I approached Tim Orr after writing about improvising in a second language. A friend of mine was amazed after joining one of Tim’s Silent Scenes workshop at Lyon. I didn’t want to miss his insight into languages and performing!
Tim is an experienced performer who has been improvising for 31 years. He has taught improvisation in many countries and performed all over the globe. He has performed in the groups BATS Improv, True Fiction Magazine, Awkward Dinner Party, and with the acclaimed troupe 3 For All; but feel free to check his professional site for a more detailed version of his journey!
It was a lovely (and long) conversation with him! We will explore how Tim fell in love with improv, what are his experiences improvising in other languages, how he prepared to workshops, and some juicy Improv wisdom! Enjoy the ride.
Why did you chose Improv?
“I remember the first show I saw. It was a Theater Sports, and one of the teams was doing amazing scene work”, he described. As a trained actor the performance astonished him.
“I was like ‘oh they’re acting! They’re playing characters and they’re making up scenes!’“. He found so inspiring that people use their acting while working on so many other aspects of the show. It sounded like a very addictive challenge!
Which languages do you improvise in?
As Tim is a performer who carries much experience, I was curious if he could speak any other languages and if he had taken a crack at improvising in it. “I speak French. When I was younger, I was fluent, but not anymore”, this is exactly the experience I was looking for!
Tim described his experience improvising as “frustrating”. “I mean, there are all kinds of things you can’t do”. Feeling constrained and limited were the hardest parts for Tim. “The variety of things you can play is narrower. For instance, to play certain characters well, they talk certain ways!”.
Tim’s struggles are very interesting, as his situation is drastically different from mine. Tim is a seasoned improviser who understands which move or character will benefit the show and playing in French limited his ability to do so.
When approaching a scene, I come with the limited set of characters I can create, and find what happens after. For me, improvising in English isn’t intrinsically frustrating, but I wonder what other moves would I use if I was improvising in my mother tongue.
Tim recounted a time at the Lyon Festival, where he found himself playing in a set that challenged the improvisers to speak the language they knew the least. Gibberish was not an option. It had to be a language, the one you knew the least words in (from the nationalities of the cast). “I remember I did it in Russian, I basically could only say ‘vodka’, ‘comrade’ and ‘spasiba’ for the whole show.”. This is an exercise I would love to do! Exploring a scene with such limitations sounds like a hilarious exercise!
Improvising in an international cast
Tim has taught and performed on festivals around the world so I asked him what were his experiences sharing the stage with an international team, and how can native speakers become better players in those situations.
“I recognize the necessity to be clear”, he said about improvising on an international team. It is so important to make sure your partner understands you and feels comfortable. Clear refers to using both shared cultural references, and use of the language itself.
“You have to be careful to not to drive. You can easily bulldoze the scene, but that’s not our approach here anyway.” is his biggest tip for native-speakers improvising in an international cast. Luckily his style of Improv is not reliant on dialogue. His assembly relies on creating connections and finding each other, instead of witty and funny games and responses.
“I prepare workshops a little different from a lot of improvisers because of my coaching background. I plan my workshops a lot”. Tim has been running workshops for several decades now. He likes to plan the time the group will spend on some exercises and review how it went after. But he considers many details.
“Whenever I’m teaching a group of people with different levels of English, I say ‘raise your hand right away if you don’t understand me”. Clarity is crucial when teaching international teams. As he said, “it’s not fun to be in a workshop where you don’t know what’s going on”.
Tim shared one of his experiences teaching people with different levels of comfort in English. “Running a workshop, I identified two people whose English wasn’t great”, he told me when asked about how to make the experience more inclusive. “They seemed to struggle with the language. I approached others whose English was fantastic, and they were strong improvisers and paired them up”. I agree, explain why you encourage them to work together is very important. Helping others have a great time is part of a good improviser’s toolkit!
It is important that we take language into consideration when planning your first international workshop. “It’s our responsibility to be proactive and make people feel safe so they can speak up”, he shared. It is important to learn how to make people feel comfortable, both as teachers and fellow improvisers.
Exercises to do
A hot topic among the experiences shared by you while improvising in English were vocal warm-ups. Sometimes these exercises add an extra layer of anxiety when people feel less comfortable with the language.
“I do use different warm-ups depending on the level of English. Or I say ‘do it in your own language’ if I’m in a country where everyone speaks the same language”, Tim said. Having fun with the exercise is SO important! “But remember to give them the choice, because sometimes people are there to work on their English too!” Which warm-ups does Tim choose? “I do a lot of movement exercises”, he explained. “Getting groups of people up and challenging them to move together in a certain way for a period of time, without being too specific on the movement”. I have rarely done games like this!
Sometimes he has had to adapt certain exercises for a workshop. A clear example is when he taught in Saudi Arabia where he adapts warm-ups involving any contact between men and women.
Tim shared with me some of the lessons Improv is teaching him. “It is very important with improv to maintain a degree of humility and to realize that there are so many things you have to do”. “You have to play so many more different characters than a traditional actor, get good at storytelling, you have to get good at editing, you maybe have to get good at singing, at knowing history and all this cultural references”. “You virtually have to know everything about the world, and that is something you can do for a very long time”. It sounds like a hefty challenge!
“I have been doing what we call ‘the naked stage’ for 10 years. The format is a three-act play in one location. We’ve always done it very well because we have a lot of theatre experience. About five years ago we did a five-people show where there was no conflict between the characters for the entire show. For all three acts, nothing. There were completely different characters, they just didn’t get in any conflict. And we got one of our biggest standing ovation. This experience made me think a lot about conflict. Because anybody who studies theater is gonna tell you need conflict”, he shared this as one of the moments defining his improv career.
I wanted to get more personal in the end, so I asked about some of my struggles with improv. I asked how could I deal with losing motivation, and he answered “Sometimes you will have to ask ‘Do you try to improve what you’re already part of?’ and ‘When do you do something new?’“.
Asking what is challenging about being a performer, he shared “it’s just the constant struggle to really listen and really respond”. “Although the hardest thing is to stay important in improv and to continue to get audiences. The promotional part of being an artist, if someone else isn’t doing it for you, is very difficult. Because I ultimately want any theater, I play to be full every time I play there and that’s very, very hard. I recommend having people do promotional material, but pick people who want to do it. If you don’t want to do it, you will do a bad job”.
Where can we find you
After having this chat with Tim, I am trying to convince my theatre to bring him as part of our guest-teacher programmes. He helps with many skills I am actively working on. “I’ve been the artistic director for groups in Europe. I teach them how to be their own artistic directors, but also how to give each other notes and different strategies for dealing with long-term impact relationships.”, he shared some experiences doing that which made me dream of having that with my assembly!
“I give workshops playing characters who like each other. I don’t say avoid conflict I say put characters who like each other. Liking each other is not an intellectual choice, it’s having the feeling of liking and loving other characters”, he explained about the workshop he is more passionate for (I wrote about how he discovered this above!). “If you don’t have conflict, what do you have? That is what I like to explore. Most teachers who tell their students to avoid conflict don’t know how to do it themselves”. I can acknowledge how much I rely on conflict!
If you live close to San Francisco, you can see Tim on stage as part of BATS cast. He also travels giving workshops, you can find him on places like Lyon Festival or Stockholm’s festival. He also tweets sometimes in case you want to check what is he doing!
You can also like me and contact him on Facebook if you would like to talk about Improv or making him come to your venue! I will update this as soon as he confirms the rest of his European tour!
What about you?
Have you ever taken a workshop with Tim? Have you checked any of his shows? I am so much looking forward having him here!
Who else would you want me to have a chat with? I am really interested on people making our community more inclusive for non-English speakers, but I love having chats with improvisers all the time!