Monday, February 9, 2009

The Process of Improv

Improv is all about process.

Okay, what does that mean? Well, let's look at the opposite first. Some things in life are all about product. So, what does it mean that improv is about process?

Car factories are about products. True, there's a product involved, but no CEO is going to praise the process of making cars if the end product sucks. And, if you're buying a car, you really don't care how it was made, whether or not the workers had fun, or if the assembly line ran smoothly. No, you mostly care about one thing--does the car work?

And, traditional acting is more product-oriented too. Watching a movie you might be impressed that so and so has prepared for his part by starving himself for the last 3 months, but really you're not as interested in the process the actor went through to prepare for his part--you're concerned with--does this movie suck or not?

But improv comedy is a little bit different. Part of the fun for the audience and the actors is the understanding that everything is unfolding on stage. If improv were mostly concerned about the end product, then it would involve carefully rehearsing specific sketches. But, the different between improv and other art forms is the focus on process--something is enjoyable about watching people create, and especially when they do it well.

So, how do we begin to work towards the PROCESS of improv?

A few hints:
  • Don't get too far ahead of the game. Improv is navigating by compass, not by map. Getting too far ahead in your "plan" means the process is becoming secondary to the outcome you deem worthy.
  • Stay focused on the present. Even if words aren't coming, live in that fear zone, where you're reacting in the present, not anticipating more than a few seconds in advance.
  • Slow down. Most improvisers move too fast for themselves, too fast for the audience, and too fast for their teammates. When I was playing jazz saxophone back in college, my instructor told me not to play so many notes. I had been slamming notes as fast as I could as a way of trying to impress people. He reminded me that beautiful melodies are just as impressive as technique. The same goes for improv--take your time, and don't play too many notes. Instead, play the right ones.
  • Enjoy the details. Notice the funny and interesting details in the scene. If you notice them, chances are you'll make them more interesting for your audience too.
  • You're never stuck; keep going. About the only habit I think just NEVER works in improv is stopping when you're stuck (even worse than blocking in my book). True, a lot of disciplines have an attitude of "if you can't do it right, you shouldn't even try." But, not improv. The process-focused part of improv assumes that the scene always moves forward, and that there's always another opportunity to make something good happen. The only way to get stuck is a) give up on the scene, b) block, wimp, waffle, pander, gag so bad that your partner can't do anything except leave (hopefully that's pretty rare). If you stop and think about it, improv is a pretty darn positive philosophy of life.