Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

baram_snieckus_1920x1080_website_image-726x400

If Elaine May and Mike Nichols were alive today that would be horrible, because Nichols was buried two years ago. (May is still alive.)

That said, I am sure they would be happy to know that the legacy they started in the 1950s is being continued quite ably by Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, who previewed their latest revue tonight at the John Candy Box Theatre in Toronto.

Long-standing staples on the Toronto comedy scene, Snieckus and Baram are veterans of the Second City and both have had their turn at television (Mr. D and Seed, respectively). But this real-life husband and wife are at their strongest when they stand across the stage from each other and reveal their neuroses in a mass therapy session that other people pay $15 to see.

The new show is aptly titled as they truly are still figuring it out. A combination of sketches, Nichols & May-style audio pieces, some improv, and playful audience banter, the show, which runs about 60 minutes, is still a work-in-progress, some bits decidedly more solid than others. But in many respects, that is the charm of a Baram & Snieckus production; it never feels complete.

red

This is a couple who consistently commit to their craft, who are willing to run with anything that comes up—including an audience suggestion of Dante’s cab ride, which turned into a motivational moment for an under-performing Satan with Daddy issues. But what makes this particularly charming is they are not afraid to let the audience know when they realize a bit isn’t working, and we all lean forward to see how they’ll extract themselves.

Their choice of venue facilitates this intimacy with the audience.

Although I have every confidence that Baram & Snieckus would have no trouble holding an audience in a large theatre, all of the revues that I have attended occurred in small venues, holding no more than 100 seats. The John Candy Box Theatre is no exception, and the audience sits so close to the stage that they become a tripping hazard for the performers.

Thus, when you see Baram & Snieckus perform, it is like you’re watching their lives from their living room.

[For the record, I have never been in their living room and this completely unnecessary ankle bracelet chafes.]

That intimacy, that vulnerability is the charm that bonds this team to the audience. These are your best friends and you are about to see them at their worst moment. Over and over and over again.

It’s schadenfreude for swingers. [The title of their next revue?]

One thing that was different from previous revues is the pair have started filming some of their classic sketches, and they projected two—from their previous revue You and Me Both—for tonight’s audience. This is part of a larger effort by the couple to make more of their material available online to audiences.

Still Figuring It Out, which runs until Friday, September 30, is practically sold out, so you’ll want to snatch the last few tickets soon, if you’re not already too late.

Alternatively, look for them on the web site of their company National Theatre of the World.

You will find laughs, and maybe a few insights as you too still figure it out.

close

See also:

Toronto Star review of Still Figuring It Out by Carly Maga

My review of You & Me Both

A matter of character

Method improv taken a tad too far

Method improv taken a tad too far

When we create stories, we try to come up with truly amazing characters; characters that will resonate in our audience’s memory, long after they’ve finished with our story. Unfortunately, what usually happens is we end up with characters that flatten on the page, becoming two-dimensional versions of our goal. The character may flare momentarily when their plot becomes particularly exciting, but for the most part, they are lifeless and have no depth.

Like subtext in our dialogue, so much that makes a character real has nothing to do with what they are saying or doing. It’s the intangibles, the subtleties that inform their speech and actions.

Would Darth Vader, for example, have been nearly as imposing without the emphysema? What would you think of Forrest Gump without his omnipresent blankness?

Years ago, in an improv class, we did an exercise in character when the instructor told us to endow our character with some physical attribute, but not to share that attribute with others, whether verbally or by incorporating it into the scene. Let the attribute impact your character and see what happens was the request.

I decided that my character’s left foot caused him excruciating pain every time he took a step. As the scene unfolded and my character found it necessary to move, I found that my sentences grew shorter, more clipped, and my patience with people wore thin. Requests to come look at this or hand me that were met with general reluctance and irritation. Everything about my character screamed leave me alone.

I did not wince when I walked. I did not massage my foot while seated. I did my level best to give no outward sense of what was wrong.

When the instructor surveyed the other students, both within the scene and watching, about what our various attributes were, none of us really knew. All they could say was that my character was very angry and a bit of an asshole.

When told I had an extremely painful foot, it was obvious. And please realize, I am NOT an actor. This was not about my Oscar-worthy performance.

But it does show that by making a very small choice about a character, a choice that has nothing to do with plot, you can significantly inform that character and how he or she interacts with others and his or her environment.

When I worked on my first screenplay, I looked for something that affirmed how cool a customer my antagonist was. I wanted something subtle that would indicate he had the ultimate confidence in himself and his manifest destiny. Something that said I have all the time in the world because the world will wait for me.

It was my last point that settled it for me. My character would never use contractions in his speech. From his perspective, every word he uttered was important, was specifically chosen for maximum impact and so why would he remove any of the letters. And because his destiny was your destiny, you would sit patiently and absorb everything he had to say, no matter how long it took.

Now the average reader or movie goer may never consciously notice this, but for many, they’ll experience the malevolent calm of the character.

And perhaps more importantly, as with the sore foot in the previous example, the contraction-free speech informed how I wrote the character. It forced me to slow down as I wrote his dialogue, to consider each and every word he spoke, to ensure they fit the creature I had created. Ironically, that I the writer served him the way he would expect to be served.

Based on the reader feedback to date, it is working.

Look at the characters you’ve created and ask yourself what physical tic, affectation or neurosis informs their lives. If you can’t identify one, can you introduce one to increase the depth of the character or heighten his or her reactions?

Even if it only helps you to better understand and write your character, the exercise will have been worth it.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, because I didn’t eel like asking.)

Too cool for fish school

Too cool for fish school

The Devil’s in the detales

Attention to detail is craftsmanship.

Fixation on detail is neurosis.

It’s important to be diligent when working on a project, but not so diligent that the project is dead before it starts.

Relax. Let your natural skills and energies flow through you as you explore your art.

It is those little quirks that make the piece yours and not the same as every other piece ever produced.

The ceiling of the trophy room of the Hockey Hall of Fame, which used to be a bank. (Toronto)

The ceiling of the trophy room of the Hockey Hall of Fame, which used to be a bank. (Toronto)