“The irony is that the art which is most exciting today is impermanent and not meant to last except as an act of love […] It just comes out between people. It doesn’t want to be written down. It passes in the moment and disappears.”Paul Sills quoted in Jeffrey Sweet’s, Something Wonderful Right Away. 1996. New York: Limelight Editions, 1978. p.21
If you were to ask me on any given day what one ingredient is commonly missing from run-of-the-mill improv scenes my instinctual answer would most likely be Love. In our quest towards dynamism – which often regrettably takes the form of conflict – love and it’s many splendid manifestations are easily overlooked. And yet, while there are certainly no cure-alls in improv, it strikes me that it would be a truly exceptional scene that could not benefit from adding love, deepening it’s presence, or finding greater nuance in how we are applying it to our actions and scene partners. Many improvisers are comfortable bringing anger and it’s darker companions to the stage; those that are equally adept displaying heartfelt love are, sadly, less common unless you’re fortunate enough to be routinely playing in service-oriented forms.
Spreading the Love Around
1.) Find love in your own characters. As the (admittedly problematic) saying goes, “you can’t truly love someone else unless you love yourself” and I believe this also applies to our characters. Narrow characters that are merely “humanesque” will rarely have the depth to go the distance, especially if you’re working in long-form structures. When we wear our characters lightly it can prove a temptation to see them as simple creatures; but when we explore their inner vitality and humanity such personae can quickly become more vibrant and relevant. What are their qualities that you admire? Are there struggles that you share with your creations? What do those closest to them find worthy of adulation? If we are taking on characters that at first blush are villainous or antagonistic it becomes even more important to nurture these facets worthy of appreciation, even if these details are left largely beneath the surface. Pursuing more sympathetic hues also serves as a defense against sliding into uninterrogated stereotypes that typically display an outsider’s curt summation (rather than an insider’s understanding) of a person.
2.) Find love in your onstage relationships. The dramatic canon is filled with scenes between characters that are deeply invested in each other whether they are romantically involved, fellow family members, or boldly united in a cause or struggle. We’re often warned about placing strangers at the center of our action, and a primary reason for this well-founded leeriness is that such characters rarely have sufficient backstory to forge a meaningful bond. And yet, with novice and more experienced players alike, improv scenes between close lovers, loyal relatives and cherished friends can all start to resemble lackluster stranger scenes when no attention is paid to exploring deeper emotional connections. Remembering that love can assume many guises – attraction, intense devotion, deep respect, and oh so many more – it is worth our time as players to invest in these dynamics. It can be as simple as reflecting on the qualities of the performer themselves that you admire or esteem to begin the process (noting important personal boundaries and the like.) Finding the love between you and your partners also increases the likelihood that you’ll have the presence of mind to make sure they’re looking good and enjoying themselves on stage as well.
3.) Find love in the moments of conflict. While I tend to think of love as being – to some degree – an antidote to conflict, the relationship between these two scenic elements is considerably more complex. Adding love to a conflict is actually a fantastic method for raising the stakes and heightening interest. When you think about the people in your own life who are most likely to cause conflict, frequently they also currently or once held places of great affection (or perhaps thwarted such opportunities.) If we don’t need or want anything from our opponent anymore, and have given up completely on finding any redemption or reconnection, it would follow that we’d have little to lose by just leaving the scene there and then. It is often the love that gives us the reason and stubbornness to stay and fight. Keeping this emotional vulnerability front of mind can add poignancy and prevent familiar scenarios from becoming trite. Love such as this can also add internal tensions and conflict within the character which is a powerful addition to any scene.
4.) Find love in the craft. There is something palpable and invigorating about being in the presence of company members who love to play. While we are surely allowed down days and moments of nonchalance (no-one can exude “chalance” all the time!) I think it’s important to explore ways to stay connected to this passion. For most of us in the field, improv is a labor of love providing rewards that are often less about remuneration and more about community, connection and expression. If the craft becomes more labor than love, this can have an influence well beyond our own work and progress. And it’s markedly more difficult to find the love in the scene if you have very little joy being on the stage in the first place. It’s critically important that we do not infect our improv communities with our own negativity or complacency. You can read a little more about this challenge in my entry about Commitment here.
I considered including the audience as a potential focus here too, but I think it’s easy for performers to be led astray by seeking a fickle audience’s love and accolades. I also don’t think I’m alone in finding that trying to impress an audience (or a special someone in the audience) nearly always results in inferior work and play. Perhaps rather than striving to earn an audience’s elusive love we would all be better served by sharpening the ways in which we display our love for the audience, whether this is providing them with a respite from a challenging week or news cycle, offering them an inclusive venue in which they feel seen and appreciated, or crafting characters and stories with empathy and nuance in mind. Or, actually, a delightful cocktail of all these dynamics now that I come to think of it!
Connected Game: Mantras