How to Make Improv Really Hard

I’m shadow-coaching at Under the Gun Theater as I prepare to teach my own class starting next month. (What’s that? You want to sign up? Click here, amigo.) As I watch many, many beginner scenes, I’m noticing some patterns emerging. The big difference between a beginning improviser and a veteran is that the veteran wisely side-steps roadblocks that can grind a beginner’s scene to a halt. But maybe you want to make improv really hard on yourself. If so, here are four sure-fire ways to make improvisation feel like slow death.

HANDICAP 1. Take the suggestion super literally.

The reason we get an audience suggestion is to prove to the audience that we’re creating the scene on the spot. Famously, TJ & Dave skip the suggestion, assuring the audience, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Beginners hear a suggestion of “sandpaper” and start sanding the floor. Or they hear “banana” and start eating bananas. Nobody cares about a scene about sanding the floor or eating bananas. The suggestion need not be literal. Let it be metaphorical. “Sandpaper” might make you think of a gritty, tough person or someone who’s irritating. “Banana” might make you think of someone clumsy or a health nut. The suggestion is there to help you, not to trip you up. After it inspires you, toss it away.

HANDICAP 2. Talk about what you’re doing.

Last night, our students got the suggested location of a cotton candy shop. The scene struggled. I asked them why. They said they’d never worked in a cotton candy shop before. Good news, gang: No one is going to bust you on proper cotton candy shop procedure. You’re two people inside a cotton candy shop. You could be uppity parents discussing how elaborate you want your son’s birthday party to be. You could be estranged siblings, and one is trying to get free cotton candy from the other who works there. Or, yes, you could both be employees. I spent seven years working at Best Buy and my work-related conversations took up about 20 percent of my day. The rest of the time, I talked about girls and sports and college and wanting to move to Chicago to pursue comedy. The movie “Clerks” is an excellent example of two characters spending the day working and talking about millions of other topics. You do not have to talk about your activity or your environment. Please, talk about anything else. The environment/activity is there to help you if/when you need it. Usain Bolt would run much slower if he had to tell everyone he was running the whole time.

HANDICAP 3. Talk about what you wish would happen.

Many times, the performers would talk about things they wanted to do in the future. This is improvisation. Do it now!  One performer doing a scene at a beach resort said he wished he had a frozen drink. He went on and on about how nice it would be to have one. I just told him the bar was right in front of him. He ordered a drink and the scene resumed with the stuff we cared about. No one wants to watch you plan a bank heist. They want to see you carry it out. No one wants to hear about your romantic date, they want to see it. Live in the now. You’re improvisers. You can time-jump forward or backward. If you’re describing something that happened in the past or could happen in the future, you’re robbing us of the immediacy of your imagination. Create it. Be it. Do it now.

HANDICAP 4. Avoid confronting your feelings.

So often, I saw performers make a huge, emotional offering, only to have their scene partner jerk the scene to a non-emotional detour. If someone says they love you, it’s time to deal with that. In the real world, if someone dropped that bomb and you started talking about the curtains, you are either trying to let them down gently or you are on the autism spectrum. You don’t have to be funny all the time. It’s better if you’re not. Give me an improviser who reacts honestly and I’ll be happy. Pay close, close attention to what emotions are coming your way. If someone is staring daggers at you or giving you the silent treatment or making puppy dog eyes in your direction, you have to address it. Failure to do so is a rejection of that gift. Hey, it’s even okay to say, “You’re making me uncomfortable.” That acknowledges the other person’s behavior and shares information about your mental state.

The audience wants to watch you have fun. They want to see you be silly. They want to see characters impacting other characters. To get to that place, please remove these roadblocks! Take the suggestion metaphorically, do your activities without narrating them, take action on what you want to do and pay attention to the immediacy of your feelings. If you do that, you’ll immediately start playing like a cagey veteran.

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

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