I’ve been watching and performing a lot of improv lately, and I’ve noticed some naughty trends emerging—both in my own play and in others. I think much of our improv education is about repetition—reminding ourselves, time and again, of the fundamentals, so that we don’t drift too far from them.
So here are some reminders:
#1 – Commit
The difference between good improv and not-so-good improv seems to boil down to the same thing over and over: commitment.
Committed improv is never bad.
OK yes sure, it might not be paradigm-shifting, mind-blowing Mega Art every time. But it’s never terrible. Because watching adult humans giving 100% of themselves to a moment, to create something out of nothing, and to do it only because they are together … that’s some sort of magic. And magic isn’t bad.
THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT “MAGIC”!
Look, we could—and we surely will—dive into a separate conversation about what “commitment” means in this context. But for now, suffice it to say: We aren’t committing enough.
It’s hard to commit, because it’s hard to be vulnerable in front of strangers. It’s hard to act well. It’s hard to suspend disbelief + listen to your partners + cheat out + keep track of names + do object work + pause for laughs + et cetera. It’s hard to commit.
But we have to try. Because not to try is to disrespect the art form and, way more importantly, your fellow players. To undercut your scene/character/story by refusing to commit to the reality of the scene is to yank the audience out of their reverie, to smack them across the cheek and shout, “You dumb p.o.s., we’re not REALLY on a pirate ship! We’re only pretending! And you believe us! You fool!”
Don’t be a jerk. Commit.
#2 – Stay on the Sideline
Now that I’ve implored us all to commit, let me implore us all to stay on the sidelines more often. Make like Buster Bluth and stay just out of frame:
To put it bluntly and center justified:
Usually, the best way for you to support a scene is not to enter it.
I’m not talking about improv jams, which are supposed to be frenetic improv bacchanals (though even those could stand some muffling).
Here’s an example: Maestro, the beloved short-form weekly show at The Hideout, features about a dozen improvisers. It’s gamey, and it moves fast, and there’s a lot of audience feedback. And before each show, the two directors will often implore the improvisers to “support each other.”
(They’ll often follow this up with the warning that they will “let you know” if your support isn’t welcome. A few weeks ago, two characters were going to do a scene about their dead mother. I was on the sidelines, not in this scene, but I decided it would be helpful to have a dead body to reference. So I stepped out onto the stage and fell to the ground, just as the lights came up and the scene began. That’s when one of the directors said, “No thank you, Number Four” (I was Number Four). Which meant I looked like a huge idiot in front of the audience and, thus, a bit more hesitant to support in the future.)
Now and then, Maestro turns into a “support orgy,” with anyone and everyone seeming to come into any scene—playing waitresses, playing neighbors, playing furniture, whatever. The scenes become cluttered. The audience gets lost. The whole thing just kind of explodes into meaninglessness.
A two-person scene is vastly different than a three-person scene.
In fact, I’d argue that the difference is greater than any subsequent addition of players, e.g., two-to-three people is far more extreme a shift than three-to-four or seven-to-eight, etc.
This is a tricky business, of course. Because yes, sometimes a scene could really use some sort of support. But it doesn’t need your help nearly as often as you think it does. (What it needs, if anything, is more commitment.)
And there are some inherent disadvantages to coming into a scene, which you must overcome by virtue of your excellent support. For starters, if two characters are talking and a third character enters, the audience stops paying attention to the first two people, and they look to this new character entering. Energy shifts. Balance tips. Things get missed. Everything changes.
What I think I’m witnessing is ego. Our egos tell us, “Oh snap! Woudn’t it be awesome if you walked on as a Russian janitor right now? THIS SCENE NEEDS A RUSSIAN JANITOR!!!” And on you go, and the audience scratches its head. “What the hell is happening in this scene?”
#3 – Talk Louder
There’s not much to say about this one, but I’ll try.
ColdTowne Theater is pretty small. It seats about 50 folks in a tight proximity. On sold-out nights, the room is electric, and the front rowers rest their feet on the edge of the stage. But even in ColdTowne—even when it’s only half-full—I’m yearning to hear the players.
You think you’re in a smallish space and don’t need to talk loud? You’re wrong.
Because it’s not just enough for you to be hearable, you need to be heard.
Be more Broadway about your improv. Put a little Bob Fosse into your performance. Give us the improv equivalent of jazz hands. Project your voice. Cheat out to the audience. Because nobody gives a crap how subtle or clever you are if they can’t hear you. It’s the very first thing you should concern yourself with when you speak in an improv scene: being heard.
And just when you think you’re being too loud, be a little louder. Trust me. Austin is full of church mice improvisers. Volume is an audience’s dearest friend.