“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.
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