Improvisational Theater

Thursday, March 14, 2013


I took great care to plan for the wrong class, and in the heat of the moment wherein I realized it was the wrong class I’d planned for, I scrambled to restructure a class around an entirely different focus. Scrambled, but finally just rolled along, followed the flow, was fine.

Life.  The ultimate improvisation. 

Learning. Performing. Teaching. These are my favorite things. All of which feel, to me at least, like an act of love. 

Last night I was tired, and my mind was too crowded to fit love in, especially complicated love.  My brand new group of students slipped through the door one after the other, eager, scared, delighted, anticipatory…
It was only moments before love was inescapable. This particular group radiated warmth and enthusiasm. Despite fatigue I felt very alive.

The most powerful moment of that living last night happened when during the game of GO! I made a “mistake”.  I left the center of the circle for no apparent reason, a mistaken moment, a wayward impulse.  Because I left unexpectedly, no one was there to catch the ball and it dropped.  Check out the double meaning in that! (Are or are not, I wonder, explanation marks annoying.  I can’t decide. But the question arises every time I use one.  And why is “every time” not one word?) The group cried out, “No one said go!” They all smirked or chuckled.  There was a general sense of glee about it.  A sense that I felt deserved some exploration.  So I added, without much thought, “Going!” to the game of “Go!” Now a player could leave the center of the circle on their own accord, just by stating they were going.  The ball in mid air, hoping to land in a players hand, was then caught by whomever stepped up.  And someone always did. It was fantastic and unanticipated.  I was gifted three reminders in that experience:

  1. “Mistakes”, all of them, are opportunities. In scene work we often talk about “finding the game”, which to me means, deeply tuning myself in to the exchange between players and being wide awake to our “mistakes”. If a player has endowed themselves with the name Bob and another player, missing that offer, calls the player Jesse… there is a game to be played.  Bob is now Jesse Bob, every time.  Or maybe no one ever calls anyone by the same name twice, the entire scene.  If no player ever makes a mistake, any game that arises comes from an IDEA.  As we know, IDEAS are not an improvisers friend.  An IDEA is quick to become a plan and a plan is impossible to deliver, improvisationaly speaking, without force. Force requires blocking and yadda, yadda, on and on into the mire of poorly executed improv. Forced games rarely play out and generally if they do play out they play out in thick, awkward form. Allow yourself to make mistakes.  In fact, we need mistakes, we can't find the game and play it with ease and grace if there are no mistakes.
  2. “Going.”  How often are you playing a scene wherein your character would leave?  I mean, you are playing this character as authentically as possible, there’s a break up and in this moment, the character you are playing would just exit.  But because you’re performing you stay on stage despite it.  You push out more scene and it feels, well, it feels pushed.  From an audience perspective it looks pushed too.  We fear following our characters instincts and our own impulses for many reasons. A responsibility to not abandon the other players is probably the most common. I think often that feeling is a misunderstanding of abandonment or blocking.  I encourage my students to GO if their character would go.  Worst case scenario the other player is left alone in the space you created together for just a few moments, which often builds tension in the story, before another player SWEEPS the scene or otherwise moves the story forward.  If building tension, something that is technically very hard to do when improvising, is the worst case scenario, I say take the risk.  Adding GOING to the game allowed us to see the opportunity in this action and how our fellows responded in kind.
  3. Confidence reads as confidence and is greeted with trust and trust equals comfort.  My students didn’t know I was creating GOING in that mistaken moment.  As far as they knew GOING hade existed all along and I was only now unveiling it.  Because I was confidant in my delivery of the spontaneous idea, everyone got on board, right away, no question, and it played out beautifully.  If I’d seemed hesitant, reluctant or frightened, my students would have been right there with me, anxious, uncertain if they were willing to try it or not, uncertain if it made sense…etc. The very same thing is true of improvised scene work.  I encourage my students, when in doubt feign confidence. Fake it till you make it. When you look anxious and uncomfortable, your eagle eyed audience takes note, they become distracted, uncertain, uncomfortable.  If you look confidant your audience is comfortable, they trust all is well and they remain engaged in the story developing in front of them. 

Each reminder inspired me and infused me with energy and lead to possible the greatest reminder of all, the exploration and understanding of improvisation is, for me, invaluable. Even at the last minute of my wariest of days.

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