“…the theatrical will should not be reducible to vague statements of desire – to want happiness or to seek the good of all mankind and universal peace and harmony – but must be concrete: to desire the good of this particular person, in this form and at this time.”Augusto Boal, Legislative Theatre. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge, 1998. p.58
One of my teaching catchphrases would definitely be “specificity breeds specificity” – only rivaled by the equally ubiquitous “putting on my pedantic pants” when offering some nuanced specificity of my own as an instructor. Improv without details is like pizza without toppings: it might get the job done but it’s unlikely to result in any memorable flavor, experiences, or reviews. If we consider structure and story arc as the domain of advancing, details support the equally critical function of extending. What was the protagonist wearing or holding in their hand? What was the weather and terrain like on the eight-hour road trip? What type of bird interrupted the lovers’ sleep? Specificity encourages interest, connection, and effectiveness by making our stories relevant and relatable. It puts the flesh on the bones of our creations.
Player A lumbers awkwardly onto the stage wearing an imaginary oversized wallaby mascot costume, its enormous head tucked uncomfortably under an arm… as opposed to… Player A walks on stage sorta tired.
Player A: (frantically switching the windscreen wipers on full as they squint in a panic onto the vague curving road ahead) “I think it’s the next left if I can see it…” as opposed to… “I think it’s the next left.”
Player A: (awakening) “I fear the jealous rooster pines on high / alone atop his chapel perch this morn / and wakes us with his plaintive screeching cry / Accursing to the heavens he was born…” as opposed to… “A bird woke us up.”
Questions to Unlock the Details
As we pitch ideas on the improv stage and place possibilities atop the improv shelves, it’s helpful to consider how we can create offers that are particular rich with latent creativity and potential. Any one or two of the following questions can increase the vibrancy of your creative palate during these moments. So, ask yourself…
1.) Why is this choice important? There’s a big difference between carrying an umbrella just “because” and carrying an umbrella because there’s a torrential thunderstorm currently underway. The umbrella in these examples remains the same, but the conditions surrounding and contextualizing it can raise the value of the choice dramatically. Sometimes this context is actually inspired by what was at first the seemingly random choice of committing to having an umbrella in your hand at the top of the scene; in other instances, your new offer results from and adds to a broader scenic frame that is already underway. If we populate our scenes with an endless array of mimed props or details but none of them are imbued with importance, then we are likely doing more scenic harm than good (in terms of overburdening the stage with unnecessary offers). It’s a given that we don’t generally know just exactly why or how something that we’ve introduced is important until much later in the scenic arc, but if we offer choices as inconsequential throwaways then that is invariably what they will become.
2.) How is this scenic element unique? If we enter the scene with an umbrella and imply foul weather outside our work isn’t necessarily done in terms of specificity. There is much to be mined from exploring the details of the umbrella itself. Yes, it’s workable for the umbrella to be just another store-bought umbrella, but there’s great fun to be had by adding at least one little finesse to the choice. Is it just broken enough that you can never get it closed on the first try? Perhaps it’s clearly much too small to provide its owner any semblance of adequate protection. Or it could be one of those giant golfing umbrellas that you have to contort through the doorway until you find just the right angle. As I note in my prior discussion of space objects here, an idiosyncrasy adds a delightful touch to an improv offer and potentially sparks the improvisers’ imaginations in new and surprising ways.
3.) What makes this addition memorable? Connected to the above, specificity can also increase the memorability and thus utility of a choice. Offers that are haphazardly thrown out to the abyss of the improv stage can easily fizzle away if they have not inspired further attention or play. I think of character names, in particular, as an example of this in that if a player names another character quickly and perfunctorily, in most cases this name will soon vanish in the memories of everyone in attendance (with the potential exception of the entire audience who always seems to remember the one thing that the improvisers on stage cannot). If a choice is polished and given a little loving attention – especially as it is first introduced – this increases its staying power in the long run. If our umbrella-holding character struggles to get it through the office door and then places it – still opened and malfunctioning – problematically in the corner of the room, the details of this choice are sufficiently enticing that they might herald a playful series of reincorporations throughout the resulting action.
4.) Does this material resonate with me? Yet another level of specificity can helpfully aid the greater improv cause when we pursue elements that reflect our own experiences and passions. It’s likely as you read this entry about umbrellas (apparently) that you are conjuring an umbrella in your own life. I currently live in an area of Florida that routinely sees almost tropical downpours on an afternoon basis (typically between 4 and 5 o’clock) and it took me a while to fully embrace just how predictable this occurrence was during our excessively endless summers. Finding an umbrella that was sturdy enough and provided adequate coverage but could also be crunched down sufficiently to fit into my teaching bag was an undertaking, so I am very protective over the couple of umbrellas that I’ve found that meet all these needs. These specifics can heighten the reality of my onstage umbrella in fun ways, bringing shades that others might view as original or creative but that, to me, are simply manifestations of my lived truth. And if you can make these types of connections to a relatively mundane prop, the power of such an attitude is amplified even further when you apply it to relationships, themes, and stories that are more personally poignant and significant.
5.) Can I bring more of myself to this moment? And this segues nicely into my last suggestion which is to actively look for ways to forge these more complex and revealing bonds with your scenic choices and offerings. It’s not cheating to incorporate facets of your known world into your fictitious landscapes. To the contrary, this can provide one of the most effortless strategies for bringing details and nuance to our play. In addition to augmenting the action, you can deepen your emotional presence through (appropriately) accessing personal memories that unlock new story threads and subtext. My seeming obsession with umbrellas might translate into other facets of the scene or aspects of my character’s behavior: if I’m paranoid about my umbrella then what else might hold true in my schema of the world? If you’re not passionate or invested in any component of your character or the story then, it follows, that your energy, commitment, and creativity could deeply suffer as well. In our efforts to find new journeys and jumping off points, sometimes the best specificity begins by revealing (ourselves) rather than inventing (impersonal) random facts.
As I look for a way to wrap up this entry, I can’t help but recall one of the more unique pieces of advice I received when I was becoming a parent for the first time. It went something along the lines of “use the most accurate words with your child that you can” so that rather than going “that’s a nice dog” you should say “that’s a nice French poodle.” I think this is equally cogent advice for those (consciously) becoming improvisers for the first time. Even as I write this, the French poodle has become much more vibrant in my imagination that the ill-defined dog. Such an attitude improves our vocabulary while also hardwiring a preference towards peculiarity and fidelity. On the comedic stage, these situational peculiarities do wonders for breaking old performance patterns and tropes. On the more dramatic stage, and in Boal’s context above, the antithetical habit of universalizing can be seen as ineffectively and dangerously reductive. It’s in the specifics of a person’s life, passions, and struggles that we better understand them and the world that swirls around them. It’s the specifics that build doorways to empathy, understanding and recognition. And as I say (when I have my pedantic pants on) this wonderful specificity will, in turn, breed more specificity.
Connected Game: Crime Endowment