There are times I want to punch myself in the face on stage. Last night was a good example of this. I committed a personal sin. I led with premise.
It’s really daunting to start an improv scene. Maybe you go out with an improv “wheelbarrow” in your hands. Maybe you initiate verbally by begging your mom for another cookie. Maybe you just move with a different energy.
But your initiation will either hit a brick wall or get launched into the stratosphere by the second line. You must be prepared for either.
And that’s why leading with premise is a terrible idea.
Here’s last night’s scenario: In our Harold opening, we talked about chain e-mails. So I thought it would be fun to come out as a Nigerian prince. I told my wife that our country was broke, and that I would do anything, anything, short of begging, to help my people.
And that would be a lovely way to start a scene in a sketch show. But that sucks in an improv context. With an initiation like that, here’s what I’m expecting from my partner: She must modify her character to be the wife of a Nigerian prince, she must acknowledge our financial situation AND she must try to convince me to beg for money via e-mail. If she manages to do all that, we look like rock stars. If she misses part of it or decides to try out her own idea, we’re boned.
That wasn’t fair of me to expect that of her. And that’s not improv. That’s me scripting a scene in my head and getting frustrated if my scene partner doesn’t follow.
My feeble defense to this is that the audience laughed when I announced myself as the broke Nigerian prince. They got where I was going. I figured my partner would, too. She didn’t quite catch on, so I reiterated my point, saying I would do anything, but I was too proud to beg. Again, a laugh. And had my partner followed the laugh and my pretty specific hint, we could have run with it.
But here’s an improv fact you can get tattooed on your chest: When you say the first line of the best improv scene of your life, you will have no idea it’s about to be the best improv scene of your life.
Conversely, if you say your first line and you think you’re about to have the best scene of your life, you are totally wrong.
Great improv comes from mutual discovery and surprise and the process of one character being affected by the other. It never comes from drawing a bunch of dots on the stage and handing the other actor a crayon and expecting them to connect them in some crazy design you have mapped in your head.
Mark Sutton once quoted an old improv adage, “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.”
I brought a cathedral. And I specifically told my team before the show, my goal was to bring a brick. Fail.
What do we mean by “bring a brick”? Just bring something. Not everything. One thing.
Have a voice or an emotion. Have an odd physicality or start with a laugh. State an opinion. All of these are wonderful bricks that can help build a beautiful cathedral if your partner helps.
Think how happy you are to look across the stage and see your partner slumping toward you like a pirate. Great! You call him a pirate! Maybe he thought he was your grandfather, but now he’s a pirate. The audience laughs, you know who he is and your scene is prepped for success.
Now, how bad does it suck to walk out and have your partner say something like, “Well, Jeeves, I’m feeling rather sick today, but I would like you to carry me out of this cave and place me upon my enchanted unicorn, but watch out for the wolves because they love nothing more than the taste of royal flesh.”
Don’t you want to walk off the stage and let his royal highness be chewed to death by wolves? I would. That improviser doesn’t need your help to build a scene. He’s already written it in his head. You’re only going to screw it up for him.
When you play chess, you move your pawn first. You have to. The important pieces are held back, but they’re there. How many chess games will you win if you make a ton of moves without checking what your opponent is doing? Zero. So make one move and check in. And make your next move according to your partner’s first move.
Just remember, it’s practically impossible to win without moving those big pieces at some point. And no one wants to see a scene entirely of tiny pawn moves. But your board must balance the other player. Otherwise, one of you is going to get steamrolled. And that’s a bad improv scene.
If you find yourself bringing too much to your scenes, really focus on just having one thing. You will add more without forcing it. Trust me. Listen to your partner. React to what they say and do. Your scenes will be so much easier that way. If they’re easy, you’re relaxed and that puts you in a great creative space.
And remember that some choices are more “portable” than others. A point of view will work for any character, no matter the age or gender or occupation. So if you walk out as “mega-conservative,” it wouldn’t matter if your partner said you were at the Democratic National Convention. You could still be a super-conservative Democrat. If you walk out as “horny,” you could be a horny forest ranger or a horny clown or a horny alien. But those kinds of character traits will make your characters pop.
Walking out as billionaire playboy Darius Aztek, creator of the Pontiac Aztek is a hilarious bit… until your partner says, “You’ll never catch me, copper!” Then, Mr. Aztek, you are screwed.
Try to distill your giant scenic impulses into their point-of-view essence. Could we say that Darius Aztek is cocky? Yep. So come in cocky. If no one asserts a scenario, you can introduce yourself as the cocky creator of the Pontiac Aztek. But if your partner calls you a cop, you’re a cocky cop. And that’s fun to watch, too. Scribble your bit about the Aztek in a notebook and put it in a sketch show. For now, you’re Cocky Cop. And those are two awesome bricks to start the foundation of a cathedral.