For a long time, I believed improvisers had to hit the stage with a totally blank mind. This led to scenes where I stared desperately at my fellow actor, hoping he’d have an idea, any idea to get us started. The alternative was making a panicky choice I usually hated.
The best improvisers I’ve seen make a choice at the top of the scene. One choice. Maybe they’ve been thinking of it for ten minutes, maybe it occurs to them as they’re editing the previous scene, but they bring something to the stage.
I once watched TJ Jagodowski bring down the house because he came on stage carving an apple with the knife toward his thumb, eating one slice at a time. Such a specific character choice! What kind of person carries a knife, carves up an apple and eats the pieces off the blade? I could have watched that for hours.
If I had to guess, TJ probably thought of that at least a few seconds before he hit the stage. (Maybe milliseconds, because that dude is amazing.) In my previous profile of him, I wrote about his “Seven Hooks for a Scene.” Nearly all of them require forethought.
In my last audition, I frequently jumped out to be a scene partner when someone else had initiated. I didn’t feel great about those scenes. So when I was waiting for my turn, I just thought about a kind of person – a cocky pilot. I even had a line to initiate. When I walked out, I said, “So this is a cockpit.” I got my biggest laugh of the audition. I knew who I was and where we were, so all that was left to explore was my relationship with my scene partner.
The key to bringing something on stage is to pick something completely flexible. An emotion, attitude or point of view is best. If you come out sad, whatever your scene partner does can make you sadder. Or cheer you up. That’s your choice. But that attitude can appear for any reason in any situation with any character. (Want to blow someone’s mind? Have a huge emotional reaction to a benign line. Figure out why that seemingly inconsequential thing is very consequential to your character.)
In rehearsal last night, I brought out an exercise I learned from Rich Sohn at The Annoyance Theatre. In one hat, you have slips of paper, each with an adjective written on it. In the other hat, each slip of paper has a character archetype. Performers choose an adjective and an archetype at random and that’s their character.
So last night, we got to see a scene between a gassy sports fan and a perky meteorologist. We saw a smelly poet, a lazy alien and a famous lumberjack. Sound like fun? It was. Each actor had their character before they stepped on stage. And we gave them a suggestion of a location for each scene.
If you do that exercise, it will probably make improv feel very easy. You hit the stage with a physicality, an attitude and a little backstory (your occupation/archetype). With that decided, you can literally be anywhere at any time with a sloppy skateboarder, a forgetful radio DJ or a flamboyant terrorist. You do not have to mention your occupation! In fact, it’s better if you don’t.
When dentists stand in line for their kids to see Santa, they’re probably not talking about teeth all the freaking time. But the dentist might have a very specific reaction to Santa handing out a candy cane. Likewise, mechanics aren’t always in proximity to cars, salesmen can have conversations that don’t involve selling and prostitutes can babysit kids without blowing them.
Tim O’Malley once said that stereotypes get you nowhere, but “stereotype plus” can be enough for a character. That’s what I’m talking about here. Would you rather see a scene with an auctioneer or a goth auctioneer? A bodybuilder or a religious bodybuilder? A game show host or a horny game show host? Simply adding one word conjures a completely different image. And it’s vastly more interesting.
I’ve used the “random adjective, random noun” exercise when directing sketch groups and it has a surprisingly high success rate. People play great characters that seem to have fallen from the sky into their laps.
Why, then, would you come on stage empty? Walk out with something. An attitude or belief is best. If not that, just pick an adjective. If you want to get fancy, add physicality, a voice or an occupation. Just remember you do not have to mention any of these choices explicitly. But they should affect your performance.
You cannot control an improvised scene. You cannot control your scene partner. You can definitely control yourself. Hit the stage with a declarative choice about yourself and you’ll probably find it’s much easier to respond to any location/situation/scene partner.
Yes, even if the first words spoken to you are, “My God! You’re a hideous vampire!” you can still be a feeble hideous vampire ballerina… if you want.
You are allowed to bring ideas to the stage. You should be encouraged to do so. No one in the audience is going to bust you for it. It’s not like crowds boo a jazz quartet for bringing predetermined instruments on stage. It’s what you do with them that counts.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com