Polite Improviser Syndrome

Some improv training centers beat it into you – “Support your partner!”

So you do.

And you spend so much time supporting your partner that you eventually become a blank slate.  You’ll hit the stage focused only on your partner, hoping they’ll do something you can “support.”  And if they don’t, you just stare blankly at each other.  No one makes a move.

It’s called Polite Improviser Syndrome, and I’ve suffered from this disease.

We think we’re being helpful this way.  Coming out totally empty means we’re ready to do whatever our partner wants to do.  And that’s good, right?

Wrong.  In fact, it’s one of the worst moves you can make.  Coming out totally blank puts all the pressure on your scene partner to come up with everything for both of you.

Don’t do that.

The sooner you make assumptions and declarations about yourself and your partner, the sooner the scene gets started.  Have an emotion, have a point of view, start in the middle of a scene.  Just don’t spend those precious seconds at the top of the scene waiting for someone else to save you.

Have you seen the movie “Gravity”?  In the film, Sandra Bullock plays a spacewalking astronaut who’s cut off from her tether.  She’s just going to drift into space and die unless she takes action.  When she’s able to push herself toward something, her momentum carries her until she hits something else.  But without that push, she’s totally adrift and totally helpless.

Similarly, if you start with any kind of emotional or physical momentum in a scene, it’s enough to carry you until you bump into another bit of scene information you can push off.  Start angry and you’ll quickly learn something that allows you to get even more angry.  Start blank and it feels weird to get angry at that same stimulus.  More than likely, you’ll stay blank.  And who wants to watch that?

It is not cheating to start a scene with a decision in mind.

Read that sentence again.

Teachers warn against pre-decision and tell you to “support your partner” early in your training to prevent you from starting a scene imagining yourself as a doctor and your scene partner as the patient and you have a really hilarious way to deliver a cancer diagnosis.  But once you’ve improvised for a month or so, you realize that kind of play is totally dumb.  As long as your early scenic choice is malleable, it’s totally fine to make.

For example, you can start imagining yourself as a sad king.  And if someone calls you “Mom,” you can still be sad and regal.  That declaration doesn’t negate what you’ve established.  As long as you’re not the dummy who says, “I’m not your mom.  I’m the king!” you’ll be fine.  Sad and regal can work in any scene with any character.  And if your scene partner doesn’t name you, you can always establish that you’re the king very quickly.

Those kinds of decisions work because you’re going to play the energy of that character, even if you’re declared to be a turtle or a gang member or a lawyer.  Coming in with any kind of energy helps to fuel a scene.

The only time a pre-scene decision gets you in trouble is when you start predicting your partner’s actions or you predetermine where you want the scene to go.  But you’re not that guy, are you?

Start your scenes confidently, as if you’re pushing off an object in space.  I promise your scene partner will enjoy playing off that energy.  Otherwise, you’re just being polite… adrift… and on your way to a slow, slow death.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

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