Suggestions, the supposed proof that what we’re doing isn’t written. Even then, you’ll still have people coming up to you after shows asking if you pre-plan characters or scenarios. Sigh.
When I was learning the Harold, all I remember of interpreting suggestions is that you don’t want to go with the most obvious idea, but go with your second or third idea. In other words, if your suggestion is pineapple, it’s poor form to initiate a scene about eating a pineapple. Instead, we want to take the themes and larger concepts that come up in an opening and play with those. I remember coming up with scene initiations on the sidelines, then panicking when one of my teammates came up with the same idea and initiated first. What do I do now!? I’m screwed!
Since then, I’ve had a lot more training and heard a couple of techniques that have really stuck with me, making things easier, giving me more options, and allowing me to explore suggestions in new ways I never have before.
Lliam Amor, a brilliant improviser from Melbourne took my old Harold team Airblade one week for training. He let us in on how a suggestion can be broken down into four parts:
- Literal: Playing the suggestion for exactly what it is. Initiate a scene as a pineapple, letting the characteristics of a pineapple influence your character choices – you’re prickly and mean.
- Personal: Letting a personal memory influence your choices. When I was a kid I would only eat Hawaiian pizzas, so I might initiate a scene as a pizza shop owner running short on supplies.
- Historical: Use your historical knowledge of the suggestion. I know that pineapple was considered an exotic treat in the 20s and 30s, so I could play a dapper business man trying to sell the world on something new and strange.
- Pop Culture: What does the suggestion remind you of in the real world? Perhaps your scene is set at The Big Pineapple on the Sunshine Coast.
Last week I was at a live taping of Improv Nerd with iO alumni Matt Higbee. Right before performing a scene with host Jimmy Carrane, Matt was asked how he interprets a suggestion. Matt’s mind works through the following:
- Sound: What noises/voices does the suggestion remind you of? Pineapple might remind you of tribal warriors on a tropical island.
- Physicality: Let the suggestion effect your body shape. You might stand with your legs split, bent at the knees, and your hands out by your head; which in turn might generate a character choice or inspire your scene partner.
- Phrase: Say a phrase that comes to mind from the suggestion. It could be as simple and coming out and saying “How sweet it is!”
- Thematic: What themes the suggestions inspire – play them. Pineapples are spiky on the outside and sweet on the inside – maybe the characters in the scene reveal themselves to have a hard outer shell but change once opened.
I can’t believe I’ve found eight ideas from the (often oversaid) suggestion pineapple, but there’s a whole lot going on without being a boring dude opening a can of pineapple rings. I really like the idea of using personal memories, because there’s a good chance that my memory is not going to be the same as any of my teammates. Physicality is really cool too, because you might do something that reminds you of the suggestion, but reminds your scene partner of something else!
In short: You can take plenty away from a suggestion. Cut open that fruit – there’s plenty of juicy stuff inside.