The Scene

Understanding. Change.

“The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.” 
― Alan Watts

Lately I've noticed that a whole lot of improv scenes start with a performer doing what I've decided to call Leading With Change. This is where in the first few lines they say something like "I hate [activity I'm currently doing]" or "I don't want to be a [occupation] anymore" or "I'm [dumping/firing/leaving] you".

I get why. Choosing to not like something feels like establishing a strong point of view. Scenes about relationships of any kind coming to an end are bound to be ripe with emotional energy. Unfortunately, I've also noticed that a whole lot of improv scenes that start this way end up being rather flimsy. They run out of steam and leave performers scrambling or they never really manage to latch onto anything particularly engaging.

What is it about Leading With Change that tends to create scenic instability? How can we handle Change in scenes in a more effective way? 

 

Change, conceptually, is rather simple. Something was one way and now it is (or in the future will be) another. Some sort of norm is being broken. Some sort of expectation is going unfulfilled. Some sort of consistency has stopped. Change is not a problem in itself. Every compelling scene will and should have one or several of its elements change as it continues (emotion, status, dynamic, etc). The problem is when Change comes too early it loses its ability to be impactful.

When Change is one of the first things that happen in a scene it becomes problematic because it becomes the central focus of the scene itself. Performers often have their characters resist because they're looking for anything to hang onto. It becomes a battle about whether the reasons for Change are sufficiently justified or whether or not the outcomes of Change will be beneficial to any of the characters onstage. The thing is, Change itself is not particularly compelling. What's compelling is how it immediately affects those involved. 

In order for Change to be sufficiently effective, we need to create Understanding.

If we're going to be breaking norms, leaving expectations unfulfilled, or ending consistency, we first need to establish what those norms, expectations, and consistency are. It's a perfectly acceptable choice for a character in a scene to not like something, but before they leave it behind we should see them experiencing it to understand why they feel the way they feel. For example, a character who doesn't want to be a teacher anymore should continue to be a teacher for a little bit so that we can see what they don't like about it. If we see the negative effects of their status quo and watch them being miserable, we are much more likely to empathize with their decision to change their situation. When they finally do get fed up and decide to change, we get why.

Ideally, we get to actively see the unwanted situation rather than talking about it. So if the teacher hates being a teacher because the kids are mean and the equipment is faulty, it's much more interesting to see the teacher get peppered with spitballs while the chalkboard collapses than it is to have the teacher tell us about it after the fact. Make it present. Show, don't tell.

Context is essential for both performers and the audience to understand the motivations of the characters. For performers: Why am I behaving like this? How and why is what I want better than what I don't want? What can I do next to get me closer to my goals? For the audience: Why should I care about what I'm watching? Should I root for or against this person? There's a reason the First Act in Three-Act Structure is almost entirely setup and exposition. It places us in space and time. It helps us relate. It sets a solid foundation for the rest of the story. The same applies to improv, just in a simpler and more accelerated way. 

If we're going to change something, we need to know what we're changing from and why we're changing it. 

We can operate much more efficiently when we create Understanding by building contexts that are resonant. Playing with ideas that people recognize helps us all get on the same page faster. Notice that most scenes take place in a universe that looks a lot like ours. A usual world make unusual ideas stand out. It takes lot more work (and a lot more time) to create a new universe with new rules than it is to start with an existing one that people already know. 

Even if we want our scene to exist in a strange universe, it helps when that strange universe is one that most people already recognizes. In these instances, tropes from tv and film are useful because they allow us to skip all the rule-establishing steps that would be required for entirely unique worlds and characters. For example if we want to do a scene involving a wizard, it's more efficient to steal the rules of a highly resonant already-established universe like Harry Potter than it is to create brand new wizard rules. That’s not to say that every scene with a wizard needs to reference Harry Potter specifically, just that it’s helpful use the rules of that universe as our foundation rather than trying to invent new ones.

This is one of the many reasons it's helpful for improvisers to have a significant cultural awareness. We need to understand the audience in order for them to understand us. The faster we can do this the faster we can start exploring whatever ideas come up. Because as important as creating Understanding is, we don't want it to be the entire scene. 

 
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Once we’ve built our foundation, it’s time to introduce Change.

Change is one of the more difficult concepts for young improvisers to grasp because it goes against so much of their initial training. As a function of getting notes like “make a choice and stick with it” and “don’t drop your shit” constantly hammered into their brains they'll often find themselves trapped in those initial choices because they think changing them at all is against the rules. Like every improv maxim, "don't drop your shit" is generally good advice but not a strict requirement. In reality, a skilled improviser should be willing and ready to drop or adapt a choice if and when the scene calls for it. Unfortunately "don’t drop your shit unless new information changes your character’s circumstances in such a way that dropping your shit makes more sense than not" is a lot less pithy so it doesn't make the rounds as much. 

Another reason it's difficult to grasp is that it’s entirely situationally dependent; some scenes call for Change while others don't. For example, if my character choice is “parent who loves their child no matter awful the child is” I'll hold onto that choice as long as I deem it necessary for the scene to continue. This is based on a combination of my and my scene partners’ ability to find new and interesting ways to explore and heighten that dynamic and the audience’s ability to find that dynamic compelling. If I sense that at least one of those is beginning to lull I start looking for a way to switch something up. In this hypothetical example I’m most likely looking for a line to draw where I can make my child’s behavior unacceptable. Preferably that line is drawn based on something that came up earlier in the scene (setup/payoff is satisfying, especially if the payoff is discovered rather than planned), otherwise the line is arbitrarily drawn and made retroactively meaningful.

Ideally the original dynamic is sufficient enough on its own to sustain the entire scene, but this won't always be the case, especially if the scene ends up running longer than a few minutes. If the dynamic originally calls for a game with a heightening model, any Change I introduce might mean it makes more sense to switch to an on/off model* where I flip back and forth between negative and positive emotional reactions. This should give the scene a boost of energy which will sustain it for a few more minutes. In a show like the Harold where scenes are only going 4-5 minutes max, any major shift will probably end up being the button for the scene. In shows where scenes run longer, I'll likely have to do this one or more times and juggle multiple games in order to maintain it.

Introduce Change when momentum has plateaued. 

And it should come only when momentum plateaus - only when necessary. Too much Change hurts more than it helps. It's like shifting gears in a car. As the car accelerates, there's a window of rpm where the shift should happen to be maximally efficient. Shift too late and the engine starts working too hard to keep up. Shift too early and the engine stalls. Introduce Change too late in a scene and we have to work harder to keep it compelling. Introduce Change too early and it gets too confusing and the scene falls apart. 

 

But let's explore Change in relation to our original examples, all of which can be boiled down to "I don't want [whatever] anymore."

Essentially, this is a "No" to the status quo. “No” is a strong weapon that not many improvisers know how to wield effectively. It's a momentum stopper. It's dense. It contains a lot of gravity. Ask anyone with a few years' worth of experience what it's like to be outright negged. It's jarring. It feels like hitting a brick wall. Externally, a hard “no” might get a laugh, but internally it only creates more work. At best it slows momentum and at worst brings it to a screeching halt. It forces us to recalibrate our bearings and start moving, slowly, in a new direction. 

Plenty of improv teachers will stop a student who makes a “no” to status quo choice and encourage them to change their choice to a positive one (e.g. “Instead of not wanting to be a teacher anymore, choose to love being a teacher!”) This is fine instruction as it points students in the right direction, but often leads them to avoid certain choices rather than figuring out how to deal with all the ones that might come up. Because as much as we’d all love to avoid it, “No” will happen onstage. It will happen a lot, to varying degrees of severity, and it’s much more helpful for us to accept it and figure out how to handle it than it is to fear it and dwell on it when it happens because we believe we or our scene partner screwed up.

While we can’t undo less effective choices, we can learn how to deal with them by embracing them.

"No” isn’t an inherently bad choice, it’s just often less effective than "yes" when we're trying to build something. One of the interesting things about "no" is that because it has a lot of gravity, it has a lot of inherent force. If approached properly, we can turn that force into positive momentum, much like a spacecraft uses a planet's gravity to slingshot it further into space. The way we can do this is by approaching it indirectly. Focus too much on the "no" and we get trapped by it. Focus on what's around or behind it and we can use it to our advantage. 

Here's a quick video to help with the metaphor:

 
 

"To accelerate, the spacecraft flies with the movement of the planet, picking up a small chunk of its orbital energy in the process. To decelerate, the spacecraft flies against the planet's motion."  In his book How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth, Will Hines suggests using "no" as a scenic decelerator where we can use it to "pump the brakes" in a scene. That is, if things are moving a little too fast, "no" is a good way to slow things down and keep everything under control. But what if the scene isn't moving yet? What if the "no" comes right away? What if it comes in the form of Leading With Change?

For example, let's say "I don't want to be a teacher anymore" is the very first line in a scene. A common instinct in this moment is for the scene partner to take the opposite viewpoint and argue that that character should still be a teacher. This is facing the "no" head on, and is a great way to get caught in its gravitational pull and stuck in place. Instead of going at the "no" directly, a more efficient use of our energy is to embrace it and use it to propel us forward. Say "yes" to the "no". Be willing to move in the same direction it's moving. Then we should aim behind it to look for motivations (why don't we want to be a teacher?). Finally, when we point ourselves further ahead (What do we want to do instead?) we can use the why of the denial to accelerate us there. 

So let's say it's "I don't want to be a teacher because I can't keep the kids under control; I just want to sit here on the beach and relax." Behind the "no" is "I can't keep the kids under control" and we're looking ahead to "I want to relax on the beach". The way we can use it to accelerate the scene is by bringing the justification for the "no" with us into the thing we'd rather be doing to show that there's no escape from the thing we're trying to escape. So while we're sitting there on the beach trying to relax, we keep finding ways for things out of our control to prevent us from relaxing. Maybe the weather gets bad or seagulls keep stealing our food or, even closer, there are kids on the beach who keep bugging us. The point is instead of getting caught up in what we don't want or trying to build something brand new we can use what we already have to manufacture irony. We've used the gravity of the "no" to slingshot us to something else. 

The key element here is the justification for the "no" has to be broad enough that it can be applied to whatever alternate activity we'd rather be doing. To continue the metaphor, it has to be far enough away from the "no" that it can still clear its gravitational pull. Something like "I don't want to be a teacher anymore because I don't like grading papers" is a little hard to apply outside of that scenario, so we need to aim a little further out. If "I don't like grading papers" becomes "I don't like taking my work home with me", it suddenly becomes a easier to apply to alternate scenarios.

There are a couple tricks here that will increase the likelihood of a smooth transition. The first, as we've explored before, is to make the justification personal. "I don't like this because of the way it makes me feel" is going to be a lot more universally applicable than "I don't like this because it has certain elements". It's more emotionally oriented, and your character can bring those emotions with them wherever they end up. "I don't like teaching because it makes me feel annoyed" is great because we can find ways to annoy that character no matter what situation they're in. "I don't like teaching because it's hard to write on chalkboards" is more difficult because it's a specific limited to fewer scenarios. It's going to be harder to manufacture irony because we'll have to find ways to keep making that character have to write on chalkboard on the beach (although the attempt could be very comedic). 

The second trick is if we know both the beginning and the end of the equation, we can quickly calculate the midpoint. If we know what we're changing from (teacher) and what we're changing to (relaxing on the beach) but don't yet have the justification, we can use what they have in common as our justification (kids, packed lunches, etc). Basically it's a scenic version of the warmup game Convergence. 

Use what's already there.

There's a reason discovery makes for better improv than invention. It's a much more efficient use of our time and energy. It's less work. 

 

Change is a big part of improv. Scenes will twist and turn and evolve, and a big part of becoming a better improviser will be learning how to adapt to those changes as quickly as possible. One thing that will help is Understanding where our characters come from and what they've been through. This grounds the Change in space and time and sets a strong foundation for the rest of the scene. Contexts that are resonant are especially useful for quickly creating Understanding. We can then introduce Change as needed whenever scenic momentum plateaus. Properly timed, it can accelerate the energy and pace of the scene to a satisfying high. If we find ourselves Leading With Change, we can roll with it by unpacking the information around it and bringing it with us. We can use the gravity of "no" as a helpful force rather than a hurdle to overcome.

Understanding. Change. Understanding. Change. Setup. Payoff. Rinse. Repeat.

 

 

 

 

*More on game models in a future post

I Am the Culture

A few weeks ago I came across something on Twitter (that unfortunately I haven't been able to find since) that said something like "Culture changes and suddenly everyone acts like they were there the whole time." 

Our culture is changing. The further into the process we go, the more true that statement looks.

The Harvey Weinstein story was the catalyst for an avalanche of stories of high profile sexual abusers in entertainment and politics that doesn’t seem to be slowing any time soon. Improv has had a number of cases of abuse of its own this year. UCB banned at least two instructors for sexual assault. DSI shut down soon after its owner was accused of rape. As I write this, the Reckless Theatre is in the middle of a heated scandal regarding its artistic director's inappropriate behavior toward students. 

Often when these stories emerge they seem so far away – like it has nothing to do with us. We watch as the news or social media unveils the most egregious offenders and act shocked and dismayed that these men have been allowed to exist for so long. We call them predators and monsters and cheer as their lives and careers crumble. We feel like spectators to something foreign and unrelated to our everyday lives. We create a moral distance between ourselves and the accused. We can’t imagine doing anything like what they have done. We condemn and shun and feel good about ourselves for not being like them.

This other-ization is a natural response, but it’s also part of the problem. It absolves us of all guilt. It puts the responsibility for the actions solely on the actor when in reality they existed in an environment that allowed them to flourish. Harvey Weinstein couldn’t have done what he did for three decades without help. It took a lot of people keeping quiet. It took a lot of people looking the other way. It took a culture of reluctant acceptance for him to survive for so long. More importantly, it took an entire society continually willing to appease powerful men and expect subservient women, including ignoring and even punishing them when they tried to speak out.

The culture is us and we are it.

This is not a sex problem. It is a power problem where sex is used as a weapon.

Men have been the main custodians of power for essentially all of history and have constructed a robust and pervasive sexist culture in order to maintain it. That culture manifests itself in a spectrum of ways. The most active and obvious is the creation and preservation of men like Weinstein. The most passive and subtle is the disregard for female voices and the rejection of female ideas (until they are claimed by men). The biggest mistake any of us can make is assuming we are free from its influence.

As painful as these stories can be, as dismayed as they make us feel, they present an opportunity for change. The big question is will we, as a society, do the work necessary to actually solve this problem? Will we commit to actual change or will we simply remove the most obviously bad symptoms and hope that’s enough? Do we really want to be better?

I believe we do. I believe we can. But it’s going to take all of us doing important individual work in order to happen. So what work do I have to do, as an individual, to change the culture?

First, I have to acknowledge my role.

This is an inherently unpleasant process. It doesn’t feel good to reflect on all the ways I have contributed to a toxic culture. I don’t particularly want to relive those moments, but I realize how important it is. Here’s a metaphor I like that applies to difficult but necessary change at both the macro and individual level:

The big takeaway here is that discomfort and vulnerability are requisite steps for growth. If I want to grow, I first have to let myself feel uncomfortable.

I recognize now that as a man I have acted as a symptom of a sexist culture. While I’ve never done anything as outright abusive and violent and horrible as the men in the news, I have contributed to the culture that allowed them to thrive by doing all the little things that add up to make life difficult for women, keep them living in fear, and silence their voices.

I have contributed to this culture in comedy as well.

In my first attempt at live comedy, I attempted a joke at a standup open mic that I thought was edgy but in retrospect was very sexist. In my second improv class I made a reference to spiking a woman's drink in a scene with the intention of that being a funny thing. In an early audition I did a scene where I repeatedly alluded to oral sex. I played female characters in stereotypical ways. I assumed female scene partners are wives or mothers or girlfriends. I steamrolled women's offers. 

Reliving all these moments in my memory is extremely uncomfortable for me. The open mic one literally makes me shudder. But I know that running from these memories won’t help me learn from them. I know I was learning and had to make some mistakes to get to where I am now. Honestly though, the hardest part about thinking of all these examples is that they are the ones I know about because someone told me afterward that they were sexist. I'm sure there are more moments I have totally forgotten because no one was there to correct me. As much as I am sorry for doing all these things and immensely regretful for the pain and discomfort they caused, I am much more sorry about the sexist things I have done that I don’t know about because I never got that feedback. I’m disappointed that I was previously so clueless; that it was so easy for me to hurt people that I didn’t even bother to remember it.

Because although it’s painful now to realize and dwell on some of the things I’ve done that have contributed to that culture, it’s a pain that I can experience in private. It’s a pain that I can escape from whenever I want to stop thinking about it. The pain I caused women through my behavior was much more powerful. They couldn’t escape from it. They weren’t protected by the buffer of time.

I also recognize that acknowledging my actions and feeling remorseful years later is too little too late. My actions created consequences that I can’t undo by feeling sorry about them. For example, I never saw the woman from my audition scene ever again. I don’t know if she kept doing improv or not. I don’t even know who she is, so I can’t look her up to find out. If she quit improv, it’s entirely possible it was because she didn’t like the culture. If she didn’t like the culture, it’s very likely that I played a major role in that opinion. As someone who truly loves improvisation, who truly believes it can be a force for positive personal change, who thinks everyone can benefit from studying it, the fact that I was potentially responsible, even if only a little, for pushing someone away from it is troubling.

I’m disappointed in myself. I never intended to hurt anyone. But as I’ve said before in the context of improv, intention doesn't matter. If something hurts, it hurts. If I unintentionally stab someone, it doesn’t change the fact that they got stabbed. The problem with what I did is I didn't see the wound so I didn’t know it was there.

If I could go back and undo the things I did I absolutely would. I’ve spent the last several weeks reflecting heavily on my actions and noting moments where I could have made better choices. I’m trying to learn from these mistakes so I can be better myself and so I can help other men be better too.

I also recognize how difficult it can be to actually take responsibility for this behavior. I understand the instinct to deflect. As I initially started reviewing my behavior I felt myself trying to blame everyone but myself. I wanted to blame my education. I wanted to blame my peers. I wanted to blame my entertainment. I wanted to blame my environment. All of these things may have truly influenced me, but when it comes down to it, despite the circumstances of my situation or my influences, these are things that I did. These are ways I was wrong. Blaming anyone or anything but myself only functions to make me not wrong when I clearly was.

I can’t change the past, but I can make a commitment to behavioral change moving forward.

This is not something I can brush off and assume everything is going to be easy moving forward. This is something I will always need to work to be hyper aware of. I was raised in a society where significantly sexist behavior was not just okay; it was often celebrated.

This is where we see the influence of power again. Men, as custodians of power, have also been the keepers of the culture. One of the reasons beyond celebrity that entertainment yields a high rate of the worst abusers is because it also has a lot of social influence. When you control the microphone you get to decide what gets said into it. You can decide to limit those messages to things that make you look good, or at the very least, don’t make you look bad. Historically, in a vast number of ways that won’t fit in this already-long piece, male-produced entertainment has promoted maleness as positive and femaleness as negative. It has highlighted positive male behavior and shown extreme leniency to negative male behavior. At the same time it has essentially ignored female behavior altogether unless it is in service of men.

Again, this is not an attempt to deflect from the fact that I’ve made poor choices. It’s to say that our entire society was trained to see that certain negative behavior was okay and even expected. So when men are put into situations where they can make a bad choice, like soft or passive sexism, they might not recognize that it’s bad. If they do know it’s bad, in the cases of the hard or active sexism like harassment and abuse, they’ll feel relatively safe in following through on those actions because they they’re surrounded by people who will protect them by excusing or diminishing their behavior.

The good news, despite how bad it might seem right now, is there are a lot of cracks in the shell. We’re discussing these issues in public forums. We’re highlighting the problems in our society in order to finally address them properly. Women are less afraid of sharing their stories. Men are more willing to listen. There are still good people in power and good people continue to take it. We’re making progress.

But consistent progress requires consistent vigilance and dedicated effort. You can’t change a whole culture overnight. We need to continue to hold people in power accountable. We need to hold them to an even higher standard of behavior than average. People in power need to be hyper aware of their authority and sway. They need to recognize that they aren’t safe from its influence, no matter how good they think they are. No matter how good their intentions may be.

No one is safe from being corrupted.

Even in my short stint with limited power as an improv coach I’ve seen the windows for abuse. I know what they look like. I know how common they are. I know how easy it would be to cross a line. All of these things start small. None of these things happen right away. The line gets pushed slowly over time. People who abuse their power start with little things that no one will call them on because people are afraid of their status. Then, years later, everyone looks around and wonders how it got so bad. That powerful person, who may have started out with good intentions, tries to take a shortcut or push a boundary for a thrill or makes a mistake and tries to hide it, and gets a ball rolling that they can’t stop that runs them over in the end. Sell your soul to the devil and he eventually comes to claim it.

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As hard as it will be, positive change will come with a combination of Vigilance, Patience, and Courage.

We need Vigilance because sexist behavior can occur any time and anywhere by anyone. Our biggest enemy will be bystander effect – when we’ll think we won’t have to address a specific incident, no matter how small, because we think someone else will. When we see behavior that crosses a line, we need to find a way to call it out.

We need Patience because it’s difficult to change. It can be frustrating that decency can seem so obvious yet so many people are incapable of it, but our obsolete sexist culture has improperly trained a lot of men and women. Of course we should be strict with violent and serial offenders, but I do believe that most sexism stems from ignorance more than malice. Education and forgiveness, rather than punishment, is the way forward. We’re not doing anyone any favors by punishing people for simple mistakes. It only creates more pain. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from coaching improv is that yelling at someone for messing up doesn’t help them grow. It only makes them defensive, cements them in their ways, and creates a rift between us that makes them less likely to listen and less willing to change.

Perhaps most difficult will be Courage. It can be truly intimidating to give negative feedback to people, especially when they hold power over us. What if they don’t take it well? What if they retaliate? These are risks we need to be willing to take in order to create change. A good leader knows how to handle criticism. A bad leader can be molded if behavior is corrected early enough. But it was a culture of fear of leadership that allowed so many of our bad leaders to grow and harden in their ways. If we truly recognize that abuse is a power problem, we need to take a stand against power. Often that will mean being willing to make ourselves vulnerable. Sometimes that will mean letting ourselves get punished.

Abusive leaders use fear as a tool of control.

They divide and isolate. They make you feel like you’re the only person who thinks how you think or feels how you feel. They make you feel wrong about everything. They threaten your job or withhold opportunities. Be willing to lose opportunities in toxic environments. Refuse to be divided and we’ll be less afraid. Refuse to fear and they lose their control.

 

Clearly changing the culture of an entire society is a monumental task. I can’t do that all on my own. But if everyone makes an effort to better the places they do have influence, it will all come together.

If my sphere of influence is improv,

What can I do as a performer and instructor to contribute to positive cultural change?

  1. I can recognize the role I have played in the sexist culture. I can reflect on any of the poor choices I have made, see how I was wrong, and commit to learning from them.*
  2. I can accept that on the path of change I will probably make another mistake. I can be open to being corrected. I can apologize. I can learn from it.
  3. As a performer, I can be constantly aware of my words and actions on and offstage and how they affect people. I can avoid using sexist language or playing sexist characters, even if it seems funny in the moment. As an instructor, I can make sure I correct sexist choices early and often, instead of assuming some other instructor will.
  4. I can be patient with young improvisers who will make these mistakes. I can explain why their choices were wrong and show them ways to avoid making those same mistakes in the future. I can understand that they probably didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I can accept their apology and forgive them.
  5. I can speak out against those in improv who abuse their power. I can be willing to be punished for doing so.

*Important disclaimer - I don’t believe #1 is a public step. I have listed a few of mine above as an example of my process, but I don’t think every improviser publicizing their history of sexist choices would be helpful. At best it brings bad moments back to the spotlight. At worst it’s an attempt to get some positive attention. Really go over those moments so you can learn from them, but keep them to yourself. Commit to change because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s trendy. I know I messed up. If you were there, you know I messed up too. Now let’s heal.

 

Cultural transition is a scary and confusing time. It may seem like everything is crumbling around us, but it just means we’re finally addressing our serious problems. It signals better things ahead. Who knows how long it will take or what else will change with it, but one thing that’s certain is there’s no turning back. We can either adapt or we can get left behind, and I’m confident that we’ll adapt.

Improv will survive this. Society will survive this. Both will come out stronger because of it.

I will come out stronger because of these changes too, but only if I let myself grow. In order to do that, I must shed my old shell and start working on a new one.

In the Beginning There Was Clarity & Motion

 

In the beginning there was nothing, nothing but the silence of infinite darkness. The breath of the Creator flooded against the face of the void whispering "let there be light" and light was, and it was good. The first day. And then the formless light began to take on substance and shape the second day, and the whole world was born, our beautiful, fragile home. And a great warming light nurtured its days, and a lesser light ruled the nights, and there was evening and morning, another day.
- Darren Aronofsky's Noah

 

There's a lot of pressure in beginnings. 

The first few moves in a scene are vastly more influential than the rest. They set the direction, tone, and pace of the entire thing. It's where momentum is established. A scene that starts as an argument will probably stay one. A scene with dark content will probably stay dark. A scene that starts slowly will probably stay relatively slow. The longer the scene the more likely it will evolve, but for the vast majority of scenes (those <5 minutes) those first 3-5 moves will dictate the style of the rest. There are also all the rules to consider - Say yes. Listen. Define the relationship. Name the location. Endow your scene partner with an attribute. Say how you feel. Don't ask questions. Don't talk about what you're doing. Emote. Look for the first unusual thing. Interact with the environment. Don't think. 

The combination of choice significance and checklist of things to remember can make the beginning of a scene feel daunting and overwhelming. It can be easy to get into a tentative mindset where we act from a place of playing to not mess up instead of playing to discover. Often we'll find ourselves making vague, open-ended moves that buy us some time while we think of something interesting or that can easily slot into whatever idea our scene partner might have. This is being "in your head", a dreaded zone of doubt and fear that can compound upon itself if we recognize that we're in it and panic. Common advice to "get out of your head" is to go external - to shift our focus to the environment or our scene partner in the hopes we'll find something to latch onto there. This tactic can be helpful, but it doesn't solve the problem so much as avoid it. We're still not confident. We still don't trust our own brains. It puts all the attention on one thing or character, which often quickly causes the scene to be lopsided or fizzle out. A scene needs to be somewhat balanced to sustain itself. Eventually we need to have something we can hold onto for ourselves.

The key is to still operate internally but not from our brain. Playing a foot lower, from the gut (right between the heart and the stomach), will force us to stay in the moment and compel us to act on our first instinct instead of overthinking our moves. This is easier said than done, simply because a lot of our training has been rule-based and therefore mental. It will feel like we're playing from behind instead of a step ahead. But it gets us out of our heads specifically because we're making choices without considering their effects first. Our brain is good enough to keep up and it will take care of us, but we have to let it. And we do that by acting without telling it first.

 

Ultimately it'll be a balance of brain and gut play that will make us consistently successful, but we can emphasize one or the other if we find that leaning too far in one direction is hindering our performance. In order to lean toward the gut instead of the brain we need to change how we approach our relationship with the scene. Acting from the brain involves a more formulaic approach. What rules can we apply to the current scenario that will more likely increase our chances of success? Acting from the gut involves considering how the scene feels. It means reading the scene's energy, tone, and pace and making adjustments to each as necessary.

For the most part, gut adjustments will be moment-specific so it's tough to give any broad practical advice other than "if it's not working, try something else". But for the beginning of scenes where there are fewer variables there are a couple things we can look for that will increase our chances of a successfully engaging scene - Clarity & Motion.

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Clarity

We see in order to move; we move in order to see.
- William Gibson, author

Improv is an art form wherein we ask the audience to do a lot of heavy lifting. We ask them to invest in scenarios that are intentionally ridiculous in environments they can't see for characters that often don't look anything like the actors appear. As a bonus, we tell them we haven't preplanned any of the material and have no idea what's about to happen. By simply agreeing to watch the show they are giving us an immense amount of trust. But this trust is conditional. It requires constant upkeep and maintenance over the course of the show. 

One way to maintain that trust is by committing fully to the reality of the scene. Another, and what we'll talk about here, is by being very clear about what is happening at all times.

In a universe built from nothing, ambiguity doesn't play.

The audience will happily do the mental work required to fill in the appearance of the environment, props, character, and suspend their disbelief enough to invest in ridiculous scenarios, but they draw the line at making our decisions for us. We have to tell them what they should be imagining. We have to be specific. We might find ourselves using undefined pronouns like "it" or "that" or "they", which can make it seem like we're talking about something. In reality, if we haven't yet defined what "it" or "that" or "they" is, we're actually talking about nothing. This usually comes from a place of indecisiveness or politeness. We're afraid of making a wrong move or we're deferring to our scene partner who we think might have something in mind or make a better choice. But we're not doing ourselves any favors by avoiding or delaying specificity this way. What exact type of space are we in? What exactly are we holding? What exact physical features are relevant to our characters? Both the performers and the audience need to know and they need to know as soon as possible. The more specific we can be the more likely we are to get everyone on the same page and avoid scenic dissonance

Here's something I stumbled across that I've found to be very helpful with storytelling:

Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules for Writing Fiction: 

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Although intended for traditional writing I believe all of these are directly applicable to improv (we are writing fiction after all, just in the moment from the inside as a team), but the one I'd like to emphasize here is #8. Providing "as much information as possible as soon as possible" in the first 3-5 moves creates Clarity, and in order to understand how we need to first recognize the important difference between information and details.

Details and information both fall under the umbrella of specificity, but the key difference is that details may or may not be relevant to what is happening. There might be a lamp in the room, but do we really need to know about it? Does it inform the scene or is it simply a detail? If the lamp is mentioned, it should be for good reason. There should be something relevant about the lamp that adds to the scene more than simply conjuring a more specific image of the location. This is the tricky difference that a lot of improvisers miss when we are noted to "be more specific". We assume we're being asked to add details when we're really being asked to add information. The ideal scene will be one in which nothing is wasted. Every bit of specificity is important and used to its fullest informative capacity. So when Vonnegut is urging us to give "as much information as possible as soon as possible", he is not suggesting we describe every detail of the scene. He's saying to immediately provide everything about context and character that is relevant for the reader to completely and perfectly understand exactly what is going on at all times. Details are irrelevant. Information informs.

It's important to note that information is not limited to dialogue. Body language, attitude, emotional response, and action can all inform the scene. It's also completely possible to turn details into information by looking behind them for meaning retroactively. We might make a move at the top, like washing dishes, with no idea what it might mean as we're doing it. It'll tell us that we're probably in a kitchen, which is a nice way to narrow down context, but can we go even further by looking at how we're doing it? Are we rushing? Does that mean we're running late for something? Are we washing the same plate nonstop? Maybe that means we're distracted. Furthermore, words and actions that don't necessarily have built-in associations can be just as informative if we create new associations for them by reacting to them in unusual ways. For example, hiccups in our universe are a trivial annoyance while in another they might indicate looming disaster. We might have to explain a little more about that universe's rules if they differ from ours, but it doesn't make it any less effective or informative. 

In summary, there are several ways we can provide "as much information as possible as soon as possible" at the top of a scene to create Clarity:

  1. Avoid ambiguity. (watch out for undefined pronouns like "it", "that", "they", etc)
  2. Be more specific. ("A cat crossed in front of us." vs. "A black cat crossed in front of us.")
  3. Use words that have associations and implications. ("Your shirt is red." vs. "Your shirt is bloody.")
  4. Find meaning by taking a closer look. ("You're being a little twitchy. Nervous about your date?")
  5. Create meaning by reacting to ordinary things in unusual ways. ("My hair is longer? Oh no, I'm shrinking!")

If the beginning of a scene feels a little too vague and unclear, we can pull one of these moves out of our pocket to provide some information and set ourselves in the right direction.

 

Motion

Everything changes and nothing stands still.
- Heraclitus of Ephesus, philosopher

Everything moves. Even the most still-appearing objects are actually moving. Zoom in and we see they are made up of constantly and rapidly vibrating atoms. Zoom out and we see they sit on a planet shooting through space at 67,000 miles an hour. Motion is a natural state of being. It's literally impossible to not do it. As such, motion is inherently satisfying both to feel and observe. Things that appear motionless usually don't hold our attention for long. Things that appear to move grab it immediately. For humans this attraction applies not just to observable motion through physical space, but also the motion of social and emotional energies to which we're naturally attuned. Just as a bird flying across our view will immediately draw our attention, so will the sudden change in energy when a room full of people talking abruptly goes silent.  

This gravitation toward movement applies to our entertainment as much as anything else. There's a reason classic story structure looks like this:

 
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Stories need Motion, both physical and emotional. And that Motion is never a straight line. Bad stuff happens. Good stuff happens. More bad stuff happens. More good stuff happens. Overall hopefully more good stuff happens than bad stuff, but maybe not. The point is that stuff happens and it's not always the same kind of stuff. Things change. Energies and emotions constantly morph and flow and end up somewhere totally different from where they began. It's this ever-present Motion that makes stories constantly hold our attention. It's the tension between Vonnegut's #2 and his #6 that keeps us enraptured.

The point is not to say that improv should follow traditional story structure. Though some longer narrative shows will, the majority of standalone scenes don't have the time. More likely they will be a condensed version or small segments of a larger story that we'll never get to see. The point is that things need to happen to our characters. Things need to change for them. Their circumstances, their relationships, their emotions - whatever it is, something needs to change. That change won't always be positive for them and it absolutely should not be. It's natural for us to try to avoid bad stuff, but we are not our character. We should always be open to letting bad things happen to our characters because that will create that will create Motion and Motion is captivating.

Ideally we'll want to use combination of character Motion and scenic Motion to make the scene as compelling as possible. Character Motion is how our character moves in space and time. This could be as simple as doing some object work or moving around in the environment, or made more complex by changing locations mid-scene or traveling. In more complicated cases, the addition of side support can help create the illusion of movement. For example, if the characters in focus are driving a car, improvisers on the sides can start downstage and move up (starting closer to the audience and moving to the back wall) to show that the car is moving forward. Changing how quickly the side performers move can create the appearance of the car speeding up, slowing down, or stopping. Whenever we notice ourselves standing and talking for more than a few lines (a "talking heads" scene) is a good time to inject some character Motion. Of course, any character Motion we add should fit the needs of the scene. We shouldn't force our characters to change locations for the sake of it, but even some simple object work can create some much-needed Motion while simultaneously adding Clarity to the environment. 

Scenic Motion has more to do with broader changes in energy and emotion that encompass all the characters in the scene. It's how the words and actions of our character create a reaction in others, and vice versa. We can create scenic Motion in our first 3-5 lines by saying Yes, not just by accepting information as true, but by pursuing opportunities for action. We're taught Yes on day one of our first improv class, but it's usually in the context of informational agreement (Yes, you're my cousin, Yes, we're in the back yard, etc). But especially early in the scene when we want to create some energy and momentum, saying Yes to action is essential. An immensely common pitfall for early performers is to agree to information but say No to the first opportunity for action ("I don't want to [whatever]"). We do it because we're told to make strong choices and putting our foot down about something feels like a strong choice. While this move can be a useful way to begin to uncover a character's worldview, it usually halts any scenic momentum before it can even get started. It's perfectly fine for our character to not want to do something and if so they should absolutely explain why, but in the end they need to either do it reluctantly or offer an alternative action. 

We're allowed to not want to do something but we're not allowed to do nothing.

A huge percentage of improv scenes end up being arguments because of this reason. When we push back against our scene partner it feels like we're creating Motion because we're exerting force. But when our scene partner exerts the same amount of force in the equal and opposite direction, we end up not moving anywhere. That initial collision of desires might be interesting and may even get a laugh, but that laugh usually hurts more than it helps because it leads us down a dead end. We think if we both double down it will keep working when instead it simply halts any potential scenic Motion. It's up to one of us to recognize this and give. Lose. Say "okay, fine" and drop your position. In the moment it can be scary because we might not know what to do next, but we'll figure it out soon enough. How does that change the dynamic between characters? How do each of us react to winning and losing? As the winner, resist the urge to try to get the loser to re-tread the same argument in order to feel safe back in the conflict. Use what we've already established to determine which direction to head next.

The best way to understand scenic Motion is to play around with it. Let one character win a little bit, then lose a little bit. Mix it up. Let stuff happen to our characters. Let them get hurt. Let them change. Depending on the length of the scene will depend on how much of that we get to see, but Motion, especially in those first 3-5 lines, is essential to a successfully compelling scene. Improv is a dance. It's not about where our characters end up, it's about the moves they make as they encounter others.

In summary, there are several things we can do at the top of the scene to create Motion:

  1. Let bad stuff happen to our characters.
  2. Move in space & time.
  3. Say Yes to action.
  4. Create new opportunities for action.
  5. Lose on purpose.

If the beginning of a scene feels like it isn't moving, we can use one of these choices to create some Motion and start building scenic momentum.

 

In the beginning, when there is nothing, our initial focus should be on the implications and associations of our words and actions. If our gut tells us things are a little too vague, it's time to add some Clarity. Once we've shed some light on the scene, it's about letting momentum build. If our gut tells us things are moving too slow or not at all, we know to create Motion. This early combination of Clarity & Motion will set the direction, tone, and pace of the rest of the scene.

And it will be good.

A Conversation With The Audience

I'm going to start this post by quoting myself. I realize this is perhaps the least modest way to start a post, but I have to start somewhere and it's a good lead-in to the subject I'd like to explore. If you're going exploring, it helps to start from familiar territory. This familiar territory just happens to be my own quote. Anyway, here goes - 

From Better, Faster:

The #1 way to get better is massive amounts of stage time.

In the realm of live performance this is somewhat unique to comedy, but it is especially true of improv. In traditional theater, dance, music, and even stand up and sketch, much of the work and growth happens behind closed doors through the writing, editing, memorization and repetition of material. For those endeavors, by the time performers get up in front of an audience, they are delivering what is presumably a final product. Obviously the material can be tweaked between performances based on audience feedback, and obviously there are elements of delivery that can only be honed through the live performance process, but in all of these fields there is unseen content preparation.

Improv has no content preparation. There is no material. The final product is discovered rather than delivered. This difference is what distinguishes improv as an entirely new genre of performance. Presentationally it's much like traditional theater (minus sets, costumes & props) but in practice it leans closer to sports. The significant amount of work that happens behind the scenes is geared toward sharpening technique and exposing players to situations that are likely to occur live. Like in sports, once the show starts, the pressure's on. We hope we've prepared enough for what's about to happen and any adjustments we want to make will have to happen on the fly. The range of ups and downs and twists and turns that can happen in a show are valuable learning opportunities that cannot be replicated in rehearsal.

The improv-sports comparison mostly ends there. Improv performance is largely noncompetitive while sports has wins, losses, points, and rankings. But there is a further shared element that we're going to take some time to explore - the relationship with the live audience.

 
 

In spectator sports, particularly at the professional level, crowd energy has an active effect on the game. A crowd that is friendly to the home team and antagonistic to the visitors is one of the major factors in home advantage due to the psychological effects it has on both the players and officials. For this reason, visiting teams will often strive to take an early lead to "take the crowd out of the game" and limit this advantage. Home teams try to influence crowd energy with cheerleaders, super fans, and music, though the biggest factor is the performance of the team itself.

That being said, while influential, crowd energy in sports can only affect the outcome of the game indirectly. A hyped crowd can get the home team fired up, but they can't add points to the scoreboard. A hostile crowd might shake the visiting team's confidence, but that might not completely stop them from scoring. Remove the crowd completely and the game still gets played. This is absolutely not the case with improv, where if no one shows up to watch the show probably gets canceled.

Audience energy is the centerpiece of the improv experience.

Being largely noncompetitive, audience energy is the only real barometer of performance quality. This is true regardless of technical execution. A sloppy show with a vocal, captivated audience always feels better than a technically impressive show with a quiet, disengaged one. A "good" show that the audience didn't like feels like a failure. A "bad" show that the audience loved feels like success.

Why? The show is a contract with the audience. They give us their time, attention, and hopefully some money. In exchange, we give them an Immersive & Joyful experience. If an audience doesn't like the show, we didn't fulfill our end of the deal. We didn't do our job. That's why it feels bad.

Immersive is non-negotiable. The audience should never be made self-aware. They should never be reminded that they're watching a performance. If we can manage to make them forget who they are and where they are, they'll be much more engaged, much more responsive, and much more willing to follow us down whatever unusual paths we discover. Immersion truly starts before the scenes even begin. Pre-show music and hosting prime the audience's energy, while proper lighting and minimal visual and auditory distractions focus their attention. However, just like in sports where no amount of music or cheerleading can get the crowd energized when their team is getting blown out, even the perfect improv atmosphere can't keep the audience engaged in a poor performance. That primed energy only lasts so long. We must sustain and heighten it from within by completely committing to our choices, building and maintaining a cohesive universe, and maintaining the 4th wall

Joyful is a little less strict. Generally speaking we're aiming for comedy, so it's going to be the default, but there are some shows that intentionally aim for a different tone. They intend to be tragic or dramatic or hopeful or unsettling, all of which is fine as long as the audience knows that's how they should feel. Because joyful is the default, specific effort needs to go into adjusting the audience's expectations. If we want our show to be unsettling, the pre-show music, hosting, and lighting should be unsettling and the unsettling tone of our performance should be focused and consistent. An audience that comes in presuming joyful will happily adapt to a different tone if they are properly primed, but if a dark show follows upbeat pre-show music, they're going to be slower to come around. No matter what the tone is, the audience should know exactly how they should feel from start to finish, and it's our job to tell them. A disjointed or scattered tone is a great way to make them confused and/or uncomfortable, which is a great way to ruin immersion.

 

Another great way to ruin immersion is by indelicately tackling sensitive subjects. This is a difficult area to explore because the rules are so nebulous, but we'll touch on it here because of its effects on the performer-audience relationship. 

Certain subjects (namely gender, politics, race, sexuality, traumatic events, and violence) and their corresponding language can make the audience uncomfortable. They come preloaded with negative associations and natural aversions, which makes them inherently more risky when the goal is comedy. High risk means high reward when handled successfully, but it also means the repercussions for failure are more drastic and lasting. Misuse sensitive language and we might lose the audience permanently. Even if most of the individual audience members aren't off-put, they sense when others are and will mentally disengage to withdraw their tacit support. At that point the audience isn't watching the scene, they're watching the performers survive - not a good place to be if we're trying to make them laugh.

The reason the rules of sensitive subjects are so nebulous is that they're situational. Moves that work on certain crowds in certain contexts with a certain delivery won't necessarily work (and might even hurt) if one or all of those things is changed even slightly. The ability to tackle these high-risk subjects successfully comes entirely from experience. People like Heather Anne Campbell and Jason Mantzoukas can regularly make high-risk choices look easy because consistently improvising for decades has made them experts in character, delivery, and wrangling audience energy.

Many young comedians think they can jump straight into sensitive material when they first start because they've seen people pull it off before. This ends poorly 99% of the time. This was a lesson I learned the hard way when I was getting started. In my first couple years of comedy there were several painful and embarrassing failures I endured because I was trying to be edgy. There were many many more I endured because I was clueless and inexperienced. I learned from both of them in different ways. The first lesson was that I wasn't as smart and special as I thought I was. I wasn't going to be great or even good without putting the work in and earning my stripes. The second was that I was going to make mistakes, lots of them, and that was okay as long as I learned from them. My skills accelerated rapidly once I figured out how to stop clinging to errors and beating myself up over them. It was much more productive and a lot less stressful to simply unpack their lessons and let them go.

Though the best way to learn when high-risk choices will succeed and fail is experience, we can accelerate the process with a better understanding of what makes things funny. There is no shortage of definitions and theories about humor, but one that is especially helpful when considering sensitive subjects is Peter McGraw's "benign violation":

Sensitive subjects are hard to make humorous because they are large violations. The larger violation, the more benign we have to make it. McGraw mentions adding psychological distance and making the violation seem unreal as two ways to do this. In Will Ferrell & The Music of Emotion we explored how Will Ferrell manages to make intense anger benign by doing both of these things at the same time. He'll make very violent threats (extreme violation) but put it far in the future against a person who doesn't exist (extremely benign). In improv, adding distance will often mean making the violation unseen - a character with a sensitive story will reference it, but we never see it play out. Seen violations are usually made benign by being made unreal, which can be done by turning the realism of the scene up or down. Heather & Miles, for example, make seen violence funny by heightening it so much it's ridiculous and obviously unrealistic. Fuck That Shit makes seen violence funny by barely committing to it so that it hardly affects their characters and often breaks the laws of physics. Inexperienced performers will often mistakenly assume the shock of a violation is enough to be funny, when instead all it does is alienate the audience. It's not enough to simply be surprising. In reality there is a lot more finesse that goes into making sensitive subjects funny than it might seem.

If an improv scene is a tightrope walk, tackling sensitive subjects in improv is a tightrope walk on your hands. If we can't comfortably make it across to begin with, we're guaranteed to fall if we try it upside down. For performers in their first few years of training who still have trouble making it across the rope consistently, it's probably in their best interest to avoid sensitive subjects altogether. However, sometimes we find ourselves in unavoidable situations in scenes we'd rather have avoided. For these moments, here are a few key things to remember:

  • Punch up. The target of the comedy should not be anyone that has been historically marginalized.
  • The bad guy needs to lose. It's okay to play evil as long as evil doesn't win.
  • If a performer is uncomfortable the audience can tell and they will also get uncomfortable. Physical discomfort can be alleviated by adding physical distance between performers. Emotional discomfort can be alleviated by ending the scene.

 

One of the toughest parts of improv is being able to consistently fulfill our end of our contract with the audience. We can give some audiences an immersive & joyful experience, but can't manage to execute as well for others. The answer to raising our average is in how we approach the show. We can't assume what we do for familiar audiences in our most comfortable spaces will apply across the board. We need to be able to experiment with variables like pace, style, and energy in order to determine what gels with each new audience. Luckily, our craft that has lots of built-in flexibility.

Improv is a conversation with the audience.

Performing for a familiar audience is like talking to a friend. A history of positive interactions has created a certain level of rapport. We each understand how the other communicates and the performance can be riskier and looser. This established trust allows us a bit of a longer leash and the benefit of the doubt when it comes to pushing the envelope or doing something a little more experimental. These will often be the technically sloppy shows that feel great anyway because the audience had a good time. They'll let us get away with a lot more because we're making moves out of eagerness and excitement (as opposed to fear/self-consciousness) and they trust us to be able to pull it off. 

Performing for an unfamiliar audience is like talking to a stranger. They don't inherently trust us, so we can't come out and start talking to them like they know who we are and dive straight into our craziest, riskiest choices. We wouldn't start a conversation with a stranger by immediately sharing some deep personal secrets or doing something totally weird. It would be overwhelming and off-putting. Being friendly with a stranger is endearing, but assuming familiarity and crossing personal boundaries too soon will backfire. We have to ease them in and earn their confidence before we can introduce them to something more adventurous. This is the idea behind "earning it", as in "that move was unearned" or "you didn't earn that choice". It means that we crossed a line of familiarity with the audience and made them uncomfortable because we didn't take the time to build enough rapport. They will follow us down a crazy path, but only after we've earned their trust.

It's immensely important to be perceptive and flexible when performing for any audience, but especially an unfamiliar one. By making a variety of low-risk choices at the top of the show and seeing what types they respond to most, we can triangulate the best approach for the rest of the performance and increase our chances of a successful show.

Here's Greg Dean talking about the performer-audience relationship from the perspective of stand up:

That feedback loop with the audience, the give & take of energy, is what drives the entire show. The moves we make affect them, their response affects us, and this repeats nonstop until the blackout. As performers, it's our responsibility to get the ball rolling, but we're never entirely in charge. We can certainly influence, mold, and guide the energy, but at the same time we have to concede a good amount of control. We can set a tone with priming and consistency, but we can't drag the audience down a path they don't want to go down. Once things get going we have to be receptive to how the energy ebbs and flows and ride it wherever it wants to go.

This is what makes improv so special. It's not just that the content of the show will never be seen again, it's that the evolving energy loop created between the performers and the audience is entirely unique to that in-person experience. It's why the funniest improv scene isn't nearly as interesting when it's being retold later. It's why improv doesn't quite transfer to non-live mediums no matter how cool and fun they are

The audience is essential. The strength of our relationship with them is what makes or breaks the whole show, and it's only through massive amounts of stage time that we can learn how to cultivate it properly.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Success is not an accident.

Not a single improviser you admire got to where they are by being randomly plucked off the street or out of a class, getting tossed onstage, and spontaneously excelling. All of them started from a place of being generally terrible and improved over time by doing an enormous amount of reps. Yes, some of us start with a higher baseline of ability in certain areas. Some of us are more naturally attuned to what's comedic or faster learners or more willing to look foolish in front of strangers. But to be truly skilled - to be able to execute consistently at a high level - takes intentional long-term dedicated effort. 

In Embrace Slumps, Ignore Success we examined the ups and downs of that long road of artistic progress. One of the big early pitfalls for a lot of us is constantly comparing our progress to those around us. This can be especially tough if we aren't gifted with a higher baseline ability. Since most improv takes place in and around some sort of theater system, performers with higher baselines generally have more early "official" opportunities than their peers. They are a better short-term investment for the theater, which needs its new performers to be capable onstage more or less immediately. This early success can end up exacerbating the divide between high baseline and low baseline performers. The high baseline performers benefit from the resources that come with being a part of the system - regular, higher-quality stage time with more experienced teammates and instructors who have an expectation of execution. For those of us without those early opportunities, this can end up being a massive hurdle in our development and a big blow to our confidence. Not only are our peers getting cast over us, they're improving faster than us because of it.

This is when a lot of us start to wonder if we'll ever be really good. If maybe we just don't get improv. If maybe we should quit. These are perfectly normal thoughts that should be completely ignored. 

 

We live in a society that has quantified progress. Our entire educational system is structured in a linear graduated path. Each year, if we're doing it "right", we level up along with all our peers. We spend eight years in elementary school. Then four in high school. Then four in college. From there the path splits - grad school, doctorate programs, the military, sports, the professional world - all of which have their own hierarchical systems with growth checkpoints and markers of progress. Improv theaters function in much the same way. If we're doing it "right", we go through the levels of the school one after the other. Then we make our way through the performance development system. Less strictly scheduled but still tiered, the "better" the show the "better" the time slot. If you're performing on Saturday at 8pm, you know you've made it to the top.

Because progress is quantified, because we were raised our whole lives to level up with our peers, it can be massively discouraging to we feel like we aren't keeping up. If we see others moving faster than us or even passing us from behind it can feel like failure. But when it comes to improv there is no "right". This is a journey that takes years, decades. Some of us start with those higher baseline abilities and get that early systemic success. Some of us take more time to get up to speed and have to do everything on the outskirts of that system. In the end we're all trying to get to a place where we feel creatively happy.

In that regard, the only way to truly fail is to stop moving. 

Because we'll be spending a lot of time in and around one (or several) theater systems over the course of our improv careers, it's important to understand how they function. The better we understand the system the more we'll be able to use it to our advantage. The first thing to recognize is this - 

A system's #1 priority is to sustain itself.

That goes for any college, corporation, sports team, and yes, improv theater. No one individual's success is more important than survival and growth of the organization as a whole. This means that any decision a system makes is starting from a place of "how does this benefit the system?", not "how does this benefit the individual?". There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It can and should be a symbiotic relationship. A healthy system can more easily support performer growth. But there are limits to how much this can benefit us as individuals.

Plenty of us got into improv because we have dreams of emulating our comedy idols. "Making It" - a vague and variably defined combination of status and success in tv & film - was a big part of why we got started in performance and why we continue to perform. Because it is so vague and variably defined it can be difficult to determine how to get there, so we rely on the theater system to show us the way. This is especially true for systems like The Second City and UCB that have a decent amount of alumni who fit our definition of "Making It". Having recognizable alumni can be beneficial for a theater's reputation, but it's not something it can (or will) directly pursue. The tv & film industry (Hollywood) is a massive system in its own right, and one that is particularly difficult to break into as a performer. It helps to be talented, which you can certainly become in an improv theater, but just as navigating an improv system takes patience, practice, and commitment, so does navigating the Hollywood system. Improv theaters may be able to help us make connections or put us in front of producers, agents, and managers, but as long as they aren't in the business of tv & film production, that's about as far as they can take us. The rest is in Hollywood's hands.

 

If the goal is indeed "Making It", we should always carry the awareness that we are a commodity in competing systems. Improv theaters and the tv & film industry are both businesses that sell products. Improv systems sell education and live comedy. Hollywood systems sell pre-recorded narratives and commercials. Improv systems make us good at what improv systems sell. Hollywood systems make us good at what Hollywood systems sell. They both value some of the same skills (writing & acting), which is why we could all name some people who made the leap from improv to Hollywood. But it's not at all the case that improv systems lead directly into Hollywood systems. The path doesn't exactly line up. If we want to make a jump from an improv system to the Hollywood system, we need to make a conscious choice to shift our focus from one to the other.

If we are trying to transition from an improv system to a Hollywood system, we might find it to be difficult to leave. Because a theater's #1 priority is to sustain itself, it will heavily emphasize stability. Systems inherently resist change, and if we've made ourselves valuable to our theater as an instructor and performer, it will naturally try to retain us as long as it can. It takes a lot of time and energy to grow a competent improviser. It's an investment. And especially if it's making money off of our abilities, it benefits the theater to keep us around as long as possible rather than hand us off to another system. This resistance can manifest itself in different ways. At its worst and most damaging it will be a widespread systemic insecurity - the idea that no one at our theater could ever possibly be good enough to "Make It" so it's not worth trying. Particularly susceptible to this are small theaters that haven't ever produced a notable performer and those with poor and/or manipulative management. At its best and most challenging it will be the abundance of new and exciting shows to perform in, constant creative growth, and the unwillingness to leave our friends and give up our community status to start over somewhere else. This will be a problem for big theaters with a vast community, notable legacies, and plenty of diverse opportunities. Most places will have varying degrees of both.

In short, a theater system will not "Make" you. It doesn't have to in order to sustain itself and it's often not in its best interest. That's the bad news. The good news is the people who are going to "Make It" will do it anyway with or without a theater's direct assistance. So, if we wanted to, how do we become one of those people?

The first step is believing it's possible.

 

Much like how our education systems train us to progress along a predetermined path, our social systems train us to behave in predetermined ways. Frequently this comes in the form of associating aspects of our personalities with where we come from. This could be literally physical location ("She's nice because she's from the South"), family history ("He's rude because he comes from old money"), or personal backstory ("I'm afraid of water because I almost drowned when I was a kid"). Humans love to justify things based on the past, and that's something we often play into even if we don't recognize that we're doing it. If the environment we're raised in expects us to be polite, we'll eventually start behaving politely even if we don't want to because it's easier than fighting against it. Of course some of us will choose to be polite because it's a nice thing to do, but social pressures are strong and plenty of us who might prefer to be rude will choose to be polite simply to avoid social repercussions. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly submitting ourselves to social expectations. Consciously or unconsciously, we consider what other people might think before we make our choices. This is great when we are compelled to act virtuously (like being polite) but can be a hinderance when we are pressured to behave in a way that prevents us from improving ourselves or accomplishing personal goals.

Social systems, like any others, resist change. We prefer that people behave in consistent, expected ways and play consistent, expected roles. We like to feel in control, and one of the biggest things that helps us feel that way is when other people are behaving predictably. However, because none of us are born successful, if we want to be, we're going to have to change in some ways. If we really want to achieve our goals we're probably going to have to adjust things like our attitude, our priorities, our image, and our circle of influence. As we make these adjustments, we should expect to encounter some social resistance along the way.

Early in my adult life, when I was still trying to figure out who I was, I posted this photo on Facebook.

It's a simple selfie; nothing special. But at the time it was somewhat uncharacteristic for me. All through college I was a floppy-haired nerd with no real confidence. I wasn't cool and I wasn't supposed to try to be. I think my friend was being a little tongue-in-cheek when they left their comment, but it struck a chord with me.

"Who do you think you are??" 

At the time I honestly had no idea. I wanted to write for television but I had no clue how to make that happen or even where to start. It seemed impossibly out of reach and in the back of my mind I never really expected to be able to do it anyway. I wanted to be comfortable with myself and not a constant ball of anxiety who would run from every challenge I was presented with. That self-esteem felt similarly out of reach, which only compounded its absence. The comment left me embarrassed. I knew the image I was presenting in this photo was dishonest and my friend had called me out on it. On the other hand, it was an image I vastly preferred over my "honest" one. The guy in the photo was cool and confident. The guy posting the photo was definitely not. I wanted to be the guy in the photo. I didn't want to be the guy posting it.

Over the next several years, I slowly figured out how to become more comfortable with myself. I discovered improv, which forced me to push my limits constantly and fail often. I learned that failure was never as terrible in actuality as it was in my imagination. I learned that whenever I forced myself to get back onstage after bad shows I was a little bit better. The whole time, that comment stuck with me. It would pop into my mind every time I had any self-doubt. But the interesting thing was that the more confident I became about my abilities, the more comfortable I became with myself, the more I started to actually like the person I was becoming, the more its meaning began to change. I had originally interpreted it as a deterrent - "this isn't who you are" - but over time it became an invitation  - "who do you want to be?". "You can't have what you want." became "What do you want to have?".

It wasn't until recently that I understood that the comment in its original interpretation was my social system resisting change. Whether my friend intended it or not, it initially acted to discourage me from pursuing anything beyond what I already had and being anything other than what I already was. For a while it worked. I considered what other people would think before I did anything. I shied away from doing things that I considered to be "not me". I would let other people's opinions define who I was. I let myself be defined by my past. It was only by forcing myself to not care about what other people thought that I really started coming into myself. The more I was able to ignore discouraging feedback, the more I was able to push myself to pursue the things I wanted to do instead of the things other people wanted me to do, the more confident I became. The more I was able to let go of where I came from, the faster I grew. I've encountered plenty of social resistance as I grew into the person I wanted to be, but "Who do you think you are??" stuck (and still does) because of its fluid interpretation. I have since managed to transform it from a barrier into a motivator, but only because at some point along the way I decided I wasn't going to let it beat me.

Lots of us will submit to social resistance without even knowing we're doing it. We'll accept whatever we've been given by where we come from or what we've done, play into the images and personalities we are told we should have by other people, often because being told who we are and how to be can be easier than figuring it out on our own. But when we submit to these external definitions at the expense of being honest with ourselves and pursuing who we truly want to be, we commit ourselves to dissatisfaction. Instead of pursuing what we really want, we behave how other people tell us to behave. We look how other people tell us to look. We do what other people tell us to do. We want what other people tell us to want. We let ourselves get trapped by the judgments, desires, and expectations of others.

There's an Alan Watts quote I've found to be useful whenever I find myself unhappy with myself:

You're under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.

The idea is that we're not as locked to our past as we assume we are. We are perfectly capable of changing practically anything about ourselves just by deciding to do it. Fixing bad habits, learning new skills, improving how we treat people, how we treat ourselves, what we prioritize, how we think - we can adjust all of these things by deciding to do it and committing completely to making it happen. It might be difficult. It will take time. But if we believe in our ability to make it happen and ignore external resistance, nothing can stop us.

People will tell you you can't have what you want. Ignore it. Even better, use it as fuel.

This doesn't mean we should stop listening to other people entirely. It means we should learn to recognize whether feedback is constructive or restrictive. Are they resisting our change because someone's getting hurt or is us changing making them uncomfortable? Are they doubting us because they think we can't succeed or because they see hurdles we don't? A lot of it depends on who is giving the feedback. Feedback from trusted close friends and family who have our best interest in mind and are rooting for us is more likely to be constructive. Feedback from people we aren't close to and don't trust is more likely to be restrictive. "Who do you think you are??" was definitely initially restrictive. It was only through a lot of work on myself that I was able to make it constructive.

 

So what does any of this have to do with "Making It"?

The point is we have chosen a massively popular, very difficult goal, and we're going to encounter all sorts of external resistance as we seek it. That resistance, if we let it affect us, can slow or even stop our journey completely. If we really do want to succeed, it's in our best interest to believe so strongly in ourselves that we can power through no matter what gets thrown at us.

Theater systems provide opportunity but they can also become a distraction. They lay a clear path for us to follow, which is helpful when that path was created by people who have managed to make their way to some desired position and want to show us how to get there. On the other hand, a popular path can become overcrowded and our journey can be slowed by traffic. A well-worn path can become obsolete if whatever resource it leads to gets depleted by others. A lengthy path can be a distraction, especially if it leads somewhere we don't actually want to go. We should utilize these systems as a resource but recognize when it's time to move on. Even if we still feel like we're moving, the best thing to do might be taking the leap to the next system. There will be times in our careers where we will have to pass on good opportunities to get to something better. We shouldn't be afraid to let go of a good thing, even if we don't yet see the great thing up ahead.

It's also important, especially early in our journey, to disassociate systemic success from our individual value. If we're having trouble breaking in or if we've gotten forced out, it can hurt to feel like we got kicked off the path. But let's remember how the system functions. The upside to any theater system is its efficiency. It becomes very good at identifying people who will thrive within it and separating them from those who won't. If we don't fit the system's "type", it either doesn't let us in to begin with, or it eventually forces us out. But just because we're not the system's type doesn't mean we're not valuable. It doesn't mean we're not skilled at what we do. It only means we aren't a good fit for the system, whose priority is not the success of any individual but to sustain itself.

System fit does not equate to individual value and is not a requirement for success. Think of all the Harvard graduates who aren't billionaires. Think of all the UCB Harold cast members who don't have their own television shows. The downside to any system is homogeny. Because it needs to be efficient, it doesn't necessarily support uniqueness. Another downside is that if a system gets large enough, it moves too slow. If we want to really "Make It", we have to be both unique and move quickly. Successful people use systems when it's advantageous and find ways to work outside of them when it isn't. Bill Gates isn't any less successful because he dropped out of Harvard. Broad City isn't any less successful because Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer never made a UCB Harold team. They used the opportunities presented to them when they could, and made their own when they either couldn't get them or had no more use for them.

We are responsible for our own success.

Understanding this can help us move freely when the predetermined paths don't seem to be working for us, or when we encounter some resistance along the way. It also helps to understand the systems we're getting involved in. The more we understand what they value, the more we can use them to our advantage. If we're trying to "Make It", it benefits us to practice the things that Hollywood sells, like writing, acting, and video production. If we're trying to succeed in a theater system, it benefits us to practice what they sell - live performance and teaching. No matter what, the biggest thing we can do for our success is knowing exactly what we want and not letting anyone or anything discourage us from going after it. After that, we chase it as hard as we can, knowing for sure that one day we'll catch it.

 

I'll finish with a video and some advice that works both onstage and off :

Make a decision. Commit to it as hard as you can. Never look back.

Fight Well: Exploring The Four Types of Conflict

In I'd Like To Have An Argument we explored the ins and outs of a very common type of improv scene - one that is primarily focused on an interpersonal disagreement. One of the things we touched on in that post was the idea that if we're not entirely comfortable onstage, it often raises our Fight or Flight response.

In a high pressure situation like an audition, the chances of being uncomfortable onstage skyrocket. Nerves are going to be an issue. We know we're being judged. We know we need to execute. Plus, there are a lot of uncontrollable variables. What if we don't get more than a couple short windows to showcase our abilities? What if we get steamrolled, or tagged out too quick, or talked over? It doesn't help that everyone else is nervous too. Or that by now we've recognized how nervous we are and get even more nervous that we're being too nervous.

All this adds up to being uncomfortable, and discomfort means Fight or Flight. Unfortunately, in an audition, if we actually want a chance at being cast, Flight isn't an option. So we Fight. We have the overwhelming urge to lash out; to protect ourselves. Obviously this is not ideal. If we had our way we'd be totally comfortable. But it's practically impossible to control these natural responses. They will be a factor. So instead of trying to ignore them, we should learn how to use them effectively.

If we're going to Fight, we should know how to Fight well.

 
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Traditionally in narrative (and improv is a kind of narrative) there are four types of conflict:

human v Human
human v Self
human v Nature
human v Society

Let's take a closer look at each one and see how we might be able to apply them to our scenes.

 

human v Human is by far the most common type of conflict in improv. While there's a spectrum of v Human conflict ranging from passive plotting to active violence, most of the conflict we'll run into in improv is in the form of an argument. Passive plotting generally moves far too slow to pay off in a 3-4 minute scene, and active violence is both hard to pull off logistically (and safely) and will burn out far too quickly.

The reason it's so prevalent is twofold. The first is that the other human(s) onstage with us are the only thing* that isn't invisible, so they draw our attention. We tend to turn our focus on our scene partner, as we should, but if we're in Fight mode, they might be in for a battle. This is the other reason v Human is so common. It's dynamic. Arguments can twist and turn as we change topics and follow tangents. They can start one place and end so far away that we forget what the original disagreement was about.

But this dynamism is a double-edged sword. One one hand, an argument can be funny and interesting enough to sustain a scene from end to end. On the other hand, an argument can make it feel like the scene is moving when it isn't. Often we get so distracted by trying to put our character in a better debate position that we don't notice that the scene hasn't gone anywhere. On the inside it feels like we're doing something because we're sparring over whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher, but from the outside all the audience is watching is a dishwasher not getting unloaded. Eventually, someone needs to lose. A good v Human scene has both sides losing in some places and winning in others. Arguments are like improviser duels. If it's exciting I don't care if it ends in a draw. If it's not I should at least get to see someone die at the end.

For a closer look at argument scenes, here's another link to I'd Like To Have An Argument. 

 

human v Self is a fairly common in scripted comedy but underutilized in improv, and for good reason. Internal conflict is both nuanced and generally unspoken, which makes it difficult to express accurately and compellingly in the heat of the moment. It's also very much an individual conflict, so it doesn't inherently require a connection to another character. This is clearly not ideal for improv. That being said, it can absolutely work in the right circumstances.

The best way to utilize v Self conflict in improv is by having one character's nature get in the way of something everyone in the scene wants. A clumsy waiter, for example, very much wants to serve their patrons, who in turn very much want to be served. But if the waiter's clumsiness continually and increasingly prevents them from successfully serving those patrons, everyone in the scene is in conflict with their clumsiness. The patrons will likely be upset at the waiter's incapacity to serve, but the waiter will be just as upset. They wish they would stop dropping plates just as much as the patrons do, they just can't figure out how to do it. The waiter's desire to overcome their own shortcomings is what makes the conflict internal and therefore v Self. If the waiter chooses to defend their clumsiness, suddenly the conflict is v Human - waiter v patrons. 

Another way to use v Self conflict is with a Peas-in-a-Pod scene. If both characters share the same internal conflict, watching them explore it and attempt to overcome it together can be very fun. Again, it requires both character's natures to get in the way of a shared goal. Maybe two chemistry students are attempting to run an experiment but keep getting distracted by stuff happening out the window. When they come back to the lab bench and realize their experiment ran afoul while they weren't paying attention, they're likely to be mad at themselves. But it's in their nature to get distracted, so it keeps happening over and over in increasingly ridiculous ways as they get increasingly frustrated with themselves. An even more nuanced version of this Peas-in-a-Pod v Self conflict might be that the students have different individual tendencies that work concurrently to prevent them from accomplishing their shared goal. Maybe one student keeps getting distracted by the window, while the other's impatience causes them to turn up the heat too far on the bunsen burner. The distracted student's distractedness prevents them from keeping an eye on the impatient one. The impatient one's impatience seizes the opportunity to strike while left unchecked. The defining factor in this example that makes it v Self is that the blame for the failed experiment is directed at the tendencies, not the individuals. The distracted student recognizes that they keep getting distracted and wishes they could stop so they could keep a better eye on the impatient one. The impatient one recognizes that their impatience keeps causing them to rush the experiment enough to ruin it and similarly wishes they could control it. Both students blame themselves, not each other, for their failures. Therefore the conflict is internal - v Self

 

human v Nature puts our characters in conflict with their environment. The obvious scenarios in this category are weather like storms or inhospitable climates, but any antagonistic environment, like a challenging corn maze or a haunted library, would fit this type.

The important thing in a v Nature conflict in improv is that we find a way to make the environment a dynamic character in itself. Just as a v Human conflict has give and take between individuals, the environment needs to continually find new and interesting ways to antagonize the characters on stage. This can be done internally through dialogue ("oh no, the waves are getting bigger!") or externally with object work and sound effects from the sides (miming a flying book, ominous ghostly laughter). Treat the environment like a living breathing being and the conflict becomes much more sustainable. As long as we find new and interesting ways for the environment to be threatening, there should always be something for our characters to react to.

Just like v Self conflict, v Nature is a way to avoid fighting between characters. Nothing unites people better than a shared external threat (the enemy of my enemy is my friend). We might have the urge to try to blame someone for putting us in this dangerous situation, but if the threat from the environment is both imminent and immersive, it will naturally be our primary focus. If we need to find the maze exit before the sun sets, we don't have time to figure out whose fault it was that we got lost in the first place. In a v Nature conflict, blame is secondary to exploration and joint struggle.

 

human v Society conflict pits our characters against social norms and hegemony. This is is a particularly rich type of conflict in improv because we are creating the universe in which the scene exists, so the rules and norms of that universe can be vastly different from those of our own. This is where comedy can work as social commentary - flipping, twisting, or amplifying the rules of our universe to highlight ridiculous or unjust features. It's also a place where we can explore points of view we would never otherwise consider or support, like a sad murderer who just wants to murder but can't because of society's backward views.

In improv, v Society conflict functions a lot like v Nature except that the external threat is social ostracism instead of death by environment. Peas-in-a-Pod/Us-Against-the-World scenes will be particularly effective in this category, since the more we avoid in-fighting between characters, the more we can explore the societal ramifications of our point of view. Two murderers might disagree about what type of murder is best, but they can both agree how annoying it is to have to take the long way home to avoid driving past the police station.

Like v Nature, v Society conflict requires that society be personified. A scene that is simply characters complaining about societal rules won't sustain itself for very long. There needs to be some dynamism to keep things moving. We need to find ways to let society fight back. We can do this by creating representatives that embrace the societal views that our characters are in conflict with. Maybe it's a restaurant owner who refuses to serve murderers. Maybe it's a politician pushing a bill that requires murderers to use separate bathrooms. Unlike v Nature, a v Society scene will need to move our characters in space and time fairly frequently so we can explore as many different aspects of society as possible. It will probably require a significant amount of side support and utilize a lot walk-ons and tag-outs to keep things moving. Because the representatives of society are meant to function as arms of hegemony and not fully-formed characters, we shouldn't dwell on them for too long. If we treat Society as a character, the way to best explore that character's depth is with breadth. We should try to cycle through as many different societal representatives as possible for our anti-Society characters to interact with. Because of this, a v Society conflict scene will generally be more of a team effort than any of the other types. It's also a great type of conflict to utilize in Harold, because it is so rich. Even if our murderers interact with three or four representatives of society in a 1st Beat, there should still be plenty of ways to heighten and explore in 2nd and 3rd Beats.

 

Knowing these four types of conflict and how to execute them effectively should open up more options for us when we feel the need to Fight. Especially knowing that v Self, v Nature, and v Society conflict tend to focus our attention inward or outward instead of at our scene partner, choosing them over v Human conflict is a great way to avoid the common argument. Hopefully, if we embrace our discomfort instead of trying to hide from it and recognize that we have targets other than our scene partner, we can put our Fight energy to good use. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*except the chairs, which is why we've all started scenes by messing with the chairs

I'd Like to Have An Argument

Conflict - the essence of drama and the scourge of improv comedy.

Take a random sample of 10 average improv scenes and 7 of them will consist of sort of argument. One character will be yelling at another to stop doing something. Two characters will be fighting over what they should be doing. A whole group of people shouting about how they don't like what they're doing or who they're doing it with. Sometimes these scenes really work. Sometimes they're almost unwatchable.

What makes the success rate of argument scenes so inconsistent? Can they be avoided or are they inevitable? If we happen to find ourselves arguing in a scene, what are some ways we can increase our chances of success?

 

First let's pinpoint when argument happens in a scene. An argument occurs when one character takes issue with the behavior of another character, confronts them about it, and the second character chooses to defend that behavior. An argument is never forced by only one character. It's a deliberate shared choice to engage on an issue. It takes two to tango, so to speak.

There are essentially three types of argument scenes based on where the problem behavior occurs in time: Past, Present, & Future. 

PAST PROBLEM: One character blames another for causing their current (negative) circumstances.
Ex: "Ugh, we're lost! I can't believe you said we didn't need a map!"

PRESENT PROBLEM: One character doesn't like what the other is currently doing.
Ex: "Stop driving so fast! I'm going to throw up!"

FUTURE PROBLEM: One character wants to do something the other character doesn't want them to do OR one character wants the other to do something that character doesn't want to do.
Ex: "Jump the fence of the enclosure so I can take a picture of you with the lion."

Note that all of these examples are not yet arguments. They've fulfilled the first two steps so they're well on their way, but they require a defensive response in order to really get going. 

That defensive response, the desire to push back against an accusation or command, is quite natural, especially when we aren't entirely comfortable with our own abilities or the space we're in or who we're improvising with. When we're uncomfortable we tend to resort to some of our baseline instincts, mainly the Fight or Flight response. When Flight is winning we find ourselves avoiding going out onstage or playing only supporting roles or finding an excuse to leave a scene. When Fight is winning we often try to control the behavior of our scene partner or get defensive and stubborn about our own. Recognize when we're uncomfortable and we'll be more aware of these responses. Become aware of how we're responding and we might be able to prevent ourselves from going down a panic-driven path we'd prefer to not go down.

If our preferred path is avoiding an argument completely, they are relatively simple to evade. As mentioned above, an argument requires a confrontation followed by a defensive response. We can avoid the first step by choosing to not have a problem with the behavior of our scene partner, or if we do have a problem, we can choose to not confront them about it. We can either keep it to ourselves or express our displeasure in other more indirect ways. If we are the ones being confronted, we can avoid arguing by conceding that our behavior was indeed problematic. Nothing stops a fight faster than "you're right". 

However, knowing that it's perfectly possible to have a successfully entertaining argument in a scene, we might not always want to avoid them. How, then, do we argue effectively?

Let's find out by taking a deeper look at each type of argument scene. 

 

PAST PROBLEM

 
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One character blames another for causing their current (negative) circumstances.
Ex: "Ugh, we're lost! I can't believe you said we didn't need a map!"

The accuser is this example is rightfully upset at being lost, but simply confronting their scene partner for causing it doesn't make it an argument. It only becomes one when the second character gets defensive. In a Past Problem scene this usually means they attempt to either deflect blame ("Well I didn't know there was going to be an accident that closed the highway!") or reflect it ("Well you're the one who wanted to see what downtown looked like."). This is the sort of move that leads to what Alex Berg calls a "Wizard Battle" - an improviser duel where each line adds additional information that twists the circumstances that functions to paint each character in a more sympathetic light.

We do it because we have strong natural tendencies to defend ourselves from perceived attacks. It's the Fight in Fight or Flight. We don't like the feeling of blame, so we deflect or reflect it. In improv, because the past is unknown, we can essentially conjure it away. It's an easy trap to fall into. What usually happens next is that the accuser (who would have known about the accident or wanting to see downtown if this were real life, but just got surprised by this new information) feels the need to double down on their accusation. They know their character would be aware of those things before making the accusation, so they can't take it back. The rest of the scene ends up being about each character maneuvering their way around the other so they can be right.

The reason it's such a big trap is that the improvisers in a Wizard Battle feel like the scene is moving when it's not. Because they're adding new information, it feels like there's momentum, but generally all the information being added is historical ("This is just like that time you...", "Well it's not as bad as when you...", "If we hadn't stopped to get you a snack...", etc). The scene isn't actually going anywhere because all the attention is on all the things that led up to how the characters got to this moment. They're living in the past. The audience doesn't care how we got lost; they care how our characters behave now that we are. Do we panic and start crashing into things? Do we try to make the most of it and use it as an excuse to try some local cuisine? What happens if one of the characters panics and the other enjoys it? How do those viewpoints continually clash as we do more "being lost" things?

A commonly taught trick to escape the Past Problem is "you always", which is well-meaning but has varying levels of effectiveness. It's meant to gift a Point Of View onto our scene partner so that they know what to do for the rest of the scene, but it also relies on our ability to cleanly turn a single example of behavior into a broader personality trait. Something like "You always think we don't need the map when we go on road trips" attempts the trick but falls short because all it tells us is that this exact scenario has happened before. It's too specific to be of any help. It's not a POV because it requires a specific set of circumstances (road trip) and a one-time decision (do we need the map?). On the other hand, something like "You're always underprepared" or "You always assume nothing will go wrong" is perfect because it can be applied to any set of circumstances and infinite decisions. It gives us something to play with. So if our scene partner hits us with "you're always underprepared" when we find ourselves lost, it gives us so much more to do. Now if our car gets a flat tire while we're driving around being lost we can suddenly remember we didn't bring the spare because we didn't think we'd need it.

"You always" is a decent way of escape once you're in it, but the best way to avoid a Past Problem starts when we set aside our egos and embrace our mistakes. 

It's okay to have been wrong.

When we understand this and stop needing to be right all the time, we can move on and focus on the present moment. The circumstances that got us to where we are do not matter. The only thing that matters is what we do now.

So what can we do if we find ourselves focusing on a Past Problem in a scene?

  • If we are the character doing the blaming...
    • forgive and forget. Avoid harping on the character that messed up.
    • try to work together to fix it.
  • If we are the character being blamed...
    • embrace the mistake. Admit that we messed up.
    • repeat the mistake. 
    • make things worse.

 

PRESENT PROBLEM

 
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One character doesn't like what the other is currently doing.
Ex: "Stop driving so fast! I'm going to throw up!"

A general improv rule is that the word "stop" means "keep doing that". "Stop" usually comes from the character playing the Voice of Reason (aka Straight Man), who serves to establish the norms of behavior in the world that's currently being explored. Often, but not always, those norms mirror those of our real lives, which is why the Voice of Reason is considered to be a representative of the audience. It's a crucial role in comedy, and one that has to be handled with a significant amount of finesse.

If the scene is an airplane, the Unusual Character controls the stick. Their choices dictate which direction the scene will go. The Voice of Reason controls the throttle. The amount they tolerate the behavior of the Unusual Character determines how fast or slow the scene moves. Let the Unusual Character do whatever they want and the scene either burns through fuel too quickly or spins out of control. Stop the Unusual Character completely and the scene stalls and crashes. A good Voice of Reason finds a middle ground where they alternate allowing and reigning in the behavior of the Unusual Character to match the pace of the show and the energy of the room.

In the driving too fast example, the Voice of Reason fulfills the important task of creating stakes. It's not enough to simply name the Unusual Character's driving speed as abnormal and therefore unacceptable, there have to be specific consequences for that abnormal behavior. This creates a setup/payoff pattern that can be explored and heightened. However, it's immensely important that the improviser playing the Voice of Reason recognizes that they have to follow through on the stakes they set up. They might start the scene by saying "stop" and making a couple attempts to get the driver to slow down, but they eventually have to find a way to lose. They eventually have to vomit.

Perhaps the most important requirement for playing an effective Voice of Reason is the ability to separate the needs of our character from the needs of the scene. As improvisers, our loyalties lie with the scene as a whole. A lot of times, what the scene needs is for bad stuff to happen to our character. This can be difficult to do. If we are fully committing to our character emotionally, as we should, we will often actually be feeling the things they feel. If our character really doesn't want to vomit in the car, we might let that cloud our idea of what should happen in the scene. But if the scene is to avoid stalling and crashing, it needs to happen.

We are not our character.

They aren't real. Their existence is temporary. Who cares what happens to them? Put them through something. See how they respond.

So what can we do if we find ourselves focusing on a Present Problem in a scene?

  • If we are the character not liking the action...
    • establish stakes/consequences.
    • allow the action to proceed.
    • explore the consequences.
    • repeat.
  • If we are the character whose actions are disliked...
    • ignore "stop" or only stop temporarily.
    • find ways to either heighten the action or repeat it from a new angle.

 

FUTURE PROBLEM

 
 

One character wants to do something the other character doesn't want them to do OR one character wants the other to do something that character doesn't want to do.
Ex: "Jump the fence of the enclosure so I can take a picture of you with the lion."

The Future Problem shares a lot of similarities with the Past Problem and Present Problem, because a Future Problem is simply a Past Problem or Present Problem waiting to happen. The big trap of the Future Problem is when we get so bogged down in debating the various hypothetical consequences of a scenario that does not yet exist that we never actually get to see the scenario play out. The goal then, much like the Present Problem, is to predict the consequences of the future action, then let the action happen to see if we were right or wrong. The character being urged to enter the lion enclosure might rightly argue that they don't want to do it because they'll get attacked by the lion. But once they've set up those potential consequences, we need to see how accurate that prediction is. 

Again, we are not our character. Don't let our desire for self-preservation overpower the needs of the scene.

Action should always win.

That's not to say there can be no debate beforehand, but the debate shouldn't be the entire scene. We learn a lot about our characters when they expand upon their opinions. Why does the photographer need the photo of their companion next to the lion? Are they trying to become a nature photographer and this is the best they can do? Are they trying to set up an incident so they can sue the zoo? Both of these rationales tell us a ton about how they think and what their values are.

The same goes for the character being photographed. Do they not want to get in because they're allergic to cats? Are they concerned about getting attacked because they're out of sick days? We learn a lot about who they are based on what they bring up in their protest. But the protest should only last as long as it takes to establish a Point of View. Eventually, the scene will demand action. Eventually they should be willing to suck up the allergy symptoms to help their friend's career. Eventually they should absorb the attack to make enough money from the lawsuit to quit their job with poor benefits. 

This is not intuitive, especially if we're not entirely comfortable. "React honestly" is a popular improv note that prevents a lot of people from letting action win in scenarios like this. Coming up we hear "What would you do in this situation? Do that." so much we think we think that's how we should be thinking at all times. But often the most effective thing we can do is something that we would never in a million years do if we found ourselves in that situation in real life. "React honestly" in this case means being just as afraid of the lion as we really would be, but choosing to hop the fence anyway.

So what can we do if we find ourselves focusing on a Future Problem in a scene?

  • If we are the character preventing the action...
    • establish stakes/consequences.
    • allow the action to proceed.
    • explore the consequences.
    • repeat.
  • If we are the character creating the action...
    • justify the action.
    • find ways to either heighten the action or repeat it from a new angle.

 

It's okay to have been wrong. We are not our character. Action should always win. An argument will be much more effective if it is focused on what is currently happening or what is imminent. It will be much more entertaining if we are willing to put our characters through things we wouldn't put ourselves through normally. If we can manage to keep our arguments focused on the present and constantly moving forward, they'll be a lot more successful and a lot more fun.

Better, Faster

"By improvising you reshape the brain, and when you reshape the brain your consciousness changes, and it changes the way you see the world. And so the way you see the world and the way you interact with everything changes because of the act of doing improvisation. That's why people are addicted to it." - Anthony Atamanuik 

 

Improv is addicting. People fall in love. Hard. For life.

It's addicting for the same reason video games and sports are addicting - the practice of honing the skill over time mirrors the human experience without any of the real serious consequences. Just as in life, progress is inconsistent and variable and frustrating. There are highs and lows of triumph and disappointment. Some concepts are easy to grasp. Others seem completely incomprehensible. There are days where we coast through with ease and then the next will seem impossible to get through. At times it feels pointless. At others it feels like the only thing that matters. But unlike life we can take risks more easily in improv and video games and sports because any potential failure is impermanent. There can always be another scene, another game, another season. We can always try again.

It's addicting because the risks we take are rewarded. It constantly finds ways to surprise us when we thought we had seen it all. It's impossible to perfect, which means we can always find ways to get better. It challenges us and forces us to grow. It teaches us to be decisive, to be active, to listen, to collaborate. It teaches us to be honest, to be fearless, to commit to our choices without judging them or the choices of others. It teaches us empathy. It teaches us trust. These onstage lessons start to seep into our offstage lives and we come to find they work just as well there. "It changes the way you see the world."

Most importantly, it's addicting because it forces us to be fully present. It places us in intensely focused moments where we feel completely connected to ourselves and our scene partners and the audience, and we are so in sync with the energy of the space that we know whatever we do is the right thing to do and whatever happens was supposed to happen. It makes us understand that we're all here together, that none of us have any idea where we're going, that we're fine with that, and we're enjoying the hell out of the ride. 

 

With addiction comes an insatiable hunger for more, and with improv that means wanting to get better as fast as possible. So how do we feed that hunger? How do we get better, faster?

Here's the short answer:

The #1 way to get better is massive amounts of stage time.

Not classes. Not workshops. Not practice groups. The best way to get better is by getting up on stage in front of an audience of 1 to 100 people and improvising without the safety net of a coach or teacher or director to nudge us in the right direction if we panic. Classes, workshops, and practice groups are great ways to train skills and raise our baseline of competence, but nothing accelerates ability more than putting ourselves in front people who expect to be entertained and trying to entertain them.

Do it a lot. Do a lot of indie shows. Do a lot of jams. Do it before you think you're ready. Do it when you're afraid to do it, especially when you're afraid to do it. Put yourself in a position to fail and keep failing until failure stops being a bad thing. The goal is to get to a point where a bad set doesn't touch your confidence, it just makes you frustrated that you didn't quite execute. So instead of "I had a bad show and I suck at this." it's "I had a bad show and I can't believe I have to wait two weeks to try again." And the only way to get to that point is to fail so much you become numb to it.

Do it over and over and over. 

And don't just do it with a team or a form you're comfortable with. Try a duo, or a musical, or a monoscene, or a solo character. Find ways to put yourself in uncomfortable positions and then follow through. You don't have to do it forever, you don't even have to like it, but getting in the habit of taking risks and challenging yourself will pay off in courage and confidence. Along the way you'll learn some new skills and tricks and develop your own ideas of what works and what doesn't. You'll develop your own personal style and voice. You'll get better, faster.

 

 

Now for the long answer. Although first let's clarify the question.

How do we get better, faster?

Well what does it mean to be better? In video games and sports, quality is quantified. We get more wins or more points or a faster time or higher stats. But there aren't any improv stats*. So what is it we're actually looking to improve upon? What is the actual goal we're shooting for? Is to be funnier? Think faster? A better listener? More supportive? A more convincing actor?

Yes. All the above and so much more. There are a million little improv skills that need to be nurtured and exercised that it seems impossible to keep track of them all. And it is. Because the ultimate goal isn't to keep track of all the skills we have and pull them out under the appropriate circumstances.

The ultimate goal is to be able to access a state of mind where we act honestly without thinking.

It's saying something funny not because we were trying to be but because it was what we wanted to say. It's mirroring our scene partner not because it was a good improv move, but because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It's reacting with a strong emotion not because we were intentionally adding emotional depth to the scene, but because we actually felt strongly about something and couldn't help but express it.

Here's Anthony Atamanuik again, this time in audio form:

"Spacial reference, mental reference, emotional reference - all those things happening at the same time." This is the state of mind we're shooting for. It's being able to access multiple levels of awareness simultaneously and immediately. To get to a point in the practice of improvisation where we completely stop thinking. To get to a point where we act entirely on impulse.

This state of mind is not unique to improv, but it's very hard to access intentionally and consistently. Here's Bruce Lee talking about the same thing in martial arts:

The method is different but the goal is the same - "honestly expressing yourself". So how do we get there, or at least headed in that direction?

 

If honest expression is the end goal, it makes sense that the way to get there is by practicing being honest with ourselves; more importantly, practicing being honest with ourselves while being completely free of judgement.

This is not something we are ever taught to do. From the day we are born we are bombarded with societal and cultural ideas about who we are, the type of person we should be, how we should behave, and how we should think about ourselves. As a result we develop masks we wear to fulfill the expectations of various societal roles. We conform to traditional behavior because unorthodoxy is often shunned or punished. These expectations become so ingrained in us that we force them upon ourselves and stop being honest about who we really are. We do things not because we want to do them but because we feel like we should. We judge ourselves for our perceived faults and hide from them, overcompensating with fabricated personas in the hopes that no one will notice who we really are. We hide from ourselves because we fear being judged. We judge ourselves so others won't.

But improv has an amazing ability to force us to confront the things we judge about ourselves whether we want to or not. Whatever we've been hiding from, even if we aren't consciously aware of it, it will eventually find and bring to the surface for us to face. If we want to get better, we will have to acknowledge it, embrace it, and work through it. And it will do this over and over again with everything we've been hiding from until we reach the ultimate goal.

For me, as it is for a lot of people, the first thing I had to face was my lack of confidence. This was something I was well aware of going in. I could fake confidence pretty well, but it was a lie, and I knew it. On the inside I was a terrified ball of anxiety, constantly worried about doing or saying the wrong thing. I would freeze up on stage because I was so worried about making a wrong move. I wouldn't go out in scenes because I was afraid to screw up. But I knew if I wanted to be good I'd have to overcome those fears. So I kept forcing myself to do everything I was scared to do. I would leave scenes feeling embarrassed for making what I felt were stupid choices, but I kept going out and making them, and eventually I stopped judging them. And the odd thing was that when I stopped thinking they were bad choices, they stopped being bad choices. The same weird choices that didn't work before were suddenly working. Confidence was everything, and improv had forced me to find it. But in order to do that I had to first stop hating myself for not having it.

That took 2 years.

Then there was listening. This was the first time I was forced to face a weakness I didn't already know about. It turns out my newfound confidence had turned me into a blabbermouth steamrolling monster. I would go into every scene force-feeding my ideas instead of building them with other people. I would try to "win" the scene. I would try to make a joke where it was more important to respond earnestly. The first few times I got the note "you aren't listening" it didn't stick. "Work on your confidence" - that had made sense to me. I knew that was a weakness. But listening? I thought I listened great. But the longer I ignored the note the slower my progress got. Eventually I couldn't ignore it anymore. I had to admit I was a bad listener, even if I didn't quite know what that meant. So I decided to work on it without knowing exactly what I was doing. I came to find that for me listening meant a lot more eye contact, reading body language, and looking for the meaning behind the words. It meant understanding and responding to the deeper message my scene partner was trying to send instead of responding only to what they were saying. For me, listening meant being able to recognize when my ideas were hurting more than they were helping, and being able to drop them when my scene partner needed other things from me. 

That took another year.

What I'm currently confronting is emotion, and it hasn't been easy. I've always had a hard time accessing, understanding, and sharing my emotions, and I am not at all unique in this sense. A lot of it is societal. Men are trained through entertainment and socialization from a young age to hide their emotions - that appearing tough and unflappable is more important than how you feel. I'm sure there are a ton of little moments that added up to get me there, but the big one I remember was when in 7th grade when I cried in math class when I realized I had done the wrong homework assignment. My math teacher pulled me out of my next class to talk to me about it privately, and while I don't remember specifically what he said, I do remember the message - expressing my emotions makes other people uncomfortable. I took the note. At first if I felt anything welling up inside I would isolate myself so others couldn't see. Later I learned that if I started to feel something I could push it back down and ignore it. Eventually I rarely felt anything at all. I had made myself an expert in suppression. I didn't completely stop having emotional moments, but they were unusual, deeply private, and I was enormously embarrassed by them. 

"Emote" was the improv note I fought the hardest for the longest amount of time. I had been able to deflect emotional moments with jokes for years, didn't it make sense to keep doing it if I was making comedy? But coaches kept saying it was my biggest weakness. They kept trying to get me to confront it and I kept refusing or faking it. I'm not sure what the tipping point was, maybe I just had some sense of slowing progress and realized I couldn't hide from it anymore. If I wanted to get better, I needed to confront it and work through it whether I wanted to or not.

If you've seen me perform at all in the last year, I've been actively using that time to slowly undo my avoidance tendencies so I can emote more honestly on stage. Some attempts are more successful than others. In fact most attempts are unsuccessful because it still, mostly, feels inauthentic. I still intellectualize too much. I still often think "is it useful to feel this way?" before expressing myself. But since deciding to get better at it I've been doing this less and less, opting instead to embrace whatever pops up and follow it. I'm still not a very emotional player, but I'm working my way toward it. As a result my characters have felt much more like real people and less like cartoons. I've started following the emotional path in scenes instead of trying to think of the funniest thing to do or say. It's still a struggle. Progress ebbs and flows. But I recognize that I'm attempting to reform a habit built up over many years, so it's going to take a long time to get there. 

Positive change requires honesty, commitment, and patience.

It's important to note that everyone's path is different. Not everyone has the same strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone jumps the same artistic hurdles in the same order or the same timeframe. Maybe your current hurdle is taking charge. Maybe it's letting go of control. Maybe it's fully committing to scenes. Maybe it's simply finding enough stage time. As much as improv is a team activity, the journey is ultimately an individual one. What takes you one year might take me five. As difficult as it is, try not to compare your path to anyone else's. It may be hard to look up and see that our peers are getting more or "better" opportunities, but all that means is their path took them that way and ours didn't. Ultimately we're all working toward the same goal, and with enough time and effort and as little judgment as possible, we'll get there. Embrace your personal journey and you'll get better, faster.

 
 

Because improv is such a mental art form, one of the best ways to improve our skills is by expanding our frame of reference. There are infinite scenarios in which we can find ourselves onstage, and the more these scenarios resonate with us, the easier it will be to respond to them honestly.

The best way to do this is by pursuing activities that would normally be outside of our comfort zones. What is a white water rafting trip really like? What actually happens at a reality tv show audition? What is the actual layout of a sailboat? These are all things we are perfectly capable of finding out first-hand. Seek out unusual adventures, or at the very least say yes to opportunities you'd normally turn down. Even if you have a terrible time on your white water rafting trip, at least you know what that feels like. If it ever comes up in a scene, you'll have a better frame of reference for the process, terminology, and general horrible feeling of being wet and cold while trying not to crash into rocks. Supplement real life adventures with media that portray things we can't experience ourselves like life in medieval monarchies or deep space exploration. Feed your brain as much information as it can handle - it's surprising how often a seemingly obscure reference will suddenly become relevant in a scene.

Just as important as a wide experiential reference is a wide cultural reference. Keep an eye on what shows people are watching, what events are happening in the news, what new app is popular. I have a general rule that if three people independently recommend something to me I'll give it a shot. That's what got me watching Stranger Things and why I'm still playing Pokemon Go. Improv as an art form is unique in its ability to respond to culture immediately as it happens. I've seen shows that referenced news events that happened just hours before. Stay in touch with what's going on around you to keep your frame of reference up to date.

Expand your character reference by talking to people, or more importantly, by listening to people. Go on blind dates. See if your Lyft driver will tell you a story. Eavesdrop on the group at the next table over. Indulge the chatty old woman at the laundromat longer than you normally would. What has she been dealing with recently? How does she see the world? The more people we interact with and the more world views we encounter, the easier it will be for us to play characters with points of view that differ from ours. What is important to real people? What are they passionate about? What worries them? How do they spend their time? Take real details from real people and infuse them into your characters to make them seem more real, more grounded. Get to know a wide variety of people and you'll be able to play a wide variety of characters.

Finally, expand your performance reference. See other theater. See live music. Traditional theater often uses space and sound in interesting ways. What elements might we be able to borrow to make our improv more theatrical or unique? What scene editing tools did this play use that we might want to bring back to our indie team? How does the lead singer of our favorite band interact with the crowd to create the energy they want? How did that burlesque dancer use timing and suspense to make their act more compelling?

In short:

Try new things.

Yes, the easiest way to get better at improv is by doing it a lot, but we don't have to limit learning to the stage. By practicing being honest with ourselves, by pushing our own limits, and by expanding our frame of reference we can get better, faster.

 

 

 

 

 

*yet. There weren't grades a few years ago.

Will Ferrell & The Music of Emotion

In Into the Pensieve: Going Meta we explored how important it is to commit fully to the scene in order to create and maintain audience immersion. But once we've managed to immerse the audience, how can we bring them from a level of simply watching a show to feeling like they are experiencing the show along with the performer, just like a good movie can take us along for the ride with the protagonist? How do we turn witnesses into participants?

First we have to understand that almost everything that happens in improv is invisible. The objects we use, the backstories we conjure, the appearance of our characters and their surroundings - all of these require the audience to be significantly engaged and sufficiently willing to suspend their disbelief in order to fill in the blanks with their imaginations.

Because so much is invisible and thus reliant on our individual imaginations, neither the performers nor the audience are functionally "seeing" the same thing. The coffee cup that I imagine will never be the exact same coffee cup that you imagine, no matter how specifically it is described. When a performer opens a refrigerator and looks inside, dozens of different refrigerators of various styles and colors are placed in that spot simultaneously by every person in the room. In moments like these our collective consciousness is slightly fractured. Our shared experience, though extremely similar, isn't quite perfect.

Standing alone, these inconsistencies are fairly trivial; how important is it really that we are seeing the same refrigerator? Maybe not much. But if we let incongruence compound for too long without balancing it with harmony, it eventually magnifies to a point of creating discomfort. Think of it like consonance and dissonance in music:

In Western music, dissonance is the quality of sounds that seems unstable and has an aural need to resolve to a stable consonance... Dissonance being the complement of consonance it may be defined, as above, as non-coincidence of partials, lack of fusion or pattern matching, or as complexity... The buildup and release of tension (dissonance and resolution), which can occur on every level from the subtle to the crass, is partially responsible for what listeners perceive as beauty, emotion, and expressiveness in music.

Too much focus on the invisible, or dissonant, and the audience starts to get uncomfortable and lean away. This is why "talking heads" scenes generally tend to lose steam over time. They rely too much on imagination, which eventually creates a scenario in which everyone in the room is watching a different version of the scene and knows for sure that everyone else doesn't quite see the scene the same way they do. There is only the slow building of group tension with no resolution. A truly engaging scene, like a truly engaging song, should have a good balance of tension and resolution.

So where does that resolution come from?

 

If the invisible creates dissonance, consonance comes from the visible, and the only things in improv we can all see in the exact same way are body language and facial expression. 

Outwardly these can be used convey meaning about relationship and attitude. Inwardly they can inform our point of view and help establish character. Most importantly, they are the common ground on which everyone in the room can stand; the relief of tension from our dissonant imaginations. We might not all see the same refrigerator, but we all see the same evil grin on a character's face - a shared observation that acts as a welcome visible comfort in a mostly invisible world.

However, to continue with the music analogy, one consonant note is not enough to sustain an entire song. Body language and facial expression, if they remain static, either fade from effectiveness or become repetitive and boring (or even worse, annoying). A scene will only remain interesting and engaging throughout if its consonance is dynamic. When it comes to body language and facial expression, that means variance and amplification. It means emotion.

Using the four main emotions - Happy, Sad, Angry, Afraid - and their various flavors are the only way to create shared experience that is consistently engaging. They are the only thing truly visible, which means every detail of their expression can be observed in a way our object work and character appearance cannot. Thus, they allow more room for precise subtlety that the invisible world does not. An evil grin that turns into a fake smile shares more information subtextually than any object work possibly could, and without explanation. If we want to show we hate another character, it's a lot easier to glare at them than cut up a picture of their face. The former sends the message quickly and accurately. The latter requires a dialogue addendum for clarification.

Emoting visually is the most efficient way to share information about a character's point of view.

In fact it's not enough, and even less efficient to say "I feel..." than to show it. If we open a refrigerator and say "there's nothing inside" while emoting sadness, it not only saves us half the time over "there's nothing inside and it makes me sad", the level at which we emote as we deliver the line indicates how important it is for our character that there was something in the refrigerator. Emotion allows us to share 3x more information in half the time. 

 

One thing I used to believe was that emotion was the packaging in which specifics were delivered, and it was the specifics that created the comedy. Emotions were a nice touch, but not necessary.

I've since amended this view.

Here's an example from Anchorman of high emotion in a scene driving the comedy.

Paul Rudd and David Koechner start things off by setting the emotional tone of the scene - anger. Steve Carrell applies comedic twist - "I don't know what we're yelling about." On paper this isn't an inherently funny line, but delivered through the same high level anger that his peers were exuding it becomes comedic. Coupled with the glance at his friends to see if he did the right thing, his point of view is clear - based on how his friends are acting he knows he's supposed to be mad, but he's not sure why, so he's pretending to be mad for show. It's not the anger that's funny, nor is it the dialogue. What's funny is the character's point of view revealed by the combination of the two.

Will Ferrell keeps the pattern going by angrily shouting "It's terrible, she has beautiful eyes and her hair smells like cinnamon." Again, it's the contrast between the emotion he's portraying and the words he's saying that makes the comedy. He's doing the same thing Carrell is doing (acting mad for show) but for different reasons. He knows exactly why everyone is mad, but he isn't and he doesn't want them to know.

In both cases the contrast between the words and the delivery is what is initially comedic, but what's even funnier is that the ruse works. Despite the transparency of the dialogue, Koechner and Rudd are completely convinced, all because of the emotion behind the words.

 

Will Ferrell's mastery of playing high emotions comedically isn't limited to Anchorman. Let's take a look at some examples of the four major emotions from a few of his other films and unpack what makes each of them work.

Happy

The first thing that sticks out in this clip is that Ferrell's Happy accelerates to a peak instantly. It doesn't build slowly over time, it explodes out of nowhere as soon as he hears the good news. It's also uncontainable - it needs to be shared physically in the form of a hug or a high five ("gimme ten Norton!") or used as a weapon ("everyone can eat shit!"). Because it accelerates so rapidly, it also has a lot of momentum. It doesn't stop when the moment has passed and David Koechner tries to move the meeting along. It keeps barreling ahead, destroying everything in its path. It's so out of control it has physical ramifications for Ferrell ("I'm so happy I can't even feel my arms!") and those nearby who have to dodge his flailing limbs. The momentum of his Happy is so strong that even as it fades it prevents him from absorbing bad news right away. It doesn't stop it altogether, just it slows the reaction time. He's basically so Happy he's drunk.

 

Sad

Much like his Happy, Ferrell's Sad here is abrupt and explosive. While it's seemingly under control as he relays his story to Paul Rudd, it rapidly builds as the story progresses. The comedy here comes from the fact that the emotion continues to heighten when it doesn't seem like it could possibly heighten any further. The level of Sad he can reach about a ridiculous scenario (his dog getting punted off a bridge) continues to surprise us. Only when it peaks does it finally become uncontrollable, rendering him incapable of speaking. Finally, just as what happened with Happy, it heightens to a point where it can no longer be contained. The phone call is forgotten and the emotion can only be released with flailing wildly at his surroundings.

 

Angry

Extreme anger is a tough emotion to make comedic because when anger becomes uncontrollable it can be dangerous. Whereas Ferrell heightened both Happy and Sad to a point of outward physical expression, doing the same thing with Angry would mean intentionally causing harm to other people, which under most circumstances isn't comedic.

Ferrell avoids this problem in two ways. The first is by creating elaborate hypothetical scenarios and verbally attacking the scenario instead of whomever he's really angry at. So instead of "I hope you lose your legs", it's "I hope one day you have sons who grow up to be star athletes and they lose their legs". Expressing Angry in this manner creates distance between himself and his target, thus softening the legitimacy and seriousness of the threat. Wishing for his friends to lose their legs is serious. Wishing for them to have sons who grow up to be star athletes and then lose their legs is ridiculous. Because the threat is both invented and would take years to fulfill, it is weak and therefore comedic. Tragedy + time = comedy.

Here's another clip from The Other Guys where he employs the same tactic.

Ferrell is clearly mad at Mark Wahlberg here, but instead of yelling at him directly he conjures an image of him as a little boy pretending to be an adult and screams at that. Again, he creates distance by directing his Angry at a hypothetical person who is separated from the moment by a significant amount of time. Notice that when he moves the target away from imaginary little boy Wahlberg back to the real version standing in front of him, his voice softens. He becomes sincere. He knows that screaming "I'm so tired of you yelling all the time and getting angry" in Wahlberg's face is too much of a direct attack to be comedic, so he reduces the emotion behind the words in order to lower the threat.

The second way Ferrell avoids getting too aggressive with his Angry is by making sure that any physical violence is similarly misdirected. In the clip from Talladega Nights, he's so enraged that he stabs himself in leg. In the clip from The Other Guys he stomps on Mark Wahlberg's computer. Here's another example from that same movie:

Although Ferrell's aggression is initially directed at Steve Coogan, as his Angry heightens he quickly loses sight of the target and starts smashing up the office. He gets so carried away with his rampage that he loses track of the guy he's actually supposed to be attacking ("where is he?!"). It's this combination of lack of control and (mostly) misdirected violence that makes the physical threat a lot less serious and a lot more funny.

 

Afraid

Just as explosive and uncontrollable as his other emotions, the biggest thing that stands out about Ferrell's Afraid is how stubborn it is. Despite no evidence of fire and multiple people telling him he's not, he's convinced he's engulfed in flames. He consistently refuses help from those who could actually give it (so far as actively attacking those trying to offer it), instead opting to beg the gods of religion and entertainment to come down from heaven or Hollywood to save him. The fear is so great that it needs supernatural intervention - anything less is too weak to stop it. 

 

The biggest takeaway from all of these clips is that emotions are funniest when they accelerate rapidly and carry a lot of momentum. Ferrell doesn't doesn't express Happy, Sad, Angry, and Afraid so much as they take control of him and he's along for the ride. They heighten well past the point of being containable and must be shared with those around him both verbally and physically. When coupled with a context where such explosive emotion is uncalled for and quality straight players to point that out, it makes for some great comedy.

We can use these same tools in improv when we need to create moments that everyone can see in the exact same way. The emotion will create the consonance we need to keep the audience engaged and feeling like participants in something that matters. The dissonance we create with our specifics and object work will feel less alienating and more like satisfying complexity. Having strong dynamic emotions greatly increases our chances of creating engaging, funny scenes in which our characters have clear points of view.

 

 

An exercise...

Pass The Pen
Do a two-person scene in which after establishing context (location & relationship) one improviser hands the other a pen upon delivering an innocuous line. The receiver of the pen must give a strong emotional reaction to that line. Play the rest of the scene out, passing the pen back and forth a few more times.

This works both playing high emotions and justifying retroactively. The pen forces the receiver to react without knowing why they're reacting, and their justification of that reaction informs their character's point of view.

 

A tip...

Find a way to practice emoting when there is no expectation of comedy. Take an acting class to work on showing and feeling grounded, honest emotions. On your own, exercise heightening these emotions until they feel ridiculous. Try to get comfortable with emoting at that level.

Predicting the Future & Letting it Go

We are constantly predicting the future.

We plan our road trips around avoiding traffic. We run conversations in our heads before they happen. We bet on sports or cards or celebrity deaths. We coerce two of our single friends into coming to the same party because we know for sure they'll hit it off.

Interestingly enough, we're pretty good at it. We're experts at examining the facts of the past, comparing it to the present situation, and drawing a line of trajectory through those two points and into the future to see where we'll end up if we stay on the current path. We might not get the specifics of the outcome exactly right, but things often end up in the general vicinity of our prediction.

We're so good at predicting the future that we can plot the course of several futures in our minds in order to set the most beneficial course of action for the present. Should we stay on course or make some choices that adjust the angle of our trajectory in order to land where we want to land? How much should we adjust and in what direction?

Here's a simple chart to demonstrate. If we make adjustment A1, A2 will happen. If we do nothing, B2 will happen. If we make adjustment C1, C2 will happen. We prefer the outcome C2, so we will make adjustment C1.

 
timegraph.png
 

We do this every time we make a decision.

The best thing we can do for our improv is learn how to stop.

 

In Thinking Backwards for Good Reason we examined how improv operates differently than real life, which means we have to approach it differently.

At the very top of a scene there is only the present. The first move creates the dot.

 
presentdot.png
 

At this point there is no shared past. We haven't discovered it yet. Because of this, there is no trajectory that can be traced into the future. A dot alone is not a line.

If the first move creates the dot, the reaction to that move defines the angle, setting the path for the rest of the scene. Now we have our trajectory.

 
 

This is great if we are being fully present and went into the scene with zero expectations, but we can get into some trouble if we tried to predict the future.

This often happens when we initiate with a preloaded line. When we have time to dwell on the scene before it starts we can't help but try to prepare for whatever might come next. We begin to invent a past, making assumptions about location and relationship and character that fit our initiation. These assumptions turn into projections of the future and expectations of behavior from our scene partner. "I'll initiate with this line, then they'll react this way, then I'll do this..." etc etc. 

When we finally do initiate and our scene partner responds, we often end up with something like this:

 
projections.png
 

In this instance our scene partner did exactly the right thing - they reacted to our initiation and set the angle of the scene. The problem is their reaction is a massive left turn away from our predicted trajectory. We were trying to get a head start on the scene and their move is so disparate from that plan that it throws us for a loop.

At this point it's very common to have the urge to reconfirm our intentions.  We might feel that our scene partner didn't do what they were supposed to. They must have misinterpreted what we needed them to do. Maybe they weren't listening. But here's the thing -

Intention doesn't matter.

The invented past and projected future we constructed in our heads before the scene began isn't real. None of it. Once we initiate, our scene partner will take our line based on how they receive it and react accordingly. That's the reality. 

For example, let's say we have an idea for a scene where notorious nice guy Mister Rogers is very mean when he's not on television. We decide that the best way to initiate is with the line "Wow Mister Rogers, I never expected you to be such a jerk in real life." We figure that gives our scene partner plenty of information for who they are (Mister Rogers) and how to act (like a jerk). In creating this initiation, we've also both invented a past (Mister Rogers just said something mean to us) and projected a future (Mister Rogers will keep saying mean things and we will keep being shocked and hurt). 

But let's say we initiate and our scene partner responds with "I'm sorry...it's just that ever since Hammerstein died my musicals have been bombing. I'm so frustrated and lonely." For us this is a massively unexpected left turn. Despite what we thought was a clear initiation, our scene partner is both not who we expected (Richard Rodgers instead of Fred Rogers) and not behaving as we intended (apologizing and becoming vulnerable instead of acting like a jerk).

The easiest thing we can do in this moment (and the best thing for the scene) is drop our intentions completely. We might feel that since we put mental energy into our initiation and the expected context around it that dropping all of that pre-planned meaning would be a waste of a good idea. We might want to use some of the details from our original premise if we see windows to fit them in. But doing that is an act of friction. In order to make that tight left turn from our invented past into the current direction of the scene we have to slow way down so we don't skid off the road. It's so much easier to simply drop the past we invented and never have to make the turn in the first place.

Being fully present and not planning ahead allows us to be ready for any angle our scene partner defines by their reaction to our initiation. By having no expectations we never have to adjust our momentum and scramble to recover.

Thanks Bruce Lee

Thanks Bruce Lee

Locking ourselves to our intentions serves to act as if our imagined past and projected future are the correct path. We might feel that our scene partner wasn't listening or that they misunderstood what we needed them to do. We might attempt to course-correct - hinting that their reaction was misguided by saying things like "you usually don't act like this" or "are you sure that's what you want?" At best this becomes a disagreement about the reality of the world and the characters we're building together. At worst it turns into an attempt to control our scene partner's behavior. 

We might try to ignore their idea for the direction of the scene and double down on ours ("Musicals? Mister Rogers, you're a children's television host!"). If they keep going in what we perceive to be the wrong direction, our hints might turn into demands like "You should really..." or "Stop acting like this..." If we really start to panic, verbal demands might escalate to physical force or threats of violence (I've seen performers pull guns on their scene partners to make them do what they wanted).

Try to recognize when your actions are less about supporting the scene and more about trying to control the decisions or behavior of your scene partners. 

Attempting to control the behavior of others is an act of fear. 

In our eyes their behavior is wrong, so we need to correct it to make it right. But their behavior isn't wrong, it simply violates our expectations. When our expectations are violated, we panic because our prediction for the future is suddenly wiped away. Our plan is suddenly obsolete. We don't know what happens next, which is a naturally uncomfortable and scary place to be. 

Embrace not knowing.

It's not our scene partner's fault they didn't get what we were trying to set up. None of us are mind readers. It's our job to drop our predictions and adapt ourselves to their response. Committing to an imagined trajectory and trying to force the scene down a path it wasn't meant to go down will only cause it to stall out.

Make a dot, accept whichever direction your scene partner points it, and go.

Don't let yourself be guided by fear.

Stop trying to predict the future.

Embrace Slumps. Ignore Success.

Human progress is not an uninterrupted march forward. It is a slow and devious movement with haltings and twistings. The pathway of man ascends and descends, wanders off into mazes. At times the trail seems to lose itself in the wilderness of human passion and folly. But inch by inch it goes forward with halting steps.

- Joseph Alexander Leighton, philosopher

Progress is frustrating.

It is evasive. It is erratic. The harder you push for it the more it seems to resist.

Improv progress is full of ups and downs. We'll go through periods where things are really clicking for us and everything seems easy and then, out of nowhere, we'll find ourselves in a slump. Without changing anything about how we've been performing, we'll suddenly feel stuck. We won't feel inspired. We won't feel funny. We'll leave our shows and rehearsals with a tinge of regret. We won't quite live up to our own expectations. We won't be quite as good as we know we can and should be. We'll think we somehow managed to get worse. Then, just as suddenly as we fell in, we'll find our way out. We'll be back to clicking. We'll be back to being inspired. We'll be back to feeling funny. The slump will feel like a distant memory. We'll be performing better than we ever have before.

Why does this happen? How is it possible to go from feeling like we're moving backwards to making seemingly huge leaps forward? How does progression come from regression?

As it turns out, it doesn't. Even though it might feel like it, we aren't actually regressing at all. The chart below explains.

(Replace all references to drawing with improv)

 
 

Notice that the "Skill at making art" line is never actually going backwards. At worst, it's plateauing. It's only when our "skill at evaluating art" shoots past our ability that we feel like we've regressed. But this is simply an illusion of perception. It's not that our performance skills are getting worse, it's that our ability to evaluate performance is improving. Our standards are rising.

These "art lows" can suck, especially when they start taking a toll on our confidence. Since we rely on confidence to perform at a high level, it can be enormously frustrating that even the awareness of slumping can exacerbate the condition. But if we recognize that slumps are an unavoidable phase of the growth process, we might manage to curb some of those negative effects. 

Accept the fact that slumps will happen. Embrace the knowledge that they are temporary.

It might seem like everyone else is getting better and you're the only one struggling. You aren't. You might feel like you've peaked and can never get better. You haven't. Everyone's progress chart looks different. People improve at different speeds, at different times, at different gradients. Keep your eyes on your own paper. 

Another thing to recognize is that the longer we improvise, the longer these up and down phases can last. The waves of your progress chart tend to stretch over time. At some point you'll find yourself in an extended low-grade slump that Rachel Klein calls "The Vast Plateau of Competency":

You move up through the levels and the people who stay are as poised and quick-witted as you. You get cast on your first team and after a few shows of beginner’s luck fueled by adrenaline and all the friends and family you brought to watch your “comedy debut”, the thrill starts to fade and you’re left with just the work ahead. Your “go to”s start to get boring, predictable, even to you. Some days you kill, others you bomb, and you can’t seem to get a handle on the difference. You try to reach deeper for new material, new points-of-view, a fresh perspective, and sometimes they come, but often you feel tapped. Maybe you’re no good at this after all, you think.
 
This, my friend, is the Vast Plateau of Competency. You’re not doing badly. And a lot of the time you’re actually pretty good, which is what makes The Plateau all the more frustrating. You can see the people below The Plateau not being able to make the moves you can to set up a scene for basic success, to feel a general sense of comfort on the stage, to know how to “find the game,” to “heighten,” to “hit the button.” But ahead of you is a precipitous rock face, and at the top of it stand the people you admire, waving and smiling and doing what looks like effortlessly brilliant work, and you can’t seem to see how you get there from where you are. Will you just be “pretty good” forever?

Her post is worth a full read as she offers some great practical advice, but generally speaking the only thing you can do is ride it out.

Here's Ira Glass with similar thoughts:

Maintaining progress in improv requires a good amount of patience and resilience and non-judgmental self-awareness. It also requires a significant commitment to avoiding complacency.

An important thing the ability chart mentions is "not getting too cocky during art highs". This is a massively common problem for improvisers. It's an artificial sense of mastery of an inherently unmasterable practice. What's really happened is our ability to perform has progressed beyond our ability to evaluate so we think every move we make is genius.

A lot of performers get to this point and relax, especially if they've managed to accomplish a certain goal like getting on a house cast or performing on a specific show. They think they can finally take their foot off the gas because they've finished what they set out to accomplish. They might stop really pushing themselves in rehearsals and onstage. They might only perform in comfortable rooms with comfortable formats with comfortable people. They might feel like they can coast on all their previous hard work. 

This is a trap.

 

At the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham City has experienced a long period of prosperity thanks to the heroics of Batman, who has retired his cape and has spent the last eight years in solitude. But when the mercenary Bane appears and starts creating havoc, Batman is forced to return.

He finds Bane in the sewers. 

"Peace has cost you your strength. Victory has defeated you." This is what Bane says right before he proceeds to kick Batman's ass. Batman's previous success and the resulting comfortable stretch have developed into complacency. He has grown weak. Old reliable tricks like smoke bombs and cutting the lights don't work. He has never encountered an adversary who he couldn't defeat through these methods. He has never been challenged in this way.

It literally breaks him.

This is what happens when we relax during a high. It eventually ends. The double helix of artistic progress flips once more and we suddenly hit a wall. If we're not prepared, if we forget how to handle slumps, it will break us. We won't be able to adapt to new challenges. We will have forgotten how it feels to be seemingly getting worse. "I've hit my limit," we might think. "This is as good as I'll ever get." At that point we might stop trying altogether. We might fall out of love. We might quit.

Don't let success beget complacency.

The more we ignore the pleasure of the high, the easier it will be to bear the storm of the inevitable low. Keep finding ways to challenge yourself. Surround yourself with people who can push you in new ways. Try a form you've never done before. Perform at festivals in other cities for strange crowds. Take a new class. Learn a new skill. Read a new book. Chase what scares you.

Only two things can prevent us from improving - deciding we can't and believing we don't have to. As long as we're aware of that we'll never stop getting better. We'll learn to love slumps for their impermanence and the challenges they present. We'll learn to stay on course during highs and not coast on momentum.

Embrace slumps. Ignore success. Progress.

Breaking No Rules & The Flow Of Information

Let's explore the following improv maxim:

There are no rules.

What does this mean? For the performer, for the audience, for the scene, what does it mean to say there are absolutely no requirements or expectations in an improv performance?

For the performer it means we can do whatever we want. Any choice is valid and acceptable. We can say and do whatever pops into our heads whenever we want. We can go anywhere in space and time. We can be anyone or anything. We can not do anything at all. Everything is fair game.

For the audience it means they have no idea what is about to happen. They don't know what they'll see, hear, feel, like, or dislike. They might witness a performance that makes them think and challenges them or they might get one that is entirely goofy and ridiculous. They might leave the show changed, for good or bad. They might wish it could last forever. They might walk out in the first 5 minutes.

For the scene it means it could move slowly, quickly, or anywhere in between. It could last 20 minutes or 20 seconds. It could have eight characters, or fifteen, or one, or none. It could lead to nonstop laughter or be completely serious. It could take place over 2 minutes or 1000 years. It could move forward in time, then backward, repeating itself in reverse and ending where it started.

It means anything can happen, which is simultaneously freeing and terrifying. But that's the thrill of it. No one in the room knows what's about to transpire and all of us are along for the ride together, for good or bad.

 

But here's the catch - we do want it to be good. Preferably every single time. And though there are no rules and we can do whatever we want, we also want our scene partners to be on the same page. We want the audience to enjoy the show. We want the scene to be cohesive and easy to follow. In order to have these things, preferably every single time, we can't exactly do whatever we want all the time.

This is the reason we learn general practices that make our improv more successful - because some of the choices we can make are more effective than others. These routes to effectiveness have transformed into general behavioral guidelines. Stray from those guidelines and we risk annoying our fellow performers, alienating our audience, and destroying the scene.

But only if it doesn't work.

If it works, and sometimes it will, the opposite will happen. Your fellow performers will be impressed. The audience will love it. The scene will be taken to places we never thought it could go.

These are the risks we strive to take, because when it works the reward is great. But in order to be able to take these risks, it's important to understand what the routes to effectiveness are, and why they exist.

 
                                                     That's Mount Effectiveness right there.

                                                     That's Mount Effectiveness right there.

 

The things that are more effective err on the side of acceptance - listening to our scene partners, saying yes to their choices, sharing focus. The things that are less effective err on the side of denial - saying no, arguing, lying. 

We could spend all day unpacking the problems that arise with denial, but let's focus on one specific type (lying) along with its close relative (coyness). 

What is it about these choices that make them not particularly effective? Consider this:

An improv scene, at its core, is information flowing back and forth.

With each line, facial expression, and movement, we reveal information about the characters in the scene and the world they inhabit. At the top, the information is for the purpose of establishing context (or "base reality"). Who are the characters on stage and how do they feel about each other? Where are they in space and time and what are they doing there?

Laughs come when new information fits the established context while still being surprising. We say or do something completely unexpected that adds new meaning but doesn't wreck the scene. John Cleese calls it "the moment of contact between two frames of reference." That's comedy. Unanticipated information that resonates on multiple levels.

Information can travel at different speeds, but one thing is certain - it has to travel. Stop the flow of information and the scene dies. Think of it like blood. New, fresh information has to be consistently circulating in order to keep the scene alive, but it also has to be the right type. Just as the body will reject blood that isn't the right type, the scene (and the audience) will reject information that is too dissonant from what has already been established.

 

So what does this have to do with lying?

Lying, or labeling our scene partner a liar, serves to halt the flow of information. 

Because it relies entirely on trust and immersion, the improv reality is a fragile one. Everyone in the room has to take what they hear and see at face value. We can't second-guess the information that's been revealed. When someone is labeled a liar, it creates a feedback loop of misinformation that breeds confusion. It creates a scenario in which we are constantly questioning reality.

Let's use the following overly simple example:

Person A - "I saw a dog today."

Person B - "No you didn't. You're lying."

Person A has two options; they can agree that they're lying ("you're right I didn't see a dog today") or they can disagree and double down ("I swear I saw a dog today"). Either way, the response doesn't really matter. The liar label, once applied, means everything Person A says gets called into question. If Person A agrees that they were lying, our assumption is that everything they say for the rest of the scene is a lie. If Person A disagrees that they were lying, we wonder why Person B assumed they were. If Person B is so quick to assume Person A is lying, EITHER Person A has a reputation for not being truthful, which means, once again, we have to question everything else they say for the rest of the scene, OR Person B has trust issues, which means they will constantly be questioning everything Person A says the rest of the scene anyway, even if Person A is telling the truth. Either way Person A responds, once labeled a liar, the veracity of anything they say will always be dubious, either to the audience or Person B, and probably both.

This is the Liar Paradox - the idea that if a liar says "I am lying", it means they are telling the truth, which means they are lying, which means they are telling the truth, which means they are lying, ad infinitum. Conversely, if a liar says "I am telling the truth", it means they are lying, which means they are telling the truth, which means they are lying, which means they are telling the truth, ad infinitum.

Here's a clip from the Star Trek episode I, Mudd where Captain Kirk and crew encounter a planet of strictly logical androids, whom they defeat using a combination of object work and the Liar Paradox.

Trying make sense of the crew reacting to a bomb that isn't there and the infinite feedback loop of the paradox causes the androids to overheat and shut down. When we label someone a liar in a scene, the performer, the audience, and the scene will all respond in a similar way. Because of that loop, with each new line the performer will struggle to figure out what is real and what isn't. The audience will eventually stop trying to keep up and lose interest. The scene will flounder when reality is constantly called into question and the flow of information comes to a screeching halt. It will stop being about the characters and the world they inhabit and instead become about what is fact and what is fiction. Trying to wrangle the logic of a liar in an improv scene is a black hole that is immensely difficult to overcome. For the most part, it's not worth the trouble.

 

Coyness is a tough characteristic to wrangle for similar reasons:

Being coy slows the flow of information, which causes the scene to drag.

When one character is reluctant to share information with another, the scene moves so slow it struggles to survive. Instead of rapidly establishing context and building from there, a scene with a coy character usually starts lopsided and then stalls out. Instead of building context together, the coy character might sit idle while their scene partner front-loads all the pertinent information in the hopes that will get things moving. Maybe, they might think, the performer playing the coy character is just a little uncertain about who or where they are, so they'll do all the heavy lifting, presuming that will solve the problem. 

The scene might appear to be moving along nicely as the world is being built, but it is quickly approaching a brick wall. Once context is established, the only place the scene partner can go is at the coy character. They'll probably try to coax them out of their shell by attempting to hit them from different angles - asking various questions, making suggestions to justify their behavior (which the coy character might neither confirm or deny), or doing something wacky or shocking to try to stimulate any sort of response. On the surface it may seem like something is happening, but in reality the scene has slowed to a crawl. We usually don't end up learning much about either of our characters because one partner refuses to engage. An experienced and talented performer may very well manage to turn this into an interesting scene, but it's still only information flowing in one direction. It is essentially a solo scene, but one in which the person we could be learning about is probably too distracted trying to interact with the other person onstage to reveal anything about themselves. The end result is usually a scene with a rapidly fading heartbeat.

Recognize when information has stopped flowing.

Add some.

In general, it's probably in our best interest to avoid lying and being coy. If we notice that the reality of the world is being questioned, we should find a way to name it and cement it with our scene partner. If we notice that new information has stopped coming in, we should create more.

That's not to say there aren't ways to handle both of these scenarios.

If we find ourselves being being labeled a liar or playing a coy character, we should find a way to give our fellow performers and the audience the information they deserve. One way to do this is to step out and give a noir-style monologue. Another is by confiding in an imaginary friend/conscience. Even a character who always lies can reveal truths in an internal monologue or by sharing secrets with representatives of their psyche. A coy character in a monoscene, for example, may choose to only be coy toward a specific character while being completely open and honest with someone else once the object of their coyness is offstage. In this way, we can validate the choice we've made while still letting information flow freely.

Try to remember to separate the character from the performer. Just because we don't want a character to know something doesn't mean we shouldn't let the performer playing that character in on the secret. In fact, if we can manage to do that, they'll probably be able to play that role even better. When they know more than their character does they can find ways to put their character in situations that exploit that lack of knowledge.

 

But of course, there are no rules. We can do whatever we want.

Thinking Backwards For Good Reason

Why is improv difficult?

If it is a practice that essentially requires us to emulate and heighten human behavior, why does it take years to become competent? We've been people our whole lives with no trouble at all. Why does getting up in class or onstage in front of an audience sometimes make being people seem like an impossible task? Why aren't we immediately and consistently good at it?

The reason is oddly simple.

Improv forces us to think in reverse.

Real life and improv operate at different speeds, which compels us think about them with different temporal orientations. 

Real life moves slow. For the most part, we see our choices coming before we have to make them. We have time to weigh our options and determine each possible outcome. We have time to think before we act.

The real life decision process is oriented toward the future. We start from a place of understanding our motivations and goals. We use these to deliberate our options. Then we make a decision.

Improv moves fast. It forces us to make choices not yet knowing why we are making them. We don't have time to think about all the possibilities. Our scene partner is waiting for us to respond. The audience is waiting for us to do something. We have to do or say the first thing that pops into our heads. We have to act without thinking.

The improv decision process is oriented toward the past. We start by making whatever choice feels right. We study that choice to determine what it means. Then we justify it in a way that fits what we've established.

Real life orients us toward the future: Motivation > Deliberation > Decision             
Improv orients us toward the past: Choice > Analysis > Justification

In order to become competent at improv we have to reorient our minds, which is something that simply takes a lot of practice and patience and time.

“Improvisation is like steering a car by looking through the rear view mirror. You don’t know where you’re going, you can only see where you’ve been.” -Keith Johnstone

“Improvisation is like steering a car by looking through the rear view mirror. You don’t know where you’re going, you can only see where you’ve been.”
-Keith Johnstone

Along that three-step path, justification is by far the most difficult to grasp. Deciding why our character behaves a certain way is one of the hardest things to determine on the spot, especially when there might be other variables in the scene that demand our attention. But if we can manage to find it, justifying our point of view will massively increase our chances of creating a successful scene.

So what makes a good justification?

Let's use the following arbitrary premise as an example:

A parent is trying to convince their child that they should go into a career as a frog breeder.

Here are a few common justification pitfalls that aren't quite effective:

1. No justification whatsoever - If the child chooses not to ask their parent why frog breeding is important and the parent chooses not to offer an explanation, the scene might very well survive by becoming about the weird frogs the family is going to breed or expand to other unusual parental requests, but all of those moves will feel empty because we'll never know what motivates our characters. The audience will spend the whole scene wondering why frog breeding, specifically, was so essential. Why does the parent care? Why does the child agree or disagree? We need to answer these questions.

2. Crazy/on drugs - This is a fairly common justification that is just as insufficient as none at all. The problem with craziness is unpredictability. Our character needs something to hold onto in order to behave consistently. The audience needs to understand how that character operates in order to follow the scene. Being crazy makes behavior too inconsistent, too random. We need some sort of pattern to carry us to the end of the scene. Too much randomness will only raise questions and create confusion. Drugs create a similar scenario because they change behavior. They put our character in an altered state where they aren't thinking clearly and they aren't in control. A sober sane parent who wants their child to breed frogs is inherently more interesting than a high crazy parent. The sober sane parent is thinking clearly, so they must have an interesting point of view.  A high crazy parent isn't thinking clearly, so they might not even mean what they say.

3. History/Tradition - This is probably the most common of the pitfalls. The parent says something like "You have to be a frog breeder because I'm a frog breeder! My parent was a frog breeder and their parent was a frog breeder! This is a frog breeding family! So you're going to be a frog breeder because it's what we do!" The problem with this justification is it's true to life, so it seems like it works. There are plenty of real life parents trying to convince their real life children to carry the torch of their real life family histories and traditions for the sake of keeping those histories and traditions alive. In improv, though, we strive to reach a deeper meaning behind our choices. Blaming history and tradition for our actions simply serves to kick the can down the road. It passes the onus of justification onto characters we'll never know or see. At one point, for some reason, someone in the family decided to become a frog breeder, and it probably wasn't with the intention of creating an everlasting family tradition. What was that reason, and how can we bring that reason to the present moment?

Action for action's sake is not sufficiently satisfying.

A great justification will be all three of these:

1. Personal - People are driven by the pursuit of some sort of individual benefit. Try to find that. Does the parent believe frog breeding is a lucrative career and it would make them happy to see their child to have financial success? They are personally driven by the financial safety of their family. Is the town plagued by mosquitos and the parent is sick of being constantly itchy? They are personally driven by physical comfort. Do they really enjoy frog legs but the local French restaurant went out of business? They are personally driven by enjoying the finer things in life. How does the parent benefit from their child becoming a frog breeder? How does the child benefit from agreeing or disagreeing? What do those benefits mean about their individual values?

2. Actionable - The best justifications are those that are possible to actively pursue. The parent that finds happiness in a financially successful child can pursue that goal by helping their child get a business loan or filling out tax paperwork for their frog breeding business. The parent seeking comfort from mosquitos might attempt to get their child to switch careers once more when they realize all those frogs make a whole lot of noise. The parent who enjoys delicacies might take a cooking class to learn how to make those homemade frog legs. Find a justification that requires active work.

3. Perpetual - The perfect justification will never be able to be fulfilled. It will be something our character is constantly seeking no matter what situation they are in. The parent who wants their family to be financially secure will always be concerned about how they might lose their money and trying to gain more. The parent who desires physical comfort will always be trying to avoid uncomfortable situations and maintain comfortable ones. The parent who seeks the finer things will never want anything cheap or average and will always be looking for the best food, wine, clothing, etc. Find a justification that can never be satisfied and we can live in that character forever.

A personal, actionable, and perpetual justification will allow us to thrive in any situation.

This is especially useful in forms like the Harold where we might see the same character in multiple scenes. Our character will carry that justification into the 2nd beat to be explored in a different/heightened way, or matched up against any other character from the show in the 3rd beat as we explore what happens when all the worlds and point of views we've created collide. These moments suddenly become much easier to live in because we already know what motivates our character. We already know their "thing".

That pre-knowledge will serve to orient our approach less like improv and more like real life, so it should feel much more natural. We've already done all the work. Now all we have to do is play.

 

Offstage: Auditions, Rejections, & Next Moves

When it comes to improv, auditions are a flawed casting methodology. The nature of auditions devalues everything improv is supposed to be about and promotes everything it isn't. Collaboration becomes competition. Support becomes selfishness. Listening becomes laugh-seeking. It can be a frustratingly unreliable method of identifying ability.

In a perfect world, directors would spend most of their time scouting the talent pool and talking to teachers and coaches about up-and-comers - intimately getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of as many performers as possible and casting by invitation. Unfortunately in many places that's a full time job, and most improv directors just don't have the time. So they hope we're capable of accurately representing our skills in the short, high-pressure window we're given. And we hope they're capable of recognizing our skills in a crowded environment.

Auditions are necessary evil. They're far from perfect, but they're what we've got. If we want improv to be a part of our lives, auditions are going to be a part of it too.

 

So we put ourselves out there.

We show up to the audition full of excitement, fear, and caffeine and we try to represent our skills to the best of our ability. We support our scene partner. We show a range of choices and emotions. We do our best to have fun in spite of our nerves.

Then, almost as soon as it starts, it's over.

So we wait.

And we wait.

And results go out.

And we get rejected.

We go through the audition over and over in our heads. Where did we go wrong? We thought we did pretty well. We felt good about our choices and we did some good scenes. We weren't perfect, certainly, but no one else was either. How could they not recognize the skills we know we have? Why don't they want us in their show? Why don't they want us at their theater?

 

Here's the bad news:

Improv has never been more popular than it is right now. Getting cast at a major theater is the hardest its ever been. The gap between interested performers and available spots on resident casts has never been larger. There just simply isn't enough room for all of us, and that means a lot of us are going to be rejected.

Here's the good news:

We do not need permission to do improv.

If this is something we love, if this is something we want to do, we do not need approval from any individual or institution to continue to do it. 

Of course we want those "official" opportunities. Of course we want the support of an established theater. Of course we want the credibility that comes with being put on a premier stage. All these things are great. None of them are necessities.

A theater is just a big shiny box.

It might have a big stage in a big room and a bar in the lobby. It might have fancy lights and a sound system and cool posters in the window. This is all just packaging - stuff intended to attract audiences and improve their experience. Strip away all the packaging and what's left is a group of people making stuff up. And we can do that anywhere.

Here's more good news:

Because improv is more popular than it has ever been, the indie scene is thriving. There are indie nights happening in apartments, bars, breweries, cafes, hotels, rehearsal spaces, and anywhere else at least twenty people can fit in a room. There is a massive amount of stage time available to us if we are willing to seek it out. These might not be the best opportunities in terms of atmosphere and audience size, but they are chances to hone our skills and continue to do what we love.

Recognize the value of those opportunities. Take advantage of them.

 

I am no stranger to rejection.

It took me 6 auditions to get a callback at ImprovBoston. I spent a full three years of my life being told I wasn't good enough do to improv and I wasn't even close to making the cut.

Each failed audition crushed me harder than the last. All of my friends got on casts before I did. People with a lot less experience than I had were getting picked over me. It didn't make any sense. I was doing everything right and it still wasn't enough.

Somewhere in the midst of all that rejection I decided I wasn't going to let it beat me. I wasn't going to let people tell me that I couldn't do improv. I wasn't going to let people tell me I couldn't have what I wanted.

I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to become one of the best improvisers in the city. I would outwork, outstudy, and outrep everyone. I would push myself harder than anyone else pushed themselves. I would be tougher on myself than any coach or director possibly could be.

I wanted to become undeniable. I wanted to prove them wrong.

I still approach every day with that mindset. I'm still driven by those goals.

Here's a hard truth about improv and life in general:

Some people have to work harder for the same opportunities.

They will tell us we aren't good enough. They will tell us no one wants to work with us. They will tell us we aren't worth the effort to train. 

Become undeniable. Prove them wrong.

 

Here are some things I did in those three years that directly contributed to my improvement:

  1. Understand that you are constantly auditioning. You never know who is going to be a future director or producer. Give a full effort every time you perform because they could be in the audience, even if that audience is only 3 people. Be reliable - sometimes all you need to do is show up when you say you will. Be nice to everyone because no one wants to work with assholes.
  2. Invest in the community. Go to Jams. Stick around at the bar after shows. Talk shop with other performers. Make some new friends. Directors and producers are more likely to take chances on people they know. New shows and teams are constantly being born over burgers and beers. 
  3. Study your heroes. What makes them good at what they do? What about them do audiences respond to (mannerisms, characters, etc)? Steal all of it and add your own spin. Ask your local heroes to coach your team or at least run a workshop.
  4. Study yourself. Coaches and directors aren't going to give you notes on everything. Their responsibility lies with the development of the group as a whole. Record your shows and analyze your scenes. Try to notice when you're making the same choices frequently and force yourself to mix it up.
  5. Tell people what you want. Directors want people who are invested and excited. Find ways to let them know you want to work with them. Ask them what you can work on to put yourself in a better position to do that. Listen to them. Do those things.
  6. Learn from other places. Take classes at other theaters in your city or intensives out of town. Take workshops even if you're not interested in the subject or know who the instructor is. Read. TJ & Dave's book is great. Mick Napier's book is great. Will Hines' book is great. Take an acting class. 
  7. Do stuff without permission. Make a video. Put a practice team together. Write. Create your own show and put it up somewhere. There are tons of ways to get better that don't require anyone's approval. It doesn't have to be for any reason other than your own personal growth. The work that no one will see will be some of the best work you ever do. The opportunities you create for yourself will be the ones you're most proud of.
  8. Do other things. Improv has a tendency to suck people in and burn them out. Take breaks from time to time. Check out other art forms. Study other subjects that interest you. Travel. Not every show is a can't-miss show. Improv is about reflecting life. When too much of your life is centered on improv, it will start to get stale. Take some time to live. Improv will still be here when you get back.
  9. Love yourself. When you decide to unconditionally value your own abilities, you become invincible. When you know without a doubt that you are good at this, no amount of rejection can hurt you. It might be frustrating. It might not make sense. You might feel like you don't fit anywhere. You might have to create all your own opportunities. But as long as you honestly value yourself, rejection will never be able to beat you.

 

I'll finish with this quote from the film The Imitation Game:

"Sometimes it's the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine."

And this video about someone great who was initially overlooked: 

Memento & Finding Meaning in Nothing

A common piece of advice for initiating an improv scene is "start in the middle". The idea is that if you want to do a scene about an unusual dog at a pet store, the initiation of "I'm afraid the dog is still full price even though half of it is stuffed" is much more effective than "Hi, welcome to the pet store". The former gets to the meat of your premise right away, while the latter requires a good amount of meandering and patience from your scene partner (who might try to move the scene in a completely different direction altogether). "Start in the middle", in short, means "get to the point". 

This is great advice for scenes where we have a full or even partial premise in mind, but what happens when we find ourselves at the top of a scene without an idea ready to go? We look up expectantly at our scene partner only to see them looking expectantly back at us.

"Uh oh", we think. "We've got nothing." 

This can be a terrifying moment. Uncertainty is scary, especially when we feel we don't have anything to hold onto. We might start to panic; going into our heads to think of a weird thing to say, or reaching out for some indeterminate object in the hopes that some sort of activity might give us more time to think. What we often don't realize is this - 

The simple act of being onstage with another person is all we need to start a scene.

In the film Memento, Guy Pearce's character suffers from a condition that prevents him from forming new memories. Every time he "comes to" he has forgotten everything about the events leading up to that moment. He has no idea how he got to where he is, or if he has ever met the person he is talking to before. Even the people he sees every day are completely forgotten when his memory resets. His condition forces him to constantly rely on context clues; to become an expert in finding meaning in the smallest details.

Here's an example where his memory resets in the middle of a chase:

Notice that Pearce starts with self-examination - "Okay, so what am I doing?" He finds himself running but doesn't know why. Also notice that despite not knowing why he's running, he doesn't stop. That's the key. He knows his memory is faulty but he still inherently trusts himself.

So instead of "Why am I running? I'll stop and figure it out."

He thinks "I'm running. It must be for a good reason. I will keep running and that reason will reveal itself to me shortly."

And it does.

                                      Wish I remembered to bring marshmallows...

                                      Wish I remembered to bring marshmallows...

If we approach our "nothing" scenes with this mindset - that we're where we are doing what we're doing for a reason -they suddenly become a lot less terrifying. We know we're supposed to be there, we just haven't quite uncovered the specifics. And just like in Memento, we can do that using context clues. 

If we take a moment to observe closely we can find meaning in the smallest details.

How are we standing and what does that mean about our attitude or emotional state? Do we have our hand in our pocket because we're nervous or because we're grabbing some change for a vending machine? Are we squinting slightly because it's bright or because we're suspicious of something? What does the distance between ourselves and our scene partner mean about the space we're in or the intensity of our relationship? Is their smile one of sincerity or politeness? What can we infer from the smallest movement or subtlest posture?

When we have nothing, everything is a gift.

Try to be comfortable with the idea that these types of scenes can start a little slow as we dedicate those first few moments to observation, so resist the urge to panic. 

It's also not the time to be polite or coy. If the context clues tell us we're on a beach, say it and make it real. Don't wait and hope our scene partner reads the clues the same way.

Conversely, it's also not the time to be stubborn. If we think we're on a beach but our scene partner cements us at a bank, they're right. Understand that our first instincts only carry us as far as reality permits. Guy Pearce thought for sure he was the one doing the chasing until his scene partner pulled a gun on him.

Be adaptable.

An interesting thing about this approach is that it almost always forces us to "start in the middle" even if we weren't intending to do so. When we're looking for meaning in the smallest details, our mind frames things differently. The first few moments aren't about looking forward to try to figure out what the scene could be, they're about looking backward to see what the scene already has been. What did we say to make our scene partner look at us in this specific way? What did we do that got us to this specific position in space and time?

Finding meaning in nothing allows us to step into the middle a scene that had already begun before we even found ourselves onstage. Our job from there is simply to play the rest of it out.

Into the Pensieve: Going Meta

One of the things that makes human beings special is our ability to get emotionally invested in completely imaginary circumstances. It's why we cry when Wilson floats away in Cast Away, or why your partner gets mad about something you did in their dream. Our imaginations are powerful things.

In improv we push this immersive ability to its limits. We (usually) have no costumes, no set, no objects, no music - none of the advantages that movies and traditional theater have to help the audience immerse themselves in the world we're presenting. We hit the stage with nothing but our bodies, minds, emotions, and the hope that if we commit hard enough to our choices the audience will fill in all the blanks. Luckily, they usually do.

But what happens when they don't?

What happens when, 5-8 minutes into our set, all the "good will" laughs have died off and the audience stops responding vocally? We find ourselves doing several scenes in a row with maybe one or two light laughs each. "Uh oh..." we think. "This is going poorly." And we're right.

And we panic.

And we need to do something - anything - to get a BIG laugh.

And we notice our scene partner's object work isn't quite as precise as it could be when we hand them a can of beer and they drink it without opening it.

And that's our chance.

"How are you even drinking that beer? You didn't even open it!"

And the audience laughs. And we relax.

We saved the show.

Or did we?

This is "going meta"  - commenting on the scene you're currently inside of in a way that reminds the audience that they're a bunch of people in a room watching people make stuff up.

We do it because it works. We needed a big laugh and we got one. But at what expense? Now the audience remembers who they are. They remember they're watching a show. They remember they paid $12 to watch adults make funny faces and they're trying to decide if it was worth it. We've destroyed the immersion. We've torn down everything we spent the last 5-8 minutes building. With one line. Because we panicked. And because WE needed that laugh.

Going meta is a selfish act.

It doesn't serve the scene because it destroys the immersion. It doesn't serve the audience because it makes them self-aware. It doesn't serve your scene partner because (in this example) you're calling them out for sloppy object work. Going meta only serves the needs of the person who panics and needs the instant positive feedback of a big laugh.

 

This one's for metaphor fans:

Immersion functions like the Pensieve in Harry Potter.

In the Harry Potter universe, the Pensieve is an object where you can store and review memories. Here's a clip from The Goblet of Fire where Harry discovers the Pensieve for the first time:

There are two main takeaways here. 1 - David Tennant has a very active tongue. 2 - When Harry is viewing memories in the Pensieve, he's not just watching them on the surface of the water. He is literally in the room. He is experiencing the memory as if he was there himself. Though he can't interact with them, the people seem real. Though he can't influence the events of the memory, he feels involved. Look at his face as the trial unfolds. He is concerned, uncertain, and most importantly, fully invested.

A fully immersed improv audience will feel the same way. They are literally in the room, and though they can't (or shouldn't) interact directly with the performers, they will feel involved and invested as long as long as we continue to fully commit to the worlds and characters we are building.

But how would Harry's experience change if Dumbledore suddenly turned to him and reminded him that he wasn't actually in the courtroom? That he was actually face down in a bowl of magic water.

          Harry...you alive? I fell asleep.

          Harry...you alive? I fell asleep.

He would feel self-conscious and probably a little silly. He would be distracted, and he wouldn't be able to focus his full attention on the memory. He'd probably miss something. Going meta has the same effect on an audience. It reminds them that what they're watching isn't real, and when things aren't real they stop being important.

 

Now here's the part where I say "but":

It is entirely possible to comment on a scene in a way that does not destroy the immersion.

But it's tricky. When something is a little off or we blatantly break the reality of the world, the audience will recognize that. It's important for us to acknowledge that we see what they saw. They need to know that we're in total control of what's happening - or at least more than they are. 

So how do we acknowledge a "mistake" without going meta?

Justify from within.

Find a way to make it work by making it a part of the reality of the scene. Pointing at it and saying "that's weird" is simply not enough and usually, for the reasons I explained above, counterproductive.

In the Pensieve scene, when Harry plops down next to Dumbledore, he is confused why his professor is ignoring him. It is not until someone passes a hand through him that he understands the rules of the memory world - he can watch but he can't interact. The Pensieve justifies from within.

In a recent Oregon Fail show I played a federal detective who was attempting to arrest someone for murder. As I did, I found myself saying the line "I'm going to place you under arrest under the order of our current President..." In that moment I recognized that I was in trouble. Oregon Fail takes place in the year 1848 and at the time I had no idea who was President in 1848 (it's James K Polk). Recognizing that my character would have to know the name of the current President, and recognizing that the audience would expect that too, I justified from within. I finished with "...whose name I will not mention out of respect." It fit my character, it fit the world, and it was a subtle wink to the audience that let them know that I saw what they saw without ruining the immersion.

The beer can example is no different. If, instead of calling out our scene partner for sloppy object work, we had made it fit the scene by saying something like "you really have to teach me how you're able to open these with your teeth", we have acknowledged the "mistake" without breaking the immersion. We've also given our scene partner the gift of a character ability instead of making them look bad. It clears all hurdles. Justify from within.

 

So what do we do if we find ourselves struggling at the 5-8 minute mark? We've done several scenes in a row and the audience just isn't responding. What do we do when that urge to go meta starts creeping in? Don't pull back. Don't rip Harry from the Pensieve. Push him deeper in. Commit harder. Make what's happening matter more. Believe it more. If it matters to you it will matter to the audience. If you believe it, so will they.