I’ve been watching and performing a lot of improv lately, and I’ve noticed some naughty trends emerging — both in my own play and in others.
Because getting better at improv requires a bunch of repetition — of lessons and of scenes — here are some reminders we could probably stand to highlight:
#1 – Commit
The degree to which I analyze an improv show I’m watching is inversely proportional to how much I’m enjoying it. Good improv, for the most part, shuts my critical mind down; not-so-good improv ignites it.
The difference between good improv and not-so-good improv seems to boil down to the same thing over and over: commitment.
Committed improv is never bad.
Sure, committed play isn’t always mind-blowing or paradigm-redefining, but it’s never terrible. This is because watching adult humans giving 100% of themselves to a moment, to create something out of nothing, and to do it only because they are together, contains some sort of magic. And magic isn’t bad.
THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT “MAGIC”!
We can and will dive into a separate conversation about what “commitment” means in the improv world. But for now, suffice it so say: We aren’t committing hard enough.
And no wonder! It’s hard to commit! Because it’s hard to be vulnerable in front of strangers. It’s hard to act well. It’s hard to suspend disbelief + listen to your partners + cheat out + keep track of names + do object work + pause for laughs + et cetera.
It’s hard to commit. But we have to try. Because not to try is to disrespect the art form, and way more importantly, your fellow players. To undercut your scene/character/story by refusing to commit to the reality of the scene is to yank the audience out of their reverie, to smack them across the cheek and shout, “You dumb p.o.s., we’re not really on a pirate ship! We’re only pretending! And you believe us! You fool!”
Don’t be a jerk. Commit.
#2 – Stay on the Sideline
Usually, the best way for you to support a scene is not to enter it.
Here’s an example: Maestro, the beloved short-form weekly show at The Hideout, features about a dozen improvisers. It’s gamey, it moves fast, and there’s a lot of audience engagement. And before each show, the show’s directors will often implore the improvisers to “support each other.”
Now and then, Maestro turns into a support orgy, wherein every scene is crammed full of walk-ons from the players on the sidelines: waitresses, neighbors, the ex-boyfriend, furniture, whatever. The scenes grow cluttered. The audience gets lost. The whole thing just kind of explodes into meaninglessness.
A two-person scene is vastly different than a three-person scene.
I’d argue that the difference is greater than any subsequent addition of players — e.g., two to three people is far more extreme a shift than three to four, seven to eight, etc.
There are some inherent disadvantages to coming into a scene, which you must overcome by virtue of your excellent support. For starters, if two characters are talking and a third character enters, the audience stops paying attention to the first two people, and they look to this new character entering. Energy shifts. Balance tips. Things get missed. Everything changes, even if it’s only briefly.
What I think I’m witnessing is ego. Our egos tell us, “Oh snap! Woudn’t it be awesome if you walked on as a Russian janitor right now? THIS SCENE NEEDS A RUSSIAN JANITOR!!!” And on you go, and the audience scratches its head. “What the hell is happening in this scene?”
#3 – Be Louder!
ColdTowne Theater is pretty small. It seats about 50 folks in tight proximity. On sold-out nights, the room is electric, and the folks in the front row rest their feet on the edge of the stage. But even in ColdTowne — even when it’s only half-full — I’m yearning to hear the players.
You think you’re in a smallish space and don’t need to talk loud? You’re wrong. Because it’s not just enough for you to be hearable, you need to be heard.
Be more Broadway about your improv. Put a little fucking Bob Fosse into your performance. Project your voice. Cheat out. Because nobody gives a crap how subtle or clever you are if they can’t hear you. It’s the very first thing you should concern yourself with when you speak in an improv scene: being heard.
And just when you think you’re being too loud, be a little louder. Trust me. Volume is an audience’s dearest friend.