An improv stage can be anywhere. On it we can do anything.
You could be in a submarine on Mars raising talking chickens.
Often improvisers are good at labeling the moment.
But you need more than words; you have to be in the world.
This exercise focuses on attaching emotions to the scene’s active elements – what can be felt, seen or otherwise experienced on the stage – to foster reactions.
WE GOTTA exercise – Two players on stage. Player One turns her back on Player Two and closes her eyes. Player Two engages a mimed activity – any activity; he can be defusing a bomb or doing laundry. Player Two should attach an emotion to his activity but he should try and do it noiselessly. Once Player Two has established his activity (and emotion), he initiates with “We gotta…[defuse this bomb/do this laundry].” Player One then turns and emotionally engages something active in the scene. “My fear’s reflected in the bomb’s shine.” / “I love folding little socks.” And the scene continues by heightening those emotions in reaction to more of those active elements. The ticking bomb/laundry clock makes Player Two feel more of her emotion. And the reflection/clothing makes Player One feel more fear and love respectively. The Players can certainly react to each other’s active endowment’s as well. The key to the exercise is having players attach emotions to active elements in the scene such that more of those active elements will evoke more of those emotions in reaction.
• Player One can pre-load an emotion in her head while waiting on Player Two. She can decide to be happy or angry about whatever it is Player Two will say before he says it. Or she can just choose an emotion the moment Player Two provides the “We gotta…” line. Players can talk about how it felt to do either approach in the scene’s debrief.
• Player One needn’t be literally entering the scene every time. She is turning into the scene for the purposes of being kept unaware of Player Two’s physicality, but having turned she can (and should) act as though she’s been facing the scene the entire time.
• “We gotta…” is not the best scene initiation. It thrusts a premise on the scene and the joining player. It often sets up a problem to solve or a situation to traverse. But an aim of the exercise is to focus on the moment even if you’re being propelled toward a future moment.
NOTED EXAMPLE –
Player Two excitedly flips through a bin of records and says, “We gotta find a rare record.” Player One turns into the scene, saying with salivating lust, “Yeah, I’m looking for that rare Britney Spears album.” While both players are emotional, the danger is they’re both talking about “rare records” that are not currently actively on stage. But they can attach their emotions to their actions – flipping through records breeds excitement and desire.
Player Two finds a rare Justin Timberlake album and desperately shields it from any light while trying not to touch it. How does he feel about a rare album? He’s afraid for it. He doesn’t just tell us that; he shows us that. And now we know that any rare album found will have to be protected by Player Two.
Player One finds a sexy Britney Spears album and makes out with the cover. How does she feel about the cover? She wants it. And we have more dynamite on stage; each sexy cover on stage is going to require a physical reaction from Player One.
Player Two – feeling protective of rare albums – is aghast at Player One’s actions. He didn’t have to think about how to react to Player One; he just followed his established emotions. Player Two is afraid for rare albums. Player One lusts after sexy albums. When Player One sexually assaults a sexy rare album, Player Two suffers the album’s pain.
When Player Two acts disgusted by Player One, Player One cruelly snarls, “Mind your fucking business,” cowing Player Two. This should not be a scene about Players One and Two arguing about the right way to treat rare albums. Rather than defend her actions verbally to Player Two or nervously navigate the conflict’s uncertainty, Player One has a strong emotional reaction. It doesn’t matter what emotion she chooses; it is important only that she react and give power to Player One’s active disgust.
NOW the scene continues as driven by the active elements and their associated emotional reactions. Flipping through records heightens excitement. Find a rare album, be compelled to protect it. Find a sexy album, feel compelled to sexually assault it. Witness a rare album being defiled, reel with disgust. Find yourself disgusted, cow the disgust with cruelty. And while players should feel comforted being able to relax into those compelled reactions, they should never feel trapped by them. There will forever be new bold reactions to have and new active elements to attach them to.
• Our goal is to react through rather than think through our scenes. Improvisers are often in-their-heads thinking through scenes. What’s happening? What’s my motivation? Where should this scene go? If we attach an emotional reaction to something physically sharing the stage than “if this then what” equals “more of that something makes me feel more of my emotion.” Then something is already “happening” on stage. Then your commitment to repeating your emotion is all the “motivation” you need. And then the scene heightens and evolves in-the-moment rather than according to some plot.
• “Reaction” implies stimulus. Improvisers know they need to emote. In an attempt to ratchet up a scene an improviser might say, “I love you” or “I hate you.” Good intentions. And certainly I stand by my assertion that you should feel before you’ve decided on “why” you feel. But if you attach your “love” or “hate” to something active in the moment – even if it is simply whatever the other player did or said before your emotional statement, then that “whatever” becomes a catalyst for more of that emotion. You might be able to play with a vague sense of emotion, but you can make a game out of cause-and-effect if you can be triggered into more of that emotion when attached to a defined “cause.”
• Seeing is believing. Improvisers like to stand stage center and talk, putting on the onus for the scene’s humor on their lines. If you’re a great, clever actor, maybe this works fine for you. I prefer to watch improvisers engage their physical world. Committed to seeing, feeling and otherwise experiencing their environment, players discover inspired lines. For example, two players argue about the need to produce architectural drawings. When one player decides to just draw, she produces a spiraling squiggle and a bold dot. Then looking at her drawing, the player announces that she’s produced a spiral staircase and a fireman’s pole.
• You can not want to do something; do it anyway. Player One turns to join Player Two’s “We gotta clean this house” initiation with an “Ugh. Cleaning up sucks.” Fine. But Player One better still engage in cleaning up the house. What’s funnier? Watching two players argue or watching Player One submit to cleaning up while physically feeling the “suck” of every moment?
• Forget screenwriting; be a producer. “When I sneeze, garlic comes out!” Clever. “Achoo! Ahh! Garlic!” Improv as improv does best.
• Words smerds. Saying you feel one way has less impact than feeling that way. In reaction to Player One finding a plush dog on stage, Player Two explains, “Stuffed animals freak me out.” Clever. If in reaction to Player One finding a plush dog on stage, Player Two shouts, “Yeargh!” – then there’s actual dynamite on stage, not just the promise of potential dynamite.
• The choice is yours. If you’re trying to “figure out” a scene, so is the audience. Everyone’s waiting for something to happen, but you and your scene partner are the ones with the power to make something happen. You don’t have to wait to react. Feel something about something. The sooner you do, the sooner there is a catalyst and a reaction on stage, and the sooner something is happening.
• Being affected by something on stage breeds stakes. It doesn’t even need to be “active” (though it helps). Two players on stage remark on how God and Jesus have been “going at it as of late.” Clever. But they never care about the schism; it doesn’t affect them in any way. Even if God and Jesus never materialize on stage, the players need to commit to how they are affected by what’s happening – not just by the potential outcome (which is not in-the-moment) but by what they perceive happens moment to moment. Consider: “God and Jesus are arguing; isn’t that nuts?” compared to “Oh, good point, God; time to smote your offenders. No, wait. Great point, Jesus; I’m turning the other cheek.”
• Keep it active. If you find yourself in a scene talking about something off stage or otherwise not in the present moment, it’s up to you to stake the scene on an active element. Another player forces you to sit down in a psychiatrist scene with a “Tell me about your mother” initiation? Say, “I hate anyone who gives me advice. That’s why I carry this knife.” Suddenly the scene’s on stage, not off stage in an imagined moment between parent and child.