Improvisation: Making it up as you go along.
A group of players gets on stage without previously rehearsed lines or blocking and acts out. The audience understands that this show is constructed from nothing before their eyes. In these aspects, improvisational performance differentiates itself from any other performance medium.
Improvisation then is at its best when it leverages its monopoly on spontaneous collaboration before a live audience. When a group of individuals creates something out of nothing together on stage before their eyes, the audience sees magic. When improv is as improv does best, it is magic. Magic. “How’d you all do that?”
And yet we improvisers all too often focus on approximating other performance mediums. We want to perform an episode of Seinfeld, chalk full of witty lines, tight stories and comic timing. We want to build a world out of wacky characters and random occurrences to mirror the cartoons of Comedy Central’s Adult Swim. And there is success to be had in attempting this approximation. But it will forever be the “second best” success that comes from the inherent comparison.
We don’t want the “That was amazing considering you made it up all on the spot” audience reaction. We want “The way you made that all up on the spot was amazing.” You know how even our best improv shows never seem as good when we watch a recording? We have to remember – and capitalize – on how our live audiences are crucial to improvisation. We want to cultivate that “you had to be there” magic.
To my mind there are three elements that when focused on help us harness the magic that makes improvisation unique among performance mediums: Details, Reactions, and Games.
The Details are the specifics about improvisation. They are the words, the characters and the premise. This is the tool most improvisers focus exclusively on using: They seek to say, be or do something funny.
But you don’t have to try so hard to be funny to wield the power of The Details. You just have to be specific. The surprise inherent to improvisation is made even more satisfying when we’re specific in-the-moment.
When an improviser digs into their specific knowledge on stage, they are sharing themselves with the audience. Isn’t it fun to be in the audience and think, “Damn, that guy knows a lot about how cheese is made”?
Specifics connect us to the audience through their knowledge, too. “You were totally right; Cheez-Its are totally better than Cheese Nips.”
Specifics also help the audience visualize what’s not there. Don’t just drink a beer; drink a Coors Tallboy.
And starting specific helps us fall into more specifics. A scene about a guy who loves cars isn’t going to ramp up as quickly as a scene about a guy who loves manual- transmission, German-made vehicles with diesel engines.
Inherently, the audience knows that what comes out of your mouth comes out of your head. Let the audience see you to give them the ability to connect with you and ultimately root for you.
The more you know the more you can share. So read a lot. Watch a lot. Do a lot. And bring all the specifics that make up YOU to the stage.
Anyone can talk about something on stage. Not everyone can react to in-the-moment stimulus on stage. The few, the proud, the brave improviser reacts boldly in-the-moment to make-believe and taps into the art’s unique surprise.
The audience knows there’s no script to tell you how to react, so your reaction comes out of “your” perspective. The audience reaction of “I would have said that,” or “I know a woman who would have said that,” is such a satisfying response for any performance medium. In improvisation, that power is compounded as the audience knows that your reaction was “your” reaction in-the-moment.
The Details certainly enhance our reactions. But don’t delay and thus dilute the power of The Reaction by mulling over what the funniest response might be in your head.
The most powerful reactions are emotional reactions. Choosing to feel strongly about something made-up-in-the-moment is, well, insane. But it’s fun to watch. Surprise!
A scripted actor’s whole job is to make an audience believe that the emotional reaction they’re rehearsed is real in-the-moment. In improvisation, we have a leg up; we are all experiencing what’s happening for the first time. So just react. Don’t be in your head thinking about how you should feel or why we should feel. Just react. React without words until the words come. React without why until the why presents itself. If you commit to your reaction, that’s all the “why” an audience needs. If you invest in your emotion, the audience will believe that you have a reason even if you don’t have a motivation in mind.
Just react emotionally. Don’t over-think an easy win. You don’t need a motivation. You just need commitment to the moment.
Again, the uniqueness of improvisational performance relies on two aspects: That a group of people is collaborating in-the-moment to build something out of nothing, and that an audience is a participant in the process.
Games allow us to capitalize on both.
Games help performers collectively craft cohesive scenes. And games engage the audience, helping them to better understand the world performers are making up and reinforcing the idea that the show was “made for them.”
Games bring us all – performers and audience – together.
Not incidentally – not simply semantically – we’re playing games. We’re having fun. We’re not in our heads worried about what we “should” do; we’re engaged in doing whatever it is we’re doing. We’re letting the audience relax because we’re visibly playing in-the-moment; we’re not wearing terrified faces as we struggle to figure out why we’re on stage, which tenses an audience. We’re playing. We’re playing games.
The word “game” gets thrown around a lot in improvisation. This is my definition:
Game – a sequence of actions, related by rules of cause-and-effect, that heightens with repetition
Games help improvisers build something collaboratively out of nothing and they enable the audience to be in on it.
We want the audience to feel “in on it.” Soap Operas. Football. American Idol. Arrested Development. Audiences that invest in a medium’s format reap the most benefit. We know how it works but not what’s going to happen. Maybe we even know what’s going to happen, but we’re excited to see how.
I believe improvisation is at its best when it purports to engage the audience, not just through getting their suggestions, but by inviting them to “get” our mechanics.
Simply think about how your friends are the ones that laugh the loudest at you from among the audience. They know you, so you’ll always be funniest to them. Knowing what a person does for a living, where they live, and the other assorted details of one’s life may define friendship on Facebook, but when we really know someone we understand how they work. We want our characters and our scene mechanics be knowable.
Short-form improv games live off of audience engagement. Comedy Sportz requires significant audience stimulus certainly, but it also straight tells the audience what the mechanics will be in the scene so they can be “in on” the in-the-moment challenge to the performers. An audience member is brought to stage to talk about his day and then given a bell and a gavel to use when the improvisers reenacting his day do either something that rings true or something deemed false. I like the laugh that comes the third time the audience participant clanks the gavel – it comes before the improvisers do anything about it. It comes because the audience is settled into how the game is going to be played.
They “get” it. Through understanding the game rules, an audience comes to react to the expectation of the joke.
We want to leverage the power of The Games in all improvisation that we do. We want to entice the audience to invest in what they’re watching. Tasked with building something out of nothing on stage, we want our group to unite behind a shared focus, enabling us to heighten together more effectively and efficiently.
It should be easy.
We are hardwired to respond to patterns. As babies that’s how we learned how to interact to the world: learning the power of action and the necessary reactions. Patterns help us understand. When we reach puberty we get in our heads about the “right” reaction to stimulus. We’re in our heads more. Our responses become tempered more by how what we encounter matches our preconceptions than by our natural tenancy to follow patterns.
That pattern recognition and response part of our brain never goes away; it just goes to the background. It’s why our ears notice when the song randomly playing on the radio matches your thought at that exact moment. It’s why your eyes seem to “only notice” your speedometer or digital clock when it displays your lucky number.
It’s why an audience can get greater joy out of a performance made before their very eyes than they can a scripted, edited and masterfully performed movie.
The audience will respond instinctively – almost unconsciously – to the pattens that shape our games. “Why was that so funny?” “Man, you had to be there,” because the game they played engaged my Pavlovian propensity toward patterns and the timing of lines struck an inner chord.
We improvisers will also participate Pavlovian-ly in the evolving patterns our group develops on stage. You’ll get to where your group is responding to an infinitely spiraling pattern through instinct with your minds in-the-moment. You’ll get there with practice.
The most important tool in playing patterns is simply pattern recognition. Becoming good at pattern recognition requires that you devote yourself to analysis – breaking down the progression of moves, slowing down and really focusing outwardly on everything that’s happening verbally and physically. As a result of devoted analysis and concentrated thought, you will come to the point where you are seeing and responding to patterns seemingly without “conscious” thought.
My greatest asset as an instructor is my ability to articulate how to deploy pattern mechanics in improvisation. In Chicago, New York and L.A., improvisers develop a good sense of game play through osmosis – they have the ability to see several shows any day of the week. I can help you wherever you are.
We wield specificity in pursuit of The Details. We employ emotion in our leveraging of The Reactions. And we deploy pattern mechanics in developing The Games.
We focus on Details, Reactions and Games to capitalize on what makes improvisation unique among performance mediums. Leave it screenwriters to agonize over premise and character motivation. Let stand-up comics struggle for the perfectly worded joke.
Let’s do what improv does best.
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