I am making up a pot of red beans and rice, which I am want to do on occaision. One of the main parts of Red Beans and Rice is the ‘holy trinity’ of foods; Onion, celery and green pepper.
It makes me think ‘what is the holy trinity of improv?’ In my mind it is a few things:
1. Confidence. Do something. Whatever it is. Just do it. Stop thinking about why you should or shouldn’t. Just do it. That moment where you considered it – that was your downfall – you should have done it. Stop considering and start moving. Your body doesn’t lie – if it felt like you needed to enter / exit / do something, then you probably did. Listen to your body. It knows more than you do.
2. Care. Care about the characters you are with. The fact that you are onstage with them means that you must care something about them, right? Otherwise, why would you be in this scene with them? (And, if you don’t like them – then leave. It’s not hard, just walk away. Really.) So care about them. Know them. Even if you don’t – it just means you know them in some other way.
3. Reality. People say really crazy things in life – so amazingly crazy that it seems unreal. But put those people in in an improv scene and they get timid, or blah. Or they got HOG SHIT CRAZY. It seems like it is one or the other. But they don’t reflect the reality of life. The joy in the lady talking to her toy bear on the bus. The guy who is buying ten cans of cat food and a frozen pizza in line in front of you at the store . The couple having the most undramatic breakup over coffee at the coffee shop. It’s all really amazing. If you just open your eyes and see it, it becomes the new reality for your life on stage. See it and reflect it.
I am sure there are fifteen other ingredients that I can come up with as well (like bay leaves, very very important the bay leaf is…), but for now, you get these three.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how hard improvisers will sometimes work to make their scenes “meaningful” while completely missing the potential meaning in everything that’s happening around them. When players shoe-horn drama into scenes in a specific effort to try and be profound it generally reeks of the effort and loses the point of improv entirely.
The same is true of forcing a joke. If you’ve been improvising for awhile, I’m sure you’ve experienced that empty feeling when you threw a gag into a scene at an ill-timed moment and had it go over like a lead balloon. However, I think we tend to talk openly about a comedic move not working when we’re chatting post-show whereas we applaud the effort when a dramatic move bombs because we want to reward improvisers working to expand beyond the funny even when that effort stinks to high heaven.
This sort of thing does happen in short form but comes up more frequently in long form. A common trap when improvisers move from short form to long form is that they start to over-think that hell out of everything because they are determined to be profound. As a result, rather than being open to the story and their fellow improvisers they get distracted by goals they’ve set for themselves to try “dramatic” or “meaningful” things and end up doing banal & sometimes flat-out masturbatory scenes.
I greatly prefer not forcing anything in scene work. There is amazing potential in every scene for the story to go a thousand different ways but you have to be open to it. If you’re forcing a scene in a certain direction, whether it be comedy or drama , it’s going to come across as just that – forced. You have to earn it.
How do you earn it? Moments where emotions are running high & the subject matter is intense have to come out of the scene organically & you have to respond to them honestly (in character). Above all – you have to be willing to be VULNERABLE (in character). Why do I put VULNERABLE in all caps? Because I think that emotional vulnerability (in character) is really really important to good scene work and I don’t see it nearly enough on the improv stage. Allow your characters to have something to lose and then, allow them to lose it now & then. Too often improvisers interpret arguing as drama which is just about the most boring thing to watch ever for longer than a couple of minutes. Two people fighting onstage without either of them being affected or being willing to lose is not interesting or compelling, it’s annoying. At some point one of them has to change and allow their character to be surprised, hurt or perhaps concede a point and find a connection.
Why do I keep writing (in character)? Because I’m talking about acting – not catharsis. All of your life experiences give you a wealth of information from which to draw onstage but you have to keep it relevant to the story & the character you’re playing in a particular scene. I know this is pretty basic stuff for most folks but I think it bears repeating once in awhile.
Why is all of this important to me? Because I’ve been in some really wonderful, connected and meaningful scenes over the years. When you stop forcing and just let the scene play out using what’s right in front of you, it’s so satisfying for the players and the audience. I want all improvisers to experience that feeling. Those moments can happen in short form scenes as well as long form plays and when they do happen it’s like a jolt of electricity that courses not only through the players but also out into the house. You can feel it when you have an audience on the edge of their seats. It’s one of my favorite things about what we do. But I submit that the harder you try to force it – the less likely you are to ever experience it.
Be open. Listen. Play. Respond. Use what’s already in the scene. Those “meaningful” moments will find you when you least expect them.