The text of your sentences can be almost anything. It’s the meaning behind them that really matters. Your scene shouldn’t be about digging a hole or selecting brunch items or polka dot curtains. But any of those scenes can be great if they reveal something about a character or a relationship. Dig beyond the surface. Find the gold. Slay the audition.
Avoid Mad Libs tags. Those are moves that just swap out a noun, be it a character or a location, for a different character or location, and then just do the same scene. So if its “Weird guy that wants to marry a giraffe in a restaurant”, no it’s “weird guy that wants to marry a giraffe in a movie theater.” That tag doesn’t give us anything new, it’s just the same scene with a different coat of paint. Those are the boring tag runs you describe.
Back before improv took over my life, my dedication was poker. I would play it as often as I now perform, watch all the TV shows, and read through as many strategy books as I could handle. My main game was no limit hold’em tournaments. Tournaments allowed me to play the strategy of the game, while having a lower cash risk attached. One of the concepts drummed into me regarding tournament poker is chip value. When you’re playing in a cash game, your chip value is equal to its respective cash value. Go all-in with $200 of chips and lose? You lose $200 from your pocket. The chip value is 1 to 1.
The same isn’t true of tournament poker. In tournaments, players pay an entry fee. A portion of that fee is added to a prize pool, with percentages of the pool given based on where you finish. Finish in the top 10% of players and you’ll receive a cash prize from the pool, with more money depending on how high you finish. The chip value frequently changes through the tournament, depending on how many players are left competing and how many chips you have in your stack, which will constantly fluctuate.
You could have $200,000 worth of chips at the start of a tournament, but they’re actually worth $0 cash until you enter the prize stage of the tournament. Or you could have $200 worth and be one of the final two players, knowing that your $200 is worth $200,000 cash in the prize pool. The concept is designed to get away from associating a bond with tournament chips like you would with cash chips (aka money). In turn, you’re taught that winning or losing individual hands in a poker tournament matter less than finishing in the prize winning stage of a tournament. You could lose ten hands in a row and go on to win the tournament. Or you could play tight aggressive poker for six days winning hand after hand, only to lose two hands and be eliminated without a payout. I’ve had both happen to me.
My big takeaway from this lesson is that tournament poker is all about the greater goal. You want to finish in the money, get that cash reward. To do so, you want to let go of the various emotional swings that are a result of individual poker hands. If you lose an important hand but still have chips left, you are still playing in the tournament. But the act of losing will probably affect you emotionally, and may influence how you play future hands, even though they have no relationship with the hands that come before it. The cards on the table don’t know you just had a bad beat – they are inanimate objects. The dealer doesn’t care that your strong cards lost – they are just doing their job. When the cards are shuffled and dealt, you have all the knowledge that you’ve previously gained, but you’re starting a new hand – you’re resetting to zero.
When I started performing improv regularly, I was terrible. Part of this was due to letting my internal emotions drive how I played on stage. Even if I was coming on stage at a neutral level, if I left thinking I did a bad scene, you were not going to be able to shake that feeling from me. Show after show after show, I’d go in thinking that it started off bad and only got worse as time went on. Or I’d have a good show one week, then poo the bed the next. I’d have slumps for weeks and not know how to deal with it, doing crazy stuff in shows in hopes of ending my slump, and hating myself for it. A lack of consistency is frustrating for an improviser.
More recently I have noticed a change – I’m more bad then terrible (progress!) and part of that is not letting those emotional swings affect me. Easier said than done right? Part of it was the realisation that individual scenes don’t matter all that much. Individual shows don’t matter either. Or a festival, or a measured time amount of performances, or whatever. It’s all about the greater goal – am I improving my overall skills as an improviser? Am I achieving the personal goals that I set myself? The same lesson I learned at the poker tables years ago also applies when you’re on stage at an improv show.
Your past performance is no indication of your future performance. You have the knowledge that you’ve previously gained, but starting new means resetting to zero.
You can’t force yourself to do a good scene from scratch just because the last scene you did was good. While studying in Chicago, I was in a downswing – four bad scenes in a row, all in the one morning. So I forced a scene with a partner who was in one of the best scenes I ever did. Didn’t work – make that five bad scenes in a row. During Melbourne Fringe, I performed in a show that would easily be in my worst ten shows of all time. The good news was, the very next night I got to do a brand new show. I had the opportunity to take the knowledge I had, but reset to zero. It was one of the best shows I’ve performed in.
By not giving focus to those emotional swings, you have an opportunity to do something brand new every time you go out, unaffected by what came before it. It means you can let go of annoying defence mechanisms that serve as distractions on stage – your scene partner didn’t listen to you, your teammates edited the scene too late, you didn’t trust myself to make a move; and just focus on serving what’s in front of you. Sure, when the show is over you can rewind and review. But on stage, you’ve always got a new opportunity to do something – even if it’s just an edit or some side support. While this isn’t an excuse to do lazy work, because it’s only one small moment in the greater scheme of things; letting go of those swings means that you have relieved yourself of the pressure or fear that comes with the mindset. If you’re working towards greater goals, all you need to do take in the knowledge you have, then reset to zero.
It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and played poker. Part of me wonders what improv lessons apply at the table. I’ll report back soon on any findings.
About a month ago my team Airblade had a “rough” show. Fresh off a weekend workshop, we decided to implement a bunch of techniques that we had learned, but hadn’t entirely worked out how to use. Some stuff worked, and some stuff didn’t; shows like that happen all the time.
What made it rough? The content that came up in the show. The new techniques somehow cause a shift in how we played. Our show, built off the suggestion of corn cob featured scenes about human trafficking, self-harm with knives, and suicide, not to mention a ships worth of swearing. The audience laughed at the show in certain stages, but also let their discomfort be known out loud. When we got off stage to decompress, the team felt pretty crummy about it.
Later on that night a teammate and a punter were having a chat about the show. My teammate was explaining how we tried something new, and that sometimes you need to fail before you succeed. The punter in turn responded that we should never try that again, because the self-harm stuff offended them and could have offended others in the audience.
Thanks for coming out.
It got me thinking. What is the role of the improviser? I’ve often heard that an improviser is simultaneously a writer, director, and actor during a show. But I’ve never heard anyone add producer or promoter to that sentence. I don’t mean in the sense of plugging your show that night on Facebook, but creating something that the audience wants to see more both during the show and after it’s finished, bringing out new people to see it. Not necessarily funny improv or even “good” improv, but something intriguing, something with curiosity, something that’s bold and takes risks and where something happens and my brain is forced to play catch-up to make sense of how the performers got to that point. Sustainable improv – otherwise we may as well just practice improv to no audience.
What I have had people tell me is to ignore the audience. Don’t play to them, play ahead of them. Focus on your scene partner and yourself, not the thing the audience responds to. Part of this is to prevent judgement – if I put something out there that the audience doesn’t like, my focus might change to a point where I’m ignoring my scene partner in order to give the audience something they do like (if you’re a standup fan, you’ll see this a lot in people who have been performing for a year or two. They keep going on after they get the light). Or worse, I’ll go into self-judgement mode – I’ll freeze on stage and not offer anything, essentially shutting down the scene or the show. Part of this is also to prevent gaggy play, where the performers get so hung up on generating a response from the audience that we lose any realism the performance has, coming off as desperate.
Unfortunately, what I think gets lost sometimes in play is mindfulness. We are mindful of our scene partner and our fellow players, because we are told to focus on what they are doing and support those choices, not judge them for making them. But we’re not told to be mindful of the audience, and we need to be. They are part of the show as much as we are – they don’t go away after we ask for a suggestion. I also have to be mindful of what I’m doing on stage. Just because we are making it up on the spot doesn’t mean that every offer is equal. All words and actions have meaning, so we have to be measured with what we offer.
Mindfulness in a show is a tricky balancing act. The improviser needs to give equal weight to mindfulness of self, the team, and the audience; but also needs to shift that weight on what the show needs almost immediately, all while not taking away from what’s come before us. Ultimately we have one job to do as improvisers when performing to an audience, and that’s to provide an engaging AND entertaining show, and it has to be both of those – it can’t only be one.
So if we’re being mindful of the audience, the solution to this problem is to stop any sensitive content that comes up in a show to avoid offense, right? Well, not quite. Consciously avoiding sensitive subjects results in polite, self-aware improvisation. As an improviser, if I’m so busy catching myself in shows, constantly looking for something that I don’t personally agree with, it’s unlikely that I’ll get to those moments of total surprise where I find something “right” instead of something wrong.
If I’ve learnt a lesson from the show, it’s being mindful of the variety of show and letting that dictate the kind of content that comes up (yes, one more bit of mindfulness to balance!). Being aware of what has come before you in the show in terms of speed, energy, emotion, and technique, and presenting something that the audience and your teammates haven’t seen yet. That will lead to different choices being made, and therefore different content coming up. It doesn’t mean you avoid those sensitive subjects – but it means you get some lightness with the dark.
Back to the punter and my teammate. The punter had every right to be upset with that show, and I don’t want brush it off by saying “this is just acting, it’s not real, it’s not how I feel, you shouldn’t be upset”. I’m sorry for offending you, it wasn’t what I set out to do. My teammate is right too – the show failed. We may have been engaging enough in our show to draw audible groans, but if a person is coming away offended we can’t say we’ve provided entertainment.
What’s nagging at me is the idea never trying that again. It would certainly be an easy solution, throw away the learning that leads to bad stuff. But my goal is to make sustainable improv – intriguing, curious, played boldly with risk and variety. So shying away from new techniques isn’t an option, even if occasionally it leads to a place that means that we don’t hit that goal. We’re going to keep trying until we crack it, and then rip it all apart and start over I’m sure. All I ask is that you come back again, because it will always be different.
There’s sometimes psychological reasons people tell stories badly. One element of good storying is being emotionally connected to the words you’re saying, but if people are in denial about something, or suppressing the emotions involved, the story can sound somehow flat and affectless.
Alex Blumberg of This American Life/Gimlet Media talking about what makes stories work for radio. Replace stories with scenes and radio with improv shows, and well… More at Transom.
Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Austin improv podcast Got Your Back. This is from Episode 43: Maybe You Aren’t Listening. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.
7:08: “If you’re not listening, you’re inventing. [..] If you’re not using what the other person is giving you, or what you’re even giving yourself, or if you’re not aware of what’s going on then you’re not going to be able to use it.”
- Usually happens the first line out of a scene, due to nervousness?
- Use the intended specifics given at the top of a scene by your scene partner
9:06: “It’s like you gave some information, and then I was like hey this would be crazy! [..] It’s not working together, it’s like working alone, next to each other at that point.”
11:05: “Relax up top. [..] If you get nervous, just try and do more of what they already said, or just try and react to what was already there. Try to avoid going into your head and creating something external based on something that wasn’t said, inferred, with a subtext of what was said.”
- If you feel unclear, do some object work, keep listening, let your partner keep feeding you, or just ask them
- It’s fine to ask “what did you say?” if you didn’t hear your scene partner. React to it!
- No matter how crazy it gets, we can always make sense of it.
14:31: “It changes the reality every time we aren’t listening.”
15:36: “It’s all right there, you know. It’s always all right there. There’s never nothing going on. If you look at the person there, you’re in a position in relation to each other, you’re probably emoting with your eyes even if it’s just I’m uncomfortable because I’m an improviser on stage and the show just started, and you can always use that. You can always read what’s there.”
- “Being ahead of your audience is a great thing, but not during the first few lines”
- Get on the same page as performers, then race to the top!
19:51: “The second level of listening is communicating that you’ve listened.”
- Listen for the intent behind the message, which will prevent negotiation at the top of the scene. Agree with that first line and play it!
- Play the simple game and make it more complex.
- Let the things that come up from the suggestion/opening filter who you are, rather then what you say at the top of a scene.
- If your scene partner walks through a object work made desk, do you call it out or leave it be? Prioritise: What’s the most important thing in the scene? If the scene partner is talking about relationship, it’s that. If the scene partner is spouting non-sequiturs – it’s the desk. Play with the fire – their intent should be given weight.
- If you want to play with it, tie everything together – make the walk through a choice with wha telse your scene partner is giving.
35:51: “Listening is the willingness to change.” – Dave Pasquesi (or someone. It wasn’t made clear)
36:06: “The desk in a certain level plays the same role as an improviser talking through their drink as they’re drinking. As an audience member I’m going to notice it and I’m going to move right past it because the interaction and the emotional connection between the two performers trumps that little bad piece, or quote unquote bad piece of space work. [..] If there’s a perfect world to bring it together without derailing the scene, that’s great. But if not, I’d say the emotionality trumps that bad space work and that ignoring it, most of the audience will ignore it [..], maybe some of the improvisers will notice and if they’re judging your show on that they can go fuck themselves.”
- If you don’t know what to say, let it wash over you. Take a moment and then react.
- If you’ve created something, there’s probably so much more to do. So explore.
- If you’re going to reference something, reference something from the show, not something completely outside of the show. Use the universe we have!
- Entering/editing after a reveal: hurts the group as a whole. If the people in the scene have just found momentum, let them keep that ball rolling before taking or stopping the ball.
- Side support: Don’t come on to add information that has previously been established. Add information that helps the people in the scene focus, don’t distract them. Give the players time to use that information too – don’t make the move because it’s a “good” move to make.
- If it’s fun for you on the sidelines, it doesn’t necessarily make it fun for the people in the scene.
54:41: “Try this guys. Go out there, start a scene at a restaurant, be clear you’re at a restaurant but have no waiter there. Be talking to someone else, and see if your group has the discipline to not just walk on with some wacky waiter that changes the game. [..] If there’s a scene at a restaurant there’s going to be a waiter coming in. And they, likely are not going to have the same focus or necessarily be heightening the focus that the two people who started the scene had, and that feels shitty to me, it feels like that person isn’t listening.”
55:41: “So basically, listening trumps inspiration.”
57:52: “Listen to yourself. Do you know what you just did so you can do it again? So you can play that thing? So you can replicate it or in some way use it? You have to have an awareness to yourself.”
- Take time with what you’re doing. You are not forced to do stuff without realising what you’re doing. Slow down!
- Call out what the other person is doing – they might not be aware that they are doing it.
59:53: “If they know what they have each done, there’s a whole well to go back to.”
- Sometimes informed by the feeling of “we need to” instead of listening met with judgement. Keep yes-anding.
1:01:33: Group scenes: Focus everyone on to one piece of information. The more people on stage, the more you should be listening.
1:03:02: Remembering elements of the show: Games/What scenes are about and names!
- Names: Allows for a slow show to look slick, allow for big show moves to happen because you can shortcut them by simply mentioning the name. Smooths things out, especially for second beats.
- If it’s half way through the show and you have to keep rebuilding, you would have never be able to build higher than you previously did.
- Repeat names at least three times, so your teammates have something to use. “Plant the flag”
- Give them nicknames, adjective names to help them stick. “Old Mean Steve!”
- Naming scenes: A short descriptor to make things easier to remember in second beats. “Garlic eating Ned”
- Use physicalities, use space to do second beats and callbacks.
- Name the scene based on the relationship.
- You can remember stuff based on movement – rocking back and fourth, part of the stage.
- Write on your hand (ala spelling bee)
- Hosting: Don’t over explain! Let the audience handle some of the joy of finding out what’s going to happen for themselves.
1:28:00: What to do if someone isn’t listening to you:
- Listen to them, go to them. Long term, may not be someone you want to play with.
- Use the “not-listening”. Justify what they are saying and build off it. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen, it’s a gift.
1:31:07: You realise you’re not listening: Don’t beat yourself up in the moment, just start listening.
1:31:39: Joe Bill – two ways to deal with the negative and positive on stage.
- Boil everything down to the plain of it’s existance – everything is a duoality, either a postive or a negative. Take in what your scene partner is doing on stage and frame it as either with curiosity (positive, I want more of that) or with suspicion (negative, I don’t want more of that). Use it to explore the reason behind the action.
- “I think it’s much more sustainable to say ‘why would you doing that?’ then to just say ‘stop doing that'”
- If you’re going to ask a question, add information like a name. “You went to the store, Joe?”
Memory exercise: Repeating some of the last line and adding on. Makes what you’re playing with super clear.
Being able to stop, hold and articulate your natural feelings is a hugely necessary skill in improv. There are many people out there who can’t do that. The moment you make them think about what they’re saying or feeling and ask them why —- all their awareness vanishes. Can you imagine your co-worker, after they say something like how they “hate French Vanilla coffee” being asked “why?” They’d look at you and just say “what do you mean WHY? I just DO.”
I just took a workshop with Susan Messing and even her throwaway comments were illuminating. The thing that clicked with me in regards to this was, “No backsies!” If you do something that you can go back on, it’s probably a weak choice or could be better implemented. A strong choice gives something for you, your partner, and the audience to have fun with.
The example I’ve seen her give a couple times is a woman who walks on stage thinking and acting she’s playing a man but gets labelled as a woman. Now she’s playing a woman who walks and talks like a man. That’s way more fun.