All of this was inspired by an blog post that I read by Brian Kessler (whom I do not know) about his foray into improv and the concept of “yes and”. It can be found at http://t.co/ZOnET0hy and I think he did a very nice job. It got me thinking, though, about some of the obstacles and things that I’ve learned as someone who has been doing improv for a couple of years. Let me be clear: this is not a response to Brian’s piece, just some thoughts that his post inspired.
A little background: I’ve been taking improv classes on and off for the past 2 1//2 years at The Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. I’ve completed all 4 levels of their standard program and am currently enrolled in an advanced study with the fantastic Billy Merritt. I’ve been performing at various indie nights throughout town for over a year now, primarily with my teams Get Sweaty and Lizard Fight, and have been averaging 4-6 shows a month for the past 6 months or so. I would categorize my level of experience as “intermediate” after a good show, and “totally fucking inexperienced” after a bad one.
Not to get too hippy-dippy about it, but I honestly do feel like doing improv has changed my life. I’m not just talking about the performers-high that I get on stage, or the definite boost in confidence I’ve felt. I believe that is has changed the way I interact and relate with people. It has taught me how to listen and to react honestly, and those are the two biggest skills I think every improviser should work on: listening and reacting honestly. I suppose that this post is about some of the struggles that I find myself dealing with at my level. I am writing them down to remind myself of what to do.
YES AND’ING WHILE STILL REACTING HONESTLY
Though philosophies may vary depending on which theater you take classes at, the very first thing that you are taught is to “yes and.” Quite simply, it is accepting what your scene partner gives you and expanding upon it. This is the foundation upon which all improv is based. Here’s an example:
Person 1: Chuck, I’ve told you this before, but could PLEASE stop trying to teach the class with clown make-up on. You’re scaring the children.
Person 2: I really think that this is a great way to connect with the kids. I’m entertaining them WHILE educating them.
Listen, that was the first thing that came to my head. An example of not “yes and’ing” would be this:
Person 1: Chuck, I’ve told you this before, but could you PLEASE stop trying to teach the class with clown make-up on. You’re scaring the children.
Person 2: I’m not wearing clown make-up. Did you remember to take your medication?
In the first example you have a scene that could go on for a while. Each improviser accepts what they are given and adds more information for the other to listen to and react to honestly. In the second example the scene is effectively over. I’d rather see a scene about someone trying to “connect” with children yielding terrifying results than a scene about someone who is mentally unstable and in need of medication.
That being said—and this is something that I think is important for beginning improvisers to understand—even though you are “yes and’ing” you don’t have to do everything the other person says. You can “yes and” their point of view, while still reacting honestly in the way that you would react. For example:
Person 1: I’m sick of you coughing on me all the time. Here’s a needle and thread. Sew your mouth shut.
Person 2: Mom, that’s a bit extreme. Why don’t I just cough into my sleeve?
In this case Person 2 “yes and’ed” Person 1’s point of view without labeling them as a crazy person, and without doing anything that would be unrealistic so early in the scene because once you sew your mouth shut what’s next? And I mean that philosophically, not just because you wouldn’t be able to talk.
Something that the UCB school is stressing right now is REACTING HONESTLY, and I could not agree more. Respond in the way that you would actually react while still supporting the moves of your scene partner. You would never sew your mouth shut. If you sewed your mouth shut in that scene the audience would never buy it.
UCB curriculum is very much focused around “the game” of the scene. Though “game” is a tricky thing to define, it can be thought of as the first unusual thing that happens in the scene. The rest of the scene is exploring that unusual thing and finding way to turn it into a pattern. An inelegant example:
Person 1: Really nice day to come to the beach, right hun?
Person 2: It sure is, Dan. Some R and R is exactly what I needed. Are you going to take that parka off?
Person 1: Are you kidding? That’s how you get skin cancer!
The game of that scene is that Dan is so afraid of getting skin cancer that he wears a winter jacket to the beach. The rest of the scene would be finding out why he feels this way and what else does he do that falls in line with this point of view. Maybe he also wears a welder’s mask to protect his eyes. Maybe he wears a haz-mat suit to protect himself from the polluted water. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.
An “ideal scene” should be “yes and’ing” until a game is found, then exploring that game, and then finding ways to bring that game back while also heightening. It’s a lot to think about. That’s why there is so much bad improv. At any given moment you have to be thinking about what is happening on stage, what you’re going to do next, and how you’re going to heighten what has already happened. AND…
GET AWAY FROM THE GAME
Yet one more thing to think about. My coach, Jill Donnelly, once explained this to me in a really great way which I will paraphrase “Think of the scene like it’s a song. The game is the chorus, which you repeat, and everything that happens in between are the verses.” You wouldn’t want to listen to a song that was only choruses, but it’s easy as an improviser to find a game, and then hammer it over and over again. It makes sense. You’re so excited to finally find something that works and you want to play with it. Unfortunately, you’re going to run out of steam very quickly and kill that nice, pretty thing you found. Lenny-style. Get away from the game. Talk about something else. You will find a way to come back to it, and when you do it will be so much funnier. I struggle with this all the time.
Some random thoughts:
1. Have an emotional reaction to what is said to you. Someone just told you, in a scene, that they want a divorce? Be sad. This person is important to you. Someone spill paint on your prize winning pumpkin? Get mad. I’m not a very emotional person so this can be difficult for me. I always have to remind myself to get invested in what is happening in the scene.
2. Boredom/apathy is not an emotion. If you’re bored by or apathetic about what is happening, the audience will also be bored and apathetic. We don’t go to the movies/watch TV to see stories about people who don’t care.
3. Choose the emotional reality of the scene over the easy jokes. Laughter will come, and it will be so much sweeter when it’s earned. This is VERY EASY to disregard early in your career of as an improviser. Every second that the audience is not laughing feels like an eternity so you panic and start making easy dick jokes, even if it doesn’t fit into every else that is happening.
4. PLEASE—FOR THE LOVE OF GOD—DO NOT DO SCENES ABOUT INANIMATE OBJECTS. I do not want to watch a scene about two people discussing their ideas for fart-machines. A scene is never about an object, it is about the people and their relationship with each other, in the same way that a movie should never be about it’s “plot”, but rather the characters who inhabit it.
5. Not every scene should be an argument. I am so guilty of this. We are trained, as comics and storytellers, to try to find conflict. Often this is to the detriment to the scene. Not every scene should be Straight Man/Crazy Man. Be Two Peas in a Pod and have some fun.
6. You’re going to have bad shows. YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE BAD SHOWS. People are NOT GOING TO LAUGH EVEN THOUGH YOU’RE TRYING SO GODDAMN HARD TO MAKE THEM LAUGH. Deal with it. It’s part of the process.
7. All of this will fly right out of your head the second you step on stage. That is why you practice, practice, practice, perform, perform, perform, until it’s muscle memory.