Improvise long enough and you’ll start noticing patterns. Scenes start taking the same shape after a while. Some scenarios pop up with jaw-dropping frequency.
The first date.
The cop pulling over a driver.
The woman having a baby.
In these kinds of scenes, you’ll see many improvisers slip into a trance. It’s like they go on auto-pilot, making easy, lazy choices. We do this because we start playing the scenario when we should be playing our characters.
This is especially true in scenes with archetypes of power. The drill sergeant. The cop. The judge. The boss. Think about the last time you played one of those types of characters. Did you immediately snap into a terse, older white man? Probably.
I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that choice, as long as it’s conscious. But improvisers must be on constant guard against the unconscious choice. It’s like walking into a voting booth and punching the ticket for the party you’ve always voted for, even if that means electing a total knob.
The most fun scenes you’ll play usually involve mutual discoveries between the performers and the audience. You know, that moment when you suddenly realize something at the exact same time as everyone else in the room. Those moments of discovery are infinitely harder when you commit to playing a stereotypical scene (or character) from the moment you step on stage.
YES, you can play a first date scene.
YES, you can be a cop pulling over a driver.
YES, you can be the woman having a baby.
Can you be in those situations as a unique character? Can you reveal something interesting or surprising? Can you let your character be vulnerable? Can you have an honest reaction to your partner? Can you let go of the procedure and embrace the present moment?
Don’t let yourself slip into routine. As soon as you feel yourself verging on cliche, make a deliberate choice to forge a new path. Your scene partner and your audience will take it as a breath of fresh air.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com