In last night’s ButchMAX show, I began a scene with two other actors. Doing a quick calculation, I decided I would play the tertiary role. I immediately established myself as a creepy janitor.
I approached Jon Butts and stuck out my hand, palm up. Jon slapped it. I walked away. Jon resumed a conversation with Allison Yolo.
I returned and interrupted their conversation, just by nudging Jon. He slapped my hand. I walked away.
This pattern repeated several times while Jon and Allison had a conversation.
“What am I doing?” I wondered. “I keep going back to him. Is he giving me money each time? I’m nudging him, getting my hand slapped and walking away, waiting, and going back with my hand out. I do not know what I’m doing.”
That’s when Karisa Bruin jumped in to save me. She tagged out Jon and Allison and looked at me. “How many high-fives did you get today?” she asked. The audience roared. She rescued me. And I felt grateful.
Too often, we find ourselves stuck in a scene, doing a thing we can’t understand. Most of the time, we abandon it. Lately, I’ve been focusing on maintaining the “rules” established at the top of a scene. If I do an awkward thing up top, I’m going to do it again. I don’t care what it is. If I stop doing it, that move looks like a mistake. Repeating it makes it deliberate.
When Karisa jumped out, I was reminded I’m not alone. This is a collaborative art form. If you have good teammates, they will solve the puzzles you set out. At the very least, they can join you in the struggle.
It drives the audience wild to see 4-10 people doing the same thing. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s the willingness to agree that gets them off. Everyone in the audience comes in from a world of judgment. In real life, seeing a guy rub his butt on a wall would be a reason to run away. On stage, seeing a group of people rubbing their butts on a wall is a reason to join in. The judgment of “good” or “bad” falls away when a large group does it. (Also explains why some of us act very differently in crowds of like-minded sports fans.)
The idea of sideline support was also illustrated in a rehearsal I recently taught. Two women began a scene by looking at each other with a degree of hostility. Each grabbed a chair and moved it to an opposite corner of the stage. They continued mirroring each other – each moving her chair and stopping, moving her chair and stopping, saying nothing, no solution in sight. A third actor walked on and said, “Boys, you can’t fight forever. You have to share this bedroom.” The third actor immediately left. You could feel the relief spill out of the remaining actors. They suddenly knew who and where they were… and why they were behaving that way. What a great gift!
If we are really, really good, we can observe scenes we’re in while remaining in the moment. We can make a phantom projection of ourselves who sits in the audience. That mind can guide us and point to openings. But that is a high level improv Jedi skill. (Ever notice how much clearer things seem when you watch improv from the audience?) It’s far easier to use someone who’s actually on the outside of the scene, looking in.
Many times, context can only be seen from the outside. That makes it similar to pointillism. Hopefully, you play with people savvy enough to provide context when needed. It’s often cliche for improvisers to say, “I’ve got your back,” before a show. In these cases, backs were supported. And that opens the door to fearless play.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com