But while I believe in “my way,” it’s my way. In learning improv it’s important to have direction and goals and I believe my approach is useful to improvisers looking to learn. At the end of the day, though, to be worth a damn, an improviser needs to figure out their way of improvising.
The brilliantly funny, Rachel Marsh, told me post-show, “You all did all the things we’re told not to do – negating, transactions, teaching scenes – but damned if you didn’t make it all work.” Again, in learning improv it’s extremely useful to receive guidance that leads us toward choices that are fun for us and the audience and, conversely, away from choices that often lead to real slogs of scenes.
But of course, to really know what you’re doing you need to understand whycertain choices are labeled improv “no-nos.” Then one plays within a world of possibilities, not limitations.
What follows is a dissection of the five scenes that made up Pack’s 6/23/21 Show to answer the question: “Was this a ‘good’ show?”
We want to avoid conflict, debate and negotiation in our improv scenes. The audience knows we’re making it up – building something from nothing – they don’t want to see us arguing over imagined reality; they want to see us react to an accepted reality.
What’s the best way to avoid arguing? Acceptance! Agreeing to a conflict-laden declaration is the easiest way to ensure a scene’s forward momentum.
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. Inquisition, opposition, negotiation and transaction are counterproductive on stage to our doing what the audience came to see: Improvisers exploring an invented reality.
Losing:The best tool in avoiding conflict? Losing. Losing is such a powerful skill. One, it allows players to disengage from talking-head arguments. Two, the losing player wins in the audience’s eyes – don’t ever underestimate the endearing quality of a player who is willing to be affected
Bite your tongue. Swallow your pride. Engage in an unrelated shiny active element on stage. Be the dynamic character and the scene’s about you. Your scene partner will hurry to be affected also because the audience reacted so favorably to you. Or, your scene partner will support your dynamism by feeding you fuel to heighten your dueling emotions.
TURN THE OTHER CHEEK – Prepare contrasting pairs of scenic desires (“Love me”/ “Leave me”; “We have to stop rocking”/ “Never stop a’rockin’”; “I need you to understand my truth”/ “I’ll never believe your lies”). Instruct players to initiate fully believing in their given desire. Build tension, sure. But the first player to acquiesce wins. And the exercise’s focus is understanding how “losing” affects the scene. Lessons:
• Giving in ≠ Giving up – If you acquiesce, that doesn’t mean you’ve given up on your desire. You can return to it. And you can acquiesce again. The dueling emotional reactions is what makes you a dynamic character.
• More than one character can be dynamic – “Love me”/ “Leave me”/ “Okay, I’m leaving”/ “Stay.” That’s fun.
2 Person Scenes Heightening Emotion: Establish an emotional perspective, heighten the emotional perspective through reaction to active details, and edit – That’s scene. We want to avoid negotiation, conflict and the tepid, talked-out “discovery” that stagnates scenes’ growth.
ENDOW AND HEIGHTEN LAY-UPS – Player One initiates from stage left. Player Two initiates from stage right. Both players heighten what they initiate. After a few lines back and forth, teacher calls “Scene” and two new players start the exercise. Progression:
• Personal / Personal – Player One engages a personal emotional perspective and Player Two engages a personal emotional perspective.
– Disparate initiations: Player 1 – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.” Player 2 – (looking around in panic) “I heard it again.”
– Complementary initiations: Player 1 – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.” Player 2 – (flipping nostalgically through a big book) “Those were innocent times.”
– Mirrored initiations: Player 1 – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.” Player 2 – (playing with a yo-yo sadly) “siiiigggghhh.”
• Scenic / Scenic – Player One engages an active aspect of Player Two with an emotional perspective and Player Two engages an active aspect of Player One with an emotional perspective.
– Player 1 – I want to kill you and steal your life. Player 2 – I laugh at your weakness. • Personal / Scenic – Player One engages a personal emotional perspective and Player 2 engages an active aspect of Player One with an emotional perspective.
– Player One – (staring forlornly at the Cat’s Cradle he works with his fingers) “sigh.” Player Two – “Oh, I’ve had it with your attitude, mister.”
• Scenic / Personal – Player One engages an active aspect of Player Two with an emotional perspective and Player Two engages a personal emotional perspective.
– Player 1 – I want to kill you and steal your life. Player 2 – Oh, hey, my Diamond of the Month Club package arrived! Lessons:
• Don’t give up your thing – heightening our individual choices together is all we need to move the scene forward. Trying to “figure out” how our things mesh, fighting each other’s thing or dropping our thing in favor of our partner’s thing robs scenes of their potential.
• Commitment avoids justification – explaining why two people are on stage often saps the energy from a scene. When two players commit to simply heightening their choices, no one will question the juxtaposition of even the most mismatched initiations.
• Reactionary statements avoid negotiation – when we’re not comfortable with and/or don’t understand what’s happening on stage, we revert to asking questions that often bog down scenes. Simply making choices moves us forward and making emotional choices helps statements stand without defense (“What do you mean, I’m a pig?” versus “Oh, I’m a pig. You’re a dirty whore.”)
• Heightening avoids conflict – “I want to kill you”/ “I want to kiss you.” If these are the initiations, we don’t want to debate or argue – heighten the feelings. You don’t have to address the disparity between feelings right away if ever. Heighten conflict/tension by heightening your part of it. Addressing/discussing conflict/tension takes the dynamite out of the scene.
• Make Scenic/Personal Initiations less rare – it can be fun for Player Two to choose a personally grounding emotional perspective despite Player One′s attempt to initially engage her in his thing.
TWO PERSON SCENES – Player One initiates from stage left. Player Two initiates from stage right. Players heighten what they initiate. Have players decide BOTH how they feel about “I” and “You” – engaging an active endowment about themselves AND about their scene partner. Lessons:
• Bored? React! – don’t know what to do in a scene? Have an emotional reaction to an active element.
• Lost? Repeat! – I scream. Why? I don’t know. So I keep screaming, heightening the emotion of the scream. Don’t stop what you’re doing to make “sense” of it; Find “sense” through continuing doing what you’re doing.
• Be affected – There’s power in reacting in-the-moment to another player’s perspective/actions/choices. When we don’t react to a fellow player’s move that deserves a reaction we risk pulling the rug out from under the scene.
• Feel first, understand second (if ever) – don’t wait to “understand your motivation” before making a choice about how to feel
• Never trapped by your choice – while players should be encouraged to push their heightening before changing course onto a new thing, players should never feel trapped by the things. “I love my teddy bear.” I heighten why I love my teddy bear (“He doesn’t judge”) but I don’t have to react only to teddy. “I really love my fluffy duck.”/ “He doesn’t give a shit.”
Help Desk Games: A pattern can be based around a series of interactions. This game rubric can be especially helpful in making scenes that had been bogged down in transaction, negotiation and/or conflict look good.
HELP DESK – Have a player assume a character and introduce a place of business; “The Help Desk is open for business.” A second player comes in and interacts. Players on the wings pay attention to language, reactions and the scene’s progression. A third player will enter the scene (replacing the second player) to heighten the interaction – repeating some parts exactly and heightening other details/reactions. A fourth player will participate in a third interaction – keeping the same the things that stayed the same and heightening the things that heightened.
Start at the beginning; remember the end – once we know we’re heightening the interaction, we can want to start subsequent interactions on the funniest part of the first interaction. But starting at the beginning (heightening or repeating the first line of the initiating interaction) will build power heading into the funniest part. And while over-excited improvisers will often cut off the end of interactions as they rush to start the next, remember that repeating/heightening the final line of an interaction will set up the progression’s edit.
Don’t rush the pacing – Lines that came out naturally the first time can be hurried once they’re known. The cadence of the dialogue is part of the pattern. Stick the dialogue’s natural rhythm – it’s part of the pattern and you’ll be rewarded in laughs if you try to match your fellow players’ delivery as well as their words.
Don’t skimp on the emotion – Player Two might have been simply overwhelmed during the Offer dialogue, but Player Three and Four heighten the emotion of being overwhelmed characters. Emotions connect players and audience, and heightened emotions will ensure an earned edit even should all else fail.
Don’t ignore what you perceive as “bad” moves – you can make anything look good through repetition. By employing the mechanics of a Help Desk game, you can make a boring scene exciting, you can make an unfunny move hilarious, you can make an uninspired character the star of the show.
For more than terrible scenes – in heightening/repeating any interaction, utilize the Help Desk pattern mechanics. Have players do any two person scene and have a third person initiate a Help Desk Set move.
Heightening Context – a married couple complains about their house; a couple of mice complain about their hole; a couple parasites complain about their host. These juxtaposed vignettes can leverage Help Desk mechanics and make for an interesting stage picture.
Tag Outs – if we approach our Tag Outs with the same patience and concentration to patterns as our Help Desks our Tag Outs can be more robust.