Susan Messing offers some of the most wonderful advice you will ever hear. “The longer you wait, the more the jump rope becomes a big steel cable.”
This applies not only to improv, but to your life as a whole. Are you waiting for great inspiration before editing a scene? Are you waiting until you have the perfect idea before starting your screenplay? Are you going to have just one more beer before you talk to that pretty girl? Seconds turn into minutes, which blur into years of procrastination.
The first step is the hardest. But the bravest people I know are also the most successful. Sure, you might be “safe” sitting on your couch at home. You won’t have to be in a sucky scene if you never step off the back line. You won’t get negative feedback if you keep all your precious ideas in your head. But nothing good comes of that, either.
I am convinced that fear is the single worst enemy of improvisation. It ties up your brain and makes you slow to react. It turns you into a zombie, instead of the wonderful, creative person you really are.
This article from Psychology Today talks extensively about Susan’s point. “If you’re feeling like your behaviors are self-determined and/or you feel “vital” – vigorous, lively, animated – you procrastinate less.”
That’s so true, isn’t it? Think about those scenes you jumped into without thinking. The one where you followed that initial inspiration without hesitation. Fun, right?
Now, try to think of a moment where you really took your time, mulled your options and came up with the “perfect” opening line. How’d that scene turn out?
It’s counterintuitive. You would think the more time you spend thinking, the better your scenes will be. The exact opposite is true. The best improvisation is a journey of discovery. Seriously, watch people who are really good at it. Their scenes don’t start with a layout of who, what, when and where. Their scenes start with a character or a point of view. They surprise themselves and the audience with what they say, then they reincorporate those discoveries going forward.
It would seem excellent improvisers have a constant dialogue in their heads. “What did I just do? What does that say about my character? How can I explore that?” It all starts with action. As Mick Napier advises, “Do something.” Without that first action, you have nothing to kick off your discoveries. Think of an improv scene like an archeological dig – totally boring until you stick a shovel in the ground.
John Belushi used to say, “You attack a scene like a bull.” Bulls don’t spend a lot of time contemplating their actions. (“Gee, should I charge that jerk with the cape or maybe try to make peace? Or should I try running away?”) No, man. The bull charges.
It’s your job to perform, not to hold up the back wall and keep it from crumbling. Get out there. Jump that rope. No one ever found success through lack of participation.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com