There’s an old improv phrase everyone says from time to time. “I’m in my head.” It means you’re not open to the possibilities of a scene. You’re in a scene, but you’re not reacting. You’re just thinking. Thinking. Thinking. It derails your ability to improvise.
It happened to me in last night’s Harold. In the first beat, there was a scene focusing on the rowdy South Side of Chicago. For the second beat, I decided to call that back by focusing on a polar opposite North Side. Simple, right?
My first line began, “Here at the North Side Academy…”
Everything else is a blur.
Here’s what was going on in my head. “This is good. I’m a pompous professor. Oh, look. There are three of us in this scene. A three person scene, huh? Those are tricky. I’m still being pompous. Do my scene partners understand this scene? I don’t. Ugh. What a terrible initiation I had. I basically led with plot. Why do I do that? How can I further illustrate the differences between the North and South sides? Why do I feel alone in this scene? No one’s laughing. Oh, God. No one’s laughing. This is miserable. I know what will save it!”
I accused one of my scene partners of secretly being a South Sider.
Back inside my head. “Yes! Now we have it! We’re pompous professors and he’s an infiltrator from the South Side. This is great. Oh, wait. No one’s laughing. This feels gross. Will someone edit? Um. More about the North Side!”
I employed an old trick of mine I like to use to pull myself out of my head. It goes like this. Your character says, “I believe in three things.” Then your character has to list the three things he believes in rapid succession. By the time you hit the third thing, it’s usually incongruous and pulled totally from your subconscious and it is awesome. (See also: The Rule of Threes.)
So I said, “Here at the North Side Academy, we believe in three things: law, order and…”
“Oh, no! You’ve got to come up with a third thing! Make it funny! Save the scene! They’re all counting on you!”
My glorious third thing? “Shopping malls.”
It landed with a thud.
“Law, order and shopping malls? That’s the best you could come up with? You suck. Get off the stage. Abandon improv forever. You’ve ruined it. Jerk.”
The scene was soon edited and I realized all I remembered of it was my initiation and the “three things” trick, which didn’t work for the first time since I devised it. I felt terrible. It’s still bothering me, more than 14 hours after the show.
In a future blog, I’ll discuss ways to get out of your head. But for now, I am tragically imprisoned in my own brain. All I hear are the echoes of a scene gone wrong. I blame myself. And I need to let it go. This happens to all of us.