The Seven Deadly Improv Sins #2 – Inattentiveness

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by Rebecca MacMillan

Following Jason’s blog entry on denial, here’s something on our second deadly sin of improv: inattentiveness.

Originally we named this sin ‘not listening’ but inattentiveness was not only neater, but better represented what we meant by encompassing the non-auditory forms of this vice.

Being inattentive is to be drawn in any way, by anything, from being in the present moment and from what is occurring in the scene, on stage, right now. The need for absolute attention to this means improv can be used as a form of meditation. It’s also a bit like driving in that the results of inattentiveness are horrible to watch. With a lack of attention in an improv scene you will find characters are misnamed or change gender; offers and initiations are not picked up; object-work masterpieces are walked through; ‘games’ within scenes are missed; songs end up with two different choruses; people don’t notice that their scene has been edited; scenes, and indeed shows, go on for too long.
The cause of inattentiveness is distraction. Distractions are legion. Some of them are internal to our attempts to improvise. We can be so focussed on our idea for a premise of a scene/ character/ object work/ clever chorus for a song that’s just begun, that we don’t notice what is going on around us. If you feel you might have a problem with this, try videoing rehearsals or shows and watching them back. This will show up in horrific technicolor specific examples of where you have completely missed beautiful things in your ego-driven excitement. To fix this necessitates working for the success of the scene as a whole and abandoning attachments to your individual ideas. Still have those ideas, but lose the attitude that they must happen. Still have those big, strong characters, but give them ears. Rehearsal exercises, like repeating every line your scene partner makes back to them before adding your own, can be useful.
Other distractions are external. There are avoidable ones, for instance drink. As demonstrated by public information TV ads down the years, our abilities to be attentive are significantly reduced by even small quantities of alcohol and, in our book, it should be avoided at rehearsals as much as shows. Afterwards is another matter: unless you are driving.

Further obvious focus-savers are: dressing comfortably, not turning up hungry, wearing a watch so you have the time and, on shownights, avoiding dealing with ticketing or venue issues – preferably recruiting someone other than the cast to deal with ‘stuff’.

Other external distractions are much harder to deal with and, depending on your sensibilities, the best you can do is an element of ‘fake it until you make it’ or else being aware of the fact you are distracted. Reviewers or friends in the audience, uncontrollable laughter, being in love or in grief, and morning sickness number amongst these evils.

A very interesting question to me is how much we should allow ourselves to be distracted by the audience. At a recent show we encountered an extraordinary situation: we had two totally different audiences in the room. Half were groups of youngish men on stag dos who mostly thought they had come to see stand up, and the other half were gentle souls and unusually shockable for a Saturday night. Our show is based on confessions from the audience, and despite the instruction that we weren’t particularly looking for blue/poo material, the stags had out-confessed everyone else. In the first half we panicked and overplayed it towards what we thought the stags wanted, but had less response than usual from everyone. During the interval we resolved to ignore what we thought the audience wanted, and to be truer to our house style and own sense of play. After we had explained that in the second half we would only use one confession taken live, part two began with a confession so extreme from one of the stags that it was actually heckled by two of the softies, and our best intentions ended up leaving by the fire exit.
Unlike anything scripted, we improvisers have the power to alter what we are doing as we are doing it. As human beings we want the audience that have come and paid to watch us (even if this was by mistake) to have a good time… but longform improv is certainly an artform and, as artists, we are striving for specific goals. To lower our artistic endeavours because the audience aren’t laughing hard enough feels rubbish, but not to respond to them at all seems self-indulgent. It’s tricky. Nobody would expect a stand-up or similar not to pick and choose from their material on the night and to play to the crowd, but if you don’t like molecular gastronomy and you went to Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant the joke would be on you if you demanded an omelette and chips. As the audience are involved and invested in our show, their confessions being the inspiration for our scenes, I think it is fair enough that like the clown or the jazz improviser we allow ourselves to feed on their response and ‘find the audience’s level’, so long as this process remains largely subconscious, we are still having fun, and it does not detract from our attention to the scene. If I had to choose, my instinct is that inspiration trumps obligation, and success is more likely to follow from focussing on what the scene needs, than what you think the audience needs.
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1 Comment
  1. Gareth Owen-Williams

    Brilliant and so true. Improv’s fun but without concentration you can be the last in the room to pick up on an opening.

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