Tag Archives: reacting

A Tale of 3 Supermen

Very often, we improvisers believe we need to outsmart the audience. This leads to all kinds of strange play.

In my class, one student started a scene by saying, “Welcome to New York. If you want a pizza, I’ll need one of your kidneys.”

The other improviser paused, then started to act like this was okay. I stopped the scene.

“That guy just said you had to cut open your body and hand him a kidney to get a pizza,” I said. “Why are you okay with that? Play the reality of the scene.”

It was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She looked at the guy offering the kidney-pizza swap and told him to get lost.

Later in that same class, one actor initiated a scene where he forced children to watch a kitten die. The children didn’t react. I stopped the scene.

“You’re five years old and you just watched a kitten die in front of you,” I said. “How would you react?” The scene resumed with the children displaying appropriate angst.

Early in my improv career, I was always looking for the clever way to enhance the scene. I figured I could make anything funny if I just said the most unusual thing. I’ve since come to realize I was an idiot.

The audience has come to your show to see comedy, yes, but they’ve also come to see you act. If you won’t (or can’t) act appropriately, the audience will lose their ability to empathize with you. When a doctor tells you that you have cancer, you should either act appropriately rattled or justify why your character is NOT shaken by this news. Acting nonchalant without any justification is a poor choice. The audience knows how you should react, but you’re choosing not to. That violates an unwritten contract between the performer and an audience.

Consider the 2006 film, “Superman Returns.” Despite a fine cast and a solid director, the film fails to follow through on the promise of Superman. When Superman encounters kryptonite, he must become weak, if not close to death. In the film, Superman somehow lifts an entire island made of kryptonite and throws it into space. When that happened in the theater, I felt the mood of the entire audience shift. He can’t do that. In fact, using his powers around kryptonite is about the only thing Superman can’t do. In the 2016 “Batman v. Superman,” Superman is able to fly while holding a spear made of kryptonite.* That, too, violates the rule.

Such moves were probably meant to show how badly Superman wanted to lift the island or fly with the spear, but doing so snaps us out of the story as we remember that Superman and kryptonite are made up and we’re watching a movie and nothing matters.

Contrast this to the superior 1978 “Superman.” In that film, Superman nearly drowns in a swimming pool because he’s been forced to wear a kryptonite necklace. He thrashes around in the water and can barely stay afloat. It makes Superman mortal. It’s our chance to empathize. We actually pity the Man of Steel! When the kryptonite is removed, he regains his power and the audience cheers. Cause and effect.

Your vulnerability is your greatest strength as an actor. If you can portray pain or frustration or rage in a way that feels genuine, you will gain the audience on your side. If you shrug off every obstacle placed before you, the audience will disconnect.

So when your scene partner threatens to murder you, please have a reaction proportional to the threat. When your scene partner dumps you, let’s see the fallout of that emotional bomb. When your scene partner tells you she’s pregnant, let’s see some kind of reaction appropriate to the big news. There will always be opportunities for humor that will present themselves naturally. You don’t need to force them into a places where they don’t belong.

Superman can always fly again. Just make sure that when your particular kryptonite appears, you fulfill your promise to the audience.

* This is even dumber because Wonder Woman or Batman could have easily carried the spear for Superman. In the comics, Superman and Doomsday beat each other to death with their fists, so the entire kryptonite issue could have been avoided.

Lessons From The Masters, Volume 2.5: TJ Jagodowski

I recently had my first opportunity to study with TJ Jagodowski.  Kinda like getting batting advice from Babe Ruth.

His main lesson involved the Heat & Weight of a scene.

We started with the weight.  We did a series of scenes that had two constants.  First, the two actors portrayed a couple.  Actor A had a neutral emotion and was reading a newspaper.  Actor B would enter the scene, mindful of something that had happened between them the night before.  And then, Actor B’s initiation would always be, “Good morning.  Is there any coffee?”

Think of all the ways you could say those words.  Last night’s events would naturally affect how that line is delivered.  Did you have amazing sex?  Did you fight?  Did you cry?  Did something uncomfortable happen?  The way that line is delivered is the “weight.”

Sometimes, “Good morning.  Is there any coffee?” can sound like the sweetest words.  And sometimes, they could cut you to the core.  All depends on the relationship.  Some scenes are heavy.  Some are light.

We did the exercise again.  This time, Actor A would be standing at a sink, cleaning a glass with neutral emotion.  Actor B would enter as their roommate and say, “Great party last night.”  Again, think of all the ways that line could be delivered, and what that could mean about the relationship between these two roommates.

The key, TJ said, was not to respond to the information, but to respond to the weight.  Someone whose dog died last night and someone who just won $500 in a poker tournament would say that line entirely differently.  The information doesn’t change, but the weight does.

Your words, “Great party last night,” don’t tell the “neutral” actor the exact nature your chosen backstory, but that’s relatively unimportant up top.  If you say it wrenched with agony, your scene partner will (hopefully) honor the pain over the words.  In this case, “yes and” doesn’t mean a literal, “Yes, that was a great party because we had a clown.”  It means, “I hear your pain and that makes me respond like this.”

TJ also advocated that we not use our first response line to guess why the person is sad/angry/happy/fearful/whatever.  What happens if the scene begins with a sad, “Great party last night,” followed immediately by, “Hey.  Sorry you’re sad because I threw your computer out the window”?  You’ve jumped too far ahead. Your scene partner is sad.  Yes, why matters.  But the sadness is the oozing wound of the scene.  When a bloody person is wheeled into the emergency room, the doctor doesn’t try to ascertain the motive of the patient’s attacker.  What’s important is the wound.  Attend to that first!  It has more weight than the details.

In TJ’s mind, the scene is just dueling emotions.  Person A feels this way.  That elicits this response from Person B.  That affects A.  And so on.  You could strip away the words and replace them with totally different words and the scene may feel exactly the same because the underlying emotions remain.

It’s very difficult to improvise when you put all your weight on your words.  Your words would have to be brilliant to get an audience response.  None of us is that smart.  TJ advocates moving the weight from the words to the emotions.  Doing so makes your words less important.  And if the words are less important, it frees up an enormous part of your brain – the part that helps you do a good scene.

TJ also alerted us that everything is initiation.  Not just words.  The degree of eye contact, the emotion, the physical distance, any touch, your pace – all of these things send an enormous amount of information to the audience and to your scene partner.

Now, to the heat.  The “heat” is the nature of the relationship.
TJ said the heat is not the title of the relationship.  For some people, “mother-son” is a buoyant, happy relationship. For others, it’s like chewing broken glass.  You could be coworkers who behave like lovers… or brothers who behave like bitter enemies.  Some relationships are hot.  Some are cold.

(Side note:  Hot relationships can have scenes with any weight.  Ditto for cold relationships.  Sometimes, people who violently hate each other just talk about the weather.  And sometimes, you could have a deep, emotional conversation with a bartender you just met.)

At this point, we did an exercise where we paired up.  Person A remained entirely still – just an antenna ready to receive information.  Person B would think of a situation that resulted in an emotional state.  (“You’re my dad and I caught you cheating on my mom.”  “You’re my estranged boyfriend and you just said something that made me fall in love all over again.”)  Person B contorted their face to convey that emotion.  Then Person A had to guess what was going on.

In that exercise, we never exactly guessed the relationship titles or the details behind the emotion.  But we were close.  Darn close.  If someone looks like they want to bite your head off, that’s more important than why.  You will figure out why, though… in time.

After that exercise, we did scenes.  Each actor had a moment to settle in to an emotional face, then they’d look at each other and someone would say something inspired by the other actor’s emotion.  We never guessed the transmitted scenarios exactly, but we darn sure got the emotions.

TJ explained how his mind operates at the top of a scene.  Without a word, you can quickly get a feel for the kind of scene you’re in.  Your scene partner is either close to you or far away, speaking loudly or quietly,  speaking like they know you or you’re a total stranger.  Whenever any of this gets declared (verbally, physically, emotionally), it narrows down what is available to you, and that makes the scene increasingly easy to play.

When a scene begins, TJ says infinite possibilities are out there.  Making one move, like putting your hand on your teammate’s shoulder, destroys several possibilities.  (Destroys them in a good way.)  If you put your hand on someone’s shoulder, you probably know them, right?  And you have the kind of relationship where physical interaction is okay.  Of all the people in the world, how many do you, personally, feel okay touching that way?  Probably not a lot.  Would that person touch you back?  Do you touch them gently, roughly, intimately, timidly?  That is a ton of information determined by just one touch.

TJ sucks the marrow out of every move in a scene.  It’s all important and it all indicates something.  A begets B begets C begets D begets the end of your scene.  TJ says that at the end of the scene, you’ve created an illusion that what the audience saw was the only possible interpretation.

Let’s go back to our first line.  “Good morning.  Is there any coffee?”

If someone says that to you, what can you deduce from that?  Depends on the tone, right?  Let’s say it’s conveyed happily.  You respond to the happiness, not really the request.

“Yeah.  You’re up early!”

Boom.  We know that these two people (whoever they are) know each other well enough to know what time one of them gets up.  We know that this is a break in the pattern – so maybe this person is unusually happy for some reason.  We know that they aren’t terrified by bumping into each other at this hour.  Great starting point.

What do you know now, and where can you go from here?  Person A might go to get that coffee.  How does this place feel?  Does it feel like home?  Like an office break room?  Like a hotel lobby?  Don’t reach for it.  Just feel it.

Person B – given what’s established, what’s going on in your environment?  Are you comfortable?  Is the sun shining in your eyes?  Does it feel like a 7 a.m. morning or are these a pair of third-shift workers?

Whatever choices you make – they shrink the world.  Sometimes, they shrink just a bit.  Sometimes, a whole lot.  But the world continuously shrinks until we have a scene about two running buddies on New Year’s Day.  The fatter one has a great attitude about running today because his hot girlfriend promised to move in if he lost 30 pounds in a month.  He’s going overboard, drinking coffee and immediately vomiting because he’s got to drop that weight.  The thinner one is happy his friend is motivated, but he’s concerned about the unhealthy extreme, and he blames the girlfriend for turning his friend into a psychotic bulimic.

By constantly making discoveries with what’s available to us, we relieve ourselves of the burden of being clever or propelling the plot.  How would you even create that scene another way?  Lead with the line, “Brad, I’m worried your girlfriend is making you unhealthy”?  Jeez.  If your scene partner did that, wouldn’t you feel panicked to justify that?

When you begin a scene, the end of the scene is already in the room with you.  But you have to follow the thread to discover it.  If Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland and immediately teleports back to Kansas, we’d be deprived of the true story – her journey.  The journey is where the story is.  The destination is somewhat irrelevant… but the destination is the only possible outcome of the million choices you made along the way.

Other assorted TJ notes…

  • Don’t be so involved in an activity that you block out your partner.  The only way forward is to receive emotion and information.  Open up.  Be that antenna! 
  • Dave Pasquesi says, “If the message hasn’t been received, it doesn’t exist.” 
  • Your education (about the scene) begins when the lights come up. 
  • Seek eye contact. 
  • Make moves in service to the show. 
  • Make specific emotional choices.  “Happy because you won a Stanley Cup” and “happy because you got extra French fries in your bag” are different happinesses. 
  • Ambiguity is hard to react to because you’re literally straddling two emotions.  Make choices that will be easier for your partner to read. 
  • Remain open to something that can change you.  Even if you are in a total downward emotional spiral, something can be done or said to halt (if not reverse) the process.  We must always keep our antenna up to receive information.

To see what we’ve previously learned from TJ and to see videos of him discussing improv, check out Boiling Point’s “Lessons from the Masters Volume 2.”

And to see the very best improv show on the planet, check out TJ & Dave, Wednesday nights at 11 at iO Chicago.

Previous Masters: Michael Gellman – Mick Napier – Mark Sutton

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