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Friday, April 13, 2012

Creating a World out of Thin Air

In improv, we ask a lot of our audience.  We ask them to come to the theatre, to buy a ticket and maybe a beer or two and to give us their utmost attention for an hour or so.  We even ask them to come back time and time again because each show is different. And very importantly each time they see a show, we ask them to suspend their disbelief.  The idea of suspension of disbelief is not a new one.  Since the inception of theatre in ancient Greece, audiences have been willingly pretending that the performers onstage were actually the character they were portraying and not themselves.  

We still do this today, every time we turn on the T.V. or go see movie.  We know that it is Leonardo DiCaprio on screen, but we believe for a few hours that he is Romeo or Jack Dawson.  Films make it easy, especially naturalist films as they shoot on location, pay attention to the details and provide a visually realistic glimpse into a character’s world.

In theatre, we don’t have all of the same luxuries.  Sets, even on Broadway, are often symbolic or indicative of a larger environment or reality.  Most plays do not take place in one room of one house.  Therefore, designers have to use all of their wits to create sets, costumes, props, light and sounds that create an atmosphere serving all the scenes of the play.  And they have to stay on budget – a designer's worst nightmare… The ‘gaps’ in the design are filled in by the imagination of the theatre-goers, which is one of my favorite parts of theatre.  It requires imaginative involvement on the part of the audience.

So what happens when you take away the set, costumes, props, light and sounds? Improvisation happens.  We don’t even rely on a script to create a reality.  It is all made up in real time in front of the audience.  Now perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration as most companies at least perform on stages that are well lit and have some capacity to incorporate music and sound effects and possibly even costumes.  But for all intents and purposes the technical finesse of even the most advanced improv companies is minimal compared to a professional regional theatre, say.

What this means is that unlike film and traditional theatre the audience has to engage their imagination even more so while watching improvisation.  We mime props, act in our street clothes and perform on bare stages for the most part. Our patrons have to imagine EVERYTHING.  And then, when we start the next scene they have to do it all over again. Now a beer or two usually helps, but this is a lot to require from a bunch of people you’ve probably never met. It’s the same agreement that two kids meeting for the first time in a sandbox make when one asks: “Wanna play?” and the other says: “Ok.” Kids have this amazing ability to construct and deconstruct realities for the sake of a game that we somehow lose as adults.  So the fact that this agreement happens between performer and audience before an improv show is kind of amazing to me.

But as improvisers we have certain responsibilities to these generous audience members.  Basically, we need to help them out and give their imaginations every chance at success. But how? Well, the answer in my mind is threefold: commitment, specificity and platforms.

Commitment means that you have to truly and instantly live in the reality that you create. If you are in a kitchen, you must imagine that you are in a kitchen.  If you’ve actually been in the kitchen, it helps. You must imagine it so hard and so clearly that we practically see the kitchen coming out your pores.  It should radiate out of your entire person.  If you have a strong image of a kitchen in your mind, only then can the audience truly engage their imagination.  Everyone’s imagined kitchen will be a bit different, but if you commit to your own imagination it is possible and even easy for the audience to do so.

But commitment doesn’t stop at the physical reality of a scene.  You also have to commit to the idea of a kitchen.  What sorts of things could happen in a kitchen? Keith Johnstone calls these circles of possibility. It is within the circle of possibility that you could cut yourself, poison the meal or light the joint on fire. When someone does something that is outside the circle of possibility, say comes in riding a tiger, it destroys the reality of the scene and you lose the audience, even if it’s funny.

Specificity is pretty straightforward.  Don’t cut vegetables.  Cut a carrot.  You don’t work with Geoff.  You work with Geoff, your brother in law who got you this job because your sister forced him to even though you are a total screw-up alcoholic. And for God’s sakes if you pick up a glass, hold onto it until you put it down.  And when you pick it up again pick it up from the same spot.  The audience always remembers where you put it down and how big it is.  This was a hard lesson for me to learn initially.  But now I’ve engrained it so deeply in my brain that I often hold onto glasses offstage long after my scene is over.  It just takes practice.  This is something you can and should practice on your own.

However, both commitment and specificity are much less valuable if you don’t establish a solid platform at the beginning of the scene.  If you don’t it’s kind of like telling the punch line of a joke without the setup.  It might be sorta funny, but completely unsatisfying.  Platforms are simply the who, where and what of the scene (and the why but that is a whole separate article). Who means relationship. So, who are you to each other?  It’s not just names. Where is straightforward. What is not simply the physical action of the scene, though that’s important.  I like to think about it as what is different about today? On some level you’ve chosen this scene for a reason.  The best scenes are life changing moments in your character’s lives. So what is this life changing moment? Figure that out and live in it.  Right away.

While there is something to be said about a slow and steady platform build, especially in long form improvisation, I firmly believe that the sooner you answer these three questions for the audience the better.  Platforms provide the audience with context, without which it is impossible to fully understand a story. If they spend all scene trying to figure out how you know each other or where you are, they will not be able to emotionally engage in the scene and experience that joyful sensation of going along for the ride. As a side bonus this state of being is more conducive to laughter.

So when you walk onstage verbalize this platform.  Don’t forget to physicalize them as well, but the most efficient way to communicate platforms is by stating them.  Be super obvious and clear at the risk of being redundant. Don’t simply come on and say “Hey Geoff…”. That gives your audience almost nothing.  Come on and say: “Geoff, I know that the only reason you got me this cooking job at your restaurant is because my sister nagged you until you hired me, but I really appreciate it.  Consider all my hard work here an early wedding present.  Wanna shotgun a beer with me to celebrate my first shift?” Now you have given the audience so much.  They have context and can fill in the gaps with their imagination.  Their brains just exploded a little bit.   

Verbalizing a strong platform, specificity and commitment can do more than Michael Bay with millions of dollars. You can get an audience to care.

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