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Posts tagged improv ideas

“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.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

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, a friend who saw the same show described the “choreographed dance number.” 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 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.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Julian Frid is an aficionado of the art of improv and the founding member of Sex T Rex. He’s performed on stages across North America, and is a student at U of T, focusing on the structure and cognitive effects of storytelling, specifically in film. He is proud to say he consistently pays improv teachers good $$.

Teaching improv at U of T, I’ve encountered many people who want not so much to be improvisers (in the sense of going onstage to improvise regularly), but to use the tools of improv to hack social sitches.

Does this work? Debatable. I don’t see the “after,” just the “before,” but improv games tend to loosen people up and teach all those Batmans out there to consider the question “Why so serious?”

The greatest thing I think these classes teach is respect for creative (weird) people. Teaching the course, I can see the status shift from being closed off and knowing what is “good” and what is “not.” At the end of eight weeks, these people wade into scenes and give their fellow performers wide-eyed attention. It brings out the child in them, though I’d never tell them that outright.

These students are less concerned with comedy than with possibilities of game, of exploration, and getting to do what they’ve always wanted to do. I had a student who loved the idea of opening up a closet and having a live bear inside. This was a frequent but hilarious occurrence.

For students like this, improv is a novelty. As an improviser, and after watching a fair amount of improv over five years, I wonder how much of a novelty it remains for some, when all we see is people and chairs.

Depressing? Hopefully not. After examining and practising an art like improv, one, even though they may not be able to articulate it, gains a nuanced and elemental understanding of the art. How to move the people and the chairs to make the most entertaining arrangement or dynamic possible.

Good film is best when it remains good even when muted. This is because elementally, film is images moving on screen.

Improv is elementally people with chairs. Our whole life is people with architecture, furniture, navigating and using these spaces. Improv requires exploration.

Photo © Joe Pack

Just like it sounds.

This is a fun, physical warm-up to help you stretch your muscles and get silly with your fellow players. Reeeeaaaalllllly slow down your moves, for safety, and to exaggerate those punches, elbows, and classic roundhouse kicks to the head.

Last one standing is Chuck Norris.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Josh Bowman is a professional fundraiser, storyteller, comedian, improviser, and blogger. He also writes for tenthingsivelearned.com, The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and improvises around Toronto, including regular shows with Opening Night Theatre and Surprise Romance Elixir, and when he tricks other better improvisers into performing with him.

Note: Any scene can be terrific if it’s played enthusiastically and intelligently, but generally when I see players initiate any of the scenes below, it doesn’t end well. PS: I’ve done most of these myself. Blergh to me.

  1. A married couple arguing because the husband came home late from work. He was likely having beers with “the guys”
  2. People just arguing in general for no apparent reason
  3. Somebody teaching somebody else how to be cool
  4. Any combination of two or more of the following: robots, pirates, vampires, Jesus, explosions, time travel, a funeral
  5. Somebody on the toilet sitting beside somebody else on the toilet, talking about toilets
  6. People waiting for the bus
  7. “This is the best (blank) ever!!”
  8. Somebody calling somebody else fat/ugly, and helping them be prettier
  9. Too much talking
  10. Scenes where people keep saying “I don’t understand!” “I don’t know what’s going on here!”

As an advertising writer, I struggled for years to “find the funny.” Every brief brought on a cold sweat and the fear of failure, of never having another good idea. It wasn’t until I learned to relax that writing became easier. The more I stopped worrying and focusing on the problem, the faster ideas came.

“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.” – Roger Sterling to Don Draper

I’ve found the same to be true in improv. If I hold on tight to a preconceived idea, there’s no space for the unexpected. When my ego tries to steer the scene (and fails), I end up where I started: in my head.

When you let go, something amazing happens. You say and do things you could never have planned. Things that surprise your teammates, the audience, and you.

One of my favourite commercials of all time is this Holiday Inn spot (below) featuring actor/improvisers Jerry Lambert, Roy Jenkins and Nat Faxon. A director who worked with Jenkins told me the line “I hope so” was improvised. When I heard that, I tried to imagine the spot without it. Impossible.

The writer knew to let the actors play.

Clients will always try to fill 30 seconds with sales talk. It’s my job to leave enough space in the script for some magic on the shoot day.

That goes for improv too. Just because you have a 20-minute set doesn’t mean you have to fill every second with jibber jabber. Let the scenes breathe, and invite the comedy gods to speak. Even if sometimes that means not speaking at all.