Lately, I started watching the films of Buster Keaton. They’re truly amazing.
In every film, he finds himself in trouble. In every film, he gets himself out of trouble. What’s incredible is that the prop/landscape/obstacle that gets him in trouble is often the same thing that gets him out of trouble.
As improvisers, we can create anything. Often, we create too much. Invent an elaborate room with too much furniture and you won’t be able to keep track of it all. Start telling a back-story about several characters that aren’t in your scene and everything becomes confusing.
I hereby institute The Buster Keaton Rule: If you invent it, you must use it. Bonus points if you use it to exhaustion.
In Keaton’s movie “The Navigator,” his freight ship runs aground within sight of a cannibal island. The cannibals see the ship and try to board.
If this were an improv scene, how would it play out? Probably a lot of arguing while waiting for the cannibals to arrive.
In the film, Keaton and his co-star use things aboard the ship to fend off the cannibals. And the cannibals similarly use the ship to their advantage. (They climb up the rope attached to the anchor. They climb up the ladder that was previously thrown over the side. They climb up the gangway that fell alongside the ship when it was first set adrift.)
Watch 54:07-55:07 in the video below before we continue.
When the cannibals’ plan is thwarted, they actually bring a tree from the island and prop it against the ship to climb aboard. That’s an “invention,” but it’s not a helicopter or a time machine. The cannibals have access to trees, so they’ll use one as a makeshift ladder.
So now Keaton has to deal with cannibals climbing the tree alongside his ship. But look! The tree has coconuts! He uses them to pelt the cannibals. When the cannibals are dispatched, a monkey inside the tree hits Keaton with a coconut. Why not? Finally, Keaton tips the tree back toward the cannibals’ boat and crushes it in half. Four excellent uses of a tree within 60 seconds. Could you come up with more?
So often, we think we need to keep piling ideas and inventions on top of a scene. In reality, the best scenes are often the simplest.
Seth Weitberg teaches The Plinko Rule. A scene is like a disc in “The Price is Right” game, Plinko. The details of a scene are the prongs the disc bounces against. If you don’t put any prongs (details) on the board, the disc (scene) just falls straight down. Boring. If you put too many prongs on the board, the disc can’t advance toward the bottom. You need some details, sure. Just don’t add too many.
And, like Buster Keaton, be sure to explore what’s already in your scene. If you’re in a taxi, what does it smell like? Is there something on the seat? Are the windows fogged up? Is the air conditioning broken? Are there scratches on the glass? Is the taxi new or old? Your primary responsibility in that scene is to your fellow actor. But if you run out of steam, look around this thing you created. There’s an answer inside.
Extra credit: Watch some Buster Keaton movies from the 1920s. Most are available on Netflix Instant.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com