You are born with an innate sense of play.
As the uncle to two boys under the age of three, I know this to be a fact. The older one finds something that makes him laugh, then repeats it past the point of logical enjoyment. But he loves it. So he keeps doing it.
The youngest, who just turned one, has so little regard for others, he just single-mindedly runs after what interests him. We once discovered we could kick a giant inflatable ball into him and he’d just laugh. It makes no sense, but he loves it.
So why, when we become adults, is it so hard to have fun? As improvisers, why do we start scenes we immediately hate? Why do we second-guess ourselves and beat ourselves up and sulk after bad shows?
Somewhere between early childhood and adulthood, we lose track of our internal compass of fun. That compass always points north, but as we get older, we stop trusting it. “North” becomes a vague notion of what’s “right.” But there is no “right.” There is only north.
When you were a kid, you did things that were fun, but you got disciplined for it. It was fun shoving your brother to the ground. It was fun smearing finger-paint on the wall. It was fun eating Play-Doh. You had the impulse to do it, so you did it without question. After the discipline, though, you start asking yourself if your “fun” impulse is the “right” impulse. And that began a long domino chain of screwing yourself up.
Second-guessing is death to improvisation. Do it all you want after a show, but in the middle of a scene, you’ve completely screwed your partner and yourself if you start over-thinking what you just did.
The best improvisers seem to switch between two gears: Initiation and Justification.
Initiation comes from your inner child. You have a desire to have an accent or walk with a limp or scream in terror or flap your arms like a bird. You do it. That scratches your mental itch to do what you want to do.
If I asked my nephews why they did something that made them laugh, they can’t explain it. They don’t understand. That needs to be you on stage at some point. Just do something for you. Have that fun. Initiate something without hesitation.
But a series of initiations is just masturbatory. Nothing wrong with it, but you can do it on your own. Because you’re playing with a friend, you also need to justify. If you can initiate and justify, that’s… mutual masturbation, I guess. And that’s better. Now I regret this metaphor.
Say you want to start a scene puking. That’s your initiation. Your scene partner can choose to initiate his own thing (flying like a fairy, digging a ditch, singing, riding a horse, reciting poetry, whatever) or he can choose to justify what you just did. If you puke, he could puke alongside you. Matching action justifies an action to a degree. (We don’t know why they’re puking, but they’re both doing it, so one actor isn’t singled out for scrutiny.) He could also say, “I told you not to eat that meat in the glove compartment.” That verbal yes-and immediately justifies your impulse. And the scene’s off and running.
Justification is something we learn as adults. We do it when we lie to our bosses or traffic cops or loved ones or bums asking for change. Sometimes we do it to save ourselves. Sometimes we do it to save others’ feelings. Sometimes we have legitimate justifications, so it doesn’t require any invention. Kids don’t know how to justify. Ask them, “Why?” and they’ll shrug their shoulders or ignore the question.
Think of initiation like jumping out of an airplane. Justification is your parachute. Go too long without justification and you’ll splatter. Never jump out of the airplane and you’re just sitting there. You need both.
Your scene will be amazing if you can switch between players justifying and initiating. But if you ever get caught judging, you’ve taken yourself out of the scene.
Since most of us are so rooted in our adult brains, I recommend following your childhood compass. Do fun things first. Run north. Then let your adult side explain why. It’s a lot harder to do it the other way around. (Ever cringe when one improviser turns to the other and says, “Let’s bake a cake!” and they start baking a cake for no reason? It’s better if someone just bakes the damn cake.)
All of this is just a long way of rephrasing a classic Del quote: “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.”
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com