Step into a scene already in progress
Following from the first moment you move from one small step to the next, the first line spoken to the next, The whole thing is just following, following, following. If you miss anything at the beginning you miss the opportunity to discover the scene. If you behave as though the scenic exists already, you find yourself in the right frame of mind to improvise better. Stepping into a scene already in progress relieves you of the pressure to provide exposition. You do not invent and bring stuff in from the outside; everything you need is in your partner.“
“Improvising is using what is conveniently at hand.”
The lights come up, you notice that Paul is standing, holding on to the back of a chair, he looks anxiously pensive, you need to express what you see, but not too directly, not “I see you are looking pensive” but something like “the world’s hard, you can’t keeping carrying it on your shoulders”. Paul looks a little more anxious, (it feels this character is always anxious) Paul says, “Yep it is – can’t help myself”. You say, “Worrying won’t sort it?” Paul says in a slightly irritated tone, “always the one with the advice”. You are uncovering shared feelings that you know each other well, that your behaviour towards each other is concern and affection, and it seems this ‘close’ long-term relationship could now be that of brothers, so you say “Then talk to Mum about it.” So you move on from one moment of discovery to another. This ‘brother’ discovery, the anxiety, slight irritation of the one, and the advisory role of the other is enough to carry through a one-hour show. Trust the scenes will reveal themselves, plan nothing.
Leap from point A with faith in the form
Starting with a prepared opening line and a character isn’t useful. Come on with nothing, but don’t think you’re starting with nothing, just believe that when the lights come up everything you need is waiting for you to be discovered. Let go of working or leading the scene, or of coming up with good ideas. Discovery is not about force and producing good ideas, it’s about receptiveness and response. It’s not about a leap from A to B (knowing where this leads) it’s only about the leap from A, the rest is an act of faith in the communication and trust between you.
Live an interesting and observed life and brings it to the stage
Play this game in life – observe people. When you see them in the street, if only for a moment, fill in all the unknowable blanks. Observe these people on the tube.
Look at the picture with the woman and child. Has something just happened? How is she dealing with it emotionally? What is she thinking? What about the boy? What about the gentleman? Is he connected to the other two? What’s he thinking about? What about the couple in the other picture? What is their relationship? What is their status in relation to each other? Is he trustworthy? Is something bothering her? Most essentially ask about each one “What is he or she feeling? How do they make you feel?” If we lead an observant life we can bring that mindfulness to the stage in the service of our scene partner. An improviser needs to watch, listen, read… and think. Our responses and reactions are coloured by our thoughts, it benefits us to practise having some.
Play to the top of your intelligence.
Our job on stage is to be attentive and play to the top of our intelligence; in the time we are on stage we should give 100% of ourselves to our partner. There is no benefit in not being at least as smart as you are. Why would you deny bringing your full intelligence to your performance? Sometimes people mistake being dumb for being funny, others believe that they will look foolish if they make mistakes while trying their best; they figure it’s far less scary and acceptable to make a mistake if you’re acting like an idiot. Playing to the top of your intelligence may make you feel vulnerable but do it anyway. It’s this old ‘fear of failure’ thing again. If you are being courageous and fail with grace it’s OK, but remember do it with grace and people won’t laugh at you, but with you – and love you for it.
Look and Listen to your Stage Partner
Staying in the moment is the most effective way to serve your stage partner and create the best scenes. Stay in the moment and respond honestly. Simply put – ‘look at your partner’ to know what to do. Behave genuinely, respond honestly so your stage partner knows what he or she is to you. You can help your partner by giving emotional emphasis and being more specific with your details. Be clear and slightly more explicit about what you are seeing in them and how they make you feel. Even when you are not in the scene stay attentive to what the others are doing. Even when you are on the ‘back line’ your head is still in the play. If we play with this sense of constant participation you will be much more present and ready for the timely edit or character that’s being called for. You will also build trust; your partner needs to know that you will always be there when they need you.
Listening is more than paying attention to what is said. You listen with all six senses from the moment you come on stage. You have to notice and engage each other’s gestures, energy, tone of expression, and what might be the underlying thought behind the words. The words are only one of clues to help you discover the scene that’s unfolding. Listening in this way is an art, and it’s far more intense than we can sustain in everyday life and it will lead to more honest scenes. Put your energy into paying attention rather than making stuff up, and you will discover everything you need is already there. When we come onto an empty stage we know nothing, our partner is the only source of knowledge so we better pay attention to them. Everything we need is in them. Their face, more specifically their eyes are the first place to look. Do they look kindly, threatening, frightened or confident? Do they seem familiar to you? We have instinctive responses to body language – use them and react truthfully.
How do you know your partner has heard you? Communication doesn’t happen without listening; a message is not delivered until it is received. Looking at them is a good start to knowing if your message has been received. Is there recognition in their eyes? We know someone’s heard when he or she is changed by it. When we genuinely listen we respond, we take in the information and are affected by it.
In a good scripted play nothing is wasted, so you should aspire to miss and forget nothing in improvisation; it may be impossible but you should reach for it nevertheless. Our attention goes and we miss things when we think ahead instead of being present in the moment. Problems arise most often when we miss something. You cannot think your way out of the problem when the problem is generally overthinking; the answer is not to do more thinking, the solution rests in keeping our attention on the other person. And that’s why we listen with all parts and senses to everything happening on stage.
While we are aware of our partner we should also be aware of the messages we’re giving. We have to be aware of what our body, face; eyes are saying as well as how they are being received. Assessing others and ourselves should be in the minds from the moment the lights go up; it’s that moment you begin to learn everything, and we don’t stop learning until the lights go down.
Discover by Elimination.
When the lights are up with look at the information that’s immediately available. The only place you will find information is in you stage partner; anything not appropriate to you partner is invention… the look in the eyes, their body language, their proximity to you. Does it feel familiar or are they relatively strangers? Notice their perceived sense of status to you and the space they are in. Do you get a sense of the space you are in? As the things you know increase, by process of elimination you discover who you both are.
The lights come on I see Paul is standing and holding on the back of a chair. He is pensive and slightly anxious. It is likely at that moment that he’s a threat? Not really. Instantly, that eliminates tons of other possibilities about the dynamic of this relationship. The way Paul is standing suggests he’s male, that’s, 51% of the population eliminated. It’s like a sculpture chipping off the fragments of stone that don’t belong to the figure he’ or she is carving out. Maybe we find we are work colleagues. More possibilities gone we begin narrow down to the play we are in. We pay close attention so we can keep eliminating possibilities until it appears we have always been these people in this space, doing this thing.
You do not have to prove the existence of the new reality or defend your decisions to believe a certain thing. You just remain honest and trust your instincts. I sense that Paul is a work colleague from the way he is standing, how it makes me feel, and most of all, that nothing suggested he is not my work colleague. I discover my character’s status is higher than Pauls’ at work but we also have a long-term personal friendship. Eventually we have found a particular relationship, which started as a more general one. Paul is anxious and I get a sense he’s done something wrong. I’ve discovered this from an awareness of my own body language and how Paul has been responding to me. We all have this inborn skill to recognise the weight – the feeling that something is wrong, that some unspoken undercurrent of feeling is going on.
This concentrated attention to detail means there is a lot to remember. I have a shocking memory myself and learning lines is a real problem for me, but I find remembering less of a problem here because listening makes you better at remembering. People tend to stop listening when they believe they know what’s going to happen next – or when they know what they want to happen next. Pure improvisation is about not knowing what is going to happen at any point. Memory improves when you pay attention and care about what is being said.
Establish the Heat and Weight
The first thing we look for at the top of the scene is the Weight.
Weight refers to what is already in the room; what is going on and what is the level of tension? For example: Imagine the look of your closest love one if they are concerned that you have become addicted to pills – there would be a pretty fair amount of tension in the room. Now imagine the look of the same loved one – thinking you are overdue for a haircut, the weight here would be much less.
The next thing you look for is the Heat.
Heat is the intimacy and intensity of the relationship – anything from complete strangers standing next to each other on a train to life long soul mates. You will eventually discover the associated relationship – Don’t mistake the heat for the relationship for the named relationship between people such as boss and employee, Father son, pupil – teacher and so forth. Father-son relationships could have the heat of casual drinking buddies or distant strangers. Likewise pupil-teacher relationships could be bully and victim or good-natured friendship.
Find an Emotional Point of View
There are apocryphal stories of how actors find a character; Alec Guinness would allegedly almost stalk people he thought had an appropriate walk for the character he was rehearsing until he could imitate it exactly. One physical attribute can stimulate all the rest, from gestures and stance to finding the voice, even the accent. If you want to adopt low status, turn your feet in and your body and mind automatically fill in the rest, you unconsciously get smaller in stature, your shoulders hunch, you walk with smaller steps, you stare at the ground and stop looking in other people’s eyes; you even start peppering your sentences with “ers” and “ums, and If people adopt a low status accent it’s commonly working class. This is the technique of working outside in. But is this a character? ` The manner is which people move or speak, play physically old or young is not essentially a character, it’s nothing more than a frame to hang a character on. It’s a characterization and often an archetypal caricature. You have the skin but not the heart. You may know who or more accurately what you are playing but you probably can’t articulate it.
It’s more useful to discover an emotional point of view. Look at your partner and think about how they makes you feel about everything they are doing and saying; are you bored; suspicious, feel enmity, love, or think them funny. Attach an emotional quality. Ask if there’s anywhere else you feel that feeling and you may begin to discover who you both are and where. Perhaps you’d felt put down at work by a colleague, or by a teacher at school – there, already, is a feeling and two possible settings for your scene.
Because we start with nothing at the top of the scene we can only begin with being ourselves, if we don’t we are inventing and not discovering off of our partner. We might respond and adjust in the immediate millisecond when we look at our partner but the change isn’t generally huge as we are only moving a small step at a time. This means we tend to play close to ourselves, which is my personal preference anyway. It’s also useful not to play big external characterisations because there are occasions when we may have to play our stage partner’s character and if they have an impossible accent and complex walk and gestures it’s nigh on impossible to be convincing.
Try SilencVery seldom do I hear silence in impro. Yet when you stop talking in can draw an audience in. All too often impro is people simply talking on stage when good impro is not so much about talking as listening. Listening is all there is. The more words we use the less they mean. Just stop talking and see what happens, or speak sparingly. You don’t always have to respond with words, respond with silence; thinking is a perfectly valid response. An audience will connect to scenes that have real life conversations. Fight through the fear that you are not doing enough; trust that you can find something quite beautiful in creating something from nothing and discovering moment by moment. This is about trying to represent real life on stage. Scenes need to move at the pace of real life, and than includes silence, pauses and time to reflect.
Throw Out The Artificial Rules
This form of Impro is all about a mindset that says we are discovering an already occurring scene. The less you do, the more it will seem like you are uncovering what is already happening, rather than writing your own story. Through discovery you can stumble onto stuff that is more interesting than if you try to invent something new. The less you try to put stuff on the scene, or control the story and the more you listen to what your partner the easier it becomes to follow the show. The understanding is that if you are following something, you must be following something pre-existing. Therefore, the scene must already exist. It isn’t a magical, creative process as is much a logical one of discovery.
The rule to establish “who, what and where” at the top of the scene may be essential in short form, but ultimately it is artificial. We just don’t speak in these expositions like “Sir I’ve been working in your baked bean canning factory for fifty years now, and as my employer I think it’s about time you gave me a promotion.” Expositions get in the way of creating scenes we want to be like real life. The answers to who what and where will reveal themselves in time if you simply improvise honest scenes. If we behave honestly, we don’t have to remember the rules. Our only task is to reveal what is already occurring, that’s why we pay attention to the scene.
Rules have come from noticing the characteristics that good scenes consistently tend to have. Keith Johnstone observed that scenes involving arguments often bombed; they went nowhere, whereas scenes in which people agreed moved forward. Thus terms like ‘blocking’ and “accepting” and the rule “Yes…and.” But if you were to literally saying “yes…and” at every exchange it would become irritating. Yes…and is a distillation that means you accept the reality of the scene. So in this form to be helpful to your partner and the development of scenes you do need to fundamentally consider the principles behind the rules. So throw out the artificiality of the rules, forget them in a way and trust that your experience of playing them over the years means they are now instinctive. Replace them with the following mindset:
- Agree to the reality of the scene and don’t contradict the established reality
- Play at the top of your intelligence and use all you senses to attend
- Look after each another.
- Your stage partner is the most important person everything you need is there.
- Artificially imposing facts on scene doesn’t feel ‘real’
- The scene is about the relationship between the characters.
- The first principle is: Behave and respond honestly in the moment.
In order to maintain that first principle, you have to be absolutely and singularly present in the moment; bearing in mind you need to know what has happened as well as what is happening in this moment. What is already established has significant on what is happening. Follow this ultimate principle the scene will work emerge. So instead of ‘play the game” and “obey every rule” just be in the moment.
Play with Honesty not for Laughs
“Is what we’re doing comedy? Probably not. Is it funny? Probably yes”. Del Close
It’s not our goal to be funny or entertaining. Our goal is to be honestly in the moment trusting that it’s the best tactic to produce something of quality. Will it be entertaining? Probably yes, if we stay honest.
There is a multitude of Impro games and formats that are set up to produce comic effect, the Armando certainly being one of the best. (See the previous post) But with this improvisational form we’re not trying to be funny, neither are we trying to not be funny, we’re trying to be human to produce something like life and genuine. Is real life funny? Probably yes. Audiences certainly laugh at the familiar, things they recognise in themselves, things that are genuine and real. Observational comedy is the bread and butter of stand up. Audiences respond also to being surprised, what better way to surprise and audience than with genuine honesty?
The kind of impro we are attempting here isn’t so commonly played perhaps because fear is the hurdle to honesty is fear. You fear that an honest reaction won’t be enough, or fear that the evenings bombing if you’re not getting any laughs. Gags create laughter but improvisers also know they also kill stories; knowing that so many improvisers cannot resist making gags because the audience reward tem with laughter. If the audience will laugh at scene killing gags, why consider laughter, at such a cost, rewarding? Laughter is not the first consideration when evaluating the success of a show. Of course we performing for an audience, there is no theatre without them. You will hear their laughter and their silence and someone leaving even only for the loo, but they mustn’t allow them to lead you, they are not in the scene you are trying to discover. They will be with you heart and soul only if you stay focused and true in the scene, It’s difficult to not to want to give them more of the same when they are laughing. It’s difficult not to imagine they are bored when they are silent. It will throw you the moment you make any assessment on how the audience is doing. These all play into your fears. Hopefully they encourage you by their attentiveness and interest but on the whole focus on the job in hand – and listen to you stage partner. But if something is funny because that’s the way the scenes going and it seems justified don’t run away from it equally don’t shy away from something that’s making you feel uncomfortable.
You have to confront your fears head on to play honestly, don’t panic or bluff or doubt. It’s helpful to develop a calm, attentive openness to discover the scenes you’re in. Remember you find the scene in your partner so try and get out of the way yourself and not mess up the scene with your own inventions. Your only blueprint for a good show here is putting your energy into the moment with your partner.
Never try to be funny always think about what is the next thing to do which would be most useful and interesting and true to this moment. If we change the reality, we can’t expect anyone to invest in it. For example walking through a table in a scene. When someone walks through an established table, the reaction is one of disappointment. We feel let down and betrayed: the other improvisers, the audience, everyone. They wasted our time.
Follow the Fear
Fear based moves on stage are to blame for most of the missteps. Fear is an enemy but also a friend. Not only are improvisers better served by not succumbing to their fears, but also by actively pursuing them, tackling the seemingly scary topics, and making bold, committed moves. More often than not, brave efforts create great theatre. The whole point is to get out there with nothing but one’s wits and whatever confidence you can summon. Improvisers best meet their audience expectation by following what may be the less comfortable path, walking on stage without a plan. As a result, there is this interesting relationship with fear, as it is a route to all improvisational evils it is at the same time marking the way to interesting drama..
“Follow the fear” principal is aiming to follow the truth of a scene, even if it means breaching uncomfortable waters. Ignore the fear of not entertaining the audience and doubting your abilities in order to dedicate yourself to the frightening prospect of not knowing where the scene will lead. The search for honesty requires us to quell the fight or flight response constantly threatening to put the kibosh on many good stage moments. Instead of fight or flight, we suggest you do neither. Neither battle more bolt from the fear, but pay attention and see where it leads. Problems arise when we forget to pay attention, look at our stage partner, or listen with our whole selves. Forget the fear and to just do the next little thing. And the major reason we forget his fear. It’s natural to feel fear on stage but the audience doesn’t want to see the player suffer. The characters yes but not the players.
Keep it Short
Remember that stage time and audience time a different. Time on stage seems much shorter to the performer than it does to the audience. On stage if you feel you’ve done ten minutes in reality its will be about 15mintes. We have all experienced occasions when we get absorbed in something and after what you think is an hour, look up at the clock and see been two. It’s same thing here, the form demands total absorption. For a 40 minute show, when players think they have done 25 minutes its probably time to stop.