Long-time Second City cast member, director, and teacher David Razowsky visited Australia in July 2015, and I was lucky enough to be apart of a three day workshop focused on his various techniques and approaches to improvisation. Here are my notes and lessons from that weekend:
- Once you define it [in a scene], it exists – you can’t take it back. You can’t stop defining it.
- You have to have mindfulness, awareness when improvising.
- “All improv is acting”
- It’s all about the moment. Beling deliberate, listening for the physical.
- Your scene partner can affect your physical change.
- “Be eager to respond, not eager to talk”
- “You [your scene partner, not me] are the most important person on stage”
- The process of improv is the product of improv. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
- Shape – Body use dictates what the first line of the scene is. “My partner tells me how to breathe.” Once you have your body shape, it’s not yours to change.
- Duration – how long behavior happens for before it has a need to change.
- Gesture – behaviour (real-world movement) and expressive (movement based on internal feelings).
- Kinesthetic response – how you respond to my action, not necessarily with words.
- Spacial relationship – When something in the space has changed, we are changed. “Let yourself be in wonder.”
- Repetition – movement that is sequenced over and over again. Not redundancy.
- Topography – how you move on the floor. What has came before you in the scene dictates whether you have a comfortable stroll, a cocky strut, or a scared step.
- Architecture – anything you have a relationship with. We add value to it – it’s either truthful (this is my backpack) or factual (this explains who i am). Smell, light, sound.
- Tempo – how fast or slow the scene moves.
- Zero point: We start scenes at zero. Once we add things, we are taking inventory.
- Soft focus: Receiving with our entire body. Not seeing with eyes or hearing with our ears.
- Listening in six directions: top, bottom, front, back, left, right.
- Exercise: Soft Focus Exercise: Feeling energised and inspired by the movement of others. Only moving when we feel inspired to.
- If there’s one shape, there’s no scene. All scenes feature pressure, tension, and dynamic.
- “All improv is ‘I’m not touching you!!'”
- At every point in a scene, you need to surrender the top of the scene (the initiation). You don’t have to honour everything that came before. The focus has changed, and you should honour that focus.
- Play with what inspires and what comes before – the last thing!
- Use your body, your heart, your soul – not just your brain.
- Compulsion is a straight line – get to the point and just say it. Compulsion trumps what’s come before, but it’s not impulse or instinct.
- You feel the relationship in the actor’s being, not how they deliver the lines.
- You have a contract to keep doing what you’re doing so you scene partner can follow. Don’t pull the rug out from under your partner.
- Say what you feel that you need to say. Don’t dance around it! (no need to add extra dialogue to give the scene more tension. Being direct will get you results.)
- “If you’re moved by what your partner says, don’t hold on to it!” (react damnit!)
- “We love a status shift.”
- “Don’t be a victim. Don’t be passive-aggressive, don’t be polite. Be aggressive, own up, be bold. It adds excitement.” (This changed me as an improviser. I don’t need to worry about the other actor in the scene. They can look after themselves. Because if I’m worrying about them, I’m not focusing myself in the scene.)
- “We want to see the scene that we’ve never seen!” (another big one for me.)
- Always have internal soft focus when playing.
- “You put on a bunch of clothes to take them off. Take off the fucking clothes!”
- Improvise like a crow, not like a train. Crowds fly to where the shiny objects are. Trains follow tracks.
- Playing low status has no equality with self.
- “When you say something cool, shut the fuck up. Or if you feel the need to talk, say the same thing.”
- Dare to be dull.
- “Everything I need is in my partner”
A lot of good stuff in the reblogs from this.
This post lays out a thought process for distilling themes and finding characters from monologues. I’m careful when I teach it; I’d rather my players be present in the show and not be doing math on the side lines. I’ll introduce this concept in class, do some exercises that use it explicitly but I always remind the student that the audience (and myself) won’t be judging them on their inspirations but on how well the scenes are played. However a player gets their inspiration, whatever technique they use to cook it, it is the scene that occurs onstage that is most important.
EDIT: More stuff from Bill on separating specifics on Reddit.
Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Austin improv podcast Got Your Back. This is from Episode 43: Maybe You Aren’t Listening. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.
7:08: “If you’re not listening, you’re inventing. [..] If you’re not using what the other person is giving you, or what you’re even giving yourself, or if you’re not aware of what’s going on then you’re not going to be able to use it.”
- Usually happens the first line out of a scene, due to nervousness?
- Use the intended specifics given at the top of a scene by your scene partner
9:06: “It’s like you gave some information, and then I was like hey this would be crazy! [..] It’s not working together, it’s like working alone, next to each other at that point.”
11:05: “Relax up top. [..] If you get nervous, just try and do more of what they already said, or just try and react to what was already there. Try to avoid going into your head and creating something external based on something that wasn’t said, inferred, with a subtext of what was said.”
- If you feel unclear, do some object work, keep listening, let your partner keep feeding you, or just ask them
- It’s fine to ask “what did you say?” if you didn’t hear your scene partner. React to it!
- No matter how crazy it gets, we can always make sense of it.
14:31: “It changes the reality every time we aren’t listening.”
15:36: “It’s all right there, you know. It’s always all right there. There’s never nothing going on. If you look at the person there, you’re in a position in relation to each other, you’re probably emoting with your eyes even if it’s just I’m uncomfortable because I’m an improviser on stage and the show just started, and you can always use that. You can always read what’s there.”
- “Being ahead of your audience is a great thing, but not during the first few lines”
- Get on the same page as performers, then race to the top!
19:51: “The second level of listening is communicating that you’ve listened.”
- Listen for the intent behind the message, which will prevent negotiation at the top of the scene. Agree with that first line and play it!
- Play the simple game and make it more complex.
- Let the things that come up from the suggestion/opening filter who you are, rather then what you say at the top of a scene.
- If your scene partner walks through a object work made desk, do you call it out or leave it be? Prioritise: What’s the most important thing in the scene? If the scene partner is talking about relationship, it’s that. If the scene partner is spouting non-sequiturs – it’s the desk. Play with the fire – their intent should be given weight.
- If you want to play with it, tie everything together – make the walk through a choice with wha telse your scene partner is giving.
35:51: “Listening is the willingness to change.” – Dave Pasquesi (or someone. It wasn’t made clear)
36:06: “The desk in a certain level plays the same role as an improviser talking through their drink as they’re drinking. As an audience member I’m going to notice it and I’m going to move right past it because the interaction and the emotional connection between the two performers trumps that little bad piece, or quote unquote bad piece of space work. [..] If there’s a perfect world to bring it together without derailing the scene, that’s great. But if not, I’d say the emotionality trumps that bad space work and that ignoring it, most of the audience will ignore it [..], maybe some of the improvisers will notice and if they’re judging your show on that they can go fuck themselves.”
- If you don’t know what to say, let it wash over you. Take a moment and then react.
- If you’ve created something, there’s probably so much more to do. So explore.
- If you’re going to reference something, reference something from the show, not something completely outside of the show. Use the universe we have!
- Entering/editing after a reveal: hurts the group as a whole. If the people in the scene have just found momentum, let them keep that ball rolling before taking or stopping the ball.
- Side support: Don’t come on to add information that has previously been established. Add information that helps the people in the scene focus, don’t distract them. Give the players time to use that information too – don’t make the move because it’s a “good” move to make.
- If it’s fun for you on the sidelines, it doesn’t necessarily make it fun for the people in the scene.
54:41: “Try this guys. Go out there, start a scene at a restaurant, be clear you’re at a restaurant but have no waiter there. Be talking to someone else, and see if your group has the discipline to not just walk on with some wacky waiter that changes the game. [..] If there’s a scene at a restaurant there’s going to be a waiter coming in. And they, likely are not going to have the same focus or necessarily be heightening the focus that the two people who started the scene had, and that feels shitty to me, it feels like that person isn’t listening.”
55:41: “So basically, listening trumps inspiration.”
57:52: “Listen to yourself. Do you know what you just did so you can do it again? So you can play that thing? So you can replicate it or in some way use it? You have to have an awareness to yourself.”
- Take time with what you’re doing. You are not forced to do stuff without realising what you’re doing. Slow down!
- Call out what the other person is doing – they might not be aware that they are doing it.
59:53: “If they know what they have each done, there’s a whole well to go back to.”
- Sometimes informed by the feeling of “we need to” instead of listening met with judgement. Keep yes-anding.
1:01:33: Group scenes: Focus everyone on to one piece of information. The more people on stage, the more you should be listening.
1:03:02: Remembering elements of the show: Games/What scenes are about and names!
- Names: Allows for a slow show to look slick, allow for big show moves to happen because you can shortcut them by simply mentioning the name. Smooths things out, especially for second beats.
- If it’s half way through the show and you have to keep rebuilding, you would have never be able to build higher than you previously did.
- Repeat names at least three times, so your teammates have something to use. “Plant the flag”
- Give them nicknames, adjective names to help them stick. “Old Mean Steve!”
- Naming scenes: A short descriptor to make things easier to remember in second beats. “Garlic eating Ned”
- Use physicalities, use space to do second beats and callbacks.
- Name the scene based on the relationship.
- You can remember stuff based on movement – rocking back and fourth, part of the stage.
- Write on your hand (ala spelling bee)
- Hosting: Don’t over explain! Let the audience handle some of the joy of finding out what’s going to happen for themselves.
1:28:00: What to do if someone isn’t listening to you:
- Listen to them, go to them. Long term, may not be someone you want to play with.
- Use the “not-listening”. Justify what they are saying and build off it. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen, it’s a gift.
1:31:07: You realise you’re not listening: Don’t beat yourself up in the moment, just start listening.
1:31:39: Joe Bill – two ways to deal with the negative and positive on stage.
- Boil everything down to the plain of it’s existance – everything is a duoality, either a postive or a negative. Take in what your scene partner is doing on stage and frame it as either with curiosity (positive, I want more of that) or with suspicion (negative, I don’t want more of that). Use it to explore the reason behind the action.
- “I think it’s much more sustainable to say ‘why would you doing that?’ then to just say ‘stop doing that'”
- If you’re going to ask a question, add information like a name. “You went to the store, Joe?”
Memory exercise: Repeating some of the last line and adding on. Makes what you’re playing with super clear.