Sunday, January 25, 2009

Increasing the Fun Factor

Improvising is about fun. If you're not having it, your audience won't be having it. And, if it's not fun for you, you've got to ask the question--why are you doing it?

Of course, one of the hardest ways to have more fun is to TRY to have more fun. Just try to tell somebody grumpy that they should take themselves less seriously and have more fun. Chances are they'll look at you with furrowed brows and continue on their grumpy way.

So, what are some ways that improvisers can increase their fun factor, while still learning their craft, and providing high quality entertainment?

Here's some hints:
  • During rehearsal scenes and performances, put away the mental list of things you need to improve. Nothing hinders creativity than the critical voice in your head that says, "you should really work on _____, or you must remember not to ______." There's a time for self-critique, but while in the middle of a scene isn't the time.
  • Approach improv as you would a game. I had a high school teacher who told me life was a game. I reacted vehemently against this notion. "No," I said. "Life is serious, and you need to take it seriously." Well, what I didn't realize at the time is that there's a big difference between being somber and being serious. Improv is important, but it's not a life and death situation. How does your attitude differ when you're solving a problem in a game versus in real life? Is that attitude something you want to cultivate?
  • Learn to enjoy and leverage your mistakes. Yeah, easier said than done. How boring would life be without mistakes? Answer: very boring. Comedy and tragedy both love mistakes, and for very different reasons. Either way, mistakes are crucial to pulling off good drama. And, as an improviser, you'll have lots of chances to make mistakes. You'll mistake elements of scenes, do odd things, mishear things, confuse situations. Rather than beating yourself up about these mistakes, admit them and have fun with them. Most mistakes you make on the improv stage won't kill you, but actually can be used to heighten the comedy.
  • Be playful.
  • Quit worrying about being the best. Most of the time competition only makes you have less fun. Instead of worrying about being the funniest person on your team, or trying to be funny. Realize that being an average improviser means you're funnier than most people. There's a paradoxical thing that goes on when you do this--you usually end up being funnier. I don't know how it works, but I've seen it.
  • Be yourself. It's corny, but nobody is better at being you than you. Rather than trying to be the great character actor you've seen on TV, or trying to follow the rigid rules of your improv director--be yourself, enjoy who you are, and let your personality do what it naturally does best. That way, whether you succeed or fail, you know it was you and not somebody you were pretending to be.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Improvisers Do These Things...

I wrote these a while back for an improv manual for my team. It's my version of a lot of stuff out there already written on Improv. But, enjoy a different voice:

The following is a list of concepts and things that good improvisers do. As you’re reading through you’ll begin to notice that these things make sense and would appear to move a scene forward, and make a person more likable. It’s true.

Interestingly, these also are pretty good rules for life. Amazing.

Agreement/Acceptance: Improvisers are constantly making “offers,” which means they’re suggesting a direction to take. Agreeing/accepting means exactly what it sounds like—you accept their offer and go with it...even if you know you have a better idea. Yes, you can still argue, but accepting means accepting the other improviser’s reality. If he thinks he’s holding a rock, you can’t tell him it’s really a rat. Maybe a cheap laugh, but it ruins the momentum of a scene.

Nothing is more frustrating than a two year old who has just learned the word no; nothing, except an improviser that hasn’t learned the word “yes.” Agreement/acceptance of offers builds trust as people begin to believe they can trust you. The opposite of accepting/agreeing is called blocking.
EX. (agreeing on an action) Dan: Wow, that dog sure likes to lick himself. Fred: Yes, and I think he might be sick. Dan: I kind of want to pet him, even though he’s mangy. Fred: You only live once, let’s do it.

Advancing: Agreeing is great. But, simply agreeing with someone doesn’t build a scene and move it forward. You’ve got to add to what a person says/does. Advancing means agreeing and adding to someone else’s offer, giving specific direction for a scene. Advancing should set up characters, environments, and even conflict. It takes a while to get good at. The first 3 lines in a scene can make or break it. The opposite of advancing is called waffling.

EX. (setting up a conflict) Viola: (Cooking) Ever since you got fired, you’ve been lying around the house like a big lazy bum. Carmello: I’m sorry honey for your differing opinion, but I respect and value what you’re saying. Viola: Oh, that anger management crap again...

Listening: It’s hard to advance a scene or accept what another improviser’s doing if you didn’t listen to what they said, or observe what they did. Good improvisers are great observers and great listeners. Great.

Easy Does it, Mr. Funny: The temptation is often to be the funniest person in the scene at all times. Unless you’re Robin Williams, trying to be funny won’t always make you funny. (Some people believe it doesn’t even work for him). The best advice is to try to react honestly, and the funny will be there.

Except for some games designed to test your wit, most of the humor in improv comes from incongruous situations in scenes, not from being able to think of one-liners. The opposite of this is called gagging.

Set people up: The best way to be funny, believe it or not, is to try to think of ways to set up other people to be funny. Mad TV’s whole show is formulaic— there’s one funny person and the rest of the people in the scene react to that person’s ridiculousness. Setting people up works, and if a team can be trusted, everybody will be funny in the show at some point in time. In college, a friend of mine and I thought we were trying to be funny all the time, so we quit trying to be funny for an entire week. It was tough, and actually made life a little boring, but we did notice that the people around us got a whole lot funnier. It was like we gave them air to breathe, and they breathed funny.

Show, don’t tell: Whenever possible, if there’s a way to show something, show it with your actions, rather than your words. Rather than saying, “I’m angry.” Hit the wall and whip your head down dramatically. I’m aware that this manual is all tell and no show. So, here,
enjoy this picture to the right, the horse is clearly angry:

Trust: The ancient Greek word for Trust is "pistis" which interestingly enough to me, is also the same word for “faith.” Trust means believing in yourself, and believing in your teammates.

Okay, I’m getting overly "psycho-sophical" here, but when somebody’s been seriously hurt, the first thing to go is trust in other people. So, as a side note, don't be surprised if doing improv brings up some interesting psychological junk... and as a positive, don't be surprised if improv helps you work through your interesting psychological junk.

An improv team does best when people trust each other. Also, people need to believe in each other—seeing potential in other people. I’ve been guilty of not believing in other team members before, and usually that results in me not giving them chances to shine.

Following the guidelines above will help ensure that the team trusts each other more and more, and that means people will be able to take bigger and bigger risks on stage—meaning more awesome performances!