How to Improve your Improv

The Problem:

In working to create scenes from Who, What and Where, no matter what the game is, once the players establish their who, what and where, novices and players who come from the ‘story’ approach  to improv, invariably begin thinking ‘what can I do to make this more interesting?’ They may even share a backstory or devise a mutual problem or type of relationship so that they will be prepared to improvise. I’ll give an example: Who – Lawyer, Client. What – Preparing for trial, Where – the holding cell in the courthouse. Now the actors have very little time before going on to add things like “I’ll be a lawyer with a speech impediment and you can be on trial for murder and we know the judge is bribable…” or “I’ll discover I’m defending my own long lost brother.” There are a lot of possibilities within those scenarios to show character and objective and you think it’s a good starting point for an interesting scene. Now you have a ‘situation’ to play. Invariably every improviser has this urge to create a ‘starting point’. Yes, you know it’s play-writing, but it’s just so you can get something to happen. Admit it, things like this flood your mind prior to stepping onstage and getting whatever other focus is asked of you on top of that. Maybe it’s the game of Contact, or Using the Where or Singing Dialogue. It doesn’t matter. You’ve hobbled yourself with TMI – too much information and unknowingly your characters and the situation may have come from “My Cousin Vinny” and some Saturday Night Live character sketch. (old information) You know your scene will be different because you’ll just ‘yes, and…’ whatever your partner gives you and they’ll yes, and… yours. And you’ll work to make your partner look good and vice versa. And a scene will emerge. OR Let’s say you don’t share this with your partner before entering the game. Not to worry, you can find a quick way to convey some portion of that scenario to your partner, knowing they will Yes, and… it. Or you’re willing to toss it in favor of his or her offer. Meaning some other scenario your partner had takes precedent. Either way, the starting point goes from there into an improv scene. No matter what was offered and yes, anded, you share this information. And of course, the easiest way to get this information out is to label and tell. And that’s what a lot of Improv actors do. They state who they are or what issue they have and offer that up to create story. Yes, depending on the skill level, character can be shown and a plot is outlined to derivate from – at least at the beginning. You don’t see the where, because you don’t have to. You’re barely connected to your partner except in a general way, knowing that you’ll both agree to go with what is given. Your job is to get the scene off the ground and have some fun. It is how most improv is generated these days: But it rarely goes deep. It tends to comedy and wackiness or a cerebral exchanges of ideas or a little of both. I know I sound like I’m criticizing this approach – and I am, but I’m offering an alternative way to start.

The Solution:

I’ve devised a progression of four Spolin Games that erase this urge toward generalized story and character and replace it with useful focuses (foci?) one at a time that will get you off on the right foot to improvise successfully. Step 1 – Build the Where: After getting the Who, What, and Where, place in space all the objects you see, one at a time, showing them to your partner by handling them and detailing something about each object. REASON: The where is so easily overlooked and without it you are more prone to talk about it than use it. You: “Here’s a cell door. It’s got bars going this way and a little window to slide food trays in. The door slides open and does not swing out.” Your Partner: “Here is a sink (demonstrates turning faucet on and off) the spring loaded button only allows 3 seconds of water. Sink is stainless steel.” You: “A calendar on the wall here (show) with naked women. The days x’ed out leading to the trial date.” Etc. Once you’ve seen several objects and know where they are in space you begin the scene. BUT Step 2 – In Gibberish: All dialogue must be spoken in Gibberish. WHY?: Gibberish forces you to make clear what you’re saying. You must pay attention to your partner in order to respond and both players’ bodies are activated. Mind/Body state allows for intuitive behavior. Emotions emerge and dialogue is created that must be understood in order to relate. Using the where becomes more necessary and useful in this portion of the progression. Luckily you’ve built it and it is there for you.Time limit 3 – 4 minutes maximum. Step 3 – Spelling: Y-o-u m-u-s-t S-P-E-L-L e-v-e-r-y w-o-r-d. You must spell out the dialogue you generated in the Gibberish scene. REASON: Spelling makes each word count. It forces close attention and listening to understand. You cannot play-write when spelling, it is too tedious. If you don’t understand what is being spelled to you it is permissible to spell W-H-A-T? It assures that you do understand and only then can you formulate a response. It cuts down on the unnecessary wordiness of many improv scenes. (using too many words is informational more tell than show.) Time limit 4- 5 minutes maximum. Step 4: Do the scene speaking in English (or whatever language is native), the words you just spelled – Or as much of it as you can remember. Include the “What?” when and if it was asked during the spelling part. Performing the scene now will take a minute or two at most. At the end of your spelled dialogue CARRY ON! Continue the scene past that point and you will likely be truly improvising. The where will be there, visible to you and your partner and the audience; your characters and relationship were forged in the Gibberish section. You’re too busy then to deal in concepts. What’s easiest is relation to one another. What you spelled will further increase your attention on each other (making you and your partner look good to each other) and the words you’ll speak will have resonance, nuance and character. Improvising from that point will be effortless because you’re connected in the space and to each other and what comes from that moment on, will be a rich and fresh scene devoid of cliché and jokes. The space is visible and will support you and fuel the scene and make the where visible to the audience. You’ll be on your way to a great improvised scene.