“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana
Ever watched or performed in a vague, low-energy, hesitant, abstract scene that seemed like it might be about something important, if the audience could just keep their eyes open long enough to be sure?
Ever watched an improv showcase, and felt like the earlier classes were a lot more fun to watch than the more experienced students?
Ever ended a show with that feeling that it should have either been funnier or more meaningful, the cast divided, and everyone shrugging and not sure what to do about it?
My friend Molly calls it SadProv. It’s easy to identify and hard to fix. And it happens all the time as performers try to make the jump from short and absurd to longer, meatier scene work. I thought I’d put forth some theories and questions, although some of it remains an open question.
Entering The Dark Forest
Joe Improviser sits in his house in Laffy-Town, where he’s been happy but is starting to get a little bored. On the horizon, he sees the distant mountains of drama, theatricality, long-form, and meaningful improvisation, and one day, he decides to set out. As he begins to journey, he enters into a dark forest, where things are less funny than they used to be, which is a bit frightening. Back in Laffy Town, he imagined he would pick up the Sword of Art, and audiences would applaud his vision. But now, in the dark forest, everything seems vague and slow. Ahead, things are even darker. And Joe improviser has to make a choice: dash back to Laffy Town, or plod on through the dark forest.
Assuming you’re a reasonably funny improviser with a few years of experience, funny short form shouldn’t be that hard. You’ve got a bag of tricks, you’ve developed an instinct for how to make people laugh, and you’ve probably got enough moxie to gag out of any bad scene. But now you’re pursuing more dramatic work, which means taking bigger risks. And let’s be honest: your bag of tricks isn’t going to work here. Improvisers are usually full of bravado, and they don’t like to admit they aren’t good at things, which I think leads to one of two negative strategies, rather than the third positive one:
Stepping Backwards: Some improvisers decide that all this drama is lame. The audience is bored! The improvisers are bored! Let’s pull out the old bag of tricks! This scene about a failing marriage is slow and boring? Time for a funny character to save the day! Time to comment on how slow everything is! These improvisers never stay in the risky dark forest for long before running back home.
Standing Still: Some improvisers decide that all this vagueness is ART! The audience is only bored because they’re the wrong audience! The audience isn’t working hard enough! This scene about a failing marriage only seems slow and boring because people don’t get it! These improvisers may languish in the dark forest for years, pretending that they’ve reached the distant mountains.
Passing Through: Hopefully, many improvisers finally admit that they have a lot to learn. They recognize that they’ve relied on their personalities and their sense of humor to keep the audience engaged for years, and now they need to develop some new chops and different instincts. They admit that they’re taking bigger risks, and that they need new tools if they’re still going to keep an audience engaged and happy they paid for the show.
Surviving The Dark Forest
Alright, so you’ve decided to try and make it through. But right now, you’re either boring your audience, or you’re having to fall back to being funny too quickly. (By the way, dramatic improv is usually funny too: it’s just funny in an honest way that doesn’t need to wink at the audience too much). You have a tricky journey ahead, because relatively few people have made it before you. The art form is still answering the question of how to put on more dramatic improv for a general, public audience.
I don’t have close to all the answers, but here are some things I’ve learned in the last few years.
Vague isn’t the same as Dramatic! Please, define things! Don’t wait for your scene partner to define them, either. Don’t pretend that your hesitation or your fear of not being on the same page as others is a dramatic choice. There are mysteries to be explored in dramatic improv, but they’re usually not, “what am I holding?” Defining things builds a platform for more interesting questions. If you’re going to free fall, free fall as an old widow writing letters in a room with a mahogany desk and an old antique clock that occasionally skips a tick: not on a blank stage with nameless characters picking up unknown objects for an unknown reason.
==Update, Aug 9, 2012: Ian Schempp makes a good point:
“What an object is is less important than your relationship to that object: I don’t care WHAT you are holding, I care HOW you are holding it (which probably leads to why you are holding it). It’s that balance between information and emotion: information makes a scene funnier while emotion makes a scene more stable.”I agree with Ian, but I do want to feel that the character knows what the object is. In this case, the specificity is in the emotional relationship with the object: It should
feel like a real object. And I also don’t like to see improvisers default to not defining things: there should be a good reason for it, not because the improvisers are worried about defining it.==Pregnant Pauses and Low Energy Are Not The Same Thing. Starting a scene in silence can be great. Starting all your scenes hesitantly and low-energy is not. Even in silence, you’re still making offers, so make them! Know what you feel! Really look around the room, take it all in, and be affected! Please don’t sigh, unless its a strong character choice! I hate sighing. Anytime an improviser sighs, I die a little inside. So does the audience!
Be Interested In Your Scene! And be interested in your scene partner. You’ve got to find a reason to care! You need to be passionate about the content of your scene. There’d better be something in the scene that’s interesting to you, or you shouldn’t be inflicting it in on your audience. There’d better be something in your scene partner that interests you, or you shouldn’t pretend that you’re able to be a supportive player. Find it, and hold on. Let yourself get excited, curious, and passionate about it. Let that energize you until the audience can almost feel it in you.
Don’t Give Up The Game. Hey, don’t fool yourself, it’s still improv, it’s still spontaneous, and the audience is still usually there to have a good time. And you’d better be having a good time, too, or why the hell are you up there? Have fun! There’s a lot less room for commenting and gagging in most dramatic work, and if you’re going for that much of the time, you’re keeping your group from getting through the dark forest. But beneath gagging and commenting is usually a great sense of the absurdity of life, people, love, and all that stuff that makes for great Art. Trust that, and let your character honestly dive into moments that you know will produce funny moments. And once in them, play them honestly! Find games with your fellow improvisers! Dramatic playwrights are full of verbal games and funny moments: usually honest moments, but still funny. Mamet, Shaw, Simon, and Shakespeare write plays full of humor and games. Don’t be anxious when your scene isn’t funny, and don’t force humor, but don’t run away from it either!
Change it Up! If you’ve just done a dark, ponderous scene, try to follow it up with something different! If you’ve just done a two-person scene, consider a crowded scene next. Vary energy, number of improvisers, scene length, volume, tone, and anything else that can be varied and still be honest to the show. And change up how you play things! Play environment, play characters who enter and leave right away, start a scene by introducing the main characters of the scene and then leave.
Don’t Hesitate! Just because you’ve made the jump to more dramatic choices doesn’t mean that your scenes are any more precious. Just because a follow player is out on stage doing something vague (are they painting a wall or making pizza?!?) doesn’t mean their idea is precious. Go out there and define it! I love it when I have an idea and someone redefines it midstream. That’s what improv is. You’re leaving your fellow improviser out to dry if you don’t jump in an give them offers to work with. Yes, there are people that jump out there too much (and yes, I’m one of them sometimes), but there are far more people who don’t jump out often enough.
The Other Side
I’m not cocky enough to say I know what’s on the horizon, past the dark forest, because once you get there, there’s another horizon. I know that I haven’t yet seen even a sliver of the potential that’s out there. I do know that the most engaging improvisers I work with don’t believe they’ve arrived, and are humble enough to admit they still spend days in the dark forest. Don’t be afraid of it, but don’t pretend that you’ve nailed it, either. Learn to have fun and really engage your audience, and don’t let yourself off the hook if you’re not doing both, everytime you play, no matter who you play with. And by that, I mean: don’t ever let yourself off the hook.
Have you ever noticed that when you watch improv (and I’m primarily talking about comedic improv), physical contact between performers is often the exception and not the rule? I think this happens for many reasons and probably for many more reasons that I can’t think of. Here are some random and somewhat rambly thoughts about some of my own personal experiences & preferences, for what it’s worth. This post may be more relevant to those that haven’t been improvising for too long and additionally may be more applicable to short-form work within large ensembles or when playing with people you haven’t worked with before.
Some people come straight to improv without any traditional theatrical training and some improv schools don’t spend a lot of time working on basic stagecraft. I have only the slightest of scripted theatre backgrounds but I did learn early on that in scripted theatre, fight scenes and love scenes were best approached with respect for personal boundaries, safety, caution and above all that it was important to take time to establish a level of comfort and trust between performers. If you’re doing a long-form improv show that’s had a rehearsal process there is more time to delve into these issues but in short-form it often comes down to evaluating all of these things in the moment. If an improviser doesn’t immediately know whether physical contact with their scene partner will be outside of their comfort zone, the impulse is often abandoned. Generally speaking I think we sometimes favor caution out of respect which is not a bad thing. The more people work together the stronger the communication and then you don’t have to second-guess those moments.
Offstage, I’m a hugger but I try to be sensitive to people who may not be so keen on hugging. The same is true onstage. If I’m in a scene that turns romantic and I’m with someone I haven’t improvised with very much, I tend to hang back and let them initiate physical contact if they want to. Once in a great while I’ve been known to plant one on somebody but usually it’s only if I have a sense, based on past experience, that they’ll be cool with it and then only if it’s appropriate for that particular scene.
Occasionally there is a concern that if an improviser is in a romantic scene involving a kiss or other physical contact onstage it may not sit well with a significant other. As someone’s wife I can understand that even though I don’t feel the same way (but then again we are both improvisers). As a performer, I have been kissed onstage by plenty of people that I’m not attracted to and to me it’s no different than say, shaking someone’s hand onstage or playing their arms. It’s acting which is not the same as dating. But I respect that for someone in the audience (especially if they’re not a performer) it might feel a little weird to them to watch their girlfriend, husband, etc… kiss someone else onstage. For performers who know that their significant other isn’t cool with it (whether they’re in the audience that night or not) sometimes this causes them to refrain from physical contact onstage and that’s their choice which is valid.
The Creepy Factor
. Ok let’s face it - if you’ve been improvising for a while you’ve probably had it happen at least once that you’ve played with someone who seems to always find a way to make a scene sexual even though it’s not necessarily relevant to the narrative. That is straight-up Creeproviser behavior and not cool. If you feel like someone is frequently touchy-feely onstage in a way that makes you uncomfortable, see if you can talk to them about it. I think some people are just physical in general and would be mortified if they thought they were making others uncomfortable because it’s not their intention. I’m talking about improvisers who are making a character choice and don’t realize you’re not on the same page… which I think is very different from what is basically the stage version of continually making unwelcome passes at people. Give people the benefit of the doubt but again, improvising is not dating. If it’s an ongoing issue with a specific person then the leader/Artistic Director of your group should be made aware of it and handle it. Also and most important, remember that you can always side-step physical contact onstage & justify your move in character if you prefer.
Also a thought about stage-combat. Never hit, slap, kick, throttle, pull the hair of or in anyway jump on another performer in an improvised scene onstage without some prior communication ever. Ever ever ever. If you see an actual open-handed slap (for example) onstage in a scripted show, unless it was an accident, it is likely to be something the performers worked out in advance so that no one was hurt because it was choreographed in a very specific way. If someone hurts you onstage, talk to them. If it’s an ongoing issue with a specific person then the leader/Artistic Director of your group should be made aware of it and handle it. Even if you are a very physical performer it is important to be careful of moving erratically and avoid putting yourself in a position where the audience or your fellow performers might worry that you could do harm to yourself or others. Above all - being out of control physically & straight-up physical violence are never OK.
So, You’ve Decided to Try Kissing!
Well, kiss or don’t kiss. This is just a personal preference. The put-your-hand-over-the-other-improviser’s-mouth thing has always bothered me. My preference is that if you don’t feel comfortable actually kissing someone onstage or you think they wouldn’t feel comfortable being kissed or you’re just not sure - don’t go for it. Perhaps the lack of a kiss will propel the scene in another direction emotionally which could be equally interesting? Putting your hand over somebody’s mouth is just weird for the person who is under your hand and also is totally obvious to the audience so it’s kind of funky all around.
What I mean by a “kiss”: I mean a “stage kiss” which is lips closed, no tongue, no slobbering and no coping-a-feel. If you’ve been improvising with someone for years and you are both totally cool with being a little over the top or playing it up for the sake of comedy I say go for it. It can also be equally fun/funny to do some cheesy-makeout-mime where you sort of simulate making out but have some obvious physical distance (as opposed to dry-humping). But again all of those things depend on the level of comfort between performers.
I personally love it when I see improvisers who are comfortable with each other get physical onstage. I mean this both romantically and otherwise. I’ve had fellow performers stick a hand or head up my shirt to simulate childbirth or alien impregnation (you know, like you do). This is the sort of thing you can only do when you’re REALLY COMFORTABLE WITH SOMEONE so for the love of all that’s holy please don’t go out and try that tonight in a show for the first time. If this subject is something that you’ve thought about in regard to your own group I think it’s nice to bring in up in a workshop setting. I’ve done long-form shows in which, given the style of show, it was likely that romantic scenes were going to happen and in rehearsal we’ve had a show of hands to indicate who was cool with kissing and who was not and those boundaries were respected. It’s just as valid to say “I’m not really comfortable being kissed onstage” as it is to say “Go for it! In fact, breath mints all around!” As with anything else in improv, I think good communication always helps.
What follows are a lot of quotes that I pulled from a painting book (Charles Dunn’sConversations in Paint), plus a couple of extras. They all apply to improv, in one way or another, in my mind, and I’ll probably quote them in future posts.
Acting and Being Present
“You’re afraid because you’re thinking about the end, not about what you’re doing.” –Helen Van Wyk
“Some musicians are not great technicians, but they give you a rich point of view.” –Nathan Milstein
“It’s not what you paint. It’s how you paint it. You don’t have to paint elaborate things. Paint simple things as beautifully as you can.” –Helen Van Wyk
“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy books and by all eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking about what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by increasing the number of important operations we can perform without thinking.” –Alfred North Whitehead
“”You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald
Style and Content
“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana
“A painting is good, not because it looks like something, but because it feels like something.” –Phil Dike
“If you don’t see the wonder in the most ordinary phenomenon, you’re not going to resonate very much.” –Artie Shaw
“A golfer rarely needs to hit a spectacular shot until the one that preceded it was pretty bad.” –Harvey Penick
“The amateur is afraid of boldness; the professional is afraid of timidity.” –Ed Whitney
“If you don’t know how to say it, say it loud.” –Will Strunk, Jr.
“The painting is usually finished before you are.” –Rex Brandt
“Devotion to the facts will always give the pleasure of recognition; adherence to the rules of design, the pleasures of order and certainty.” –Kenneth Clark
“Anything is intensified by its opposite.” –Ed Whitney
“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” –Anatule France
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artists once we grow up.” –Pablo Picasso
“Exactly right is all wrong!” –Ed Whitney
“Painting is founded on the heart controlled by the head.” –Cezanne
“The audience is astonishingly friendly and tolerant of even the slightest dab, but is limited in its willingness to look either deeply or at length.” –Rex Brandt
“Time and rest are needed for absorption. Psychologists confirm that it is really in the summer that our muscles learn to skate and in the winter, how to swim.” –Jacques Barzun
by Elicia Wickstead
Yesterday this post
was brought to my attention by a fellow improviser. The blog is written by Jill Eickmann, (who for the purposes of her blog goes by “Femprovisor”) a performer based in San Francisco who I was unfamiliar with until yesterday. I thank her for putting her thoughts out there but do not agree with her and felt the need to vent a bit about it. If her blog post and any of the responses end up generating constructive conversations amongst improvisers then I think that is ultimately a good thing even though we all may not agree.
The original post and the resulting comments have generated a lot of online discussion, especially within the Seattle improv community. The majority of the commenters (both male & female) do not seem to be in agreement with Femprovisor. Here are my thoughts, for anyone who is interested. Some of these sentiments I have already expressed in reply to the original blog post and if you are a person (male or female) that is interested in improv I would encourage you to read the whole thing - original post & comments.
I’ve been improvising for 18 years and have been a woman all that time. My early improv training consisted of classes with both male & female teachers (almost entirely at Unexpected Productions in Seattle) that focused on good listening, strong relationships, solid narrative structure, emotional connection, a sense of play and working hard to make your scene partners look good among other things. I feel very fortunate that I continue to work with amazing men & women who I would trust onstage any day. So that’s my background but I know that training varies from city to city and the focuses of each improv company are a little different.
My thoughts based on my time as an improviser/improv teacher who happens to be a woman that does not want to be treated any differently than anyone else onstage:
To respond to Femprovisor’s tips in one big sentence I will say that it seems she is encouraging all-male improv groups to be open to the possibility of female performers but that (I’m sure unintentionally) her tips for doing so make women seem meek, in need of special tools in order to perform as well as men and ultimately paints male improvisers with a broad stroke of being a bunch of inconsiderate dicks who don’t know how to stop acting like neanderthals when a woman enters their cave. These sweeping generalizations only speak to what she feels women “need” and she gives no indication that women themselves need to take responsibility for their own work.
Why does this have me riled up? For many reasons but I think my good friend, wonderful improviser and vagina owner Adina Gillett said it best in her own response to Ms. Eickmann - “We hear a lot about how women are victims, and it gets tiring. It’s offensive to think that we need men to change to allow us to play. We don’t. Imagine replacing “Improv” with some other field, like, “Medicine”, and keeping these same principles. Men doctors, you should always be thinking about how your female doctor co-workers are feeling, (rather than focusing 100% on the patient/scene) because you can’t trust them to be capable on their own.”
There are good improvisers and there are bad improvisers. Some are women and some are men. There are good improvisers who make bad moves and there are bad improvisers who make good moves. Some are women and some are men.
Over the years I have seen many more women drawn to improv than when I first started but it is still a largely male-dominated art form. However, that does not mean that the men are always domineering or that the women always allow themselves to be dominated.
I get really frustrated when an improviser blames their scene partner for what is ultimately the inability to assert themselves. I have seen this from both women and men but for some reason when women do the blaming they are sometimes treated with sympathy and apologies as opposed to someone initiating a frank conversation about how both people could have treated the scene differently. Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes male improvisers (often inexperienced or bad) push women aside and dominate the scene. This happens - of course it does. But in addition to talking about this behavior during a workshop or after a show in a notes session it’s also important to talk about how a female improviser can better handle it when it does happen. If I was to offer a tip to improv groups it would be to keep the lines of communication open, encourage people to speak their minds and treat everyone with respect so that performers have a level of comfort in bringing up issues that are troubling to them.
In improv there is a difference between “steamrolling” (negative - not listening, refusing to let go of your ideas and denying the contributions of your fellow players to the detriment of the scene) and “driving” (positive - taking the lead and forwarding the narrative while still being present, open and incorporating the offers of your scene partners in order to build a scene together). Not all improvisers are strong drivers and occasionally rather than embracing a good support role in a scene that is already being driven, they feel like they’re being left in the dust. When improvisers complain that they couldn’t get a word in edgewise sometimes it’s because they were allowing themselves to be steamrolled and sometimes it’s that they were simply not needed in the scene. A scene can benefit from you giving a rousing monologue and other times the best thing you can do is play a tree. That is the nature of improv. Often the best thing an improviser can do is stay offstage during a scene that doesn’t need their contribution. If you feel that your voice needs to be utilized in every scene then perhaps a solo show would be more suited to you.
Another note about steamrolling - it takes two. Just because another improviser is trying to push you aside doesn’t mean that you have to move. There are a variety of ways to do this (maybe another post sometime?) so don’t feel that you have no options and simply have to lie down and get rolled over. There are ways to stop even the strongest steamroll while still Yes Anding the narrative and keep the scene on track most of the time.
The attributes that are unique to each gender can make for really interesting scenework if you don’t limit yourself. I dislike seeing improvisers trade on their gender to the detriment of scenes. I have seen women who I would consider to be poor improvisers use their sexuality time & time again (without irony) as a crutch because they think it’s somehow empowering (we’re taking sexy back - high five!) or interesting to an audience. It’s blatant pandering, comes off as a rookie move and serves to objectify the woman rather than empower her. Should women play sex-kittens once in awhile? Yes! Should they occasionally play a lushy-cougar? Absolutely! Should they talk about their boobs constantly, pout at their scene partners like a teenager trying to talk a male cop out of a traffic ticket or constantly relegate themselves to the role of wife, girlfriend or mom in scenework because they think it’s somehow interesting, relevant or expected of them? No! At least I should say, I don’t want to watch that kind of improviser any more than I want to be her. If you find you’re constantly being endowed to play stereotypical female roles by men in your group - say something in notes about it or better yet, get out there and define yourself first.
I have also seen men who I would consider to be poor improvisers default to playing broad male stereotypes (without irony) to the detriment of scenes and it’s just as bad as when women do it. Should men occasionally play the douchey guy in the club that’s trying to seduce all the ladies? Sure! Should they play the domineering hay-seed husband once in while? Yes! Should they grab their junk constantly, walk like they have a boner or yell over their scene partners in a cartooney display of machismo all the time because they think it’s endlessly funny or somehow expected of them? No! At least I should say that I don’t want to watch that kind of improviser any more than I want to play with him.
Back to classes and my early improv teachers for a moment. All of them approached the work in different ways and gave me a great wealth of training from which to draw when I perform. Not one of them ever told the men in my classes to treat me differently because I was a woman. Ultimately I think the reason why I am so irritated by Femprovisor’s post rather than just tossing it off as advice that I don’t agree with, is that she has presented herself as an authority on the subject and a teacher. For beginning female improvisers reading her blog post in cities where the improv culture is not as vibrant & welcoming as I feel it is in Seattle, I don’t want them to come away from it with a sense of irritation toward male improvisers or this idea that they should be treated differently. Good groups & people are out there - you just have to find them and continue your own training along the way.
All male improv groups - if you want to bring women in, great! Treat them like people and don’t drag them around by their hair and don’t dry-hump them onstage without getting to know their comfort level first. Ok? Ok. If you don’t want to bring women in because you like your group dynamic - great! No one says you have to.
Anyone just starting off in improv - take classes, go to lots of shows and solicit the advice of experienced improvisers who you like to watch onstage. If something happens in a workshop or even onstage that makes you uncomfortable and you’re not sure how to deal with it, open up a dialogue with your scene partner after the show or talk to the instructor about it in the class (possibly in a side conversation if that makes you feel more comfortable) to get their perspective and see if they have tips for handling that type of situation in the moment.
Women! I love you. You’re one of my favorite genders of which I am also a part. Don’t try to be a “female improviser” just try to be a good one and let your own experiences as a person and a woman help you to develop great relationships onstage, make emotional connections and build characters that you love to play. If you have “baggage” (to use Femprovisor’s choice of words) because another improviser was a pain in the ass to play with, check it at the door and go into new groups with an open heart. In my experience, the best improvisers are the ones that work from a place of love.
The lights come up and you call for a suggestion. Let’s say the suggestion is “bacon.” Immediately, your mind rushes through the options, your memories of bacon, images, associations, puns, stories, settings, sensations … BACON! Then you look up and you realize the scene has already started. Your scene partner has made a clear offer, and you’re not sure where you are or how you got there.
Of course, you’ll recover. You always do. But let’s examine that undercurrent of noise that interrupts improv. Does inspiration have to be obvious, loud, and in Technicolor? Or is another way to just cleanse the palate and let the scene unfold? In my workshops, I often talk about poetry as an inspiration for improvisers to dislodge the obvious associations and the eager monkey mind of go go go … not that poetry is monolithic, but much of it is just askew enough to recalibrate the brain. In the words of Charles Simic:
“Poetry is an orphan of silence”
I never imagined Simic’s quote could be offensive. If anything, it places poetry, as “an orphan of silence,” in a humble position, always in the shadow of the ineffable. If there’s any controversy here, perhaps I sense an accusation of patricide in Simic’s words, as any utterance kills its origin. But once, when I shared that quote in grad school, a professor took issue with the implication: “Doesn’t that logic privilege silence?” she asked. From her perspective, as a sociologist with an emphasis on women’s studies and social justice, silence is not some holy, pure perception to be ruined by words, but rather a symptom of suppression in the face of a louder force. For an improviser, silence may seem like a point of concession, lack of ideas, or weakness. Of course, when we examine these extremes, we find that silence, just like a word, inherits different meanings depending on its context. There’s awkward silence, enforced silence, holy silence, stunned silence, and WTF silence. There’s silence because you pressed “mute” instead of “auxiliary.” But pure, unlabeled silence? That’s a rare commodity.
For improvisers, silence can be powerful. If you rush onto the stage with a scene partner and you’re rehearsing a monologue in your head, you’ve already silenced the other player. That’s not to say you bring no ideas to the stage. Just like obliterating all thought in meditation is unrealistic, you can’t expect to be a completely blank slate until you notice, hear, or say something in the scene, but you can look to poetry as a different strategy for attacking the silence of a scene. Consider these lines from Anne Carson’s prose poem, The Life of Towns:
You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it's not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angels or virtue -- who was there to ask the questions?
This aesthetic echoes the classic logic of Michelangelo, who said he “saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” (Then Michelangelo blinked and disappeared). We’re talking about discovery more than invention. Isn’t more satisfying when a scene surprises you as much as it surprises the audience? Especially in collaboration, you’re working to set the scene free, to stumble into a narrative, make the choices inspired by what is unfolding, and embrace every hairpin turn in the narrative as it carries you along. The story tells itself. While I don’t want to sound too mystical about it, I think silence and a poetic view can invite discovery in a scene that we’d otherwise never see, too wrapped up in trying to force an angle or bulldoze the other players into submission. Humility tends to boost our senses while the ego dulls them. A loud agenda blocks offers before we even notice them.
Does playing out of silence mean playing low status? Actually, a position of silence can be a position of strength. Who has a higher status, the improviser flailing around like a late 80’s Robin Williams, or the improviser holding ground, taking a breath, and completely aware of her surroundings and everyone else on stage? Jill Farris, a UP alum and beloved improv teacher, sometimes seems unassuming and Lilliputian, but she can often disarm a blustery high status player by simply bringing a fierce and generous compassion to her character, supporting every offer and conveying more in a few words than someone with the typical “high status” markers of size, volume, and words, words, words.
Like any self-critical improviser, of course, I’m really giving these notes to myself. A couple of weeks ago I was caught in my own ego trance of trying a scene in the style of Chekov (because, you know, the kids love Chekov), and I didn’t even realize how domineering I was until another player responded, “Why are you yelling?” I didn’t think I was yelling, but I guess I was. I was so caught up in my stentorian Chekov voice that I may have missed the quieter offers in the scene. I appreciate being called out like this, even in the middle of a scene, because it jolts me back into awareness and derails any preconceived agendas. There are times to be loud. There are moments to scream, sing, run, kick, and breakdance. We get these moments in improv all the time. But there are also those moments when we can let down our guards, hold our tongues, and discover the angel in the marble, the bacon in the gelato, or the astronaut on the dance floor—poetry doesn't have to be precious or somber, just original.
When I think about the bare stage (much like a blank page), I recall Paul Éluard: “There is another world, and it is this one.” What’s going to happen in the scene? Whatever is happening right now. How am I going to respond if they change my idea? However I’d respond if my idea held true and then it changed. What is that astronaut doing on the dance floor? He’s dancing, silently, in a vacuum of space. Listen closely and you’ll know what happens next.
My wife thinks Adam is insane for telling his wife that his intern kissed him. She can’t believe that Emily would let a sociopath like Amanda anywhere near her home. Meanwhile, why is Ned so rash, so stubborn, in spite of all his family has been through, that he would put his life on the line? These scenarios are from the television programs Parenthood, Revenge, and Game of Thrones, respectively. Holly tends to get a little more attached to the characters than I do, even as she sometimes feels infuriated by the choices they make. In each show, characters make irrational decisions, and sometimes (in the case of Revenge, Weeds, and many other shows) the writers are absurd and manipulative, even as they entertain. But as long as absurd is better than boring, these are the kinds of bad decisions that improvisers need to make more often. In short, improvisers are too rational for their own good.
With any book, play, program, or film, you encounter drama with a duel role: An ally and a saboteur. The ally shuns conflict while the saboteur thrives on it. The ally wants to yell at the screen and tell the girl not to go into the basement. The saboteur knows the killer is hiding down there with a chainsaw and will be disappointed if the girl leaves him waiting. Bothe the ally and saboteur are simultaneously viewing the story, fueling the tension and investment in what happens next.
Even if you have zero control over the script, part of you is telling the story in tandem with the narrative you observe, predicting, reflecting, and filtering it through your interests as a viewer. Sometimes, that means the character makes an irrational choice that makes sense to her in the moment, even as the ally in you cringes. If the story is well told, the dueling impulses find a satisfying resolution in both conflict and overcoming, ideally resolved in a way that is both unexpected and inevitable.
As an improviser, you actually have at least three roles: ally, saboteur, and character. This time, you do share control and responsibility of the narrative, even as part of you is observing what happens as it happens. Part of you has sympathy for the character you’ve embodied, and you’ll do anything to stay protected. But the saboteur in you, the observer, knows that you need to get into trouble. You have to channel these dueling impulses in every choice you make. You have to make choices you don’t agree with. Otherwise, we get scenes like this:
Player 1: Look out, a dragon!
Player 2: Oh, don’t worry, I just killed it because I’m a Dragonborn.
Player 1: What about that Tsunami?
Player 2: I just stopped it with my mind.
Player 1: I’m actually an evil wizard and I’m here to destroy you!
Player 2: Shut up, you’re a tree.
In improv, we call this “cancelling.” It’s a form of saying no, even when it may feel like you’re saying “Yes” to the wish of the other character’s desire to avoid danger. “Yes, and” must ultimately be an affirmation of the story’s core conflict, even if it takes an incidental “no” along the way. A fellow improviser once gave this example:
Princess: Please, Mr. Ogre, let me go!
If you are the ogre in that scenario, are you blocking? If you’re reading the expectations of the princess correctly, you’re actually accepting the offer. The princess as an ally sincerely wants to escape, but the princess as a good improviser (and saboteur) knows it can’t be too easy.
The next time you’re stalled on stage and a story isn’t going anywhere, ask yourself: Am I acting as the ally or the storyteller? Am I willing to let myself get into trouble? Am I trying to be honest, or settling with being safe? Making these distinctions also helps us offstage, when sometimes the reverse principle holds: Am I making the right decisions in my life, or am I chasing drama because the saboteur in me is addicted to conflict?
But as an improviser, you have the context to give up being safe. Make the hasty confession. Go into the basement. Let yourself lose footing for once before you know where you’re going to land.
Merf Ehman once woke up in a snow bank, not knowing where she was. This, she told me, was her low point. She had survived years of drug and alcohol abuse and knew she couldn’t survive long being homeless, and so when she finally got herself together, found counseling, and enrolled in law school, she wanted to leave that dark past behind her. But when she started practicing as a lawyer and fighting for housing rights, Merf found herself drawn to the clients who were marginalized, struggling with addictions, illnesses, or disabilities that made it difficult to fight for themselves.
At first, Merf didn’t let on that she was once just like them. She was no longer a homeless addict. She was a powerful lawyer. But then she realized that the people she was working with didn’t need another person of authority telling them what to do; they needed someone they could trust. That’s when Merf finally opened up and started sharing her personal story with her clients. That’s when she became an amazing lawyer.
In my interviews on KUOW, this theme comes up time and again: Someone faces a challenge that prompts a change, becomes a “new person” on a new path, and tries to escape or hide the “old” version of herself that represented everything she wanted to change. But the real change comes not from a clean break, but a synthesis of what we were and who we’re becoming.
In improvisation, the simplest term for this is reincorporation—picking up something from the past, something you may have discarded, and reviving it in a new context. Looking back often propels us forward.
To illustrate reincorporation, we have a game called Walking Backward Into the Future. While you’re looking away, other members from the workshop find five random objects and place them in a single line behind you, each paced one step apart. You step backwards, look down, and pick up the first object. This is where your story begins. Then, after you’ve established the beginning of the story, you place the first object down, step back again, and pick up the next object to incorporate into your story. As you keep stepping back, picking up new objects and discovering where they propel your story, you’re also looking at the trail of objects and story points in front of you. That way, you’re prompted to refer back to these objects and the narrative elements they represent, even as you weave them into the latest development.
The next time you’re stuck in a story, instead of reaching blindly for non-sequiturs or untethered associations, walk backward into the future for a moment. Pick up an earlier offer again and see where it fits now. If you properly honored the offer in the first place, this should be easy, and your reincorporation will help strengthen the cadence and cohesion of the story for both you and your scene partners. Like Merf did, remember what you left behind, look closely at where you are now, and reach back to carry forth the resources you already have. That’s when your story will finally recognize itself.
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Improvisation has a way of rearranging your brain. Receptivity, listening, suspending pre-conceived notions, building on offers, stringing together a series of small offers into epic stories—we like to claim that improv primes all of these skills. So how can we evaluate games to reveal the mechanics whirring under the surface?
One of my favorite games for cracking open your creative process is called, “What are you doing?” The basic premise is simple:
1. With two players, start with a suggestion for a physical activity (e.g., washing a car)
2. Player 1 starts to mime this activity.
3. Player 2 asks, “What are you doing?”
4. Player 1 continues the activity but names another activity, one that is unrelated to the mimed motion (so you can’t just say, “Washing a cat!”)
5. Player 2 then starts miming whatever Player 1 just said. Repeat steps 2 through 5.
6. Once players get comfortable with it, we turn it into an elimination game, so anyone who repeats, stumbles, or pauses too long is out and the next player cycles in.
I used to preconceive ideas and keep a few in my pocket whenever I played this. But what happened when I ran out? Like anyone else, I went into mental buffering and the little hour glass/color wheel in my brain spun just long enough to lose. Then I discovered a trick to this game that makes it a lot easier, more fun, and an intriguing way to watch how my brain works. Maybe others do this, too, but for most people in my workshops it’s something that never occurred to them. How do I do it? It comes down to 3 different forms of mental mapping.
1. Untethered Association: OK, so the suggestion was, “Washing a car,” you’re miming a sponge and some vague circular movements, and the other player says, “What are you doing?” The first approach looks like this, using the current context as the center circle and the orbiting circles as associations:
This is what it looks like when you're trying too hard. Since you’re trying to build from nothing, drawing on preconceived ideas, or forcing yourself to be clever, you have a longer mental buffering process. Remember, you can only say “potato salad” once. How can you build on what's already there?
2. Radial Association: After a few rounds, maybe you start to riff on the physical activity and end up one step removed. It looks like this:
OK, so it's a start. Though it's a step up from untethered association and you're building on the immediate offer, you're still anchored to a single step association. Radial association is safe and tidy, but it won’t get you very far. If you say “squeezing a sponge,” it sounds a little too close to what you’re already doing. What if you really want to stretch your associations?
3. Nonlinear Association: Many improvisers do this intuitively, but we don’t always map it out. It looks something like this:
Washing a car to skydiving? To me, it’s a logical sequence, but it happens quickly in a smash cut montage inside my head, and when I say, “Skydiving!” it sounds like it came out of nowhere. I'm not reaching into the abyss to try to force something creative, and I'm not forever tied to the single offer and its orbit of simple associations. I'm just following my intuitive links.
Note that the blue circles are concrete associations and the green circles are attributes—each has a different function in provoking creative leaps. To prime this process, I recommend playing “What are you doing?” and saying your associations out loud: “Washing a car, sponge, soft, musical note …” until you land on a new activity. At first, it may seem odd to reveal your brain’s random associations to others, but soon you’ll realize we’re all a little random, and your leaps will become faster and easier.
This tends to be a favorite exercise among writers, actors, designers, and anyone who has to deal with the constant requests to “innovate.” So where does this fit in when you're brainstorming a new product or facing a creative challenge? To take steps toward application, remember that applied improv is more like lifting weights than operating a flight simulator. You may not find many "real world" circumstances outside of the gym where you're literally lying back and pushing a barbell up and down, but you're building that muscle for the next time you throw a ball, swing a racket, or punch a shark. At the very least, you’re gaining insight into your personal creative process, and you’ll never have to fall back on, “Um … potato salad!” ever again.
If there be nothing new, but that which was before, how are our brains beguiled.
-- Sonnet 59
Today, we address a question we often hear from students and audience members: How in the hell do you improvise Shakespeare?
1. Words, Words, Words. I know a couple of improvisers who confess to reading very little Shakespeare and yet they’re still somehow awesome at improvising Shakespeare. But they’re outliers. These preternatural talents are just so good at listening, mirroring, appropriating the language, and intuitively building the narrative that they can build on the offers of the improvisers who have obsessively read and reviewed and rehearsed the language, form, physicality, and world of Shakespeare, thus giving the savants something to absorb in the moment. The point is, most of the actors in a good improvised Shakespeare play are disciplined readers. If you find yourself thrown into a short form Shakespeare scene without time to prep, at least pay attention to the anchors and Yes And like crazy.
That said, if you want to improvise the genre you should find joy in reading and re-reading Shakespeare’s plays and poems, each time with a different focus and a richer reward. For a grasp of the language, first familiarize yourself with the plot of the play before you read it, so your attention will be free to target the vocabulary and wordplay throughout. I recommend The Folger Library editions for individual plays, which offer a plot summary before each scene and maintain unobtrusive footnotes on language and usage on the opposing pages.
Also recommended for your bookshelf:
2. Listen and Repeat. While still absorbing the language, you’ll find another excellent resource in the recorded plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and others, which allow you to listen along, rewind, and play the recordings again, this time reciting with each line as if it were a foreign language tape. This offers not only an increasingly familiarity with the lexicon, but a taste of the pacing, inflection, and overall mastery of the words when performed by established greats (Lawrence Olivier, Judi Dench) and contemporary powerhouses (Amanda Root, Samuel West). Inevitably, you’ll move from mimicry to an authentic, personal style, which is the natural expression of any improviser who composes moment by moment.
- The Norton Shakespeare by William Shakespeare and Stephen Greenblatt (W. W. Norton)
- Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide by John Barton (Anchor)
- Speaking Shakespeare by Patsy Rodenburg (Palgrave MacMillan)
- Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary & Language Companion by Ben and David Crystal (especially the FEW’s: Frequently Encountered Words)
3. Watch and Learn: In addition to Unexpected Productions, you’ll find excellent examples in Chicago’s Improvised Shakespeare Co. and Seattle’s Lost Folio (Wing-It Productions). Both companies know their Bard, and they each have distinctive approaches, formats, and ensemble dynamics. You can find brief clips online, but I recommend seeing these troupes in person to get the full effect of the performance and the arc of the long form Shakespeare. Naturally, you'll also want to soak up as much live scripted Shakespeare as you can, and there are plenty of classic Shakespeare performances captured on film, available at your local library or via Netflix streaming.
Of course, there is a lot more to cover. Randy Dixon and I started a manuscript on improvising Shakespeare, and we planned at least 9 chapters to cover, including physicality, characters, and plotting. But at first and at last, you have to get over that intimidation factor. Again, the most talented improvisers can drop in out of nowhere with no knowledge of the genre, and as long as the majority of players have laid the groundwork, it’s your fundamental improv skills that will be your first and last resource in creating compelling scenes. Even after years of improvising Shakespeare, I’ve fallen victim to overthinking it, or being so full of my genre cramming that I’m preconceiving or control blocking at every turn. After I got through that phase (I hope), I was able to let go of all of my Shakespeare perfectionism and just flow with the scene, even if someone mixed up a thee with a thou now and then.
We’ve barely scratched the surface in this post, so before we continue with the series, we’d like your feedback: What would you like to know about improvising Shakespeare? What trips you up the most? What tricks or tips help you get into the flow of the form? Post your responses in the comment section and we’ll incorporate them into the next post.
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
If you're a fan of the sci-fi series Doctor Who, you’re familiar with the TARDIS. Named for the anagram for Time and Relative Dimension in Space, The Doctor’s spacecraft and time machine is deceptively simple on the outside. It’s meant to blend. Of course, a 60’s era police box from the UK is no longer commonplace, but the idea is that it’s easy to pass by, overlook, and take for granted. Meanwhile, the modest blue box conceals limitless possibilities to transcend time and space, and the interior of the TARDIS is massive.
When I teach improv to new groups, I often bring up an image of the TARDIS to demonstrate the potential of our art form. On the outside, it may seem simple and silly sometimes. But once you’re inside, running around, turning dials and pulling levers, suddenly you’re hurtling through space with no idea where you’re going to land. And contrary to some magical theories of improv, you’re not landing somewhere that never existed. You’re landing in a place in the past, future, or present (well, really it’s always the present) that exists and always already existed—and you’re exploring it for the first time.
Anything you invent is based on something the audience recognizes from their own experience, even if it’s surreal or futuristic. Everywhere we look we’re saturated with claims of novelty, but when you look closer, you recognize what Gary Peters calls “the retro logic” that “resituates innovation within what has been rather than what is to come, thus liberating the discussion of improvisation from its longstanding obsession with the new.” In other words, there’s nothing new under, around, or beyond the sun, even if the sun takes human form and exacts its revenge.
One reason Doctor Who remains so popular is that wherever the TARDIS takes The Doctor and the Companion, the story always reflects the hopes, fears, absurdities, and longings that we recognize in our own lives. Likewise, every improvised scene should include something both disorienting and familiar. Doing another scene about the toilet seat being up? A guy giving birth? An argument over a cookie that ends with someone pulling a gun? Fine. We’ve seen this all before, but that doesn’t stop you from seeing the familiar territory with new eyes. Make the toilet matter. Give the wacky birth scene real stakes. If there’s a gun, let it go off and deal with the consequences. Even standing still, we’re all hurtling through space, and our attraction to the TARDIS isn’t about escape—it’s about giving a direction to our trajectory, adapting to the landscape, and discovering why we landed where we are.