“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 some notes and interpretations I took while listening to New York improv podcast Magnet Theater Podcast. This is from Episode 50: Will Hines. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.
2:12: Improv fighting: philosophical debates are good, but wizard battles are bad.
- Philosophical Debates: Two characters are having a point of view discussion. It’s not about winning the fight or defeating your scene partner. It’s about exploration of point of view, which could lead to further point of view, game, or pattern.
- Wizard Battles: Using the powers of reality to win the fight. Making up something to justify your own point of view/make your scene partner look wrong.
Find the sweet spot for fighting in scenes. No fights makes for unrealistic discussion (people in real life fight!). Too many fights leads to defensive moves by the improviser, instead of the character in the scene.
6:20: When a fight is over, we move forward. An interesting change happens in the character as a result of the fight impacting on the character. Fights don’t exist just to fight.
8:14: “Fighting (in scenes) is tricky I think ’cause [..] good fighting and bad fighting feels very similar I think. And bad fighting feels like a lot of good stuff in improv. Like bad fighting feels passionate and true, and honest and specific, all that stuff’s great, like that stuff is what you’re trying to get to right? So it’s really tough for younger improvisers, you want them to be like passionate and committed and honest and personal, but then they’ll only do it to defend themselves. I mean I’ve done it, I don’t mean to. But that’s the trick, to get them to separate their ego out.”
8:53: “The guaranteed way to know if a fight is good or bad, and this is not helpful for when you’re doing improv, is like if you feel like defensive anger while you’re doing it, it’s wrong. Like if you’re just doing it to protect yourself, that’s wrong. Even though that does happen in real life, you can’t pursue that feeling [in a scene]. But that’s not necessarily helpful. Like if you make fun of me on stage and I zing you back, that’s probably not helpful even if it makes the audience laugh. But if you say something about yourself and I zing you just to like make your thing more true or creative more evidence to back up what you said about yourself that is good, and the audience might laugh. Those things feel very similar, but the former is a protective move, it doesn’t work.”
11:05: Fights often break out due to scene partners not acknowledge each other when starting the scene. The first performer in enters the stage, starts doing object work, leaving the second performer to make a big choice. First in will then feel violated and then fights with the second in. “Shake hands” before you start the scene – acknowledge your scene partner when you start the scene – use eye contact, get on the same page early. “The person tried to shake hands with you by talking about a sandwich, and you rejected the handshake. So they’re as miffed as if they put out their hand and you ignored it.”
18:44: Differences in Magnet style Harolds to UCB style Harolds according to Louis Kornfeld:
- Less game oriented.
- Second beats: Extensions of the first beats instead of literal direct heightening. First beats are considered source scenes, which are followed in the second beats discovering resonance between them.
- Use of opening: Casual, exploration of ideas, finding characters. Not literal, not so much to generate premise or game to re-use in scenes.
19:34: Will Hines’ pragmatic thoughts on Harold openings:
Premise or game based opening pulls
- Advantages: You get something funny earlier, potential of laughs earlier, makes the performers and audience comfortable that the show is going somewhere.
- Disadvantages: Discovery can be rushed, scenes can be thin as a result.
Theme, moods, characters, half-idea based opening pulls
- Advantages: Connect more with your teammates, commit harder, more real, more freedom to find yourself in it. Yes And/Agreement is stronger.
- Disadvantages: Can meander more before something funny happens. Less aggressively entertaining – if people aren’t funny naturally, the show will ramble around.
22:02: “Entertain the audience now. Do it now, that’s what you’re there for.”
22:24: “I treat openings a lot [..] as gifting each other with what the suggestion brings to my mind. So what I mean would be, if I do something in an opening, let’s say I come on out and do a short character monologue in the opening, I would then avoid touching that character for the rest of the show, that’s, I’m leaving it out there for the reason of the group to pick up, should they be so inspired. Once I get my idea my idea out there, I’m actively looking for somebody’s idea that’s inspirational to me.”
28:38: Great acting in an improv scene may not be great acting at an acting school, or even feature great actors. It has an honesty and a sincerity to the way that is played. The simplest thing becomes fascinating to watch.
31:20: Just do what you’re being asked to do. Don’t add more, just do what you’re being asked to do to the best of your ability. That will lead to something fascinating, a glimpse between two people – not big, not bullshit, just direct and sincere.
36:37: “Scope on the rules is what’s good.” Not all improv rules apply to every scene uniformly. If the improviser is aware of the scene – what they are doing and what their partner is doing, they will know what rules to apply in the situation.
42:47: “If you’re a good student, you’ll try on different things because the teacher’s asking you to and you’ll decide later if it’s for you or not. But that’s definitely the most productive approach if you’re a student anyway.”
59:48: “It’s all like are you being present and honest in the moment? Or are you relying on formulas and shoulds and you’re no longer like, tuned in. You have to be an honest reporter of the moment to the audience. The audience is watching you so you have to report honestly on what’s going on. So if you’re not doing that because you’re obeying a rule you heard, then you suck. But it’s funny because what is a freeing simplification one day is a binding rule the next day, just because you grew.”
1:22:08: Know/Care/Say: The opposite of the “normal” improv rules that are all negative – scenes should have positive things – choose to know what’s going on, choose to care about it, and choose to say something. “Because those are the three things we’re socialised to not do. [..] Those are real instincts that we have learned. And although we want you to be real on stage, it’s except for those three very ingrained things, big exceptions.”
1:26:51: Know/Care/Say: It’s about skipping all your natural “mammal brain” defenses without changing your real personality.