Posts tagged improv scene work
Life is absurd.
If you doubt this, just spend five minutes on YouTube, CNN, or public transit.
Weird shit happens everywhere, every day. So why do we try so hard to make improv scenes go the way we expect them to?
The answer is usually fear.
Fear that we won’t know where the scene is going. Fear that our partner won’t understand our offer, or we won’t understand theirs. Fear of the unknown.
But isn’t that why we do improv in the first place? To do something we’ve never done before, and will never do again.
When we visit new places, try new cuisine, go to an art gallery or watch a movie, we want to be surprised. And improv is one of the few art forms where the actors get to be as surprised as the audience.
The conscious mind loves to control things, and our ego wants us to believe we need to control things in order for them to turn out OK.
For a long time I feared not getting certain, specific references on stage. (Let’s just say I stood on the sidelines nervously observing Mortal Kombat scenes.)
But how much funnier is it when someone doesn’t know the reference?
Suppose I endowed someone as Iron Chef, Geoffrey Zakarian.
You think the audience wants to see a perfect impression of the Chopped judge? If they did, they should’ve stayed home and watched the Food Network.
Maybe you’ve never heard of him, and the first thing that pops into your head is, “Zakarian…sounds Hungarian.”
Awesome. And if your idea of a Hungarian accent sounds more like the Swedish Chef, well…Bork!
Think about the best scenes you’ve ever done for a moment. The ones where everything felt effortless, and you never wanted it to end.
However those scenes started, I’ll bet none of them turned out the way you expected.
When you let go of your improv steering wheel, you connect with something deeper than your conscious mind can fathom. It’s the same state of flow that artists, musicians, authors, sculptors, dancers, and even scientists tap into when they bring something awe-inspiring into being.
The more you can open yourself up to that state, the more you will be amazed.
For inspiration, check out: 42 People You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.
“I don’t like comedy. I like funny things. I don’t like comedy. Like, comedy movies are just, ‘Oh Jesus.’” – Louis C.K.
I know what he means. I’d rather sit through a bad drama than a B-grade comedy any day.
Cameron and I often “overdub” movies, Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style.
We’ve made fun of Tim Robbins in Arlington Road. Adrien Brody in Splice. Even Gene Hackman in Heist.
What makes it funny is the deadly seriousness of the actor on screen. (And really, nothing’s funnier than an Oscar-winning actor in something really bad.) The more dramatic the film is supposed to be, the greater the opportunity for comedy.
“Sometimes things are really funny if you’re absolutely earnest. If you’re really serious, it’s hilarious.” – Christopher Walken
The funniest people I know are great actors. They may be improvising on stage, but they are also acting. It requires a level of commitment to the scene most of us don’t even aim for.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy goofy improv sets; I do. But for me the biggest laughs, the shows that really resonate, inevitably involve great acting.
One of my favourite movie scenes of all time is Walken as Diane Keaton’s psychotic brother in Annie Hall. (If you haven’t seen it, click here to watch.)
He plays the part like it’s Requiem For A Dream, not a quirky romantic comedy. It’s such a small role, but his commitment to character makes it unforgettable.
Note Woody’s performance, too. Even though he calls out Walken’s character as a freak, he does so in a way that’s understated.
Colbert, Carell, Razowsky, TJ and Dave, Jason Mantzoukas, Steve Coogan, Bob Odenkirk…these people get laughs precisely because they don’t play the scene for laughs.
Subtlety, emotion, and vulnerability, while seldom seen on stage, are all things that elevate good improv to great.
For more inspiration, check out Real Actors Read Yelp Reviews. (My favourite is #3, read by award-winning actor Brian O’Neill.)
Last night some friends did an improvised version of Degrassi: Junior High. It was hilarious.
With a couple of cheesy wigs and some spandex, the performers had the audience in stitches. And it made me realise what a difference even a little specificity makes.
Sure, they were playing established characters. But it’s not like anyone remembered the original storylines.
What they had were the characters’ deals, or points of view, and a time period (the ’80s) as a backdrop.
“Mr Raditch didn’t count on the four J’s: Joey Jeremiah in a jean jacket!” – Jason Donovan as Joey
Think of your favourite fictional characters, and you immediately picture their clothes, their favourite tchotchkes, and their environment:
• Dexter with his ”kill outfit,” souvenir blood samples, and Miami bachelor pad
• The Wire‘s McNulty and Bunk getting drunk, the omnipresent orange sofa, Omar with his gun, even Senator Davis’s trademark “Sheeeeeeeeit!”
• Don Draper in his razor-sharp suit, downing whisky at 10 a.m. in his hip ’60s ad agency
Any one of those details would add richness to an improv scene. Together, they create a world.
For more inspiration, check out Design*Sponge‘s feature called “Living In…” It’s a visual recreation of the objects from movies and TV shows.
“Symmetry looks good to us; we want more of it.” – Susan Messing
Mirroring is a fast and powerful way to connect with your scene partners and, oh yeah, impress your audience.
When Mansical performed at Comedy Bar recently, I couldn’t attend, but Cameron described it for me after the show.
In one scene, a player stepped forward and did a simple dance move. He was joined by another player, who did the same thing.
A third player stepped out and did a different move. He was joined by someone who mirrored him.
The two “pairs” continued to move to the accompanist’s music, timing their actions with both their own scene partner, as well as the other pair.
As Cameron acted out both duos’ movements, I pictured the great “routine” they created.
The next day, another friend who saw the show described the “choreographed dance number” to me. When I told her it was improvised, she was amazed.
Cameron and I are your typical white-bread-and-mayo kind of dancers. But when we get on a dance floor, we mirror each other, and suddenly even the weird, angular, and bizarre moves look, well, better.
Two of just about anything looks better, as Jimmy Fallon and Michelle Obama’s Evolution of Mom Dancing video clearly illustrates. (If you haven’t seen it yet, click on the blue link to watch.)
And more than two people is even better, if you work together and give and take focus.
You can use symmetry to establish group mind, create a dynamic stage picture, or just get out of your head. Try it in your next opening, group game, or two-person scene.
“When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way…” – Alfred Hitchcock
TV has a reputation for just being “talking heads,” while film tends to be about motion and emotion. Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta first made me aware of this, and it trained me to study the various techniques in each medium.
Fortunately, in improv we have the flexibility to do whatever kind of scenes we like; we’re limited only by our imagination.
Thanks to the miracles of scene painting, mime, physicality, placement of chairs, verbal and physical sound effects, we can recreate the special effects of Spielberg, the scoring capabilities of Danny Elfman, or the panoramic cinematography of Ang Lee.
The more supportive your scene partners, the more immersive the experience can be.
I saw a set where Matt Folliott and Isaac Kessler lifted their scene partners and moved them around on stage to create a Matrix-style mid-air gunfight in slow mo. I can only imagine how exhausting it was for the lifters, but the audience was spellbound.
(For a master class in movie-inspired improv, go see Anthony Atamanuik and Neil Casey’s genius Two Man Movie at UCBT in New York. What they accomplish in 30 minutes is as mind-blowing as it is hilarious.)
Improv scenes that more closely mimic television are also fun, both to watch and perform.
Sitcoms like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Louie, Portlandia and The Office feature simple, often banal locations juxtaposed with great characters, dialogue, and physicality. Take away the location and props, and what you’re left with is comparable to a solid improv set.
Some improv shows are purposely built around one construct or the other. Back To The Future: The Improv Show takes its cues from the film franchise, while Channel 5 Action News is modelled after a news program, complete with commercial breaks.
If you find your improv has hit a rut – maybe you’re doing the same form every week and it’s feeling stale – try experimenting with film or TV techniques.
For inspiration, go to the movies or borrow a box set from friends. (Now’s your chance to finally see The Wire, Battlestar Galactica or Breaking Bad.)
Or just look through your own collection. Study your favourite shows and films to see what makes scenes resonate.
Watch how Scorsese uses freeze frame with narration in Goodfellas. Notice the way Mr Show uses organic edits to move from sketch to sketch.
Then steal it for your next set.
Think of your favourite improv scene ever. (If that’s too hard, the best one you’ve seen recently.)
Whether it featured a couple of co-workers, conjoined twins, or the Ikea monkey and his Mom, I’ll bet dollars to donuts it wasn’t about a “special day.”
Many of us were taught every scene should be “Today is the day that…” Unfortunately, that can lead to forced or clichéd scenes.
“Today’s the day we’re finally going to get married!”
“Today’s the day I quit my job to become an astronaut!”
“Today’s the day I win the Nobel Peace Prize!”
Any of these scenarios could turn out to be great. And there’s nothing wrong with making a huge offer at the top of the scene. But there’s also nothing wrong with starting small and finding the “what” along the way.
And if the what turns out to be nothing more than discovering a woman has married an exact carbon copy of her shouty father (as happened in one of my favourite scenes), that’s just fine.
“Be so believable it hurts. Don’t just play the idea of the scene. Dive deep into the scene. The relationships are what’s important. Simple scenes are all you need; it doesn’t have to be ‘about’ something.” – Greg Hess
If you can get your hands on a copy, watch TJ and Dave’s show entitled Before The Party. The entire 50-minute set revolves around two guys getting ready for some kind of shindig.
We never actually find out what happens at the party. Who cares? It’s all about these two characters, from their music choices to their fear of failure with women.
The more you focus on what’s happening right now, the more we’ll lean in to learn more.
Jason Mantzoukas’s one-man Hermit show (described here) is another great example. While it did turn out to be an unusual day, he didn’t start by declaring that right off the top.
Instead, the scene built to a climax slowly and methodically. And how much more powerful was it because the audience discovered the “what” with him?
When you’re fully present and immersed in what’s happening on stage, you’ll create something people remember – because they experienced it too.
We’ve all seen shows where someone decides to use a real prop on stage.
It’s usually small, like coins or a cell phone. And once it’s introduced, everyone tends to fixate on it: the players, as well as the audience.
I’ve seen seasoned performers kill it with props, but more often, props kill the scene.
Props work well in shortform games, like the one from Whose Line Is It Anyway? If everyone knows up front that they’re part of the show, the results can be frickin’ hilarious.
But using props in longform tends to throw players and audiences off a little. When everything else in the scene is imaginary, bringing in something real is a bit like shining a light on shadow puppets. The magic and mystery disappear.
Besides, as I’ve learned from writing for radio, it’s way cooler to let people imagine their own version of your world.
Of course, there are exceptions, and the photo above is one example.
Revel Theatre had a show where there happened to be some books and a table on stage. Kevin Whalen was hilarious, and he literally stumbled on his character.
When the lights went up he stumbled a little, and reached out to steady some books that were falling.
His character was born in that second, when he organically reacted in the moment. Kevin’s scene partner, Reid Janisse, endowed him as an author.
As the scene progressed, Kevin alternated between haughty high status befitting a new author, and the grovelling apology he established in the first few seconds.
The scene worked, for two reasons:
1. Kevin didn’t decide to incorporate books into the scene. The prop more or less incorporated itself by falling over, and Kevin simply reacted to and embraced what happened.
2. While Kevin occasionally picked up a book, the scene wasn’t about the props. It was clearly about a weirdo author and his relationship with his agent, the bookstore owner, and his fans.
It definitely helped that Kevin and Reid are both pros.
Bottom line? When in doubt, leave it out.
If you’ve seen Inglourious Basterds, you know how incredibly powerful the opening scene is. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen it, stop reading and get thee to Netflix.)
The setting is simple, almost banal.
A Nazi Colonel visits a farmer at his humble dwelling in the French countryside. The Colonel asks for a glass of milk and the two men sit at the table. They trade niceties back and forth, revealing background and character, bit by bit. But beneath the pleasantries, tension is building.
Tarantino, though, is in no hurry to “cut to the chase.” He’s content to simply sit in that tension. No, scratch that: he revels in it.
Over the course of fifteen minutes, he builds the suspense in tiny increments.
That bears repeating.
The opening scene of a feature film, of two men sitting and talking, is fifteen minutes long.
And we are riveted for every deliciously agonizing second.
When it finally reaches the boiling point, the explosion of violence that follows is like a release; a dreadful but necessary conclusion.
This is drama at its finest, and great comedy works the same way.
“You don’t have to keep explaining every little detail. You’re there to enjoy the discovery as much as the audience.” – David Pasquesi
The Nazi Colonel could have got what he came for in the first three minutes. But then we’d be deprived of the slow – and terrifying – realization of the farmer’s situation for ourselves. (Not to mention one of cinema’s greatest scenes.)
Most of us have been trained at some point to get the “who, what, where” out there, sometimes in the first three lines.
This might rid the scene of ambiguity, but it also takes away a lot of the discovery.
TJ and Dave know who they are to each other right off the top of a scene, simply by the way they are sitting, standing, or moving in relation to each other.
You’ll never hear David blurt out “Hey John, as your boss I just wanna congratulate you on fifteen years working here at Wal-Mart as a greeter!”
Make assumptions, as opposed to declaring everything overtly.
“Slow down and taste your food.” – Susan Messing
Just as Tarantino isn’t afraid to stay on one scene, don’t be afraid to sit in your scene as it unfolds. Instead of being in a hurry to get through it, look for ways to slow down.
Remember how the Colonel took out his pen and ink, unscrewed the ink bottle, unscrewed the pen, dipped it ink, and screwed the lid back on the bottle? How the farmer unwrapped his pipe from its pouch, filled the bowl with tobacco and lit it? All of this happened in real time.
The time it takes to fill a pipe and light it is the scene. It’s not “getting in the way of” the next thing.
Object work can help ground you on stage, so reach out into your environment and find something, then let it inform your character.
The Sounds of Silence
The conversation between Nazi and farmer is punctuated by pauses. Strong verbal initiations are great, but sometimes silence is the strongest response of all.
How many times have you walked into a scene and waited for your partner to speak, only to have them stare at you and say nothing?
There’s a difference between staring blankly because you’ve got nothing, and staring silently because staring silently is your thing.
If you can push through the initial discomfort, when one of you finally does speak, it will almost always produce explosive laughter as a result of tension being broken.
Hold Your Fire
Tarantino films are famous for blood, knives, and Mexican stand-offs. But unlike a Bond film that opens with all guns blazing, Tarantino plays it slow. So he’ll show us a bunch of guys dissecting a Madonna song before he unleashes Hell.
Sometimes it’s fun to go all James Bond. But when you start your scene at a 10, the only place to go is down.
Try building your scene one brick at a time, and before you know it, fifteen minutes will have flown by.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go see Django. I hear it’s great.
If you’d like to learn more about building believable scenes that really resonate, Jimmy Carrane teaches a course called The Art of Slow Comedy. For schedule and course information, click here.