The Tao of Improv: Useful in its Emptiness

(NOTE: Originally posted at Seattle Comedy Nerd)

Thirty spokes converge at the hub,
but emptiness completes the wheel

Clay is shaped to make a pot
and what’s useful is its emptiness.

Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in its emptiness.

What is
is beneficial, while what is not
also proves useful.

Tao Te Ching, 11 Breath

For the purposes of this post, the emptiness referred to in the above passage is referring to audience interpretation. I think that the power and intelligence of the audience can be a contentious subject from one school of thought to another. This of course is not limited to improv, but really can be extended to any art (or entertainment) form.

The question is: how much do you leave up to the audience and how much do you spell out for them?

Traditionally, beginning improvisers are very much taught to spell it out. Literally. C-R-O-W: Character, Relationship, Objective, Where. We even have exercises wherein we attempt to fit all four into a three-line scene. Now, in reality, this is for the student improviser much more than for the audience; walk before you run and all that. Actually saying out loud that your scene partner is your grandmother helps put her into a state of mind to support that offer directly.

After you get the hang of falling into the role that is needed for the scene, then we start venturing into the realm of “show, don’t tell” which actually forces the improviser to *gasp* act. Soon, you fall into the habit of “show emotion, tell reality,” where you do not say “Hello Grandmother, I am angry at you,” but rather just say “Hello Grandmother” in an angry tone. More and more communication becomes nonverbal. Soon you realize that these physical relationships (mother/daughter, roommates, etc) are fine, but what is truly important is the emotional relationship (hating your mother, lusting after your roommate, etc).

A quick aside to talk about my personal preferences. I love not being told everything, regardless of medium. Books, films, video games, I’d rather be thrown into a world and be forced to fill in the blanks of what I don’t know. A Clockwork Orange is one of my favorite examples. In the book, you are thrown into a story full of meaningless jargon, and you are forced to make sense of it as the story goes. There is no handy glossary to flip to when you first encounter the protagonist’s droogs, nor is there any explanation as to the prevalence of milk bars. You come to have your own definitions and backstories for each of these things, and I love that. Of course, it has to be executed well. Undoubtedly, Anthony Burgess had a concrete definition for each bit of jargon and each unexplained item, he just chose not to include those things in the novel itself. My personal preferences will be coloring pretty much the rest of the post, so I thought it would be good to get them out there.

So we have seen the communication techniques of the beginning improviser move from concrete towards abstraction, and now I’d like to talk about the audience suggestion. Specifically, how I like to see the same movement towards abstraction when dealing with the suggestion. Double-specifically in short form improv.

I am most definitely of the opinion that suggestions need not be taken literally and in fact that most scenes are improved when they are not. Now, what do I mean by “taken literally?” For the most part, I mean when you get the suggestion “hamster” and you begin your scene either as a hamster or holding a cage with a hamster in it. Instead, I love to see improvisers take the suggestion as a metaphor (perhaps playing a character who is desperately running away from something, but getting nowhere), or maybe take a single (hopefully logical) step away from the suggestion and see where that leads them.

There are definitely conflicting viewpoints on this, and I have argued the points with some of my dearest friends and most respected colleagues. Their argument usually being along the lines of “the audience said hamster and they want to see that hamster, as it provides them with co-ownership of the scene, which is really a selling point of improv in general.” I get that, and I totally agree with them. Again, we are talking my personal preference, and I think it leads into the discussion of “who is the show for? Is it for the audience or the improvisers?” My wonderfully hedging answer to that being “both.”

I think that audiences appreciate being challenged to find the connections that the improvisers have made, and that a deeper appreciation for the scene can be had using the suggestion-as-metaphor angle. If you do this, expect there to be at least one audience member per show ready to yell out “where was the hamster?” I don’t really have a good answer for this, but I tend to go with the “never apologize” route. You made the choices you made, and those choices were correct, so there is no need to apologize for them.

Letting the audience interpret your choices can lead to scenes that I think are far more rewarding, both for the improviser (getting the freedom to play as you want, rather than feeling tied down to the audience) and for the audience member (filling in the blanks with your own ideas, and the feeling that you get when you get to the same place as an improviser at the same time). You carve fine doors and windows using your words at the top of a scene, but the room inside allows you space to fill with emotion. The emptiness you leave between the suggestion you receive and the inspiration that moves you to act completes the wheel.

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