Willing, not wanting

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“The improv actor should always be willing, but never wanting.” — Flavien Reppert, 8th June 2016, Athens (GR)

Simple, yet profound. Always accept whatever is happening around you, and never force your ideas on your partners.

Obviously, almost the opposite counts for your improvised characters. They should have a clear objective and give at least some resistance to change, in order to become real and compelling.

The contradiction between actor and character is often huge. When somebody shouts “Please, don’t go!” at you on stage, the actor behind that character probably wants you to leave. And when you hear “I’m leaving you now.”, that actor might be signalling you to try and make the character stay.

Yet, as an improv actor: be willing, but not wanting.

Neutrality

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“You’re never neutral.” — Flavien Reppert, 8th June 2016, Athens (GR)

Here’s a fun game. Ask a volunteer to stand neutrally in front of a crowd. Then ask the crowd which emotions they read in that person. If you’re particularly nasty, ask them which emotion you have told the volunteer to convey to the audience.

Nobody will ever tell you “neutrality” or “nothing”.

That is because it is simply impossible for humans to be neutral in their expression. Neutrality is an intellectual concept of the mind, not the absence of emotion.

This fits nicely into the idea that improv is not equivalent to writing on a clean sheet of paper, but to reading something that is already there, however elusive it may seem. When Michelangelo looked at a piece of marble, he saw the statue already in it. He read it.

So, read your partners on stage. Read the light, the music, the audience. Nothing is ever neutral. You can find inspiration in anything and everything.

A million ways

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“In improv, there are no shoulds, only coulds.” — Nadine Antler, 22nd May 2016, Kampenhout (BE)

We all know this feeling after a scene or a show. “Oh! I should have done this!” and “Damnit, I should have said that!” are thoughts that have plagued many an improvisers mind, sometimes for long stretches of time after a play.

Unfortunately, there is a far worse variant out there too: “Oh! You should have done this!” or “Damnit, you should have said that!”. People saying or thinking this haven’t understood much of the improv mindset, in my opinion.

Every scene can go a million ways. Sure, something else could have happened, but would that difference have made it a nicer scene, a more compelling story, a better joke? It doesn’t matter how long you think or talk about it, you will never know.

drinkoDo you know this traditional game where you drop a ball or disc along a plank with hundreds of nails through it to have it come out on the other side in a random position? Every time the disc bounces of a nail represents something that happened in the scene. Removing or adding a single nail of course can have a big impact on the trajectory of the disc, but the outcome will still be unpredictable.

Bottom line: don’t worry about what happened, and definitely don’t complain about it.

Thinking about it

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“The director cannot feedback on your thinking.” — Nadine Antler, 22nd May 2016, Kampenhout (BE)

Not only the director, but also the audience and especially your fellow improvisers cannot read your mind. What is going on in your head is not interesting; stay away from it as much as you can! Use as much of your brain capacity as possible for your character, not for yourself as an actor.

When you are on stage, and you don’t know what to do, just do anything. There are so many people around to catch you if you might fall. The only thing your partners or director cannot help you with, is thinking. So don’t do that.

Discover decisions

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“When one decides, the other has to discover.” — Daniel Orrantia, 6th April 2016, Leuven (BE)

We don’t like to be too creative on stage. Being creative implies making too many decisions as actors. Our characters should of course be making decisions all the time, otherwise we keep on stalling the story, but we as actors should be as much in the moment as possible.

However, obviously we sometimes make conscious decisions about things in the scene. We can choose a character from the onset, imply a location in a line of dialogue, have a general idea for an offer to make.

In all of these situations, it is very important you remain fully aware that your decision still has to be discovered by your partner. Leave the time and space for that to happen. Don’t jump to the next thing right away.

Keeping this in mind prevents us following our own path in a scene, which risks our scene partner to be left behind in the dark… Take care of each other!

Repetition

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“Repetition is good!” — Missie Peters, 29th January 2016, Amsterdam (NL)

Granted, this quote comes from Missie’s workshop on improvised poetry, but isn’t repetition always good on the improv stage? Sondheim often said that on stage everything  needs to be in service of clarity, without which everything else is meaningless. Repetition is a great way of increasing clarity in a scene.

Clarity is the absence of clutter. We avoid clutter by refraining from bringing too much stuff into the scene. Repetition therefore serves two purposes: it keeps us from bringing something new in, and it highlights something that was already there.

Yes. Repetition is good!

 

Shut up

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“The biggest challenge for improvising monologues is getting everyone else to shut up.” — Jason Geary, 29th January 2016, Amsterdam (NL)

This is a specific implementation of the ‘make your partner look good‘ principle. I also like the way it implies that what you say in your monologue really does not matter so much. It is not the content of an improvised monologue that makes it great or not. It’s the reaction of the other characters and the environment created for it to grow and nurture as you’re bringing it that matters most.

And that’s exactly why precisely that aspect is also the biggest challenge for bringing monologues.

Listen for repetition

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“Listen as if you would have to repeat.” — Anders Fors, 17th January 2016, Kampenhout (BE)

In real life conversations, we listen to people with our next reply in mind. While the other person is talking, we are preparing our reply and often can’t wait saying it. In worst cases, this leads to us interrupting the other person and in the majority of times it makes us miss parts of what was being said.

I believe one of the worst crimes you can commit on an improv stage, is not being able to repeat what has just been said. Be it by a narrator, your partner in the scene, by people in the scene while you’re out or an audience suggestion.

Awareness of every detail is crucial. Moreover, you reply isn’t so interesting anyway. We’re more interested in your honest reaction, than merely your reply.

When wrong…

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“When wrong, go strong!” — Tom Goldhand, 13th February 2016, Utrecht (NL)

Sometimes you want to try something on stage, like mirroring a person, joining a group game or hit a high note while singing. And then sometimes that fails. You go ‘wrong’, so to speak.

Don’t try to fix it. Don’t show the audience you think you are ‘wrong’. Don’t apologise or try to catch up.

Yet, go strong. Stay convinced. Keep on committing.

Keep. On. Going.

You have just defined something new and it happened by accident. Great! What more can an improvised on stage wish for? 🙂