“The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea.”Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979. New York: Routledge, 1992. p.87
Instructors often task their students with being Obvious on the stage – a seemingly simple concept that likely serves as a surrogate for many interrelated improv concepts. Such a rallying cry can coax improvisers into pursuing more personally connected and real choices or “using ourselves” on the stage; it may serve as a stand-in for exploring immediacy and reactiveness in our scenes, quickly saying our next thought rather than retreating into our intellect and sorting through multiple possibilities; or it might reference having faith that a simple and honest choice will likely garner more productive pathways that a needlessly clever or ornate construction. While there is perhaps some variety in how the term is deployed, the central idea remains that improvisers should seek to privilege unlocking innate reactions and ideas rather than worshipping at the altar of Over-Originality or Cleverness. This seems easy enough, but tapping into and trusting our raw creative instincts is no small feat.
Player A enters Player B’s office for a high-stakes job interview at a leading advertising firm.
Player A: (with a light and welcoming energy) “Sorry to keep you waiting. We’ve had such an impressive array of candidates, but I’m excited to get to know you a little better.”
Player B: (after much painful deliberation) “Where would be a good place for me to put… my pet cheetah…?”
If you are an over-thinker, meticulous planner, or verbal-centric player, consider adding some of the following strategies to your toolkit:
1.) Leap before you look. While this may not be the best advice in the real world, on the improv stage such a mantra can break us free from our minds and launch us into the here and now. If you have a tendency to search for the “perfect” line of dialogue or scenic contribution, you may routinely edit out simple yet effective responses. Bypass this intellectual process by challenging yourself to make your first choice now. If you find yourself judging or assessing a scene partner’s choice, rather than leaning backwards and thinking, make the active choice of just leaping in and physically joining them. If you have a tendency to intellectualize and internalize before committing to a move, start speaking as soon as your character is in focus and just let the words flow (without being needlessly verbose as that’s another issue altogether!) On a purely technical level, it’s more challenging to be over-original if your mind and body are too busy actively engaging in the task at hand with all your energy and attention. Which brings me to…
2.) Keep your focus on the stage. When our focus is truly on our scene partners and the physical world that is being created before our very eyes we are also less likely to bypass our immediate instincts. Watch, listen, and then make a small move or contribution. Trust that you are not solely responsible for “solving” the scene, or bringing “all” the energy, or providing the “most” dynamic choice alone. Over-originality tends to raise its anxious head when players forget that they are engaging in a team activity and that there is usually ample material already present on the stage at any given moment to find the next small step forward together. Keep your focus on your relationships, activities and this particular unfolding action. (On a related note, when our focus drifts offstage – perhaps seeking approval from a coach or judge – then we’re much more likely to miss the improv smorgasbord of potential laid out before us.) This snugs nicely with the concept of…
3.) Acting is reacting. This is an oft-quoted adage in the scripted theatre world but it applies equally (if not more so) to the improv stage. At this truism’s core is the notion that the answer to determining our own choices lies inextricably in the energies we receive from our scene partners. When we needlessly focus on creating (specifically, individually creating) we often neglect the inspirational source of reacting. In addition to forging stronger connections and energies between characters, this approach is also highly generative. When we react passionately, honestly and organically, this will likely provide ample material for our partners to then do the same. If, contrarily, we eschew visceral reactions for measured and more intellectual responses, the energy and dynamism of the scene often suffers. An obvious and immediate reaction will nearly always serve you better than an artificially concocted “move.” And, after all, you often don’t need that out-of-the-box addition, but are typically better served when you strive to…
4.) Add importance rather than something new. Over-originality is often a manifestation of an improviser’s desire to make sure they are being seen doing enough by making recognizably “significant” contributions. More times than not, however, such an instinct squelches more subtle offers and burdens the scene rather than elevates it. Taking on the mantle of being obvious also means embracing that every improvisational move needn’t bring something new and that, on the contrary, there are generally plenty of great ideas already percolating in the scene. The most obvious choice might actually prove to be elevating the idea of another that is already in play (or has been previously shelved) rather than shoehorning in that thing that you were wanting to do regardless of the fact that the scene doesn’t really need it. The “and” of “yes, and…” rarely soars when it’s disconnected and completely original. Rather, remember that the “and” can add volume, stakes, nuance and importance to something that is currently actively in play. Not to mention, this has the added bonus of making your scene partners look and feel good.
As I discuss here, in being our own version of obvious we will usually reveal our innate and unique creativity. In reality, no two players will likely have the same organic response to any given situation or prompt with any regularity as we all bring to the stage our own peculiar stories and experiences. Trust that your obvious reaction and choice will prove enough. Let this source of effortless creativity shine through in your work.
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