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Part of the fun of doing improv is being able to do anything. Like Neo in The Matrix, you can fly, stop bullets, or even hook up with The Woman in the Red Dress; things mere mortals can only dream of.
Sometimes we add crazy elements to a scene, thinking we’re making it funnier. But what often happens when characters go to Mars is so does believability.
The audience needs a reason to believe.
I once saw Jason DeRosse, Rob Norman, and Adam Cawley ask for a location that would fit on the stage. Someone yelled out “Shoe!”
The guys paused and looked at each other, then played 25 minutes as three roommates trapped in a stiletto.
The setting was absurd, but their reactions and their relationship to each other were grounded in truthfulness. And nothing is funnier than truth in comedy.
In this Fast Company video, Ricky Gervais explains how he used to make up crazy shit until he discovered the power of keeping it real. Click here or below to watch.
1. Be good actors.
2. Slow down and listen.
“If you say that you don’t want to learn how to act, it’s like saying you don’t want to learn how to do object work or learn how to do yes… and.
How many more father and son scenes can we see where the improvisers aren’t really emotionally invested in the relationship? Naming someone ‘Dad’ in a scene does not mean you have created a relationship that the audience cares about.
We’re doing theater, here, people. If we’re not acting, we’re just doing a parlor game, and a hacky one at that.” – Jimmy Carrane
Read the full post on Jimmy’s blog by clicking here.
When you treat your objects like they’re real, the scene becomes more real – for you, and the audience.
In this scene, Cameron tries to move an industrial stove. Instead of just sliding it across the stage in two seconds, you can almost see the hernia developing. (Now that’s comedy.)
Having a strong point of view makes doing a scene easy and fun. This exercise gives your character something concrete to play off of, right out of the gate.
Think of something you personally have a strong opinion about.
It doesn’t have to be political or religious; it can be as simple as “I hate clowns.”
Now, just flip the statement, whatever it is, and hold the opposite opinion as you play out your scene.
• “I enjoy exploring new cities” could become “I’m afraid of foreign places and people.”
• “Fox News is stupid” could become “Fox News is the best source of intelligent, factual information.”
• “Smartphones are destroying human interaction” could be “Smartphones make face-to-face communication better and more honest.”
You don’t have to force the topic into conversation, but you’ll find as your scene unfolds that you’ll share your newfound belief naturally.
To do the exercise, everyone thinks of a strongly-held opinion while they’re on the back line, then reverses it. Two people are chosen, and the Coach/Director gives a location to start their scene.
Try it at your next rehearsal.
“People doing rote assembly-line movements, or someone tossing dough over and over in a pizza parlour is boring. It’s boring to watch and boring to perform. But if you’re a bad pizza thrower who drops the dough or watches it stick to the ceiling, then we know something more about your character.” – Mark Sutton
When I first learned improv, I was very concerned with supporting my scene partners. So concerned that when someone edited a scene I was in, I’d stop in mid-sentence and bolt off stage like I was being pursued by bath-salt zombies.
But then I saw other shows where that happened, and I realised it was distracting, and in most cases, unnecessary.
When your character is in mid-sentence and suddenly stops, it’s like yanking a needle across a record (if you’ll forgive the old-timey metaphor).
You’re actually denying the audience a sense of closure, leaving your unfinished thought hanging like a question mark over the next scene.
It’s OK to finish your sentence.
Even if you say it while you’re moving swiftly off stage, it shows the audience that your scene is important. Not more important, but just as important as the one coming after.
As an added bonus, by completing your thought, you’ll often elicit laughter from the audience they’d otherwise miss out on.
Just don’t do a soliloquy while the person who tagged or swept you is standing there, waiting.
A Couple Of Exceptions…
• If a series of rapid-fire tag-outs breaks out, it’s better to keep the energy and momentum by exiting quickly, even if you don’t finish what you’re saying.
• You can also use ellipses within a scene where no one is trying to edit.
In that case, an unfinished thought can be a way to create intrigue and tension, as in this example from David Razowsky:
“I have a tattoo.” (pauses) ”Anyway…” (trails off)
Try it at your next show or rehearsal.
We can improvise anything we want on stage. Anything at all.
So why, as TJ points out, do we so often reach for the same old clichés?
“Experience what’s happening now, and make your surroundings real. You don’t have to invent an environment: it already exists.” – TJ Jagodowski
When you stop playing safe and really focus on what you and your scene partner have established, you’ll open up infinite new possibilities.
Cheers to that.
“It’s not a toomah!”
“Coffee’s for closers.”
“Is it safe?”
“May the Force be with you.”
“Big gulps, huh?”
When you read those words, I know you heard the actor’s voice in your mind. Not just the timbre, but the emotion.
A few simple words can sum up a scene, a character, a play, or sometimes, a whole TV series. And as Schwarzenegger proved, you don’t even have to speak a language fluently to make a lasting impact.
While we don’t recommend you rely on catchphrases as a crutch, they can often be useful in defining your character.
The next time you blurt out something on stage, take note of what you said and how you said it.
A word, a phrase, or even a sound (like Annie Hall’s “La-dee-da”) are so much more powerful when accompanied by emotion.
You can explore and heighten whatever you said, or simply repeat it.
Improv Side Note: Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” from The Shining and Robert de Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” from Taxi Driver were improvised. Now try to imagine their characters without them. Impossible!