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Sometimes in improv, we try to force a storyline so that it follows the rules of “the real world.” And while grounded scenes can be very entertaining, there’s something to be said for great acting married with crazy circumstances.
Case in point: The Avalanches’ Frontier Psychiatrist. The characters and their surroundings may look nutty, but their performances are very natural. Which makes the complete package weird as shit…and utterly wonderful.
Click here or below to view the video.
(For further reading, see our post on letting go of expectations.)
The National Theatre of The World did a long scene recently where Matt Baram and Ron Pederson never referred to each other by name.
Naomi Snieckus then mischievously pimped them, herself and Chris Gibbs into doing a scene that only contained names.
The result was hilarious but also fascinating, as they used only first names (e.g. “Edgar?” “Daphne…” “Timothy!”) to emote and define their relationships to each other.
It’s a fun alternative to the “Fifty” exercise, where two people do a scene using only numbers from 1 to 50 in place of dialogue.
Try it at your next rehearsal!
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.
Rockwell said he had the idea for 20 years, but couldn’t figure out how to complete it. He finally solved it by having the person the gossip was about hear it, then come full circle to the person who started it.
(That’s Rockwell’s wife in the third row, second from the left, and Rockwell himself pointing the finger at the blabbermouth.)
When you’re feeling stuck in a scene or a Harold, think back to what happened at the start. Calling back a character, a word, or even a gesture is often all you need to revive the energy, close the loop, or provide a great blow line.
As Mike Myers says, “The end is in the beginning.”
(Thanks to Rob Norman for the source, and the inspiration.)
1. Nobody forgot their medication. They’re always like this.
2. You don’t need to look for it. It’s right in front of you.
3. You have a surprisingly strong opinion about what your partner is doing.
4. If you really don’t want to do something, do it.
5. Yes, you should have edited there.
6. If you do it twice, you have to do it three times.
7. No house painter has ever had an amazing new house painting technique.
8. You’re never just doing stuff. Figure out why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it.
9. We don’t care about what you don’t care about.
10. Why you do what you do is what you’ll do next.
Doug Sheppard is a Web developer by trade, and a writer and improviser by vocation. He lives in Toronto and considers it one of the finest places in all of Canada. You may also be amused by his twitter, or you can see him perform live improvisational comedy without a net with the Tomes Adventure Hour.
“I think of it like dance, or like a basketball team. A good basketball team has practised so much and knows each other so well that they know where they’re gonna be at any given time, or they understand the rhythm of each player. And they’ve worked so long putting it together slowly that it’s effortless, or it seems effortless.”
“We walk through a forest of exposition until we’re in a clearing where it’s just the two of us.” – David Razowsky
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.