YES, GOOD IMPROVISATION REQUIRES A GROUP. AND, WE AGREE.
A great improvisational performance requires both a group and an audience.
It’s the collaborative building that makes improvisation exciting. The ability to riff is dependent on having something to riff off of. The definition of riffing demands that there be an “accompaniment” or “exchange.” Sure, a single improviser can riff off an audience like a stand-up comedian can. But rarely is there enough audience input to require that a performer relinquish control of the show. To my mind, performers who put up “one person improvised shows” are playing with themselves in front of a crowd – and the inappropriate connotation is intended.
Improv as improv does best requires a group. Two people. Three people. The over-flowing stage of a festival improv jam. You need people to play with. You need people to riff off of.
Creating something out of nothing with a group of people in front of a live audience is hard. There are more people on stage for the audience to watch and listen to. There are more opinions about what’s happening and what needs to happen. More things breed less focus.
The more people you’re playing with, the clearer you have to be. When initiating with the Self-Contained Emotional Statement, the individual serves the scene’s clarity by concentrating on specificity and brevity. When there’s more than the initiator on stage (and there should be), continuing to serve the scene’s clarity relies on Agreement.
Agreement is a cornerstone of improvisation. We’re on stage creating something out of nothing. If I create one thing out of the ether then we have something. We want to build that something up and out; we don’t debate the validity of something made up.
Agreement is the improviser’s mantra: “Yes, And.” We are, remember, walking backward, taking each step in the context of the path preceding and including the last step. It’s not Yes “cereal” And “aliens.” Agreement helps us build something out of nothing together. Yes, “This porridge is cold,” And “it’s been sitting on the counter for a week.”
We can’t share one mind, but we can make it look like we do if we’re each making a concerted effort to unify all that’s been laid down in a collective direction. Through agreement we can minimize the amount of “stuff” on stage which facilitates focused collaborative building.
As we build something out of nothing, our improvisational performance leverages what makes it unique among performance mediums when we as individuals come together collaboratively through one group mind.
Group Mind. I had one improvisation instructor who revered Group Mind as the power that allowed him to teach because he was taught directly by a person who was taught directly by a person who was taught directly by Del Close. Another instructor described Group Mind as a single brain that unites us all which we can access by grabbing a brain tendril and plugging it into our belly button.
Yes, a group is able to play together as a tighter unit if they’re working from the same playbook. Yes, to be aligned with a group we have to plug ourselves into the group.
But “The Allusive Group Mind” is not a “History Channel Investigates…” episode. Group Mind is not a spiritual collective that possesses our bodies.
Group Mind is about immediate, enthusiastic acceptance. Group Mind requires an individual’s confidence that what is is right.
Group Mind is an individual choice.
You need to show your fellow players that you trust their ideas, and trust that you can make a bold move and have your group respect and love it. “I trust you – I’m going to follow your ideas whatever they are, wherever they go, and I’m going to launch into my ideas and trust that you’ll follow me.”
It is not up to the group to earn this trust. You must give the group your trust. You must surrender to the group.
Surrender yourself to the group. That’s neither being so supportive that you never voice an idea of your own, nor being so unabashedly “you” that you remain unaffected by your fellow players. It’s about sticking the balance between confidence and vulnerability.
Picture the quintessential Dead Head, or just watch the series finale of Freaks and Geeks. “I’m cool with who I am and with how you are.” “Right on, man; I’ll get behind that.” “Whatever, brother; it’s cool.” Play focused outward in acceptance from a secure center.
We don’t make forward progress by judging each step.
Accept whatever is.
You have to. The audience saw and/or heard it. From nothing, what is is now the something we have to build from.
Accept whatever is confidently.
The audience will only get in their heads to wonder “why” if you are in your head wondering “why.”
If everyone is doing it then no one looks dumb “doing it” – but the moment it becomes apparent that someone in the group is not committed then the audience doubts the entire endeavor.
Repetition is the only “why” you’ll need. Why did John do that? Because Jane did. Why did Jane do that? I don’t know, but it must be right because John did.
Accepting what has happened through repetition of what has happened will create all the “sense” we need in a scene. If you say “vulture” and I say “porridge,” our fellow players and the audience might be hard pressed to see the “Yes, And” connection between those two things, but now that those two words have been spoken in juxtaposition they have been connected. So if the next time you say “vulture,” I say “porridge” we set up a world where that connection is normal. And the next time anyone says “vulture,” the response better damn well be “porridge” because now that’s the “right” connection to make.
WALK BACKWARD WITH ME…
Player One takes the stage, mimes adjusting a ship’s wheel, and says, “I hate the sea.”
Player Two, not feeling secure individually, can’t accept Player One’s initiation. “Why do you hate the sea?” he asks. Now Player One is on the hook to defend an emotional perspective she just made up.
Maybe instead, Player Two accepts Player One’s initiation, but, in seeking to support the initiation with explanation, says, “Yes, and the crew is mounting a mutiny because they can’t sail under a captain that doesn’t love the sea.”
Maybe instead of trying to direct the scene, Player Two commits to leading the scene by following the scene. Maybe Player Two decides that to get everyone moving in a common direction, he needs to say, “Hey, guys, Player One’s contribution was awesome and we should all get behind her.”
If Player One takes the stage, mimes adjusting a ship’s wheel, and says, “I hate the sea.” And, Player Two takes the stage, mimes adjusting a ship’s wheel, and says, “I hate the sea.” And Player Three takes the stage, mimes adjusting a ship’s wheel, and says, “I hate the sea.”…
Then…we’re headed into improv as improv does best.
Audiences don’t want to see improvisers negotiating the reality they’ve made up on the spot; they think, “if you performers aren’t certain about what you’re doing, why should I be?”
Audiences might listen to your explanations for a while, but if all you have is exposition and you don’t sufficiently explain by the end, then the whole work is suspect (SEE: The Matrix versus Back To The Future).
But if two sea captains both hate the sea, well, the audience might entertain that they have a point. If three sea captains each hate the sea, well, the audience believes they have a reason and they are all ears. If ten sea captains all hate the sea, well, the audience just has to accept that, whatever the reason, ten sea captains can’t be wrong.
If ten players each take the stage, mime adjusting a ship’s wheel, and say, “I hate the sea.” Then a ten-player scene, through agreement and repetition, becomes a One Person Scene.
THE ONE PERSON SCENE
We minimize the amount of stuff on stage through agreement and regardless of the number of players on stage we establish a One Person Scene by uniting behind a single emotional perspective.
It’s an easy scene to establish – you just get out there and agree to the existing perspective. And it’s a fun scene to watch – united behind one emotional perspective, the group can quickly heighten in that collective direction together.
Improvisation doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. And One Person Scenes are so damn satisfying for the audience.
Resist the impulse to be different for difference’s sake. A captain doesn’t need a first mate, a lookout, a cook and a cabin boy in order to solidify that he’s on a ship. Nine ship captains don’t need a player to embody the sea to facilitate an on-stage discussion. We don’t need to worry about how ten captains can each stand at their own ship’s wheel and share the same space.
Forget sense. Remember, repetition is the only “why” you need.
Everyone can share the same self-contained emotional statement. You don’t need to understand the motivation before you can participate in the emotion – just agree to the feeling. “I hate the sea.” “Yeah, the sea is the worst.” “Yeargh, stupid sea.”
If everyone gets on board, then the ship can take off and we can set about finding its direction together. Don’t stand on the docks demanding to know where the ship’s going before you get on.
Prioritize heightening the agreement and the group will find fun areas to explore together. Each contribution doesn’t need to be individually funny, it only needs to align with the common perspective. “I hate the sea’s rough waves.” “Ugh, I get so seasick.” “Yeargh, I have ruined so many shirt ruffles with vomit.” Agree, agree, agree.
Committed to agreement in a One Person Scene, we can collectively share any single player’s endowment. If a player says, “My father was killed by the sea,” a resultant discussion about the other players’ condolences could stagnate the scene. But if a player says, “My father was killed by the sea,” and another player says, “My father was also killed by the sea,” and another player says, “My father was also killed by the sea,” then we’re ramping up our collective momentum with simple agreement.
If one player wants to punch the sea in the face, you can, too!
Resist the impulse to be different for difference’s sake. Yes, not every scene should be a One Person scene, but as I see far fewer One Person scenes than I do scenes dragged down by negotiating conflict or disparate scene elements, I know improvisers need to work to make their default setting “agreement” instead of “contrast.” Let the scene call for difference. Here’s my rule: If you have to think about “how to be different” then the scene doesn’t need you to be different.
Trust the power of Agreement and its ability to facilitate heightening through repetition. Trust the collective direction’s ability to evolve through commitment.
The hate you feel toward the sea can heighten to a furious collective gnashing of teeth and shaking of fists. The Details that are subject to hatred have the opportunity to grow in breadth and depth.
Commit. Don’t play half-assed because you’re not confident the group direction will lead someplace. Don’t be in your head worried about the “right” thing to do next. Commit to what’s happening. Don’t judge “it;” do “it” more.
When the group does heighten its shared emotional perspective to its apex then you’ll know it’s time to alter direction. All we need is another emotional perspective the group can unify behind. We’ve blown out our hatred of the sea, so a player notes, “I do like the uniform though.” “Oh, yeah, being able to wear a captain’s hat is awesome.” “And I do love my parrot.”
There’s no shortage of places we can go if we’re committed to moving together. A stage packed with players can find focus by prioritizing Agreement. Regardless of the number of improvisers in play, by uniting behind a single emotional perspective we establish One Person Scenes. With a One Person Scene we find a collective focus early that we can collaboratively heighten through repetition.
One Person Scenes. Improvisation doesn’t have to be any more complicated and is rarely more satisfying.
I AGREE. BUT HE DOESN’T.
Establishing a One Person Scene requires that every individual commit to Agreement. A single player who refuses to align with the group makes a One Person Scene unachievable. So what hope do we have?
Group Mind is an individual choice. For an entire group to move in a single direction, each individual needs to be committed to prioritizing Agreement. If no single player is concentrated on Agreement, then group cohesion is compromised. But if any one player is concentrated on Agreement, then the group’s trajectory is that much more focused.
Ten players each playing with their own perspective can be chaotic. If Player Ten chooses to agree with Player Nine, then at least we have a Nine Person Scene to navigate rather than a Ten Person Scene. If Players Four and Ten choose to agree with Player One, and Players Five and Nine choose to agree with Player Two, and Players Six, Seven and Eight choose to agree with Player Three, well now we have a Three Person Scene to navigate.
Group Mind is an individual choice. If even just YOU choose to foster Group Mind – through immediate, enthusiastic acceptance – the group will benefit.
Agree with another player’s emotional perspective to help focus what the scene is about. Mirror another player’s physical posturing to help unify the tableau. Repeat the progression of moves that has already occurred. Reduce the amount of “stuff” on stage by aligning your contribution with what’s already been established.
Every player in a group is necessarily “playing by their own rules,” making their own connections with individual inspiration. But with each additional player that commits to accepting and building from what the group has established, the group enjoys that much more focus.
If you’re ever lost in a scene, return to what was done before. The group will be grateful you helped reorient it back on a familiar path. If you’re lost, chances are the rest of the group is, too. Don’t wait for someone else to clarify what’s going on; take responsibility yourself.
Lead by following. To get everyone moving in a common direction you have to focus on where the group has been. Respect your fellow players’ moves by accepting them, agreeing with them, heightening them and building from them. Work to make your partners’ moves look good.
And to follow the group, you must be aware of what the group’s doing. You can’t engage the group from inside your head. You must be focused outward; pay attention. Focus outwardly on all that is happening both verbally and physically. Try as you might, you won’t catch everything, but if you don’t try you will catch nothing.
Even the smallest move is still a part of the scene in play and if recognized could enhance the scene through repetition and heightening. Integrate even those moves your teammates make unintentionally, as they often result in the most fun for players and audience members.
Work to notice not only what is happening, but also how what happens relates to what happened before. And pay attention to what happens after. Even if there is no inherent connection between moves, by working to repeat that sequence we begin to establish patterns and clarify group direction.
By committing to focusing outward and following the group, we will look to an audience like we have ESP and create that unique improvisational magic.
We get on stage to improvise with a group. With each individual playing for the group, we play as a team.
NEXT: Game Time