Just a Few Quick Notes (Harpoon)

“I think good notes are actionable, specific, and confirmatory. That is: there is something you can actually do or change, you know what needs to be changed, and they point ‘the way’ as opposed to ‘not the way.’

Chris George is a Chicago-based actor and improviser who performs with the ensemble Harpoon, among other groups. On Saturday, December 12 in the 7:37 p.m. EST show block, Harpoon will present their show Just A Few Quick Notes: an improvised post-show notes session for a just-finished improv show that did not actually happen. In this spotlight interview, George talks about the worst post-show notes he’s ever received, some of his favorite improviser archetypes, and why so many improv teams insist on giving notes while standing in a circle.

 We’re so excited to have you with us on the festival’s maiden voyage! Can you explain the concept of the show you and Harpoon will be doing on Saturday? What can audiences expect to see?

All of the Harpoon players are relative veterans to a number of national and international improv scenes, and we believe that improv teams and communities are often drama unto themselves; this show allows us to sort of embrace our usual sarcastic, high reference level improv into an improvised improv note session. We’ll be playing a fictional, but probably typical (and only slightly heightened) improv team getting notes after their show. We hope to play with some of the tropes and cliches of the practice of improv and how teams function, while also having fun getting to play characters that we all certainly have previously worked with (or maybe even have been in the past). 

What to you is the difference between a good post-show note and a bad post-show note? What’s the worst (or dumbest, or least welcome) improv post-show note you’ve ever gotten?

I think good notes are actionable, specific, and confirmatory. That is: there is something you can actually do or change, you know what needs to be changed, and they point “the way” as opposed to “not the way” (also included in confirmatory: when someone hits it, you endorse the success). Bad notes are soupy, general, long, and opportunities for the coach to prove how much “funnier” they are than you. To that last one, I think of the great film critic Roger Ebert, who had some authentically good zingers about some movies, which is great for him because he is writing these critiques as almost entertainment pieces unto themselves, but notes aren’t an opportunity for performance: they aren’t critiques or reviews, they are opportunities to shape the performance, and are literally part of the work.

Worst feedback I’ve gotten:

3. “Can you do it more like <other improviser> next time?”
2. “I really want you to be interested in moving on to another team.” (Note: I never got another team there, the coach just wanted it to look like I did to make the owner happy.)
1. “You’re too straight and white.”

Why do improv groups like to stand in a circle when they do notes after a show? Why not just sit down in chairs or something? Why is the improv community so obsessed with “circling up?” Please ignore this question if you have no idea what we’re talking about, it’s possible that this is just a NYC thing. 

Not just a NYC thing; I’ve been in my fair share of circles from San Diego to Vancouver to Richmond. The “answer these questions right” part of me says: a circle is a nice way for everyone to be able to see each other, standing hopefully would encourage them to be shorter (I think of “stand up” meetings I’ve had at work being generally half to a third as long as the “sit down” meetings), and people can’t get too comfortable and lose focus if they’re standing (that last one feels like a stretch). The “snarky” part of me says: one teacher thought it worked well one time, and we’ve never given it up. I’ve done plays, and we usually get notes sitting around the rehearsal space or in email, so I think we’re the outlier.

You are a scholar of improviser archetypes — like “guy who really wants to be doing standup,” and “woman who only plays animals or children,” and so on. Can we expect Just a Few Quick Notes to toy with/pay tribute to some of these archetypes during your set? What are some of your “favorite” improviser archetypes?

Most definitely. At Harpoon’s rehearsal, we spent about an hour writing down archetypes, and then drafting a very loose framework of character POV’s to play that would (hopefully) best exemplify enough of those motifs to recreate the (woefully) worst improv team of all time. Gosh, this is a tough one, because I think at some level we’re all one of them and I’ve probably been a good chunk of them, and also because I’m thinking “does ‘favorite’ mean ‘best’ or ‘worst’?” What person would I want to be on a team with? I came up with a hopeful list:

Worst: “Person who thinks their improv or their theater is a gift to all mankind”

Best: “Person who actually understands the work requires diligent, constant, mindful effort”

Rarest: “Person who watches shows, but not because they’re in them, their partner is in them, they’re coaching them, directing them, or someone famous is in them”

You wrote a play during the pandemic, which is amazing! What’s it about? What inspired you to write it?

 I wrote two actually! “A Weekend at Macbeth’s” is a parody mashup of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and the 1989 “comedy” “Weekend at Bernie’s”. The plot is that two fools in the Scottish court are intended to take the fall for King Duncan’s murder and have to pretend that he’s still alive for the weekend. It lampoons a lot of Shakespeare stuff and some 1980’s excess, while also exploring themes of destiny, power, authority, and responsibility. I think it’s fairly funny, and I’ve gotten some good feedback from some table reads I’ve done; I’m putting the finishing touches on it now in the hopes that I’ll be able to stage it next year. The other is “Fakespeare”, which is a “what if”: Shakespeare’s acting company, on their last night in the Globe, get rip-roaring drunk and improvise the greatest play they’ve ever performed only they can’t remember a thing about it the next day and have to do an exact, encore performance for the king or lose their patronage forever. I get to play around with some Shakespeare tropes in it, which is familiar ground now, but also had a lot of fun playing with some theater and improv stereotypes. Basically, it’s high time we knocked improv down a peg or two. Not sure what the plan for the second one is right now, but hopefully live theater will return in 2021. I think in general I’ve been trying to find ways to fill the creative itch, and I had been wanting to create stuff for a while that was more permanent than improv that I could use to demonstrate what “I can do,” so here we are.

 Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal is Just a Few Quick Notes, and why?

A 10, obviously: everything in the festival is very normal.