Close Quarters

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The group was formed by Peter Gwinn in 1997, and consisted of Craig Cackowski, Pete, Bob Dassie, Stephnie Weir, Molly Cavanaugh, Lillian Frances, Al Samuels, and Rich Talarico. Noah Gregoropoulos was the director. The form was something he had already been kicking around in his mind. They rehearsed 9 hours a week for 9 months before they opened the show. They ran on Wednesdays at Second City ETC for about 4 months.


There were two main components to the form, the main one which everyone remembers is that is covers scenes that are existing more or less simultaneously in adjacent spaces, i.e. if the show is a hour long, it might only cover 15 minutes of real time, and the first scene in the show will often be one of the last chronologically. The other element was a focus on character-heightening: each scene would build into a scene with 4-6 people on stage, all focused on heightening one person's character and showing different relationships they had. That part of the form was very challenging and a lot of our rehearsal was devoted to perfecting the type of scenework that Noah wanted (it's similar to how you might heighten a character via tagouts or La Ronde, but always in a group scene and remaining in the present in this version), and it's usually not used when people remount the form for that reason.

Other Productions

The Poem

Director Noah Gregoropoulos wrote this poem as a way to highlight and reinforce the principles of the show:

Heighten characters by engaging,

think adjacent space when staging...
environments are rich with sound,
time collapses turning round...
when throwing forward sounds as cues,

a later payoff oft ensues...

Some Notes

The following notes were provided by Craig Cackowski for people who may be interested in doing a production of Close Quarter:

I'm doing a simplified version of what we did with Noah years ago. One of the hallmarks of Noah's version is that every scene turned into a character-heightening with a very specific focus. If you and I are in the first scene, and Rich wants to come in and heighten my character, he talks to me and only me. You're still there, and I'm still dealing with you, but now I have to balance 2 two-person scenes. If Bob enters next, again, he can talk to only me, and now I'm doing 3 two-person scenes. You are all really there in the same environment as me, you know each other are there, you can even refer to each other, but you can only talk to me! I've dropped this aspect of the form because the time-bending and adjacent space stuff is hard enough, but if you want to a "pure" Close Quarters, that was part of the form. (But remember, we rehearsed this form for 9 hours a week for 6 months before we opened it!)

What's become more standard over the years (Mullaney took it to UCB as "Tracers", just using the adjacent room idea, and those guys have spread it out among the improv world), is the idea that all the scenes are taking place in the same general location at more or less the same time. You can even make it a finite time and space if that helps your group focus, i.e. all the scenes take place within 200 yards of the first scene, and within 15 minutes of time. So, even if the show takes 45 minutes to play, it's a constant re-examination of that 15 minutes, seen in different order (it helps to think of the first scene of the show as one of the last, chronologically), and from different angles.

Noah wrote a poem for us to help us remember the principles of the form:

Heighten character by engaging, Think adjacent space in staging, Environments are rich with sound, Time collapses, circling round, When throwing forward sounds as cues, A later payoff oft ensues, Repeat some scenes where they've begun, If all else fails, then just have fun!

Let me explain some of the things from the poem:

"rich with sound"-Noah had us work on doing a lot of SFX from the sidelines (literal, non-jokey SFX). In fact, we were each assigned another team member for that show (by circling up and pointing to the person on your left) and we were responsible for doing their sound for that show. If someone missed the boat, or you were in a scene with that person, then someone else could pick it up for them. Sounds were a way of letting us know where we are in space (i.e. if the first scene is in a boiler room, the sound from the sidelines might be constant and intrusive, but in the next scene (one room away from the boiler room, you can still hear it, but more muffled).

"throwing forward sounds as cues"-Rather than doing callbacks, we did throw forwards, i.e. starting at the top of the show, you would hear lines of dialogue spoken offstage that didn't have a meaning or context yet, but would be justified later in the show. So if you hear "get that monkey out of here!", someone in a later scene should establish the existence of a monkey, and then in an even LATER scene, we'd see that line actually spoken on stage, and know the reason for it. Another reason to do this, other than challenge ourselves to work backward, is that those "throw forwards" can link together scenes that are taking place at exactly the same time, a la the Jim Jarmusch film "Mystery Train" which tells 3 separate stories that are all linked by a single gunshot. Only in the third story do we know the meaning of the gunshot. "Mystery Train" was one of Noah's inspirations for the show, and I imagine any movie that plays with time and simultaneity (Pulp Fiction, any Altman movie centered around a single event) would be a good touchstone for your group.

"repeat some scenes where they've begun"-if we're doing a good job of starting our scenes in the middle, then later in the show, we can see the moments leading up to a scene we've seen already, to the point where we get a few lines into that scene we've already done, trying to duplicate the dialogue exactly. Hard to do, and we haven't even really tried it in the group I'm directing, but impressive if you can pull it off.

Here's some other things I've learned since remounting it:

The scenework-Each improvisor in the group will probably end up playing 3 or 4 characters in the form, which will all be called back at some point, so character qualities need to be really defined and really memorable, and names are super-important. We need to know who's connected to whom, who's playing cross-gender, etc., so awareness on the sidelines is key. The scenes should be relationship and character-driven, and VARIETY is key...lots of different people with different energies. Don't be limited to the location in choosing your characters...i.e. a hospital would be populated with doctors, nurses, and patients, but, going outside the box, you could also see the guy who re-stocks the vending machines, the manager of a rock star who had a drug overdose, one of the nurse's stalker ex-boyfriends, etc. Thinking this way will help create variety and, hopefully, limit, plot. Plot is suggested by the juxtaposition of the scenes, but each scene should be able to stand on its own as a piece, so the players can do a minimum of referencing other scenes (a little bit is helpful, but don't go crazy with it).

The setting-In the original Close Quarters, we started by reading a personal ad and basing the first scene off of that. So we didn't know our starting location, we would have to discover it. Sometimes it was all based around a single overarching location (Airport, hospital, bowling alley) and we would go into various sublocations within than location. Sometimes we would start in an apartment, which meant we could go downstairs to the convenience store, to the bums on the street, etc. Those were a little harder to establish a "floor plan" (and it's important to note what spaces are directly adjacent to each other, so you can get a sense of where characters are coming from and where they're exiting to), but still had their charms. With the group I'm coaching, we're asking for a location or event where you might meet a lot of people. We've found that some locations are harder than others in establishing character variety (bat mitzvah=13 year old girls, woman's retreat=new age-y yoga instructors, homeless shelter=homeless people), so it helps to think outside the box in making your character choices (as above). Locations that have worked better for us are Disneyland, convention center, strip mall. Another problem: when the show is centered around an EVENT, it's almost inevitable to make that event too important and the show too plot-driven. I prefer to have the mentality that whatever is going on for the characters is a typically day for them, and they're showing their typical behavior.

Space-bending-One thing we would do is if we had a couple at a restaurant in the foreground, two other improvisors could set up the next scene in the background. We see them, but don't hear their conversation. When they initiate their scene, the people in the foreground go away, and the new scene moves downstage, as if the "camera" had moved in on them. You could also a long line of people waiting for a concert, and do a bunch of scenes moving down the line, always keeping the current scene center stage, but still seeing people from the previous scene, who have now moved further stage left. You can also play around with 180 degree pans, i.e. if the couple in the background at the restaurant are facing upstage, we can rotate the scene, so that they're now downstage, and the original couple is now facing upstage.

The rewind-This is something we've added with The Dollhouse (the group I coach)...when a character enters a scene, we can rewind them (with a rewind sound effect and backward movement) to see where they're come from, then go back and do the scene previous in time to what we just saw, in an adjacent space, leading up to the moment that they entered that first scene. This was in the spirit of the original show, but we never did it that literally or cinematically.

As you can see, I erred on the side of too much information...hope this helps! There's also a chapter on the form in Rob Kozlowski's book "The Art of Chicago Improvisation", if you can track that down. Or, of course, Noah, who is the best resource of all.

- Craig Cackowski, January 16, 2017