Imagine sitting down at a chessboard. Your opponent hasn’t moved. Neither have you. You imagine all kinds of scenarios where you can win. You hope he’ll leave his queen exposed so you can take her out with a knight. You expect where you’ll sacrifice your pawns to lure a more important piece into a trap. You think about all the ways you hope to take advantages of your opponent’s mistakes. Then, your opponent actually makes a move. Everything you’d been thinking of flies out the window. You’ve got to erase your master plan and deal with the move your opponent made. Every move you make could be drawing YOU into a trap. Damn.
Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” That’s been me for the majority of my improv career. I usually wait to edit until I have a great idea for a scene. Then everything derails the moment my teammate says something other than what I want them to say. I’m a better writer than an improviser. I should probably stick to writing sketches inspired by improv scenes I’ve witnessed.
I’ve been improvising with varying degrees of frequency for 15 years and it’s finally dawning on me that any struggles I’ve had are my own fault. When I was younger, it was easier to blame other performers for “bad” initiations or refusing to follow the script that only I could see in my brain. I spent so much mental energy constructing a sand castle before I walked on stage that I was unprepared for even the smallest wave to wipe it off the beach.
Longform improvisation requires you to be okay with chaos. When you step onto the stage, it’s just like stepping onto a battlefield (or sitting in front of a chessboard). It’s foolish to imagine a “victory” scenario until you see where the opening presents itself. The beginning of a scene is just a chance to survey the situation. Who are you? Where are you? Who is this other character to you? This information is important to establish so that you, your scene partner and the audience can get on the same page. The beginning of the scene is almost always vague. Do what you can to narrow down the world without backing up a dump truck of exposition. It’s okay that you don’t know everything right away. Remind yourself of that. Be okay with it. It will be there for you to discover when the time is right.
Just as in chess or battle, you can’t play the game empty-handed. You need game pieces or weapons (even if it’s just your fists). When you enter the stage, give yourself a gift. You don’t have to initiate verbally, but give yourself a mood or a physicality. Every person on earth carries those things with them, regardless of relationship or title. You can be a sad, hunched mom or a sad, hunched president or a sad, hunched firefighter or a sad, hunched vampire or a sad, hunched quarterback or a sad, hunched aerobics instructor. No matter what your scene partner says, sad-and-hunched can work. Even, “Bob, you seem happy today!” can work. Bob (sadly): “I just won the lottery. I’m bursting with happiness.”
As soon as you hit the stage, listen intently to everything your partner says. Watch everything they do. Those are clues to your relationship. Those are the things you should be exploring and reacting to. In my fifteen years of improv study, I’ve never seen anyone better at this than TJ Jagodowski. I spent years watching him and trying (unsuccessfully) to replicate his style. That’s because I was focusing on what he was saying. What he says is often brilliantly funny and absurdly smart. I just thought I had to stand around saying brilliant, absurdly smart stuff. But that’s not what makes TJ great. It’s that what he says is comic gold in relation to what was just said. Any chess move can be dumb or great – it all depends on how the board looks based on what you and your opponent have done. TJ pays such close attention to his scene partners that his words and actions fit the openings provided. He doesn’t reach or push to create an opportunity. He takes what’s in front of him.
Check out one of my favorite scenes from The Seven Samurai.
A samurai named Kyuzo has been challenged to a duel by a loudmouthed bully. Kyuzo accepts and stands calmly as the bully attacks wildly. Kyuzo wins by simply waiting for the right time to strike. He doesn’t have to move a lot or make a big show to win. He just needs an opening.
The Seven Samurai is also famous for a performance by Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, the hot-tempered wild warrior John Belushi would copy for his Samurai character on SNL. Belushi once said, “You attack a scene like a bull.” Yes, you can be the bull. But you can also be a matador, like Kyuzo.
The genius of improvisation is revealed in reactions to situations, in finding the missing variable that completes an equation. If I step on stage and say, “2+2=4.” That’s not terribly entertaining. If I step on stage and say, “Two,” and my scene partner says, “plus monkey,” I’d better not say, “Equals four.” My plan for a 2+2 scene is out the window. Two plus monkey does not equal four. I can be pissed that my partner changed the equation, but why was I adding up an equation that didn’t even exist yet? I’m looking to solve an equation where I only know half the numbers, so I should spend my time gathering information before pronouncing the result.
Likewise, I shouldn’t enter a scene and say, “Two plus seven divided by 18 plus the square root of 153.” Build the equation with your scene partner patiently. One turn at a time. No need to overcomplicate the scene or exhaust yourself in battle with unnecessary movement.
All of this is to say that the thousands of dollars I spent on various improv schools taught me a lot about forms and object work and the idea of support, but they all did a terrible job of focusing on the only thing that will truly help you succeed: Listening. Listen to the tone of voice your partner uses. Listen to their body language. Listen to where they stand and how they look at you. And finally, listen to what they’re saying. Only when you have listened can you respond correctly. Otherwise, you’re just a sword-flailing idiot and a true improv samurai like Kyozu (or TJ) will cut you down with one stroke to a roar from the audience.
Got a question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com