That’s one of the questions I’m often asked when I’m coaching at NECCA.
Unfortunately for the students who ask, there’s no one clear way. “Interesting” is a difficult — if not impossible — attribute to measure. There are, however, different ways to look at routines and pick apart different aspects of their presentation. Here’s one of my favorite ways to dissect choreography:
The Act without Skills Test
Variety performance inherently relies on unique skills and props to create an act. Relying on skills or props alone can sometimes be a crutch to performers – the “Act without Props Test” requires that the performer run through their act’s choreography without the skills or props that they rely on.
The idea is simple – if an act’s choreography can hold an audience’s interest without any of the skills it was written with, won’t it be that much stronger when the choreography is done with the skills as well? Think of it as a melody being hummed, compared to a melody being performed by a full orchestra. If it’s strong in the simplest form, it should be strong in its fully rendered form. By stripping an act down, we are forced to focus on the tempo, the character, and a host of other elements often overlooked in favor of the tricks and skills.
Let’s use juggling as an example. A young juggler approaches his director, asking why his routine isn’t very strong. It is extremely technical, well polished, and captures the attention of jugglers all over. Other audiences, however, haven’t been as interested.
We’ve all seen the act – the juggler stands centerstage, and juggles three balls. He moves on to four, five, and seven. Then he runs back to his prop stand and swaps the balls out for clubs. Three, four, five club juggling. He runs back and swaps the clubs out for rings. Three, four, five, six, seven, and eight. He takes a bow, and runs off stage.
If you like juggling for the sake of juggling, then this act was probably great! If you’re like the rest of the world, you probably looked at the person for cues about how he was feeling, what he was thinking, or why he was doing it at all.
This exercise strips the juggler of his equipment, and has him “mark” the act in real time with his music. (He’ll probably protest. Lock his equipment in the closet until he agrees to do it!)
Watch for movement around the stage, for facial expressions, for pacing and tempo within the body. How does the performer breathe on stage? Is the act interesting to watch when the “meat” of the act isn’t there?
The juggler in our example spent minutes at a time standing center stage, facing the audience, in a fully upright position. This stance was punctuated with short sprints to his table in the back, where he picked up new equipment before returning to his starting position. Not a very interesting act without the technique.
So, what can we do to make it a little more interesting to watch?
The juggler should reblock his routine to hit more places around the stage. If you’re having a hard time figuring out what to do where, pick an arbitrary shape and see what happens. I like to have jugglers working with this exercise to pick a letter of the alphabet, then trace that out during one of their sequences. We’ll run that arbitrary blocking a few times, then add the props back in. We record it, watch it, and pick through it to see if something jumps out as interesting to watch. We keep the new part, and keep playing with the rest of the sequence. When you devise material this way, it’s easier to step back and look at the altered routine with a sense of equanymity – noone’s feelings get hurt when you cut material.
How about pacing? In our example, the juggler did tricks one after another – back to back to back to back. The juggler should look at their tempo. Is it so even that they’re unwittingly putting their audience to sleep? I like to have students pick a series of tempo-related descriptors. “Molasses-slow!” “Stop-and-Go!” “As fast a possible, then stop!” Once they come up with a few different words, they’re tasked with taking a sequence and finding a home for each one of them. A standard pattern is changed with some stops and starts, a dash to pick up a ball on the floor is turned into a slow-motion walk. — and all of these changes help make the core of the choreography more interesting.
This exercise certainly doesn’t pretend to be a cure-all for routines. If you’re looking for a new perspective on your act, though, perhaps this will help you out.
Do you have an exercise you use to change things up? Comment below!
Addendum for Aerialists
A lot of folks messaged me after this post was published, asking how it might apply to aerial acts. How can you mark through an act on a vertical apparatus, like silks or rope? What about something like static trapeze?
Here’s a challenge for my aeralist friends:
Next time you rehearse, try doing it in the middle of a room, sitting on a bar stool. Instead of the skills (climbing, dropping, suspended in a pose in the air,) what can you do to hold attention while isolated in one fixed point, like a stool? You’ll have to play with emotional textures, viewpoints, movement, and other non-athletic aspects of performance.
The bottom line of it all is this – the skills themselves only represent a small portion of the act. Lose the skills for a few rehearsals and focus on the rest. You’ll come away with a much fuller piece as a result.
https://thomwall.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/The-Act-Without-Skills-Test.jpg3601030Thomhttps://thomwall.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Thom-Logo-Blue-com-300x137.pngThom2015-11-27 16:53:222015-12-11 20:36:13Making things Interesting - The Act Without Skills Test
This week, I met with Philadelphia juggler, Andrew Scharff, to help him polish some acts. We retooled his cigar box and diabolo acts in anticipation for his upcoming contract on Celebrity Cruise’s ship Solstice, where he’s working for the first part of 2015.
We worked mostly on pushing and pulling the acts – making them more dynamic in their pacing, blocking on stage, and emotional appeal. Towards the end of our first workshop, we started talking about act creation methods. I put the work of the day in terms of The Postcard Method, The Storybook Method, and Fritz Grobe’s ABC/”Little Pieces of Shit” method (more on that later!) He asked me if I’d heard about the Pixar Method. I hadn’t! Here’s what he was talking about:
In 2011, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats published a list of “story basics” – a series of writing guidelines she’d picked up from senior writers in her department. Andrew was most excited about principle #4, a basic fill-in-the-blank writing prompt that allows for a strong narrative arc:
Principle #4 – “Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”
Storywriting 101, right? You’ve got a main character, some exposition, an interrupting action that drives the plot, and a resolution. It’s a bit formulaic (uh, because it’s a formula!), but it’s an interesting lens to look through. Applying this technique to variety acts with this rubric would get you out of “juggler brain,” where you focus on doing hard stuff for the sake of doing hard stuff, and instead focus on doing tricks that are meaningful in some way. This formula applies mostly to character-based, narrative acts, but could be used for more straight-variety pieces, too.
Let’s take this partner acrobatics act by my friends Lauren Breunig and Ryan Freeze as an example:
Once upon a time there was an old man and a nurse.
Every day, she would look after him.
One day, he stumbled around during his exercises.
Because of that, he and the nurse accidentally did some amazing tricks.
Because of that, he got too excited and needed his medication.
Because of that, he remembered what it was like to be young again.
Until finally it was time to go home.”
I know what you’re thinking! “…great, Thom. That’s a nice way to look at an existing act, forcing it to fit this Pixar thing. That’s not useful, though – how can we create something using this idea?”
Here’s one way of reverse-engineering an act, using this formula as a starting point:
Take a stunt you want to turn into part of the act. This could be a big meaty trick, a “Postcard Moment,” or any other thing that has some narrative or dramatic importance to it. We’ll put this moment in one of the blanks in the “because of that” section. For our purposes, let’s use the idea of juggling a slippery bar of soap. (Everyone’s got a couple of soap tricks, right? Old hat.) Plugging that into the formula, we get this:
Once upon a time, there was a ____. Every day, he would ____. One day, he _____. Because of that, he ____. Because of that, the soap slipped out of his hands into the air. He tried to catch it, but couldn’t. Because of that, he _____. Until finally, _____.
The next step is putting that in context. What could lead to soap flying through the air? In this soap case, maybe our character is washing dishes. Why is he washing dishes? Maybe he was out of clean dishes, and wanted to put some supper on the plate.
Once upon a time, there was a man. Every day, he would eat lunch. One day, he was out of clean dishes. Because of that, he needed to wash his dirty dishes. Because of that, the soap slipped out of his hands into the air. He tried to catch it, but couldn’t. Because of that, he _____. Until finally, _____.
What’s the payoff here? Can we find a relationship between the lunch and the soap? Instead of having an extra, contrived prop in the act, wouldn’t it be nice if it all tied in together? What if we had the character accidentally eat the bar of soap? The character would have to be pretty absent-minded or distracted for him to accidentally make a soap sandwich. How could we make that happen?
Once upon a time, there was a man who loved sandwiches and watching sports on TV. Every day, he would eat lunch when the game was on. One day, he was out of clean dishes. Because of that, he needed to wash his dirty dishes. Because of his love for televised sports, he didn’t pay attention to what he was doing. Because of that, the soap slipped out of his hands into the air, landing in his sandwich. Eyes on the TV, he fished around in the sink for the bar of soap. Because of that, he didn’t realize it wasn’t the soap he picked up. Until finally, he closed his sandwich, put it on the dirty plate, and took a big bite of soap.
Is it perfect? Nope! Did we create the bones of an act that has a beginning, middle, and end that has a juggling stunt placed in context? Absolutely. One of the nice things about acts with a narrative structure is that there are lots of ways to add virtuosic skills, as well as clever ways to incorporate pretty “Postcard Moment“-style images. Here are a few ideas off the top of my head that could be used to flesh this hypothetical “soap and sandwich” piece out.
– Soap juggling – frantic, arms reaching upwards
– Bubbles coming out of the sink
– Blind tricks / cutting a sandwich blind / almost cutting a finger off
– Plate manipulation
– Stacking dishes very tall, not knocking them over – pretty images of towers of cups leaning over the sink
– Making a mess in the sink – water splashing over the countertop
– Bubbles coming out of the mouth after biting into the sandwich before the final blackout
Add some of these ideas, and pow! you’ve got a nice act that’s interesting to watch and easy to follow.
When thinking up ideas to flesh an act out, don’t censor yourself at first. The important thing is generating lots of ideas to go over later. After the thoughts are on paper, you can start picking through them to find related threads and see where the strongest ideas are.
Do you have any acts that follow this narrative arc? How might this particular thought process help you with a project you’re working on? I’d love to hear in the comments!
https://thomwall.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/PixarMethod.jpg3601030Thomhttps://thomwall.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Thom-Logo-Blue-com-300x137.pngThom2014-11-27 02:17:412015-12-11 22:13:51Act Creation Method #3 - The Pixar Method
Our gorgeous poster, courtesy of friend and artist Shawn Gaston
This past Summer, Benjamin Domask and I wrote a comedy / juggling / melodrama about two waiters and a rubber lobster. The shows went very well, we had some nice reviews, and even won a “Best of the Fringe” award! A turn of events meant that we had to write the show remotely. many people asked us how we wrote the show, puzzled by the idea of a duo circus show written remotely.
So, friends! Here’s the story-
Last year, I was invited to emcee a series of shows for Kansas City’s “MoonDrop Circus” – a community circus organization that puts on circus productions with local performers all across the city. They brought me in to add some professional flavor from a slightly further afield – after all, Kansas City and Saint Louis are neighbors!
The shows I was to emcee were all part of MoonDrop’s inaugural “Community Circus Week.” This week-long celebration of circus featured workshops and shows every day. They held an Open Stage event in the middle of the week, and were looking for acts. When they asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested, I told them to save a spot for me and my friend Benjamin Domask.
Benjamin and I have known one another for several years through the juggling community. We met at a small juggling festival in Iowa in 2011 and had stayed in touch since then, sending each other videos every once in a while. In a recent conversation, we’d toyed around with maybe working on a piece together. The MoonDrop Open Stage sounded like a good excuse to get together, put something on stage, and see if we partnered well. He drove down from his home in Minneapolis some 18 hours before the Open Stage curtain went up, and we immediately got to work.
The piece we wrote that night is what eventually turned into “The ‘Dinner and a Show’ Show.” It was a silent, volunteer-driven juggling act that featured plate juggling and some rudimentary mouthstick skills. You can see a short demo from our MoonDrop Open Stage show below.
We were encouraged by how well the audience responded to the act, and started talking about expanding it. “Where can we find a stage for it?” “How can we turn ten minutes of mime and juggling into a full hour?” “How can we get together to rehearse?” The answer to these questions seemed to be the Kansas City Fringe Festival.
Neither of us had ever done a Fringe Festival before, but from our friends’ accounts, a Fringe seemed the best place to stage a workshop performance of a circus-waiter-slapstick-clown show. Comparing our calendars, the only festival that didn’t clash with one of our other projects (we still have solo careers to maintain, after all!) was the KC Fringe. By the end of the week, we’d sent in a deposit. We had six months to collaborate on this new project – all the time in the world compared to the 18 hours we had for the last one.
Benjamin and I exchanged lengthy emails about where to take the Fringe show. We knew that it was a clown show, where he was low status and I was high status. We knew it had a food theme, and that our motivation was to serve a volunteer from the audience. We knew we wanted to have that volunteer on stage for over half of the show. We spent the first three months generating ideas to choose from later.
In costume, ready for action!
For your edification, here are some ideas that didn’t make it into the Fringe Show, directly from an email I sent to Ben.
– One of us has a helmet with a blender mounted on the top of it. This person is on a pogo stick. There is an extension cord running offstage. Waiter and/or volunteer load up the blender via ladder/fishing rod/robot arm. A smoothie is made. A mess is made.
– Water-pour arm-curl. Walk around a pitcher of water as you pour water into a glass.
– Apples and forks – Somehow, a series of forks skewer a series of apples. Throwing, rolling, etc-ing. Perhaps forks are attached to leather belts that are wrapped around a waiter’s arms?
– Loading up the waiter – A waiter is over-burdened with things in arms, tray, etc. Waiter must go from stage right to stage left without dropping anything. (A few scheduled near-misses are implemented as skills.)
– Restaurant gets swamped with (invisible/imaginary) patrons, waiters scramble to keep up:: nice theatrical moment here where people filter in via background noise – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAg6tyC9Xxc
– Waiters are wearing half-aprons, as is customary in some fancy restaurants. The apron is removed, a vestigial third leg is discovered. (….or something less grotesque?)
– A flower is thrown into a vase from across the stage.
– A waiter is given the phone number of a patron. Waiter decides to pursue a relationship on-the-clock.
– A wine-rack falls horizontally. Waiters must bottle-walk to get from one part of the stage to another.
– Two waiters butcher a chicken // two waiters accidentally serve patron a live chicken.
– A patron orders an egg. The waiters can’t find an egg. They go straight to the source and attempt to coax an egg out of a chicken.
– Pyramid champagne pour – you’ve seen these, yeah? – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-wXLnMTiwY
– Waiters make a sandwich, cigar box style. Stack of ingredients vertically on the ground get integrated into a sandwich like a cigar box slapstack. (Like this, but better… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bikubkSZOXs )
– A song is played by blowing on bottles.
This is what Ben and I looked like when we finally got together and revisited these lists. “What is this crap?!” I exclaim. “I dunno, you’re the one that wrote it,” Ben thinks to himself.
After the idea generation stage, we started carving out a rough narrative arc. The first exercise we tried is fondly referred to as the “children’s storybook drill”, where you take ideas and group them under the title of a chapter in a hypothetical children’s book. Then, you find ways to order those chapters into a rough narrative.
Here are a few chapter titles Benjamin and I came up with through this drill. (Once again, thankfully, very few of these ideas made it to the final edit!)
A SELECTION OF HYPOTHETICAL CHAPTERS FOR THE HYPOTHETICAL ADAPTED CHILDREN’S STORYBOOK OF THE TWO HANDSOME WAITERS’ NEW STAGE PRODUCTION: THE DINNER AND A SHOW SHOW
– The two handsome waiters light a candle – The two handsome waiters pour a glass of water – The two handsome waiters set the table – The two handsome waiters are award-winning sommeliers – The two handsome waiters use mnemonics to remember the order – The two handsome waiters demand a tip – The longest piece of spaghetti – One-hundred ways to skin a cat – How to accidentally pour a cup of coffee from across the room – An accident in the kitchen -or- have you seen my finger? – A watched pot boils eventually – “Sorry, we’re fresh out of that” “Sorry, we’re fresh out of that” “Sorry, we’re fresh out of that” – The two handsome waiters break some eggs – One angry waiter needs a cigarette break – How to catch a rat in the kitchen – The two handsome waiters roll some napkins – “My soup is cold” – Two handsome waiters present the bill – Love tears the waiters apart – The two handsome waiters kiss the cook – The two handsome waiters are naked under all of these clothes ((under these aprons?))
Our original plan was to meet up in St Louis with a stack of notecards and bang out a script in person a few months before the Fringe started. However, after sending this last email, I got a phonecall from Cirque du Soleil, inviting me to fill in for a juggler on their show “Totem.” We’d have to finish this project remotely.
Benjamin and I continued sending each other emails. Benjamin took over the role of artistic director, and I started work on promoting the show. He’d send me drafts of the script, I’d fill in ideas, juggling moments, and a few one-liners. He’d take the notes and rework the script as he saw fit. We met every few weeks over Skype to talk it over. I would order him potential props to test out and generate ideas using Amazon.com as our marketplace. The script took a huge turn when I sent him a box of rubber lobsters. “What if you have a pet lobster… and I want to kill it?” I emailed him. “Yes. …YES.” he replied.
Claude was an instant hit at the KC Fringe. Here’s Dinner and a Show Show friend and lobster advocate Stephanie Davis and her (homemade!) buttons!
From that point on, Benjamin started carrying the lobster (who he affectionately named Claude (get it?!)) everywhere with him. He would introduce him to people; friends, family, strangers, whoever took an interest in the red creature living in his backpack. Eventually, people began to ask, “Where’s Claude?” if he was not immediately visible.
While this crustacean friendship formed, there was an inherent problem with the show: We’d spent zero time in the rehearsal space together. While Benjamin and I had proven we could work well together in the past, the only time our schedules lined up to rehearse was three days before the premiere. To add a little pressure, we were booked at ArtBar – a performing arts bar and venue in St Louis – to do a special “workshop performance” of our piece at the end of this three day period. A little insane, maybe, but we felt it was safer to premiere a nascent version of the show in St Louis for friends than in Kansas City for a real, live paying audience a week later. If something flopped, we could alway rewrite it in Kansas.
Benjamin drove through the night after a gig in Minneapolis, arriving in St Louis in the early morning. Once there, the real work began – our script was a narrative string of dialogue, interspersed with placeholders for routines.
Benjamin, delighted to drive cross country to write a juggling show.
One page, which turned into a solid eight minutes of the show, looked like this:
“Hey hey! I knew we had some wine around here somewhere!” “Whatever took you so long?” “I had to go down to the wine seller (cellar).” “The wine seller on the corner?” “That’s the one! And he sold me this big box of French champagne!” ((WINE JUGGLING ROUTINE GOES HERE – In the process, waiters discover there is no wine. They go about finding wine together.)) “Hey hey! I knew we had some wine around here somewhere!”
Another page, which turned into the opening fifteen minutes of the show, looked like this:
((Introductory music and jokes play while house is dark.)) ((Lights go up, waiters can’t find the restaurant.)) ((SETTING THE TABLE ROUTINE GOES HERE.)) “Well, that was much more efficient.” ((Benjamin asks Claude for a joke.))
We had our work cut out for us. Luckily – and, perhaps, weirdly – the ArtBar had a dance studio in the back of it. We camped out there for the next three days to write the juggling acts, learn our lines, rehearse like mad, and through it all – rediscover the trust that had helped us back in January.
Pausing our ArtBar rehearsal for a quick selfie.
In order for a show to feel complete, the performers need to be in synch with one another – trust is very important. Benjamin and I believe that any circus show should be put together so it’s interesting even without any skills at all. That way, it can appeal those familiar with circus and those who aren’t. It might seem counterintuitive for a duo juggling theater show, but the throws and catches are often the last thing to get written down.
We spent the first day on plate juggling, mouthstick, and candle-lighting. The next day was spent hashing out choreography for the acid-flashback / nightmare sequence and finale. There’s not a lot to say about these two days, other than that we put our heads down and started devising material. If I ended up holding a bottle up over my head, where could that sequence go? Where might it go from there? How could we apply intention to those sequences? How does it feel if we do it quickly? Slowly? (Are we spending too much time on this? Let’s run with this choreography and move on to the next bit. We’ll see it it develops futher in Kansas City.)
The third day, of course, was the premiere. We spent that morning running through lines and sequences and the afternoon eating burritos and clearing our heads. The folks at ArtBar cooked up a mess of spaghetti for our audience to enjoy. Our audience got into their cars started driving to ArtBar, unwittingly about to experience the biggest miracle of any of our lives: the show Benjamin and I wrote in such unfavorable conditions didn’t suck.
There were a few drops, for sure. Some lines were missed and some pauses were stepped on. All in all, we were very pleased with how it went. Early on in our plans, I had the idea for a breath-mint and comment-card table in the lobby – a way to get some feedback from the audience, as well as some drop quotes for promotion during the Fringe (and, hey- who doesn’t like a mint after a show!) The reviews were generally quite favorable. Many audience members asked for more juggling. Some folks expressed their love for Claude. Others gave us their phone numbers.
“The ‘Dinner and a Show’ Show” changed quite a bit as the Fringe festival progressed – we found moments to linger on, cut some lines and replaced others with more satisfying improvised moments (“Ring ring. Hello, the idiot store? It’s for you.” “Yes, the idiot store. I will return him right away.”) The piece felt fresh and new each show- thanks in part to a new volunteer each round, thanks in part to the discoveries we made each time we put it up. We added another juggling act after our tech rehearsal, the day before the show opened, too. I’m sure the show will continue to evolve throughout the next year – we’ve got big plans for our little dinner show.
Tech rehearsal at Union Station Kansas City’s “City Stage” theatre.
Don’t just take my word for it, though – compare the video from our MoonDrop Circus Open Stage piece to our new trailer. This demo video was created from our fourth showing at the Kansas City Fringe Festival and our teaser performance at the Welcome Show for the International Jugglers’ Association’s 2014 convention. I think you’ll notice a difference!
https://thomwall.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Writingthedinnerandashowshow.jpg3601030Thomhttps://thomwall.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Thom-Logo-Blue-com-300x137.pngThom2014-08-15 10:17:392015-12-11 22:20:22Writing "The 'Dinner and a Show' Show"