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.”