Impro in Brazil: Status Explorations and Joy!
“One status relationship that gives immense pleasure to audiences is the master-servant scene” ~ Keith Johnstone (Impro 63)
As promised, my post this week will begin with master-servant and additional status techniques we are exploring in my Impro System Lab. I will also write about my visit to the informal practice of Grupo Trampulim, a professional clown troupe, and about the Balinese clown mask performance of one of my students. This week’s post is more pedagogical and, I hope, proves useful for teachers of impro. In the photos at the end you will see much laughter because the work is joyous! It is also powerful, liberating, and unearths truths of human behavior.
On 21 September, my Impro System Lab students warmed up with Spolin’s “Three-Way Conversation” (394) but I add a pecking-order to the rules, so the person in the center who must carry on two different conversations is essentially a #2, engaging with a #1 on one side (e.g., a boss) and a #3 on the other (e.g., an intern). This got everyone prepared for the kind of split-attention required for master-servant scene work. Next, we played Johnstone’s “King Game” (a.k.a., “Snap ‘Em Off”), always allowing for those who are snapped off (i.e., killed) to ask why their King/Queen killed them in the debrief. As Keith says, the game teaches (as all games should). Blind offers and making faces (i.e., servants being naughty!) were nicely incorporated in many of the scenes, and we also tried the pecking-order version of the “King Game” with 2 servants entering together but at different status levels.
I then talked briefly about commedia and lazzi before diving into the “Servant Over-Confessing” (a.k.a., “servant getting himself into trouble”) lazzo, which Johnstone pulled from Moliere (Impro 66). This lazzo produces very funny scenes without much effort and little to no intellectual strain. Next, we played “Non-Defense” (Impro 50), both versions. The first version, where a low-status player admits to everything they are accused of by a player of higher status, is a great way to show how a low-status character can control a high-status one. Teaching it again as a high-status exercise, you suddenly see characters akin to Maggie Smith’s “Dowager Countess” (Downton Abbey) materialize! I then had everyone break into groups of 4 and 5 and try all of the above master-servant exercises on their own. They did so for almost an hour— exploring, discussing, and side-coaching each other in Portuguese.
It is sometimes a challenge for me to side-coach scenes that are in Portuguese because I must wait for the translation, and by the time I know what has been said, it is often too late to throw in a tilt or an adjustment. But I am learning to pay closer attention to the rhythms, tones, and other behavioral signals of my students, and even without understanding what has been said, I’m side-coaching with more ease. Still, I often let Dr. Mariana Muniz decide when to bring a scene to a strong close so I’m not a beat behind!
This past Saturday, 28 September, I wanted to return to simple status scenes. So first, I had the group warm-up with Spolin’s “Part of a Whole” series. I love this series because it quickly gets large groups of players entering the stage with a purpose and finding fresh ways of staying involved in the activities. Only after we played all 3 versions of Spolin’s “Part of a Whole” series (e.g., Activity, Occupation, Relationship) did we do Johnstone’s “Status Towers” (Impro 70) which has analogous objectives but with a different focus. It was an exercise Johnstone introduced to create a more natural pecking-order. Like Spolin’s “Part of a Whole Activity,” in Johnstone’s exercise someone begins with a basic activity (e.g., riding a bus or doing warm-ups in the dressing room), and each person that enters subsequently must be slightly higher or lower in status, depending on which direction you decide on beforehand.
Next, we played a sequence of status scenes (a bit of long form, if you will!) in which one student, Ana, played the same character moving through 3 of her daily environments: (1) At work where Ana is the boss of a plumbing company, so fairly high in status (unless a customer had a conflict!); (2) At home where Ana’s partner and children have higher statuses; (3) The hair salon where Ana is a definite #2. Apparently, in hair salons in Brazil, stylists are very high status and the customer is NOT always right! Finally, before break, we did Johnstone’s well-known simple firing scene (Impro 49), in Portuguese, of course. When facilitating this activity, you must insist that the players don’t alter Johnstone’s text, because only then will they truly understand that status is not about what they say but what they do.
My Thursday “Impro for Leading, Creating, and Collaborating” students worked on social intelligence (Goleman) with a few Augusto Boal exercises and Johnstone’s "Quick Draw" (originally called "The Eyes") which they absolutely loved! After they created wonderful faces with their partners, I showed them slides of Paul Klee’s simple sketches of faces now on display at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Belo Horizonte. They were amazed that their creations were quite similar to the creations made by this revered modern artist from the early 20th century. I’ve posted some of my favorite creations from the students below.
Last week I was also invited by Grupo Trampulim, a professional clown company, to sit in on their informal practice and to facilitate a few activities with them. Observing clowns experiment with Walter Thompson’s Soundpainting techniques was joyous. I took numerous notes and intend on learning more about Soundpainting, a way to create compositions through structured improvisation. I would say the tall charismatic Samba group conductor I talked about in my second blog post worked a bit like a Soundpainter when he used only hand gestures to bring the two percussion groups together for a 30-minute improvisational jam!
With Grupo Trampulin, I did Johnstone’s "Blind Offers/Justify the Gesture" but only allowed the clowns to make physical offers and sounds (no dialogue whatsoever), which produced scenes that were physically alive and inspired. Then we did “No Ball Tennis” from Dymphna Callery’s Through the Body: A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre (2001). This is an exercise I use in character building and comedic work, especially when developing clowns and commedia and/or character Masks, because it trains performers to react/be altered by every nuanced gesture from their partner, beat by beat, frame by frame. It is a great exercise for devising physical comedy bits, as well.
The week ended with a trip to the colonial city of Sabará, just 17 kilometers northeast of Belo Horizonte. Founded in 1675, this former gold-mining center is preserved with uneven cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, and many churches (one of which is painted inside with gold!). We weren’t there to explore the city, however, but to see my student Rafael Protzner’s solo improvised Balinese clown mask show “Patuscada” (rough translation “messy”), directed by Mariana Muniz. With a simple set-up of 3 colorful, translucent tapestries serving as curtains denoting the onstage dressing/transformation room and a sound improviser, Robert Gomez, on the side of the stage, Rafael brought 5 masked clown characters, of various status levels, to life and kept the audience of over 200 thoroughly engaged for an hour. Masks are bewitching. As Rafael said to me after the performance, in so many words, the wearer doesn’t have to do anything too complicated because the mask itself is so powerful. I own 9 exceptional character Masks created by Steve Jarand and, inspired by Rafael, I am determined to develop these Masks with students and create an improvised structure for them when I return home. Anyone interested in joining me?
Finally, this week, the students, teachers, and supporters of UFMG will go on strike to protest President Bolsanaro’s drastic, harmful cuts to the federal education budget. A march will take place in downtown Belo Horizonte on Thursday, so I will not be having class that day. Hopefully, Dale and I can take part in this very important moment of Brazilian history.
Callery, Dymphna. 2001. Through the Body: A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre.
New York: Routledge.
Goleman, Daniel, and Richard Boyatzis. 2008. “Social Intelligence and the Biology of
Leadership.” Harvard Business Review, 86(9): 74-81.
Johnstone, Keith. (1979) 1981. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. New York:
Spolin, Viola. (1963) 1999. Improvisation for the Theatre. Third edition. Evanston, IL:
(Photos by Dale Dudeck)