IRC Podcast Transcript, Matt Donnelly, 2010-02-23

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Introduction: You know what I noticed for the first time? You have sweetmattyd as your gmail. And your IRC log on is luciousd. Do you want people to taste you?


Kevin Mullaney: Hello and welcome to the Improv Resource Center podcast. I'm Kevin Mullaney, your host. And today, we're going to talk to another improviser about some of the exercises and techniques he uses in classes and rehearsals. Today our guest is Matt Donnelly. He was a member of Fossil Side Effects and Neutrino. He performs and taught in New York and New Jersey for years. He now lives and works in Las Vegas, since last November. Welcome to the show.

Matt Donnelly: Hey. How's it going? Glad to be here.

KM: What's some of the exercises that you like to do in your classes?

MD: There's maybe two exercises I get asked to teach a lot. Ones an exercise and one's a class that encompasses it. It has a core exercise with it. The first exercise is History, Philosophy, Metaphor; that's the name of the exercise. Basically, what it does, is it's just an exercise that teaches you three different ways to turn a small choice into a bolder, compelling choice. So it's either going to be much funnier or much more compelling. What happens is I let performers establish their who, what, and their where, and figure out what it is they're talking about. That's very important if you're going to do or teach this exercise. You don't start doing it before you figure out exactly what the scene is about. You just try to keep it simple. Make sure something's on the line for one of the characters. Once you start engaging in that one subject, you call out either history, philosophy, metaphor at the end of sentences that land with a dud. They're neither funny nor very compelling. It's more of a rhythm thing. To define it that way is harder than to just listen and basically, the lines that feel a little empty, you just call out, "History." And you make them tell a story. "Philosophy" you turn a small choice into a core belief. Or "Metaphor," you express what you just said through a metaphor, rather than what you're literally saying.

KM: So, is this a way for you to get them to make more specific choices?

MD: Yes. Specificity is definitely a gift of it. It also won't change the rhythm of the scene. Two things happen. EIther people wait for the comedy to come to them without taking a big, bold chunk out of it for themselves for their own interests. Or scenes that get funny really pick up in rhythm and get into short truncated, fast paced sentence exchanges, where they take their thing that was pretty funny and blow that up so fast that they lose believability. Something becomes really and then it falls off the tabletop and feels like it's dying. The history, philosophy, metaphor will slow the scene down by changing the rhythm of the conversation instead of just telling people to slow down or relax. Basically, before people try to comedically attack the scene, often times you don't realize the more rich information you have at the top really dictates the length of what can happen. After a certain point when the scene picks up comedically, it's harder to go back and mine for more details. Often times, if they just have a little sniff of something that's interesting, they immediately want to engage their own sense of, "I need to be funny" or "I need to be awesome right now." It's basically there to give them more at the beginning of the scene once they figure out what the scene's about. I get them to stay there for a second and try not to pick it up so fast and really enjoy this with a deeper curiousity of what they're saying to each other. Rather than let that be enough to move forward, let's really delve into that before we move forward.

KM: Right, but in the moment, do you think, "This would be a particularly good place for them to philosophize"?

MD: Oh yea.

KM: Or is it just that you pick one random one?

MD: I start off picking them randomly. The only time things come in really handy in a different is metaphor specifically comes in handy when two people are comedically attacking a scene so hard that they're boxing the voice of reason of the straight man into such an awkward corner because they've attacked it so hard that the believability of the scene is really deathly close to dying while there's really fast paced dialogue going on. I use metaphor. That gives a nice breath of fresh air to the scene and allows them to express something that can be easily messed with or misconstrued or talked about in a weird way so they're not hammering away at the scene so hard. In the beginning, I just call it randomly.

KM: Since you've been doing these exercises in your classes and workshops, do you find that as an improvisor you're doing this on stage more? Is it in your toolbox?

MD: It is and it isn't. I instinctively pull metaphor if I feel like a scene is getting hammered at. History is what I first go to if I feel like a scene is dragging or boring. Your panic is to make it interesting. Usually that means trying to be funny. To fight against that urge, it's just like launching into a story as best you can. Usually that's the best thing to do that scene to make it more interesting. That's what I mean. For history, it is about telling a story and not referencing the story or kind of telling the story. If you launch into this story like you know every detail, like it happened yesterday to you. You try to tell it like you're telling one of the great stories you tell to your friends. Either you will do an amazing job and that all that information will fuel the scene tremendously or you will do a not so great job and those gifts become laughs immediately. Those suprises when the story falters gives a huge boost to the comedic aspects of the scene. It's important that you don't kind of tell a story, but that you literally take the stage, take the attention and just let out this character's voice into whatever story they can possibly tell.

KM: You've mentioned another exercise. What was the other thing you wanted to talk about.

MD: I guess the most popular workshop I do is called Bull Matador. I know you have a lot of UCB listeners, so I hope this isn't considered controversial, but it's basically my answer to Game Theory. When I was coming up at UCB, the thing about defining the Game or Game was it was always an abstract thought. Everybody started talking about it. At the time, all the long form programs were converting short formers. People who were used to being very quick and clever and fast. All the early long form classes were about slowing you down, letting the comedy come to you, just "yes and" and what will happen. Really taking a very comfortable approach to it. Also, this concept of Game came around. I remember personally being with other performers that it was very exciting. It was permission to be purposefully funny again in improv. As that grew in popularity, the term "finding the game" grew in popularity, somewhere along the line it got defined as (I don't know who defined it. You might know more than I would), but that definition isn't something I was happy with, so I changed the definition for my students. The definition that was taught was, "a pattern of activity based on the first unusual thing said in a scene." That's hard because that really attacks the writer's brain more than the other stuff that people bring to the table as actors and talented people. I've felt that certain performers were suffering from that definition. There were more of your creative types, more of your actor types who aren't necessarily aren't the best writers really getting into their heads trying to figure out what the unusual thing is and what the pattern is. After working with Miles Stroth a little bit and he talked about Game. Games pop up when the first emotional thing is said, not the first unusual thing. I define Game as, "the mutual exploitation of one character's emotional vulnerability." Meaning that you and I are going to come out on a scene together and together we're going to figure out which character we're messing with at this time. Who are we going to make something awkward, inappropriate or unfortunate happen to that character? So Bull Matador is that. It's the technique of two people working to figure who is the bull and who is the matador? The matador is the vulnerable person who wants to get exploited and the bull is the exploiter of the situation. The bull's job is to do in a sympathetic way, likable way, but to not change the circumstances of something that's going to go down against the character who is the matador. The matador's job isn't just to be vulnerable, but to continue to invite danger to happen to them. To continue to wave their flag, so to speak and bring the game towards them.

KM: Can you give an example? A nuts and bolts example of a scene?

MD: I'm trying to think. What happens is there's a moment where's the a chuckle from the audience. Two performers come out and there's not a fully formed idea. They're just talking to each other. There's a moment in every scene where you get that initial chuckle. It's not a full laugh. They kind of sniff. The audience gives you a, "Hey, we're interested in that." That moment's very important because it's the first moment where everybody in the room is on the same page about what's being created. But no one's actually confirmed it yet. In that moment, you base it and look at the characters and see who seems more vulnerable. I'm trying to think of an example. It's hard to talk about it. If someone comes in and is like, "Hey son, I heard you got sent home from school today because you were misbehaving." The answer to that question is either going to be something that is where the kid says, "I was picked on at school today. It wasn't my fault. There was a bully. I was being bullied. I stood up for myself and I got in trouble." Well, that sounds great and noble and also vulnerable because he's talking to his dad about being picked on. It's your first comedic opportunity to attack. If you just become mean dad, that's no good.

KM: In this case, who would be the bull and who would be the matador?

MD: Since the kid gives an emotionally sufficient answer, he is the matador. He gave a good, solid, emotional answer, he's asking to be messed with by his father. The game becomes how can a father miss being there for his kid. How can he try to be there for his kid but fail?

KM: So for instance the father would be trying to reassure the kid on the face of it, but really what he's doing is undermining the kid or picking at the scab of the kid's vulnerability.

MD: Yes, exactly. The father's job is to exploit, somehow.

KM: It sounds very much like a Miles Stroth kind of thing. In a good way, in a really great way. When I was in his class, he taught something called Frustrating the Want, which was his approach to the Game at the time. A long time ago. It sounds like an evolution of that idea, where there's somebody who wants something. You want something from me, so I'm going to tell you that I'm going to give it to you and then proceed to not give it you or to give you something else. In other words, you want peace and quiet to study. I'm going to assure you. Of course I'm going to give you peace and quiet. And then I'm going to start practicing drums. We would do that for days and day in Miles' class. It was an interesting exercise that was difficult to do at first, but as soon as you clicked into it and you were performing with other people who knew how to do it too, you could instantly create games all the time just from somebody expressing a want. The other person saying that they'll give it to them and then do something else. And it works. It's a nice comedic template. It's interesting.

MD: It is. Miles is an undoubtedly huge influence on my improv technique. Always has been. I try to open that up to be more loose. A lot of times I can keep some of his more strength as an actor more than as a comedian. I just tell them to fail at being there for their kid rather than try to construct it.

KM: That's a good way to put. Try to be there for your kid, but know you're going to fail at it. Don't be too good at it.

MD: Exactly. It creates an inherent incongruity to the character. There's a character that comes out rather than an improv choice that comes out, when I say it that way. Just find the guy that isn't good at being a parent rather than trying to make a move.

KM: It's an interesting idea because what it does is it gives you a position to play or a role to play within the scene that you recognize and then start playing it. If you're playing with someone who also knows this idea, you're going to be confident that they recognize it too.

MD: It just focuses on co-accomplishing a scene. That improv is not always this MVP effort of "I'm a great improviser," but a lot of the time on how can two people can rely on each other to get a scene accomplished and how much looking at each other's body language and tone at a moment of interest will help them rather than trying to reach into your brain for an improv rule that will lay something out when something of interest pops up. Surprising enough I ran into a lot of things. I'd say, "Open up." Basically, that's what happens if two people go bull bull and comedically attacks the other person. You know, the person responds by standing up for themselves. Rather than trying to attack comedically backwards, I say, "Hey, we've got bull bull here. Somebody open up. Somebody open up and cave."

KM: Does anybody ever insist that the bull is actually the vulnerable one because the matador is poking him with a stick? The matador is teasing the bull and jabbing the bull, eventually kills the bull.

MD: I mean, in a great scene it kind of is that. Ultimately the outcome can't change too much, but if it does, then that's the edit point. Once the matador kills the bull, it's over. People often times argue vulnerably, so the thing that really matters most is that two performers on the stage agree. Even if they agree to the opposite of what everyone in the audience thinks, they will do good work. If they agree together; who's the bull, who's the matador, who's open, who's closed.

KM: And you, I imagine this happens half way through a scene, you might switch.

MD: Yes! The triggers of that are believability. Often times, if the voice of reason is cornered because of their status. Something grows so terribly out of control that they finally make a stand for themselves. When that happens, it's always best the cave. The character who's the bull caves and it always creates a beat change in the scene. This is what's really important for people who are really heavy Game players is to realize theatrically there is a solution to get to a second phase of your scene that you might not normally find because you feel bound to keep doing what you're doing. If you're playing Game so hard that it becomes uncomfortable, the easiest way to get out of that is to switch roles rather than reinvent a reason to keep those roles going. Usually that triggers believability. So if I'm playing a hitman and I really talk down to the guy I'm supposed to kill, that if I don't kill him, it's obvious that the scene is going to be boring. If the guy who was so low and suddenly he starts to make a stand for himself or starts to bring up something, I might as the hitman cave and let him hit me emotionally and start to confess that I'm not such a brute after all. That I have other thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams that I want to do with my life besides kill people. All of a sudden that guy who would have been the victim can start messing the stuff that I bring up. Suddenly you find a new length of the scene to go towards.

KM: OK, well thanks so much for talking with me today and sharing these exercises. If somebody wanted to have you come out and teach a workshop with their group, how would they contact you?


KM: Easy enough. Do you have any workshops or classes you're teaching at the moment? Things you're doing in Las Vegas or elsewhere?

MD: I'm teaching in Las Vegas right now. I'm teaching advanced improv in Las Vegas. It's a 6 week class out here.

KM: What's your organization?

MD: I'm regularly back teaching at New York at the PIT, when I'm back in town there. I'm going to Minneapolis to teach the first weekend of March.

KM: Great! Thanks so much.

MD: Thanks, Kevin!

KM: You've been listening to the IRC podcast. You can talk about these podcasts and just about anything else at the forums at I also blog at The song at the top is called "Nuclear" by Flopsy. Thanks for downloading this. See you next time.