Monday, November 12, 2007

Improv Master Class with Paul Dooley

One of the best traditions in the theater is the passing on of knowledge from one generation to another. People speak often about how theater professionals need second jobs to support themselves. Among the most common second jobs is teaching, but I don’t think that actors, playwrights, and designers work as professors or lead master classes for monetary purposes alone. It’s a duty and a joy for many of the greatest craftspeople to share what they know. It’s a privilege for the rest of us, to see them work, ask them questions, learn from them, to benefit from the continuation of skilled live performance.

On Thursday, in between matinee and evening performances of The Sunshine Boys, Paul Dooley hosted an hour-long improv workshop on the mainstage for the GSP touring actors, apprentices, and anyone else interested in attending. Aided by fellow Sunshine actor Paul Stolarsky, Dooley established pretty quickly some basic rules of improvisation, through a few do/don’t demonstrations:

1) Always say ‘yes.’
2) Heighten what your partner has given you.

Saying ‘no’ may get a laugh, but it kills the scene. There’s nowhere to go when Actor A says to Actor B, “that’s no gun you’re pointing at me. That’s just your finger.” Of course it’s just a finger. But now the audience’s willingness to play along has been trampled on. And Actor B has just found out that anything he pretends will be challenged. All he has to work with are bare facts, which are that two actors are standing on a naked stage without anything to say to each other.

Then he let people start improvising. For a long stretch of time, a single exercise was kept going: two actors act out a scenario, until a third enters with a new situation; all three continue with this, one of the first two actors leaves; another actors appears with a different situation—and so on. The pace was kept up, the different situations were imaginative, and the scenes were very funny. Without any costumes or sets, anything can be imagined, and the scenes got better and better as the actors added more details—each one a surprise, because you can’t actually see it until an actor imagines it, and suddenly, it’s there in front of everyone’s eye.

One moment they’re in a restaurant, next they’re in a co-ed shower. You assume they’re naked, until one actor asks another why she’s wearing a bikini. The bikini comes off, and anything could happen next: he could see she has a rash, or is extremely big-busted; he could get aroused, or could break out in hives. Next we’re at a gay wedding, and the pastor says, “I hear you wrote your own vows! Let’s hear it.”

Dooley concluded with one of his signature performance bits, from his early days performing with the Second City comedy troupe: an improvised Shakespeare monologue. Give him any line from Hamlet, and he’ll provide his own mix of the Bard and extemporaneous irreverence. He was provided with THE line from Hamlet, and gave us a soliloquy filled with double entendres and silliness. It was great to watch his particular brand of funniness. Whereas Stolarsky is humor—like he popped out of a comic strip or a silent comedy, his very presence makes you smile—Dooley has the sort of presence that makes his doing Shakespeare (however silly the adaptation) seem not very silly a concept at all. His comedy is dry, said with such steady seriousness that sometimes a few seconds pass before your ears send the joke to your brain and it tells your mouth to emit a laugh.

It was a great hour. Dooley was applauded, and then went to prepare to give a whole audience a more substantial demonstration of comedy—namely, The Sunshine Boys, entering its final weekend of performances.

posted by Jeremy Stoller, Literary Apprentice

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