IRC Podcast Transcript, Jill Bernard, 2010-02-16

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Introduction: Get the adult out so that the kid can play.

Kevin Mullaney: Hello and welcome to the Improv Resource Center Podcast. I'm Kevin Mullaney, your host and today we're going to be talking to another improviser about some of the exercises and techniques she uses in her classes and rehearsals. Today our guest is Jill Bernard of Huge Improv and Comedy Sportz in Minneapolis. Welcome to the show.

Jill Bernard: Thanks.

KM: So, let's just dive right in and talk a little bit about some of the exercises you use. What's an exercise that you use in your classes or rehearsals that you particularly enjoy doing? Or you think brings out good work in your students?

JB: I'm in love with a game I invented called Loser Ball. What happens is the students stand in a circle and you have either an imaginary ball or it's a good with a beach ball. There are only two rules to Loser Ball. Number one: you cannot catch the ball. Number two: you must unbelievably supportive of your teammate's inability to catch the ball. So people throw the ball, and you're like, "It's coming to you, Kevin! You can do it!" Then you miss it and we all go, "WOO! Good job, Kevin! So close! You almost got it! Next time, buddy!"

KM: So it's a little bit like being little league parents or something?

JB: Yes, it is. It's a lesson in losing gracefully and not even gracefully. Losing enthusiastically. Because a lot of the times when people improvise, the reason they're not able to get their character into an interesting situation is because they themselves are keeping themselves too precious. They're trying to keep themselves safe. So I train people to be not only cool with failure, but super enthusiastic about messing up and know that your teammates are going to be down on you. Know that you're not going to let anyone down. They're just equally super enthusiastic. I think I made up those talking points after the fact, though. Mainly I invented the game because it was so entertaining to me.

KM: Do you like to create your own exercises for your classes? Is that important for you?

JB: I cobble them from everywhere. I have so many great exercises from the teachers I admire, but I also have a lot that I invented for specific purposes.

KM: What's another one you've invented?

JB: I invented one called One Person Silent, where you do a two person scene and one of the people doesn't say anything. I have then two students get up. The one who's going to speak sets the chairs somewhere, the other person sits in the chair and then the person ... they have a scene. And the person in the chair does very little. They just respond and react silently in the smallest way. There's almost no acting to it. The less they do the better it looks. And the scene goes on for a normal scene length. And what I like about them is, after you've done the whole run with all the students, you say to them, "That's what it looks like when no one messes up your scene. That's what it looks like when you're just left to do what you want to do and that's what it looks like when nobody steamrolls you." I teach that exercise as part of a class called Truth in Beauty where I teach people how to do very vulnerable, just truthful emotional work. And the reason people are unable to do that kind of work normally is because there's some guy on your team who's going to sell it out, who'll make a joke out of something that's just emotional and tender. So doing that exercise lets people have an opportunity to have enough space and time to do something lovely.

KM: That sounds like a great exercise. I've never heard of that before and it seems so obvious once you explained it.

JB: Well, I invented it because I was doing a duo with Joe Bill. It was so incredible to me that he asked me to do duo because he was always my hero. He's ten years older than I am, almost exactly, so I've always looked ahead to him as a mile post. So then when he called me on the phone to ask me to be in a duo with him, that yanked me forward a decade. I've been thrilled to work with him. We're doing a show in Kansas City and at one point he just went off and he had this long monologue and I just sat and responded non-verbally and looked him. After the show, people kept saying to me, "That was so amazing, the way you just sat there." And I was like, "It's Joe Bill! Are you going to cut him off?" I've actually made up a lot of exercises based on experiences I've had doing work with Joe.

KM: When you do this exercise with students, what are some of the common things that might come up in the exercise that you... common notes that you would give students based on what they do in this exercise?

JB: For the person that's speaking, often they don't realize that they can also be silent. There'll be incredibly powerful moments if both actors are silent. For example, sometimes someone will do a hospital scene where they're a child, an adult child and their parent is in the hospital bed not saying anything. If you're having that scene and there's a moment where neither is saying anything, it has so much power. So you have to coach the person who's speaking that they don't have to speak the whole time. People are terrified of having there being no noise on stage, but it's absolutely the most powerful, lovely thing. The coaching I most often give the person who's in the chair being silent is "do less." You can tell the people who are normally scene drivers because they sit in that chair not saying anything and they squirm like a hemorrhoids commercial. They're all over the place making these huge facial gestures and trying to tell the story with their body and face and you just have to say to them, "Look. Relax. You don't have to very much at all. Just sit back. Be a passenger in the scene." It's hard for some people. What I like about the exercise is that it proves anyone can drive a scene. I like using it as a tool. Sometimes you'll work with a team where half of them are steamrollers and have of them are support players who think of themselves as support players. But this exercise proves anybody can drive a scene and anybody can be a passenger. I've never seen it fail even with very early improvisers. Even with people with six months of experience. If you let them pick what the scene's going to be about, they can give themselves two minutes of stuff to say if no one's interrupting them.

KM: What's an exercise that you took from somebody else's workshop? Maybe from another city and brought back and changed and it evolved in your classes in a different direction.

JB: There's something I've completely bastardized and fortunately Sandy Meisner is dead so it'll never get back to him. There's a Meisner exercise which is a traditional acting exercise where someone is already on stage and the second performer enters through the door and says their name and the scene begins in that moment. But I invented a version of that exercise where the person comes through the door and the other person is hiding. Haha. So they have to find them for real. The person is hidden somewhere in the room and everyone else helps to hide them. This exercise is for a very specific purpose because sometimes people don't recognize when they're acting and they don't understand the true spontaneity of improv. People will come in and I instruct them to call the person's name. So maybe you're hidden in the room and I come in and I say, "Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!" And I keep saying, "Kevin" until I find you and I'm looking everywhere through the room. It's better in a room where there's something... where there's lots of stuff. It's nice in a theater because there's often you can hide them under seats or stuff or in the sound booth or something. There's a moment when people come in, they are faking. They'll be like, "Kevin! Kevin!" and it's really actorly. But then there's a moment where it gets real. And they're like, "KEVIN!" and there's a desperation in their voices you can hear that suddenly, they're not acting anymore; they're genuinely looking for this other person. And for the people left in the room, it's this great experience because hiding someone is playing. You get all these adults, you give them the assignment of, "We have to hide this person." And suddenly they're playing like little kids and they're thinking like little kids. It's a great moment to remind people that improv is playing. It's really just make-believe.

KM: When you have people do this exercise, do you tell them that they're going to have to find them? Or do you send them out of the room and don't tell them what?

JB: Oh, I tell them. I'm like, "Look at this person. Look at what they're wearing so that you can find them."

KM: OK. Do they have any ... sometimes it's really difficult to find that person?

JB: Yes. And then sometimes it's really easy and you can see people get sad if it's too easy. I used to have everyone in the class do the exercise, but then what I found is you can get the lesson in about three takes. You don't have to have everyone do it because the first part of the lesson is if it takes a long time to find the person, then you see that moment where they're really searching for real and they're not playing. Or they're really looking for the person and they might get frustrated. But it'll be this true, human moment and not an actor moment. The other lesson is if it's too easy to find the person, then there's this moment of sadness where, "Oh. The game was afoot and now the game is over. How sad!" It's not really a wonderful scenic exercise, but it's an excellent exercise for teaching people how to be people again and not just actors. Most improv exercises, if you think about it, at least the original ones exist to ..they had something going on to distract your conscious mind so that your unconscious mind can play. That's the original purpose of the Alphabet Game, where your conscious mind is all tied up thinking about the alphabet so that your unconscious mind can come out. The exercise I use mostly to illustrate that part of what we're talking about is something called Ralphing that I got from Mike Young, who unfortunately has passed away, but he was a great improviser and teacher in Philadelphia. His exercise, and I don't know where he got it, is called Ralphing. What happens is you have people distract their conscious mind by snapping their fingers and saying, "Banana, banana, banana" and running around the room. At some point the coach will yell, "GO!" The students will open their mouths. Whatever sound their unconscious mind makes comes out. So, it'll be, "Banana, banana, GO!" "Feeeee" They hang out on that sound for a little while, then they flip it back over to their conscious mind and they finish the sentence with the smart part of their brains. So, it would be, "Banana, banana, banana, GO!" "Feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelines are adorable! Come up on my lap, kitty." And you make people do that a bunch of times. First I had people all do it. All the students will get up and they'll practice that for awhile. Then I'll have them do it individually and you'll have someone do that about ten times. It helps them get..it helps them start a scene from somewhere genuinely surprising and unexpected to them.

KM: That sounds really interesting. You know that reminds me of? It reminds me of something I'd heard recently. An experiment that they did where they would take people and they take two groups of people. In one group of people, they would give them two numbers to memorize, like two digits. Not "one, nine." And another group of people they'd give them seven numbers to memorize. Like a seven digit number to memorize. Then they would immediately take them out of the room they were in, walk them down the hall into another room where supposedly they had to remember this number and say it in the other room or something. In the hallway is where they real experiment would take place and they would ask them really quickly, "Hey, we're giving fruit or cake. You can either have this bowl of fruit or this piece of cake." And the people who only had the two digit number almost always picked the bowl of fruit. And the people who had the seven digit number in their head almost always picked the cake because the theory being their mind was a little overloaded. The rational part of their brain was a little bit overloaded and so the more emotional reptilian part of their brain that really wants chocolate cake takes over. That Ralphing thing is very interesting. It's a more primal way to do the same thing. To overload the rational part of the brain or force out our more primitive instincts.

JB: Get the adult out so that the kid can play.

KM: Right. Right. Well, thanks so much for talking with me today. Are you teaching? You're off to teach a class right now. Where you do teach in Minneapolis?

JB: This one happens to be at the Walker Public Library because Huge Theater doesn't have a building yet, so we're...

KM: And so if someone was interested in taking a class with Huge Theater, they would go to what website?

JB: Hugetheater.com

KM: Fair enough. And are you going to be out and about at any festivals or anything this year?

JB: Yeep. I'm going to be at the Dallas Comedy Festival at the end of March. And who knows where else after that?

KM: OK. Well, thanks so so much for being our guest today. Being my guest. I'm acting like I have a staff. But I don't... not yet. Alright, thanks! You've been listening to the IRC podcast. You can talk about these podcasts and just about anything else in the forums at ImprovResourceCenter.com. I also blog at KevinMullaney.com. The song at the top of the show is called Nuclear by Flopsy. Thanks.