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Monday, June 18, 2012


It wasn’t until I did a workshop with Dan O’Connor of L.A.’s Impro Theater three years ago that I even considered the idea of making promises to the audience. This troupe, made up entirely of professional theatre and film actors in Los Angeles, performs long form improvisation in the style of an author or playwright. I've seen this done by many troupes, from all over the world, but rarely with a higher degree of success and subtlety.  Check them out here.

The whole idea of making promises came up when someone asked Dan what happens during the intermission of their shows.  Do they plan out the second half of what always seems like a beautifully scripted performance?  If so, how much of the outcome is discussed backstage? He replied: "We just make sure to go over all the promises we made to the audience. That's it."

At that moment, it was as if a light bulb went off in my head.  Promises to the audience - what an elegant way to put it! I knew that the audience has expectations of any improv show, or any theatre show for that matter, that we either meet, fail to meet, or exceed.  But never had I heard it so concisely put. Every time we set something up onstage, be it a character an environment or most importantly a narrative, we are making a promise to the audience.  We promise them that everything we set up will be fulfilled.  Each character will go on a journey and be transformed.  Each environment will impact the course of the narrative. And each narrative will come to a satisfying conclusion, reincorporating and wrapping up all of the elements that were introduced throughout.

When an idea is set up and then not fulfilled, we break that promise to the audience. In the Johnstonian vocabulary, breaking a promise is referred to as shelving. You figuratively put the idea up on a shelf and never take it down again. But the reason I like the term breaking a promise is that it implies a relationship with the audience. That's key.

In theory, this concept seems pretty straightforward. So why do we mess it up all the time onstage?

I think the answer is twofold.  The first reason is that many improvisers, myself included until a few years ago, don't consider this ideas of promises.  Personally, while I've known what shelving meant for years, I never thought I was letting the audiences down when I failed to weave an idea back into the story. But I absolutely was.

The second reason, which goes hand in hand with the first, is that improvisers, especially, those at the beginning of their journey, tend to over-promise.  There is a misconception that more information, more intensity, and more ideas will make a scene better. It's the attitude of throwing everything you have at the wall and seeing what sticks. Well some things will stick, absolutely.  But 95 percent of what you throw will fall down and create a big, sticky improv mess, which inevitably you will trip over. And most importantly the audience will stop listening.  If most of what you say is not going to factor in at a later point in the scene, what's the point?

Everything we say and do onstage is important.  We want the audience to care, so as performers we need to take care in our choice of words and actions. Don't say or do too much, just do and say enough.  To be cliche, less is more. Ever heard the saying only make the promises you can keep? Well the same should apply onstage.  Look at improv and life correlating...

Patience is key.  The second you walk onstage something is happening.  Trust me.  Having the patience to figure out what that is and see it through separates the good improvisers from the great ones.  The audience is with you until such time as you give them a reason to stop paying attention. They want you to tell a wonderful story that will delight and thrill them.  But if its bogged down in to many promises they will stop caring.

Now this is not to say that you should walk onstage and wait with a blank look on your face and make your partner do all the work.  You need to be engaging with your partner, responding and making offers as usual. You just need to keep your cool. When you press the panic button and spit out three our four contradictory offers onstage because you perceive the scene to be going nowhere the scene really will flounder. Establish the scene, discover what it needs and follow through.  Make one or two awesome promises.  And then, keep 'em.

Further to patience, as improvisers we need an extreme attention to detail.  It's impossible to keep a promise you can't remember. Or worse yet, if you miss a promise your partner makes you certainly can't keep it.  Improvisers need to take in and subsequently remember everything that happens onstage. Memory is a skill.  It develops with time if you work on it.  So start now.  Pay attention to everything, even during scenes you aren't in. Even if another troupe is opening for yours there could still be something worth remembering.  Every bit of information from the host's introduction to the curtain call can serve you as an improviser.

So pay attention and practice patience. This is the road to more satisfying scenes from both an improviser's and an audience's perspective. And that, is a promise.

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