Recently, I saw a night of improv that was an exercise in contrast. One team was awful – just wretched. Another was lots of fun – they were inspiring. There are lessons to be learned from both.
The awful team, which shall remain nameless, started their show with monologues. Nothing wrong with that, but there were at least five or six monologues. Your audience only has patience for three or so. Find a theme, make sure the team is on the same page, then move on to scenes. Don’t linger because you feel like telling stories. Act the stories out!
Also in the opening, the first actor started telling a story about being self-conscious. Great choice. Everyone can relate. But the second monologist told a story about a car crash. That hardly builds on the first monologue. The third story was also about a car crash. Then there was a story about getting high and driving. Then someone told a story about getting in a wreck and pretending to die. Then we had a story about how rich kids in Minnesota do a lot of drugs.
Any of these alone might have been a good story, but the most interesting one was the first. It revealed something about the actor’s personal life that was vulnerable. That’s not the kind of story you usually bust out at a party, and definitely not on a stage in front of strangers. It was a brave move. So why didn’t his team follow?
The show that followed that too-long, too-shallow monologue-fest was just painful. Almost every scene was initiated with plot. Sometimes, I think you can get away with that, but most of the time, it fails. (It’s a crime I’ve been very guilty of.)
How would you feel if your partner started a scene with a line like, “Because I caught you drinking Coke, you’re going to have to drink this 24-pack of Coke, like my mother did with me and you’re going to have to sing all the lyrics to this song while I play the guitar.” I’d want to crawl off stage and die.
Another particularly brutal line from that show was, “I’m your therapist and we’ve been together for four years and you’re still on drugs!” Painfully heavy-handed.
I understand initiations are tough, but they shouldn’t be. I think the first person to speak has an easier time than the second. That first line can be anything. Anything. It’s the second line guy that has to provide some context. If you have a great scene idea, you can suggest at it in the initiation, but you must allow for your partner to go in a different direction.
This show also featured an almost universal lack of listening. People shouted and talked over each other. At one point, a walk-on became so disruptive, one actor literally shouted for the other to “shut up.” It was eight people improvising alone. The things said didn’t matter. No one was listening, they were all just waiting for their turn to speak. It was an emotionless trainwreck. It made me angry.
Good thing the night wasn’t over. Owl Farm stepped to the plate. This team is really, really good. They’re anchored by the four men of Michael Pizza – an even better show. Mick Napier once said we spend a lot of time analyzing what goes wrong in an improv scene, but not a lot of time on what goes right. So here’s my attempt to pin that down.
Their suggestion was “pink shirt.” One of the cast members did, indeed, have a pink shirt. So the actors talked about what they were wearing in real life. They poked fun at each other’s appearance. But it was done lovingly – like your siblings would rip on you. Right off the bat, the Owl Farm players were showing vulnerability and teamwork. They discussed four of the six team members’ wardrobe. Now pay attention, kids – they only discussed four of the six team members. (Stash that away in your memory.)
As the scenes began, they chose strong characters. Really strong characters. They had opinions and points of view. You could put them anywhere, in any situation and you can predict how they’d respond. The characters were so strong, I don’t even remember the initiations to the scenes. The initiations were irrelevant.
Think of a cool character like James Bond. Do you have an idea how James Bond would be at a dinner party, or fighting a lion or hitting on a girl? Of course, you do. If you were pretending to be James Bond and someone initiated a scene by saying the copy machine is broken. You’d know how to react. Be cool, be suave, saunter over to the copy machine, immediately fix it and say something witty. How would Fonzie fix the copy machine? How would Darth Vader fix the copy machine? How would Nurse Ratched react to a broken copy machine? The copy machine is completely irrelevant. The reaction to it is what’s important. Because the Owl Farm characters were so rich, they were adaptable to any plot-based twists.
Owl Farm’s show was also simple and efficient. In one scene, a character talked about how he had no defining characteristics, so he might as well not exist. Then, a teammate came in from the sidelines to talk to the other character. He walked through the “undefined” character as though he didn’t exist. Suddenly, we learn the “undefined” character is a ghost. That’s why people don’t pay attention to him. Great move. How did he become a ghost? He said he jumped off a bridge. (Seed planted.)
During a group game, one of the members jumped up and yelled “P!” then made a p-shape with his body. Another jumped up and yelled “S!” and made an s-shape. Other players jumped out with other random letters. It was pretty clear they weren’t spelling an actual word. The fun came as the later players to come out had to assess the letters and try to make sense of them. (See my last entry. The jumbled letters were a Demolition Crew move. Trying to spell something legit out of them was a Damage Control move.)
In the end, they spelled the word “podsis.” What the hell is podsis? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that podsis means something. As soon as they spelled the word, one team member jumped to the back wall and sat down. “My God!” he said, “I can walk!” He stood up. A woman said she felt her baby kick. The spelling team captain went over to deliver the baby. An astronaut said he was seeing shooting stars all over. The spelling team captain told him to land his shuttle on the field. Spelling the word “podsis” apparently causes miracles to happen. How great is that?
Later, one player went out with the ghost actor from earlier. The player initiated a scene clearly in the past. “Julie’s really broken up about JFK.” Ghost actor knew that they were setting up the scene of how he became a ghost. He looked at his coworker and said, “I’m gonna take a long lunch.” Of course, he was going to that bridge to jump off.
This is one of the things I love best about improv – planting seeds early and reaping the harvest later. If they had done this scene immediately after the scene where we met the ghost, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. By paying off the earlier hint, it rewards the audience for listening. And it rewards the players for listening. They know what to do because they talked about it earlier. Now they don’t have to create an entirely new reality, they just have to act out the reality they agreed on.
So soon-to-be ghost guy goes to the bridge. What does he find? The spelling team is there, shouting random letters at him to try to stop him from jumping. The callbacks collide! How would this scene have played without knowing that the guy has to jump from the bridge? How would it play if this was the first time we saw the spelling team? The only reason that scene worked – and trust me, it worked – is because of what had come before it.
Another super-gratifying move was the end. As the entire team came out, they started talking about what they’d learned. And then, they mentioned that two of their teammates hadn’t been discussed in the opening. So the team left only those two teammates on stage to finish the show. Again, fantastic move! The opening was about four of the six of them. The ending is about the other two.
I loved that show so much because of its economy. Many of the best improvisers (3033, Cook County Social Club) work this way. The first third of the show is establishing a world. Who are the characters? What are the rules? What kinds of people, places and things exist here? The second third of the show is just living in that world. More discovery comes, but the heavy lifting is already done. The final third of the show is just tying those pieces together.
The show I hated was a jigsaw puzzle with 1,000 pieces – pieces that didn’t fit – pieces that didn’t even touch. In the end, the picture didn’t look like anything. It was mostly holes.
The Owl Farm show was a jigsaw puzzle with just a few pieces – maybe three or four. That’s easy to put together. You can make the design on the pieces as ornate as you like, so long as the shape is simple. For example, you can have a simple scene about father-son tension or you can have an elaborate scene about father-son tension. The point is, the scene’s “shape” is father-son tension. God bless the team that addresses that tension later, either by ratcheting it up or finding a way to end it.
So please, for your team’s sake and for your audience’s sake, be like Owl Farm. Listen. Help each other. Play together. Make strong character choices. Call things back. Trust that the audience doesn’t need things to make sense to them as long as they make sense to you.
“Podsis” made sense, y’all. It made us laugh. Your mission to to find your own version of podsis and make it make sense. When you do, the audience will love you.
Congratulations, Owl Farm. You win the Boiling Point Seal of Approval!