Impro in Brazil: Barbixas, Stanislavsky, and Tickling the Intelligent Beast!
Meu fotógrafo (“my photographer”), cozinheiro (“cook”), and assassino de mosquitos (“mosquito killer!”)…Dale…traveled back home today because his U.S. passport only allowed for a three-month stay. I will miss him terribly, but my last month here in Brazil will be very busy—wrapping up classes, editing a book, co-writing an article with Mariana Muniz, and ending my Fulbright adventure with a celebratory trip to tropical Bahia in December. It is quieter now in my little São José cottage/guest house and I am overdue for a blog post, so here it goes...
After Dale and I returned to Belo Horizonte from our exciting trip to Rio de Janeiro, I hit the ground running. On Saturday, October 19, in my IMPROLab, I introduced Johnstone’s “Fast Food Stanislavsky” using lists translated into Portuguese by Cinara Diniz. We spent at least half of this class and an hour of the following week’s class on this activity because the players loved it! “Fast Food Stanislavsky,” like all of Johnstone’s techniques and games, was created as a solution to a problem. In 1972, Keith was invited, for the first of many trips, to teach at the Statens Teaterskole (Danish National School of Theatre) in Copenhagen and to work with the graduating seniors for 6 weeks. When he arrived, he discovered that these theatre students knew a lot about Grotowski but very little about Stanislavsky, and he felt an obligation to introduce Stanislavsky’s “method of physical actions” to them, fast-food style! So, he created “Fast Food Stanislavsky” lists. The lists give actors permission to “do” things, to try on new behaviors, and to explore tactics that they may not normally think of when pursuing an objective. At the top of each list is a result-oriented objective, e.g., “To Be Thought Intelligent,” “To Be Thought A Hero,” “To Give Someone A Bad Time,” etc. Under each objective are suggested actions that can help an actor achieve that objective. For example, under “To Be Thought A Hero” (my favorite!), some tactics a player could choose are: have a weapon, be on a quest, be attacked, show scars (like in Jaws!), have an uninhibited laugh, detect dangers, imagine light radiating from your chest, and so on (FYI, the original lists that Keith created can be found at the back of Impro for Storytellers). As players become more competent, lists can be layered. A player may want “To Be Thought Intelligent” by his business partner in a scene but may want “To Seduce” his business partner’s wife! After all, humans often function in this way, i.e., split themselves between two objectives. Also, Keith reminds us that people don’t necessarily change just because the circumstances change. So if someone’s main objective in life was always “To Be Thought A Jerk,” this behavior will likely continue, and may become amplified, even when this person is on their deathbed, and this can create very interesting impro!
I directed Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, translated by Tom Stoppard, in 2012 at Centre College. During a rehearsal I had my main characters play “Fast Food Stanislavsky” and gave each a list that I felt connected to their super-objective. Lopakhin was given “To Be Thought A Hero” because he wants to save the day and prove his worth. Ranevskaya was given “To Be Happy And Contented With Everything” because she wants to remain in blissful ignorance and suppress what she knows to be true, i.e., the old world of the Russian aristocracy is dying. Gaev wants “To Be The Life Of The Party” and Trofimov wants “To Be Thought Intelligent,” etc. Although these characters are more complex, allowing the actors to use the lists to explore new tactics stimulated new ideas, especially physical ones. It worked, in a way, like Anne Bogart’s “undefining”:
“To be awake on the stage, to distort something – a movement, a gesture, a word, a sentence – requires an act of necessary violence: the violence of undefining. UNDEFINING means removing the comfortable assumptions about an object, a person, words, sentences or narrative by putting it all back in question” (Bogart, A Director Prepares, 53).
Johnstone’s “Blind Offers/Justify the Gesture” can also be applied to scripted scene work as a tool to “undefine.” And the “Fast Food” lists brought out the heightened physical comedic expression that Chekhov’s “comedy in four acts” requires. Keith says wonderful actors bring “stuff” to plays that’s not written in the text. The lists provoke actors to find this so-called stuff. It’s really character work. If, for example, you are asked to audition for the role of a serial killer, and you apply the “To Be The Life Of The Party” list, you might try tactics like “laugh easily” or “be generous” or “tell jokes” as you slowly kill your next victim (Sounds like The Joker, yes?). It may not be exactly what the casting director is looking for, but you will likely get their attention. Actors can also make up their own lists to serve the characters they are developing. Furthermore, my graduate leadership students at Chapman University made lists using the 16 Myers Briggs personality types. I created a “To Be An Affiliative Leader” list to use in corporate workshops. So, “Fast Food Stanislavsky” is a brilliant exercise that can be played and applied in many ways, as can most of Johnstone’s impro methods, IF the underpinning theories are deeply understood.
On Sunday, October 20, we hired Hawk Films (https://hawkfilms.com.br/) to film the interview with Barbixas before their third and final Belo Horizonte performance at Cine Theatro Brasil. The interview is for the “Keith Johnstone Documentary” (working title). I met this famous 3-man impro troupe in Calgary in 2011 at Keith’s 10-Day Workshop. Daniel Nascimento, Elidio Sanna, and Anderson Bizzocchi formed Barbixas (loose translation “goatee”) in São Paulo in 2007. Using a format similar to Whose Line Is It Anyway? (But so much better because they have a live audience with no cameras separating them and the freedom to try new things!), Barbixas packs 1000+ seat theatres wherever they go. Their YouTube Channel gets millions of hits each month. They are “Impro Rock Stars.” Johnstone's Theatre Machine, in its day, were like rock stars, too, packing large theatres all over Europe with fans following them from venue to venue.
In 2011, I interviewed Barbixas for the last chapter of the biography on Keith. What I learned from this 2019 interview was how Keith’s theories of “Nothing, nothing, nothing, something” and saying “No” to bad ideas really resonated with Barbixas and changed how they structured everything. With Theatre Machine performances, Keith applied a structure similar to the old Whitehall farces of the 1950s and 1960s: “1. Establish yourself as funny; 2. Fight the laughter; 3. Let the audience laugh all they wish for the last 15 minutes.” But why “fight the laughter” at all? Because audiences need to breathe and will eventually tire of continuous laughter. They will long for “nothing” and/or to experience different emotions. Here’s a bit of writing I found on a piece of paper hidden in Keith’s basement:
“People can’t laugh for long without getting ill, they collapse on the floor, and cough up bits of lung, and they can even resent laughing” ~ Keith Johnstone
Barbixas works hard to bring variety to all of their performances. And after the Calgary workshop, the role of the on-stage emcee/director (played by my friend/artistic director of Antropofocus, Andrei Moscheto, for the Belo Horizonte performances) became more important. Although not as persuasive or integral as Keith was as a director/side-coach of Theatre Machine, Andrei as emcee put the audience at ease (like Keith did), explained games and concepts, and side-coached the players when they needed wrangling.
The interview with Barbixas was so much fun! Barbixas calls Keith Johnstone “The Pope of Impro” and stressed to me, once again, how wonderful it was to finally meet the man, in 2011, who created the thing that they earn a living doing. And yes, we got this on film! Then, I got to enjoy Barbixas “live” along with many of my UFMG students. They "tickled" the large audience by giving them a generous, dynamic, and topical set of games and scenes. Daniel, Andy, and Elidio also continually see-saw their statuses (strategically), reminiscent of other famous comedic trios. Cinara only had to translate bits and pieces throughout because their physical comedy spoke for itself. And Elidio told me after the performance that they tried to be less verbal and more physical for me! In the photos below, you will see the director (Andrei) on stage right, a sound/musical improviser on stage left, and four players in the middle. Barbixas always invites one guest improviser to join them. I encourage my readers to visit the Barbixas You Tube Channel. Many of the uploaded videos include English subtitles.
In my Impro for Leading, Collaborating, and Creating class on Thursday, Oct. 24, we worked on expressiveness in communication and storytelling. For homework, I had my students watch Pixar director/writer Andrew Stanton’s TEDTalk “The Clues to a Great Story.” Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Toy Story) says the greatest storytelling commandment is “Make me care!” Emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically—make the audience care. He continued:
“The audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don't want to know that they're doing that. That's your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you're making them work for their meal. We're born problem solvers. We're compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that's what we do in real life. It's this well-organized absence of information that draws us in"
~ Andrew Stanton
Keith says the audience is “a great intelligent beast that needs to be tickled.” "Tickled" does not mean spoon-fed but rather dynamically engaged. This quote by British playwright, William Archer, conceptualized in a concise way what Stanton had known in his gut to be true: "Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty." Johnstone’s concept of the “circle of probably” trains improvisers to create drama as such. It is a structure for constructing narrative that will engage audiences as they anticipate “what comes next?” and when their expectations are fulfilled, they are delighted because it may be better than what they expected, but still within a circle of logic (I write about this concept in detail in an essay published in 2013 in Theatre Topics).
Basically, Keith’s concept of the circle of probably and games like “What Comes Next?” are tools that help storytellers/improvisers construct the anticipation Stanton says is necessary. I played Johnstone’s “What Comes Next?” with my students, first in a large circle with the hero in the middle and then in pairs. Both versions allow improvisers to give a polite “Nope” to ideas that do not enthuse or inspire them and/or to move the story forward in the way they had anticipated. This is a reminder to all teachers of improvisation that “Yes, And” is not/never was/and never should be a dogmatic rule. It’s a catchphrase for a deeper philosophy. Keith calls those who insist on saying “Yes” to every offer, good or bad, “The Cult of Yes, And.” He told me in a recent phone conversation:
“I think it’s stupid accepting bad ideas. I think a lot of ideas deserve a quick death. If an improviser keeps producing stupid ideas by trying to be original, Yes And will not produce interesting scenes. It’s all about killing ideas, you can kill ideas by being original, saying stuff that nobody could possibly want, by not developing what is already there, by dragging something else in” ~ Keith Johnstone
“What Comes Next?” in all of its versions is the best tool I’ve come across to train improvisers not to be original, and to develop ideas in a way that enthuses their partner and tickles the audience! I played the “by committee” version of “What Comes Next?” at the IMPROLab Festival (Oct. 28-31) during my Master Impro System class, but you will have to wait until the next blog post to here about that experience and about the wonderful weeklong festival, which included a Zoom conversation with Keith, that we hosted at UFMG in Belo Horizonte!
(Photos by Dale Dudeck)