And I do mean every scene. I don’t care what the format is, there are certain universal improv truths. There are more than these three, but I can only count to three today (on account of seven of my fingers currently being used as Bugle-topped witch fingers):
1. Dress the Part
Everybody agrees that Death By Roo Roo is a fantastic improv troupe out of UCB in New York. In fact, ColdTowne’s Michael Jastroch claims in the most recent Sunday Interview that they put on the best show he’s ever seen.
Don’t believe me or Michael Jastroch? Well, fuck you too. Also, check out this recording of one of their shows:
What a fantastic, funny (funtasticky?) show that was. But look at how they’re dressed! It’s a lazy mishmash of t-shirts and sneakers and shorts. What is an otherwise exquisite show is marred by the appearance of not giving a shit how they look.
I think improv sometimes suffers from an inferiority complex, wherein “scripted theater is the major leagues and improv is just an intramural team.” And that misconception will hold steady until we treat our shows and audiences with the same respect that theatrical productions do.
Now, I’m no Don Draper or anything; and in my early improv days I was guilty of wearing whatever I scooped off my bedroom floor on the way to the theater. But these days, I’m much more conscious of my clothing and what it might suggest. These days I’ll slip into my “fancy jeans” or dark slacks, grab a button-down shirt, often a cashmere sweater and tie–the whole nine yards. (Literally. It requires nine full metric yards of fabric to fully cover my body.) The Hideout’s Andy Crouch tells his students to arrive at their showcases dressed “a little nicer, a little sexier” than the audience. Amen.
(Sidenote: Some improv shows use costumes. That’s groovy. But either wear costumes or don’t. There’s nothing worse than half-a-costume. Except genocide. It goes: Genocide, then a half-assed costume in an improv comedy show, then Homicide.)
Dressing up boosts our confidence, and boosted confidence translates into more playful, bold improv. Plus, it tells the audience that we give an extra shit about them, and that we’re attempting to put on a real show–not a sloppy frat house rehearsal.
2. Warm It Up
Maybe this goes without saying but: WARM UP BEFORE YOUR SHOW, YOUNG MAN!
Actually, it doesn’t go without saying, because I’ve heard plenty of improvisers decry warm-ups. “I don’t need no damn warm-ups! That’s for Level 1 students, not a seasoned craftsman like me!”
I’ve been that guy. Nobody likes that guy, because that guy is arriving with a less-than-playful attitude. On top of seeming arrogant, refusing to participate in warm-ups suggests you’re going to turn in a cold show. It’s called warming up for a reason.
But why, Andrew?
Life intervenes. And sometimes we arrive at a show feeling disconnected or sad or just tingly from the road rage you just unloaded on some poor S.O.B. Sometimes we show up distracted and down in the dumps.
Which is all the more reason to warm up. View warm-ups as a respite, a cure for your case of the gumpies. Playing a round of “Hey, Fred Schneider, What Are Ya Doin’?” with a group of four other adults is impossible not enjoy. Warm up with abandon–without caring how you look or perform. It’s a quickfire and surefire way to get out of your head and into the moment. It excites your mind. It pumps the blood. It peels away all the daily bullshit you’ve heaped onto your brain. And bonus: you’ll prove to your showmates that you’re all in.
3. Listen to Everything in the Universe
OK, now this one definitely goes without saying, right? You should listen to everything that happens onstage. I mean, it’s probably the most fundamental, and often infuriating and elusive, improv skill: the ability to listen.
Listening is different than hearing. My third-grade teacher, Ms. Womack, spent an entire Social Studies class one day explaining this to us. “Hearing,” she’d say, “is letting the sounds enter your eardrums. Listening is letting the sounds enter your heart.”
Ms. Lomack was a bit of a poet, I guess. But you get the idea.
An example might help:
In a rehearsal for JTS Brown a few weeks ago there was a scene that started at a birthday party. Specifically, it was a KISS Army birthday party (as in Gene Simmons’ KISS). That’s a pretty juicy set-up, yes? Plenty of places that scene could go.
Suddenly, one of the improvisers got onto the ground and began playing what was obviously (to me, anyway) a roaring fireplace. He was wiggling his fingers and making faint fire noises. That’s a big new offer. And there were plenty of places that scene could go.
Then, one of the other improvisers looked down at this “fire” and, not seeing it as a fire, said instead, “Look, Bill, it’s your birthday present! It’s a … replica … of the Starship Enterprise!” OK, we now officially have a new offer on the table. And yes, there are plenty of places for this scene to go.
Finally, the piéce de resistance: I decided, for a reason known only to the hungover med student who will one day dissect my brain and discover a massively overgrown “Needlessness” gland, this scene needed a birthday clown! So I “knocked” on the “door” and entered the scene as a clown. (In my defense, my clown described himself as an “Amish clown” and that, had it been pursued, could’ve turned up some comedy gold.)
So … within a span of 30 seconds the scene had four huge offers—none of which were given time or attention. It’s sometimes referred to as “offer soup.” Instead of latching on to the first big offer and exploring it–as someone might do if they were actively listening to the scene–we began pouring new offers into the crock pot. But instead of a nice, harmonious beef stew, we ended up with a canteloupe-salmon-cinnamon soup. In other words, nothing you’d want to eat.
I should point out that the whole idea of the JTS Brown format is unconditional support. So each new offer was readily accepted by the cast. And the scene didn’t completely fall apart. But it wasn’t the finest improv scene ever performed.
Improvisers have it tough. Our job, when we’re doing it well, involves hearing and seeing everything that’s going on in every moment, and then deciding what to latch on to and supplement, and what to let pass—and we must do it all We need to give each offer a metric ton of respect, and we need to decide what to do with it—all within a second or two. It’s obviously a difficult task. But it’s our task; it’s the point of our art. So make sure you soften your focus and listen, actively, to what’s going on all the time. Take it in to your internal improv computer and follow it.
Don’t end up in a scene with a KISS Army birthday party with a Star Trek toy and an Amish clown—not all within the first half-minute anyway.
1. Iron your damn shirt.
2. Play “Beastie Rap” already, you sad sack!
3. Listen like ninja elephant labrador.
What are other “universal improv truths”? What else can make any improv scene better?