Since moving to Toronto, I have been immersed in the city’s culture of improvisation. As a new member to the community, I’ve been playing in a lot of Micetro shows at Bad Dog. This means that I’ve played with many improvisers who have had little, or no experience in the art form. One of the beautiful things about Micetro, which is well understood by the lovely Gavin Williams who facilitates it, is that anyone can and should be picked for the show. You just need to show up and have the guts to raise your hand when the director asks: “Who is interested in playing tonight?” No previous experience required.
So how does it change improv when your scene partner has less experience than you?
Well, I believe that it doesn’t.
Should you compensate for their lack of skill, make sure you lead the scene in the right direction and generate most of the content to take the pressure off them?
I don’t believe you should.
Let me illustrate by example. A few weeks ago a man named Andres came and did a micetro at Bad Dog. His family have a very popular and funny vine account at ehbeefamily. But he had never done improv in his life. Immediately I thought: how can I take care of this guy? He must be kind of terrified. He was taking a risk; he might fail in front of people. Luckily for him, if you’re failing at improv you are doing it right. But he didn’t know that.
So how do you make a complete beginner feel comfortable making up stories and jokes on the spot? Is it possible to distill improv fundamentals down to ten words of wisdom overtop the music when the lights are down? Well, I tried. I gave Andres two pieces of advice. This first was to be agreeable. Agree with everything your partner says in a positive way. The second occurred when the lights were down before a one minute scene we did together. I simply guided him to the front of the stage and told him this is where we should do the scene.
Each counsel was off the cuff. But upon reflection they both make sense. Basically I tried to convey my two biggest improv values: Say yes and be brave. We began the scene. Now the game changes. New players tend to block, try and be funny and stop listening to their partner. Luckily, Andres had great instincts. As I mentioned, his vine is great. He understood comedic timing innately. But he still fell into the usual improv traps a bit: saying no to ideas, trying to be funny. My approach was simply to set up a strong platform and then value everything he said. I let him drive the scene. He was leader. I was an eager follower. I made the first offer and then he made all the rest. I genuinely believed in him. I tried to play with him the same way with him that I would with any skilled improviser.
How was the scene in the end? Not bad. There were funny moments. I was proud of our work. It wasn’t improv brilliance, but the audience was with us the whole way through.
Andres had a great first improv show. He didn’t win micetro; neither did I. But he proved to me that zero experience and a great attitude can be a wonderful combination, so long as the rest of us with more experience are willing to take care of our new colleagues. Because when the lights are up and the audience is in the house, all improvisers are equal. You sink or swim together. Every improviser is a star if their partner has the capacity to make them shine.