“An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfil his contracts”Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979. New York: Routledge, 1992. p. 88
What can we do as improvisers when we are faced with similar scenic prompts again and again that invite the same obvious reactions again and again? The state of reactivity that Johnstone extols serves as an enticing exemplar, and most improvisers have experienced at least glimpses of this breathtaking effortlessness where obvious choices reign supreme. This is, simply put, “the zone” we all aspire to achieve. And then there are other times when you’re working on the same structured long-form or style piece night after night, exploring the same relationship onstage with the same teammate yet again, or facing down the barrel of getting that same suggestion from the audience for the umpteenth time as the countdown begins. In cases such as these, your Third Thought (rather than your first) might be the way to go.
To illustrate, if I’m responding to a fellow improviser in a word-association-type dynamic and they say “dog,” my first thought is comprehending their offer “dog,” my second association might be “house,” and then my third thought responding to this new prompt could be “paint.” In this way, while I’m still embracing obvious connections, I’ve “skipped a step” and now utilize this new, more typically tangentially related idea. When improvisers are first exposed to this creative technique it’s not uncommon for them to get in their heads – as it requires a little consideration which we strive to avoid – but as you find more comfort it quickly becomes no more internal than a character finding the most fitting word to express their feelings or desire accurately.
The audience suggests “teacher” for an improv scene.
As they step onto the stage, Player A’s first thought is “teacher,” their second thought is “a rowdy classroom,” and their third thought is “decompressing at a bar.” The scene now begins at a locale tavern…
Player B thinks “teacher,” then their specific “third grade teacher,” then connects it to a vivid memory of the time this teacher shared their lunch when they forgot their own. The scene starts with an anxious child not wanting to go outside for lunch with their classmates…
Player C hears “teacher,” associates “big brother mentor,” and then connects a “latch-key child.” They now initiate a scene from the perspective of a home alone thirteen-year-old sitting on their porch…
Three Thoughts on Third Thoughts
Used carelessly, a third thought approach can become a justification for retreating further into your planning brain, especially if you are prone to a more intellectual style of play to begin with. If every offer is met with this measured reaction, you’re also likely to have a stalling and disconnected story arc. Instead, explore this tool in these moments that are particularly well-suited to this more thoughtful subset of acceptance…
1.) Brainstorming. When you’re warming up your creative juices during your development process, rehearsals, prior to a performance, or as part of the show itself, this technique can add levels and newfound discovery to well-worn association exercises. In my campus troupes, we have several long-form shows that seek to examine and complicate a central theme. A third thought approach to an ensemble warm-up greatly assists in the goal of looking at an issue or idea from a multitude of dynamic angles.
2.) Disrupting. Routines and patterns are essential components of story building, but left unchallenged for too long they can entrench a scene in uninteresting loops. In many cases the power of a pattern is that it dramatically calls attention to the moment when it is broken or interrupted: this is, in fact, a solid definition of an ignition or inciting incident that marks the beginning of the rising action in linear scripted pieces. Deploying a third thought when a scene limps from cliche to cliché disrupts the status quo and reveals new unexplored terrain. Such a redirection will prove particularly useful if the current path is perpetuating problematic biases or lazily reinforcing uniterrogated stereotypes. An “obvious” next move in such instances will likely leave such damaging choices unquestioned.
3.) Curve balling. Looking beyond your first thought also elevates the potential for increased spontaneity and surprise. These dynamics are central to the idea of curve balling (examined here), where a player deliberately seasons the scene with an offer that at first glance feels a little random. Used sparingly, these unexpected choices can add mystery and risk back into the improv equation when it may have otherwise lacked novelty or inspiration. Using a third thought provides a gentler variant of this impetus in that the imitator has made some tacit connection to the source material that can become more explicit as the scene progresses (not that this is strictly necessary on any level). Our child on the porch, for example, might soon be joined by a kindhearted neighbor who has taken to help them with their homework every afternoon. Or not.
While improv advocates trusting your instincts, going with the obvious, and finding an effortlessness in your actions – all admirable and noteworthy goals – in reality, our spontaneity finds shape through thoughtfulness and editing. Some reactive choices are best left unsaid; some stories require empathetic efforts and conscious adjustments in service of our greater goals at building community and pursuing representation. Viewed in this light, exploring your third thought provides a gateway to improvisational choices that push the boundaries and assumptions of the stage and the worlds in which we play.
Connected Game: Bad Rap