Lessons from the Masters, Volume 4: Mark Sutton

I’ve had dozens of teachers and coaches in my improv career.  None was better than Mark Sutton.

Mark had a way of making improvisation simple.  And he made his points stick.  When I play by his rules, I succeed.  When I forget them, I fail.  His class was the Rosetta Stone of improvisation as far as I was concerned.

Mark’s most lasting gift was this simple note: Realize what you’ve done at the top of the scene.

You walked on stage a certain way.  Your face was conveying something.  Everything you do from the moment you walked on stage is noticed.  You can either make a choice to enter a certain way or simply let your body make the choice and focus on intensifying that.  Your scene becomes immediately easier.

In many ways, the beginning of a scene is a contract with the audience.
When you see Wile E. Coyote salivating, you know he’s going to do whatever he can to eat that Road Runner.  If he began the cartoon looking satisfied, what do we anticipate?  Probably nothing.

Much of comedy has to do with reaffirming or flaunting patterns.  A train of thought is carried to its absurd (but logical) conclusion.  Or characters experience a status shift.  You can toy with the audience’s anticipation, but only if you set it up.  And you set it up in the beginning.

Seems like I’m putting a ton of weight on the first line, right?  Feeling paralyzed about making the right move or saying the right thing up top?  Don’t sweat it.

In Mark’s class, we began our scenes then literally paused after five seconds.  We stopped everything.  We noticed what we’d already done, choices we’d already made – conscious and unconscious.  And when the scene resumed, it was merely a matter of amplifying those choices.

The problem is that many of us don’t make a choice at the beginning.  Or we ignore the choices we made.  That means the scene is constantly shifting and the audience has a harder time latching on.

Mark and Joe Bill perform the very popular Bassprov form.  It’s just two guys sitting in a boat, drinking beer and having conversation.  They play the same characters every time they perform.  We immediately understand the scenario.  Two friends having conversation during an absent-minded activity.  Genius.  Any lull in the conversation and they can ask for a beer or talk about their bait.  They’re not reinventing the wheel.  They’re letting you eavesdrop.  And that’s often the most entertaining theater.

I took extensive notes during Mark’s class.  Here are some of the highlights…

When we go on stage, we have three tools.
1. What we say.
2. What we do.
3. How we feel.
A good scene employs all three.

Try limiting the words you say.  That forces you to employ other tools like physicality and emotion.

If your choice is dependent on someone else, it weakens your position.  Make the choice about you.  (I’m awesome, I’m dumb, I’m sexy.)  That’s more portable.

“Fifteen seconds is about how long it takes for the average improviser to hate their choice.”

Don’t play what you want to have happen.  Play what is happening.

One of the things that separates those who live and those who die in the woods… those who die keep plodding toward a cabin on the map even if they’re lost, cold, wet and everything’s going to hell.  Those who live deal with what’s happening in the moment.

Talking invites more talking.  Action invites action.  Silence invites silence.

We think we have to talk to each other to establish our relationship.  Not true.

Your relationship is two people in the same space at the same time.  Everything else is gravy.

From the moment you step on stage, the audience wants to feel like there’s something going on.

The more decisive we are, the quicker the audience gets on board.  Get them to care.

“I’d rather see two interesting characters stand around than two boring characters in an elaborate environment.”

Improvisers spend a lot of time moving things around and not letting the things move them.

Convey your character through space and it takes the pressure off your words.  (Example: Eat the way you feel.)

Referential humor or standing back and being pithy puts you at risk of whether the audience finds your opinion funny.

Being real, being simple makes it easier to connect.

If we invest in how we’re affecting each other, everything else takes care of itself.

You have to respond to anything anyone says, so why not make it a powerful response?

A scene has nothing to do with the first line and everything to do with how that line is received.

When a third person enters, it must affect the scene.

Establish a pattern and play it!

If someone refuses to do something, you can either try to force him to do it or show how that choice affects you.

Don’t gravitate toward the external problem.  Gravitate toward the people.  Your scene is not about the thing.  It’s about us – how we’re affected.  It’s not about the money, it’s about the other guy’s attitude toward the money.  Don’t solve the problem, just view it.  That scene has legs.

Get information out incrementally.  Allow for reactions.

Just talk.  You don’t have to make something happen.  It will evolve.

You can be vital and purposeful up top without changing the world with your initiation.

Changing your posture changes your choices.

When you start quiet physically, you tend to make quiet choices.

Open your body to open your mind.

Too often, we play the circumstance instead of the dynamic.  (Dealing with a car out of gas instead of the relationship of people inside the car.)

Get past the surface to play the essence of the scene.  We’re feeling each other out emotionally, then discovering why that emotion exists.  Discovery requires patience.  The details matter less than the emotion we assign.  Buy in; commit to the emotion; mine it.

Resist the urge to get story out too quickly.  It’s the response character’s job to make that first thing important.  Do that and you don’t have to worry about the next “thing.”

Get over your worry about vulnerability.  Believe it and the audience will believe it.

Play your character’s humanity.  Don’t let a gimmick get in the way.

Start with energy and you can adjust.  Start with specifics and you might be screwed.

If you have a chance to study with Mark, you should absolutely jump at it.  I guarantee you’ll walk away from the class with a new understanding of improv.

Lessons from the Masters: Michael GellmanTJ Jagodowski 1TJ Jagodowski 2Mick Napier

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

3 responses to “Lessons from the Masters, Volume 4: Mark Sutton

  1. Great post Ben! Thanks for sharing those notes.

  2. Pingback: 5 things I learned by taking a year off between improv shows | The Boiling Point: A Journey in Improv

  3. Pingback: Lessons from the Masters, Volume 4: Mark Sutton | lamerslame

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