Del class notes, 1993-94

goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
OK... at the moment I don't see the point in making a journal so I can pontificate even more than I do already.

(please do not construe the above to mean that I'll be pontificating any less than I do already.)

So... I thought I'd post my old notes from the IO classes I took with Del Close. After all, I have promised to give several people copies when I finished transcribing them (and I haven't quite finished yet), and I think at some point Mullaney asked me if he could post them here.

So... so... I've been going back and forth about it for a very long time because, frankly, looking over the notes... I just don't think they're going to mean anything to anyone who wasn't in the classes. They're so fragmentary; I just jotted down whatever happened to be important to me at the time, and there are nonsequiturs galore. The notes spark memories in me, and I remember the context. A few other people on the IRC were in some of these classes, and maybe they'll remember something, but short of annotating the notes (which would amount to writing a small book), I don't know what most IRCers will possibly get out of reading these.

Still, it would be sad not to let people decide for themselves. I can't say that I knew Del at all as a person... and I probably wouldn't have liked him if I did know him as a person... and I don't care, but of all the great and not-so-great improv teachers I've had, he was the one and only one who really blew my mind - literally exploded my consciousness (and conscience) about what improvisation was, is, and could be. And I feel sad for people doing this work without his guidance.

So... so... so... all right, I'll post the notes, one class at a time, unedited (except for what editing I did on the fly when I took the notes). If you get something out of them, great. There are some genuinely comprehensible gems here and there. I just wish I could give you the real Del.


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate

class nine [when I started taking notes]

check-in expansion
check-in goes from (interpersonal) event to event without transitional stages
- interactions in the day

scenes replace scenes
people tag out people
play same character or different character

overall sense of pattern
“theatrical examination and critique of person’s day”
not as frantic as the Nightmare

concentrate on making a linear story

“expertise” problems:
checker-in can poke in as “thought balloons” (subtext or supertext)
substitute your own area of expertise
>the generic subject of “expertise” is thus taken from the check-in

never be hesitant to bring in personal expertise
but everyone must find a way to deal with it
> take your time; let the scene tell you what it needs

loosen up the harold structure
(“competition” harold)

“Harold eats anything”

goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 10

[note: class titles are mine, not Del's - I put titles on some of these when I took the notes - MJC]

group scenes

avoid introducing arbitrary conflict and argument

try to do the best job you can at getting along until/unless a real reason for conflict appears: there are many, varied reasons to agree!!
Be as agreeable as possible

be competent

look at the situation through your own eyes: “how would I feel?”

slow down: have second and third thoughts
take the time to notice how you feel

“Action begins with the disruption of a routine” (Keith Johnstone)

let the accidents drive the plot

play against illness


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 11


the filmic techniques are a minor part

1. a series of images
-> a group image (before titles) to guide us, create a mood
yes & the images
don’t generate too much info
don’t put more info on screen than makes an interesting picture

2. title: don’t get locked into a style inspired by suggestion

3. get at least 3 stories going, keep them going, mix them up

there is usually a setup before each scene
avoid too much use of “cut to”
“embrace the (film) clichés”

the types of images limit the kinds of material included

generate a lot of material and then make sense of it (let the stories develop separately)

stories can unfold “like a séance”:
images imply stories (not dictate them)

“forcing open the bud won’t give you the blossom”

less activity, more observation
follow the action rather than lead it
be patient!!

the narration shouldn’t force the action
don’t create the plot – notice the plot

let the scenes develop
patterns – don’t force the connections
let the route be circuitous

keep a wide-angle view of the stage!!
“does this scene need my help?”

hold onto your idea instead of rushing to put it in
maybe it won’t be “flat-footed literal” when it does go in

improvise your way not toward “the answers” but to more questions – let it grow

think metaphorically, poetically!! thematically


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
[note to Mullaney: yeah, you may have been in the class above. Most of Booth was in this session - but it was the original Booth, with Stu and Rich.]

class 12

MOVIES cont.

don’t try to force the story:
wait for “your break”

conflict: forces come into play against one another

overblown characters are OK in movies
-> remember movie clichés!

“you don’t know what kind of hand you’re going to play until you’ve seen all the cards”

parallel editing
“set pieces” (e.g., the obligatory kung-fu battle)

the narration is limited to what the camera can tell us

anything we can say we can put on stage

harold -> avoid clichés
movie -> look for clichés

[coming attractions game]
[making-of game]

goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 13


the only form in which we can directly address the audience

seldom-seen games:
performance art

[*why not use the movie as a game in Harold?]

listen carefully for relationship cues….

the audience wants to see us suffer (schadenfreude)
> we live in the same world as they do

don’t fucking illustrate what went before
don’t get so swept up in what you’re doing that you forget the details!!

let the group activity continue as people step out from the group

let the other character(s) affect your emotional life

physicalize the emotions

“a worried champ is more interesting than an overconfident champ”

- - - - - - -

“riff” monologue: speculative
“what if…?”

nonsense harold w/incoherent raving and games that don’t make sense
(the structure and meaning come through to the audience, unbidden)
hold on to some harold/theatrical structure
emotional/thematic subtext
only the verbal, grammatical sense is removed

588 millimicrons = yellow


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 14


“the slightest step into clichés, and the business starts to lower itself a bit”

beware of wit!

make the most dramatic (emotionally sound) choice, not the most comedic choice

“assume you’re intelligent people with real feelings” – psychological truths

“telling is hipper than asking”

- - - - - - -

“current events deconstruction”

> think of a current event as the first scene of a deconstruction

pain -> laughs

* a satirical longform!! *

beware of coyness -> direct is good


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 15

more topical deconstructions (SUNG)

“you don’t have to sing good, you just have to sing everything”

the aim is to clean up speech, make it more “deliberate”

the melody is the emotional coloration of the words
don’t be concerned with rhyme & meter

dialogue becomes “call & response”

avoid recitative & chanting
> invent melodies

try not to let the music interfere with your scenework
“I think you’d be better off being less clever”

just add melody to communication instead of improvising songs

- - - - - - -

non-sung topical deconstructions…

bring in a variety of scenes in various moods, etc., before cementing them into a story: hold off on story-building

“argument is the last thing we want in improvisation”

have the courage to lose (to be a victim)


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 16

(scenes on a theme, + chaos)

“condensing fact out of the vapor of nuance” – Snow Crash
(to find games) <- full company improvisations

OK to tag people out of scenes in harolds

what is the scene really about?

nothing we say is “innocent”
“we’re totally dishonest from morn ‘til night”
always trying to manipulate or impress or etc….

the problem voiced at the beginning of the scene is seldom the real problem

observe, make an assumption and act on that assumption

when we find ourselves with conflicting realities, we don’t have to have either-or:
we can find a way to have both (non-Aristotelian)

think about: what are your ambitions for this form?

“screw the chaos!”

scenes of varying lengths are good…..

“I just want everyone to suffer the right way” – D.C.

try to do scenes between people who have known each other between 6 mos. and 10 years:
professional relationships tend to escalate into conflict

because the audience is laughing doesn’t necessarily mean we are succeeding….


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 17

improvisation is “a shared crisis”

look at what’s happening and contribute what’s appropriate, instead of going out there to do something

everybody doing something together
“use the suggestion as a maypole to dance around”: play with the imagery

we need short, noisy, confused scenes as well as long, hip, clever scenes

refer to, embody, personalize the suggestion (3 levels)

* we don’t need an endless number of personal associations to the theme

“Invocation is the only opening to use with something like grapefruit” – Miles S.
-> “making it so interesting to yourself it’s practically sacred” – Del

in an opening, try to make the stage picture look kind of neat
(“as much like an album cover as possible”)

be sensitive not only to what is being said but how it’s being said

push the physical!! (w/group connectedness)

the opening is “presenting our credentials”
get the audience to trust you
move, think, speak, sing, edit together

this type of short group improvisation can pop up anywhere in a harold

keep an eye & ear open for the end of an opening

see how scenes relate to the theme without hitting the theme over the head!!

before you do anything in an opening, look around and see what’s going on (tone) – it’s already started

keep the openings short!!


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 18

“what the hell are we saying up there?”

is meaning there? yes, if you look at it right….

objective correlative – something in the outside world affecting/commenting on the relationship
(eg, Perseid shower -> an overhyped disappointment)

there’s a level of the scene that remains unspoken (subtext)

“once you put it on stage, it’s no longer simple – it becomes exemplary”

there’s a level of abstraction (of meaning) beyond the awareness of the players –
there is deeper, more serious meaning than you think

try writing poems as a character
invoke the archetype

there’s a meaning level to a Harold in addition to the reference level (to the suggestion)

what if God writes letters?


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 19


play with the form!! – take chances!

let the games turn up where they will be the most illuminating

performance art is cool if it’s not too obviously a parody

the way to action is through agreement!!
in conflict, all you can do is state and restate positions

“the law of conservation of suggestion”
(try to use as much of the opening as possible)

the thing (relationship, machine) that works makes better theater than the thing (relationship, machine) that doesn’t work

if we all know something is going to happen… get on with it! get past:
“fractal speed-freak detail”
“scenic fistula”

accept the idea and then go do it!*
don’t artificially delay action -> it doesn’t create suspense

*as fully, as well, as intelligently as you can

Sahlins’s Law: if you hear the first line of dialogue again, you know the end of the piece is just seconds away

slow comedy


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 20


“just because something works doesn’t mean the theory is correct”

scenes veer close to the suggestion without hitting it

see the suggestion as a tarot doorway
explore everything in terms of the suggestion

feel the gravitational pull of the suggestion….

“topical harolds” – stay close to the suggestion in subsequent beats – use the suggestion to further (illuminate) your scenes rather than just as a springboard for them


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 21


mythic quest within deconstruction

simultaneous deconstruction and movie
start off unrelated; they “develop tendrils and reach toward each other”

integrity, simplicity, honesty, intelligence
… learn to fake them

plant concepts to blossom much later
let them “ferment”
crosscutting editing
plant potential at the beginning and chart its progress toward actualization….

in deconstruction scenes, think macro
(don’t get bogged down in details)


[this was the last class at the School Street Arts Building. A few nights later it burned down, and classes moved to the Wrigleyside without missing a week. - MJC]

goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 22

longer harolds (cont.)

use the fucking opening!!

the suggestion affects our reality

if you get a really good payoff on a comic moment, let it rest

we all know how to play certain games (e.g. tough cop/weenie sidekick, spies on a train, haunted house) – know what’s being asked of you!

if you see everything is coalescing into one story, start an entirely unrelated scene

the intellectual truth of the scene can get weird, but hold on to the emotional truth


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 23


Freud – “Psychopathic Characters on Stage”

the protagonist/antagonist setup needs to be questioned
tension exists without conflict

incompetent people deserve to be eaten by zombies!

question cultural assumptions

“to get rid of conflict is not to get rid of drama but to achieve drama” – Del

Actors Studio improv exercises are aimed at achieving extreme emotional states

define conflict as useless & unnecessary argument?

memes – ideas that move through society like genes move through a population

improvising musical chords is cool!
so’s topical stuff

new forms
- “backwards” deconstruction (each scene is backwards timedash)
- esprit d’escalier – someone in the audience was in a situation in which he/she came off badly -> reconstruction, getting it right
- soap opera nonsequiturs (actually, 33 yrs old)


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
[this installment of Del Class Notes is dedicated to Dave McKeel.--MJC]

class 24


The first scene of a story harold (basically sitting and talking) implies and establishes the universe of the story
(make it similar to the first scene of a deconstruction)
- past and future
“carving off a piece of the world”
calling into existence a mood, a tone….
a constellation of things that may appear around them

editing techniques:
scenes replace scenes
later -> tagouts OK

play it very slow
“how do I feel about what just happened?”

nonsequitur scenes help us escape from “trivial linearity:”
people who know each other well don’t necessarily talk to each other, but to their shared experience (bank shot analogy) >|

big ears: listen for more than words!!


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
[Ta, Dan Goldstein.--MJC]

class 25

clear away the mental clutter!!

FLOW “better than happiness and more useful”


poetic distancing from horrible subject
deal with “personally serious” issues

you have to earn your happy endings
melodrama is a risk you have to take to be dramatic
you have to risk pretentiousness to be meaningful

silences are filled…
with thinking, tension, possibility, potential….


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
[Del's first class at the then-new ImprovOlympic space on Belmont. "Don't touch the scrim!!!" I guess I was too busy doing to take notes. -- MJC]

class 26

American Theater magazine – dec. 93
(article on improvisation in Chgo)

remember: scenes have consequences!!


goldfish boy

Otium cum dignitate
class 27

…an attempt to do Really Good Scenes.

the story harold doesn’t have to be a linear story – try a collage-type approach

weave things together on a thematic scale

“right hemisphere energies can easily be mistaken for divine energies”
spiritual aspect