The David Razowsky Method (Video)

In this video, David Razowsky shares his method for navigating a scene.

This method has its merits.  We’re often told to “heighten and explore.”  Following Razowsky’s pattern would heighten emotion, but I’m hesitant to say you could lay this template over every scene.

Leading with emotion is great.  Heightening that emotion is great.  But heightening regardless of what’s being fed your way seems odd.  You can get great mileage by going away from a bit, then returning later in a scene.

I also disagree that once an emotion is heightened, it changes.  Going from anger to sadness feels like a crazy u-turn.  How about going from anger to calm, back to anger, back to calm?

This method also advocates starting with your emotion at a “1.”  If you start that subtly, it would be easy for your partner to miss the vibe you’re sending out.

Consider modifying this method to resemble the kids’ game, “Hot and Cold.”  You seek something while the other person in the room says whether you’re getting hotter or colder.  When you’re really far away, you might hear, “Ice cold!”  When you’re really close, you’ll hear, “Burning hot!”

Starting a scene, you’ll discover certain likes and dislikes about your partner’s character.  When you know that, you can control their emotion.  I coach my group that whenever someone says, “Don’t do that,” it’s a giant green light to do that.  The audience wants to see you misbehave.  They want to see the consequences.  But a savvy improviser doesn’t just keep doing the forbidden activity over and over, harder and harder.  They’ll do it a little bit, then let the audience forget about it, then do it harder, then go away, then come back and do it as hard as possible.

Obviously, there is no right or wrong with improv.  Whatever helps you navigate the scene and have fun is the right way to go.  What do you think of David’s method?

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

5 things I learned by taking a year off between improv shows

Nearly a year ago, the iO Theater killed off my team and didn’t reassign me.  Although I love improv with every molecule of my man-suit, I had no team to fall back on.  So began my 351-day improv exile.

During my time off the stage, I continued coaching an independent team.  And last weekend, the lovely KC Redheart invited me to sit in for a show.  Here’s what struck me during that first performance in a long, long while…

1) Your weaknesses never really go away.

I’ve always struggled with listening.  I get impatient and race to find the next thing.  Even when I was performing regularly, this was an issue.  But when you have more reps, you’re able to lessen the effects.  I believe your weak spots will always be weak, but there are degrees of weakness.  With a ton of rust, your trouble spots just feel much larger.  With practice, you can manage their symptoms.

2) If you can commit to something at the top of the scene, everything else flows.

That initiation is so important.  My favorite improv teacher, Mark Sutton, advocates taking a brief pause after the first ten seconds of a scene.  Whatever you’ve done to that point – that’s your promise to the audience.  You need to double down on that.  In the scenes where I gave myself a point of view or a physicality, I had tons of fun.  When I led with plot, I fell flat.

3) Don’t say stuff just to say stuff.

Improvisers are terrified of silence.  But I’d wager 25 percent of our dialogue is totally useless.  We’re just talking for the sake of talking.  Use your words to convey your emotion or point of view.  Provide information that will be useful to your scene partners.  If the words in your head won’t push things forward, don’t let them escape your lips.

4) Your teammates are the answer to every problem.

A younger me would walk on stage with entire scenes mapped out.  If I could just initiate hard enough, I believed I could drag my scene partner through the maze.  What an idiot.  Instead of white-knuckling every scene, I simply brought one idea to the party.  I looked at what my scene partner brought, and then we fit those ideas together.  Audiences go bonkers when they see you making the connections in real time.  Embrace that danger.  See how hard you can celebrate the gift your partner brought.  Give them gifts in return.  Watch the perpetual energy spin.

5) Improv is perhaps the most fun activity on earth.

I had so much ridiculous, stupid fun.  I’ve got to get back on stage immediately.  Don’t take those shows for granted, my friends.

What this awful scene can teach us about improv

According to this video’s description, the woman was told to say, “I want a divorce,” as her first line. Nothing else was planned.

Holy crap, this is terrible.

It’s not hard to explain why.  The acting is stiff and unnatural.  The actors don’t bother making eye contact until more than six minutes into the scene.  The guy rambles on in monologue mode, oblivious to his partner.  You’d be hard pressed to find two lines of dialogue that even correlate to one another.  Rather than playing it real, the man thinks laughing at his wife will make the scene funny.  He’s very wrong.

But if you asked two competent improvisers to try reenacting this exact same scene, I’m sure it would be side-splittingly funny.  It’s not hard to mimic total failure.

One of the most beloved improv exercises is to play badly deliberately .  I recently coached my team to play a scene as though they were an improviser they loathe.  The results were fantastic.  Then I asked them to play a scene as an improviser they admire.  The results were not as enjoyable.  The players explained that they felt pressure when playing as their heroes, but felt free to be awful.

This falls into the entire psychology of performance.  When we fully commit to a character, we feel freedom.  Committing to mimicking a terrible actor is easy.  There are no wrong moves.  But when attempting to commit to doing a good scene or emulating your hero, you’re plagued with doubt.  Doubt erodes commitment.  The scene unravels.

When watching the scene above, you see the actors grasping to commit.  Even they don’t believe the words they’re saying.  Have you ever acted that way on stage?  Have you ever said something halfheartedly/flippantly/winking to the audience?  It may feel fun in the moment, but you’re selling out the scene.  You’re basically the guys in this video.

So no matter what you do on stage, commit the hell out of it.  If you’re gonna be sad, be sad.  If you’re gonna be angry, unleash the rage.  And if you’re gonna act poorly on purpose, have fun and play as hard as you can.  Commit to something concrete and the scene will be easy.  Try committing to a moving target like “a good scene” and you’re in trouble.  Just play the character and the scene will come to you.

And if you’re one of the two actors in this video, abandon improvisation immediately.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Polite Improviser Syndrome

Some improv training centers beat it into you – “Support your partner!”

So you do.

And you spend so much time supporting your partner that you eventually become a blank slate.  You’ll hit the stage focused only on your partner, hoping they’ll do something you can “support.”  And if they don’t, you just stare blankly at each other.  No one makes a move.

It’s called Polite Improviser Syndrome, and I’ve suffered from this disease.

We think we’re being helpful this way.  Coming out totally empty means we’re ready to do whatever our partner wants to do.  And that’s good, right?

Wrong.  In fact, it’s one of the worst moves you can make.  Coming out totally blank puts all the pressure on your scene partner to come up with everything for both of you.

Don’t do that.

The sooner you make assumptions and declarations about yourself and your partner, the sooner the scene gets started.  Have an emotion, have a point of view, start in the middle of a scene.  Just don’t spend those precious seconds at the top of the scene waiting for someone else to save you.

Have you seen the movie “Gravity”?  In the film, Sandra Bullock plays a spacewalking astronaut who’s cut off from her tether.  She’s just going to drift into space and die unless she takes action.  When she’s able to push herself toward something, her momentum carries her until she hits something else.  But without that push, she’s totally adrift and totally helpless.

Similarly, if you start with any kind of emotional or physical momentum in a scene, it’s enough to carry you until you bump into another bit of scene information you can push off.  Start angry and you’ll quickly learn something that allows you to get even more angry.  Start blank and it feels weird to get angry at that same stimulus.  More than likely, you’ll stay blank.  And who wants to watch that?

It is not cheating to start a scene with a decision in mind.

Read that sentence again.

Teachers warn against pre-decision and tell you to “support your partner” early in your training to prevent you from starting a scene imagining yourself as a doctor and your scene partner as the patient and you have a really hilarious way to deliver a cancer diagnosis.  But once you’ve improvised for a month or so, you realize that kind of play is totally dumb.  As long as your early scenic choice is malleable, it’s totally fine to make.

For example, you can start imagining yourself as a sad king.  And if someone calls you “Mom,” you can still be sad and regal.  That declaration doesn’t negate what you’ve established.  As long as you’re not the dummy who says, “I’m not your mom.  I’m the king!” you’ll be fine.  Sad and regal can work in any scene with any character.  And if your scene partner doesn’t name you, you can always establish that you’re the king very quickly.

Those kinds of decisions work because you’re going to play the energy of that character, even if you’re declared to be a turtle or a gang member or a lawyer.  Coming in with any kind of energy helps to fuel a scene.

The only time a pre-scene decision gets you in trouble is when you start predicting your partner’s actions or you predetermine where you want the scene to go.  But you’re not that guy, are you?

Start your scenes confidently, as if you’re pushing off an object in space.  I promise your scene partner will enjoy playing off that energy.  Otherwise, you’re just being polite… adrift… and on your way to a slow, slow death.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

What the CEO of Twitter learned from improv

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently delivered a commencement address to the University of Michigan.  He speaks about the importance of making daring choices, being in the moment, the futility of planning and how he bombed a scene with Steve Carell.  (Start watching at 2:54)

It’s important to note that Costolo had the same dream many (most?) improvisers have.  Come to Chicago, study improv, get on “Saturday Night Live,” get rich and die happy.  But sadly, Costolo didn’t get his dream.  He just had to end up as the CEO of Twitter.

If you end up on SNL, God bless.  Most of you won’t.  But you can carry the lessons of improvisation through the rest of your life.  And they will make you a success.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

The Danger of Déjà Vu

Improvise long enough and you’ll start noticing patterns.  Scenes start taking the same shape after a while.  Some scenarios pop up with jaw-dropping frequency.

The first date.

The cop pulling over a driver.

The woman having a baby.

In these kinds of scenes, you’ll see many improvisers slip into a trance.  It’s like they go on auto-pilot, making easy, lazy choices.  We do this because we start playing the scenario when we should be playing our characters.

This is especially true in scenes with archetypes of power.  The drill sergeant.  The cop.  The judge.  The boss.  Think about the last time you played one of those types of characters.  Did you immediately snap into a terse, older white man?  Probably.

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that choice, as long as it’s conscious.  But improvisers must be on constant guard against the unconscious choice.  It’s like walking into a voting booth and punching the ticket for the party you’ve always voted for, even if that means electing a total knob.

The most fun scenes you’ll play usually involve mutual discoveries between the performers and the audience.  You know, that moment when you suddenly realize something at the exact same time as everyone else in the room.  Those moments of discovery are infinitely harder when you commit to playing a stereotypical scene (or character) from the moment you step on stage.

YES, you can play a first date scene.

YES, you can be a cop pulling over a driver.

YES, you can be the woman having a baby.

BUT

Can you be in those situations as a unique character?  Can you reveal something interesting or surprising?  Can you let your character be vulnerable?  Can you have an honest reaction to your partner?  Can you let go of the procedure and embrace the present moment?

Don’t let yourself slip into routine.  As soon as you feel yourself verging on cliche, make a deliberate choice to forge a new path.  Your scene partner and your audience will take it as a breath of fresh air.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

The Demon of Decision Fatigue

Americans make an average of 70 decisions a day.  Should you hit the snooze bar?  What shirt do you pull from the bottom of your closet?  What do you eat for lunch?

As these choices pile up, we can suffer from something called “decision fatigue.”  The longer we take agonizing over early decisions, the harder it becomes to make a wise choice later on.

You’ve probably experienced this in shows.  If your show starts quickly and decisively, that bodes well for the rest of the performance.  If your team spends the first three minutes frantically grasping at straws, you’ve got a wobbly foundation.

There’s a misconception that it’s rude to be declarative in an improv show.  Some of us think that making and declaring a choice somehow robs the other performers of their freedom.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Every decision in your show is influenced by the decisions that came before. The audience simply loves watching the decision Domino chain unfold.  If someone slaps you, we’re interested to see how you react to that slap.  If there is no slap, you have nothing to react to.*

It can be daunting to start a scene.  Your scene could be about any characters in any time in any place.  So why not make a choice?  Declare one thing about your world or your relationship.  Let’s say your scene partner calls you “Mom.”  Great.  Now you can stop fumbling around and behave like a mother.  This is not to say you should be a stereotype.  You can be an evil mother or a helicopter mom or an alcoholic.  You can be whatever you want.  But the sooner you make your decision, the easier it will be for your scene partner to do the same.

Consider marriage.  City-dwellers often wait far longer than country folk to get hitched.  Why should they hurry?  In a city we’re surrounded by attractive people.  People get married earlier in rural areas because it’s easier to choose among 200 options than 200,000.

Too often, we spend a lot of time in our scenes looking for “the one.”  But there’s no magic bullet choice that will deliver the perfect scene.  The only certainty is that waiting to make choices will deliver worse scenes.

A good scene is like an arranged marriage.  You and your scene partner didn’t necessarily ask for the circumstances thrust upon you.  But you’re in this thing together.  And it’s your job to make the best of it.

Don’t waste tears on your great ideas that never came to fruition.  Your job is to be in the present with your scene partner.  Make those choices.  Move on together.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with infinite choices in your shows.  So make it easy on yourself.  Narrow the world as quickly as possible.  There are still amazing discoveries to be made in every moment.

* Please don’t slap your teammates.