“You just have to look. You have to open your eyes. It’s a way of seeing. Just like any of the arts are. That’s what makes it like life . . . you think of your life as a narrative when in fact it’s probably a lot more like a Harold . . . You don’t make order out of chaos, you see the order within the chaos.”Noah Gregoropoulos quoted by Amy Seham in Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City. Jackson, Mississippi:U of Mississippi P, 2001. p. 54
Callbacks, reincorporations and connections all strike me as closely related concepts. The first two ideas tend to refer to the strategy of reusing formerly established facts or scenic elements at an opportune moment: callbacks are well-timed (often, though not exclusively, comedic) finesses that patiently weave theretofore shelved elements strategically back into the mix, while reincorporations include more practical narrative and story-based echoes such as simply repeating a character name or specific shortly after its first appearance to keep it front of mind. While Connections can certainly include these types of improvisational recycling, I consider this concept as considerably more inclusive. When we seek or invite connections in our work as players, we are open to recognizing the multitude of complex ways that pre-established offers and patterns may interact and enrich one another.
A scene begins with an older character, Player A, baking cookies in their kitchen on a cold winter morning. They are patient and methodical, clearly an expert at their craft, and eagerly watched by a grandchild, Player B, awaiting an opportunity to taste the familiar fruits of this labor.
Later in the action we see another character, Player C, in their own home kitchen making their famous grits and shrimp as their adult child, Player D, eagerly takes notes to record the process for future generations.
Many scenes (and years) later, we see an adult Player B now teaching this familiar ritual to their own grandchild during an important shared moment in their lives.
Several scenes later we see a child being bullied on the playground. In a quiet moment, they open their lunchbox and pull out one of their grandparent’s cookies thereby revealing that they are Player B from the earlier scene.
Several scenes later, we see an elderly character, Player E, in their home garage replacing a car battery that has died during a cold weather spell, all the while being observed by a young Player F with great attention and enthusiasm...
Opening Ourselves to Deeper Connections
Here are some ways to continue building an awareness and openness to connections as you approach your work on the improv stage. I’ve provided these possibilities in a somewhat ascending order in terms of complexity.
1.) Use others’ choices. This might be the most obvious form of connection but that does not mean that it is easily or excessively deployed. It is difficult to assume or exploit connections in our work if our primary focus is with our own ideas and offers. When we fully embrace the suggestions of our teammates, privileging their contributions above our own (or at least equally) then we are more likely to find dynamic and creative combinations and pathways. On the most basic level, repeating our partners’ choices keeps these elements alive and well, be it a character’s name, a feature of the environment, or the details of a mimed prop or costume piece. When we actively work to make these specifics important, whether they are used in the moment or polished and then shelved, we increase the raw material that can create and deepen meaning later down the road. From the above example, scenes might borrow the activity (baking), the environment (the kitchen or cold morning), the relationship (grandparent and grandchild) or a notable prop or emotion (cookies or anticipation).
2.) Appreciate and encourage patterns. Patterns are a delight in improvisational story-telling and can assist us in many ways: we can elevate trends to help craft and build discovered games (my scene partner established a door that is hard to close that I should also struggle with at some point); we can lean into established routines or character mannerisms to heighten energy and playfulness (my partner has shown that they are nervous and have sweaty hands so I’ll create another moment where that behavior will clearly emerge); or we can seek to disrupt or transform patterns to upset the scenic equilibrium so that our characters can go on new journeys (my partner clearly placed everything precisely on their desk so I’ll gently start to upend that sense of order). In each of these cases, our awareness and appreciation of recurring choices serves as a critical improvisational lens and technique. If we are oblivious to these emerging games and dynamics, we are ill-equipped to heighten, enjoy and exploit them. Remaining studiously open to the emergence of patterns on the stage opens up new potentials for thoughtful and helpful connections. Also remember that a pattern or game is more likely to build when you actively reflect or add to it. Without a second “move” a pattern can’t continue on to a third and fourth…
3.) Recognize rather than force connections. As the opening quote attests, if we are working with awareness we are likely to see potential connections with a surprisingly minimal amount of effort. If, on the other hand, we are working or striving to make such connections, they will often feel forced, unnuanced or possibly even a little desperate. It strikes me as a deeply ingrained human tendency to observe and note patterns in our everyday world. Trust that these skills will also accompany you to the stage. If you are actively listening, and consciously looking backwards (considering how the scene has evolved and what elements are already in play), combining the raw material of improv can become surprisingly effortless. To this end, trust that a well-timed and gently executed connection will typically serve you better than a clumsy grab or rushed comment. The audience enjoys seeing and discovering these moments as much, if not more, as we do as performers and some of this appreciation can dissipate if we draw too much attention to the “trick” rather than letting the magic speak for itself.
4.) Explore skipping a step. This device is a little difficult to describe, but there can be a joy in noting a clear connection but then skipping the most obvious next move or repetition in lieu of transforming the choice in an obvious but perhaps slightly less expected manner. Let me break that down a little! Rather than an explicit (first choice) connection, this might feel more like an implicit or “third” choice. It’s perhaps clearest to model this in terms of word associating or repetitions. If Player A says “I love you,” and later Player B echoes “I love you,” but then the thread is completed by Player C announcing “Don’t tell me that you love me…,” the three vignettes or moments have still found a connection, but the third iteration has tilted the frame a little in a way that retains an element of freshness and surprise. A similar approach is to consider connections as thematic in nature rather than solely content or repetition based. In this manner, three vignettes might explore three types of love (or the lack thereof) and could still connect in a meaningful and perceivable fashion. In fact, I’d offer that such implicit connections are frequently the most dynamic, generative and effective.
5.) Consider the (much) bigger picture. If you’re performing in an evening-long improvisational performance then it’s likely that the span of the entire event is included in the audience’s frame of reference and is therefore up for grabs in terms of making connections. This attitude, when exercised with care, also holds true for short-form performances or events that might feature multiple disparate shows or scenes. In these instances the “first move” of a pattern could likely lie in something outside the immediate frame in question and an apt reuse may also contribute to the evolving shape of show. Similarly, players can locate these first moves in current news events, pop culture happenings or the prevailing zeitgeist, thereby making their actions connect to much broader themes and issues. On a more personal level, the same can hold true in terms of making connections to personal stories and experiences; although these more provocative moments may not contribute noticeably to the architecture of the event, they are none-the-less likely to add to the overall poignancy and power. The cautionary warning with all of these less insular approaches is that the audience (or the majority thereof) needs to be in on the move, with the notable exception of personal connections designed to add character depth rather than collective meaning. Referencing or echoing that hilarious moment that happened in your closed rehearsal earlier that day, or recycling that lazzi that brought the house down months ago, are more likely to alienate and exclude this particular audience than elevate the field of play. I refer to this as keeping the audience inside the circle of the performance.
There is also a second – equally important – facet of connection worthy of mention. The definition above focuses on the way in which material and content intersects and overlaps, but it would be remiss to not also consider connection as it applies to the act of players engaging in the act of creating improvisation. Without this embodied practice of players sharing breath and space in an open and inviting way, and the resulting connection between the improvisers and their audience, improv would rarely amount to much, and so it is also vital that this unifying bond is nurtured, honed and valued. In our excitement to play, we shouldn’t neglect to see, hear and connect to our fellow collaborators as it is through them that our journeys take flight.
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Connected Game: Phonebank