When two improvisers are really humming, they’re both making choices. Watch TJ & Dave start a scene. They never start with a line like, “The ship is sinking!” or, “Michael, you’re fired,” or “We’d better get this dinner finished before my boss gets here.” Their initiations are small but revealing. Their first words show their characters are brave or cowardly, simple or smart, frustrated or content.
How you say something is far more important than what you say. Think about Joe Pesci’s famous line from “Goodfellas.”
I’m funny how, I mean funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I’m here to f***in’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?
That line becomes increasingly menacing as he plows through. In that scene, the people he’s talking to start laughing. By the end of the line, they fear for their lives. It starts in one place and ends somewhere else. He could just say, “Don’t laugh at me.” But it’s a series of questions. Questions without pauses. Great choice by the writer, great choice by the actor.
Making a choice is your best move in improv. When you choose to talk in a specific voice, share an emotion or edit, those are active choices. But we make passive, unconscious choices, too. Sometimes you “forget” to explore your environment. Or maybe you zone out, leaving the editing chores to your teammates. Or maybe you ignore your partner’s initiation to cram in your plot-based idea.
Good improvisers make active choices. It feels better to do so. Even if your scene about Proust-reading moonshiners goes to hell, you got there on your own. The more conscious you are of your choices, the happier you’ll be, even if the audience doesn’t always react the way you want.
Once you make a choice, hold on to it. When it’s declared, your teammates base their future behavior on what you’ve done. It’s like seeing a quarterback drop back to throw. When that happens, his teammates know they need to be ready to catch. Your teammates want to help you, but they will grow frustrated if you can’t make up your mind whether you want to throw or run with the ball. So just pick one.
“Holding on to your choice” is a tenet of the Annoyance Theater training. But it only works one way – if your choice is a character trait. Choose an emotion or a physicality. Those will work, even if your partner initiates by calling you “Dad” or “Pope John Paul” or “Robo-Lincoln.”
If your only choice at the top of the scene is that you’re in a submarine or that you’re a father upset about his daughter’s grades, that doesn’t give you much to work with. Spit it out in your first line and then what? Just keep repeating it over and over? Those choices have nowhere to grow. And they could be derailed if your partner speaks first.
The other night, I saw a show where a woman came out on all fours, barking like a dog. She made her choice. Her scene partner started talking to her like a dog. Within two lines, the reality of this world was established. But it felt terrible (as most scenes with humans playing dogs do) and the woman completely bailed on her initiation. She stood up and said that she was “role-playing.” Her scene partner adjusted. “Oh,” he thought, “I guess the first few lines of this scene were not what I thought they were. Now let me try to make sense out of this entirely new situation.” The scene tanked. Hard.
That woman made a choice to be a dog. Then she hated that choice. Then she made a choice to stop being a dog and to start being a human pretending to be a dog. As an audience member, I made a choice to think she was a bad improviser.
Now what if she really wanted to do a scene about role-playing? Had she initiated with a line like, “Tom, I want to try role-playing,” that would have been solid. She’d clearly state her intent and her partner would know where things were going. Improv just got easy!
Either be the dog or be the woman who wants to role-play. You can’t fit both in a scene. It upsets the audience and the other actors. In reality, there are better choices to be made.
Our friend who chose to be the dog would have been better served by choosing to be playful or seductive. Alas, she chose to be a dog. Once she said, “Arf,” then what? She had nothing. Choosing to be a dog or a doctor or a talking tree is a minor scenic detail. It’s only as important as the treasure chest in the corner or the meal on your plate or the fact that you’re at the beach.
Young improvisers frequently bail on their choices. It’s the Ripcord Effect. You jump out of a plane, panic and immediately reach for the ripcord on your parachute. Do that and the audience will smell your fear. They won’t laugh because they’re worried for you.
The great improvisers make those active choices and hang on to them past the point of fear. Sure, it’s scary to jump into a scene. That’s why you reinvest in the choice you made. Your partner calls you a dyslexic senator. Does that derail you? It shouldn’t, if you’ve chosen an emotion. You don’t have to make every line about dyslexia. That’s just a detail that will pop up later. Don’t panic. Don’t pull the ripcord. Just remember what you’ve done and look for opportunities to work it in while reacting to your scene partner.
Remember that great improv scenes aren’t made by the initiation. They’re not made by the second line. Great improv scenes constantly build on what’s been established. Great improv scenes have characters we love or hate or pity. You get there by making choices and letting those choices affect the world you’re building.
So if you’re one of those improvisers who gets pushed around by “stronger” players, it’s time to start taking care of yourself. Walk out with something you will ride through the end of the scene. As you step forward, tell yourself, “I will be a ________ character.” Fill that blank with any adjective. Don’t let go. No matter where the scene takes place, no matter what you’re doing, no matter who you’re with, hold on. Find ways to remain sassy/smart/dumb/horny/angry/happy/sad/giggly/terrified/whatever. The audience will love it and I bet you will, too.