Should you go through Second City’s Conservatory, chances are, you’ll learn from Michael Gellman. The man has been there forever. And he has some lessons worth considering in your improv journey.
During my two classes with him, the following notes stand out…
“If you don’t know what to do, fall, and think of something on the way down.” – Del Close
There have been times I used this quote literally. I remember scenes where I would actually fall to the ground in an effort to pull out of a mental nosedive. That did not work so well. But I think that’s because Del (and Gellman) meant it more metaphorically. If you play safe, as I tend to do, your scenes will tend to remain earthbound.
The performers we love let their mouths run ahead of their brains. They’ll say something without thinking and then let their brains catch up to justify it. This is an incredibly fun and scary way to play. It will lead you to places you never anticipated. The best improvisers trust themselves enough to know that they can justify anything. Try shutting off your brain for a moment in your next scene. It’s like letting go of the wheel of a car. Once you say that line that comes from your subconscious, put your hands back on the wheel and keep driving in your new direction. It will take you to wild new discoveries that will amuse the audience and you.
A scene should be about a life-altering experience for a character. (“This is the day!”)
This is a big one at Second City. They’re looking for the day things change for your character. It’s when he finally stands up to that bully or gets fired from his job. It’s the day he declares his love or gets murdered. These scenes inherently have interest to them because it’s a break from the ordinary. It’s a chance to see a character in a new light.
Is it fun to watch a character doing something routine, like sitting around and eating with his family? Think about that.
Gellman would argue that something must happen in the scene. That character’s life must be altered. But there are improv heavyweights who would argue that this doesn’t matter. TJ Jagodowski says he often aims to show a day where everything is the same as it always is.
They both are. It depends on how you attack the scene. If your scene is more about plot, the events of the scene are usually the most important. Think about movies with regular guys in extreme situations: “North by Northwest,” “Speed” or “Titanic.” Do you remember much about those heroes? Can you even remember their names? In those films, the hero is a stand-in for everyman. The challenges he faces are the reasons we love the movie. And you can have a great scene where a regular Joe is facing an incredible or life-altering situation.
But… plot-based scenes are nearly impossible to pull off in improv. Your partner can’t possibly know where you are planning for the scene to go. And nine times out of ten, these scenes will totally fail. Considering that Second City likes to use improv as a writing tool, this “Today is The Day!” philosophy is a good one to follow. We want to see characters face unusual circumstances in a sketch show. You’ll have time to construct the scenario and then work with your character’s reaction to it. You just don’t have that luxury in a completely improvised situation.
TJ’s philosophy echoes character-driven movies like “Juno,” “The Silence of the Lambs” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In those films, we’re drawn in more by how the characters speak and act than by the what they do. If you could put me at a dinner table with Juno, Hannibal Lecter and RP McMurphy, that would be far more entertaining than a meal with Roger Thornhill, Jack Traven and Jack Dawson. (Who? The characters from “North by Northwest,” “Speed” and “Titanic,” of course.)
Ideally, you have a scene where an interesting character does interesting things. (Think Indiana Jones, James Bond or Norman Bates.) Failing that, you could have a good scene where an interesting character inhabits his world (as TJ proposes) or an interesting event happens (as Gellman suggests). Or you could have a boring scene with boring characters… and that happens far too often.
Again, keep in mind that Gellman is coming from Second City. Second City workshops their scenes over and over to work out the kinks before mounting them in front of an audience. You usually don’t have that luxury. So if it’s a straight improv scene, I think you’re better off trying to inhabit an interesting character. Focus there. If something interesting or life-altering happens in your scene, then we’ll get to see that character process it in his unique way. If nothing happens in your scene, at least the character is worth watching.
Finally, I want to share one of the best character-building exercises I’ve ever experienced. Gellman told us to think of a character. Then he fired off the following questions and told us to write down the answers on a sheet of paper.
1. What is your character’s name?
3. Annual Income?
4. What’s their primary mode of transportation?
5. Marital status?
6. Any kids?
7. Any pets?
8. Favorite music?
9. Where do they want to be in 5 years?
10. Current occupation?
11. Best friend?
12. Worst enemy?
13. Most heroic moment?
14. Thing they regret the most?
15. Most embarrassing moment?
16. Favorite color?
17. What animal would best represent them?
18. What’s their education level?
20. Pet peeve?
21. Favorite parent?
22. Favorite article of clothing?
23. What prop might they carry/wear/use?
24. Last time they had sex?
25. If they had one wish…
27. Last vacation?
28. Thing they’re most proud of?
29. Favorite food?
30. What movie star would play them?
31. Worst day of their life?
32. Best day of their life?
33. Favorite TV show?
34. What periodicals do they read?
35. What secret have they never shared?
36. Who do they look up to?
37. What was their favorite toy as a child?
38. What sports team do they root for, if any?
39. What are their plans for tonight?
As he asked those questions, we were instructed to write the answers quickly as we thought of our characters. Then, he had us flip over our sheet of paper and write non-stop for about three minutes. As he timed us, he instructed us to write as the character and to try not to let the pen leave the paper. At the end of the three minutes, he had us stand up and read what the character had written. That exercise yielded some of the most complex and interesting characters I’ve ever seen.
When you step on stage, you might not know what will happen, but you can have a good idea of a character. And if you have a specific enough character, you’d be able to answer those 39 questions without hesitation. And if you can answer those questions as a character, you’d be able to respond as that character in any situation. That would make you a pretty powerful improviser.