Tag Archives: Superman

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.

Advertisements

Finding the Game

The UCB schools in New York and Los Angeles preach the importance of “finding the game” of the scene.  This can be daunting for beginning improvisers.  In this video, you’ll hear a well-played game.  Listen first, then read on.

Matt Besser begins the scene as the teacher of a shotgun class.  Without missing a beat, Ian Roberts makes the sound of a gun going off.  It’s about the shortest wait you’ll ever have for a Checkhov’s gun sitution.

Checkhov’s Gun: If a gun appears on stage in a play, someone must be shot by the final curtain.

But that’s fun, right?  Everyone in the audience would be waiting for that gun to be used.  The fact that they use it right away is a good scene move.

Immediately, everyone else fires off their guns.  And Besser gets mad.

At this point, you might be saying, “If the teacher is yelling at his students NOT to shoot the guns, isn’t shooting them a violation of the ‘yes and’ rule?”

This is where “yes and” gets messy.

“Yes” is not always a literal yes.  “Yes” is simply agreement to the facts of the scene.

In fact, if someone in a scene tells you NOT to do something, you MUST do it.

The audience is not looking for us to follow marching orders.  They want us to misbehave.  The stage is a place to explore the consequences of misbehavior.  You’ll often find that doing what another performer asks you not to is actually a great gift to the other performer.  If he was angry before, he’ll be fully enraged after you ignore his warnings.

Think of it this way: The most interesting part of any Superman movie is when he encounters kryptonite.  If another character reveals a weakness, the entire audience wants to see what happens when that weakness is exploited.

The “game” in the scene above is simply Besser freaking out every time a shotgun blast goes off.  It’s the thing that can be repeated (with variations) ad nauseum.

There’s a more subtle game going on here, too.  It’s the students behaving as if they’re smarter than the teacher.  And the teacher gets annoyed when they do.

Game scenes can be shallow if done incorrectly.  If the scene was only gunshots and Besser’s reaction, we’d grow tired of it more quickly.  But Besser confiscates the guns.  For a time, the audience forgets how fun that was.  And when it comes back, it’s even better.

That’s your challenge with a game.  If Action X results in Reaction Y, you must do it enough times to establish a pattern.  Then, walk away from the pattern and play the scene as you might normally.  And when you trigger Action X again, the audience will love it.

Subscribe to “Improv 4 Humans” on iTunes.

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