Keep It Simple: Feel & React

A Coalition show called Strange Bedfellows pairs an actor with one half of a script with an improviser who ad libs their half.  I had the honor of performing one night in the improviser’s role.

And I have never been more terrified pre-show.

In a typical show, I have at least one improv partner. I can relax in the uncertainty of improvisation knowing that, whatever happens, my partner(s) will support my choices, I’ll support theirs and any direction we go together will be successful.  In this show, I can’t trust my scene partner to support my choices; they’re tied to their lines. They could be directly working against me.

Other improvisers who had done the show encouraged me to “just make a choice.” But “a choice” can be anything: a limp, a pirate accent, a yo-yo. My anxiety wasn’t calmed my the advice.

My calm came from realizing that I didn’t need to treat this any different than any other scene.  And to succeed in any scene all I had to do was Feel and React.

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Two Sides of the Same Two Person Scene Coin

“More of this makes me feel more.”

 

I felt that I didn’t like the fit of my pants. The pants made me feel fat and out of shape. I don’t like clothes shopping generally. I really don’t like going clothes shopping with my wife who constantly makes me try on clothes that make me feel fat and out of shape.

So when my scene partner spoke I was already predisposed to react to her through an exasperated lens. “Where are my clothes?” she asked. The same place mine were, I huffed; on and under the bench. We were in a changing suite at a clothing store, of course.

“Ah, silk. Lace,” she mused. I followed my exasperation in reacting. I was a denim guy only – maybe linen occasionally – but my experience with silk has never been pleasant. And I illustrated silk pants’ wedgie.

“I’m glad I got out.” I could have heightened my exasperation but I had an opportunity to redirect, to lose, to back-off exasperation so as to build tension for its return.  We were out spending the day together, after all.  We had an Orange Julius ahead of us. I wasn’t going to ruin our time together over this. She was my wife and I loved her.

“Have we met?” This was a curve ball.  But I needed to be confident, not confused. I didn’t want to negotiate this reality. So, again, all I had to do was commit to an emotional reaction. I chose to be excited. She was taking this opportunity of us being alone in our changing suite to engage in sexy role play, duh.

My scene partner gets a ton of credit. She’s a wonderful actor and skillfully informed her line reading with the emotion that made sense to our established patter rather than deriving her motivation entirely from the text. She accepted the sexy role playing – I’m not even sure what she said, it all just sounded sexy. And I answered in kind. Then she said, “No,” and broke away from me physically.

And in that moment we had everything we could need. It’s a zen improv moment when you realize that all you have to do is more of what you’ve done.

Her turning off the role play made me exasperated. Then I would choose to lose against her withdrawal, acquiescing with a happy face and enjoying our time together. I would return to trying on clothes, which would make me feel fat. And she would return to my side coyly to drop a line like, “Maybe Spain,” and I would – in this case making a mustache out of my finger – excitedly engage the role play. And, of course, she’d again lift me up only to drop me.

And repeat. Heightening emotions’ intensity with each iteration and finding fun new details through that commitment.

I loved this show.

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Too often improvisers rely on the cleverness of their lines for success.  It can certainly be fun to blow out a premise with improv friends. Without players feeling about the moments being created, though, the scenes come off looking like a view into a sketch show’s writers’ room – funny, but you’d rather just watch the sketch they’re discussing.

What this show highlighted again for me was how in improv “sense” is about patterns of emotional behavior not the words spoken.  When I was panicked in the greenroom, I was too focused on the idea of the show’s gimmick as the scripts’ rigid abstraction.  What I see now is the gimmick of how emotions – feeling/reacting – render dialogue’s content secondary.

I believe we get improv’s gimmick wrong when we’re focused on in-the-moment screenwriting. When we teach “Yes, And” as “David wanted a beer,” “yes, and he was out of beer,” “yes, and, he decided to go out and get more beer,” we ingrain situational-based building that is reliant on the cleverness of its plotting. Audiences prefer their plots fully baked. And the best an in-the-moment screenwriter can hope for is “amazing, considering.”

Improv As Improv Does Best capitalizes on audiences’ engagement with people feeling in the moment and the satisfaction derived from “knowing” a character by their patterns of emotional behavior. Improv doesn’t typically have scripts. It’s edge is that it is truly born-of-the-moment, a trait other performance mediums can only approximate.

In all things: Reacting to the moment is engaging.

And emotionally reacting in-the-moment to something imagined is crazy. The audience loves it. 

And coexisting in an imagined reality that everyone is invested in emotionally? The audience adores that.

And so we teach improv’s sacred collaboration tenet, “Yes, And,” as a heightening of feelings/reactions. “David loves beer,” “Yes, and he feels closer to the womb with each sip,” “Yes, and he’s on beer number three so he’s in fetal position,” “Yes, and he’ll be happy to have his diaper come beer number six,”…

Wait, aren’t “David wanted a beer” and “David loves beer” both situations and thus “situational-based” initiations?

The difference lies between our Left and Right Brains, how we access them, and where memory resides. Easy rule of thumb: “Left is logic. Right is write.” We access our left brain when we are trying to figure something out. We access our right brain when we aren’t trying anything, we’re just doing. Memories of doing reside in our right brain and we access them best from there.  (Okay, this is spurious science, but the mindset part really does pan out in practice so don’t be so dismissive.)

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“How to get what you want” plants you firmly on your left in logic land, negotiating the scene. “Feeling” frees you from rationality – “I just feel this way; I don’t have to explain it” – and opens up right brain’s powers. 

Right Brain’s Powers:

  • Primal emotions: Don’t let Logic’s desire for motivation keep you from feeling. A wordless emotional reaction is an atomic bomb in improv.
  • Pre-puberty pattern play: Puberty brings rules, and a lot of following but little heightening. But before then we are oases of enthusiastic support without destination. We committed to collaborations with completely vulnerable trust. That part of you is still there. You just have to oust Left Brain of its role as filter.
  • Memories’ Warehouse of Details: Do you “think about” where you were or do you “picture” where you were? Your answer may say a lot about the type of details you bring to your scenes. At the start of your scenes do you talk about where you’ve been where you are and what it took to get here? Or are you immediately experiencing the disappointment of, say, an obstructed view at a fancy resort? Even “imagining” can at times put us in our left brain as we are thinking through the logic of what would be in our environment, but channeling a memory of being in a place will conjure details before your eyes. And seeing them is important! “See it” (like “Feel”) is a hard note to give an adult but (with “Feel”) is one of the two most important notes to give. If we do take the time with an improvised soda can in our hands to look at it see it and feel about it, we start our scenes in our right brain as opposed to locking our scene partner in the eyes while thinking about the importance of soda. “See” two scenes with the suggestion of “soda.” One initiates with “You hear about this soda tax?” And the other initiates with a guy studying his can’s label, holding a sip in his mouth, swallowing and then marching in place to offset the calories with steps. Which scene do you want to continue seeing?

It’s amazing to think about how semantics can direct our brains. But it’s wiser to consider that semantics help define the nuance of our brains.

Are you “thinking your way through” or “feeling your way through” scenes? Six of one, half dozen of the other?

Two scenes from the suggestion “Hawaii”: One initiates, “Here’s a lei,” and the other, “Ugh, a lei.” Which is more engaging?

Feel/React your way though improvisations instead of thinking your way through them. 

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Still reading? Want to get into Feel/React semantics?

I can walk onto the stage and choose to feel sad. I can react to something my scene partner does with sadness. For me, the question is “What came first, the emotion or the object?” And, for me, the answer doesn’t matter as long as there were eventually both.

“Feel something about something” is Improv As Improv Does Best’s sacred tenet. The “about something” is the implied “reaction”; more of that something will incite more feeling.

It’s not enough to just emote. We need something active in our environment that can make us feel – react. But whether you walk on stage feeling angry and link that anger to a crowded beach, or whether you picture a crowded beach and react angrily, the results are the same.  Engaging emotion or environment, we’re in our right brain. Already, we’re better off than in our “what’s happening” left brain.

Getting to that point where something outside of you (your scene partner or your environment) triggers your emotion is key.  Then we get to improvise Pavlovianly with more of what you feel about or react to evoking more emotion from you.   Then we are “reacting through” scenes rather than “thinking through” scenes.  Then we’re just following and heightening our characters’ established patterns of emotional behavior.  You know who else is following our characters’ established patterns of emotional behavior?  The audience.

The audience loves coming to know our characters by their patterns of emotional behavior. That’s how any of us knows anyone else.  Not by their name or job or nationality, but by what they feel/react to.  If I ask you about a person you’re Facebook friends with and you tell me, “That’s Tom, he’s a divorced dentist with two cute daughters” then I’m going to know that you don’t know that guy.  But if you tell me, “That’s Tom, oh, man, he’s the life of every party, always making up some game for everyone to play,” then I know that person is a real friend of yours.  Knowing our characters engages our audience.

You can do a successful scene if you never say a word as long as you feel, but it’s rare to have a successful scene where all you do is talk without being emotionally invested in your words.

Feeling/Reacting isn’t an imparitive to improvising, but it is an imperative to Improv As Improv Does Best. 

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Any of you have any questions for me?

Yes, you there, sir?

How is this post’s entitled “Keep It Simple” but we’ve been talking semantics?

Good question. The answer begins with Susan Messing’s, “The art of learning improv is unlearning everything hoisted upon you since puberty.” It continues with the understanding you can’t erase the layers of social conditioning, but you can leverage an understanding of human behavior to more effectively execute on innate traits. And lies (not ends) with committed vulnerability in-the moment, heightening collaboratively imagined stimuli, and engaging audiences with patterns of emotional behavior.

Short answer: Feeling/reacting can be hard but it shouldn’t be.

 

 

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