I just got an unsolicited assessment from a former coach of mine.
My challenge to you is to play more from your heart. I want to stress that I do see you play emotion, but I want to see you feel emotion. You need to be more vulnerable on stage. You have a complete idea of what is going on within a scene, and yet there are times where I feel that you are outside of the scene looking in rather then existing inside of it.
This challenge brings to mind two excellent improvisers: Bill Arnett and Julia Weiss. Bill is what I would call a “Mars Improviser.” He leads with his head. He thinks about the scene. It’s how Mr. Spock would improvise. Julia is a “Venus Improviser.” She leads with her heart. And she’s vulnerable as hell. Both sides are important, but most of us fall somewhere between.
Mars: King of Nuts & Bolts
Bill is the author of perhaps the best improv blog on earth. He dissects the art. Bill can analyze virtually any scene and tell you why it did or didn’t work. When you see him play with 3033, he does much of the heavy lifting, connecting plot threads and filling holes that may have been left open by his fellow players.
I once saw Bill playing in a post-apocalyptic scene. He confronted two travelers and asked them if they had any water or food, or if any of them could weave fabric. That struck me as incredibly funny because of how practical it was. If Bill were in a post-apocalyptic world, he’d need someone to weave fabric. A logical choice from a logical man.
I also saw Bill once spend 20 minutes putting together an actual model airplane while trying to get through 50 old vaudeville jokes he’d printed from the internet. Conceptual comedy at its finest. For Bill, there’s a clear line between idea and execution.
Venus: Queen of Feelings
Julia is the opposite of Bill. I play with her on ButchMAX and I’m constantly amazed at how she throws herself into a scene. She’s always looking to connect emotionally and physically. Whenever I initiate a scene with her, I expect she’ll turn the scene away from whatever convoluted exposition I gave toward some sort of relationship.
I once began a scene with Julia in a panic, begging her to help me find my lost son.* Her character saw this as fate – a sign that she was destined to fall in love with my character. It’s a choice I never would have made on my own, but it added a wonderfully weird spin to my straightforward objective.
* In that show, we had a second scene where my character ended up marrying Julia’s character. And there was a third scene where we saw my character’s son who’d run away to join a butterfly kingdom. But my character never did find his son – the thing I declared so important in my initiation. I let the audience down by either not finding my son or showing how I dealt with his permanent loss. The audience craves closure, y’all.
In a recent show, Julia started a scene as a sheep. Jon Butts played a farmer. For the first 60 seconds or so, the scene went nowhere. Jon spoke to the sheep, the sheep made sheep noises in response. And then, something incredible happened. Julia stepped forward to begin a sheep monologue. She kept saying “baa,” but with emotional intensity directed at the audience. And then… she began singing. All she sang was “baa,” but her emotions required music. The audience lost its mind. I’ve never seen anything like that.
Mars & Venus: Tag-Team Supremacy
If Bill and Julia were in a scene together, I suspect they would create steam. Can a logic player and an emotion player get along? Can they find common ground? Or will they fight to the death?
A Mars Improviser provides the skeleton of a scene. In general, improv works better when we know where we are, who we are to each other and what we’re doing. Mars Improvisers also excel at connecting scenes and themes throughout a longform piece.
A Venus Improviser makes the skeleton move. Emotion (and specifics) make an ordinary scene extraordinary.
Without Mars, you’ve got two emotional people being affected with no context. The scene spins out of control. Without Venus, the scene lies flat. Consider the dreaded “transaction scene” (buying a car, haggling at a garage sale, etc.) – boring to watch unless there’s an emotional spin.
Now, let’s look at how these two sides can come together to enhance the beginning of a scene…
Mars: “The line for Justin Bieber tickets is four miles long.”
Venus: “That gives us more time to spend together.”
Venus: “I’m so mad at you!”
Mars: “That doesn’t give you an excuse to punch a hole in our boat!”
It’s tough to pull off exposition (who/what/where) with emotion. You can do it with vocal inflection or body language, but those are a lot of plates to spin. And sometimes you’re just entering the scene with an emotion – you know you want to be happy, but your mind is blank for an initiation. In these cases, your partner has a chance to launch the scene higher by providing what your first line lacked.
A great improviser can manage the structure of a scene/show while adding emotion and memorable characters. If you find yourself in a scene where Mars or Venus is lacking, be sure to summon the appropriate one before your show completely unravels.