“We are conditioned to avoid taking risks, to ‘play safe’, to avoid failure, and to produce commodities […] we are encouraged to be well prepared for any public task and to keep any element of unpredictability to an absolute minimum.”Hazel Smith and Roger Dean. Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishing Association, 1997. p.23
Postponing or deferring the scenic action is a prevalent form of improvisational procrastination. Subsequently, many terms and techniques have emerged to describe and mitigate this tendency. Like so many other to-be-avoided tactics, postponing often manifests a player’s fear or nervousness: “but I don’t know what will happen if we follow that big choice or plot point!” Some styles of play are more embracing of talky scenes than others, but few would espouse putting aside rich story potentials in favor of just musing about theoretical possibilities ad nauseam. Bear in mind that you should not mistake postponing (which stalls momentum and any likelihood of advancing) with the important story function of extending (which adds stakes, detail and context.) The first instinct adds little to the dramatic action while the second serves a critical storytelling purpose.
Player A is faced with a difficult employment choice. They have just been offered a life changing opportunity as a consultant but this new position would require frequent travel and they have just started a family with their partner. Their current position as an in-house I.T. specialist is safe and can pay the bills, but does not provide any challenge or potential for advancement.
The lights rise on Player A and…
I’ll Get Around to Giving This a Clever Title Later
If you find yourself falling repeatedly into one of these postponing patterns, consider “don’t do that but do this instead…”
1.) Don’t discuss, do. In real life we often assemble our support network to help us navigate complex decisions. It follows that some of this behavior belongs on the stage, but I’ve found that it can quickly become disproportionately cumbersome. If Player A discusses this employment dilemma with their spouse, and then a few scenes later muses about it with their parent, and then a few scenes after that chats about it with their best friend at the pub, much of the dramatic “action” may have been expended with essentially nothing actually happening. In most cases much more interest awaits when the audience gets to see a character do rather than discuss. As is frequently the case in the best theatrical scenarios, there probably isn’t a “right” decision to select; so, why not give the character (and the audience) the joy of the journey? Take a first step and see where it goes. So instead of Player A talking with their spouse about what to do, let’s see their first fraught airport goodbye.
2.) Don’t seek advice, beg forgiveness. Connected to the above, seeking advice in some ways extinguishes the heat of choices that could have been realized. If you talk about the potential of causing marital strain (perhaps in multiple scenes) then it’s less impactful down the line if this is what actually transpires as you’ve already essentially dress rehearsed the scene to some degree in front of the audience (perhaps in multiple scenes.) On the other hand, if your character leaps into the metaphorical snake pit (why does it always have to be snakes?) knowing that there will likely be ramifications, the stakes and danger of the choice will invite more emotionally vibrant realities. Player A might be very aware that their spouse would not be on board with losing their financial safety net now that they have a child. So instead of Player A asking for approval, let’s see them go ahead and secretly quit their current job so that there’s no option other than to pursue their career dream. A scene in which Player A is now confronted with this behavior after-the-fact will surely prove more dynamic than a blasé discussion about what to do. This is undoubtedly not a sound approach for your real life, but it certainly adds fireworks to your stage personae!
3.) Don’t contemplate, activate. If you’re the scene partner in the above examples you also hold a great power to diffuse postponing tendencies. If you find yourself cast in the problematic role of an advice giver, fight the urge to have a sit and talk scene. Rather than carefully weigh through all the options, impetuously grab one and sell it with all your might. Better yet, grab an option that you know is ripe with complications or serves your own self interests: bring fuel rather than water to your scene partner’s burning problems. Perhaps you can personally benefit from the guilt created by Player A experiencing some martial strife, or you have an eye on their old (or potential) job. In general you and your stories will be better served by championing change over perpetuating stasis: if in doubt push the scene in the direction of the unexplored territory. So instead of rationally and dispassionately talking through all of the potential pros and cons with Player A, grab their cellphone and make them call their employer now with their spontaneous decision.
4.) Don’t half commit, over-commit. Postponing shares much with the improv habit of wimping and usually manifests its sedentary “Yes, but…” energy. Mundane and everyday scenarios can crackle when approached with an “all in” attitude instead. If you and your characters don’t care about their plights then it’s equally likely that the audience will only be minimally invested too. In traditional acting lingo this connects to the stakes and urgency of your character journeys. If the job decision isn’t particularly significant or pressing, then you’ll be served by making it so. Increase the voracity however you can. Perhaps Player A isn’t only unsure about their career path but is experiencing a full-blown mid-life crisis and this is just the first step on that pathway of realization. So rather than having a scene in which Player A wonders about their career options, let’s see them buy an overpriced convertible on credit and leaving the grid altogether!
5.) Don’t begin, continue. I apologize for the inelegant title language but I couldn’t find a better concise alternative! The habit of postponing can often be short circuited merely by changing the way we begin our scenes. Often improvisers instinctively start at the beginning – sitting down to dinner and revealing the new work potential, arriving at a friend’s house with a six pack and a conversation agenda, walking into the office of their spiritual adviser for their weekly appointment. Obviously these can all provide fine starts to a scene, but if you’re inclined towards postponing you may have already lost the battle a little with such a choice as these initiations are unlikely to hold much heat. It will be easy to sit and chat, gently work your way up to the topic of intended conversation, and then muse a little collectively on what to do next; that is, if you’re not edited before you’ve finally narrowed in on your focus. Alternatively, if you start in the middle or “continue” prior unseen actions it’s more likely that momentum will keep your character moving forward. So instead of Player A gently easing into their desired topic or content, they could immediately rip off the band aid by announcing “I’ve quit my job,” or “I’ve made a terrible mistake,” or “You’ve never wanted me to be happy…!”
In short, if you know postponing is in your bailiwick consider shocking yourself out of improv habits designed to keep you static and safe. Don’t waffle, risk. Don’t hesitate, attack. Don’t look before you leap, leap bravely into the great unknown before you look. Your characters (and scene partners) will thank you for it!
Connected Game: Word at a Time Crime