“Don’t deny either verbal or physical reality […] The actor’s business is to justify.”Del Close’s key improv rule as recalled by Rob Kozlowski, The Art of Chicago Improv: Shortcuts to Long-Form Improvisation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002. p.27
Justification stands as one of the foundational tools of improv as it imbues our work and stories with meaning and dynamism. To justify choices involves combining seemingly disparate or unrelated offers through providing context or pertinent backstory. It can be tempting to think of this technique as primarily a strategy for assisting the scene when things are going awry – such as is the case when players and their choices are not uniting in a playful and helpful way; but justifying also supports most of our more run-of-the-mill storytelling efforts as we work to make sense of the potentially random elements that populate our fictive worlds. This performance approach likewise provides a preferred alternative to merely calling out or commenting upon inconsistencies in a way that might provide laughter but doesn’t ultimately work to bring ideas into alignment (or make our partners look good during the creative process.)
As the lights come up on the start of a new scene, Player A and B have both taken the field and initiated without an awareness of their scene partner’s presence or intent.
Player A is pulling a heavy roast out of an oven downstage right…
Player B is intensely digging a hole with a shovel downstage left just a few feet away…
Justifying as a Source of Creative Strength
Here are some ways to unlock the hidden potentials of apparently contradictory scenic moments…
1.) Hold onto your own gift (or that of your partner.) Be wary of needlessly throwing away the richness of your own reality in order to embrace that of your scene partner. If the audience has seen you pull something out of an oven it will feel anticlimactic if you immediately drop that reality completely to join your partner digging. Likewise, throwing away the digging choice and just coming inside without ever returning to this rich idea will also probably disappoint. Justifying is first and foremost about combining our ideas rather than throwing some of them away needlessly or completely. This isn’t to say that our actions and choices will not morph and transform: perhaps Player B is digging a hole to bury yet another disastrous roast in the backyard. In this way our scenic work becomes unpredictably and delightfully cumulative rather than unhelpfully reductive and monolithic.
2.) Engage more than just your brain (or your wit.) Another temptation that can occur when faced with choices that aren’t immediately compatible is a tendency to over rely on our dialogue to “fix” these ruptures rather than deploy our entire skill set as performers. If Player A calls out “Stop digging and come have dinner,” for example, while B’s choice has been recognized, it hasn’t really been embraced. If, on the other hand, Player A continues to prepare dinner for their partner who always starts a new household project moments before they are about to dine, and imbues the scene with this well worn emotional truth, now both choices have been honored more fully in a way that also heightens the physical and emotional stakes of the scenario. Seek an emotional as well as an intellectual truth and connecting rationale.
3.) Avoid calling out the rupture (or dismissing its potential.) I’ve mentioned the trap of commenting above as this tendency strikes me as a way of diffusing the potential of starkly different choices rather than maximizing the risk and beauty of such moments. Some companies and performers elevate and enjoy this often deadpan or wry style of play: “I see you clearly didn’t notice that I was cooking before you decided to make that digging choice…” Such call outs are likely to get an audience laugh; but, in my opinion, will rarely do much to ultimately fuel the engine of the scene. And they also have the very real likelihood of puncturing your partner’s attack and eroding trust. Astute audiences will recognize misfires or challenging contradictions, and there is arguably some value in gently “winking” at these scenic detours, but to openly mock such moments routinely saps them of any latent potential or tension.
4.) When in doubt, make one small step (as you don’t need to “solve” it all in one move or alone.) Relish the struggle. Unlike most forms of art, improv allows the audience to witness and enjoy the messiness of the process. There’s no expectation that all choices will immediately find their way effortlessly into the greater narrative arc. Perhaps our scene above bravely moves forward for several minutes with neither player providing an outright justification for the two opposing actions as they trust that they will eventually get there. (Is it finally revealed that Player B is burying the last guest who made a rude comment about A’s cooking?) It’s also helpful to relieve yourself of the burden of holistically solving any disparity: offer one small connection or piece of context. Player A might playfully note that “The neighbors are going to be home in half an hour” to add urgency to B’s digging without defining its nature or purpose. Player B could call “Your pot roast smells absolutely divine” as a way of acknowledging A’s clear intent. Such a patient approach is reminiscent of an improv curve ball that offers something new without any rush to weave it immediately into the known context trusting that a richer connection awaits further down the line.
5.) Honor stated realities over inferences (or yet-to-be defined elements.) While there are often moments when an action can be repurposed or morphed into a more connected choice, I find that it’s a good rule of thumb to fully embrace any stated reality. If Player B announces, “All this digging is making me thirsty,” it’s unhelpful for Player A to now awkwardly wrestle with this established fact in order to further a preconceived intent: “Why do you always call the vacuuming digging? The living room looks great!” Once Player B has named their activity that needs to be honored. We might learn that Player B has in fact been digging through the floorboards of the kitchen, or that Player A has been cooking in an outdoor brick oven, but as would be the case with any improv offer, it’s important that we don’t block or start to argue about the building blocks of the scene as improvisers. Justifying is an invitation to bring us together rather than have us doggedly hold onto our own preferred path or preconception.
While justifying is an improviser’s bread and butter on the stage and a critical tool for crafting stories and journeys, there is one place that it can prove less than helpful: in our postmortems and note sessions. When a director or fellow player offers feedback on the effectiveness of a scenic choice, or perhaps raises a concern about how they felt on the receiving end of a plot point, avoid feeling the need to justify your actions. In improv it’s a given that the path unfolds before us as we go and that it’s likely you had a (really good) reason for making the choice that you did, but it’s good form to also realize that our (really good) intentions may still have resulted in an unhelpful or inorganic moment, or that we may have inadvertently thwarted a fellow player. Take the note.
Connected Game: Freeze Frame