The Backline E66: Improv Is Not a Formula

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 FormulaClick 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.”

The Backline E32: What’s Missing

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Toronto improv podcast The Backline. This is from Episode 32: What’s Missing? Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

11:11 – “Just because you’re not in the scene, doesn’t mean you’re not in the show.”

11:28 – “What isn’t on stage right now and how do I add that? Or how do I take this idea and bring it back later? Or what does the audience need right now.”

12:01 – “You’re working; you’re working every single minute.”

12:40#1: Stage Picture

  • Upstage, downstage, left, right, something on the ground, something on a chair, something dangerous.
  • “Think about initiating a scene with your back to the audience. That’s super fun and it’s going to make everyone stop and watch – it’s that popcorn moment.”
  • If you do something that looks non-conventional, you have made the show better because you’re forcing your teammates to think about that – and it turn remember that. When you make a snapshot of the scene, you’ll remember that non-conventional physicality, and bring it back later in the show
  • If your team isn’t as adventurous as you and returns to that two-person centre-stage scene, they’ll enjoy it because you have taken it away from them.

16:36 – #2: Content

  • The kind of things we talk about in a scene.
  • Teams of the same age, same gender tend to improvise about the same stuff.
  • “We may not notice that. We’re on stage and we have a relationship scene of two mid-twenty year old’s breaking up. Then we have another one, two mid-twenty year old’s in a fight. Then a mid-twenty year old getting in a fight with their mum because of their boyfriend. We tend to spew out the same content.”
  • If one type of scene plays out well, we think this kind of audience likes these scenes, let’s do it again. “That’s diminishing returns for you. The second one in a row is half as good; the third one in a row gets no response.”
  • “We should be mindful of our own priming” – the idea that you see before is seeded in your brain, so you tend to do that again.
  • “If the last set/scene I saw was about dicks, the next set/scene should be about unicorns.”

19:00#3: Speed

  • “Improv is a nervous energy artform… A lot of our scenes tend to be infused with that energy.”
  • “Give them that fast pace, then slow it down, then the audience misses that fast pace. Give them that fast pace, then slow it down again. Keep that variety going back and forth.”
  • “Do you have the ability, the ego, and the energy to declare in a set that’s moving too quickly – this is a slow relationship scene?”

22:18#4: Task

  • The same players always playing in scenes – diminishing returns. Everyone has their part to play – so even if you are running hot, you don’t have to be in every scene.
  • “You have to be mindful of yourself”
  • “If you’re too hot, too quick, and you show them all of your tricks, what are you going to do for the rest of the show? Make some room, give some space, use that power you have – the audiences good will, endow that to someone else.”
  • “It’s dangerous to get addicted to that laughter.”
  • If you are one of the leaders of that team, and other players are looking towards for guidance; you need to back off sometimes and let everyone else get their stage time to gain confidence.

26:45#5: Energy

  • “What does it feel like for the audience to watch that scene? Is it a happy scene? Is it a scary scene? Is it playful? Is it high stakes? Is it gamey? Is it more organic?”
  • Mixing up those energies is really important for you to do.
  • If you are focused on playing game, and you play game hard three times in a row, the audience may not find it that funny. Mix up how you find that game.
  • “We want to be surprised” We don’t want to know what’s next.
  • It’s mostly about variety – knowing what we’ve seen, and not giving the exact same thing back.
  • Newer improvisers treat conflict as a very strong successful way to start a scene, because it’s interesting from the beginning. “So you might see three fighting scenes in a row. What a horrible energy to see again and again and again.”
  • “You need to bring an energy to the stage. You don’t walk on stage, do object work and then someone else tells you what the scene is about. That’s a bad scene. Because in that scene you have no control over energy. However, if the last scene was happy, there’s no reason you can’t walk on stage and be horribly upset. That’s a huge gift because you can control part of the energy, and even if your scene partner is super happy, at least you have brought that sadness, that’s a different flavour we haven’t seen yet.”
  • If you an entire set of an open longform montage where every scene is set in 2015, you’ve fucked up. There should be a scene set in the future, or the past, or something fantastical. Because by doing something different, you reset all of the audience’s expectations of what this could possibly be.
  • Keeping the variety going will not only be more fun for the audience, it will be more fun to play in.
  • “They just want to walk on stage and do what they’re good at. […] But its bad improv, and you’re a bad improviser if that’s all you do. You should be able to walk on stage and if you can’t, then that’s a problem.”

31:32#6: Technique

  • How you get to whatever you’re doing.
  • If you initiate scenes with a vague line (“ooh it’s cold”), you’re using the same technique. If the next scene you roll onto stage and loudly yell “Mum I did it, I love you!” that’s a different technique.
  • “If you do three mirroring scenes in a row, no-one’s going to think mirroring’s funny anymore. They see the technique, they see the mechanism.”
  • “All that A to E training you have, you have to do that sometimes in a long-form set. You need to start a scene chopping carrots – sometimes.”

33:45#7: Your Role

  • “You need to have variety in your role, the kind of player that you are.”
  • Three kinds of players – first in (person who makes hard offers), second in (person who loves supporting and yes-anding), and glue (walk-ons, navigate stuff)
  • “In a set you need to isolate between all roles. You don’t want to see the improv dad come in; set up context, my work is done. Go and play in the world I set up.”
  • “You might be a weirdo player who makes the best pervs and freaks and psychopaths. […] But you need to show me a scene where you set up the who, what, where and fold laundry.”
  • “Being aware of that is a very big part of being cast in things. […] If you can show this director, this producer, whoever you’re trying to show off your abilities to, that you can be any of those players then it’s much more easy to fit you on a team.”
  • “The key of: Just because you’re not in the scene, you’re not in the show.
  • “It’s a team spot, and you’ve got to be available at the beacon call of the entire team the entire show.”

37:07 – “The mentatity that you can fix something from the backline. I think that these elements are necessary, but never think that if they are missing from the stage, that you walking on or you sweeping early or you twisting the show because you see what’s missing and nobody else gets it, that’s a bigger problem than variety for me. For us we always want to be thinking as a team about these things. This isn’t your job, this is everyone’s jobs.”

38:12 – “If I ever die in an improv related accident, I hope there’s something called The Curse of Rob Norman. That any improviser that sees two people on stage who haven’t got around to saying the who/what/where and walks out and says ‘Your table is ready, here are the menus,’ in that curse they instantly catch on fire. It’s my least favourite move of all time, it shows such a lack of trust, it shows ‘I know what’s missing, I can solve your problems for you!’ as opposed to ‘Adam Colley, you’re an amazing improviser, when you want the context, you’ll drop the context’.”