“For many things, your attitudes came from actions that led to observations that led to explanations that led to beliefs. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience from day to day. It doesn’t feel that way, though. To conscious experience, it feels as if you were the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants performed actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.” - Benjamin Franklin
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There’s so much pressure in life to “do our best,” it’s only natural that some of that spills over into the world of make-’em-ups we call improv. But striving for perfection is a surefire way to suck the fun out of a scene. As Joe Bill says:
“Any consideration of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ will fuck you over and put you in your head. Onstage is not real life.”
Think about that: onstage is not real life. That gives us incredible licence to do whatever the hell we want.
One time in rehearsal my teammate, Justin Kosi, was pimped into being John Travolta. He looked at our coach, Tom Vest, and said “I don’t know him.” “That’s great!” Tom told him. “Just do your John Travolta.”
Of course, Justin’s Travolta was nothing like the “real” one – and a million times funnier as a result.
If you want to take pressure off yourself, try doing something really badly. You can do it in a circle as a warm-up, as well as in scenes.
Do the worst accent, the worst dance, the worst impression, the worst anything, and see if it isn’t the best.
In improv, as in life, the biggest laughs often come from something you stumble across. It might be a discovery about your character, your scene partner, or a so-called mistake.
Even in scripted comedy, some of the most hilarious stuff wasn’t planned. Think of Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd’s “You know how I know you’re gay?” sequence from The 40 Year Old Virgin. Check out Russell Brand’s improvised audition for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Or my favourite, The 32 Greatest Unscripted Movie Scenes.
I saw a Second City revue where Reid Janisse said “X-ways” instead of “X-rays.” The audience tittered.
But a few lines later he brought it back, saying, “I”ve looked at your X-rays, and I’ve looked at your X-ways…” This time the audience roared.
Think back on some of the funniest scenes you’ve done. Chances are you started somewhere and ended up somewhere you never intended. And isn’t that the joy of it?
For decades, TV shows had the same structure: an opening montage or story synopsis, typically sung or narrated, so newer viewers could understand the story and characters right away.
Meanwhile, regular viewers had to listen to how The Brady Bunch got together. Every. Goddamn. Episode.
As the internet grew and attention spans shrank, intros got shorter. Scrubs‘ intro was just 20 seconds long. By the fourth season, it was five seconds. And Louis CK’s Louie got right to the point this season with no opening whatsoever.
Modern audiences are story savvy. We’ve become really good at making assumptions, jumping in midway and figuring it out.
When you lose exposition, you focus on now. And that’s where great improv lies.
A Harold traditionally has some kind of opening (the form, after all, was modelled after TV and film) but even that’s changing. More and more long-form shows start with scenes. And dynamic scenes start in the middle.
Even if you just have a fragment of something to begin with, that’s OK. Make assumptions. Decide to know each other. Make bold choices, and you’ll figure it out as you go.
Another way to think of it is like an Oreo cookie.
In Canada there’s a brand called Eat The Middle First. The boring outer layer is like all those scenes that start with “Hey,” “Hi,” and other timid offers. Feel free to ditch that and dive right in to the fun part.
Don’t wait to get to the good stuff.
I did a show a couple of nights ago where I was a robot. Oh, I looked human, but I might as well have been C-3PO for all the emoting I was doing.
For whatever reason, when I got on stage, I played “from the neck up.” In other words, I talked a lot but there was no weight behind what I was saying.
I was looking for something clever to say, when the answer was in my heart, my gut, my body the whole time. The next time that happens, I hope to remember these few simple words:
Experts say anywhere from 60-90% of communication is non-verbal (facial expression, gestures, and posture). We take our cues from how people sit, stand or move. But the information doesn’t end there.
“Hairstyle is body language. Clothing is body language.” – Fred Herzog, Photographer
Look at the men in the photo.
The guy with the beard, Subaru shirt and camo pants is worlds apart from the dude with the checked shirt and forlorn expression. If I were to guess their first lines of dialogue, it’d probably be something like:
Guy #1: “I used to ride bikes in the military.”
Guy #2: “I wish Maanika would call me.”
In improv though, it’s rarely this obvious. We don’t have as many physical cues to get a read on someone’s character right away. So what can we do?
Mime An Accessory
In Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ initiates an office worker who wears a beret. With one small gesture, adjusting the angle of the hat on his head, his character instantly becomes more interesting.
Maybe your character likes to stroke his beard, or play with her ponytail. I’ve seen Lisa Merchant mime goatees, while Ted Hallett twirls imaginary locks that would make Kim Kardashian jealous.
Maybe you’re wearing a scarf or a boa that keeps coming loose so you have to keep tossing it over your shoulder.
It doesn’t matter what it is; just reach out into space and find something, then use it to learn about your character.
Scene Paint Someone
If it’s three minutes in and we still know nothing about the people on stage, go in and scene paint something on them. Be specific. Is it a corduroy jacket, or a $6,000 Tom Ford suit? Reveal that they have a secret tattoo, describing what and where it is in detail. Endow someone with a toupée or glass eye.
Give them something to dimensionalise their character, and it will add dimension to the scene.
Study Body Language Like A Thief
There are so many tiny physical clues to how a person is feeling:
• Touching the back of the neck or head signifies doubt or uncertainty.
Improvisers who get in their head often do this unconsciously. If you see this happening to your scene partner, you can snap back them back into the moment by asking them if they need clarity.
• Putting both arms behind the head and leaning back in a chair is a show of status. (Watch for it at your next big meeting.)
• Touching or scratching the top of your hand or forearm signals stress. It’s especially common when people feel anxious or under attack.
Anna Gunn, who played Skyler in Breaking Bad, brushes her forearm ever so slightly when Skyler tells Walt she’s afraid of him.
Watch for these and other clues from your scene partners. You probably know friends or family members with unique quirks or tics; gestures that tell you they’re happy, anxious, sad, or about to explode. Try using some of them on stage, and see where they lead you.
“No scene is ever about the words being spoken.” – Del Close
When we step on stage, we enter a world with endless possibilities for characters, setting, and story.
Why then, do so many improv scenes start like this?
The answer is: it’s safe.
On the up side, it allows you to make eye contact with your scene partner easily. On the down side, it encourages you to stay static for long periods of time.
Two chairs facing towards each other could be the cue for a restaurant, a doctor’s office, a job interview, or any one of those undefined limbos where two people just sit and talk and keep sitting and talking that we’ve all seen and done, oh, about a million times.
If you’d like to change things up, take yourself out of your comfort zone, and you’re ready to break some chairs – uh, boundaries – let’s get started!
We Think In Pictures
Look at the examples below. What mise-en-scènes do you see? What relationships do the postive and negative space suggest?
Simply moving the chairs further apart changes the dynamic from cosy…
…to Citizen Kane breakfast montage chilly.
Of course, one chair can also tell a story. And the possibilities multiply when you add a third chair to the mix.
You Are The Architect
Just as you have a relationship with your scene partner, you also have a spatial relationship with the stage, the chairs, the curtains, and any mimed objects that become part of your scene.
In Viewpoints, this is called “Architecture.” Architecture also includes light, shadow, and sounds.
How you interact with your Architecture is important. Do you sit up straight, knees together? Or do you turn the chair and straddle it, legs splayed like Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train? (Actually, that’s a great tumblr to browse for body language.)
How does it feel to be in that physicality? Who is that person?
Lean on a chair with one arm and see how that affects you. Place the chair between you and your scene partner. Or pick it up and throw it (somewhere that it won’t hurt anyone).
“Your architecture is an emotional delivery system that lets you express yourself to the audience. It’s your voice. It’s an anchor.” – David Razowsky
Dean Buchanan and Don Gervasi improvised a brilliant scene for their Conservatory show about a cut-rate airline that crams in extra seats. They discovered the scene and their characters by placing their chairs close to one another at right angles.
Dean became a low-status passenger who spent the flight facing Don’s high-status business passenger. The intimacy it created and the resulting conversation were pure comedy gold. (After a particularly long, awkward silence, Dean broke it by saying “You have great hair.”)
Exercise: Walk With Chairs
My first Harold coach, Tom Vest, taught my team this exercise. It’s a great way to find a point of view and avoid pre-planning.
To begin, two people grab a chair each and walk around the space. The idea is to keep moving, not dawdle or linger too long in one area.
After a few moments, the Coach/Director says “Stop!”
The improvisers place their chairs down wherever they are. After a beat to see what the stage picture and their scene partner’s posture suggests to them, they start a scene.
You don’t have to sit; you can lean on the chair, stand beside it, put one foot up…whatever feels right in the moment.
Cameron and I did a show where we used this technique. When one of us wanted to edit a scene, we just picked up one or both chairs and placed them somewhere else on the stage.
Advanced Chair Work
As we’ve seen, just the slight repositioning of a chair can change the dynamic of a scene. Here are some ways you can use chairs to create different objects. Try them, or experiment with your own:
• as a wheelchair
• upside down on your head with the back of the chair facing forward to become Darth Vader
• place each foot on a chair and hold them as you lift your feet to walk; voila! instant stilts
• grab two chairs and flap them on either side of you for pterodactyl wings
David Razowsky has a wonderful tool that he uses to teach about energy and duration of emotions in scenes. He calls it “The Jerry Chart,” and now there’s a YouTube tutorial courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times so everyone can learn about it. Click below to view.
Oh, and happy birthday David!
Early on in my improv life, I did a set where I played a heroin addict. (My scene partner’s character had AIDS, so presumably we needed some comic relief.)
Doing my best Sid and Nancy impression, I mimed jamming a syringe repeatedly into my left leg.
When second beats rolled around, I decided to do a time dash. Hopping on one leg, I held my foot behind me.
The only problem was, in my haste to initiate, it appeared that my right leg had been amputated.
Instead of taking this gift from the comedy gods, I “corrected” myself and switched legs, thus destroying the reality that had already been established – and that everyone had seen.
Things deteriorated from there (if that’s possible), and by third beats…well…to quote Mark Twain, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”
It took me a while to understand that so-called mistakes are a gift.
If I hadn’t been hell-bent on doing the “right” thing, my teammates and I could have played with the fact that my good leg got amputated.
Maybe the doctor was also an addict, and he operated while he was high. Maybe the hospital realised their error, and in the third beat I’d be legless. Who knows?
Not my brain.
The second you find yourself judging what’s already happened, put your focus on what’s here now.
It’s all that ever matters.
“The biggest laughs I’ve ever had in my life are something going off the rails, something going wrong, something happening that wasn’t supposed to happen. And improv teaches you not to fear those moments; that’s where the gold is.” – Conan O’Brien