On shaky Groundlings (a review)

94629-swg

Just got back from seeing a preview of The Groundlings latest improv show entitled Slippery When Groundlings and really have only one response: Watch for the names Jill Sachoff-Matson and Alex Staggs. I don’t know when these two artists will hit it big, but I guarantee you they will.

Unlike the standard Second City shows I am used to watching, this one didn’t seem to have much of a theme beyond irritating people…but then, all sketch and improv comedy seems to be reduced to irritating people. And given the reputation of The Groundlings, I was surprised at how many sketches seemed to be one joke spread over 3 or 4 minutes. I expect that from student shows, but I expect more from main stage casts.

The first third of the show was evenly bad with the exception of a piece called “Carl’s Jr.”, where Sachoff-Matson first caught my attention as a dweeby woman who has been run down and then backed over by life.

Jill Sachoff-Matson

Jill Sachoff-Matson

The second third picked up somewhat, starting with “Church Camping Trip”, but a solid premise was completely let down by a lack of where to go with it. It’s a good sketch, it just needs more brainstorming. This was followed by Sachoff-Matson’s “Kindergarten”, which actually caused me to laugh out loud. Sachoff-Matson is mesmerizing both physically and in how her mind works, particularly as she portrayed yet another train-wreck character.

But just when I thought I had seen the best part of the show, Alex Staggs shows up with “Giving Up”, a lounge act in which he gets the audience involved with hilarious results. I would be willing to see where Staggs goes with this every night because he exudes comedic range with this.

Alex Staggs

Alex Staggs

Following the short intermission, Ariane Price gave us her send up of sad-sack informercials with “Emulsion”, another audience participation bit that was incredibly tight because of the character Price portrayed. You felt so sorry for her Eastern European refugee glam-girl wannabe that your heart melted and you wanted to give her a hug.

Ariane Price

Ariane Price

The problem was, the crew then wasted all that good will with “Sub”, a throwaway bit about an aged substitute teacher who has trouble reading fine print on an attendance sheet. That’s it. That’s the bit.

But the show was rescued by the big musical dance finale “Brittany” where again Sachoff-Matson showed what she can do with a woman completely at odds with her world and her own body.

If I have one complaint about Sachoff-Matson’s overall performance, it is that her three best pieces all largely portrayed the same character. But where this would normally kill it for me, she managed to do so in such unique ways that it wasn’t the mortal sin it might have been.

I don’t know what other sketches they have in the hopper, but there is a definite need to replace several from tonight before this show will be solid from front to back. And while good, the other cast members are going to be challenged to shine as brightly as Sachoff-Matson and Staggs.

groundlings

Toronto Screenwriting Conference – Day Two Highlights

Personal highlights or take-aways from Day Two of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference:

tsc-logo

Darlene Hunt – Masterclass (creator, showrunner for Showtime’s The Big C)

Take your time responding to questions: When someone is asking you about a specific line or scene, whether in meeting on or set, give yourself time to think about it, because you may not remember exactly why you wrote that scene that way. At the same time, even if you can explain why you went that way, make sure you remain open to new interpretations or new ideas that may work better.

Bob Kushell—Anatomy of a Pilot (creator of BBC series Way to Go)

Pilots suck: All pilots suck to one extent or another and he explains why using the analogy of an approaching tornado. You’re living your life when suddenly you hear that a tornado is coming. Quickly, you run into the storm shelter with several other people and try to prepare for the coming storm. At the same time, as each of you goes about your tasks, you remind one of the people about that time she ran over your cat, which is why you don’t like her. But hey, you love the fact that another individual’s here despite those awkward feelings after that drunken fling at the cottage. Oh, but you still need to prepare for the coming tornado.

Within an ever-shortening time span (now around 21 minutes), you need to fill in useless backstory that everyone in the show should know (it’s their backstory) and still manage to tell a coherent plot that somehow illustrates the show’s premise.

Penny Penniston—Not Just Talk: How Writers Think About Dialogue (professor at Northwestern University)

Dialogue is not conversation: If words were keys on a piano keyboard, then the difference between conversation and dialogue is the difference between noise and music. Dialogue is precise and crafted, gives voice and describes themes. It gives clear direction to the artists interpreting it and a chance for them to show off. And like learning to play music, learning to craft dialogue takes practice to develop muscle memory, but at the same time, understanding the theory behind dialogue will allow you to step back from your work and find the good and bad things about it.

Aaron Korsh – Masterclass (creator and showrunner of USA Network’s Suits)

Understand your scene’s goal: Reading a scene out loud can be very helpful when it comes to determining if it’s working, as some scenes may read well, but something goes wrong when it becomes audible. And if the scene isn’t working, it’s often because you haven’t really established what the scene’s dynamic or purpose is.