As this semester comes to a close, I find that I do not have time to teach all that I know about improv. I write this to impart some last bits of knowledge to you, the reader, in the hopes that it helps you improve the quality of your improv performances at least a little. The following are things that I have picked up from either books, or other improvisers, or my own experience that I feel I must share.
1. Freedom, Power & Responsibility
First, there was nothing. Then, there was improv. When two people initiate a scene, the person who speaks first, whether through words or actions, has the freedom to do or say whatever they want. When the stage is empty, you could walk on and say, “Shit, that was a wrong turn,” or ,”Doc, my face feels like it’s on fire,” to quickly establish part of a platform (Who’s there? Where? And what’s happening?). Actions like digging or fishing can also help establish who your character is through the use of body language. As the improviser to initiate the scene, you walked on and had the freedom to make the empty space your own.
Now, the person who responds has the power to interpret your words or actions and establish a direction for the scene. For example, in response to the wrong turn line, your scene partner may respond, “Oh! The scenic route!” or, “Jackie, at this rate, we’re going to miss the wedding!” Even an audible huff establishes that your character often misses turns and that your partner character’s patience may be wearing thin. Responses need not always be words. Let’s say that you begin a scene by digging. Your partner walks up, crosses their arms, and watches. By not helping (and with their body language), they are saying that yes, you are digging, and I am supervising. If they were not helping, but were holding a shovel too and wiping sweat from their brow, then they have used their power to say that you two are coworkers, allowing the scene to have a very different set of interactions.
The initiative now shifts back to you. After your freedom to do anything and your scene partner’s power to interpret your anything, you now have the responsibility to continue the scene using that same interpretation. If your scene partner responds to you saying, “Doc, my face feels like it’s on fire,” with the statement, “I am a cardiologist. I barely know what a face is,” then you have the responsibility to continue the scene in that direction, wherever it goes. In this specific case, we’ve established a precedent of asking for help in all the wrong places, which is a very funny pattern to continue in the same scene or future scenes with that character.
To summarize, the first person has the freedom to do or say whatever. The second person has the power to take that and establish a direction for the scene to go. The first person then has the responsibility to continue the scene in that direction. This is the idea of freedom, power and responsibility.
2. Give gifts, generously
In improv, giving a gift means giving a scene partner something to work with. The general suggestion is that you should give gifts as much as possible, and that the best improvisers make their scene partners look amazing through gifts.
Gifts in the context of improv do not need to be physically handing someone an object. Usually, a gift takes the form of an idea that can be further explored. Take, for example, a scene where two improvisers are talking over lunch. They may touch upon the minutiae of their day to day or describe the food they’re eating or restaurant they are in, but that is world building if anything. The scene really gets going when one person says something like, “Let’s get down to business. You say you want my house?” This question has the obvious, interesting answer of, “Yes, I want your house,” and gives the other improviser both a strong motivation and the power to answer the question of why their character wants the other’s house. Giving gifts tends to take the form of statements or questions with obvious, interesting answers that elaborate upon motivations, shared history, or other relationships a character may have. Good gifts help further the development of the scene, the characters as individuals, and their relationship with each other.
Newer improvisers sometimes struggle with establishing strong characters or inserting themselves in larger group scenes. A gift in their case may be a strong and clear character trait to help them find their footing in a scene. Easy characters to gift are spouses/ significant others, bosses/the president (of anything) or business partners. These characters are easy to support and explore around, allowing for other gifts to be given during the lifetime of the character.
3. “Yes, And” means agreement between actors, not necessarily characters within a scene
The backbone of improv is the idea that actors must agree with each other to fully create and explore a scene. The quickest way to do this is by agreeing to ideas your scene partner brings.
For example, say there is you and another person initiating a scene. The other person approaches and says, “Mother, I wish to attend a party at David’s.” If we apply the idea of ‘Yes, And’ to the characters themselves, then the Mother must acquiesce the request. The child gets to go to David’s party.
But if we apply ‘Yes, And’ to the actors and not the characters, then the mother has the power to say, “No, Honey. I’ve never met David or his parents.” And can respond like a mother. This allows the improvisers to explore and resolve the conflict that has been presented, exploring the world of the child and mother along the way.
4. The performers are in charge, not the audience
A long, long time ago, we held a show that did not go well. We as performers gave the audience so much power that it hindered our ability to perform and our general consensus after the show was that it could not have gone much worse. For complete transparency I will name this event as the rotten food show from 2 years ago. The best thing that came from that show was a decision to never do it again. But I think it’s worth saying why it didn’t work because that topic comes up in other places.
As improvisers, we learn how to bring ideas from our head onto the stage. We also have a filter for words and topics that the audience does not. To that end, and for the comfort of the actors and general audience, the final say of what happens on stage is in the hands of the performers and no one else’s.
For example, take the game of Pillars. Audience members are sat onstage and tapped on the shoulder for words and phrases to fill in the blank. Let’s paint ourselves a scene where a parent and child are cleaning out their car. The child finds an object that they do not recognize and are unsure where to put it. They ask their parent. The parent says, “Oh, that? Just put it –” and then taps one of the pillars, an audience member, for a suggestion. Let’s say the pillar replies with the phrase, “in my ass.” While the response is funny in a non-sequitur sort of way, and the improvisers may be able to continue after the audience calms down, there is nothing wrong with hitting the pillar for a second time and saying, “again,” or, “another one,” to get a different word or phrase. One of the joys of working with an audience is not knowing what you’re going to get, but I dare say the experience is so much better when it’s collaborative in nature and no one is trying to trip up the other.
Remember this and remember it well: the word of the audience is not law. Do not chase the audience’s laugh. You can control what is brought on stage.
5. An improviser is a storyteller
Again, improvising is hard. There are soft boundaries everywhere that you hit and have to bounce back from. Sometimes, especially when improvising with individuals new to the world of improv or experienced with a different troupe, these boundaries will appear within improv scenes.
Sometimes scenes will begin or move in a direction that you, as an improviser, will not like. Maybe your character is pushed in a direction or given qualities that hit you personally. Maybe the scene is delving into a topic that is making you increasingly uncomfortable and you know is heading in a bad direction.
Change it, I say. This is not real life. This is a story in your head. Your character is an ass? A bully? Not anymore after a quick personal epiphany. Now they’re nice and work to lift up others. Stuck in a bad situation? Feel like you have no control? Good thing you’re the undercover boss. The secret audit officer.
There is no reason you should be trapped in a story you are helping to build. Improv scenes are a collaborative storytelling medium. A good scene partner can recognize discomfort and help shift the scene away from that direction.
I swear this was supposed to be light-hearted. I started writing it that way and then realized there were other things to say.
Like many things in life, there’s so much knowledge you only gain through experience and I just wanted to share these tidbits as a parting gift. I wish you all the best of luck going forward and am glad I got to be a part of your journey.
Luis Francisco Zuniga