When you start learning improv you will encounter a million contradictions. It may be because you are learning from multiple teachers or perhaps it is because there are no certainties in what we do. It may also depend on where you are at in your learning process. I would like to tackle a few of these contradictions while acknowledging that explaining their paradoxical nature is a lot like trying to catch smoke with your bare hands. We will see where it takes us.
1) “Follow the rules but, ummmm, there are no rules. Well there are rules; you just need to learn when to break them.”
There are a few trains of thought on the use of rules in improvisation. I will only be able to speak on behalf of my own beliefs. I believe there are rules that must be followed as you learn. In fact, there are a ton of rules. The problem I have with the idea of “no rules” is that it is impossible to teach something if there isn’t anything to learn in the first place. To me it would be similar to putting a 16 year old in a car and saying, “Just drive, there are no rules!” What a scary thought.
What kind of “rules” do I believe need to be taught to build a strong foundation for a well-rounded improviser? The first that comes to mind are the rules of theatre etiquette. A lot of today’s improvisers are not coming from a theatre background; this means that while we learn improv, I must teach students to face the right way on stage, use their upstage arm, speak loud and clear, and use down stage centre to play. If an individual never learns basic theatre etiquette they have no foundation to build on and will construct their improv-house on unsteady ground.
What I attempt to teach is that you must learn the rules before you can break them. We learn concepts and rules and, with repetition and diligence, beat them into your brain so that they become muscle memory. Once they become second nature, you can start to explore the idea of breaking them. Essentially, I teach the rules and then, once the improvisers have internalized the rules and understand them, I tell them to learn when to purposefully go against what they have just learned.
In martial arts they say that the yellow belt is the most dangerous. They are one level up from beginner and they think they know everything. They are a danger to themselves and those around them. They will want to prove themselves in a fight but do not have the control or actual skills yet to defend themselves or realize that you are actually learning these skills to avoid a fight. So telling newer improvisers that you can break the rules can be a dangerous dance. Contradictions!
2) “Don’t try, but try really hard.”
Or maybe, “try really hard to not try”? It takes a lot of work to get to a point where you can be on stage and be fully in the moment, committed and present, and to make strong choices. A lot of things all need to come together to get there. Hours and hours of both performance and workshops must be put in. You must be mentally prepared and ready before the show. You must be able to put into practice all your teachings up to that point. You also need to just do it. I believe you must have a good work ethic, listen to your director, not beat yourself up too much, and also take notes and use them diligently to continue to move forward as an improviser.
Perhaps knowing when to be trying and when to be flowing is the key. You should always be doing work and setting goals. You should always try to be able to gauge where you are as a performer, but when you get up on stage you need to put all that work in to practice. Flip a switch into play mode. Know when you need to play using what you know up to that point. You can do no wrong because this is where you are at as an improviser thus far. Then once you are off stage again you can continue to learn and grow. Seems simple, but this is something you will battle for your entire career.
3) “Think but don’t think.”
When on stage and in the perfect moment you will be saying and doing things that even you may not expect. Everything is going smoothly and there are no bumps in the road. The scene is great and you feel great. Your partner says they had a blast. The audience loved it. The director gave you praise after in the notes session. You performed the perfect scene—well, the perfect scene does not technically exist, but this came pretty damn close. So were you thinking during that scene? Some will say “No, I was fully invested and in the moment.” But I personally think that you were thinking. Thinking is something that we cannot stop doing. Perhaps what actually happened is that you were able to think and make decisions quickly with no judgment using all your skills to not hesitate.
Educated thinking is what happens when your scene feels close to perfect. All the work you have done up to that point all came together in a magic moment. Maybe similar to when you drive to work and you forget the trip as you pull into your usual spot. (Yes, I use car analogies a lot. I like them.) You have become so comfortable driving that you can do it without really thinking about it, but along the way there are times you must use judgment and make decisions on the fly. Should you run that red light or stop. You use what you know and make a quick decision. Hence thinking but not thinking.
I am not sure this is something that can really be taught. It almost needs to be stumbled upon. Telling newer improvisers to think is not really a good idea unless they really understand what educated thinking looks like. I see improvisers all the time that don’t actually improvise at all. They are super intelligent and think super fast. They are making decisions but more often than not they are decisions that hurt the scene or they prevent the other improvisers from progressing. They never truly let go and get in the flow. So what’s the difference? It’s hard to explain unless you have been there and felt it. It’s as if you know what to do with as little thought as possible, and when the thought happens it is the right one.
4) “Say yes and yet know when to say no.”
This is something we have been looking at in workshop lately. It came out of working on when it is a good time to enter a scene as a 3rd or 4th improviser. So we explored having improvisers just jumping into scenes on their first impulse and seeing what happened. We were doing this because we had cast members trapping themselves on the bench. They were over thinking whether they should come in or not and then wouldn’t enter the scene at all. Now we all know that the first impulse is not an educated one so it probably wasn’t the right answer either but it got people moving. (Even when told to go on first impulse it usually ended up being 3rd or 4th, in all honesty. We block ourselves really fast.) When exploring this, some interesting things were brought to light.
What do we do if someone comes in with a blind side offer or one that makes no sense at all with what our scene is about? I can sometimes be an aggressive performer when playing with asshole improvisers. I say it’s because I’m old and grumpy which I think is partially true. I also believe that I am very protective and like to take care of my scene and partner. I like to put my work in and hate to see it get plowed over by someone not paying attention, coming in with nothing to offer, or when someone is being a show boat. So I protect it by not always saying yes. Sometimes I think improvisers can be too polite and just say yes to whatever crappy offer gets thrown at them. They shouldn’t have to if they have a good foundation and are doing good work. Too easily do we just go with whatever is brought to us even when it makes no sense what so ever.
So we started seeing how we can own and protect our scenes. We hope this doesn’t happen often at our venue, but every once in awhile people come into scenes with nothing at all or aren’t paying attention to what the scene needs. I know I’m guilty of it. So without being a dink on stage we looked at ways to not give up our scene to someone just butting in. We looked at hosting techniques and physical changes as well as leaving the dink on the stage alone to deal with their mess.
Most improvisers felt a rush of satisfaction that they had not ever experienced. They felt good and strong. Not all felt positively, however, some actually felt bad. They felt as if they had done something wrong and rude to their fellow performer. When asked if the audience saw them looking rude or mean, the response was a resounding “NO”! When the improviser that was the dink was asked if they felt betrayed or mistreated, they also said no. So everyone was okay. No one died or was hurt emotionally. We should always be positive and be trying to move things forward, but that doesn’t always mean saying yes, despite improvisers being taught to always say “yes, and”. Sometimes we need to realize we are okay without everyone on stage. If we do our work and establish a ton fairly quickly then we don’t need someone plowing through or entering for no reason. You can ask them to leave.
This is a pretty big topic. I feel sometimes we just allow ourselves to be bullied. I am sure we can all think of a time where we felt dirty after a scene. Either because we came on and messed everything all up or that we had someone kill our scene. It was a very exciting and empowering exercise and is not over yet. We can be strong and not come across as an asshole.
There is on last thing I’d like to add to this segment. You can also say no when you actually mean yes. This is a loaded “no” that when done correctly should be obvious that you are actually saying yes to whatever offer is being given by your scene partner. This also applies to loaded questions. Questions are frowned upon in improv (See previous blog post) but if you already know the answer and your partner is there with you then ask away.
5) “Doing nothing can be a huge offer but you have to be doing something.”
Stillness and silence is power. Walking on stage with nothing is weak but if I were to take the stage and stand still and silent, feet planted and confident, I am indeed doing something. If I walk into a scene for shits and giggles and am coming on with nothing I am not going to be any help. I need to be sure of whatever it is that I am doing whether that thing is nothing or something. If I am not then I better hope my fellow performers are because I am acting selfish.
As an improviser you must do your work before you can expect to be able to help and support your scene partner. You should never come into a scene with an indifferent emotion or not certain of why you are there. You must make strong decisions to help your partner. (Strong does not mean a huge wild and crazy offer or creating a problem) A strong decision could be as simple as deciding you hate the way your partner smells. Stick to that decision and add to it as you go. Realize though that this is enough for now. Commitment to this is all you need to be doing something. So often improvisers try doing too much and miss all the beauty in the little offers and suggestions given by a scene partner. You must also use your hyper awareness to really see all the things in your partner that you can use.
Often in workshops or shows I see an improviser start a scene before they are even aware of it. They walk to the side but walk in a funny way, show emotion or make a face. They have already discovered something and yet don’t realize it. Even though they think they aren’t doing anything they in fact are. Then the worst thing is when they drop this magic thing they have discovered to enter a scene with nothing.
So what is it? If you choose to have nothing and own it then you actually have all you need. Not only that but your partner then has everything they need as well. That is if they are open and aware of what you are doing. Wait that’s not right either, you can’t actually commit to nothing. Everything you do is something. The awareness you and your scene partner have is what makes this “nothing” something. Always be looking for the little subtle things that can turn into those magic moments. They are there if you look for them. You will in fact be doing something even when you think you are doing nothing. When that thing is brought to light though then you must over accept it and say yes and to it. Then you move forward.
At the end of the day you must do your work. You must try to see as much as possible and hope that your scene partner is aware of all the little things they are doing. Then the two of you can have a blast playing off those things that some miss. (The audience never misses anything FYI. Bring that A game) Also realize that one thing may be true today but that same thing will not necessarily be true tomorrow. Embrace the uncertainties because life and improv are chalk full of them, and always have fun.