Sometimes you just gotta let go! This can be one of the hardest things to do when starting out with improv. There has to be so many things in place before someone can just let go and drop all their masks and take down their walls. It takes time, practice, a positive environment, and a willingness to work past where they feel comfortable. I love seeing breakthrough moments when someone just lets go of all the rules they create for themselves. When they allow themselves to play and be free of the weight of the world. When they feel they know the “rules” enough to just toss them to the wind and go for broke. This is a major moment and should be rewarded with praise. In this moment you won’t see the best scene work or even an actor in control but it is the letting go that is important.
This can also be said for those improvisers that are out of control completely when they start. They should be rewarded when they are able to maintain control in a scene for the first time and really using all the skills they have learned. These are both equally great breakthroughs.
It takes team work to do a solo scene. WHAT!?! Let me explain. Let’s say you are all on stage performing a long or short form show. Someone steps on stage to start a scene. What normally happens is within 3 seconds someone else comes on to join the scene and offer “help”. Sometimes you’ll then get more entering to “help” the scene. Before we know it we have a stage full of improvisers all making offers, crowding the stage. It’s not just the improvisers on the sides that cause this. Sometimes the person who starts the scene will call out of the scene for help by asking where a character is or they give an air of self doubt that will instantly make someone come in. Trust is a hard thing to build in a group.
We all want to be on stage playing and having fun. We are also all very polite and want to help out. The thing is that in order for a solo scene to happen we have to really look at a situation and decide what the right choice is at that moment. We need to make an educated choice bigger than just “Does this scene need me?” Sometimes the right choice and the way to help are to stay out of a scene. Perhaps because the improviser on stage has it all under control. Maybe the tech has great music playing acting as a second improviser accompanying the scene. Or maybe the improviser that started the scene just needs faith in themselves and would benefit from being left out there to rock a solo scene. All of these choices could still possibly be the wrong one but it takes a good improviser to look at a scene and see the whole picture rather than just saying to themselves “Man I have a funny idea to add to this!”
Anyone can attempt improv. Can anyone be good at it? This is a big question with many different opinions. I believe that anyone who has a willingness to work at improv, take notes and challenge themselves can get up on stage and perform. Will they be the best at it? Well they will be the best they can be if they apply themselves. Perhaps to some they will not be a “great” improviser. This judgment of skill and performance is an interesting topic as well. What makes a “good” improviser……”good”?
I believe a good improviser is one that spends time working at their craft. Commits to the work and doesn’t get bogged down by the challenges they face. Also they help support a healthy group dynamic and nurture others so they can learn and be pushed in a positive way.
I think it’s all about people’s perspective. Anyone can be an improviser. How they gauge their success is up to them. As long as they are happy with their accomplishments then that is all that counts. Is everyone meant to be an improviser? No. Can anyone learn the work and perform if they are willing? Yes. Should everyone let a little improv into their lives? Yes. Can you set personal goals and strive for them? Absolutely. Don’t let others decide if you are successful or not. That is for you to decide.
Spending time together off stage creates great dynamic onstage. Keith Johnstone said this during a workshop I attended. “If you have a problem with someone or something they did, you talk to them about it at the pub.” I know personally I have made choices for casting new improvisers after the audition based on conversation at the pub. It’s like the audition is the first date and the pub is the second. They are much more themselves when they don’t think they have eyes on them. Also it allows me to see if I want to spend hours and hours with them. Do they jive with the rest of the group? I’ll also ask more questions to gauge where they are as performers and where they are in their life journey.
The work we do is very intimate and really can allow us to be open and ourselves. Really let our guard down. I feel though that when you are working together it is hard to really get to know each other fully.
Outside of workshop can be like when you attend a staff party and see people for the first time with their regular day clothes on. Everyone lets their hair down a little and is much more at ease. When we are relaxed and at ease without fear of judgment we are much more ourselves. We should hopefully be building relationships outside of just working ones. This is such a social art form that it would be a shame to not take advantage of it. I've also heard you should try and have other interests besides improv. I’ll let you know how that goes.
To improvise you should try being controlled, alert and positive. I believe that the state of ready is where you should be as soon as the show starts. I do a lot of ball exercises because as soon as you walk into a circle with one, the whole group adjusts and gets ready in case the ball gets thrown to them. This is understood before a word is spoken. This state of ready is what you should try and maintain to the best of your ability during a show. I do not drink or do drugs before shows because it seems to throw off my timing and I don’t like feeling altered while on stage. Some performers need something like a drink or other influences to feel ready. I say to each their own on that front.
The other thing is that you should try to come into the theatre with a clear head free of the stresses of the day. Outside influences can easily affect a show in a negative way. You will be a much more useful member to the team if you are in a positive state and ready to play. There are always uncontrollable factors that can mess up your mood but we need to learn to do our best and leave it at the door or in the green room.
Lastly being in control of yourself is very important. An actor out of control is so dangerous to other performers. I have been hit multiple times by out of control improvisers. This can be caused by nerves and anxiety in newer performers. We try to have a good warm up and group connection before each show so that we are all in the same energy walking on stage. This can’t always be done so I usually recommend improvisers come ready or find ways in their lives to prepare before even getting to the theatre. Everyone will need something a little different.
Keep it simple. We sometimes have smaller crowds at our theatre. The last thing they want is to be punched in the face with energy and a crazy dragon scene that makes no sense. Keep it simple and focus on the audience’s energy and play strong relationships with simple stories that make sense. Also make an offer and see how it lands before drowning your scene partner under crazy offer after crazy offer. Just keep it simple.
Prepare for the worst so you can play your best. This is from my martial arts influence. Fighters train for months before fights. They push themselves physically and mentally to breaking points. They prepare for battle and are ready for the worst case scenario. Some say that all that training is so that once you step in the ring or cage you can finally just relaxed and play. All the preparation is done and now all the training is put to use.
As a director I try to push improvisers to a point where they struggle. Make them work harder than they ever will in front of an audience. Prepare them for the worst so that they know what it feels like to flounder and to work new skills and gain more confidence in themselves. It’s great when they realize that no one dies in improv (Not yet anyway) and that they can really work hard and fail. Then to fail and be okay with it. Then to seek out failure and see it as an opportunity for growth rather than linger on it and let it affect their learning.