A Sense of Urgency

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Spolin Games, Theater Games, Viola Spolin

Using Slow Motion to counteract Urgency

This happened to me in an early workshop with Viola when we were working on The Where:

The scene is a spaceship. I’m the navigator. Andy is the captain, and we have two prisoners from another planet on board. I sit placidly at my controls downstage. The captain yells a heading like a pirate.

“Sou.. by SouWest!”

I say, “Sou by sou west, aye!”  I think to myself that’s what he wanted me to say – but shouldn’t it sound like a numbers and degrees and bearing call? Now I’m thinking of how to add to that in when one of the prisoners says “There’s no south in space!” I think ‘is that a denial?’ I at least know enough at this point in my training to not deny.

I continue to think to myself, ‘Who do I support? What does Captain Andy say to that? Should I say something?’  I think if I support the prisoner – the scene could go into a mutiny, which would be funny. Or do I defend my captain and create an opportunity for doing a captured prisoner scene? I’m so busy thinking to myself, I disconnect. Andy says something I miss.

The prisoner then shouts, “My people are coming for us!”

I don’t know what to do so I say “What should I do Captain?”

Viola yells out a side coach. “No Questions!!”

Right! I understand what she means. Questions signal you abdicate responsibility for adding to the scene and instead force someone else to direct the action. (Many improvisers love this because they get to guide the scene where they want.) But I understand it’s a cop out. Yet I think, that’s a good question. My head starts to swim with possibilities and I’m getting a little flustered. I’m in my head and I feel pressure to make something happen.

Meanwhile Andy and the Aliens are into some kind of dialogue when they begin yelling “We’re under attack!”

I start to mess with the dials and run around trying to take ‘evasive action’. I am feeling totally disconnected to what the others are doing, but I’m going to fake it.

I yell “Damage to our hull!”

We’re all running around now. I can’t even understand what the others are saying.
I’m panicking.
I try to make my character into a panicky person. But I’m panicky, not my character. I’m lost in the scene, not really that aware of what others are saying or doing. I’m just acting hysterical – thinking this will add to the scene, somehow. It’s active and big.

Somewhere in another acting class I remembered ‘you can use your nervousness to inject energy in a scene.’ I choose panic as a focus or should I say, panic chose me. I was so busy doing this I was shut off from the others.

“No questions!” I remembered so I stop myself from asking ‘what I should do?’ I froze. My breathing gets shallow and hurried. My mind races. No questions! Just react! React to what? Questions again.

“No urgency!” Viola intoned from somewhere ‘out there’.

I feel like the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey as he descends into the Monolith’s vortex.

The rush of my own urgency is now roaring in my head and I barely have time to listen or respond to the other players. I want something to happen! I want it to be good! I want everyone to think I am good at this and want to help make the scene something great. Maybe I should say something funny. No, I want to be a player in the scene and not joke my way out of it.

My urgency builds as I loose further control and then I hear Viola call “SLOOOOOWWWWWWWW – MOTIONNNNNN!” from within my panicky vortex. “Everyone! Veeerrrryyyyy Sloowwww Motionnnnn!”

Slow Motion is an amazing tool. It gives a focus that allows time for you to take in all you need to, in order to stay in the scene. Slow Motion is not an exaggerated imitation of slo-mo as so many improvisers do when called on to go into slow motion. It is, in fact an exercise where you focus on the space around you and imagine it moving in slow motion. You maintain what you are doing, but the space around you slows down. You speak slowly, in a normal voice. You move normally but more slowly – fluidly. You don’t alter your voice as in a slow speed recording; you simply put slowness between the words you say.

I start to concentrate on slowing the space around me; Slowing my speech. I begin to get that wonderful warm feeling of slow-motion space wrapping around me like a blanket.

The scene continues.

I begin to notice, the other players jumping on Captain Andy and slowly wrestling him to the ground. I glide over to the door and yank on the wheel to open the hatch. My movements flow and feel natural. I notice that I’m blocking the upstage action with Andy and the Aliens. I need to show the audience what’s going on. I roll in slow-mo toward the door at the side of the stage and a great idea hits me. I shout in slow motion, “We’re going to implode! – Abandon ship!!”

The Aliens let go of Andy and slowly lurch for the door. I open the door and they go for it. I slowly put my foot on the second alien’s behind and nudge both of them out and slam the door.

Since the whole scene is taking place on a bare stage with two chairs, the aliens can still be in the scene. They’re clinging to the outside of the ship in real slow motion, pounding and yelling to be let back in.

The class laughs and applauds. I reach for the Andy and set him up in his command chair and get back to my console. “Sou -by sou West!” I say over my shoulder, smiling. Thanking my captain for the signal to jump the Aliens. Andy leans forward to me, smiling and says “Aaaarrrrgh! – now go to warp speed at zero nine four degrees mark three!”

Aaand blackout.

Slow motion allowed me to get back into the scene, reconnect with my fellow players and use everything that was brought out, including the so-called denial by one of the players. “There’s no South in space!”

How many times at auditions or interviews do you hear “Take your time.”? It’s a nice thing to say, but it’s just a bunch of reassuring words. You are so nervous you simply nod at the advice but don’t really understand what it really means. Everything begins to rush around you and you feel like Keir Dullea, the astronaut in 2001 A Space Odyssey as he travels through the whooshing psychedelic interior of the mysterious black monolith -Speeding up with every passing second.

The world whirls past you in a fever dream and you try your best to not show how scared you are. You are in the grips of panic and fear and all you can do is try to maintain some semblance of control. But you feel all alone, stared at and judged. There’s no presence of mind. No time to make a connection with others. Very often people feel this out of body sensation. In essence it is a low level panic attack. You can control just enough behavior to not totally loose it, but you are paralyzed creatively. You blow the audition. You are in reaction not relation.

Slow motion is not exaggerated slurring and slowing, but an altered experience of time. It is literally ‘taking your time’.

Urgency is a scene killer. Usually it starts as a desire to ‘make it good’, to be noticed when you feel abandoned by your scene partners, or just to get a laugh. Urgency in fact, reveals that you have very little awareness of what’s really going on. Urgency narrows your field of vision. It all becomes about you – and that’s not good.

Viola recognized my urgency as a cry for help. Her first comment was to alert me to my own urgency early in the scene. Sometimes that awareness can avert the problem. But when urgency overtook me, Viola saw that another focus was needed to counteract my urgency. Since urgency is about uncontrolled speed, Slow Motion was the perfect antidote.

Sidecoaching is the art of recognizing the loss of focus, and knowing what to say to get the players reconnected to themselves, each other and the environment of the scene. One usually leads to the next. Once I became re-focused in slow motion, I immediately reached out to my fellow player and the where led me to the spaceship door and out the Aliens went.

A lot of directors or players will yell “Freeze!” and stop the action and ask for a different outcome, by adding in another focus or bit of information. I submit that is just another form of urgency, because you, the director or leader don’t know how to throw a life preserver to a drowning man.

Sidecoaching allows the actors to find their way through and make something from what is going on, no matter what – be it urgency, denial or disconnection. In the end it all adds up to banishing the fear and reminding everyone onstage that not only are they not alone, they are in fact truly supported.

There are so many wonderful life preservers in Viola Spolin’s work. “Pause!;” “Camera on so and so!”; “No-Motion”; “Sloowww Motionnnn!” ;  “Use your where!”; Follow the follower!” And of course; “No Urgency!”

Now when someone tells you to take your time, you actually can!

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Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz is a former student of Viola Spolin and the only teacher to earn an endorsement from both her and her son, Paul Sills. He is the founder of Intuitive Learning Systems and Improv Odyssey devoted to exploring, and expanding the work of his Mentor,

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