If you are a newer improviser and you’ve had more than one teacher, you have already gone home confused. Why is it that this teacher said that “Yes and…” is the only rule and this other teacher said that “No” is okay? Who is right?
Improv comedy is an art with a universal goal: laughter. Even that statement gets people riled up. “It’s not about jokes!” I agree with that. It’s not about jokes, but it is about laughter. You can’t categorize your theater or club as a place for comedy and get upset when your students want to learn how to be funny.
If the goal is laughter, then why are there so many methods to get there? Shouldn’t there just be one way? How can two players with opposing views develop a successful scene?
The reason that anyone can improvise with anyone, regardless of background, style or point of view is because it’s all nuance. Once we agree that improv is about impromptu scene work for laughs, the rest is all minutia.
Instructing improv feels a little bit like parenting. As a Dad, I have these kids and I’m teaching them how to be good people… but from my point of view. I didn’t grow up with a bunch of money, my parents are still married and even though I grew up going to church, my kids won’t have to. My life experiences helped define my method of parenting, but it’s obviously not the only way to parent. My definition of a good person is pretty much the same as anyone else on this planet:
- Doesn’t kill
- Doesn’t purposefully hurt others
- Is kind to others
- Is respectful of others
That kind of stuff. If you ask me how to become a good person, my answer may begin to differ from others:
- Ask others how you can help
- compliment people
- look for something likable in everyone you meet
Maybe other people might say
- go to church
- volunteer at a homeless shelter
- keep to yourself
Even though the answers above don’t contradict each other, they seem to be different. Different enough for you to believe that they might contradict each other. Asking others how you can help doesn’t contradict “keep to yourself”. You can be respectful of someone’s privacy, but still offer yourself to them so they know you are available.
In improv, it’s the same. The nuances seem to be massive differences, but from a 30,000 foot view, improv is just people on stage making it up as they go and developing funny scenes.
I would caution if you hear “the way I teach is the best way” or “that place is bad” or “that style is bad improv”. The art of improv is constantly changing. Audiences are getting more sophisticated, so the actors are too. Some markets prefer different types of humor, different formats and different actors. The most important thing to understand as a new improviser is that you will always be a student of improv no matter how successful you become. Your style of improv or the way you look at the craft needs to serve you and you alone. If you are proud of the work you are doing, then keep doing it. If you are struggling, listen to what others are doing.
At Sick Puppies Comedy, we believe that you can never go wrong if you have a strong emotional connection to your scene partner. If you are willing to invest an enormous amount of energy into the person on stage with you, you will rarely fail. Check in with your partner, listen to what they are saying, react to what they are doing and care more than you should. Of course, that’s just us.
For what it’s worth, here are my improvisation preferences. I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree.
My favorite way to improvise is with one other person on the stage only. No gimmick, no game, no sweeping, no editing. No input (if you want my complete and total honesty). There’s something about two people carrying on for what could potentially be forever and discovering their relationship without an out. I love a good Harold or Nightmare or some shorter games too, but if you asked me to improvise one way, it would be a two person mono scene.
My approach to a scene starts slow. Really slow. I’m rarely the first person to speak and totally comfortable in silence. I prefer it actually. The tension created by two people in the same room without dialogue sits on my soul in a fun way. Maybe it’s a power trip. The audience is absolutely craving for you to say something. Anything. And typically my scene partner is feeling the anxiety too. When I started improvising a long time ago, I thought that the scene was better the more I talked. Coincidentally, I used to feel that way as a salesman. The two have helped each other work that out of me. Let the customer tell you how to sell them and let your scene partner tell you who you are.
I don’t have any preferences from my scene partners. Their habits and quirks and “go-tos” don’t matter to me. I’m just trying to find a character I can connect with and completely ignore their patterns… as much as I can. I trust there is a part of my brain that already knows all that shit and will serve it up to me when needed. I typically start from a defensive position if we’re going to use sports terminology. I’ll let someone else attack or initiate because I find that if my partner is able to provide the first few details of their world, I’m quite strong at building inside that world. Sometimes when I initiate a scene I can be too strong and overwhelming which immediately puts my partner on their heels. This is no way for a scene to start. I like my partner to feel confident and comfortable. I need to calm down when I’m leading the scene.
If you want to know my secret to a long scene (20+ minutes), I just have no interest in doing anything. At all. I don’t want to solve problems, I don’t want to go anywhere. All I want to do is be and exist. Similar to that of sitting in a room with your spouse or best friend with the TV on. I trust that something will happen, because something is always happening. As David Razowsky has taught me, “just by sitting and breathing, you’re doing a lot”. If this makes you less comfortable, think of it from the audience point of view. Or think of it from a “people watching” point of view. How many times have you been at the airport and watched people from a distance… for minutes at a time? What were they doing? Packing? Talking on the phone? Reading a book? It’s more interesting than you think.
I like to take breaks in scenes too. A 25 minute scene isn’t 25 straight minutes of talking. It’s certainly not 25 minutes about the same thing either. It’s going to start about one thing and if it’s successful will finish somewhere totally different. If you allow yourself time to breath and take a break, you can discover what your scene is all about. It’s hard to do if you don’t stop talking. At least it is for me.
I’d love to hear how you improvise. Send us a note at email@example.com, comment below or put a comment in facebook… let us know if we can publish it.