Greedy improvisers are the worst. They are frustrating to play with and suck the joy out of performing. I’ve certainly been on both ends of the spectrum, so I’m not going to pretend that I’m a white knight. But the opposite of being polite in improv sets is not by being greedy – you wanna reach that middle ground.
The signs of a greedy improviser
- A lack of attention: Playing with your own ideas. Not following or remembering the previous beats or scenes. Being in your head thinking of ideas. Not knowing who has or hasn’t been on stage yet. Not listening.
- A lack of trust: Putting your own ideas ahead of your scene partners. Talking over other players. Dominating scenes, giving your scene partner everything instead of building together. Being on stage multiple scenes in a row. Not yes-anding.
Fortunately these issues are fixable: both of them by being aware.
- Listen like a thief: not only with your ears on what’s being spoken, but with your eyes for stage picture and who is performing, with your skin for the heat and weight of the scene. Play in the moment – once that scene has started don’t go backwards to something that you thought off stage but react off what your scene partner has given you.
- Share the toys. As the famous Del Close quote goes, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.” My ideas are no better or worse then your ideas (in fact, all ideas are worthless. The money is in execution and reaction). Everyone has their part to play in a show, so even if I’m having the show of my life, I need to hold back and let my teammates have a go – because they are awesome too!
If you’re aware of everything that’s going on, things will get easier, simply because you know what’s going on and can make your choices off the information you have gained. This is a team sport – and you’ll have greater success being one part of a team then being an individual in a group of people lumped together.
Players and coaches fixate on inspiration and idea generation. The openings job is not to generate ideas; that is the players job. But players feel that if the opening doesn’t silver platter them with an idea then it was broken. Sorry players, a “poor” opening means you’ll have to lift a finger. The openings job is to be the best monologue, scene paint, organic mirror dance or source scene it can be. Coach them and play them to be solid on their own merits. Don’t burden them with some external, heavy and intangible goal as inspiring people to create art. When you do, you will find that they do inspire.
Bill Arnett talking organic openings and being inspired over at Reddit.
What I try to explain to UCB 201 students is that every subject should be able to be intelligently explored with comedy. The key there though is intelligently. The comedy should not be coming from the sheer shock value of the subject matter. There needs to be a take on it. In 201 students are working towards being able to reflect real life honestly and then look for the first unusual thing, the funny or interesting idea that they can build a Game from. That means that you can portray a racist person because there are racist people in real life, but that alone can’t be the unusual thing.
The honest-to-god simple answer is to stop having ideas.
Ideas are fun, and they can be useful. But they’re only one part of improv.
Instead, just react.
Actually look at your scene partner in the eyes and have a feeling.
Trust that enough reactions strung together equal a scene.