mily believes that you can do an improvised scene about anything, and find ways to make it empowering, provided that you employ protection.
Protection means tackling a taboo or difficult subject by A) ensuring that the right character has the power in a scene, and B) displaying to the audience that the players are in control and comfortable. This makes the scene palatable for the audience and safe for the players. It can be the difference between a scene we think is OK and a scene we find inappropriate.
The awesome Anna Renz taught this one to me. It might have been from Keith Johnstone’s Impro? I can’t remember. It also has the great benefit of being fun as hell to watch.
- Four people up.
- Number four slips of paper from one to four.
- Hand out the slips to each person. Ask them to look at the slip but not show the other performers.
- Ask the four to play out a scene. If it helps, give them a scenario such as a family sitting in a car or employees having post-work drinks.
Why This Is Awesome: Status Dynamics! Each performer knows their own status and can communicate it. A player with a status of 2 might show unwavering support to 1, while putting down 3 and 4. When that is combined with character (such as a family where the kids have higher status than the parents) or point-of-view (3 might mirror the POV of 2), the scenes come to life and are both realistic yet funny. Then add status stifts, where a player might try and raise or lower their status depending on what has previously happened in the scene and you have something that is vibrant to watch.
How To Use This Outside of the Exercise: When we are aware of status, we can respond appropriately, either by adjusting our status or adjusting how we respond to that status (be it through dialogue, movement, body shape, etc). We can mirror that status too, although you want to be careful playing even higher status, as that may just start argumentative scenes (boring). If we’re on the backline, we can add side-support by complementing the status that already exists in the scene, as opposed to adding something new too. Lots of fun to be had!
Long-time Second City cast member, director, and teacher David Razowsky visited Australia in July 2015, and I was lucky enough to be apart of a three day workshop focused on his various techniques and approaches to improvisation. Here are my notes and lessons from that weekend:
- Once you define it [in a scene], it exists – you can’t take it back. You can’t stop defining it.
- You have to have mindfulness, awareness when improvising.
- “All improv is acting”
- It’s all about the moment. Beling deliberate, listening for the physical.
- Your scene partner can affect your physical change.
- “Be eager to respond, not eager to talk”
- “You [your scene partner, not me] are the most important person on stage”
- The process of improv is the product of improv. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
- Shape – Body use dictates what the first line of the scene is. “My partner tells me how to breathe.” Once you have your body shape, it’s not yours to change.
- Duration – how long behavior happens for before it has a need to change.
- Gesture – behaviour (real-world movement) and expressive (movement based on internal feelings).
- Kinesthetic response – how you respond to my action, not necessarily with words.
- Spacial relationship – When something in the space has changed, we are changed. “Let yourself be in wonder.”
- Repetition – movement that is sequenced over and over again. Not redundancy.
- Topography – how you move on the floor. What has came before you in the scene dictates whether you have a comfortable stroll, a cocky strut, or a scared step.
- Architecture – anything you have a relationship with. We add value to it – it’s either truthful (this is my backpack) or factual (this explains who i am). Smell, light, sound.
- Tempo – how fast or slow the scene moves.
- Zero point: We start scenes at zero. Once we add things, we are taking inventory.
- Soft focus: Receiving with our entire body. Not seeing with eyes or hearing with our ears.
- Listening in six directions: top, bottom, front, back, left, right.
- Exercise: Soft Focus Exercise: Feeling energised and inspired by the movement of others. Only moving when we feel inspired to.
- If there’s one shape, there’s no scene. All scenes feature pressure, tension, and dynamic.
- “All improv is ‘I’m not touching you!!'”
- At every point in a scene, you need to surrender the top of the scene (the initiation). You don’t have to honour everything that came before. The focus has changed, and you should honour that focus.
- Play with what inspires and what comes before – the last thing!
- Use your body, your heart, your soul – not just your brain.
- Compulsion is a straight line – get to the point and just say it. Compulsion trumps what’s come before, but it’s not impulse or instinct.
- You feel the relationship in the actor’s being, not how they deliver the lines.
- You have a contract to keep doing what you’re doing so you scene partner can follow. Don’t pull the rug out from under your partner.
- Say what you feel that you need to say. Don’t dance around it! (no need to add extra dialogue to give the scene more tension. Being direct will get you results.)
- “If you’re moved by what your partner says, don’t hold on to it!” (react damnit!)
- “We love a status shift.”
- “Don’t be a victim. Don’t be passive-aggressive, don’t be polite. Be aggressive, own up, be bold. It adds excitement.” (This changed me as an improviser. I don’t need to worry about the other actor in the scene. They can look after themselves. Because if I’m worrying about them, I’m not focusing myself in the scene.)
- “We want to see the scene that we’ve never seen!” (another big one for me.)
- Always have internal soft focus when playing.
- “You put on a bunch of clothes to take them off. Take off the fucking clothes!”
- Improvise like a crow, not like a train. Crowds fly to where the shiny objects are. Trains follow tracks.
- Playing low status has no equality with self.
- “When you say something cool, shut the fuck up. Or if you feel the need to talk, say the same thing.”
- Dare to be dull.
- “Everything I need is in my partner”
I think the stupidest thing you can do is feel like there is status about improv. It’s like made up, it’s all made up!
Karin Louise Hammerberg on UCB Long-Form Conversations