(I love what I do and I have a good time doing it)
These are my notes from the Specs Friday Drop-In I taught on Friday 03/15/19. Enjoy!
By Fernando A. Funes
What are gifts?
According to the Specs Students Handbook written by Josh Nicols and Jac Floyd, “Gifts are information you give about your environment and your scene partners.”
Why are they called gifts?
That’s a good question! I don’t know why. It’s just a general improv team used universally to mean giving the a piece of information it did not have before, and that informs something about your scene partner, environment, or universe we are building.
Okay, cool, but do you want to take a crack at it?
Well a gift is something you give to another person for them to play with or enjoy. They did not have it before, but now that they have it, they are better off for it and they’ll even be different because of it.
Also, a gift is positive thing because piece of information you add to the scene only helps build it, define it, and increase the sense of reality surrounding it. Plus, giving a gift is always a positive experience.
Awesome! So what does it mean to ‘unpack a gift?’
Well in real life when you get a gift, the first thing you do is take off the wrapping paper, open up the box, and be amazed by your gift. You then thank the person who gave you the gift by playing with it. Your life will now be different because of this gift. There is life before the gift and a life after the gift.
Can you break that down a little more?
Basically, when your scene partner gives you a gift, honor that gift by accepting it, agreeing to it, and building on it. Yes anding it is the ultimate form of gratitude. Now play with it.
So what does it mean to play with the gift?
Once you have accepted a gift, play with it, which for me comes in three stages.
1. Prove a gift
Own it and demonstrate it in your character or behavior.
The classic Miles Stroth example is someone calling him a slob and him proving it by saying “Where’s my burrito?”
2. If this is true, what else is true?
What are the potential consequences o this gift concerning your character, your POV, your history, the world you live in?
Once you think that something else is true based on this gift, go forward and label it. Make a statement about it on your scene and go forward.
3. Stack Your Gifts
Keep track of every single gift, yes and it, see what other things about your character or your world you can infer, and they see if you end up with any grand revelations or discoveries in that progress of the scene.
How did you end up teaching gifts in the workshop?
We played a few exercises that focus on accepting gifts and proving gifts.
What Are You Doing?
What Are You Doing is classic short form game where two people square off and challenge each other to demonstrate absurd activities in the form of two word phrases inspired by two initials.
Each person has 5-10 seconds to do the activity before it goes back to the other person.
For example: If you’re initials are JR, the game would be something like,
Jenny: “Hey Jim, what are you doing?”
Jim: “Jumping Razors!”
Jenny would then immediately start doing whatever that means to her.
Jenny: “Cool! Hey look at me, I’m jumping over those scooters that were really popular in the early 2000s!”
She would do it for about 5-10 seconds until it’s Jim’s turn.
Jim: “Hey Jenny, what are you doing?”
Jenny: “Junior Ranch!”
Jim would then interpret that whatever it means to him.
Jim: “Introducing an all-new salad dressing for kids! Junior Ranch! This isn’t your parents ranch!”
The players would then go back and forth in this cycle, doing it until all combinations have been exhausted.
What we learned about this game is that at its core it’s about accepting and proving gifts.
You don’t have time to judge whatever is thrown at you; all you can do is accept and start playing it with it immediately.
Whatever it inspires in you is unpredictable; what matter is that you accept it and start playing with it immediately and see what there that takes you.
Although it’s just a fun short form game that is already super short — you only have 5-10 seconds to do a mini-scene — it instills in you the habit of accepting offers and yes anding them ASAP without judgement of and committing to it 100%, which is a skill all great improvisers have.
What other exercise did you do?
We did an exercise I invented called “Gift Box.”
In Gift Box, two people square off and one person has a gift box for the other, and inside that gift box is a personality trait that they have to immediately start proving.
Brenda: “Hey Emily, it’s great to see you! I got you a gift!”
Emily: “Oh gosh! Thank you! What is it?”
Brenda: “I got you Crippling Self-Doubt!”
Emily: “Oh my God. Everyone hates me. No one likes me. I’m a loser that will never be loved. Why was I born!!!”
Emily would then give Brenda her own Gift Box.
Emily: “Brenda, I got you a gift box too!”
Brenda: “Oh!!! What is it?”
Brenda: “You know I don’t know need this gift. Or anyone for that matter. I’m fine on my own because I’m better than everyone. And because I’m better than everyone, people need me. I don’t need them.”
And you just go back and forth doing this for a while.
What did you learn from exercise?
The point of the exercise was to literally receive a gift and start playing with it in a way that makes sense to you.
Once a person gives a gift, it’s up to that other person to interpret it their way and prove it their way.
This exercise seemed like more focused What Are You Doing. In that game, it’s fun to play and watch without realizing you’re building an essential improv muscle.
With this exercise, we were conscious that we were building this essential improv muscle and wanted to flex it as much as possible.
It was almost as if instead of saying “What are you doing?” people were saying “Prove the gift.”
Accepting and proving gifts is something we take for granted those of us who have been doing this for a while.
However, I forget how much of a foundational concept this is for newer people who only know Yes-And. Proving gift is one way how you yes-and, one of the most basic actually.
What was the overall lesson and take away?
Derek Lutjen once said in an American Buffalo practice, “Short form games make you really good at all the skills you need to be good in long form.”
And in long form, or just doing short scenes with no gimmick involved, you need to accept and prove gifts.
You need to listen to what your partner gives you, accept it, prove it, unpack it, and just see where that leads you.
The magic of improv is never in planning, or forcing your idea on someone, or in proving to the world how funny you can be with some big character you know you can pull off.
The magic comes from agreeing and accepting, and building on what’s been established, one choice at a time.
It’s magical because it’s surprising, unexpected, and what is created is something no one person could create on their own.
If improv is magic, then gift are the spells that we use to bring that magic into the world.
I’m Fernando A. Funes, and I hope you have enjoyed these notes.
Spectacles Improv Engine host drop-in Improv Classes every Friday from 12pm to 2pm and every Sunday from 11am to 1pm at STAGES Theater in Fullerton. Classes are $10, and every class is different from the other. Check it out!