“Students should not tell their partners how to act or react, repeat something said earlier to stall, or make a comment on the action at hand since that doesn’t allow for emotional response.”Christian Toto, “Improvisation Takes Practice.” The Washington Times 30 March 2002: D01.
Commenting is another improv habit that improvisers lean on to keep the unfolding action at a distance. Generally it takes the form of remarking (perhaps wryly) on the scene or choices of your partners rather than fully investing and committing emotionally to the story at hand. Some improv companies and schools look less favorably on this peccadillo than others, and it’s certainly a “technique” that you may see seasoned improvisers deploying. Such a tool reminds me of scripted traditions like English pantomime that revel in a thin distinction between character and actor, and will often puncture the fourth wall with direct audience interplay. In general, however, I’d categorize commenting in improv as a fear-based reaction that doesn’t add energy or dynamism to the dramatic action; instead, it can tend to deflate your scene partner’s offers in a way that necessitates that they assume the burden of keeping the action alive. Commenting suspends the theatrical conceit and contract, often just for the sake of a witticism or observation that needlessly deflects an intended gift.
Player A is waiting at a bus stop as Player B, clearly flustered, races into the space.
Player B: “I think that apartment building’s on fire and there’s a woman screaming for help from a third floor window. We have to help…”
Player A: (dispassionately) “Well, that was some well-delivered exposition…”
Player A: (without moving) “So I guess we won’t be doing my idea then…”
Player A: (to the audience) “Do I look like the fire-fighting type to you…?”
Player A: (sarcastically) “I’m not sure how we’re going to make that happen on this tiny stage…”
Some Commentary on Commenting
Consider reading my earlier entry on cartooning here for strategies that can help you bring that “Third Dimension to Your Scene Work” which will, in turn, tend to diminish the likelihood of this related trend. I’d like to use this entry to consider some of the reasons commenting can inadvertently sneak into our work.
1.) We’re often rewarded by a disproportionate audience response. There is no denying that a well-delivered and carefully-timed rug-pulling comment on the action can elicit a thunderous audience reaction, but we must remain cognizant that not all laughter is created equal. If such a technique is ingrained in your company culture, the damage may appear minimal, but these types of choices can quickly become frustrating to your partner, especially if they have fully committed to the current premise. The audience may certainly enjoy watching this moment of improvisational squirming, but it is highly likely that our partners will not.
2.) We can maintain the safety of our position as a scenic observer. As is often the case with less-than-laudable improv habits, commenting allows the offending player to dispassionately stand outside the action of the scene. When we don the hat of the “observer,” we are less prone to explore emotion, vulnerability and connection to our character and their world. If the scene is moving into territory that invites culpability or emotional investment, commenting can allow us to retain the “safety” of distance – but at what expense? If you’re prone to deadpan characters, this may be masking a fear of really joining the ebbs and flows of the action.
3.) It buys us some time to process a new choice before committing to it. It is not uncommon to truly be surprised by choices that emerge on the improv stage. Assuming a commenting stance can also be a postponing strategy. If we take a moment to literally describe the choice in a removed fashion, this also buys us time to contemplate what we might want to add next. This is certainly a human and understandable response to the incredible uncertainty of the improvisational endeavor, but it also minimizes the very risk and adventure at the core of the genre. If you are truly surprised by a scenic development, chances are your character will be as well so why not just embrace this honest reaction?
4.) It provides the impression of tension or conflict. Conflict is a topic for another day, but assuming the stance of a commentator can provide the appearance of conflict, especially if we embody a contrarian nature. This version of conflict, however, strikes me as a relative of good old fashioned blocking in that it isn’t an organic tension between the characters so much as a disagreement or struggle between the improvisers and how they perceive the rules of play. Commenting dryly on the action might pose an obstacle of sorts, but it is rarely filtered through the world of the scene and so tends to stall embodied action in favor of conversation about potential action.
5.) Commenting on a choice is often easier than building on it. Action and momentum are so important and can be notoriously challenging to foster and build. Commenting will rarely assist in this scenic endeavor. Remarking on the choice of another player, or musing on perceived flaws, strikes me as low-hanging fruit in the meadow of spontaneity. It is riskier, more exciting, and ultimately more rewarding to climb that proverbial tree rather than merely stand beside it and assess whether or not it is a good idea for the tree to exist in the first place.
If a moment of commenting is going to happen in a scene, my personal preference is that it does so without suspending the point of view of the character entirely; that is, almost in a Brechtian manner, the statement offers the performer’s and character’s reality simultaneously. To use the example above, Player A might respond “I’m really not sure what someone of my stature can do… but count me in!” This can also be a way of playfully “calling your shot” as an improviser. Such a comment followed by a physically brave and adept pantomimic sequence would surely delight. If a story arc has arrived at a complex climax that requires considerable finesse to solve, a character noting, “I really don’t know how we’re going to solve this” could similarly add to the joyfulness of the moment, especially if it is then accompanied by the first step towards a solution. In my opinion, commenting is most thwarting when it is offered in lieu of a “Yes, and…” rather than as a cheeky or playful bridge to the next brave scenic move.
Another variant of commenting is speaking your truth (or calling it onstage) where players provide important information to their teammates so as to address unhelpful patterns or habits. In this way a player might note (as the character and the player) “Gee, I’d really like a chance to speak here…” While this may appear similar to commenting on the surface, the intent and spirit are markedly different as this is not a fear-based move designed to stall the action but rather a tool of empowerment and address.
Connected Game: Gibberish Scene