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2012 December 4

Reflections on teen improv

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Dinosaur Prom logo

logo by Hunter Wallraff

On Sunday, 2012 Dec 2,  I went to see two different teen improv troupes: Water the Weeds in the afternoon, and Dinosaur Prom in the evening (I announced those shows here previously).

The Water the Weeds troupe had about 16 members, roughly equally divided between male and female, while Dinosaur Prom has 10 (7 male and 3 female).  I found the two shows quite different, though they played some of the same improv games (both played the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly advice show game, for example).

Both troupes have shows every few months (maybe 3 times a year) and both troupes have an adult coach.  Both troupes practice about once a week, for similar amounts of time. The Water the Weeds troupe has been around since at least 2006 (when it was a younger kids troupe), while Dinosaur Prom started in the fall of 2011, and did their first show Jan 2012. Most of the players have been with the troupe for about a year. I don’t know how many of the Water the Weeds troupe are new players and how many have been with the troupe for years.

One might expect the longer-running troupe to be more polished, but the opposite was true—Water the Weeds came across a lot like a school play with earnest students trying hard, but not quite getting things to work.  There were a couple of players in Water the Weeds who seemed to know what they were doing, but they were often partnered with weaker players so that the ensemble as a whole rarely kept the action moving.  It was not a bad show for a class, but it was clearly a for-parents-and-friends-only production.  The adult coach stepped in several times to announce things and keep the show moving.

Dinosaur Prom, on the other hand, kept the audience laughing practically their whole show.  Several of the players had excellent comedic timing and came up with good material, and even the weakest players could at least keep straight lines coming for the others to work with. The adult coaches for Dinosaur Prom were not visible during the show (one was in the audience, the other in the tech booth)—the teens took care of all introductions, game announcements, explanations, and transitions themselves.

The biggest problem with the Dinosaur Prom show was that it was too short, at under 45 minutes.  I believe that they had planned to have a show that was over an hour long, but they ran through their playlist faster than they expected. The troupe also did one long-form game that may not have lasted as long as they had planned on. Part of the short running time was because they knew when a game had run dry and moved quickly on to the next one without awkward pauses (except at the very end, when their set ended rather abruptly). There may have been some directorial influence, in that the lighting was generally lowered between games—it may have been the adult coach in the tech booth recognizing when it was time to move on to the next game, rather than the teens themselves, but if so, the signaling was subtly done.

For future shows, I think that they need to plan enough games for a 2-hour show and have someone checking the time before each game to see if they are over an hour.  Once they hit the hour mark (or 1:10 or whatever they are aiming for), they can jump forward in their playlist to whatever they planned for their finale (or ask the audience for advice about what to do next).

I’ve been trying to figure out what makes the difference between the two troupes.  Is it just a random difference about who joined which troupe?  Is it a difference in coaching and rehearsal style? Is it a difference in selection process for troupe members?  Is it a difference in the intensity of the rehearsals because of the difference in troupe sizes?

I don’t know what makes for the difference in the performances, but I have some conjectures.  First, I think that Water the Weeds puts all their students in the performance, whether they are ready or not, while Dinosaur Prom is the performing troupe that students graduate to from an improv class—not all the class members perform with Dinosaur Prom. Second, I believe that 16 is too large a troupe to really get enough practice playing against other members of the troupe.  The pairings go up quadratically with the troupe size, so just increasing the practice time linearly with the number of players is probably not enough. Third, I think that coaching styles are different, with the Dinosaur Prom coaches inspiring the teens to higher levels of performance—but I’ve not observed either troupe in practice, so I don’t know what the differences are. Fourth, I think that Dinosaur Prom got lucky with a couple of very creative improv players who push the others to improve.

I believe that both troupes will be participating in the Santa Cruz Improv Fest next May.  I think that Dinosaur Prom will be as good as some of the adult and college troupes who are the mainstay of the Improv Fest.

More details about Dinosaur Prom can be found at their temporary web site, which will move to a more permanent location after it is completed.  Disclaimer: My son is part of the Dinosaur Prom troupe (see my post Dinosaur Prom improv), and so I may be unduly biased in their favor.


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