Tag Archives: theatre

The catch phrase game in improv theatre

The following informant is a performer for an improv troupe at USC called Second Nature. She told me about this game they play in order to warm up when I asked her how they get ready for performances.

“There’s this game that’s been played for generations in Second Nature, where everyone has their own catchphrase, and so you go around in a circle and like I have six catchphrases and you have six catchphrases, and the way that the game is, is that I pass my catchphrase to you, so like one of my catch phrases is ‘what a DUMP!’ and one of yours might be like ‘or when are we?’ I don’t know, so they just pass like that and it’s just something that’s weird and so everyone keeps their catchphrases and its kind of passed on, like the funny catch phrases are always well-remembered… whenever you come on to the troupe, its like your duty is to learn, to come up with six catchphrases and they can be anything that you want and we play as we warm up, so like every rehearsal we warm up for 15 or 30 minutes, before and then before shows we warm up 15-30 minutes and then I’d say almost always play that game before hand. It’s always the same catch phrases for yourself. There are no written down rules, we just pass it along to each other and really good catch phrases from generations stick around ”

The above game is similar to the type of games Second Nature plays during shows, and it’s easy to see why they use it as a warmup. Different troupes have different strategies and techniques, but Second Nature’s inherited method appears to be the catch phrase game. It’s quite possible that the nature of the game itself has been transformed through the many generations, as improv is, after all, a theatrical art that is constantly changing; every performance is unique and ephemeral because of the inherent nature of improv, which is short for “improvisation.”

Gypsy Robe

“I use to do community theater at this place called Starstruck. Theater people are just weird in general and we love weird traditions and culty kind of stuff, anything that nobody else might know about is great. A gypsy robe is a tradition with this theater company that you work on the show, you work really hard, and then everybody votes on who gets the gypsy robe. If you’re new, maybe somebody might tell you what it means, but probably not. You just have to figure it out when it happens. So we all load into the theater and it’s opening night and we all go to the stage to warm up. We do a group warmup: singing, dancing, weird theater shit. And then it comes the part when it gets really emotional and the director gives a speech like “You guys have done such a great job, we’re so ready, it’s going to be great, it’s going to be sold out.” Stuff like that; weepy weepy, cute, inspirational stuff. Whatever. So all that happens and its right before they let all the people in the house. The house is all the audience seats. We’re all on the stage and they can’t let the audience in until we get off. So then the director, as though she has a secret to tell, ‘Ok so some of you may know about this and some of you don’t know yet…’ I’ve been in their children’s shows and professional shows but when I first got introduced to it I was in high school so it was a really big deal. She points backstage and the stage manager would go and get this robe. It says ‘gypsy robe’ on the lapel and has trinkets on it from every show they’ve ever done. Well since they started the gypsy robe anyways. The trinket is embroidered onto the robe with the show name and attached is a prop, or a piece of the set or a piece of costume. It supposed to have something to do with the show but sometimes the things are random and then it’s like an inside joke and therefore even cooler, but doesn’t make sense. *laughs* So then the director takes a full sweep around the circle, showing off the robe, talking about the robe, saying what it means and gives the background, and says ‘One person has stood out and we all voted and came to the conclusion that _____(name)___ deserves the gypsy robe!’ She would then meaningful walk over the gypsy robe to the winner. It’s always a person who doesn’t have a really big role. It’s probably someone whose done a lot of shows with them already, put in your dues kind of shpeal, and you probably deserved a way better role than you got, but you stayed with the show and were in ensemble and didn’t really complain about it. It’s a prize but it’s pretty political now that I think about it. You’ve got the gypsy robe, you’re basically like MVP of the show/ Miss Congeniality of the show. So they put the robe on you and you’re so excited and then someone starts the gypsy robe song. I think it’s a real song but they put different words to it. “Cotton candy, sweet n low, let me touch your gypsy robe.” I can’t remember the rest of the song but, everyone is clapping, and stomping, dancing around the circle. The winner starts from their spot and run/dance around the whole circle. Everyone is supposed to touch you, like a pat on the back but some people use this as an opportunity to get weird. The winner makes it back to their spot and everyone is still singing and dancing. It’s like a dance party and then everyone cheers for the winner. The winner is suppose to wear the robe every night of the show, as they’re getting ready, before the show, every show. ”

Did you ever win the gypsy robe?

“I didn’t. I was ‘supposed’ to get it for Grease but then I didn’t. It was ok though, I liked the girl who got it. I was supposed to get it though so it was shit. It was extra political that year. Her mom was the costume designer.”

Have you heard of other theater groups doing this?

“I think they stole this idea from somebody else because I was with this performing arts center since 6th grade and they didn’t start it until 9th grade. ”

Even though you never technically won it, would you say this made it more fun and added to your experience?

“Mmm. Ehh. It was just kind of like a thing we did. It was just a nice thing we did on opening night. It’s nice to have tradition but it wasn’t an end all be all.”

I did some reserach and discovered the ‘gypsy robes’ are commonly given out in Broadway Musicals and goes back to the 1950’s. The ‘gypsy’ comes from “their continuous travel from job to job in show after show.” Some robes from popular musicals have even been housed in museums.

I thought it was interesting that she didn’t identify too personally with the tradition even though she was a member of this troupe for several years. It is most likely because she was snubbed and did not receive the award.

International Thespian Society Initiation

There are a lot of ritualistic things that theatre people do – can you talk about one of them that you partake in or have done?

I remember in high school there was this whole ritual for joining the International Thespian Society. Which is a thing apparently. And when you performed in two productions at my school, you qualified to join this society. And all that was required of you was two days. One day you had to come in dressed based on whatever theme was going that year – for us it was fake Greek gods. So I had a robe on and cat ears, and I was a cat god- because nothing better than cat gods in any sort of area. The second day was a Saturday where we showed up to school, no one was there —

When did you dress up as a cat god? Where was it that you had to do that?

At school. During a school day. All day. Every student had a bunch of questions. I was just – “I have to do this to join the International Thespian Society. I’m a theatre student. You should know me by now.”

Saturday we showed up to school, no one was there – it was about me, and some other people. And then one of the theatre students I knew well, Gabi, I believe she walked up and said “Ok, we’re going to blindfold all of you.”

How many were there?

There were – I think it was twelve? And it was just her. And then all of these other people showed up and blindfolded us. And essentially what they did – they first off started shouting abusive things at us, which I suppose is part of any initation ceremony – so there was that. And we had to put our hands on each others shoulders and had to walk around our school just blindfolded, trying to help each other out, saying “ok, there’s a step right there, watch out.” And then finally we entered my theatre room, which at the time was just like – was very cramped, small, room, which wasn’t in very good condition. But they had it completely candle-lit, which was lovely. And we took our blindfolds off and had to recite some – thing. Some speech. Which we did. And we were all accepted in! And then afterwards it was very nice, there was a jovial feast, and then our final part of that day was we each had to perform something. Um – which none of us knew about. We had to essentially improvise something related to the theme earlier, the fake Greek gods. So I did my thing about being a cat god, and what it’s like to be a Greek cat god – you don’t get much respect in Greece as you do in Egypt. So that sort of thing. So – and yeah, that was about it. That was the whole initiation into the International Thespian Society.

I take it you enjoyed the process?

Overall. I mean, it could have been politer during the abusive compliments. But I don’t hold it against them.

What year were you?

I was a senior a the time.

You never took part in the ritual with those later?

No, I didn’t, because I got into theatre very late in the game. I like – uh – when I was a freshman, second semester I said “Hey, that theatre looks sort of fun, I should try that.” Then tenth grade – we put on like three productions per year. And I tried out for all of them, didn’t get in to any of them. So that was disappointing. But then over the summer I went to this summer theatre camp where I played Greg from A Chorus Line who’s just fantastically gay. And has a song about hiding an erection – in front of a lot of young kids. So obviously… their parents enjoyed it. And then I came back, eleventh grade, and got Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off! So that was like my first production, and yeah.

 

—-

 

Informant took part in the ceremony when being initiated, and it marked an achievement in their life. They never got to experience it on the other end, which maybe makes it a more magical experience

Macbeth Bad Luck

“Everyone that comes to my house who’s at all superstitious claims our house is haunted. Now, I have noticed all kinds of weird stuff in this house over the years. Believe me… I could not disprove it. I could not prove it, but nor could I disprove it., so there’s a feeling that there’s something going on in the house. Now I always maintain that they’re good ghosts, but when we did Macbeth at the house… it seemed like a very rough time doing that play. There’s a huge rumor in the theatre world that if you produce the play Macbeth, it is a nightmare. All kinds of ghosts come out, mess with your projects. You get all kinds of things that could go wrong… it’s scary.

“That has gone on for hundreds of years. It is the one play—Shakespeare—that is considered so heinously evil. Because the—the guy invites a guest over to his house and then kills him to become king. So, it’s considered so—such an evil premise, that we don’t. You, know, it’s something that you, you take very seriously if you’re going to do the play, and… that summer it was a nightmare to do the theatre.”

 

The informant added that you can’t say the name Macbeth in the theatre. He said that instead, you’re to refer to it as “The Scottish Play” (and the king as “The Scottish King” and queen as “The Scottish Queen”). He said that everyone in theatre will tell you this, (so he can’t remember where he originally heard it, but he hears it frequently). The informant follows protocol and uses the title “The Scottish Play.”

A teacher he worked with at Santa Monica College “freaked out” when they said they wanted to produce Macbeth, and she directed them to take themselves outside, spin around three times, and spit over their shoulders. The informant said people are very serious about this.

During his production of Macbeth, he had a tenant that refused to leave and was not paying him rent (she was a friend of the informant), but a lease had been signed for another person to move in. He also had a rough time with the director, who had also threatened a lawsuit against one of the actors and well as against the informant.

I’ve heard of this superstition often throughout school where the play is frequently read in classes and performed by theatre students, but the specificities of this telling of it (the squatting renter and the lawsuit-threatening-director) add to the belief. It’s the little things that individuals add to the larger superstition that make it powerful and give it truth value.

Immaculate Heart Ghost Nun

“So apparently at my school, there’s supposed to be the ghost of some nun, just hanging around… I think it was supposed to be near the auditorium, which was, coincidentally, the center of all school life. The auditorium, is also the gym, so it has all these basketball headboards around it, but we also turn it into the chapel, but it’s also where the plays are held, so it’s like this—the heart of the school, but there’s supposed to be a ghost that inhabits… behind there.

“When I would work on the sets back then, there was this guy, he was about 25 years old, he looked like s stork. There was a guy there, and he would work on the sets of the plays and I would work on them too, and then one day, he just brought it up, saying “yeah, I don’t like to work too late at night, or I have to play loud music,” or something like that because he feels like he’s being watched… He just feels prickles on the back of his neck, or the hairs raise on the back of his neck or something. And then coincidentally, when he mentioned that, my Spanish teacher mentioned that she was really superstitious… she just mentioned that “ah, yea, there was a ghost here and the, the, I talk with the janitors sometimes, and when they were here late at night they feel like they’re being watched from down the hall and they played music don’t want—I guess they just feel like that would protect them somehow from their senses, and they would talk and be superstitious about the ghosts and my friend… umm… from middle school who’s Filipin..a, it seems like always, they, the Filipinos  always have these strange ghost stories, and she would take—she had this picture of us kinda goofing around outside of campus, and there was this sort of silvery figure… this kind of grey figure misting over the… one part of the photo and she would print them out on those regular six by something photos and she was convinced that that was a habit, and she passed them around to I guess my Spanish teacher that actually—the story of how the workers on the campus believed there was a ghost.

“Uh… so I was spooked, for a while—and actually, I remembered it recently, because a mutual acquaintance who goes on lots of dates with people who seem to know my school because he went to our brother school, St. Francis, he just recently texted me and asked me if I knew anything about the Immaculate Heart Ghost because the girl he was recently going out with brought it up too, and she saw some… some nun in the dark corner who smiled at her, and she just thought it was her teacher hanging out in a dark classroom or something like that and she was spooked. So.. I… luckily haven’t seen a ghost because I am easily spooked. And that’s the Immaculate Heart Ghost Nun who was there—but then also I remember that everyone was freaking out when something or another, like this story became popular, and they were looking on the internet, and lo and behold, there were several stories, like ‘ah yea! She inhabits the catwalks in the auditorium and she just hangs around,’ and I don’t remember the back-story about why there was a nun there, but she doesn’t seem to attack people with knives, maybe she just really liked it there, or something.”

 

The informant was informed about this ghost story by her friend, Lucy (who was in the same grade as she), during her senior year at the high school. She remembers her classmates “freaking out” when they discovered that the tale had made its way out of the school itself and into the public domain. There were several stories recounted to her both live (by her classmates and the school staff) as well as online. She was initially skeptical of the veracity of the tales, but she admitted that deep down, in her “animalistic core,” she was spooked and continues to be spooked by it when it’s recounted to her, or when she tells it to other people. She said she was not likely to go up in the catwalks at night, but also added that the ghost was not reputed to be violent, so she was not overly worried about being attacked. She mused that because her school motto was “Women of great heart and right conscience,” the ghost, too must have had a great heart and right conscience. This tale goes against the grain of many ghost stories in that it serves as an example of good behavior, demonstrating that even in death, the women of this high school are respectful and well behaved.

It’s especially fascinating that this story has moved from a very specific and small community to internet because it represents the rapid movement that is often intrinsic to storytelling. This suggests that there is something compelling about this story besides the fact that the nun came from this school that makes it important from a humanistic view. Ghost stories are perhaps so prolific because even people who question the reality of ghosts (such as the informant) find the tales frightening, and take a “better safe than sorry” attitude.

“Don’t Use Children or Dogs in Theatre”

“Don’t use children or dogs in theatre.”

 

In theatre, the informant said it’s supposed to be bad luck to use children or dogs in a show. In the informant’s first full run production of a play (as a producer) in 2010, he used several children and one dog. He said that the belief ma be valid because children often have varying degrees of discipline, and both they and dogs can be distracting to audiences. In this production, the informant said the dog pulled focus (her tail was moving back and forth “like a flag” much of the time because she was so happy to have attention).

The informant learned of this when he started doing theatre 10 years ago. He regularly hears it from theatre professionals. He says that because audiences love kids and dogs, they often find them more entertaining than the actors, which is not ideal for those putting on the play. Ultimately, he has found that dogs and children may be difficult to work with, and may steal focus.

Understandably, dogs and children are very distracting because they are so easy to focus on (many YouTube videos will attest to that), so this belief makes sense. However, it could become problematic for productions that require children or dogs because adults dressing up as either could also be distracting. This also causes me to question whether or not writers steer away from adding children or dogs to their plays.

Riding the Pony

“One of them, our biggest one, was called ‘Riding the Pony’ and you might’ve, I might’ve told you about this before, or something, or you might… other people do it too. Yeah, it’s a bunch of people standing in a circle and then people will go in the middle, like 5 or 6 people will go in the middle, and then everyone goes: ‘C’mon baby let’s ride that pony. C’mon baby let’s ride that pony.’ And under that, while that’s happening you’ll, the people in the middle, will run around the circle and then they’ll find someone, so it’ll go: ‘C’mon baby let’s ride that pony. C’mon baby let’s ride that pony.’ You go ‘front, front, front’ and then you go, ‘side, side, side’ and ‘back, back, back’ on them and then you say, ‘This is how we do it.’ And you switch and then new people come in and do it so it’s just, like ‘C’mon baby let’s ride that pony. C’mon baby let’s ride that pony. Front, front, front. Side, side, side. Back, back, back.’ Switch. And you do it. And you just do it a million times, um, and it’s really fun ‘cuz when you’re doing the ‘front, front, front’ part, people are, like, grinding up on each other and stuff. And in the back you’re, like, hitting your butts on each other and just pushing each other out of the circle. So that’s a huge, like, energy thing for us that we would do.”

My informant was very involved in the theatre program at his high school, Dos Pueblos High School, in Santa Barbara, CA. This was a game that the casts of shows he performed in would play before a performance. It was a fun thing to do, but also a good warm-up to increase energy before a performance. My informant enjoyed telling this story and he laughed about it a lot.

Improv Warm-up Rituals

“So in improv, because usually there’d be a lot of improv people, within shows, we would get together and, um, the girls would do something where they would just, like, talk about being womanly and then would do– they just go, “fem, fem, fem-prov” and it was femprov. Um, and then the guys would get together and we’d huddle together and this was, like, a big secret thing that no one knew what we did, but we’d go in, like, a corner, like, far away from everybody else and we’d, uh, start slowly, really slowly chant, we’d start chanting the words: “Gay, penis, sodomy, gay.” (LAUGHS) And we start really quiet. You go, “Gay, penis, sodomy, gay.” And you get bigger and bigger and bigger. Do you remember the ‘rape, kill, pillage, and burn?’ That they do here? It’s like that. You just get bigger and bigger and bigger in your circle and you run round and round and round and round and you just finish going “GAY, PENIS, SODOMY, GAY” just like running around. It was really weird but just a lot of warm-upy– like feel connected…

We’d also get all the improv people together and play something called “Golden Ball of Light” where—this would take forever—but, um, you stand in a circle and, um, you say, ‘Imagine that there is a golden ball of light starting at your toes and it’s working your way up. And now it’s into your feet. And there’s a golden ball of light and it’s covering all of your feet and everything’s, from your ankles up now,’ and you’d just work your way up… and once your body’s covered, which takes such a long time. Cause like, ‘Oh, it’s in your hair, it’s coming out of your hair…” And then the golden ball of light is—and everyone’s supposed to have their eyes closed just focusing on this golden ball of light—it comes up and it connects you to all the actors in this room, and now it’s going up it’s connecting to all the audience members and all that And it’s connecting you to anyone who’s ever been in a show before. And then just all of humanity. And now it’s, the golden ball of light, it’s up in the universe and you just feel it, you feel everyone’s presence, you feel everyone. And then you take a deep breath. So its just… it’s one of those things, ya know.”

My informant remembered quite a few rituals that were done in theatre at his high school. He enjoyed remembering all the details about somethings he hasn’t done it quite awhile and said that discussing them made him very nostalgic. Theatre games and warm-ups are done almost always when performing. Not only is it beneficial for cast energy, it is also a way for the cast to bond together.

Mopping a Theatre Floor

“Mopping the floor after every strike is supposed to symbolize the completion of a show and the allowance of another one to be built on the same place. That and it makes everything all shiny and such.”

This cleansing ritual is used as a transition between shows performed in the same theatre. In my high school, the honor was only performed by seniors, but in the informant’s theatre it is open to anyone and everyone who wants to help ease the transition between shows and mark the liminal phase. It probably started out of the necessity of cleanliness, and stuck around as a transition  ritual.

Backstage Rules

“At the Greer Garson theatre, absolutely NO non-performing arts majors are allowed backstage. There’s no other reason, okay, well maybe it’s a slight liability issue too, but the belief it is bad luck to have an audience member or such behind the scenes.”

My actress friend told me this. In my experience, thespians are a pretty superstitious bunch. However, I imagine this practice originated in the practical issue of actors and crew members not wanting to have to deal with extra people getting in the way of heavy moving sets and quick changes.