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Welcome to ImprovDr.com

Hello! Let me take a moment to introduce myself and welcome you to ImprovDr.com. I’m David and I’ve been an improvisational practitioner for about 30 years now. I’ve spent the bulk of my professional and academic life writing about, dreaming about, and figuring out different ways to use improv in my teaching, directing and on the stage as a performer.

Take a look around the website to learn a little more about me and my various experiences and projects. I’ve called my blog “The Short and the Long of it” as I’m one of those improvisers who likes to play on both sides on the fence, and as many do, believes that skills learnt in one style truly make you stronger in the other: are there still (m)any folks out there who don’t agree that these are really two parts of the same thing despite any posturing to the contrary?

A little about my journey: I was introduced to improvisation through Theatresports in my home nation of New Zealand during the late 1980s and those lessons have deeply shaped my view and approach to the craft. (Shout out to Logan Park High School and Stripy Socks where the passion began – more on that in an upcoming post!) During the early 90s I came to the United States to study theatre and was a financially poor but artistically enriched student at Roosevelt University in Chicago. While I played with Comedysportz and later studied at the Players Workshop of the Second City, I now kick myself looking back on those days that I didn’t have the time and money to fully take advantage of all the amazing things that were happening at that special time in that dynamic place.

And then, as I often joke, I followed the Mississippi river (loosely) to Western Illinois University in Macomb for my MFA and then to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for my PhD. Because, of course, nothing makes more sense that someone committed to improv leaving Chicago in the mid 1990s… These new locations, needless-to-say, had much less access to improv, and so like many have done before me and will continue to do so now, I made as many opportunities as I could, creating shows and organizing troupes as there wasn’t anything ready-made, all the while reading up on anything I could get my hands on to further expand my own horizons.

In 2003, my doctorate fresh in hand, I relocated to the Orlando area in Florida to accept a teaching position at Rollins College, where the improv continued and I had the good fortune to quickly connect with Sak Comedy Lab. This venue has been my professional improv home for about 18 years now minus a hiatus of 18 months or so when I was in the company of Walt Disney World’s now sadly defunct Comedy Warehouse. In the early 2000s there was little in the way of long-form in the area, and I’ve been doing my part to push that envelope whenever and wherever I can: on my home campus of Rollins, at Sak Comedy Lab, and in other Florida venues when they’ve let me onto their stages! This website includes some images and descriptions of the fruits (fresh or otherwise) of these improvisational long-form labors, and you’ll also see that I’ve never strayed far from being an active short-form player at the same time.

So, that’s the short and the long of it (this was probably more on the long side than I intended, but if you become a frequent visitor you’ll quickly learn that I love words and am as verbose on the page as I am on the stage despite my best efforts to the contrary!) I’m going to strive to make weekly posts about games or techniques that I’m currently working with or musing on, and I also welcome you to pose any questions or conundrums that you might have in regards to this art-form that consumes so many of us so wonderfully and so completely. Maybe I’ll have a few thoughts that can help you unlock something in a new way.

Wishing you all sanity and safety during these challenging times.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Looking for the ImprovDr “Game Library”? Then go here.

Or looking for the ImprovDr “A to Z of Improv”? Then go here.

If you want to learn more about my improv path, you can listen to the RebelRebel podcast here.

And read my recent co-authored article in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism here.

Game Library: “Questions Only”

Also known as just Questions, this language dynamic can work as a challenging short-form scenic game, a fun character overlay, or as a fast-paced decider. This entry assumes the latter focus: take a glance at my earlier entry on this game’s funhouse mirror partner, Scene Without Questions here, for pertinent tips on a more scenic approach if that’s your preference or need.

The Basics

Can you imagine a game where characters can only speak in the form of questions? Would it surprise you that failing to do so would result in your elimination from the scene? Who will ultimately remain to represent their team after the battle of questions and emerge as the victor? Is this definition clear or do you need more information? Did you see what I did there? Is this amusing anyone anymore at this stage?

Example

Opposing teams (or perhaps a handful of representatives if you’re playing with a larger cast) receive “Kindergarten” as their suggestion. Player A and B represent the first team, with Player C and D playing for the second. Player A and C begin as an overwhelmed teacher and overstimulated child respectively.

Player A: “Weeraya, can you please put the chalk away?”

Player C: “What are you going to do if I don’t?!”

Player A: “Do I need you call your parents again? Don’t you remember that they were very unhappy with you last time?”

Player C thinks about this for a second…

Player C: “Is threatening a child really appropriate?”

Player A: “Can’t you see all the other children have gone outside for play time?”

Player C: (starting to draw on the walls) “Why can’t I just play in here with the chalk? Can’t you see I want to stay inside?”

Player A: “Do I have to count to three…?”

Player C: “Can you?”

Player A: “I don’t get paid enough for this!”

Caller: (in response to audience reactions, cueing the elimination) “Teacher.”

Player A, as the flustered teacher, leaves the scene in character. Their teammate enters in their stead (but as a new character.)

Player B: (as the supervisor) “Haven’t we talked about this, Weeraya?”

Player C: “Please, can’t I just play inside?”

Player B: “Are you going to apologize to Ms. Riley…?”

The Focus

There are some mental gymnastics at the core of the game as players must quickly respond in the form of a question while also keeping some forward scenic momentum. Doing both at the same time with finesse is no small task! When used as a decider, avoid having teammates playing opposite each other in the scene for any protracted period of time, and a caller should clearly announce infractions (the audience can also assist in this regard by being cued to groan or make a game show buzzer sound.) Vignettes needn’t consist strictly of pairs but I find this tightened focus helpful and energizing.

Traps and Tips

1.) Does every offer need to be a question? In short, yes. This doesn’t mean that players can’t and shouldn’t also deploy vibrant physical and emotional choices, but when they speak every sentence needs to function clearly as a question. (It follows that if you provide two sentences in a row that both must function independently as questions as well.) Using loaded or detailed questions that include strong offers will serve you and the scene better than vague musings. Just as is the case in any improv scene, “Are you eating the red playdough again?” offers more potential than “What are you doing?” Verbal restriction games can easily become talking head scenes so strive to keep other story telling elements dynamically in play as well as this just adds to the impressiveness!

2.) Can I remain silent if I don’t know what to say? As a decider it’s typically good form to bounce back and forth between speakers with some predictable regularity, hence the tradition of treating the scene primarily as a two-person exchange until someone is eliminated. A brief moment of strategic silence can add some tension and playfulness, but prolonged silence should be noted by the caller and result in expulsion, especially if the scenic spark is petering out to little more than an ember. If you’re really lost for words, it can serve the scene to just boldly say anything in character and take the resulting elimination with relief and good humor.

3.) Are there cheats or wimps that I should avoid? When I serve as the caller or facilitator there are a handful of habits that I issue warnings for and ultimately use to eliminate players, especially if the decider is going long or one team or player is dominating. Repeating the same form of question or sentence structure dulls the challenge: “Can you go outside?” followed by “Can you leave me alone?” followed by “Can you follow instructions?” followed by “Can you be a better teacher?” By the third or fourth “can,” it can start to feel like a cop out particularly if this has been occurring a lot in the scene thus far. Tag questions can also prove problematic (or just provide an opportunity to expel players as needed): “This isn’t a very nice way to talk to your teacher now, is it?” Non sequiturs that don’t add or strongly connect to the current action also degrade the story arc. Similarly, just throwing on an upward inflection to the end of a line, while often clever, is worth calling out usually as well?!

4.) How about any strategies to raise the level of attack? I find this dynamic infinitely more accessible and enjoyable when I have quickly established my deal and objective as a character. Once you know your want, then most of your questions can serve as tactics fighting to move you towards this goal. To prevent a stalling tempo, it helps to just launch into your sentences with a brave leap rather than attempting to solve each language riddle before making a sound. Grabbing at a question word – who, how, what, where, which, why, is, do, could, will… – and then seeing where it takes you is a great user-friendly way to commit. If you end up running dry before the end of the sentence, then so be it… Just take the elimination with grace and embrace your exit. Unquestionably if you play to lose by jumping headfirst into each speech act with complete abandon, you and the audience will have more fun.

5.) Does this game work differently when played as a scene rather than a decider? As a decider you’ll typically have one representative from each team facing off against each other and then shuffling through the remaining players. I prefer playing this continuously as one long scene with multiple eliminations and entrances but others like discrete vignettes that restart anew, perhaps grabbing a different ask-for each time along the way. The former style allows for a more impressive and cohesive story while the latter provides an opportunity for more fast-paced variety. While I’ve mainly seen and utilized this dynamic as a decider, with playfully adept improvisers there’s no reason you couldn’t successfully slate it in a show as a scene. My Scene Without Questions post here offers helpful pointers for ways to structure infraction penalties.

In Performance

Is it a challenge to move a scene forward only through the use of questions? Could such an experience helpfully reduce the stigma of asking questions on the improv stage while simultaneously reinforcing the import of assumptions and acceptance? Will audiences delight in watching players reveling in verbal virtuosity? Are you already using this as a short-form decider or scenic handle? Do you have any lingering… questions?

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Questions

“Q” is for “Questions”

“He who gives information is a gift-giver; he who asks questions is a thief.”

Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.57

Definition

There are a lot of improv “rules” floating around that are oft-repeated in an effort to assist novice improvisers as they take their first steps on the stage. Some practitioners express an overt skepticism to such rules in general, noting that they don’t necessarily lead towards more successful improv but instead more in-you-head-improv. However, when taken with a grain of salt, I believe that such guidelines are more helpful than hurtful, offering up players some best practices to increase the likelihood that everyone is working together in a helpful fashion and in a similar direction. I think that there is also something to be said for the fact that most experienced players can rattle off these inherited norms that provide some semblance of a foundational philosophy uniting improvisers when we get together for festival jams and all-plays.

One such rule is the frequently touted notion of “Don’t ask Questions” in your scenic work. The rationale generally observes that this habit puts all the generative work on your scene partner’s shoulders, while the questioner essentially steals away the momentum and spark of the scene. As with most less-than-helpful improv habits, asking questions tends to emerge from fear: fear of not quite understanding what your partner was intending; fear of not coming up with the perfect addition to the scene; fear of being vulnerable or looking out of control for a moment.

I have frequently seen this type of fear-induced improv onstage and in the rehearsal hall. It usually takes the form of lackluster dialogue – such as “How are you?” or “What do you want to do?” – often at the top of a scene when little of value has been established. I imagine these moments are familiar to us all. And, generally, such moments don’t add energy or interest and do punt the ball back to the other player without any resonating potential or detail. While I agree that this type of question asking doesn’t typically lead to joyful scenic work, I would offer that the improv community doesn’t often talk about when questions in our scene work are helpful or perhaps even critical for our creative success. Yes, I agree that mundane questions lead nowhere, and furthermore that assumptions are typically more dynamic, but not all questions are created equal nor used in the same energy-draining way.

(If you’re a longtime reader and experiencing déjà vu, this entry is gently re-worked from one of my earliest posts on the subject before I embarked on my current “A” to “Z” series.)

Example

Some oft-appearing unhelpful questions:

Player A: (pointing at a mined object that their scene partner has just created) “What is that?”

OR

Player B: (entering a scene having barely looked at their partner’s initiation) “What are you doing?”

OR

Player C: (standing idly beside their partner with a minimum of energy) “Do you want me to do something?”

OR

Player D: (standing as the first player on an empty and undefined stage, turning towards a teammate who is neutrally waiting in the wings) “Who are you?”

Six Great Times to Ask a Question

1.) You didn’t understand your partner. I’ll start with perhaps the simplest scenario (and one that probably occurs with greater frequency for those of us who have faced teaching or performing improv online.) If our partner has made a rich and grounded choice, and the acoustics, audience applause, internet connection, their accent or dialect, other onstage business, or perhaps even just our own inattentiveness, obscured this offer in such a way that we just didn’t receive it, I strongly believe a check in along the lines of “What was that?” or “Would you mind repeating that?” is wholly appropriate. A quick question strikes me as infinitely more helpful than making an ill-conceived assumption that might actually completely negate the intent or nuance of our partner’s choice. Sure, our response based on a misheard fragment might get a laugh, but especially in a long-form or narrative setting where we’re striving to more patiently build an arc, this will often be inferior to a more honest reaction stemming from what our partner was intending. We don’t hear each other at times in real life, so we can certainly have that happen to our characters onstage too. Here, I believe a question is an act of honoring our partner’s gift and making sure we are fully appreciating the intent behind it. As an improviser predominantly working in the United States who still very much has a New Zealand idiom, I’ve also included dialect and accent on my list of potential contributing factors as I’m aware that, despite my efforts to the contrary, I have been the source of miscommunications and I’d always rather have my fellow improviser (as their character rather than as the actor preferably) seek quick clarification so that the scene can then continue to dance merrily forward.

2.) You immediately answer the question yourself. Though this perhaps isn’t a good reason to ask a question in the first place, it is a helpful strategy for those moments when a bland one slips out. If you inadvertently ask your partner, “What is that?” and then immediately follow up with “You found my missing engagement ring,” or “That is the answer sheet to our history test this afternoon,” or “We agreed that we weren’t going to bring home any more stray animals,” then you’ve quickly taken a dull choice and given it some added luster and specificity. If the initial dull question was primed with a strong emotion or point of view, then this works even better with the second choice adding content to the tension or dynamism of the first. Essentially you’re playing “yes, and…” with yourself at this point, noting that your “yes” wasn’t the most inspiring offer at first.

3.) You are playing a role that would usually ask questions. This is perhaps the most obvious exception in my mind, and while many would agree that we want to avoid transaction scenes and that questions are often at the core of these dynamics, some scenarios almost demand that we embrace our function (at least initially) as the questioner. A teacher calling in a student to a conference, a mechanic initially examining a car, a doctor giving a patient their annual exam — it is not unlikely that each of these scenes might take its first steps with some paradigmatic questions… “Did you get any help writing this paper?” or “Do you know where the clunking sound was coming from?” or “So what brings you into my office today?” I would suggest that we wouldn’t want the scene to typically consist only of one-sided open questions, but it is not unforeseeable nor unhelpful for this dynamic to emerge and help provide the platform or balance of our world. In this particular case it could also be a fun inversion to use questions but have them come from the unexpected character, so now the patient asks the doctor about their health issues. You could also apply the above strategy to up the heat so that “Did you get any help writing this paper?” is quickly followed by “Because I wrote one exactly like it when I was an undergrad.” Or, use the strategy below…

4.) You are asking a loaded question. In terms of question strategies, this is probably the approach I recommend most in my own classes. Acknowledging that questions will slip out and that we don’t want to get in our heads about it, I offer that it is the intensity of the question that is important. Most of us would agree that a “How are you?” is less likely to get creative juices going than “Have you been managing okay at home alone after your back surgery?” There is no reason that the question can’t in and of itself make nuanced assumptions about the world and relationship we are creating. The first question likely evolved from fear while the second clearly presents interesting opportunities for the partner and scene, especially if it is accompanied with a thoughtful physical action and perhaps justifies any previously established energies or circumstances. I would offer one warning about loaded questions that is somewhat embedded in the surgery example above: improvisers should pay as much attention to how they are saying their question as to the details of the question itself or it can start to feel as if you are cartooning or announcing choices rather than giving them full emotional weight. In this way our inquiry about recovery could be showing great care for our partner, frustration that they keep calling for us to come around, or a more sinister hope that our plan to off our rival is finally working. Emotion and subtext here make all the difference. In short-form interview games where questions are central to the premise and structure, loaded questions are also an excellent way to give the interviewer a little more dynamism and weight as a character in their own right rather than merely a facilitator enabling the fun of the expert.

5.) You are using questions to heighten a game. Some scenes thrive on questions. The appropriately named short-form game Questions Only or any of the multiple Expert variants serve as obvious examples, but there are many other situations where questions might add to the style or finesse of a scene. A cascade of questions can prove thoroughly successful in a Shakespeare or period-specific scenario when they escalate and create tension or playfulness between characters. I can’t imagine Private Lies: Improvised Film Noir (pictured above) without a good dose of detective questions, for example, as that’s part of the gumshoe’s raison d’être. If a scene is exploring a more complex dynamic, such as in a mapping scene (where one scenario is played with the intensity and tropes of another) questions especially of a vaguer variety can help prolong the game and delight. If we’re playing a scene in which a parent has discovered a comic book but is mapping this moment with the energy of a parent discovering illicit drugs, a carefully pitched “What is this?” along with a suitable gesture will likely serve the scene well. Here the audience and players alike know the identity of the “this” so there’s nothing problematic about the choice. We often play a version of Old Job, New Job in our Gorilla Theatre show at Sak Comedy Lab which similarly deploys this mapping concept, and I could certainly happily watch a whole scene-full of questions coming from a doctor who used to be a mechanic: “Do you know where the clunking sound was coming from?”

6.) You are checking in with your scene partner. I’ve worked with many companies that deal with this issue in different ways but there are times as we create together (moments inviting stage violence, intimacy, or potentially triggering or sensitive material) when I would argue it is not only appropriate to ask a question, but it is critical that we do so. We’re improvising, and especially if you’re playing in a context where “mature” or “adult” themes might emerge, we need to keep the safety of our partners front of mind. I think it’s important to note that I don’t really mean racy when I say “mature” or “adult,” although sadly I think that’s what a lot of improv inclines towards when it says it’s pushing boundaries or is edgy. What I mean by these terms is that we’re exploring material with sincerity and nuance in such a way that it might resonate deeply with our partners or audience. This is the type of edgy improv I’m personally most interested in. In these instances, a careful question can be an important way to check in with our scene partner, especially if this is someone we don’t know particularly well yet. If I ask, “Do you want to fight me?” in a heated exchange then my partner can have me take that action offstage if that is what they need to do. If I ask, “Would you mind if I kissed you?” then my partner can frame a response that can honor the energy of the scene while maintaining their personal boundaries: “I desperately want to kiss you, but let’s do it inside so the neighbors won’t see…” If I nudge into material that I can see is stirring my partner I can ask “Do you need me to leave now?” and then can honor their response while upholding the integrity of the scene. I’ve found this to be a less commonly needed tool in troupes that have developed deep rapport and know a lot about each others’ comfort zones and backstories, but I think this is an important strategy to have in our pockets to maintain a safe and playful stage. It’s worth noting that this approach should also be applied to potentially “racy” material if the company hasn’t previously agreed upon performance parameters prior to the show.

Final Thought

Yes, with some mental wrangling many of the questions illustrated in the above examples could be wordsmithed into statements, but I’m not sure that is a good use of our energy and concentration as improvisers; and furthermore, modeling consent on the improv stage strikes me as an important result of not needlessly demonizing the act of asking a question in and of itself.

Related Entries: Cartooning, Consent, Initiation, Offer, Speaking Your Truth, Specificity, Subtext Antonyms: Assumption

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Questions Only (Goes live on Friday EST)

Game Library: “Inappropriate Behavior”

I first encountered this scenic format at Players Workshop of the Second City but once you become familiar with Inappropriate Behavior you realize just how much this dynamic is a mainstay of sitcoms and comedic movies. Coupled with some strategic Punching Up, the format ignites the action in even more powerful ways and opens up a broader (and less problematic) field of play.

The Basics

I typically teach this with a more sketch comedy approach providing the players with a quick brainstorming session to determine a basic who, what and where (or CROW) as this is how I first encountered the structure. If you take this approach, players should select a location or situation that has a clear built-in sense of decorum and one improviser should volunteer to serve as the outlier. (For what it’s worth, more extroverted improvisers tend to clamor for this opportunity but enabling introverts to take on this role often opens up more gentle and well-paced scenic arcs.) This same basic launching point could certainly be elicited from an audience instead as a traditional ask-for or just discovered in the flow of a long-form piece or open scene. The vignette plays out with team members creating and honoring the societal norms inherent in the foundational locale. The outlier, typically entering a few beats into the scene, gradually infuses the action with increasingly inappropriate behavior that breaches the expected codes of conduct. The choices slowly escalate throwing the other characters into various hues of disarray.

Example

The lights rise on a funeral home with a smattering of attendees sitting quietly. It’s clear that no-one knew the deceased particularly well (nor each other for that matter.) The tone is strained but respectful.

Player A: (in hushed tones) “I feel bad that I really haven’t seen much of him in years. It was almost by accident I learned of his passing.”

Player B: (in a similar whispered voice) “He was a very private person. We talked occasionally on the phone, although my life has gotten so busy recently…”

Player C, an attendant, quietly approaches the attendees.

Player C: (quietly) “I noticed you both didn’t have a program.”

Player A: “Thank you so much.”

Player B: “That’s a lovely photo of him.”

Player C: (kindly) “I’m glad you both could make it.”

A slightly disheveled Player D enters the room with a surprising burst of energy…

Player D: (full-voiced) “Well, I s’pose this is finally goodbye!”

Player A and B share an incongruous look. Player C approaches D with a program.

Player D: “No thanks. It’ll just end up sitting in my car for months before I throw it away.”

Player B: (whispering as before) “I think that’s his best friend from the living community…”

Player D, despite the full array of open seats starts to squeeze between A and B.

Player D: “Make some room there…”

Player A: (surprised, but pleasant) “Oh, yes, of course…”

The Focus

Enjoy the evolving tension between the social norms and the outlier’s behavior. My example is inspired by a scene I experienced as a teacher while at Louisiana State University that has stayed with me 20 years later. In particular I fondly recall the choices of the miscreant character, played by Preston Lorio, who by the end of the scene had straddled the body of the deceased in an effort to change suits with him, much to the chagrin of the other assembled guests.

Traps and Tips

1.) Lay the behavioral groundwork. It’s difficult for the misbehaver to challenge the status quo if these preferred behaviors aren’t clearly and strongly already present in the scene (and inherently understood by your audience.) Those playing into the norms should do so robustly. If other characters start to also question the social “rules” in play, especially as the scene begins, it becomes much more difficult for the inappropriate behavior to land and build. For example, if the initial funeral attendees exuded a causal or carefree quality rather than the hushed tones of reverence then Player D’s entrance would not effectively herald the turmoil to follow. Much of the success of the outlier and, subsequently of the scene itself, lies in the hands of the “straight” or “civilized” characters who model what society has deemed as decorous. Don’t overlook or undervalue the import and potential that emerges from this facet of the scene.

2.) React honestly to etiquette breaches. There is a delicate balancing act when you assume the normative roles: if you ignore the strange behaviors then you can quickly become irrelevant passengers in the scene; if you take great umbrage at every small departure from established custom then you can inadvertently squelch the rising action. Seek the middle ground. React honestly while also using the very strictures of the formal scenario to moderate your own character’s choices. If someone starts talking loudly at a service you would certainly notice and react, but this might be with a judging look, nudge to your scene partner, or recommitment to your own whispered quality of speech. Without these subtextual signals the contrast between what is and isn’t expected can become dulled and less impactful.

3.) Give the outlier room and permission to play. Connected to the above thought, it can be tempting (and logical) to want to quickly shut down the odd behavior of the designated social deviant. This is another complex dynamic. Yes, by the scene’s conclusion the outlier might become expelled from the scene or outnumbered by a growing chorus seeking civility. As the scene takes its first steps, however, it can prove challenging for the misbehaver if they are met with immovable obstacles representing the status quo. If Player C as the attendant immediately and sternly calls security to have Player D removed then the scene could soon evaporate or become bogged down in inactive negotiations. Instead, provide room and opportunities for the “different” character to explore. Once they find a promising trajectory it’s not uncommon for the scene to heavily favor them in terms of stage time in a technical sense (they may take on nearly half the dialogue, for example) but players shouldn’t overlook the power and contribution of strong reactions and emotional presence. It’s generous for the outlier to return this focus favor by delaying their initial entrance a little too as this gives others room to establish their own games and given circumstances before the train inevitably starts to derail.

4.) Use the curve of absurdity. If this term is unfamiliar you can read a little more about it here, but in short it advocates beginning our scenes close to reality and then gently ramping up the level of unexpected behavior. One of the reasons the inspiration for my example scene has stuck with me all these years later is that the team so carefully let the absurdity of the story grow with each move. When you’re marked as the inappropriate behaver it can prove tempting to hit the stage with your strongest and most egregious choice right from the get go, but this will rarely give you anywhere to climb. Rather, start with small breaches of etiquette: Player D could have entered yelling but instead just used an everyday vocal quality which is enough to be seen as different. Similarly, they didn’t lie on the floor or immediately go and sit in the coffin but broke norms by not sitting at a suitable distance from the other attendees. Especially in situations where the audience is not privy beforehand to the dynamic in question, they need to learn the game as it unfolds and the final larger-than-life moves must be earned.

In Performance

Played with astuteness this game will say as much if not more about the “normal” and expected behaviors as it does about the choices of the social misfit. I hesitated to use the funeral example as on the page it can appear as if the scene is making fun of grief or loss whereas in performance it emerged quite clearly that the target was the suffocating pomp and impersonal nature of many Western funeral traditions. If the funeral was a truly tragic affair, the scene would have quickly felt inappropriate in all the wrong kinds of ways. Hence the import of displaying some care in selecting the event or facet of social life that you want to depict through this warped satiric mirror.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Punching Up

“P” is for “Punching Up”

“…the wit and effect of the parody goes down as the target goes down […] your parody form must be worthy because you are, perforce, reducing it anyway.”

Bernard Sahlins, Days and Nights at the Second City. A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. p.125-126

Definition

The notion of Punching Up in our improv work undeniably utilizes a moving target that is highly subjective and situational in nature. The gist of this approach is that richer journeys await when we aim our collective comedic barb at the powerful or privileged rather than the powerless or marginalized. (This is not to be confused with crafting scenes where potentially marginalized groups are given agency as subjects rather than suffer ridicule as comedic objects.) As Sahlins observes, there is an issue of effectiveness when as performers we seek to pull down to size a comedic object, but the import of choosing our material consciously and with an appropriately developed social conscience should also loom large. Our choices on the improv stage, after all, have the innate ability to uphold or question societal norms. Punching up reflects an understanding of this power and responsibility while its antithesis, punching down, tends to perpetuate problematic stereotypes and social inequities.

Example

A group of New Zealand improvisers, on their home turf, riff on dominant perceptions of what it means to be a kiwi in front of an audience who wrestle with these tropes in their own day-to-day lives.

As opposed to…

A North American troupe of improvisers, on their home turf, riff on dominant perceptions of what it means to be a kiwi in front of an audience that does not include any self-identifying New Zealanders.

Choosing Our Comedic Target

The spirit of punching up is challenging in that such an improvisational stance or attitude will not look or function the same from venue to venue, performer to performer, or culture to culture. Rather than a “one size fits all” litmus test, a commitment to punching up is more about a willingness to interrogate our choices (particularly on the comedic stage) and learn from our past attempts and stumbles. Here are some provocative questions to keep in mind when aiming our shots on the improv stage…

1.) Whose voice or story are you representing? It is important as artists for us to consider whose stories we are telling. If we routinely have protagonists with unexamined privilege leading our journeys we increase the likelihood that other characters in the mix may become little more than stage dressing or the butt of the joke. In such instances, there may be few opportunities to punch up in any meaningful fashion as, literally, there may not be anything “up” for our protagonist to punch at! On the other hand, if we actively seek a variety of perspectives and stories (hopefully coming from an equally varied ensemble of players) then our stages will become populated with a polyphony of potent agency.

2.) Is your subject part of the establishment or usually disempowered? The “establishment” may look a little different from location to location although historically it often has a depressingly monolithic appearance similar to that on my own driver’s license. If our work upholds these institutions of power then our improv may well be serving the status quo or conserve (in the Moreno sense of the word.) When our art champions the under-served or under-represented and elevates these stories and experiences then we are more likely functioning as empathetic or satiric agents of social change even if this is on a micro level. Even the most gimmicky short-form game can blindly reinforce or playfully critique the world around us. When we relegate the disempowered to the margins of our work (as objects rather than subjects) then the likelihood of punching down increases exponentially.

3.) Are you questioning or reifying stereotypes? Building from above, when we typically see difference in our scenes as brief or supporting encounters there is significantly less time to offer portrayals of substance. Short-form modes struggle with this reality just by the very nature of their reliance on a rapid-fire succession of disconnected scenes that rarely allow for characters to reappear and deepen. Subsequently, such appearances can often feel slight or resemble punchlines rather than fully-fleshed characters in their own right. Punching up would invite us to center a wide range of voices so that we can experience the world through their eyes rather than merely catch clichéd glimpses of these “others” in the shadows.

4.) How do your company and audience demographics frame your intent? In my opening example above little has changed in terms of content but the performance parameters that frame the event clearly make all the difference. In the first example, the scene may feel like a communal act of bonding over a shared experience between the improvisers and their audience; in the second (unlikely as it might be) the same exact choices could easily appear mean-spirited or tone deaf. This is also the difference between affinity improv where an otherwise marginalized group wields the tools of performance together often for a like-minded audience, and mainstream homogeneous troupes that primarily consist of a metaphoric Mount Rushmore of privilege. While the first experience lifts up those who may have been voiceless, the second is much less likely to do so. Punching up recognizes that we all don’t have an equal right to make fun of the same things in the same ways.

5.) What kind of laughter are you seeking and achieving? Ultimately, the final test of whether we are punching up or down often resides in the laughter of our audience. This can prove problematic in and of itself if we view any and all laughter as desirable and equal. However, there is a marked difference between a group laughing from recognition as they commiserate or empathetically acknowledge a shared experience, and a powerful privileged majority uncritically laughing at tropes or portrayals of those often not in attendance or without a staged voice in the conversation. Improv certainly can and has enabled both of these forms of laughter, and so many other kinds as well, as it is a tool in the service of the producers’ and players’ whims and goals. Punching up asks us to unequivocally examine these goals and course correct when we fall short of the intended mark.

Final Thought

Punching up reflects the nuances of our ever-shifting reality and demands of us as players a heightened awareness and honed sensitivity. Improvising with this lens in mind can reveal personal and company norms and assumptions that are ill-informed, problematic or just plain bigoted. When we have the benefit of revision and rehearsal, as is the case in a sketch or scripted environment, walking this delicate line can feel less daunting. On the improv stage it’s likely that most of us have had moments (probably many) where with the benefit of hindsight we know that our target was poorly chosen or our comedic punches were clumsily executed.

When I improvise I tend to take a larger degree of comedic latitude when embodying characters with whom I clearly share commonalities and experiences. Only embodying our narrow perspective, however, has its own set of problems and will limit how we present the wealth of human experience. But when our intent is to assume roles and stances that are further from our own lived realities there is a greater risk that we might slip into unnuanced or even harmful over-simplifications. Here a commitment to empathetic portrayal (and an openness to feedback and personal growth) is a must.

Self-deprecation can almost feel like a national obsession as a New Zealander, but if in doubt this attitude can prove helpful in instances when you’re unsure if you’re punching up or down. Assuming an almost “punching sideways” or “at yourself” approach – making fun of our own identities and hyphenates – minimizes the risk of causing harm rather than crafting humor. Admittedly, this isn’t always a clear path especially for those facets of ourselves that are complex or contested: for example, as an immigrant who has called the United States my home now for over 30 years, I am very aware that my foreign-sounding speaking voice can frame any critique of my new home nation in unintended ways for a local audience. However, in general I’ve found punching sideways provides at least a good starting point when another path isn’t readily available. Also, if in doubt, consider why you have chosen your target. If it’s easy, commonplace or in vogue, that’s perhaps a good signal to reconsider your strategy: as Sahlins contends, our target “must be worthy.”

This is my last improv “P” – here’s a quick link to the others in the series.

Related Entries: Archetype, Comedy, Inclusiveness, Material Antonyms: Punching Down Synonyms: Awareness, Responsibility

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Inappropriate Behavior

Game Library: “Ritual Scene”

There is no room to hide in Ritual Scene and players must commit one hundred percent in order for the game to land. Performed without full Presence or with an air of apology, the central dynamic is likely to flounder or whimper away. When attacked with gusto and relish, the results are often surprisingly invigorating and breathtaking!

The Basics

Players acquire a mundane or everyday activity or chore to inspire their scene, such as washing the dishes or combing your hair. This simple action then provides the roadmap for an epic scene that heightens the task into the grandest and most august of rituals. Generally accompanied by larger-than-life music or a suitably dramatic soundtrack, players break down the action into its constituent elements, making each moment deeply significant and theatrical. Language, if used at all, is featured sparsely or with the emotional intensity of a chant or summoning.

Example

The team explores the ritual of “brushing your teeth.” The scene begins with an empty stage as players begin a steady and ominous percussive drumming that is soon joined by the improvising musician.

Player A is the first to enter the space. With their hands aloft they present an imaginary basin and with great ceremonious precision they slowly march until they are center stage. Here they place the basin down in full view and then slowly walk backwards until they finally drop to their knees in a deep bow.

From the opposite side of the stage, Player B now enters with a heavy water jug. They display it to Player A, the audience, and then to the heavens before making their stately procession to the stowed basin. Once they arrive, with a flourish of music and percussion, they raise the jug and in a sweeping motion fill the previously empty basin. As Player A did before them, they then back carefully away and lower themselves in a prostrate position.

As the music swells once more Player C and D now enter simultaneously but from opposite sides of the stage, one holding the toothbrush, the other the toothpaste tube…

The Focus

This is a great game and exercise for exploring heightened stakes and developing an organic but unified sense of style. In lieu of a traditional story, the game thrives on breaking down the simple steps of the proffered action and using these as the beats of the dramatic arc. Give each moment its due and sell it for all it’s worth.

Traps and Tips

1.) Slow it down. Rituals, whether secular or sacred, treat each moment with care and there is typically very little superfluous or insignificant movement. Make every offer and choice deliberate and meaningful. Elevate or celebrate the tools or elements needed to complete the assigned task and don’t rush to the ending. Most tasks could be reasonably completed rather quickly; by embracing their ritualistic qualities or potentials, these actions should now feel almost operatic. This format provides a rare opportunity to really indulge and extend.

2.) Break it up. Don’t throw away the theatricality of ceremonial staging, prop reveals and protagonist arrivals. In the toothbrushing example the scene has probably been nearly a minute without the toothbrusher even arriving, and this feels completely in the spirit of the game. The story in a ritual scene really is little more than the sequential steps of the task so the audience is far less interested in what is going to happen than they are in watching how it all unfolds. Part of the scene’s effectiveness, then, is exploring and exaggerating the little rituals that are familiar and making them delightfully strange and new again.

3.) Honor what has come before. Aim to play with the same movement vocabulary and sense of style. If the first entrance is walking-down-the-wedding-aisle slow, then be cautious of upending this choice through carelessness. Ritual innately invites repetition and parallel actions. Just as is the case with more traditional language-based scenes, look both for the deliberate offers and also the delightful accidents that can be accepted by the judicious mind and woven into the fabric of the grand event. This also keeps the scene fresh and avoids the risk of just recycling a short list of tropes while replacing “toothbrush” with the next object du jour.

4.) Give it all you’ve got. Much of the reward of this premise resides in the stark juxtaposition between the banal prompt and the operatic treatment. Avoid undermining this fun with needlessly pedestrian or undersold physical work. One improviser taking on a deadpan energy or air of commentary in an effort to be different or just as a means of remaining personally safe makes it so much more difficult for their teammates to keep the game building towards a scenic crescendo. Without fully present players the scene will rarely flow; when everyone rows in the same direction the ritual can take on a life of its own.

In Performance

If you are a more verbal-centric improviser, Ritual Scene encourages a whole different style of play that can prove truly liberating. Language can have a place but I’ve found that chanting or keening more opaque sounds (or perhaps just simple singular words) adds powerfully to the piece. If you are more movement-centric then this game likely has your name written all over it! Enjoy.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Presence

“P” is for “Presence”

“Acting requires presence. Being there. Playing produces this state. Just as ballplayers in any sport are present in the playing, so must all theater members be present in the moment of playing, in present time”

Viola Spolin, Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1985 p.3

Definition

When we refer to a performer as having Presence on stage we are often referring to a quality that on some level can feel a little amorphic. Without exception such an observation is certainly intended as a compliment, and many a casting director has credited this characteristic or the lack thereof as a determining factor in their decisions – “I like them but they just don’t have any presence…” It is extremely difficult to embody and refine a quality that many consider almost intuitive or second nature, but there are certainly improvisational tendencies that contribute to the present improviser’s success. Here are a few:

Attributes of the Present Improviser

1.) Existing in the moment. As Spolin observes, improvisation is a theatre of the present moment and successful improvisers must thrive in the here and now. In spite of the multitude of competing needs and stimuli, players with presence exude a sense of comfort and belonging. Yes, they might occasionally let the audience see them sweat, or fleetingly acknowledge the impossibility of the task at hand, but their focus is the current process and journey. The improv world around them may seem topsy-turvy, but they are grounded or at least give the audience the impression that they know what they are doing. Just as one wouldn’t want to go to a professional sporting event and ponder whether or not the players know the rules of the game, this holds equally true of the improvisational player. Engaging performers at least appear to know the rules and so can just playfully explore where the scene wants to go next. The improviser with presence lives on the tightrope; the performer without spends their time worrying about the potential fall.

2.) Engaging actively. To pursue presence is also to fully commit to the current events and actions. Regardless of whether or not you are standing in the limelight as the protagonist, or happily to the side as an ensemblist, enthralling improvisers are themselves enthralled in the unfolding stories of their imaginations. When our attention wanders on stage it should be no surprise that the audience’s investment might do the same. Or worse, an improviser who has temporarily “checked out” might grab the focus but for all the wrong reasons. Active engagement, on the other hand, gives heat and emotion to the stage, especially when it is dynamically filtered through the lived reality of the character. The improviser with presence finds a way to care about the ebbs and flows of the action; the player without often only has their attention turn on when they have a “good idea” or know they are in focus.

3.) Heightening energy. I consider good theatre as heightened and well edited life. With very few stylistic exceptions, scripted playwrights work diligently to minimize or edit out the mundane human moments and interactions so that their dramatic arcs have maximum effect. When improvising in realistic modes the same should hold true with players looking to imbue their scenes and characters with an emotional depth worthy of the stage. Present actors successfully “fill the space.” On a technical level this means literally eschewing filmic nuance when performing in larger venues where such choices won’t carry to the back wall. If you’re not seen and heard then it’s unlikely that you’re communicating effectively. On a more visceral level this means that improvisers embody characters worthy of populating the stage, and that these personae have important stories and dreams. The improviser with presence makes brave choices of emotional weight and significance that connect to the audience; the actor without withholds.

4.) Embracing receptivity. And a present performer fully accepts the given circumstances and the intentional or subliminal offers of their partners by reacting honestly and fully. This orientation allies with the improvisational commitment to change and flexibility. It is not enough to stand and bear witness to the events on stage. Instead, fully present players embrace the scenic vicissitudes and use them to dig deeper or soar higher. Without sacrificing their commitment to the here and now, such players gain fuel and inspiration from their awareness of the multitude of factors framing their performance, joyfully justifying changes to the stage from fellow technical improvisers, incorporating and adjusting to the audience’s reactions and contributions, or pausing for the unanticipated airplane flying overhead during their outdoor show. The improviser with presence doesn’t flinch from interactive creativity; the artist without becomes rattled.

Final Thought

The accolade of presence can often serve as a stand in of sorts for confidence and the way in which we present ourselves to our audience and fellow collaborators. The more experience we gain, the more likely that this confidence will build correspondingly. But there are also definite skills and habits that we can actively nurture: silencing our internal judges to focus on the here and now, investing fully in the unfolding action, seeking strong connections to our characters and work so as to raise our commitment and stakes, and playfully taking the unexpected in our stride.

Related Entries: Abandon, Change, Commitment, Focus Antonyms: Absence, Distractedness, Passenger Synonyms: It (as in, they have “it”)

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Ritual Scene

Game Library: “Word at a Time Crime”

Players must work together closely to overcome the inherent challenges posed by Word at a Time Crime. This game shares a great deal with other word-at-a-time short-form formats, but its utilization of narrative and predisposition towards action make it a particular fitting pairing with Postponing as there’s little time to waste if the scene is to make it satisfyingly to the finish line.

The Basics

A non-violent or petty crime is obtained and two players volunteer to serve as the featured criminal. They link arms (or connect in a way that is comfortable) and narrate their actions in a word-at-a-time fashion, taking extra care to speak in the first person singular. Other team members populate the scene as characters or obstacles, adding complications for the narrating criminal and engaging in dialogue as the scene requires. The scene may incorporate a strict time limit to add urgency, and the story culminates in glorious success, abject failure or some interesting combination or alternative to these unequivocal results.

Example

Player A and B are working together as the criminal and are given the prompt of “stealing a garden gnome.” They put their arms around each others’ waists and begin the scene crouching on the ground. Player A, with their outer hand, is holding a mimed flashlight and scans the horizon as the criminal begins to crawl all-the-while narrating.

Player A: “Crawling…”

Player B: “on…”

Player A: “the…”

Player B: “neighbor’s…”

Player A: “lawn…”

Player B: “I…”

Player A: “quickly…”

Player B: “eyed…”

Player A: “their…”

Player B: “pesky…”

Player A: “garden…”

Player B: “gnome.”

Both players have begun crawling awkwardly on the ground, retaining their physical connection as best they can, while Player A continues to direct the flashlight. Character C quickly assumes the role of the porcelain gnome by adopting a suitable pose. Their narration continues…

Player A and B (continuing to alternate one word each) “Your… days… of… watching… my… every… move… are… over… little… man!”

As the criminal lunges towards the gnome, Player D can be heard from offstage.

Player D: “No, something has definitely triggered the motion sensor in the front yard. I’ll be back in a second sweetie.”

Player A and B frantically look around for somewhere to hide and leap behind an imaginary bush…

The Focus

Imposing a one or two minute time restriction on the game serves well as it pushes players into action and discourages long criminal preambles or planning sessions. Despite the language restriction, players should make strong verbal and physical choices trusting that their fellow players will join and justify anything that is unclear or clumsy. When the criminal encounters other characters the paired persona should utilize word-at-a-time dialogue as well.

Traps and Tips

Many of the core features of this game resemble Double Speak so those tips (which you can read about here) apply to this short-form game too. The significantly unique quality is the narrative device so that serves as my primary focus for this entry.

1.) Avoid passive language. The criminal will quickly discover the hindrance of passive or intellectual verbs. If they “thought” or “decided” rather than “lunged” or “climbed” the scene often becomes bloated and inactive. Use your words to spur action and discovery rather than to muse and reflect. Even if you are utilizing a rather silly or mundane crime as your inspiration, imbue your language with intensity and conviction. Embrace the delightful turns of phrase and unanticipated details as they emerge.

2.) Avoid just talking. It’s foreseeable that the language restriction will create communication challenges so don’t rely on your words alone to advance the story and give it interest. Make assertive physical choices that define the space in dynamic ways. Why walk if you can slink? Why open a door if you can kick it down? Why just grab the gnome if you can meticulously place it in a custom-built bag with an intricate locking mechanism? Do your best not to rush through or approximate complex actions but rather savor the challenge of completing these with your scene partner. Furthermore, craft environments that will provide suitably rich physical playgrounds and opportunities rather than stand idly in the void.

3.) Avoid prolonged conversations. Word at a Time Crime can move between descriptive first person narrative and dialogue with other characters – which is “normal” for the partner but also constructed in a word-at-a-time fashion for the criminal – but be cautious of not allowing sufficient space for the criminal to return to their narrative device. Brave narration serves as the center piece of the format so supporting players should be mindful that the criminal needs ongoing opportunities to craft narrative asides. Supporting players can certainly quickly set the scene to provide context for the criminal, but it’s generally wise to let this titular character have a little free rein initially so that they can find and strengthen a word-at-a-time rhythm.

4.) Avoid imbalance. I refer to the supporting players in this game as the “To Make Matters Worse Squad” as their main function is to playfully pitch challenges to the protagonist. If an obstacle becomes too difficult or too omnipresent, the criminal can find themselves stumped without any path forward. For example, while Player D could come out and check their lawn, remaining on their well-lit porch for the remainder of the scene would probably prove unwise. Assuming the role of important props (such as the gnome) providing environmental elements (lawn sprinklers) or sound effects (a lighting bolt) are other helpful ways teammates can contribute. It doesn’t ultimately matter if the criminal succeeds or fails, but the crime shouldn’t feel so impossible that they are discouraged from making any progress towards their goal.

In Performance

And speaking of things to avoid, I actively avoid violent or physical crimes in the set up as they can just make a rather silly game feel unnecessarily icky. If you are uncomfortable with the crime frame altogether you can easily substitute it with a prompt calling for a physical problem to overcome – instead of “stealing the coins out of a parking meter” the word-at-a-time character might need to “escape from quicksand” or “rescue a beached whale…”

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Postponing

“P” is for “Postponing”

“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

Definition

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.

Example

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…!”

Final Thought

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!

Related Entries: Commandment #6, Commandment #8, Waffling, Wimping Antonyms: Abandon, Advancing, Leaping Synonyms: Inaction

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Word at a Time Crime

Game Library: “Best and Worst”

I provide this offering as more of a ritual or exercise than an improvisational game as Best and Worst allows everyone in the ensemble a brief opportunity to reflect on their efforts (generally) at the conclusion of a more facilitated Postmorterm.

The Basics

Players sit in a circle and one at a time (either in sequence or a random “pop corn” style) share a best and a worst moment from their performance.

Example

Player A volunteers to share first.

Player A: “My best tonight was that I hit the stage with energy and attack even though I was coming from a stressful work day. I’m particularly proud of my well-timed entrance in the high school cafeteria scene. My worst was I let my excitement get the better of me a little in that last scene and I know I talked over a couple of my teammates.”

The Focus

As improvisers grow in their craft it becomes increasingly important to be able to self diagnose habits and tendencies that are either opening up joyful play or that might be hampering personal or ensemble growth. I’ve found that some players bristle at the “best” and “worst” nomenclature (preferring something less pointed) but I’ve found that this language also reminds everyone that improv is process and that there is always room for celebration and improvement.

Traps and Tips

1.) Best practices as the speaker. Seek specificity in your shares. Saying “I had a good show” or “I didn’t do anything right tonight” is far less helpful than narrowing the scope of your observation to particular choices and moments. Make sure personal bests and worsts are also reflecting on the choices of the current speaker and are not used as opportunities to correct or critique others: “My worst was when no-one let me speak as the janitor in the second scene.” Contributions should also be provided in earnest. Yes, there are some performances when we might feel that we were the lead balloon at the party, but upon close reflection there is always something worthy of celebration. It’s not really in the spirit of the exercise to give a throw away comment just to get it over and done with. For larger groups I’ve had some success with also doing best and worst in ten where players have a gentle cap of ten words for each observation. Those that need more than this limit happily take the time they need, but this approach also encourages and trains brevity which is a great gift during note sessions.

2.) Best practices as the listeners. Above all else, really listen. Don’t feel tempted to chime in and respond to everyone else’s reflections. There are a handful of exceptions to this rule. If someone is being terribly hard on themselves it’s in the spirit of the ritual to send them some love or support. Also, if you’re leading the company it can prove appropriate to sometimes carefully use these shared thoughts as broader teaching moments: perhaps someone has articulately expressed a challenge that others have encountered as well, or a player might inadvertently pitch a “best” without seeing that there may have been unintended consequences. (Tread lightly in this second scenario.) Astute players can also use this exercise as an opportunity to support their fellow improvisers down the road by helping them overcome prior barriers or lean into professed strengths. If someone’s worst, for example, is that they didn’t step up and start a scene again, a mindful teammate could facilitate such an opportunity in the next performance.

3.) Best practices as the non-performers. In my campus troupes and productions we’ll often have players rotate into offstage roles such as house management, lighting or sound improvisers. If they have participated in a creative role they may well have a best and worst from this perspective. In other situations this may be less likely or just less insightful. In these cases we’ve developed the custom of letting players who were primarily observing the performance offer up a company best and worst such as “Everyone did a nice job tonight cheating out and being seen. I think we still need to think about stage pictures in general though as we had a lot of standing and talking scenes.” Unlike personal best and worsts which should focus on the individual, these play better when they are broader strokes and don’t single out players for critique. (If someone had a rough night, though, a little extra praise here is often a nice touch.)

4.) Worst practices to avoid. If you’re working in a larger ensemble hearing from everyone can take a little while. Make sure players aren’t sending unintentional (or intentional for that matter) signals of impatience or disinterest. Phones and technology should be stowed away, for example, and body language should remain open and engaged. It is vulnerable to share a worst in particular, and fellow company members should avoid dogpiling onto the speaker in agreement or judgment. Every now and again a player might also try to fly under the radar and not participate. This can be tricky to address as you don’t want the exercise to become coercive and there may be a more weighty issue at play that might invite a private discussion. But, whenever possible, encourage players to add their voice. If they’re in a post show funk, committing to sharing a moment of success can help ameliorate the situation at least a little.

In Performance

Sometimes long nights or performance logistics might make an in-person Best and Worst unfeasible. In such cases I’ve utilized an online approximation – although I will openly confess that I like this much less. It’s helpful to clearly articulate the expectations and ground rules if you find yourself deploying this approach: the written word doesn’t always convey nuance well and so participants should be extra careful that their observations focus squarely on their own efforts and not the choices of others. The last thing you want is a long thread of comments that feel like everyone is throwing shade at their fellow players. We’ll often deploy more experienced players as “boosters” who respond with shout-outs and encouragement as needed. It’s also crucial to set and hold to a firm participation deadline as the efficacy of the ritual degrades exponentially as the performance starts to fade into your rear view mirror. Of late I’ve also explored with my campus troupe an “ick” check as part of the in-person process too which is a more deliberate moment to just make sure choices or material hasn’t brushed anyone in a negative way that warrants attention and address. We strive to do this before our Best and Worst just so it’s given the time it needs and, if it’s a complex discussion, doesn’t become the last taste of the evening.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Postmortem

“P” is for “Postmortem”

“He listens well who takes notes.”

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Definition

Due to the unpredictable and ever-evolving nature of an improvisational production it is common practice to conduct detailed note sessions or Postmortems after each performance (unlike our counterparts on the scripted stage.) This has been the case with all of my professional and collegiate companies although the look of these debriefs changes a little from venue to venue. When there’s a resident director or you’re working in an educational setting, it’s common for postmortems to be more unidirectional – with feedback moving primarily from the artistic team to the improvisers. In professional settings this can also be the case or note sessions can prove a little more multivocal with responses moving between players perhaps facilitated by the evening’s host or a senior member of the troupe. When this post show ritual is handled well and with finesse it can further unite the players in a common mission; when it is fraught or needlessly divisive it can do more harm than good. There is certainly no guaranteed approach to unpacking the soaring successes and fumbling fractures of a performance, but I’ve found that a commitment to listening and learning from our struggles and mistakes stands as a crucial element of a thriving improvisational environment.

Here are some pointers on the two equally important functions of both giving and receiving thoughtful analysis in your improv debrief sessions:

Thoughts on Giving Notes

1.) Seek conciseness. Focus on what will benefit the company and individuals moving forward, patterns that need elevating or breaking, and adjustments that will serve the greater vision or mission. It can prove disheartening for all involved when undue attention is given to a misstep that was so situational that it will likely never happen again. In most cases improvisers have already mentally given themselves the note when such fumbles occur so don’t needlessly dwell on these struggles but rather briefly acknowledge them if it’s necessary to offer up future prescient strategies. (If they’re truly oblivious or in meltdown, this is better addressed in a one-on-one anyway.) Also be wary of lengthy musings as to what you would have done in that situation – offer a tool rather than an after-the-fact personalized and ultimately inapplicable blueprint.

2.) Seek balance. Strive to find balance between constructive and positive notes. (It’s a shame that most artists experience this binary when well-articulated suggestions are also acts of appreciation and support.) I’ve noticed that there can be a tendency to over-emphasize the former category, especially if time is tight, but players are generally more receptive to critique when they also feel adequately and sincerely celebrated. Admittedly this can add volume to the postmortem session so also consider after-the-fact ways of helpfully continuing the conversation. In some of my devised pieces I have explored distributing written notes and just sharing the high points in person (although this certainly adds a time burden on the company director.) With my on-campus troupe we’ll utilize social media platforms to allow players to give supportive shout outs and personal musings as well.

3.) Seek empathy. Especially if you are leading a note session (or are a senior player or more regular participant) keep front of mind how challenging these endeavors can be and don’t focus on unhelpful minutiae. Be careful of your tone or preambles that will make the listener defensive or on edge, such as a foreboding “This note is for you…,” “I’ve noticed that you always…,” or “If there’s one thing I hate it’s…” It can be easy to forget how impossible it is to improvise and balance so many competing needs at once. It’s also important to practice empathy during moments of discord or when a fellow player shares feeling marginalized or hurt by a choice. Sometimes it can prove helpful to simply offer the note from a more personal (rather than high status) place in these moments: “I’ve experienced a similarly difficult moment. While I couldn’t find a path at the time, afterwards I thought about…”

4. Seek joy. Read the room and set a tone accordingly. If it’s been a bit of a challenging show and the company is clearly beating themselves up a little, this might be a good time to emphasize growth and lean into the successes. After a performance where company members are riding high, this might provide an opportunity to consider some more nuanced or granular issues that can open up even new heights for the future (although be wary that you don’t cast an unnecessarily large shadow over the glow of success.) I believe it’s important to acknowledge the dominant mood: if everyone knows the show was rocky it will feel disingenuous and ultimately unhelpful to doggedly insist otherwise. But it’s also probably not a good time to heavily lay on feedback that will be perceived as negative. Failure is inherently part of improv and it’s healthy to find ways to laugh in the face of our struggles. Joyful notes can go a long way towards building up a troupe’s tolerance and acceptance of risk and fumbles.

Thoughts on Receiving Notes

1.) Take the note… even if you have a pressing justification or reason for your choice. As improvisers most of us can quickly come up with a string of great justifications for why we did what we did, but at the end of the day a note is responding to how we did what we did landed or the way it was received by our partners or the audience. Be open to the reality that your choice may have had an unintended consequence despite your efforts to the contrary.

2.) Take the note… even if you don’t agree with it. If you don’t understand the observation, seek a moment with the director or company member after the session (or perhaps sit with it for a night and then approach them if it’s still pertinent.) Ask for clarity in the note session only if it’ll benefit everyone present. I can struggle with keeping notes contained as a director; assuming a “thank you” approach as a player can go a long way in this regard. Those providing feedback are just as fallible as those receiving it, and sometimes an offering will be opaque (or kindhearted but not particularly apt) just as is the case on the stage.

3.) Take the note… even if you have to pass up a great opportunity to show how much you know, or who you’ve studied with, or why you should be appreciated more… When postmortems become status battles you’ve headed off the map into dangerous territory. There are certainly appropriate places to muse on the greater philosophical ramifications of our craft – in my circle this is typically at a bar after the show – but strive to avoid intellectual flights of fancy during the postmortem itself. If you make a one-upping move in a company of improvisers, someone is more than likely to quickly join the game – perhaps without even consciously choosing to do so – while the minutes will continue to tick away.

4.) Take the note… literally consider taking the note and writing it down so you can review it later, especially if you are working on a new or complex piece. In addition to being a mark of respect for the creative team – “I value your feedback enough to record it to look at again later” – it also allows you to self diagnose trends that you might not immediately catch when you are no longer in the heat of the moment. Are you constantly being praised for certain choices or behavior that you can now lean into? Are there skillsets, games or structural components that keep tripping you up that might warrant more training or a conversation with your director or mentor?

Final Thought

I’ve reflected on the import of well facilitated postmortems here when it comes to dealing with ruptures in how we treat and represent each other on stage. As I continue to grey I am increasingly of the opinion that complex interpersonal and habitual performance issues rarely find fruitful solutions in a public or community note session. Regardless of the sensitivity of the facilitator such moments invariably can feel shaming or become mired by other well-meaning improvisers either trying to kindly dull or less kindly sharpen the message – some conversations are just best handled one-on-one. In my experience, postmortems infused with respect, playful professionalism and, dare I say love, can actually capture some of the creative joy and comraderie that hopefully defines our onstage successes as well. If your note sessions routinely feel angsty or cynical this may, in fact, suggest more systemic issues in your company.

Related Entries: Acting, Commandment #10, Consent, Ensemble, Rehearsal Etiquette Antonyms: Check In Synonyms: Debrief, Feedback, Notes

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Best and Worst