It’s not a mistake on an improv stage as long as you recognize what happened and in some way react to it, right? Your pure reaction to someone walking through an improv table that you just took a minute to set up, is justification enough that they walk through the table. You don’t need to call somebody out and say “You just walked through my table!” You know that’s going to alienate them and alienate the audience likely, and then you’re going to spend the rest of the scene trying to dig yourself out of that callout. As opposed to just go over, pick up the table, set it up again, patiently, diligently, and then when somebody else walks over, don’t even mention a word, just go pick it up again and do the same thing. That’s going to create laughter from the audience because you’re respecting the environment and showing that there are no mistakes. That wasn’t a mistake they walked through the table, that’s a gift that’s an opportunity.
Bill Kullhan on accepting mistakes from Improv Nerd E225.
Great improv is making a circle in as close to zero seconds as possible. Removing the fear-based delay we build in to avoid making a choice that may or may not be foolish or “incorrect.” Great improv is when you create with alacrity and focus and joy. It’s not about nailing the perfect idea (or making a perfect circle). And yet, it is amazing the lengths improvisers will go to avoid the present moment, be it living 3 seconds, or ten seconds, or a minute, or 15 minutes ahead of what’s going on right now. This stems from a need to control and protect themselves from failure. Ironically, this fear-based way of playing only decreases your ability to be funny, and the audience can see your avoidance a mile away.
“Doing better improv” is equated with “learning how to improvise better” as opposed to having a unique viewpoint or insight. Improvisers frequently say things like “that was good improv,” “that was a nice scene,” or “I liked that move.” There is less of “I thought the show was about y.” Does this differ from how you would talk about a movie you’ve watched? This is partially an artifact of how improv is taught. Many improvisers do not have a formal background in the arts. They encounter improv first as a hobby. Usually they are taught by improv schools with a hierarchy of levels and explicit idea of progression. Improv generally has to be taught in person, with personal feedback, from a more experienced improviser. This establishes a strong master/student hierarchy, even at performance level, with the implicit assumption that becoming “better” means becoming more like the master. Many improvisers also stick with the same school or teacher they started with. If they form teams often they use formats they have been taught by this school.
Here are the major components I take out of it: there are no sweep edits (hence the name). But more important than what there is or is not is WHY. You never want to sweep away what was built in a previous scene and start from scratch. Much like a good scene takes an initial choice and grows everything from that seed, the Dusty takes each scene and builds a tree and then a forest, creating a world with many disparate characters and situations, each linked in a way the audience can see from what was there before.
Craig steps out of the backline and announces to the audience, ‘Cheddah’! Jon follows along with ‘Tasty!’ Sarah is next, ‘Swiss!’ Jadwiga is fourth in line and says ‘Edam!’. We hear from Gouda and Feta and Parmesan. And then Carl steps out. But Carl doesn’t name a cheese like the rest. Carl is a rat. He sneaks around, before taking a nibble out of Sarah, then stealing her offstage.
The rest of the cheeses freak out, running around the stage and changing places in line. Cheddah is suddenly not so proud, announcing itself in a lower volume. Bobby follows with a slightly scared ‘Swiss’, and the rest follow along until Sarah returns as a rat, chewing on Feta and stealing her away too. The cheeses freak out again, with Craig yelping out a horrified ‘Cheddah!”. The speed picks up, as cheese after cheese is listed. And I’m there sitting in the audience laughing my ass off, because I know what’s coming next.
Group games are the best part of the Harold. Yeah yeah, there’s nothing like a well acted funny two person scene but when a group game is performed well, it sticks with you because you’re watching magic play out on stage. Think about it: how on earth do eight or so people play a game when they can’t establish the rules ahead of time? Oh, and also make it funny because an audience has paid to see this show and want to laugh.
The truth is that group work is easier to do than two person scenework purely due to the numbers. If you’re on stage with seven other players, you’re only doing one-eighth of the work. Groupwork is about sharing the stage and putting the group first, with every person adding their part brick by brick to build a wall, and then coming together as a wrecking ball to knock that wall down. Of course, groupwork can also be easier to go disastrous – after all it is a group of performers trying to get on the same page very quickly. It’s easy to let one person control proceedings and follow them without adding anything. Or alternatively, everyone has their own opinion and any unity from the group gets lost in the noise of individuality.
These are all airy-fairy thoughts, I know. So here’s a way to use these qualities on stage in a more digestible way. Use patterns in your group scenes and group games. Patterns are easy to establish, identify, follow. Audiences relate to patterns because we have recognisable patterns in our daily lives – from our morning routine to the words we choose when we speak. The cheese game listed above follows a clear pattern: a list of people name cheeses, a rat steps out and steals one cheese, the cheeses get scared; and the pattern repeats.
A fun pattern follows three areas: accept, add, and advance – aka my patented AAA rated pattern pattern.
Accept: In the cheese example above, the floor is open for the second person in to do absolutely anything. It would be tempting to explain away why Craig said ‘cheddah’, or try and establish a location in order in fear that Craig stepped out with nothing and needs help. It’s easier to accept Craig’s move as brilliant and support it. Sometimes that’s easy as mirroring your performer and doing the exact same actions or saying the same phrase. Doing so shows connection between the group while stripping away that awful panic and in-our-headiness where we need to something clever or funny – we’re on board with the first idea and it’s coming together bit by small bit.
Add: It’s said that the third idea in a list sets a pattern. In our pattern we hear cheddah followed by tasty. Sarah’s suggestion of Swiss confirms that the group is listing off varieties of cheese, and not say.. descriptions of money. It means that it’s now easier for Jadwiga and the rest of the cast to come in and add items to the list – the pattern is set, let’s build it together to a point where we can make it blow up.
Advance: If we’re travelling together, we’re not spinning around inside a hamster wheel, we gotta get somewhere. That means that we need to break the pattern in order to go somewhere new with it. In our cheese example, Carl could have named himself another cheese, but it’s likely that everyone on stage would shrug their shoulders and someone would have made an embarrassed sweep edit from the line. Carl’s move was not to take focus and make himself the star rat. It was to advance the pattern by breaking it. Carl taking Sarah off-stage means the pattern can advance – the rest of the cheeses are affected and it heightens the pattern, keeping things fresh.
The next time you’re watching a Harold, try and find the patterns going on in a group game. Make guesses on how you would add to the pattern and advance it. Then when you play, make those small moves of agreement and acceptance to create patterns and see where it leads you. Even if your group creates some wonky patterns (and all groups do), you will find yourselves more closer together as performers, and that’s only a good thing.
The text of your sentences can be almost anything. It’s the meaning behind them that really matters. Your scene shouldn’t be about digging a hole or selecting brunch items or polka dot curtains. But any of those scenes can be great if they reveal something about a character or a relationship. Dig beyond the surface. Find the gold. Slay the audition.