Artistic New Directions Newsletter

Aug-Sept 1995

After years of fighting the urge to add to the detritus of the world, we are succumbing and starting a sporadic newsletter. In these pages, we'll announce projects and seminars and keep you up-to-date on the activities of those we think of as part of the gang.

First, a little news. The first Summer Improv Retreat at Lake Placid in July went like a dream. From July 17 to July 21, thirty-eight people from around the country shared the rustic pleasures of the High Peaks Base Camp and a non-stop series of workshops and seminars with improvisational master teachers Gary Austin and Michael Gellman, scriptwriting-through-improv teacher Jeff Sweet, and performance coach and all-round inspirational presence, Carol Fox Prescott. Though there were some inevitable suggestions on adjustments that could be made (suggestions that will indeed be heeded), the tenor of the evaluations, written and verbal, has been enthusiastic. Samples:

Nancy Slusser -- "It was a fabulous week -- and I learned an incredible amount. To gather together a group of individuals set upon the same goal is magical, and to begin to achieve those goals is truly inspirational. I feel I now have a larger group of industry associates to draw from -- and to learn and grow with. I feel the power of thought and creativity is a moving energy. I felt incredible movement in the Adirondacks. I look forward to the expansion of that movement here in New York City."

Aaron Gold -- "Sometimes an event is good, and you pump it up afterwards to be great, but words will never come close to describing how incredible this week was. It's in the realm of feelings and thought and emotion and laughter, and a true description of how great it was is etched only in my heart."

Susan Goodman -- "There was something truly magical about the Improv Retreat. By the end of the week, most of us, if not all of us, became freer in our acting, and some of us even resolved personal problems because of the nature of the Improv exercises. The 38 of us left with 37 new friends each."

Doug Manes -- "I loved the week!! A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening set of experiences! The sessions complemented each other so well."

The upshot is, yeah, we're gonna do it again. We'll probably have another session at High Peaks next summer. It will be organized so that it's appropriate for both newcomers and alumni -- different workshops geared to different levels.

Also, it looks as though we're going to do one or two on the West Coast as well, most likely at Carmel and/or Seattle. We'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, Gary, Michael, Carol and Jeff are all busy with projects and workshops, some of which are being offered by Artistic New Directions, some of which are being sponsored by other organizations.

Gary Austin continues his regular schedule of workshops in NYC. His next scheduled visit is September 17-24. For a complete schedule and further information, phone 1-800-DOGTOES. (Yeah, that's the real number.) This number may also be used to find out about his schedule of workshops in Los Angeles and Seattle. Gary and Jeff are thinking of teaming up on a book about starting and running an improv troupe. It would draw heavily on Gary's experiences with the Committee and his years as founder-director of the Groundlings.

Michael Gellman is currently directing the new show for the mainstage of Toronto's Second City. He will come to NYC around October 15th to begin a 3-month stint teaching improv to stand-ups at the American Comedy Institute. He is also planning a series of Sunday after noon sessions for those who wish to continue studying with him, beginning October 29th. Introductory sessions are scheduled for Friday evenings during the months he's here.

Incidentally, Michael and his wife Vicki need a 3-month sublet for October, November, December. If anyone has any leads, please contact Kristine Niven at (212) 875-1857.

Carol Fox Prescott resumes her weekly schedule of acting classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (during the day) beginning September 5th. On Tuesday evenings, she continues her classes in creativity for non-performers. Carol is available for private sessions or individual coaching. She can be reached at her Studio -- (212) 501-7776.

Jeff Sweet will be in Chicago for six weeks starting mid-October for the Chicago premiere of his newest play, With and Without, which begins previews at the Victory Gardens Theatre on November 10th. He is planning on offering workshops through the Chicago Dramatists Workshop (call Russ Tutterow at 312-663-0630). And he is in discussion with Second City about offering a "Golden Age of Second City" talk there. In the meantime, for Artistic New Directions, he is doing the following workshops in NYC:

September 23-24 --
Basic Playwriting Weekend
October 7 --
Six-Lines & Improv/Writing
For information on these sessions, phone Kristine at (212) 875-1857.

Also, under the sponsorship of the 78th Street Theatre Lab (236 W. 78th Street), beginning the second Monday in September, he will run a five-week Monday night workshop in script development for those who have either already studied with him or are very familiar with the principles in his book, The Dramatist's Toolkit. Again through the Lab, on September 30, he will offer a 3-hour-plus evening on the "Golden Age of Second City." This is a talk liberally illustrated with rare video (courtesy of Second City) of the original company (Alan Arkin, Severn Darden, Barbara Harris, Paul Sand, etc.) in classic scenes. For information on the Lab events, call Eric Nightingale at (212) 873-9050.

About the Six Lines Workshop

Those who were at the retreat will remember that Jeff introduced an improvisational game he developed called Six Lines. In Six Lines, the participants agree on a location or milieu. Then, any one person can initiate a scene with any other person in the group. The key limitation -- the scene can be only six lines long. That is, three pairs of exchanges.

For instance, here's one that was done in a Miami workshop last January. The scene is a ship that has been chartered for a private cruise by a fairly conservative group. One actor began by saying to another --

ALAN:
Roger, I think you should get Liz back to your cabin.
ROGER:
Oh come on, Alan, she's just having fun.
ALAN:
We've all seen Liz have this kind of fun before, and we know where it can lead.
ROGER:
You've got yourself worked up for no good reason. Relax, have a drink.
ALAN:
It's what Liz is drinking I'm concerned about.
ROGER:
I appreciate your concern, but nobody elected you the cop. So back off.

Then the second Six began with one of the actresses addressing Roger --

LIZ:
I don't know what the fuss is about. I just thought the gang would be interested in seeing my scar.

Bang, we were off on a story filled with secrets, deceptions, assignations, hypocrisy and a lot of other good dramatic stuff.

In Chicago, one was set at a wedding reception. It soon became apparent that the mother of the bride was trying to bribe her new son-in-law to ditch her daughter before the honeymoon. And the new husband was having problems with an old girlfriend who insisted on showing up.

In New York, we swiftly found a story about a private school teacher who (a la Looking for Mr. Goodbar) was leading a fairly wild private life, which was further complicated by some drug dealers looking for her missing brother.

This is the beauty of Six Lines. Because each scene by definition has to be short, compression becomes a virtue. There are no wasted lines. An exchange doesn't begin with people making entrances and saying, "Hi, how are you," or "What are you doing?" They begin in the middle of action and frequently end just before an important decision is to be made. (This technique is particularly useful for film writing.)

Aside from being an exhilarating performance game, it is a game that offers considerable benefits for the writer looking to find and develop story and for actors looking for the characters' different voices and roles.

In fact, Jeff is in the middle of writing a commissioned play called Immediate Needs based on a week of working with Six Lines and other games with the New York State Theatre Institute. Set in a Red Cross shelter in a small town's high school gym, it is a kind of Odd Couple on a social level -- the story of a community that gets to know each other in different ways when the doors and walls between them are swept away by a flood.

About "The Golden Age of Second City"

Jeff got permission from Second City to use rare archival material to tell the story of the early days of improvisational theatre. This includes extensive footage featuring the likes of Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Paul Sand, Severn Darden and other members of the original cast doing classic material like "First Affair," "Museum Piece," "Noah," and "Football Comes to the University of Chicago."

Woven between the video and audio selections is the fascinating story of how the social and theatrical conflicts of the Fifties and Sixties led to the creation of improvisational theatre. Yes, because this is about funny people you'll hear funny stories, but you'll also get a greater insight into ... well, why we do this stuff anyway. Gary Austin, the founder of the Groundlings, sponsored the first run of this program in Los Angeles last May and said that, though he has been in improv since the late Sixties, he heard a great deal that he never knew before, and that in some cases he was finally able to connect the dots on things that had always puzzled him.

Other Notes

Having a little extra space on this page, we'll try to fill it with something useful.

First, those of you who have E-mail addresses, we'd like to have them. Those of you who don't have E-mail addresses but do have computers with modems, we're going to take the liberty of urging you to get online. There is an enormous amount of activity relating to improv, playwriting and theatre in general online.

In fact, those of you who have internet access will find, through the Theatre Central page, references to several pages specifically addressing improvisation and playwriting. (For future issues, we'll try to have the presence of mind to collect URL's.) There is simply an enormous amount of material online relating to the theatre.

If one service is suggested above the others, it is America OnLine. The ease of sending and receiving E-mail beats the systems of any of the other online services tested. Also, through AOL, one has access to material from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Both feature ample coverage of the theatre in their respective towns. (Chicago being the home-town of improvisation, this is a good way to keep track of Second City, Del Close, the Annoyance Theatre and other significant improv-related companies.)

To go back to E-mail, if we all have E-mail addresses, we will be able to communicate and trade ideas swiftly and very cheaply. To get the ball rolling -- Jeff's E-mail may be sent to DGSweet@concentric.net.

By the way, if you're on one online service, you have the capability of E-mailing to people signed up on any other online service.

Another advantage of AOL -- its file transfer utility is fast and simple. This means it is literally possible for one of us to send another a complete script cross country in a matter of minutes for less than fifty cents. Beats hell out of FedEx, doesn't it?

You can usually find program disks for AOL bundled with computer magazines. You can also purchase packages from software stores.

To return to the subject of Second City, the new mainstage show -- Pinata Full of Bees -- is not to be missed if you're in the Chicago area. In contrast to the usual Second City show, this is not a collection of separate blackouts and skits but one long piece in which characters and themes reoccur and build upon each other. The central image is of a grade school classroom in which linguist and activist Naom Chomsky is serving as a substitute teacher. Part of his mission is to disabuse the children of pleasant Disney-style fictions about American life, values and history. Of course, he's completely oblivious to the children's psycho logical trauma from such early disillusion. Ultimately, the action spins forward to one of the students having an epiphany as an adult. He bursts into a mad comic rant, including a tirade against Blockbuster video. This builds to the audience being urged to pass their Blockbuster cards to the stage in protest of the company's censorial policies. The cast cheerfully takes out scissors and cuts them into tiny pieces to be used as confetti later in the piece.

Finally, if this newsletter is going to function as we wish it, we're gonna need info and input from you -- what you're doing, what topics you'd like to see discussed here, ideas for other workshops and seminars, opportunities for work or collaboration.

Send items to Kristine Niven, Artistic New Directions, 250 W. 90th St., #15G, NYC, NY, 10024. Or E-mail them to DGSweet@aol.com. The point of this is to be useful to the community of people who have worked with Artistic New Directions and its affiliated artists. We don't want this only to be an organ for announcing classes and ArtNewDir projects. We want to reinforce the sense of community that was so vivid at the Summer Improv Retreat.