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.
Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Toronto improv podcast The Backline. This is from Episode 66: Improv is Not a Formula. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.
2:56: When learning how to improvise, you are taught that improvisation is the execution of a bunch of techniques/standards/lessons. With experience, that will dissipate as you make your own discoveries and break rules, while having successful scenes and shows.
5:10: “As you train more, you start to develop formulas. Or certain teachers start to suggest that ‘oh there’s a way to improvise and this is the way to do it. So do it my way and you’re going to find good scenes.’ But I don’t really think really true.”
6:06: “If the end product is a success in terms of laughs and enjoyment, then no-one gives a shit about what style or technique you use.”
8:22: “Yes And works, but it’s only one of the tools you have.” You don’t always have to agree – if you say no in real life to something, you don’t have to say yes just because you’re in an improv scene. The actors in the scene share consensus, they don’t necessarily say Yes And to everything.
9:29: Grounded/truthful scenes are not soap opera overdramatic heavy pretentious scenes. Play truthful and grounded to the reality of the scene. Don’t force truth into a scene where it doesn’t belong – it doesn’t necessarily need to be in every single scene.
13:02: “I think it’s a real disservice to tell people that something can never happen, in art, as well as improv.”
13:29: “It’s not about don’t make jokes. It’s about find the time, be aware of what you’re in right now, and if a joke is needed, make a good joke man!”
15:01: Object work makes performers look comfortable to an audience, even when they are saying nothing of value. “Once you start to say more interesting things and do more interesting things, object work is still fantastic, but do you need it in every minute of every scene? No.”
16:17: Listening and Reacting – You don’t necessarily need to use every single bit of information added by your scene partner in a scene – both of these are important, but it’s ok not to take in everything or react to everything.
20:28: A sense of whimsey or play with your partner – if the two people on stage are having so much fun, you won’t be thinking about missing character or relationship or plot. But if it has those elements, it’s just as good!
22:55: Good scenes don’t need to be overwhelmingly complex. You don’t need to create the whole pie from scratch at once. Start in a simple way, find a simple behaviour to explore and build together little by little. Think less Lord of the Rings, more Whiplash.
26:23: “The idea that the audience is watching something begin so small and then grow into it’s final product is an exciting adventure, and people can really get off on that.”
27:33: Drive – “What is the scene about? Where’s the momentum? What are we building towards? There’s an end in sight. [..] Your scene needs to go somewhere.”
28:19: If you make a discovery that the audience enjoys, trust yourself to move on – don’t be afraid to continue. Don’t just hang out, continue and find something better.
32:07: “It’s important that your job isn’t to perform the perfect scene and get all of the criteria from above down, but really it’s about existing in a certain space and just experiencing what is happening to you. Being able to do that forever – not feeling subconscious, not pulling yourself out of that moment.”
33:19: Vulnerability – often mistaken for being truthful or reacting. It’s not about character vulnerability – “it’s about exposing your truth to the audience.” It’s being able to do something that you would never do in real life in order to service the scene – be it playing a low status jerk or singing. Don’t push back, don’t resist.
43:05: “It’s always good to be true to yourself and how you play but I don’t think there’s any harm in being open to altering your play based on where and who you’re playing to.”
- Group games are all about making small moves following the patterns listening to what everyone’s doing.
- Terrible group game is character a and 7 character b. bad is joke a person in a line. Not terrible but we can do that. Third bad one everyone talking over each other.
- A group game is not just a scene it can be but a good group game is when the intellect and ability of ability of 8 improvisers following a simple pattern. A lot more ouija board than video game
- Everyone’s tempted to take control but you’ll find something much more interesting if you’re just reacting, just like follow the follower: you did something and I’m going to do something like it not the same because I’m me
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:
- No-one ever wants to start. You want to continue.”
- Specificity: Add something to what you already have. It’s not just a pair of glasses, it’s a beat up shitty pair of plastic reading glasses.
- “Either say the line and shut the fuck up, or say the line, repeat it, and shut the fuck up.” (Be efficient with your dialogue! We’re watching a finish product, not a first draft. Trust yourself, say less.)
- “Dare to leave me dangling.”
- Unfolded, unfurled, and evolved: How we treat a point of view. “And we don’t do anything but keep going.”
- Listen to the exact words that are said.
- “Funny trumps logic.”
- “it’s not my obligation to explain what the scene is about.” We are acting in the scene, so act in it.
- Exercise: Solo Exercise: Inspired by music, deliver a monologue.
- Once you bring in the past, you have to keep creating it. That’s when you get stuck.
- Be aware of the words you are saying, and be aware of the emotional content of the words. (This will inspire what comes next, as opposed to getting stuck and inventing what comes next).
- “We have to go forwards with what we say and do. Don’t go several steps back.”
- Being positive is work – unless it’s your inspiration.
- The first line of dialogue doesn’t set the scene, the second line does.
- “Specifics beget specifics. Once you have a few, it’s easy to find the rest.”
- “We’re writing using the ink of our voice onto the paper of our partners ears.”
- “You can say a lie, as long as you say the truth later.”
- Listen to yourself. You don’t just say things, you say them for a reason.
- Observe the scene. Don’t just “go forward.” Be mindful. The only time we say that we’re done is when we’re done. We don’t call it ourselves.
- “Don’t be in a hurry to get there, because it doesn’t get you there any faster.”
- If you fight it, no-one wins.
- If it feels different to everything else, play with it.
- Statement of truth – When you announce it, it’s done! (A statement of truth marks the end of a scene – good cue for an edit).
- Don’t leave out the middle parts – we need to know details.
- The audience can pick up subtext.
- Your scene partner ends where they want you to begin!!!
- “If you say one thing that doesn’t make sense, you can continue not making sense.”
- It’s not about finding the first thing interesting. It’s about weighing up everything and choosing the most interesting thing.
- When responding to your scene partner – is the answer yes or no? Then you will know how to respond to them. The obvious choices become clearer every time.
- Object Work: Easier to do things, then define rather than vice versa?
- “If you hold on to point-of-view – it can be written.”
- “A major part of what I’m asking you to do is have permission to be silly.”
Wish I could forward this to the dude in the audience who gave notes out loud during the show I saw on Friday night.
Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Chicago improv podcast Improv Nerd. This is from Episode 163: TJ & Dave. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.
10:34: How the TJ & Dave format came about: “We decided to improvise in the way we were going to improvise.” No planning of what the show was going to look like in advance, including format. After a bad first show, the duo made some choices to “find out what this show tends to do”. The cast was kept to two, as they only wanted to add people as they were needed. Rather than doing “a bunch of different stuff, let’s just do one thing.” Someone else pointed out that the shows would always take place in the same time – almost real time, within the hour TJ & Dave are on stage. No time dashes, but jumps to different locations (in the same time) occur. TJ & Dave playing multiple characters over the course of a show came out of necessity.
14:40: “The show itself, it’s an exercise in seeing what happens when you really only go from moment to moment to moment with no plans, no bits, and really just behave this way. [..] Like an actual human being, which is like the easiest way to get a show to a sustainable way, like put real people in it. Real people tend to live for a while, you know what I mean? They do things that they live by, and make choices that their accountable for, and that kind of stuff and so, if it was just going to be us and the show would be about an hour then, let’s make these people as actual as we can, and they’ll do things that people actually would do. Because no-one’s coming, we’re not getting edited, so we gotta live in these people for a while. It’s going to be easier if we make them real.”
16:53: Responding honestly means the response falls in the believable realm for that character’s point of view. In short, the logic checks out. An absurd character can be believable by being honest on stage, which may in turn gain laughs more so than an absurd character stating absurd things (because they are absurd or funny).
17:35: What a character first does can deem what they become. An over-solicitous waiter stands in a certain way, walks in a certain way, the pace in which they move or talk.
19:45: [..] There is going to be comedy in it [a TJ & Dave show], but it’s not the intention. That isn’t what we’re focusing on, we’re really just trying to go from moment to moment to moment, and one’s own nature will probably reveal itself in certain situations, you know the tendencies. We have a skewed outlook that often people view that as funny. Like in therapy, that’s sad. It’s medicated. But on stage, oh that’s hilarious! If you said comedy is the goal, if you said funny is the goal, you’re likely never going to hit interesting or frightening or any of that, you’re just going to hit, you’re going to miss, you’re going to hit unfunny.
21:44: “Honesty doesn’t prohibit comedy.”
30:23: Improvisation isn’t getting on stage and talking. It’s choosing your words, your movements, how you conduct yourself carefully in response to your scene partner.
33:56: Scenework that involves making discoveries on stage involves removing internal fears. “Empty yourself of all your own garbage”, and to “operate as an antenna” to receive, not push the scene in the direction we want it to go in. You don’t have to say something soon – talk when you feel the need to talk. If a place or person isn’t defined, we don’t have to define them in order for the scene to be considered good. “When in doubt, seduce.”
35:17: “Pay attention to the other person. That’s all that matters, that’s all that matters. What is going on here, what’s the relationship. That’s the extent of how important I am, what am I to them? And it takes a lot of the onus off trying to work all this shit out.”
56:45: “The job of the improviser is to not do the same thing, to always have a new. If what we’ve decided to explore becomes less than new, we have to find something else to explore.”
1:09:16: “Never love it [improv] so much that you’re not having outside experiences.”
1:09:55: “A bad scene should not force you to think less of yourself. A bad scene should and can make you look forward to improvising again.”
What I learned from Mick [Napier] when I studied with him was that I could empower myself onstage at any moment that I chose. When I am not the one starting the scene I just choose to empower myself right after I have completely listened to the first person’s initiation. This way I make sure that their idea gets explored and, if I am listening well, they will almost always tell me basically what I am supposed to do. In seconds I have a clear scene start that can move forward effortlessly.