Last night I did a show with two people who’d never done improv before. In fact, neither of them had even seen an improv show. It was a rousing success of a show, full of laughs and weirdness. And here are the lesson I’ve taken away:
1. Lots of People Wanna Perform
Going in, I was worried I’d have a tough time getting someone onstage. But the theater was mostly full, and when I asked who had never seen improv before, the only guy who clapped was my first volunteer. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t shake his head and turn to his friends for protection. He seemed semi-eager to hop up onstage with me.
The second person, who was volunteered by a girl in the tech booth, feigned anger with her friend for calling her out. But I could tell she wanted to play. Methinks she didn’t protest that much.
2. Newbies Like to Insult
We did a scene about three siblings gathering to read their father’s will. A good 50% of the two volunteers’ lines were insults, most of them directed at my character. Understandable, because I’d established myself as low status. But still! Those motherfuckers went there.
I get it. When you’re under the bright lights and feeling a bit uncomfortable, an insult seems quick, funny, and easy. It deflects the attention and raises their status. Of course I didn’t mind their barbs. In fact, I reveled in playing a low status guy who’s getting shit upon, because that’s not my usual move. Usually I go big and high; I’m the insulter, not the insultee.
Similar to an insult is the “call out.” It’s another easy move that seems comfortable. For example, one of my volunteers was named Jenna. At the beginning of the scene, however, I named her character “Thelma.” A minute later I turned to her character and said, “Hello, Jenna”—accidentally referring to her real name instead of her character’s. She immediately called me out on it. It got a laugh, at my expense; after all, I’m the “expert” who fucked something up.
3. Newbies Like to Block
One of the volunteers was a tall lanky fella named Edward. He was dressed in all black and had Feather Fawcett hair, details I made sure to point out during the show.
Edward seemed to enjoy doing what I’m labeling the bizarre block. He wasn’t saying things like, “You’re not my brother! You’re an alien!” Instead, he would make offers that were so bizarre and incongruous with reality that they were tantamount to a block.
Me: “What do you think mom would think about us siblings getting together?”
Him: “You mean Nathan Lane?”
Me: “… yes. Yes, our mother, Mr. Nathan Lane, is probably too busy on Broadway to care.”
Me: “Our father was so generous, so kind…”
Him: “And black.”
Me: “Yes, our black father was so kind…”
I’m not saying this to call Edward out. My god, the guy had never even seen improv before. It was just interesting to see how much delight he seemed to take in tossing out these wacky offers born out of nothing.
4. Questions are OK
We learn in early improv classes that asking questions is verboten. We’re taught that it puts undue pressure on the other improviser and doesn’t really build anything new.
But here’s the thing: Much of what you learn in Level 1 or Level 2 can be abandoned when you become a bit more savvy onstage. Because those early lessons aren’t designed to make you a seamless, smooth improviser; they’re meant to make you comfortable, playful, and creative. They’re not the keys to a professional, veteran improv show.
And here’s the other thing: Asking questions is OK once the scene gets going. Starting a scene with a question can be tricky, especially if it’s vague—e.g., “What’s that you’re holding?” But once the scene’s reality is established asking a clear, detailed question is more than acceptable.
I went into last night’s show thinking, “Don’t ask questions!” That lesson from Level 1 was still clanging around my brain.
And I didn’t ask, for a long time. But truth is, the volunteers were a bit quiet, and eventually I ran out of declarative sentences. So I asked a couple of questions. But I made sure they were (a) open ended, and (b) detailed and suggestive. For example? “Well, Thelma, what do you plan to do when you return to your fancy life in New York City?” If there was an awkward pause, I answered for them, e.g., “I bet you’re going to go back to your fancy job in publishing!”
The lesson is that questions are not only OK, but they can be fantastic. But the scene must be clearly established and the questions should be unequivocal.
5. Newbies Don’t Move
The only time the volunteers moved was when I told them to. Or strongly suggested they do.
Totally understandable: When semi-frozen by the spotlight, our brains can get discombobulated. And our bodies kind of shut down to allow our minds to work at maximum efficiency.
But my god do I love to move around a stage. In fact, I think my ability to create scene pictures is one of my strengths as an improviser.
6. Playfulness is King
When Edward claimed that our dead father was, in fact, Cuba Gooding. Sr., I was momentarily taken aback. What a weirdo offer! But my goal with this show was to eliminate judgment and just go with it. So instead of cringing, I just dove in: “Yes, and it’s a shame our brother, Cuba Junior, couldn’t be bothered to show up today.”
Both Edward’s offer and my reply got a fantastic response from the crowd—owing, I think, to my refusal to wink at this offer, to kind of look toward the audience and say, “Can you believe he just said that shit?” Nope, I committed, and the scene was better for it.
It’s called playfulness. And it’s what injects joy into a scene. Playfulness needs balance, however. If you’re too playful you can easily undercut the scene and deny its reality. In fact, I saw a show on Thursday night that did just that. One of the players was so sarcastic and so “playful” that not a single scene worked. There was nothing real happening onstage; it was all clearly make believe.
Our job as improvisers is to try, as much as we’re able, to make the audience suspend their disbelief. It’s a fucking chore, especially when half the audience is made up of friends and other improvisers. But if we can make them forget they’re in an audience watching adult human being pretend to pour drinks and talk about their dead father, then … SUCCESS! IMPROV FTW!
The Moral of the Story:
I’m so glad I did this “experiment.” In fact, I wish I could make it a monthly 15-minute set at The Free Fringe, because it helps bring me back to earth, remind me of the fundamentals, and find ways to make a scene work, even when it detours into Crazytown.
Plus, we got a shit ton of laughs.