improv, performance


I sat in this small coffee shop on a Friday night and prepared for a set of improv comedy. The players took the stage, and they presented us with a lot of creative scenes. Yet none of what they played consisted of substance, and it showed. Usually, the room is jovial and bursting with low-key snickers and hearty chuckles that energize both the players and the audience through to the end. This wasn't the case--the room was stiff, quiet, and the atmosphere felt more like a funeral than it did a comedy show. Focus waned quickly both on and off stage. No one wanted to be there. And no one was having fun.

Throughout the night, I saw not one moment of truthful play or expression. The stage itself was violated by an obnoxious lack of respect, and the performers were not determined to stay truthful to the characters, the stories, the details, or the conflicts. No one knew why they were up there, and every move felt hollowed and contrived. The performers were too complacent and content with the outlandish choices they made.

We all go periods of complacency. It happens when we plateau, and it is part of any performer's life on stage. Cheap frills and emotionless antics take no effort to make people laugh, and we compromise the quality of scenes because we don't want to fail to entertain our audiences, but we fail in doing just that.

Performing should compromise nothing, and if we want to break out of any complacent state, we need to find ways to stay continually planted in truth, reality, and trust; then we can open up rich and enticing possibilities of play that will keep our minds active, our audiences returning, and our rooms having fun.

Stop trying to be quirky and cartoonish. Everyone wants to play “quirky” or “cartoonish” because it’s easy, and it feels like the audience just saw a Wes Anderson flick or an Adventure Time episode. But if you don’t know the reasons behind your stage choices, and if you don’t take the time to build characters and a story, you come off as highly contrived, which leaves your audience underwhelmed and bored. Make no mistake, your audience can see right through you, and if they wanted to watch gimmicks, they’d go see Gallagher or some dude with puppets.

Don’t force anything. Improv is supposed to be natural. Let it happen that way. Don’t force conflict or jokes for the sake of laughs. Break out of the habit of going to the extreme when the audience doesn’t react, and stop forcing that kitschy Spongebob level of play. The more real you can become, the more captivated your audience will be when conflict does naturally present itself. We will all thank you for it, and your audience will want to come back.

Remember that episode of The Office where Michael Scott pulled guns out at the beginning of every improv scene because "nothing else can beat that". Yeah. That's it. That's forcing improv. Remember the end of the episode? No one wanted to play with him.

Be patient in your scenes. Silence is one of the scariest parts of improv, no doubt, but instead of running from it, we should be taking advantage of these quiet moments. Instead of filling the silence with word vomit, take the time between those pauses to work out facial expressions, body movements, and stagecraft. Allow non-verbal communication into your world, and you will begin to create hearty, fleshed out scenes. Your mouth isn’t the only thing that moves on stage, so let your body do some of the work.

Focus on character and story. Conflict is a result of characters being pulled into situations and how they resolve it. Let your characters drive the story instead of your conflicts driving your characters. Adding conflict before developing your characters will make anything you do on stage feel one-dimensional and fake. Slow down and develop personalities, attributions, relationships, and quirks first. Your audience will care more about what happens to your characters when conflicts finally arise.

Amplify your conflict. When conflict finally does happen, whether it be through disagreement/accusation or a driving desire, don't wave it away to go for something bigger or something that "fits" better. Ignoring/negating natural conflict only deflates a scene, which leads to tired and boring scenes. Inject your character's mentality/personality into your conflict to drive the action of the scene, and let your characters do the work in resolving what is happening. Let your scene partners help in this resolution, and don't let your conflict die a slow-burned death.

Find purpose in everything you do on stage. If you cannot find reasons for what you do when you play, then why are you on stage? Take the time to make every move count and every interaction matter. Relate to how it’d affect you in everyday life, and find the motive in the story you’re telling. Wes Anderson may be quirky, but he has purpose in everything he does. Every shot has a point, every character has a reason, every story has a cause. When you take away reasons behind decisions, you're left with puddles of apathy and nothingness. Don’t let that happen.

Give yourself limitations and challenges. The best creativity happens when you place challenges on yourself and your scene partners. Agree to do something you’ve never done before: keep everything in one location, play characters you’ve never played before, express one honest emotion somewhere in each scene, try to not be funny. Finding ways to challenge yourself will keep you on your toes, and it will stop you from plateauing as a performer.

Don’t be afraid to fail. We all have nights of performing at our lowest, and it's not anything that is harmful to the way we play. Off nights happen and should happen to keep us in check with both how we practice and how we check our egos. Don’t let the fear of a dead audience deter you from staying in reality. Take your moment of panic and turn it into positive energy on stage. Pull back your fear and see where the scene takes you.

Be truthful. Let yourself be affected by what’s happening on stage. Express these feelings. If someone is acting like an ass, tell them they’re acting like an ass. If someone calls you a jerk, express to them what you think. If someone you love is dying, react like you would in real life. And then intensify these emotions and actions. Don’t shrug off moments of truth and reflection because you’re too afraid to reveal things about yourself to other people.

Trust your scene partners. We’re all here for the same reasons and hiding behind fake demeanors, expressions, and attitudes only fog the reality of a scene and diminishes trust among you and your partners. Establish an open line of trust and communication through practices and workshops, be respectful, and find ways to make everyone look good by keeping each other honest and in check of egos and emotions. If you can’t trust your partners, you’re all going to fail no matter what.

Take your stage time seriously. Respect your stage. It is your home away from home, and it is your place for creative expression, so take it and yourself seriously. You’ve spent loads of time and shelled out tons of cash to be able to do what you love to do. So show it. Your stage presence is half of what makes a great show, so start caring about everything you do while you are up there. Your audience will take you seriously if you take the time to present yourself correctly. Don’t be shy or sheepish. Be firm and informative. Be warm and inviting. Be courteous. Be yourself.