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Jeremy Voltz is a wicked funny, crazy smaht improviser, singer, and mathlete. (Check it: He’s currently studying for his PhD in the subject.) He is a member of acapella singing group Countermeasure, and the improv singing sensation JerJosh and the SteveCams.

While you’re getting notes, how often have you heard “You guys were tentative out there,” or “You were in your heads”? It happens to all improvisers at some point, and even though we can point it out when it happens, it’s not so clear what causes it, or how to fix it. But let’s talk about it anyway!

Here’s my take on what goes on in your brain when you’re on the side of the stage, watching a scene. Of course you listen intently to what’s happening on the stage, because that’s what you’ve been trained to do. You’re listening for an idea so that when that scene ends and you find yourself on the stage, you’ve got something great to initiate. You’re listening for inspiration.

For example, you’re watching the scene and you hear one of your teammates, fed up with their crappy doctor, shout, “What, did you get your medical degree at clown school?” And instantly, you picture clown medical school, the whole thing, with doctors all dressed as clowns, administering 50cc of seltzer to the face, and you love it and want to see it and want to play with it. Oh crap, what’s happening in the scene now?

This is your conscious mind doing all of this extrapolating and laughing at how funny your inspiration is. You can try to turn it off, but clown medical school is fucking funny, so don’t beat yourself up over thinking about it. Cool, we’ll come back to this whole inspiration thing.

There’s also a completely different background process in your brain, at an unconscious level, which is silently evaluating the current scene for an edit. IT IS CRAZY GOOD AT KNOWING WHEN A SCENE IS DONE. You just feel it, you know, it’s instinctual, basal. It’s just a bell that goes off when the third hilarious heightened thing happens, or the angry character shoots the other in the chest and then just stares hauntedly at the gun he’s holding. You know when that scene is over, in your gut.

Now, when your explosive desire to edit a scene lines up with that great, hilarious thing you’re compelled to initiate (clown medical school), it’s magical. But most of the time, they don’t happen at the same time. My belief is that often, hesitancy on stage is the inability to deal with the fact that these two things happen at different times. “I know the scene needs to end, but that funny thing I was inspired to do doesn’t make sense anymore, so I can’t edit!”

It’s a pickle, no doubt about it. Both of these feelings you get are compulsions. If you subscribe to the Dave Razowsky style of play, you follow your compulsions. But these two compulsions are sort of at odds with each other. Though if you subscribe to Dave Razowsky, then you also kind of subscribe to Buddhism (at least on stage). Don’t believe me? Read this interview. His improv philosophy greatly reflects the Buddhist mentality of being completely in the moment, and being completely aware of the impulses you’re feeling. Not judging them, just being aware of them.

So here’s another piece of Buddhism for you: It’s impossible to solve all of your problems. The desire to do so is in fact a problem. But instead, become aware of problems, without judgment. “See them.” I’ve outlined a problem for you, and it’s often an unconscious one. Do I know how to solve it? Nope!* But I do know how to make you aware of it, and in gaining awareness, you may lose your fear of it.

Here’s an exercise. It gets players used to:

(1) Playing from their gut and tapping into their compulsions

(2) Realizing when a scene needs to end, independent of everything else

(3) Evaluating whether or not their idea is good for the show and still relevant

Have your group do two-person scenes. During each scene, have players on the backline raise their hand when they think the scene should be edited. When a few players raise their hand at the same time, that’s probably a good spot to end the scene.

As a bonus, take note of who is raising their hands and when. (It’s an interesting insight into how you collectively play.)

Ask for a new scene, and repeat this a few times. Players will put their hands up at different times, and that’s OK. There can be a few good places to edit. Once players feel comfortable with calling for edit points, change gears.

This time, have them put up their hand during scenes when they’re inspired to do something. When a few people have their hand up and the scene reaches a good edit, pause the scene, ask a player with their hand up if their idea is still relevant or if they still want to do it, and have them come in. It might be that the time has passed, in which case, move on to the next person with their hand up. Do this for a while.

After this is comfortable, put the two together. Have players raise their left hand if they think the scene is done, right hand if they have an idea. Ask them to put their hand down if they are no longer compelled to follow the idea. The coach should call the scenes when a few people agree on an edit point, and ask somebody with their right hand up to initiate their idea.

This sounds clunky, and it is. It’s not really how an improviser should improvise, as it requires some mental juggling on the backline.  Its goal is to make improvisers aware of what’s happening inside them. The purpose of the exercise is not to fix anything. It’s not to make people think more, or less, or play differently. Just to “see”, as a Buddhist might say. Just to become aware of what hesitancy is at its core. I was surprised at the results when I did this with the longform team I coach, Surprise Romance Elixir, and they were too. Give it a try, and lose your fear of being on the backline!

*OK, I said I don’t know how to deal with these two competing compulsions, but that’s not exactly true. In certain situations, I do. And the balance changes depending on the type of show I’m in.

If it’s a Harold, then it’s extremely important to edit in a timely fashion. And you don’t need a fully-formed premise to initiate a scene in a Harold, either. So I’m letting my editing compulsion dominate.

But if I’m doing a narrative show, where the team is crafting a story around a protagonist, then I better have an idea in mind for where I’m taking the story if I initiate a scene, even if it means letting a scene go a bit longer than it should. And if I don’t have a good idea of where to take it, well then, I’m gonna hope somebody else does!

But how you personally balance these two compulsions is a tough conversation to be having unless you can actually recognize when these compulsions happen. You should be able to point to them and say “That’s when my brain thought this scene was over, and that’s when I got the idea to initiate clown medical school.” Which is precisely the point of the above exercise. Try it!

Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

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  1. Raj Vaidyaraj #
    September 21, 2012

    Really struggle with being more “present” in scenes. This helped. Great article!

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