When I started improvising I was in love with the more showy elements of the craft. I adored watching people be witty. I laughed in delight at clever plot moves or audacious character choices.
Currently, I’m mostly interested in connection. How do we forge a true and stable connection to our scene partner? How do we give our scenes weight and import?
I’m very fond of the idea that however accomplished we are – over the course of an hour’s show – our brain will at some point stop supplying us with clever content to say. There are only a few superhuman brains that can keep up that kind of pace. But ask us to feel something, have an emotional point of view on another character, well, we can do that until the cows come home. There is seemingly no end to our emotional reserves. So, with that in mind, perhaps it’s a good idea to root our improv in an energy that we can sustain?
I’ve been teaching a class on emotional connection for about six years. At first, students struggled to see the point of something that wasn’t immediately comedic but over the years we’ve seen a rise of performance groups utilising that particular set of skills. What has become clear is that if you invest in your character, pursue connection and deepen the relationship between yourself and others – everything else just becomes richer – funnier, sillier, more heartfelt, less disposable.
I’ve tried to develop a list of first principles for doing this kind of work. It’s a work in progress (isn’t everything?) but hopefully, it gives you an idea of the discoveries made so far.
- Listen – this is the foundational principle of improv, if you don’t listen then you won’t be able to ‘yes and’ what has just been said. You won’t be able to respond appropriately. You’ll be trapped improvising with yourself and your own ideas, even as an ocean of possibility flows by your ears unanswered.
- Be amused and interested – let your default position be positive, accepting and joyful. Your relationships can become antagonistic or conflict-oriented later in the show if you wish. But invest in the relationship first and, even more importantly, let the audience invest in you too. If the curtain rises on a couple SCREAMING at each other – we’ll struggle to care about that conflict in any meaningful way. If we’ve already seen them being loving and supportive, then that scene is going to hit way harder.
- Feel something – at all times know how you feel about everyone else you are on stage with. Base that feeling on the immediate impression that you get when you look at your scene partner in the moment. Build on whatever your initial impulse is – don’t interrogate or over-think it. Don’t “audition” your idea to see if the audience approves. Be connected and allow your characters to emerge from that connection.
- Be willing to be changed – allow yourself to be impacted by what happens in the scene. Remember that to truly listen, we need to do so with the possibility that our minds might be changed. Embrace those changes and let them affect how your character behaves.
- Make clear offers – make offers with as much brevity and as much clarity as you can muster. Talk in short sentences. Offer up one idea at a time. Don’t talk to fill space. Use these tools – pace, tempo, silence.
- Discover, don’t invent – find what is already there between you in the moment. What is happening right now? Not in the future. Not in the past. Not to other people. But. Right. Now. Don’t do improv admin preparing for a task that will never unfold in real life. Don’t talk about the party, live the party.
- Build from you – draw from your own experiences, your own values, your own opinions. Put your loves, your hopes, your perspective into the mouths of your characters. They will connect more readily with an audience. They will give you gorgeous specifics to work with and they’ll stand up to more dramatic interrogation and development.
by The Maydays, Chris Mead