Last year we posted Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv. Here’s some more.
1. Be willing to fail.
Photo © Adrianne Gagnon
When we’re learning to improvise, we fail constantly. Improv teaches us that mistakes are OK, and life becomes freeing and fun. But after a while, we can start to fall into certain patterns of behaviour.
- You always go in to first beats with Bob
- You start every scene by holding an imaginary beer
- You reference Star Wars at least once every show
- When all else fails, zere’s always your hilarious Cherman accent, ja?
We repeat these patterns because they’re safe and familiar. Chances are they got laughs in the past. But if you want to grow as an improviser, you need to step outside your comfort zone.
Jump in the deep end. Throw something out there without knowing where it’s going. Get yourself into trouble. When you give yourself permission to fail, you open up new possibilities.
“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” – Del Close
2. Go with your gut.
There are times when performers are so in sync, their responses so lightning-fast, it almost seems supernatural. When we’re truly in the moment, improv is effortless. Like UCB’s motto, we “don’t think.” So what’s doing the thinking for us?
Your brain is designed to filter out information, or else your conscious mind would be overwhelmed. But your subconscious takes it all in.
We make moves based on the information we have. Consciously, we’re usually focused on ourselves and our scene partners. Subconsciously, we’re doing much, much more.
When your subconscious takes in what you’re doing, what your scene partner is doing, what the rest of your team is doing, what the audience is doing, what the person in the booth is doing, what song is playing at the bar, every single scene you’ve ever seen or played, and sends you an idea…you take that damn idea!
3. Slow down.
“If it’s done well, I’ll watch somebody tie their shoe.” – David Pasquesi
Photo © Crista Flodquist
When the lights go up in Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ and Dave stand silently on stage. No one says anything for a full 14 seconds. Most improvisers would be chewing their hand off by that point, but taking the time to read each other is par for the course for this duo.
Here’s an exercise they teach, which is great for connecting with your scene partner:
Two players stand across from each other. One is the sender, the other is the receiver. The sender tries to communicate their character, their relationship to their scene partner, their want or situation – all without miming or speaking. The receiver then says what they got from the other person’s energy and body language.
The first time Cameron and I did this exercise, TJ asked what I got from Cameron’s character.
“Well, he’s my husband, and he’s about to tell me that he told his boss to stick it, and now he’s been fired.”
Cameron’s eyes widened. “I was her husband, I’d just told my boss to go fuck himself, and I quit!”
(For the record, this was waaaaaaay before he basically did that in real life.)
The next time you walk onstage, take a moment to pause, breathe, and fully check in with your scene partner. You don’t need to rush to be funny.
4. Be here now.
We spend a lot of time in our heads, and not just when we’re improvising. If you’re feeling guilt and shame, you’re thinking about the past. When you feel fear and anxiety, you’re thinking about the future.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re worrying about tonight’s show, stressing about what character to bring next, or feeling bad about that stupid thing you did in fourth grade: now is all that exists.
Know that you have everything you need in this moment. When you bring your focus to what’s in front of you – whether it’s your scene partner or a plate of lasagna – then you’re truly living. (And who cares if you forgot your swim trunks in Grade 4? Underoos are the coolest!)
Of course, like all things, it takes practice. For further reading, we recommend The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron.
5a. Reach out and touch someone.
Have you seen that show, Two People Standing And Talking in a Void? It’s the one where no one touches anyone, physically or emotionally.
If you’re in a scene professing your love to someone, and you’re both standing still two feet apart, move closer. Couples touch. Touch his cheek. Caress her arm. Boop his nose. Hold hands.
Touching is a great way to show you’re humans with emotions. Patting your scene partner on the head, or putting them on your shoulders says a lot about your characters.
5b. Reach out and touch something.
Before a scene starts, the only things that exist on stage are people and chairs (ohhh, that’s where they got the name). After the scene starts, everything exists. Like The Matrix, we just need to declare it.
We learn about ourselves by exploring the world around us. So grab some chairs and make a hot tub, a ferris wheel, or a TARDIS. Reach out and find an object, then use it to define your character. You don’t have to know what you’re reaching for. The joy is in the discovery.
6. Study the masters.
Read Napier and Norman and TJ & Dave. Read interviews, e-books and blogs. Subscribe to podcasts and listen on your way to work.
Most of all, go see live shows. If you live in a big city like New York, Toronto or London, you can see top improvisers almost any night of the week. If you live in a small town, festivals like the Del Close Marathon, Vancouver International Improv Festival, or NC Comedy Arts are a great way to see these people all in one place.
And for a mere ten dollars, you can see TJ and Dave perform at their brand new theater in Chicago. That’s like seeing Simon and Garfunkel in concert at 1965 prices. Heck, if you have to jump on a Greyhound to get there, it’s worth it.
7. Play with people who are better than you. Play with people less experienced than you.
There’s a tendency to stick with the same group of people throughout our career. It might be your Con class, your first Harold team, or any number of other cliques.
Ensembles are great for building trust, but if you feel like you’re in a rut, mix it up a little. (See “Be willing to fail.”)
There are great young performers who are still students. And great veteran performers who are still playful. Don’t be scared to ask one of your heroes if they’d like to perform with you. And if you’re an old pro, do a show with your students. It’s a great reminder to take care of your scene partners, and they might surprise you by how much funnier they are.
8. Have other interests.
We said it before, but it bears repeating. Improv is an incredible gift, but there’s no surer way to suck the well dry than to drain it constantly.
If you’re taking five classes, doing three shows a night, and spending all your free time with other improvisers, it’s time to reassess before you burn out.
The pros know this. In between directing the Second City Mainstage, opening a new theater, and writing a new book, Mick Napier practises card tricks, shoots pool, plays guitar, and builds stuff with erector sets. David Razowsky travels the globe teaching improv, but he also spends time discovering each city, trying new foods, and honing his photography skills.
Enjoy all that improv has to offer, but be sure to make time for other things.
“The more art you bring to your life, the more life you bring to your art.” – David Razowsky
Photo © Kevin Thom
Editor’s Note: Regarding #3, David Knoell prefers the word “patient” to “slow,” to avoid confusion between having awareness and bringing low energy. David Razowsky prefers “mindful.” These are both great descriptors, so use whatever resonates with you.