“Spontaneity is, above all, an attitude of mind, a commitment to thinking things afresh.”Adam Blatner, Foundations of Psychodrama, History, Theory, and Practice. 4th Edition. New York: Springer Pub. Co., 2000. p.87
Most of my professional work for the last two decades has taken place at Sak Comedy Lab where our shows are largely short-form structures with some hard-earned long-form scattered across the season. I have therefore played Moving Bodies (Puppets in the original Theatresports parlance) a lot. Too many times to count. We have great hosts that work hard to rotate games into the mix, but the reality is that some games are just audience pleasers or fill a specific show need, such as bringing audience members up on the stage. Moving Bodies is one of these perfect storms for me in that it includes this sought after audience involvement as volunteers manipulate the improvisers’ actions, and the results rarely garner anything but a perfect score regardless of execution. I’m not sure if I could even estimate how many times I’ve played the game as a result and I will confess to having to stifle a groan some nights when it’s announced in the lineup. I will also confess that it makes me laugh a little when students in my campus troupe will complain that they’ve had to play a game two or three times in a semester although I appreciate their desire to play something new. In reality, however, whether it’s hundreds of times or just a handful, the question remains how do we keep well-worn formats or games Fresh? I’m using Moving Bodies as my primary example as it’s my personal kryptonite, but I’m sure for many of you another game immediately jumps to mind.
A quick sidebar: When we talk about keeping it fresh, that should go for us as performers as well, so always be sure to arrive clean and pleasant-smelling to rehearsals and performances.
Keeping It Fresh
I’m writing this entry primarily with short-form in mind although I’m sure some of these approaches apply to those of you engaged in open-ended long-form productions. Generally my own long-form experiences have been set runs or shows that only play once or twice a month, so I’m always excited to get back to them, while on busy months I might play 15-20 short-form sets (down from 15-20 a week in my pre-parenting heyday.)
If you’re losing your improv mojo here are seven suggestions for reigniting that spontaneous spark…
1.) Keep your attitude in check and your spirits high. Going into any artistic endeavor with a foreboding sense of anguish nearly always proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this regard, while we may have played a particular game or premise multiple times, in most situations the majority of our audience is experiencing it for the first time (or may in fact be relishing the prospect of seeing something a little familiar.) In the scripted realm we often seek this illusion of the first time in our performances, and it’s an equally important factor in our improvisational work too; most would argue it’s the defining feature of our discipline. No one pays to see a performer begrudgingly going through the paces or snidely commenting on how something has become stale or everyday. Also, in most communities, we shouldn’t take for granted that there are far fewer performance opportunities than people keen to perform, so an attitude of gratitude can go a long way.
2.) Challenge yourself before the performance. This is a tradition that I bring to a lot of my projects as I like how it bonds the company and let’s us see where everyone is at in terms of their energies and focus for the night. The challenge can be broad: “I want to make sure I’m setting up my partners for joy and success.” Or, it can be more narrow, especially if there’s a game on the playlist that you know might be a stumbling block: “I want to avoid turning Moving Bodies into a yelling commenting fest and really connect to my partner instead.” In Spolin terms, this can give you a different point of concentration for the scene or evening, opening you up to more discovery and nuance. It also has the added bonus of giving you something to then consider post-show. Were you meeting you personal challenge, helping others to do the same, and did this open anything new up for you that you want to remember for future work?
3.) Look for ways to change it up. If you’re in a less-than-helpful groove with an improv game or show, look for ways to jolt yourself out of old habits and dynamics. To return to Moving Bodies, if you always tend to start the scene, position yourself to be a third entrance, or vice versa. If you always lean heavily into the physical activity of the scene, try instead to focus on the nuanced details of the relationship. If the scene always tends to be played in a modern context, throw some style or a genre onto the premise to open up a new approach. Some nights it might be as simple as having one audience puppeteer moving all the actors instead of the more typical two volunteers. This is one of my favorite things about how we play Gorilla Theatre at Sak Comedy Lab: we might re-visit some stock games but they nearly always have a new frame, premise or handle that makes them delightfully unfamiliar. There’s no reason not to take that same approach to other short-form performances and franchises.
4.) Launch yourself in a new way. Most short-form companies inspire scenes with an audience ask-for before the lights go down, and yet many of us can get into predictable patterns in either how we solicit this material – “Can I have an outdoor activity that two people might do on the weekend” – or the way that we use this information to inspire the scene that follows. Mick Napier writes about not every “Dentist” ask-for need result in a scene in the dentist’s office, and yet that’s where we so often go first. It follows that if we’re being predictable with our ask-fors and how we apply them, that the resulting work may often become predictable and uninspiring for us as improvisers too. I’d love to see a Moving Bodies based on a difficult family conversation or an emotionally vulnerable confession as that would push the game out of familiar territory quickly.
5.) Throw away the bits and stock devices. This is a particular pet-peeve when I watch short-form. Often teams or companies will lean heavily on tried and tested (usually comedic) devices that have historically worked in a game. Get your expert to create lists in your One-Voice Scene, have your guest name a variety of countries for your Universal Sign Language interpreter to pantomime (this one is problematic on multiple levels) or incessantly talk about how you can’t see your partner in Moving Bodies to prompt your puppeteer to change your line of vision. I am sure I have done all of these, for the record. Yes, such devices can work, but if a game is feeling stale and you’re relying on these devices, you are truly becoming your own worst enemy and risk merely moving through the paces of a scene without finding what is unique about the story in that particular moment. You can always go back to well-worn devices as the scene culminates if it needs a hail Mary to get you off the stage with some semblance of dignity, but if this is where you start your journey, it’s really unlikely you’re in store for a unique experience.
6.) Concentrate on story and connection. This builds from the prior point that if you’re concentrating on the gimmick of the scene you are less likely to organically uncover the original story that quietly awaits. Build slowly and deliberately. Listen deeply and with care. Pursue the paths of highest interest. Exploit the novel and unexpected as they gently emerge. Don’t rush or push to the anticipated pay-off. When I trained into Comedysportz I remember that the manual they provided listed a series of comedic bits for many of the games, such as put a wig into a Slide Show and then have the narrator comment on “How did that fluff get into the projector?” before blowing it away. I understand the intent behind providing new players with some game strategies, but underneath all the gags most of us still just want to experience a good story well told. Every game is a scene; every scene is a story; and every story is constructed of small beats. I’m sure I’ve picked that wisdom up from someone but it is now so ingrained that I couldn’t tell you who or where.
7.) Don’t expect any one show or format to scratch all of your improv itches. When I play a short-form show (or any improv show for that matter) I know that there will be artistic compromises that are likely to be made in order to meet the specific expectations of our audience and venue. I love narrative long-form, and exploring new improv concepts and structures. Generally, my short-form work doesn’t fulfill all of these particular personal artistic needs. But short-form creates an amazing connection to an audience, sharpens my skill-set as a story-teller when I only get three or four minutes on average to get to the point, forges creative and lasting bonds with my fellow performers, and serves as an amazing opportunity to play, something that can be increasingly rare as you start to move through the decades. Even Moving Bodies can do all of these things on a good night, although it probably is an awful lot to ask of one rather silly improv parlor game. And that’s my broader point: keep a sense of perspective and look to have multiple projects going if you can if that’s what you need to keep yourself challenged and satisfied as a player. It’s not fair to ask any one game (or perhaps company for that matter) to satiate all your act hunger and artistic cravings.
I’m hesitant to give my last suggestion an official bullet point so I’m sneaking it in here, but sometimes it’s also important to just take a break. If the thought of playing a certain game or working with a certain person is giving you undue stress, perhaps that’s a signal that you need to step away for a while to recharge and find that passion again. Most of us have had that choice dropped upon us over the last year with mandated social distancing, and perhaps there is a small silver lining in that even Moving Bodies will be a delight when I’m able to finally stand on a stage with audience members again.
I’ve outed one of the improv games that can make my eyes roll a little when I’m not careful. Do you have a Moving Bodies of your own, a game that you’ve played too many times to keep count? If so, drop it in the comments here or join the discussion on Facebook.
Connected Game: Game Lab