Earlier this week I performed in a show at Bad Dog Theatre. It was a test format with many lovely performers. Two improv concepts struck me during the show. And it’s been a while since I’ve posted. Time to share.
Improv is a delicate business.
It’s taken me a long time to realize it. Maybe even until last night. I was sitting side stage watching a scene and I kept on noticing that the best moments were when something small shifted: an expression changed on a character’s face or a single word escapes their lips. The more extreme choices, my bread and butter as a younger improviser, did not lead to satisfying improv. They kind of felt like blowing your wad onstage. Afterwards, there was not much left.
It really comes down to listening: being so in tune with your partner that what they do really affects you. The audience is craving authenticity. That’s why they chose improv. They want to see people really experiencing each other, sometimes comically, sometimes tenderly and sometimes manically. Improv is authentic because we have no scripts. It’s our words, our characters and our choices. No one is to blame and no one is there to receive credit, except ourselves, when it goes so right or so wrong.
This delicacy requires patience and trust. They go hand in hand. You must trust that your partner will give you something amazing. If you genuinely feel this way, they will. Every time. No matter how much or how little improv they may have done. Because the beauty of improvised theatre is that every offer is a great offer, if it is greatly valued. Patti Stiles taught me this and it remains one of my great personal improv truths. Patience comes into play because sometimes you don’t have the perfect response at the tip of your tongue. Sometimes words are not the appropriate response. Sometimes it’s not your turn to talk. Often it’s not your turn to talk. So be brave enough to slow down the scene. Breath. Pause. Plus, silence after words instantly makes what you just said profound. Try it. I dare you.
My favourite improvisers have a soft touch. They gently but purposefully colour the scene and elicit strong work from their partner every time. I can’t wait to start exploring this more in my own craft.
The second concept that struck me today is also related to the idea of valuing offers.
Value offers. But keep the premise plausible.
I’ve seen the opposite a lot lately, but really it’s always been present in improv.
Example 1: Two performers are doing a scene. They are on a date. They clearly like each other. One of them gets down on one knee and proposes to the other. The person being proposed to says something like: “I just met you yesterday. This is crazy…”
Example Two: “Hey Lou. You see that hole in the ground?” “YOU MEAN THE ONE FROM THE ALIEN SPACESHIP?”
Both offers are clearly being accepted. Yes And… is happening. But the truth of the scene is being sacrificed for a joke. When I watch improv, I want to suspend my disbelief. But these two examples make it hard to do that. Alternatively, if you keep the scene grounded in reality so many more possibilities present themselves. And the payoff is way bigger for the audience. Value the offer. But keep the premise plausible.
Edit One: Two performers are doing a scene. They are on a date. They clearly like ech other. One of them gets down on one knee and proposes to the other. The person being proposed to says: “This is the place you took me to on our first date!” “Of course. I think the chocolate fondue is why you came home with me that night...” Pause. “And this ring. Wow. You know I love you right…”
Edit Two: “Hey Lou. You see that hole in the ground?” “I told you I’d repair it uncle and I will.”
In both edits the offer is valued but nothing gets out of control. The next brick has been laid in the wall. And you’ll build it all the way up with your partner until it comes crashing down on you both. There’s nothing wrong with a little absurdity in a scene. But you need to get there gradually if you want the audience to stay with you. Basically, you gotta keep it real.