We want to fill our blank stages with imagined environment. We want to engage physically in that environment to help visualize the imagined. And – most importantly – we want to be emotionally affected by where we are and what we’re doing. That’s Improv As Improv Does Best.
Our fellow player(s) and how they emotionally affect our characters is important. But engaging heir scene partner is not where improvisers struggle. One’s scene partner is actually active on stage – his/her presence doesn’t have to be imagined – so too often players give 100% of their attention on their partner and ignore physically engaging the environment.
Like the “We gotta…” and “That’s my…” initiation exercises, the “I was just…” drill helps connect emotion to active endowments.
Player One enters the stage and opens a big box at waist level. The player picks up an object that requires both hands but is not heavy. The player fixes the object with a look of nostalgic melancholy.
Player Two enters the stage.
Player One: (with a big sigh) I was just going through this old box of toys.
Player Two: (excitedly) Oh, shit! Mom held on to those? Man, this attic’s a treasure trove.
Player One: (wistful) This fire truck hasn’t aged a day. The big wheel still turn. The ladder still extends. The siren…(pushes a button atop the cabin) still sounds. And here I am with these knees – I couldn’t push this around on the floor if my life depended on it.
Player Two: (has found a toy plane in the box and is running through the attic with the toy raised in flight) GaVroom. Psshew. Psshew. Bogie destroyed, Goose.
…and…the scene continues until an edit is called for…
Player One starts on stage alone. S/he explores the environment – engaging an activity. Most importantly, the player attaches a feeling to the objects and/or activity – Does she hate what she’s doing? Does he fear what he holds? The more the player engages the activity or object, the more s/he should feel about that activity or object.
When Player One has clearly engaged the environment emotionally – and the coach can provide a signal if necessary – Player Two enters the stage.
Player One initiates with “I was just…” cleaning the dishes someone let build up/writing my last will and testament/watching this hilarious video. Don’t just explain; express how you feel about the environment you’ve engaged in.
Player Two needs to emotionally engage the environment, too. And remember, Agreement is never a bad choice – feel what Player One feels, engage what Player One engages, have what Player One has (if Player One is pregnant, be pregnant, regardless of your gender). Player Two certainly does not have to mirror Player One’s emotional and physical engagement, but s/he to feel something about something.
Until the scene is called, Players continue to see, endow and feel about their environment. And of course they can see, endow and feel about their scene partner’s actions and reactions as well.
Think about your boss appearing over your shoulder while you are feeling particularly awesome about your accomplishments; “I was just nailing out that PPT Pres for you.” Think about your spouse coming home as you’ve been greeting about an impending dinner party; “I was just getting everything ready for tonight.” Think about a fellow parisoner walking by just as you generously tipped the alms jar; “I was just tithing the full percent of my huge salary.”
The purpose is to have improvisers focus outward on active elements and to feel about them. The struggle in the “I was just…” Exercise is that the a player risks giving up on emotionally endowing and engaging with the environment the moment another player is there to stand center stage with arms by their side and talk with.
In instructing this exercise, the coach should focus on encouraging players to balance engaging each other’s actions and reactions with continuing to endow and engage with their surroundings.
What you started with is your rock. You don’t need another player on stage with you to have a scene, and you better not give up the scene you started the moment another player appears.
Be wary of creating too many scenes where Player One’s reaction to Player Two is to cover up what s/he was doing and/or feeling. It can be funny. But be sure to still engage the emotional activity. If you can oscillate between the activity you’re emotionally compelled to engage and your desire to deny your actions and feelings because of the other player’s prescience, fine. But remember, the audience prefers if your embarrassment is paired with reasons to be embarrassed.
Even when you create active elements on stage, they’re still imagined, so it’s too easy to fall into talking about them instead of “seeing” them. Don’t just say the firetruck is made of sturdy materials; feel the weight and density of those materials. Don’t just say the firetruck is worn; notice the chipped paint. Don’t just remember that the firetruck was annoying; be annoyed in the present by that high pitched siren you’re hearing.
A Two Person scene is about those characters feeling, but they should care about more than each other. There should be a reason each character is there doing that which doesn’t hinge on the other character’s presence.
Focus outward and feel about active endowments.
The “I was just…” Exercise can help a group practice this core aspect of Improv As Improv Does Best.