While coaching recently, I noticed a tendency for some improvisers to bail mid-scene. When a scene starts derailing, some players will hit the panic button. The performers think it’s the safe thing to do.
You know how the Road Runner can sprint across a canyon? Wile E Coyote can, too. But he always stops and looks down and falls. Improv scenes are riddled with giant canyons of logic. The only way to get across is to keep running. You can’t stop and turn around.
If you say something your character deems important and your scene partner ignores it, do you give up? Do you drop your priority to focus on theirs? What if that happened in real life? What if you told someone you have cancer and the other person ignored it? Would you drop it? Did the diagnosis suddenly become unimportant?
We’re not supposed to deny our scene partners, so why is it okay to deny ourselves?
Mark Sutton and others preach the importance of making a declaration within the first few seconds of a scene. It can be a physical, emotional or attitudinal choice. That’s a covenant between you, the audience and your fellow actors. As the scene progresses, your best move is to double down on that original choice. Doing that affirms that those early decisions weren’t mistakes – they were active choices.
When I saw my improvisers abandoning their choices for the “safety” of zero decisions, I told them the story of my high school friend. We’ll call him Baxter.
Baxter told me of his first sexual experience. He was with the girl he was dating, inserted his penis halfway, then pulled out. That was the end of it.
The team erupted in disbelief. “Just the tip?” they asked. Indeed. Just the tip.
How was that satisfying for Baxter or his girlfriend? If you’re going to strip naked and start the deed, why not continue to completion?
Similarly, why would you ever half-commit to a character or scene? That always feels gross, right? The most fun you have is when you lose yourself in a character – when you’re balls-deep.
Now, full commitment (balls-deep commitment) is not a guarantee your scene will work. In fact, the scene may totally suck. But you know what always sucks? Watching actors give up on the choices they made.
If you prefer a basketball metaphor, players with the ball are not allowed to jump and land while still holding it. By rule, you must pass or shoot in mid-air. Starting a scene is like jumping with the basketball. You’ve committed to a course of action. You can shoot or you can pass. But you can’t go back.
Don’t be like Baxter. Go balls-deep. Every character. Every scene. Every time.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com