“If you want to know the meaning of your words, look at your partner. Their reaction defines the meaning.” — Marko Mayerl, 17th July 2016, Hamburg (DE)
Beautiful, isn’t it? And so true. If your character says something along the lines of “Stephan, I’m divorcing from your sister”, you might think it holds a lot of meaning. But this is totally out of your hands, as it’s the character Stephan’s reaction to your words that instill (or detract) any meaning to them.
On the other hand, if your character has a line “Do you want some coffee?” and your scene partner turns silent and looks at your angrily, all of a sudden this inconspicuous sentence appears to imply a lot of shared history and thus meaning.
Another great example of how in improv the responsibility of a scene or story can never lie with one person. It is always working together at heart.
“Concentrate on doing and being, not on meaning and conveying.” — Marko Mayerl, 16th July 2016, Hamburg (DE)
Internalise whatever it is you’re doing. Once you’re feeling an emotion or reaction strongly enough on the inside, it will automatically show on the outside. And it will be more truthful this way too; free bonus!
In fact, this is acting 101: don’t pretend you’re crying. Cry! Don’t ‘act’ you’re angry. Be really angry!
Many improvisers are afraid of this and on top of that most lack any formal training as actors or stage artists in general.
Just go for it and believe in yourself. We all know it’s not for real, no need to constantly remind us of that.
“Do your best, but never try.” — Kevin Gillese, 11th June 2016, Athens (GR)
Just like Yoda says: “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” I like this quote very much in the context of improv. Always play at the top of your skills, push your boundaries, even dare to leave your comfort zone when committing to whatever it is you’re doing, but never ‘try’. Trying implies fear of failure, it implies some timidity.
The worst is probably when improvisers show the audience they are just ‘trying’ something. This perhaps is most often seen when actors engage into a song or some physical activity.
“Your two best friends are Listen and Repeat.” — Aden and Erik Nepom, 10th June 2016, Athens (GR)
As posted before on this blog, you should be listening as if you have to repeat. Nothing more to add here. I just like the way Listen and Repeat are being anthropomorphised into ‘friends’. 🙂
“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.
“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.
“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.
Do 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.
“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.
“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 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!