What this awful scene can teach us about improv

According to this video’s description, the woman was told to say, “I want a divorce,” as her first line. Nothing else was planned.

Holy crap, this is terrible.

It’s not hard to explain why.  The acting is stiff and unnatural.  The actors don’t bother making eye contact until more than six minutes into the scene.  The guy rambles on in monologue mode, oblivious to his partner.  You’d be hard pressed to find two lines of dialogue that even correlate to one another.  Rather than playing it real, the man thinks laughing at his wife will make the scene funny.  He’s very wrong.

But if you asked two competent improvisers to try reenacting this exact same scene, I’m sure it would be side-splittingly funny.  It’s not hard to mimic total failure.

One of the most beloved improv exercises is to play badly deliberately .  I recently coached my team to play a scene as though they were an improviser they loathe.  The results were fantastic.  Then I asked them to play a scene as an improviser they admire.  The results were not as enjoyable.  The players explained that they felt pressure when playing as their heroes, but felt free to be awful.

This falls into the entire psychology of performance.  When we fully commit to a character, we feel freedom.  Committing to mimicking a terrible actor is easy.  There are no wrong moves.  But when attempting to commit to doing a good scene or emulating your hero, you’re plagued with doubt.  Doubt erodes commitment.  The scene unravels.

When watching the scene above, you see the actors grasping to commit.  Even they don’t believe the words they’re saying.  Have you ever acted that way on stage?  Have you ever said something halfheartedly/flippantly/winking to the audience?  It may feel fun in the moment, but you’re selling out the scene.  You’re basically the guys in this video.

So no matter what you do on stage, commit the hell out of it.  If you’re gonna be sad, be sad.  If you’re gonna be angry, unleash the rage.  And if you’re gonna act poorly on purpose, have fun and play as hard as you can.  Commit to something concrete and the scene will be easy.  Try committing to a moving target like “a good scene” and you’re in trouble.  Just play the character and the scene will come to you.

And if you’re one of the two actors in this video, abandon improvisation immediately.

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

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One response to “What this awful scene can teach us about improv

  1. I loathe some pretty good improvisers . . .

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