This weekend, the Playground team KC Redheart improvised with guest teams for 30 straight hours. 30! It was part charity fundraiser, part descent into madness. I pulled lights for six of their shows. During those shifts, I noticed some patterns emerging.
It seems you can categorize improvisers on three different levels.
Level 1: The Beginner
The beginning improviser makes initiations about what’s immediately in front of him. “This baseball game is fun.” “Do you want pancakes?” “I can’t open this jar of salsa.” “This ice cream is dripping.” It’s an easy place to start. Maybe you’re miming an activity, so you name it. Problem is, these types of initiations tell us nothing about your character. It’s like trying to connect with someone just by hearing what they ordered at a restaurant.
The beginner leads with factual statements in search of common ground. They believe this will propel the scene because their fellow actor will be on the same page. That’s true to a degree, but it’s really one of the least important facets of a scene. So you’re on a boat/in a plane/at a vineyard. Awesome. Now what? Are you just going to keep naming what you’re doing? And isn’t there a slicker way of communicating that information? There is. Let’s graduate…
Level 2: The Pro
The pro leads with character. Rather than worrying about the facts of a scene, they tackle something more complex – the attitude of the scene. This was really evident in the set KC Redheart played with 1,2,3 Fag. The characters quickly and efficiently established how they felt about the world. In a sex ed class scene, John Hartman’s character said, “Can I go? My dad says I don’t need to be here because I’ll learn all this at home.” He also said it with a snotty voice. Great! In one line, we know that this character is a brat and that his weird dad is cool with teaching him sex ed. If John were a beginner, his line might have been, “I don’t like this,” or, “What’s an ovary?” Sure, that plays in the context of the scene, but it doesn’t tell us much about him and it doesn’t really propel the scene forward. It’s just treading water, waiting for someone else to make a move.
Pros know you’re going to run out of steam pretty quickly if all your scenes involve moving from one activity to another. If you’re painting a fence in real life, do you talk about painting the fence? Sure, every five minutes you might say something like, “Can you pass me another brush?” But those lines are just punctuation. While you’re painting the fence in real life, you might talk about how you hate your dad for making you do it, or how you can’t wait for summer to be over so your friends will come back from their awesome vacations, or how you like painting the fence because it takes your mind off your breakup. That’s the kind of stuff pros do. What’s more, they’ll move the brush as an extension of their mood. Are they being careful with the paint or just slopping it on there?
The next time you see an improv show, watch how frequently the activity the actors engage in is referenced. I’ll bet you the stronger the show, the less you hear about the activity. Here’s a hint: BassProv doesn’t waste a ton of time talking about throwing a fishing line in the water, even though the entire show takes place on a boat with two men fishing.
Level 3: The Master
This is harder to quantify, but I’ll give it a shot. The master swims through a scene like it was water. His “big moves” don’t look like big moves. There’s more suggestion than explicit statement. There was a moment during this weekend’s improv marathon where KC Redheart member Dave Maher, despite exhaustion, nailed this level.
In a scene, two characters were talking about how they had to make layoffs because their company was wasting too much money. Dave popped out as a third character and sat in a chair. His first words were, “Hey guys, no mail so far.” How would you react to that? His fellow players were smart enough to know he had something, so they gave him some slack. “When it gets here, I’ll let you know,” Dave said. Do you see what he’s doing yet?
Dave’s fellow actors questioned him. “When it gets here, can you bring it to our desks?” “Oh no,” Dave said, “My job is just to tell you when it gets here.”
How great is that? Dave just made himself the most expendable employee in the history of business! He did it patiently, trusting his fellow players to catch on to his hints. Now, he could have come out and said, “I’m Jeff, the Mail Guy and I’ll let you know when the mail gets here but that’s all I do because I’m just the mail guy.” But Dave exercised restraint.
Restraint is a characteristic of the best improvisers. They’ll come out with a specific emotion or idea, but they won’t dump it in your lap. It’s like a secret they share line by line. That certainly keeps the audience and the other actors invested. Why is this guy acting like this? What’s his deal? Why did his mood suddenly change when that topic came up?
Here’s why only masters show restraint: It requires them to think ahead. Not only do they have to live in the moment, they know they’re planting a seed they have to pay off down the road. For someone like me, that’s terrifying. I feel like when I do something like that, I immediately need to know how that’s going to play out. The master trusts himself that when the time is right, he’ll find the answer and he’ll share it.
In the marathon’s 3033 show, Danny Mora’s character was on a date. Later, when Andy St. Clair asked him what moves he was using on the girl, Danny did a quick sidestep and hugged Andy. “That’s your move?” Andy asked. “They never see it coming,” Danny said.
Cut to 30 minutes later. Danny and Andy were having another conversation. At the right moment, Danny did his quick sidestep again and hugged Andy. The crowd laughed. Andy recognized the move and said, “Yeah, I never saw that coming.” Another laugh.
The 3033 guys are so smart about leaving a trail of bread crumbs in the first half of a show, then going back to pick them up toward the end. Because my brain tends to flip into panic mode when I improvise, I’m firing bread crumbs out of a Gatling gun. I don’t know where they land, so I can’t pick them up. If I could slow my mind down enough, I’d have a better shot at making callbacks.
Another thing about callbacks – they work best when there’s a long time between them. You want to wait long enough so the audience has forgotten about them, so when you pull it out, it’s like a magic trick. I tend to call back things right away, which limits the power.
Again, the masters demonstrate restraint and trust in themselves. Importantly, they trust their fellow players. They let go of the need to label things right away and to spell everything out for the audience.
All of this will be made clear to you if you watch roughly 9 hours of improv within 24 hours. I can only imagine how much smarter KC Redheart is after performing 30 hours in a row. All I know is, I have a lot of work to do to climb that ladder.