"Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing."
- Warren Buffett
There is no formula for improvisation.
There are best practices. There are choices that are generally more effective than others. There are ways to simplify and streamline. But there isn't a set of steps that if made in the right order will guarantee a successfully engaging and comedic scene. Despite these best practices and more effective choices, we've all seen scenes that should have worked and didn't. They fulfilled all the requirements of what a successful scene should be and they still weren't funny or interesting. Conversely, we've all seen scenes that shouldn't have worked on paper but succeeded anyway. They've been ungrounded and nonsensical and contextless but hilarious and engaging nonetheless.
As much time as we spend studying these best practices and more effective choices, ultimately it's not what we do that makes our scenes interesting, it's how we do it. We could take a scene from a 101 class that completely crashed and burned and give it to 10-year vets and without changing any of the action or dialogue they'd likely find a way to make it interesting and funny. The major difference between skilled and unskilled players isn't that skilled players follow the rules better than unskilled players. The difference is that skilled players are more comfortable handling whatever comes up. They present information in interesting ways. They notice and acknowledge every detail. They turn mistakes into gifts. They find ways to keep things moving. They let themselves get surprised. Skilled players don't panic when they have no idea what's going on.
Become comfortable with uncertainty.
In improv, uncertainty will generally come in the form of two thoughts - "I don't know where the scene is going" and "I don't know what is happening right now."
"I don't know where the scene is going" will and should never go away. We might establish a repeating pattern or game, but we shouldn't know the exact specifics. Even when we have a game to lean on, there will be plenty of room for surprises in resting, heightening, exploring, and breaking it. Knowing exactly what's going to happen in the scene is a good way to make it boring. Much of the audience's engagement comes from not knowing what's going to happen next, and we should only be slightly ahead of them. We might know the next move or two, but if we're planning ahead much further than that we're likely to overlook something that comes up. Not knowing where the scene is going is just part of living in the moment.
"I don't know what's happening right now" is a bit more problematic. Unfortunately it also happens all the time. We're in a scene and we don't know who we are or where we are or what we're talking about or what we're doing. Sometimes this is a problem that can be solved by adding more information - naming the missing piece of who/what/where that will ground us and release that lingering tension of uncertainty. Sometimes it isn't that simple. Sometimes "I don't know what's happening right now" is caused by too much information. This happens a lot in group scenes or scenes with a lot of walk-ons. So much is being added so quickly that it seems impossibly incomprehensible. What do we do when we find ourselves in these moments? What are some tricks to help us feel a little more comfortable with uncertainty?
Now is not the time to be picky. We have no idea what's going on, so we can't possibly know what fits and what doesn't. Aggressively accept every piece of information being thrown on the pile. Commit to hard yes-ing for as long as it takes for things to settle down (or until the scene is edited). Two of our teammates just walked on back-to-back adding completely disparate information? No problem. We don't have to make it make sense, we just have to agree that it's part of the reality and exactly the right move. Embrace, embrace, embrace. The audience will lean back if they notice things are out of control, and they will only notice if we panic. Even worse, if we try to slow things down to parse through it all our teammates will notice us struggling and may try to add even more information.
Confidence is immediate aggressive acceptance.
The audience might be just as confused as we are, but if we act like everything is going great they'll assume it is and they somehow missed something. If we have to make a choice between understanding and control, it's much more important to show that we're still in control. It will maintain audience trust and buy us some time while we find a way to ground ourselves and/or solidify a direction to take the scene. Which brings us to our next goal...
Pick a Focus
When there's so much outwardly unrelated information flying around it can be overwhelming to try to figure out how to handle it all. It may seem impossible to try to connect everything all at once. Whenever we feel this way, we're probably right. In these moments we shouldn't try to make everything make sense right away. Instead, we should pick one thing that sticks out to us and make it our primary focus.
In an intentionally insane example, let's say we're in a scene where two people are breaking up. Suddenly someone walks on to tell us the building's on fire. Immediately after that someone else walks on to tell us The Queen of England is coming over and we have to clean up. Immediately after that a third person walks on and starts stomping around making fart noises. Instead of trying to find a way to make all of these things immediately fit together, we should pick one thing to care about the most and make it our utmost priority. Obviously we'll want to embrace all the other offers, but we don't necessarily care about them as much as our primary focus. In effect, we're establishing a worldview through which we can filter all the other pieces of information.
If we decide our focus is "The Queen of England is coming over", all of our choices for the rest of the scene are filtered through that priority - "we can have this conversation later, The Queen is coming!"..."she survived The Blitz, do you think she cares about a little house fire?"..."wipe down the fart machine, it's so dusty!" etc etc. We're still acknowledging all the crazy stuff happening around us, they just aren't as important as our chosen focus. The comedy will come from our extreme commitment to one thing leading to potentially misplaced priorities (e.g. The Queen visiting is more important to us than the house burning down). Furthermore, if our scene partners pick a different focus, much of the scene's comedic energy will come from these conflicting priorities getting in the way of one another. Our commitment to one thing will help us (and the audience) understand where to put our energy and attention and will prevent us from being overwhelmed by trying to deal with everything at once.
When it comes to not knowing what's happening in a scene, there are basically two ways to respond - add new information or don't. There's nothing inherently good or bad about either of these responses. Certain circumstances will call for adding information while others won't. The problem is when either of these choices are made out of fear or timidity rather than in service of the scene. Are we adding information because we're panicking and feel the need to just do something or because we've recognized a missing element that we can add to get everyone on the same page? Are we not adding information because we're afraid of messing up or because we already have enough to work with?
It's likely that in these uncertain moments we'll find ourselves falling toward one end of the spectrum more often than the other. Recognizing our tendencies will go a long way toward understanding how to best respond when we find ourselves in similar circumstances. Our gut instinct when we're uncomfortable might be the right move some of the time, but we should be aware that what feels safe isn't always the right choice. If our tendency when we're uncertain is to lean back and not add, we should force ourselves to push through that instinct and look for moments when the better choice is to add some information. If our tendency is to add or act for the sake of addition or action, we should work to be a little more discerning and patient. The sweet spot will always be the middle, where we're comfortable going either way depending on the needs of the scene.
No matter how we respond, it's important to fully commit to that choice. Both our teammates and the audience take their cues from us. If we're adding information but we're doing it timidly or we're not adding anything because we're afraid of making the wrong move, they'll sense our discomfort and their trust in us will suffer. Instead, if we decide the best choice is to add new information, we should act like it's the most helpful thing we could do in that moment, even if we're secretly unsure. Similarly, if we decide the best choice is to not add anything, we should commit to it completely. We can choose that we already have all the information we need and that we just need to unpack or build on it a little more.
Meaning is manufactured. Something is important because we decide it is.
Commitment and confidence goes a long way in helping us find direction in uncertain moments. Making a choice and not wavering from it will help us find solid ground where there was previously instability. If we decide The Queen of England's visit is our utmost priority, we should hold onto that decision for the duration of the scene. Even when being consumed by fire or suffocated by farts, we are 100% dedicated to making The Queen's stay as pleasant as possible.
Any successful scene needs something to ground it in order to be sufficiently engaging. Most commonly this comes in the form of establishing a resonant context (norms & expectations) against which its comedic (unusual & unexpected) elements can stand out. However, when things get a little crazy and information is flying all over the place, establishing that resonant context and/or keeping comedic elements manageable can be difficult. In moments like these, rather than attempting to wrangle all the information, we can ground the scene by taking some element and repeating it at regular intervals to create a scenic rhythm. That element can be anything - a noise, an action, a catchphrase, a chant, a point of view, a story, etc - as long as it's consistent. This is a place where Picking a Focus will really come in handy. If our priority is The Queen, something as simple as "The Queen is coming!" repeated throughout the scene will establish a consistent through-line that we can repeatedly return to whenever we need a break from the craziness.
The idea is to create a sort of tension/release game that will give us and the audience something to lean on in the midst of uncertainty. The tension comes from the confusion that already exists when we're overwhelmed by lots of disparate information. The release comes from that familiar element being repeated. If we can time the release at regular intervals, it will create a satisfying rhythm to the scene.
A repeating familiar element creates comfort.
Even if the audience doesn't know exactly what's going on, they'll appreciate having that familiar element and knowing that if they're patient during moments of confusion it'll come around again. It's like listening to a song in a foreign language. We might not understand what it's about, but it has familiar rhythmic elements that keep us engaged and entertained.
In practice, putting these methods to work will take some time. It's normal to panic and struggle when things feel out of control, and even the most seasoned performers get lost sometimes. But by having an awareness of our own tendencies in these moments, and with an intentional effort to embrace everything that comes at us, be decisive, and commit fully and repeatedly to our choices, we'll slowly start becoming comfortable with uncertainty. There are ways to find solid ground in uncertain moments. We just have to know where and how to look.