I feel specially qualified on the subject of cerebral improv as for the last few years the Maydays have had lots of show concepts based on quite specific source material. Rather than a word or location as a starting point for a scene we’ll have Confessions from the audience, newspaper stories or monologues for example. Working from such rich material is inspiring and generates lots of ideas but on the flipside it can sometimes mean that I will often step out into the stage with a more fully formed premise than if I were starting from nothing. Or in other words a head full of ideas that aren’t necessarily to do with the other people that you are onstage with. This has certainly lead to some quite ‘heady’ shows.
You don’t give eye contact or find connection with your stage partners (or audience partners)
You deny others ideas if they don’t fit with yours
You are thrown when something doesn’t fit your plan
You cross initiate
You stop listening because you’re waiting to get your idea in
You can’t hear things above the chatter in your head
You discuss concepts rather than showing action
You forget to have fun!
When being in your head can be good:
- The feeling of confidence that comes with the sense that you’ve got an idea. Sometimes being inspired by a fun idea can make you feel like you’re flying onstage.
- Making a small mental choice at the top of the scene that informs a character choice. By yourself, you might make a decision or give yourself a secret want that gives your character a richer more 3d feel.
- When I was in the girl guides, our motto was ‘Be prepared’. I have a little technique I call the ‘back pocket’. I will store something in my mental back pocket and just remind myself that the fun is in there should I need it.
- Callbacks. John Cremer is the master of callbacks. Sometimes a good callback can really nail things, especially when it bookends a show. Sadly, there is sometimes recall involved and a good dose of knowing when it’s not needed too.
- Your own special knowledge. Del Close always said ‘play to the top of your intelligence’. If you have specific knowledge on a subject and it comes up why not use it in your work. Facts can make fiction even more real and rich. Rebecca Macmillan is excellent with historical references for example.
- Being an caretaker for the whole piece. These improvisers are nice aren’t they? They can somehow float above the action with half an eye on the bigger picture while never taking their eye of the ball. An improviser like this might initiate a scene with aa different energy to vary up the tone of the show or recognise a theme that’s developing and follow that. It happens to me rarely but never when I think about it!
- Finally, being in your head is great when you are prepared to let go of everything that’s in it so that you can be in the present moment that you are sharing with the human being opposite you.