UCB Improv 501 Class Notes

Instructor: Zach Woods
Date Taken: June 2009

I was fortunate to make it into 501 after my first 401 and immediately went into another class with Zach.  It felt like an extension of my 401 class and was nice to have the consistency of an instructor that already had a sense of how I played—logically.

Find out more about UCB’s training program here.

Note: This class is now known as Advanced Study Harold. 

Class #1 – Harold Ownership

  • Focus of the class is support and taking group ownership of the Harold.
  • You have to work as a group to create a collective reality. What decision you collectively agree on isn’t  as important as that you agree on it.
  • Even if you don’t know what’s going, don’t show to the audience that you are confused or not sure of the rules of the scene
  • Develop the ability to always stay focused on the scene on stage, not what you’re going to do later
  • The level of craziness dictates inversely the level of straight person that you need. If the game is only slightly crazy, you don’t need a straight man. If it is super crazy you want to ground the scene with a straight man.
  • The most rewarding moves are those that happen in the present.
  • Organic opening – try to come back to the suggestion 3 times like a pattern game.
  • Avoid going scenic in your opening. Never reply directly to each other with dialogue.
  • You have to react to every new thing before you can add a new thing.
  • Take your time to establish a reality up top, otherwise the unusual thing won’t be recognizable.
  • In any scene, it is either the world that is unusual, or a character
  • You’ll  get to the funny by committing. You’ll  never find it if you by playing it arms length away.

Class #2 – Playing Patiently

  • Support from your teammates comes in the form of endowing
  • Take your time, play patiently and have authority of your scenes
  • Establish new information with every line
  • The first 3 lines are so important. not in the sense of being funny, but in being present and listening to your scene partner.
  • In the first 30 seconds, make choices, have reactions, and stay present
  • Your feeling going into a Harold should be closer to what you feel when you are having a regular conversation than the anxiety of “I need to be funny”
  • You don’t have to think about the unusual thing. just react to what you hear and you’ll find it.
  • One way to heighten is your involvement with the other, the importance of them to you
  • You can also raise the stakes by using your environment
  • Play recognizable characters, not caricatures
  • Playing a scene with authority and being patient relaxes the audience.
  • Organic: break the crescent earlier. if you get stuck, keep heightening physcially or you can follow the words
  • Don’t describe attributes of your character, exhibit them
  • Backline shouldn’t inject the unusual thing. they should provide support to what the people in the scene establish
  • When you find a good game, take your time playing it. don’t want to end it too soon.
  • Most games are reacting to the unusual thing (straight man) or matching it (crazy town)
  • If your game is mapping, you need to show specifics from both worlds

Class #3 – Support

  • don’t play the game in your head, play it with your fellow players.
  • focus on what’s odd about the other people, not yourself
  • ask yourself what is the defining deal of each character?
  • points of view are important but without information they are hard to heighten
  • give yourself fuel for the fire of the game by adding information to your scene
  • don’t be shy about playing game
  • you can have mini games in your scene. you can use them to keep the scene diverse and keep it from getting stagnant
  • the dust should never completely settle on a game in a scene
  • if you’re going to be hostile in a scene, you have to know why before you even show hostility
  • even if you aren’t the weirdest person in the scene, it doesn’t mean you can’t have specific characteristics
  • justification involves giving context to the behavior not just explaining it away
  • justification is providing the why
  • the best thing you can do when something crazy happens is actively justify it. its not enough to just not deny it. add information and context.
  • As backline, give the support that you have, don’t wait to think about the support you wish you had

Class #4 -Support and POV

  • you wanna have variety in your first beats (in terms of premise-based scenes and more patient ones)
  • once you establish the rules of your game, make sure you follow them by making it active
  • once your characters have their pov, make active choices to blow open the game
  • the simplest way to be supportive is to commit fully to the scene
  • you shouldn’t be cautious in your opening, be fully committed
  • consoling scenes can be tough to heighten or sustain
  • don’t forget that even if you have game, you have to introduce and heighten the stakes
  • with organic openings, a to c still applies
  • don’t just respond, REACT
  • its ok to describe or articulate your pov, but then you have to play it—that’s like building a bomb but not lighting the fuse
  • object work will give you a screen on which to project your game
  • show more,talk less
  • avoid “presenting” game ideas. play them
  • make moves as they are needed, not as they occur to you
  • answer in your head “why is this scene important?”
  • don’t be crazy before you establish the reality of the world

Class Show #1 (with Chelsea Clarke):

  • justifications have to come earlier
  • avoid repeating the beats that happened in the first scene
  • second beats should be shorter than the first
  • don’t be afraid to go off on mini games

Class #5 – Listening & Game

  • you can have a macro game that lasts the entire harold (such as doing a harold as only us presidents). you still do different game beats but have the macro theme
  • establish the why and your game moves will hit even stronger
  • you don’t want the game moves to feel like a laundry list. exist in your world and explore the beats
  • yes and in the same direction to find a game
  • play environment work / backline support so it doesn’t distract from the scene but enhances it
  • your characters have to affect each other
  • you can say no as long as you allow yes to happen
  • if someone makes a specific or bold choice, don’t just ignore it but make use of it

Class #6 – The Movie

  • The Movie Form:
  • opening: 
  • scene paint 3 scenes that introduce genre, hero, and villain.
  • these 3 will be the first 3 scenes of your movie
  • when a character is named someone should step out to be that character and get painted
  • characters shouldn’t be repeated for the opening
  • should be fast paced painting
  • should have at least 2 people per scene
  • be very specific and try to make it clear your genre as soon as possible
  • scenes:
  • in your scene, you don’t worry about plot. try to have really strong behaviorial patterns or characters and game.
  • after the first 3 scenes, each subsequent scene is setup by the backline while editing
  • the plot just provides a platform for game
  • you can continue your characters games from scene to scene but remember to also heighten them

Class #7 – Group Support

  • you can ride out an emotion in a scene longer than a clever premise
  • commit harder to the individual beats of your organic opening
  • organic opening movements should be specific
  • you’ll make things simpler and more fun if you define your world earlier
  • make it active! especially for second beats
  • beware of the ground in openings, its hard to get up from them
  • if you’re premise is abstract, you have to immediately ground the rest of the world
  • your second beats have to trim the fat of the first beats
  • you have to be a lot better at editing scenes
  • you can’t give into lethargy even if your show doesn’t start well
  • don’t be a passive participant in a harold. if something is moving slow, take the initiative to energize it
  • the best improviser is the one who recognizes what the harold needs and provides it
  • organic opening – always be looking at your fellow players
  • we need the why

Class 8 – Harold, Harold Harold

  • remember to connect back to the beginning when in an organic opening
  • if you’re in a scene and you feel like its not going anywhere, go back to your who what where
  • the unusual thing isn’t your game. your reaction to it can be
  • knowing what motivates your character will help give you additional moves
  • avoid ironic detachment by committing to your scene
  • play with the toys you’ve created
  • you can be ballsy in a harold. a gibberish scene could be very funny if you commit
  • support moves should be simple and in the same direction as the scene is going
  • make sure your moves are responses to someone elses moves, not force fitting your own idea into the scene
  • be more generous with your support but less ambitious
  • be supportive of any spoken moves in organic openings
  • don’t waste time with deception
  • when in doubt in the organic opening, literally mirror each other
  • a premise isn’t good enough, but you can use that to figure out what the deal is between the two characters
  • if you start a premise, yes and your way to behavior or game
  • to think of what to pull from openings, think of moments that emotionally affected people

Class Show #2

  • organic—let one moment build to the next. commit yourself into new beats instead of starting and stopping them
  • you can take your time early to establish what’s going on
  • its hard work if you start your scene being unhappy
  • drew: REACT!
  • if you haven’t established your justification for your game in the first beat, solidify it or create it in the second one
  • avoid starting out with hostility
  • providing justification will help you heighten
  • for third beats, don’t feel like you need to initiate with a connection; just heighten your game and you may find connections

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drew tarvin

Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first Humor Engineer teaching people how to get better results while having more fun. He has worked with thousands of people at 250+ organizations, including P&G, GE, and Microsoft. He is a best-selling author, has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and TEDx, and has delivered programs in 50 states, 20+ countries, and 6 continents. He loves the color orange and is obsessed with chocolate.
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