“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.