IRC Podcast Transcript, Tara Defrancisco, 2010-03-10

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Introduction: The nicest things about improvisers are that the bad moves that we do, I believe, are rooted in kindness and trying to make the scene funnier. I think that about everything.

Kevin Mullaney: Hello and welcome to the Improv Resource Center podcast. I'm Kevin Mullaney, your host, and today we're going to talk we're going to talk to another improviser about some of the exercises and techniques that she uses in her classes. Today our guest is Tara Defrancisco. She performed for three years with Second City Tour Co and currently she performs with The Deltones, a musical improv house team at iO. She also performs with Comedy Sportz and has teached ...uh has teached?

Tara laughs.

KM: Currently she performs...

Tara DeFrancisco: Leave it.

KM: ...with The Deltones, a musical improv house team at iO. She also performs with Comedy Sportz and has taught for all three of those organizations. How are you doing?

TD: I'm great! How are you doing, Kevin?

KM: Good. Welcome to the show.

TD: Thank you.

KM: So this podcast is all about exercises so let's get right to it and talk a little about some of the exercises that you use in your classes.

TD: Sure! You know, typically I will find that a lot of people have a tough time. I'm a big believer that all the schools of thought should be combined into one amorphous blob and use all the skill sets and muscles that are built from each school to make the best scene. Meaning, you know, I think my Comedy Sportz training and Second City training and iO training makes for the best kind of scene work because at the heart of what you do, you're doing a good four minute scene wherever you're performing. And because of that, I think I typically like to use some short form skill sets in long form exercises. So a lot of short form stuff makes you cut to the point quite a bit and that skill set seems to be useful for people that are stuck in a long form rut. I think one of my favorites is "What's in the Box?" which is a very short exercise with a partner. A partner set up, kind of feel. You'd be sitting with two people together and what would happen, typically is two people will be sitting together and they're literally going to drill each other with just the question over and over again of "What's in the box?" Someone's gonna hold a box in front of them that does not ... it's obviously mimed and then ask their partner to take something out of the box, look at it and then throw it away after describing it. What people seem to find really difficult about this exercise is actually physicalizing something, looking at the object, and getting rid of it. Even if you get a little bit of a chance to describe that thing, they'll have kind of a mind melt a little bit. It's up to Person A, the person that holds the box, to either decide to go slowly with them or to sort of become a drill sargent with them. The exercise works in both fields, so if you're using the descriptive way, you would ask someone, "What's in the box?" Person B would take something out of the box, look at it and say, "It's a Rubik's Cube." Then Person A might say, "How old is it? How many stickers are left? What side, which colors are you looking at?" You know. "Is it new, is it old, is it used?" Those kind of things. And the person would have to answer all those questions as descriptively as they possibly could. They'd throw it out and then grab a new [object]. In the second way, they might decide, Person A might decide to really put their partner through the gauntlet. And in that one, they would considerably increase speed. Which would be like, "What's in the box?" Person B would have to answer "Rubik's Cube." Person A would then say, "What's in the box?" Person B would have to answer. Person A would go again. Person B would go again. And that way, you just make yourself not have an agenda or edit yourself. There's certainly good tools in both of those things. And it's essentially to make yourself have a permission slip of not editing what comes to your brain the quickest and being able to see the objects that you're pulling out of the thing. Even if they don't realistically make sense in a box, kinda like Mary Poppins's purse. She pulls the lamp out but we don't question it. So it's useful. It's very useful because some people get trapped in their heads about making decisions quickly on stage. And you know, obviously, every exercise we ever do is a metaphor for what happens on stage, but this thing tends to work quite a bit with people that feel like their ideas aren't good enough. You know, they pick a thing, they discover it, they decide, and they move forward. So both sides of the exercise seem to be really useful for people.

KM: What's another exercise that you use, that you find is useful. Maybe an exercise that you find is more useful for more advanced students.

TD: Like scenic stuff? That kind of thing?

KM: Yea.

TD: Awesome. You know, a thing I love to actually teach and watch is for people that aren't very good, necessarily, in making... I love emotional statements and point of view statements. In fact, speaking for myself, I feel like probably 50% of the laughs I receive are because of emotional engagement and belief in my scene and point of view when I have no response and truly just commanding the stage and having confidence inside those decisions and playing it real. Honestly. That's part of it. Playing yourself really on your craziest day. Or your weirdest day, or saddest day, but doing the best you can to achieve that. I think because of that, I'm kind of in love with point of view in emotional exercises. One of my favorites of late is just the really simple idea that you have, let's say a scene with two people in it. It's a scenic two person exercise where you ask your two students, or people that you're helping out, to decide something personal in their own lives that they wished they could have said to someone they have not gotten to say. A true, guttural admittal from their point of view that they have not had the experience to actually say out loud to someone else that they want to say it to. Person B in this scene with them, their only responsibility inside the scene is to A: hopefully do decent scene work; commit. That kind of thing: commit, believe, all that stuff. And B: to accept their statement as absolutely true, with no negation of whatever they said. So, for instance, if person A said, "Mom, I can't believe you're an alcoholic." Person B would not say, "Well, I don't drink that much." They'd have to accept the fact that it's true and say something like, "Well, I am an alcoholic and I started when you were born." That kind of thing. So it's an admittal, but it is true and it progresses the scenic element of that scene. From that point forward, hopefully, in a perfect world, both scene partners can leave behind the person they're actually saying it to in their lives and rely upon the world they're creating with their fellow improviser and progress to a comical or satirical point. It's always funny. I'm always shocked at how real and base these admittals are and how awesome and how funny they become by the end of the scene. And truly because they're planting real seeds that bloom I think, into realistic, "today's the day" scene where "I told you this thing I've wanted to say." It cuts so much exposition. I think it's so useful for people that are struggling. Maybe people that have gotten their scenic who, what, and where's on. And they feel good about what they're doing improv-wise. They aren't necessarily breaking through. This is one of those things that cuts all the useless exposition and the banter from the tops of scenes and makes them get to their root of where they start. It's also really fascinating to see how these scenes often turn into scenes that have nothing to do with the initiation, which is kind of mind blowing because the initiation is so grand. It's always really interesting to see how smart and savvy the scenes become when we accept the admittal as true and see where it progresses. It's kind of a choose-your-own-adventure scene. It's really fascinating.

KM: Besides defending yourself, I think the example you're saying with someone saying, "Mom you're an alcoholic and I wish you'd stop drinking." And telling the person that they can't respond to that by defending them self. They have to accept it, which is an interesting part of the exercise. Other than that, what do you think might be another common note that you have to end up giving people about how they begin the exercise or how the exercise progresses?

TD: Good question. That's a good question. It's really interesting how much you do, in real life, tend to defend rather than accept this huge thing. And that's probably just a human characteristic, I guess. The next... the secondary note I'd give in that exercise. Let me think about that. I think typically, it's that don't negate the thing. That's number one. And two, it might a simple note of don't... I feel like you'll find a lot, even people that are solid improvisers that get it are going to have a tendency to question back as a way of clarifying of how deep this issue goes. I mean, something as elementary as, "John, I shouldn't have broken up with you." I know I'm a great guy. That's fine. And then it's the next step here might be that they start to question each other to define their relationship rather than making assumptions inside of the scene work. That's probably the second biggest note, because often, the nicest thing about improvisers are the bad moves that we do, I believe are rooted in kindness and trying to make the scene funnier. I think that about everything. In life, if you're trying to sustain a conversation with someone, you ask them a ton of questions. "How are you? What are you doing today? Oh really? Where'd you go?" You don't realize how much you do that, and that's a really tough...thing to break. A tough habit to break in ourselves. And I think that happens inside this exercise a lot because it'll be like, "Well, how long have we dated and what are we doing? Why did you start drinking? And what did I do to make you start drinking?" Either of those examples that were provided. Instead of just being like, "I drink because of you. Oh my God. I'm a failure." You don't really get to that point where we're making admittals and really stating big things. It becomes a window and a mirror to real relationships in worlds. It's just such a tough thing. It's such a tough thing to get through because it is a polite, kind move in real life. There's an expression, I can't remember who said this, but I feel like I've heard second hand that it was Noah [Gregoropolous] there's an expression at iO floating around, "It's rude to be polite." I think that's 10% wrong, but I think it's 90% right. I think you have to make assumptions about your scenes even when the assumption is so grand because if not, you're throwing the burden on your scenic partner, who's already been quite vulnerable from the top of the exercise.

KM: Do you think that sometimes what's going on is, let's say I make that initiation, or you make that initiation. You tell me "I wish you wouldn't drink, Dad." And I respond by accepting it, but I might be unwilling to make assumptions and define myself because I'm worried I'm going to step on your idea.

TD: Sure! Yea, I mean I think you're absolutely right with that too. I think that's something you'd see quite a bit.

KM: So do you have to give people permission right from the beginning to say, "Yes, that's where you're starting from, but it's not going to be... midway through the scene, it's going to be a completely different scene, so don't worry about..."

TD: Yea, and that's what I was trying to speak to at the top of this exercise explanation too, which you just defined way better. I think that the hardest part of this exercise is, I make a huge admittal. The second part is someone accepts that admittal and tries to create a new world with you and the third part is you have to let them. Something I love about it is no one ever trusts that this exercise is going to be funny and usually if it's run well and the people in the group trust each other and really have done that trust work and group mind work, it will always be funny. It's always funny by the end. It always reaches a satirical point or honest point or, you know, a kind of a "today's the day where I told you this thing and aren't our lives going to change?" Sort of a catalyst that makes a scene amazing. It's so interesting to me that everyone's always afraid of it and that day in class people are always just incredulous.

KM: You know it's interesting when I hear exercises that I... and there's something about it that seems after you've been told about the exercise, it seems like such a good idea. There's something very obvious about it when you think about it because of all the situations, I don't know about you, of my life where something has happened and I'm driving away. Or I'm thinking about the next time I'm going to talk to that person and it's almost like rehearsing a monologue in your head of the thing you want to say to them. And of course, you never do, or if you do you know, there's so many times when you say something to someone and it's something you've wanted to say to them for awhile and the conversation goes in a completely different direction than you thought it was because they don't cooperate.

TD: Yea! Totally! And that's interesting that you say that because it is what happens inside scene work too. Again, to speak to that playing catch metaphor, it is that way because you, you know, when you dream of telling someone that you're in love with them and you have it exactly planned out exactly how you want it to go, how many times does it really go that way? Not very often. Even if it's good, it's not what you imagined.

KM: Right. So, are there any other exercises you want to share with us?

TD: Oh, I know one. I know one that I love. It's different than the others. It's another muscle, I guess, a muscle set of something we haven't talked about yet. That's the idea of... this exercise is actually called The Cleaning Lady, which is based on an old troupe. I don't think that ... I don't what else it would be called other than Character Painting? We're all pretty familiar with scenic painting and all the stuff that that entails, but there's a really fun exercise for people that are stuck in a rut of what they play. And generally, what would happen here is you'd have your team members stand in a ring and one of them would get in the circle. Once they've stood in the circle, they're gonna say a line of dialogue that they think that this character might say. So if there's standing there hunched over, whatever, they might issue a line of, "Ooh! My aching back!" Whatever the thing might be. And whoever's on the outside of the ring is responsible for painting the scene, they're responsible for painting them. So what they would do is either say things that they see that are hanging on this person or they would ask the questions for them to describe their world back. So they would actually spin around and face people in the circle if they had a question or paint for them. So they might say, "Oh, ma'am, what's in that bag you're carrying?" And the woman would have to respond. Or they might say, "This woman is wearing a Zac Efron t-shirt." Whatever the thing might be. They might just paint her over. By the end of the exercise, the way the person gets out of the ring is by saying a line of dialogue that they think the character would now say, which wasn't what they began with. And then they exit the ring. It's a really fun exercise for people because often once we've done improv a little bit, you think you can only play, especially when you start, hopefully not when you're a veteran, when you first begin you can only play like ten people and you get really locked at being like, "Oh I'm playing that person again. I didn't mean to do that." This is a great exercise for your team to sort of paint you into a new person that maybe you couldn't see for yourself. So it's really fun for people that have been playing a little bit together that are kind of like, "Ugh, I'm so locked. I keep playing whatever, Lincoln Park ladies or disgruntled 70 year old men." Whatever the thing might be. Even if your disposition hangs on you that way. This might be a way for your team to gift you back. The idea the more people you're able to play.

KM: Yea, I had an exercise with a similar goal that I made up years ago. I'm sure there's other versions of it. Susan [Messing] used to teach something called Doublemint Twins and I think it's kind of related to that.

TD: I remember that exercise! What do you do in that? I remember that name.

KM: Doublemint twins. I feel like that exercise was about two people. It was almost like a mirror exercise.

TD: I thought it was a speak at the same time exercise. Is it not?

KM: Yea, you spoke at the same time and you moved at the same time. You were one character.

TD: Yea, that rings a bell.

KM: In a scene. You were treated as one character. You weren't treated as two characters speaking together. You were treated as one character.

TD: Right. Which is also a short form game. That's a short form game as well.

KM: But the exercise I had, it was sort of like freeze tag. It was a bunch of two person scenes, but there was a guy in this one team and he was a smart guy. Very funny, but he played... he tended to play like three or four versions of himself or three or four types of characters and they were always very similar to one of these three types. So one day I said, "OK, we're going to put Burman in the middle and everybody has to make initiations with him and your goal here is to make an initiation with a character choice that you would like to see him try." And then he would have to play a character exactly like you, so you would be two...

TD: Oh that's fun! So they would mirror your choice back.

KM: Yea. You know, two farm boys together or two old ladies or two Russian immigrants. So you would have to play the same type of character. You weren't the same character. You were two friends who had the same accent and behaved the same way, thought the same way. Whatever. So it's a really fun exercise with a team of people that have been playing together for awhile because they're going to know, "Man, I love this guy. I wish he would play a... he would be really funny as an intellectual truck driver, but I wish he would try that on." So you can make him try it on because you go out into the scene with him for awhile and then somebody else will tag in. And once everyone has had at least one chance to give him a character to play, then I would yell out, "New Burman!" And somebody else would come in the middle and they would have to do a series of short, 30-second, one minute scenes where they had to try on a bunch of characters.

TD: I like that a lot! You know what's cool about that is you're kind of supporting within that exercise you also have to play it which I think is nice. You're saying, "I've got you! Yea."

KM: Right, right. You're not giving him something you can't play. You're not pimping them by saying, "You have to play this." It sounds like, "I want to play this too."

TD: Yea, "we're going to be OK here in this whatever." Yea. That's great. I like that a lot.

KM: Well, thanks so much for talking with us.

TD: Yea!

KM: Now you're teaching right at improvOlympic?

TD: I am! Primarily, in town if you're around, I'd be at improvOlympic most of the time.

KM: And let's say someone wanted to do a workshop with you? Bring you out for a workshop some time. How would they get more about you and how to contact you?

TD: They can go to my website if they'd like to. That's the easiest way. It's taradefrancisco.com. How easy is that?

KM: It's pretty easy. Everyone should have their own website.

TD: Yea, it's easy. If you can spell it.

KM: Right. Alright, thanks so much. You've been listening to the IRC podcast. You can talk about these podcasts and just about anything else at the forums at improvresourcecenter.com. I also blog at KevinMullaney.com and the song at the top and at the end here is "Nuclear" by Flopsy. Thanks.