour into the tour the English lady said to me, "It's a good thing you know so much!" and I decided to stop, before Brian cracked and beat me to death with his branded iPad.

Seriously though, this is a good tour. You get driven around in a little golf cart, which is infinitely better than trudging around in the heat. And Brian took out the aforementioned iPad every five minutes to show up a clip of something filmed on the actual spot we were standing on, which was pretty cool. We saw Lucy Park, the childcare center started for the offspring of Paramount employees by Lucille Ball. We saw her offices and the side gate Katherine Hepburn used to cycle through to HER office.

There was the wet cement where a drunk Woody Harrelson and Ted Danson once put their hand and footprints while streaking through the lot (this was when Cheers served real beer!). The Forrest Gump replica bench, where Tom Hanks once sat down - for a prank - in full Forrest gear for a whole day and gave out chocolates to people. The Bronson Gate, where struggling actor Charles Buchinski was queuing one day for an audition and decided to change his  name on the spot to Charles Bronson.

The funniest thing we saw were two doors - this was in their fake New York set - that were exactly the same, except that one was smaller than the other. Brian explained that these were used in the movie Vanilla Sky. Cameron Diaz walked through the larger one and little Tom Cruise through the shorter one, creating the illusion that they are the same height. Because of course the guy CANNOT be smaller. The world would explode...

Other tidbits from the tour: Anchorman 2 is on the way. Nicole Kidman is set to play Princess Grace of Monaco in a biopic. And last night, they screened Raiders of the Lost Ark in all its IMAX glory for Paramount employees. With Ford and Spielberg present. I would have given my right arm to be there...

I went to Lucy's El Adobe afterwards, a legendary Mexican restaurant across the road with a wall full of signed celebrity fan photos. No sign of Tarantino, who's a known fan, but thanks to Brett for the recommendation!