Disclosure on this article: I give full credit to the incredible teachers I had at The Annoyance Theatre for teaching me the basis of many of these concepts.
My favorite type of improvisers these days are the ones that truly themselves don’t know what they are going to say next.
The audience can see this — they can tell when someone is living in the present moment — alive! Yet, I find most improvisers are stuck onstage planning three steps ahead, three beats ahead, sometimes three scenes ahead — trying to manipulate or control where the scene or show is going and thereby exercise some level of control over the chaos. I find it tends to kill the funny.
I teach an exercise where I have the group improvise 60 second scenes. Then we do scenes at 30 seconds — then 15, then 7.5. By the time we get to 7.5 second scenes, you can imagine their quality: decisive, starting in the middle, high energy or emotion, no hesitation at the top, and no time to think about all the things that you may think about when you want to improvise correctly.
I then ask the students to list some of the things they think of when trying to improvise a ‘good’ 60 second or longer scene:
- declaring the who/what/where/when/why (especially at the top of the scene)
- heightening and ‘if this is true, then what else?’
- your character’s deal or POV or emotional state
- your character’s characteristics (body, voice, mannerisms)
- object and environment work and proper improv pantomime
- finding the game of the scene or the unusual thing
- stage presence (can the audience see and hear me)
- the millions of variations of “how am I doing?” (am I being funny, does this audience like me, is that Charna Halpern watching tonight in the audience, oh my god, am I being a good teammate, am I steamrolling, am I playing too little?)
- saying ‘yes, and’ every idea
- giving gifts to yourself and your scene partner
- ‘give and take’ and listening
- building the scene organically, one brick at a time
- discover (don’t invent!)
And if it’s a scene in a long-form show, they sometimes are managing:
- managing edits, tag-outs, walk-ons
- employing callbacks and patterns interweaving between scenes
- managing the long-form and ‘where you are’ in it (i.e. the different needs of second beats as opposed to the run-out of a Harold)
- creating a “theme” for the piece overall
And God help you if you’re doing musical improv, in which case you may be thinking about:
- rhyming and rhythm
- harmonies and melodies
- song structure (chorus/verse/bridge)
- telling a narrative
- playing with genre and trope of musical theatre (the “I want” song)
And let’s not forget the many rules of improv you’ve learned not to break:
- don’t kill your scene partner
- don’t talk about what you’re doing
- don’t talk about someone outside the room
- don’t leave the improv scene or theater
- don’t be strangers (know your scene partner’s character at least 6 months)
- don’t deny or dispute what’s happening
- take the local train to crazy town
- build out a base reality
- play to the top of your intelligence
- don’t do teaching scene or transaction scenes
- don’t use real props or costumes
- don’t play animals or children
- and…most importantly…don’t think! (GOOD LUCK!)
When you focus on accomplishing of all these rules listed above, you enter a “right or wrong” mentality. Just typing this out now, I feel an enormous weight on my shoulders. It’s hard to freely do ‘make ’em ups’ with all that mental baggage weighing my ass down.
It’s not to say there isn’t validity to the ideas behind the rules. They’re like Western medicine — they treat the symptoms of problems in improv but don’t address the underlying reason why something isn’t funny. For example: many transaction or teaching scenes are boring because they lack a strong point of view from one or both of the characters and people are just mechanically going through context as if context is interesting alone. I no nothing about sports but once a football announcer said a spot-on statement about improv: “You know, we think it’s the context of the game that makes it interesting —such as the score and the way the game goes down — but really what’s interesting is how the context of the game reveals the character of the players.” If you pitched me a teaching scene between a dad dying of cancer trying to teach his son to ride a bike, you bet your ass I’d be interested in seeing that teaching context played out. I’ve laughed harder at some teaching scenes than anything else and thoroughly enjoyed a scene where I didn’t know where it actually took place. So if every rule can be broken, what’s the point of creating absolutes? Call them guidelines at best to be observed and discarded as it fits every improvised scene.
There’s also magic in purposely not trying to do everything at once at the top of the scene. When you choose to hold onto some of your context clues (the who, what, where, etc.), you can reveal them organically at the time in the scene when you are inspired to do so! You can create some mystique about what’s going on to invest the audience’s attention. You may even stumble across a more surprising ‘who or what or where’ by waiting until halfway thru the scene to discover…it was your daughter you were courting for that date the whole entire time! Woah! And the audience will actually care about the context because they invested in your characters as human beings first. I hear that many people do not feel ‘OK’ in a scene until they have a firm ‘who, what, where, etc’ and are on the same page with their partner. But what if you and your partner walked on already knowing you were ‘OK’ from the very top of the scene and then chilled out and enjoy the journey?
Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of The Annoyance, taught me many of the above ideas, as well as the key point that the more importance you put on anything, the harder it is to be relaxed and play. So I posit the theory that it is possible to always feel like you are in a 7.5 second improvised scene. That we can get savvy about the effect time has on improv and decide that a ten minute scene is no more important than 7.5 second scene. It may seem terrifying because of the amount of time you could potentially fail and have to sit in what you created — but let’s also remember (via another quote from Mick) that “improv is the least important thing you will ever do in your life” (and it’s also the most wonderful). My mom used to say, “At least they aren’t shooting at you.” No one is going to take you out back of the theatre and execute you because you did ten minutes of terrible improv. Yet, we often put a level of importance on it that feels like life or death stakes.
So let’s agree there is no right or wrong in improv, there is only weak or strong. What then does it mean to be a strong improviser? A strong improviser can say both FUCK IT and I AM SO EXCITED at the same time. Important: it’s assuming both. If you just say FUCK IT and that improv isn’t important, you may be one of those dicks who hates the art form and is truly unpleasant and uninspiring to exist with onstage. If you just say I AM SO EXCITED you may think this show is a very big deal and very important and strangle the ability to be relaxed and not give a damn about the outcome. Mick used to point out from watching a thousand Second City general auditions how many great improvisers do terribly at auditions because they’ve made the audition very important in their minds. But if you can hold both FUCK IT and I AM SO EXCITED TO DO THIS in your mind — you can achieve a fantastic, free, fuck-it headspace. And then you can embrace truly improvising from your gut and enjoying the danger of not thinking ahead about things that have yet to pass. Instead, just focus on aggressively playing into what’s directly in front of you: the present moment.
I find that when you start strong and let go of getting it right and simply focus on playing aggressively, you accomplish all those things you want to achieve in a ‘good’ improv scene without worrying about them at all. Mick describes in his must-read first book Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out the law of inertia: that an object in motion tends to stay in motion. If you start a scene with intention and strong decisions, you are likely to continue operating that way as you build the scene. If you start a scene hesitantly in neutral-gear, trying to ‘find the scene,’ you are likely to continue feeling lost and searching and unlikely to “suddenly have the time of your improv life!” So clear your headspace and get into a decisive state of making strong moment-moment choices, and the rest falls into place.
And best of all, you may actually surprise yourself and say something you didn’t think you would say! The funniest shit I ever did onstage I did not plan to do or say — it just happened by impulse or came out my mouth like word vomit. We get so afraid of improv failure that we do everything we can to tighten the bolts and prevent any slippage — and thereby kill our chances at creating spontaneously.
There is no right or wrong. The best improvisers in the world can’t bat 1000. You may get good over time at improving your worst scenes to the level of mediocre, but there will always be some duds. And it doesn’t matter. Give up the quest to do improv “correctly.” There are only weak or strong improvisers — and strong ones play like the badass, aggressive, confident improviser they know they already are.