Remember this Simpsons bit with Krusty about hemorrhoids and riding bikes?
That “I can ride a bike again!” idea jumps into my head a lot (more often than a person should really think about hemorrhoids…probably). I think about it in conjunction with that “It’s just like riding a bike” expression used to refer to an activity that, once learned, becomes so second nature that it can be engaged again without effort even if it’s been a long time since the last time you engaged the activity.
I’ve been improvising on stage since I was 12. Over the subsequent years I’ve learned a lot and logged a lot of hours on stage. You might think at this point – even if I were to step away from improv for a while – I could get on stage with anyone anywhere and it’d be “just like riding a bike.”
But then there are those damn hemorrhoids. Once you get decent at something you can get in your head about not wanting to fall back below that level of competence you’ve reached, and that fear actually undermines the effort. God forbid you start teaching so that every time you get on stage in front of students your mind goes to “putting your money where your mouth is” instead of putting your mind in the moment. And, heavens to Betsy, one day you’ll be on the old side of this young person’s hobby and you’ll feel that while you’re taking stage time those whippersnappers are thinking you should be put out to pasture. Hemorrhoids!
On top of that, you might be committing the worst sins of the old improviser: You and your team aren’t practicing and don’t have a coach. So you are feeling all the pressure in the world to succeed on stage and eschewing the thing that your ensemble needs to succeed.
Yes, “you” is “me.” These are my hemorrhoids, my sins. Riding a bike was hard.
But guess what? “I can ride a bike again!” And the fix? Preparation (H).
I love “the moment.” I love the way an authentic reaction to a moment -that in no way could have been preconceived – can connect with an audience for a big laugh.
And I LOVE when concentrated pattern play incorporates “the moment” to be something uniquely Improv As Improv Does Best, connecting the ensemble and the audience in a previously-unknowable, perfectly-found moment.
“An ensemble of players gets on stage without previously rehearsed lines or blocking and acts out, making up the show as they go along. 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.”
On the one hand, if the point of going through classes is to learn to do performance-ready-level improv, then it seems sadistic to make 101 students “put it up on its feet.”
But on the other, nothing informs an improviser like improvising and all it entails – collaborating to build something out of nothing in-the-moment before a live audience. And so practice in front of a live audience should be part of each course.
So the in-between place becomes preparing each class for a performance that showcases – in grand improv style – all that they learned in class, on top of everything they’ve learned before, within bounds that keep them from stumbling into unknown territory.
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 by 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.
Why? When a pattern is this clearly established and heightened you can reach the point where you don’t even need to finish the sequence before the audience is laughing uproariously, having completed the pattern in their own head.
Personal Game–how you react to who you are, where you are or what you’re doing
* I love cake; when I eat a piece I’m overcome with joy and I sigh involuntarily
Scenic Game–how you react to who your scene partner is, what your scene partner is doing or how your scene partner is acting
* Greg is my hero; when he criticizes me I’m destroyed and flagellate myself
* We are scared of ghosts; when we hear a noise we freak and run around
The games represent a pattern of behavior established through evolving rules. Establishing and leveraging these games A) enable players to react through rather than think through scenes and B) engage the audience, letting them know our characters through their patterns of emotional behavior and care about them.
As said best in Truth in Comedy, “The Harold is like the space shuttle, incorporating all of the developments and discoveries that have gone before it into one new, superior design.” The other way around, Harold’s learnings pack in the lion’s share of what you need to know to do any other long-form, which is why The Coalition teaches students long-form improvisation formats through the lens of The Harold first.
To provide students with an example Harold (Richmond is not, after all, Chicago, New York or Los Angeles where an improviser can see a Harold every night of the week), some of The Coalition’s most experienced players came together to perform the show embedded below. For a group that had never before all done a Harold together, it’s pretty good.
Lights were pulled before we could get to the 3C scene, but several of us had one ready. That’s why improv is a great hobby for people who like to sit around in bars and talk about what they could’ve done. Continue reading →
A “Blackout” is a short scene with one big punchline. In sketch, or in improv with a tuned-in booth operator, the lights would go out on stage after the punchline, designating the end of the scene and earning the name “blackout.”
Blackouts are fun. They can help vary the pacing of a long-form show. They can be great when it’s clear there’s not going to be a bigger laugh beyond the first big punchline, but even if there is life beyond the punchline it can be enjoyable to cut the scene “early” so you can bring it back later. Will Hines and I had a scene where, in crossing stage, he asked if I had “a roll of quarters in my pants.” I did, I removed it and that was the end of the scene. Later in the show he asked if I was smuggling a zucchini in my pants; again, I was. Repeat.
I really love this Blackout from Horse Apples’ District Indie Improv Fest Show. Joey Trankills it by being authentic. Truth is he doesn’t believe he can whistle; that’s honest frustration in his “no” to my question. And the audience believes him. So when he tries – and he legitimately tries because, again, he doesn’t think he can – and, lo and behold, he succeeds!, the surprise is also genuine. Honest, in-the-moment, shared with an engaged audience, emotionally reactive… that’s improv as improv does best, folks.