The Scene

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.