This month, I only had two improv shows. Because they were so rare, I focused on them more than I usually might. In my most recent show, I had two scenes of varying success. (It should be noted, our suggestion was “poop salad.”)
In the first scene… I started out warming my hands over a barrel fire. That’s really all I had. I decided I was homeless. At one point, my scene partner looked at me and said, “Didn’t you go to hobo school?” I replied, “I went to a public hobo school. Couldn’t afford private.” And the scene found its legs. Smart hobo, dumb hobo. Easy game.
In my second scene, I had the idea to call back “poop salad” by playing a rich person eating rich food… which would eventually turn to rich poop. Care to guess how this scene went?
Yep. Not fun.
Had I started with a line like, “I just had the most velvety, luxurious shit,” I would have been better off. Nothing in the future hinges on that line. You’d hope your scene partner would reference that, but it’s not necessary. Instead, I began the scene at the front end of a process I planned to happen. That took me out of the moment.
When I walked out of that scene, I found myself comparing my efforts. Why was the first successful where the second failed? Clearly, I was planning in the second scene. That’s no good.
So I went back to the top of my successful scene. I just entered with the thought, “I’m homeless, warming my hands by a fire.”
The difference in how I entered was amplified by the rest of the scene. When I entered unburdened, I was agile. When I walked into a scene carrying a giant idea, it was harder to move and react.
I thought back to a very successful exercise in Mark Sutton‘s class at The Annoyance Theater. He had us write a handful of adjectives and a handful of professions. We separated our papers and put them in piles. At the beginning of each scene, we’d grab an adjective from one pile and a profession from the other. That was our character. So we’d get gifts like “slippery salesman” or “angry lifeguard” or “nervous doctor.” It was so easy to play those scenes.
Notice I didn’t unfurl a slip of paper that said, “Draw a parallel between rich and poor, and no matter how expensive our food is, it all ends up as shit.” If I did, what the hell would I do with that? If someone gave me that idea, I’d be pissed. And in essence, that’s what I did to my scene partner. I handed her this elaborate idea. What’s worse, I was trying to give it to her telepathically.
If, in retrospect, your scene makes a really interesting point, that’s great. But it also needs to be enjoyable in the moment. And discovering an interesting point is more rewarding than presenting one.
That show was a good reminder to me that I’m better off coming in with something simple (like “under-educated hobo”) than something complex. That’s my new mission: To simplify my work. It will get complicated on its own, without my help.
Are you bringing too much into your scenes? Finding yourself frustrated when your plan falls through? Try making things simpler. Not dumber. Just simpler. Smaller. It’s easier to carry an acorn than an oak tree.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com