Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting Unstuck, part 1

Okay, I got a great comment the other day from someone wondering how to get unstuck. So, how do you get unstuck? Here's the first installment to answer that question... But, I'd love to hear your personal techniques that help you!

Improv has lots of moments when you feel like you're stuck. Part 1 will be mostly about the mental part of feeling stuck, and how to work through it. In part 2 I'll offer a few exercises that can help a team get over these sorts of situations.

But, without any further ado, here's some thoughts on getting stuck. Some of them are a little random, but I hope they make sense to you.

1. You're never stuck. Unless you literally die on stage, there are always things you can do to pull out of a situation and make it better. Improvisation means always looking forward, and always believing that there is something that you can do in this present moment to make things better. Even if a scene starts out horribly with tons of blocking and bad improv, doing the fundamentals of improv will move things forward.

2. You have partners and collaborators who should help you out. You're not an island on the improv stage. If you feel like you're blowing it because you're not coming up with witty things, and the scene is going nowhere, make sure that you've got partners you can trust. They should help you out. And, if they consistently don't help you out, then it's time to do some team-building exercises, or at least ask them why they aren't helping you.

3. Maybe you're not stuck, maybe your personal standards are too high. It's true, the bane of improv is that the material is not scripted and/or market tested. So, there's lots of uncertainty about how the audience might respond, and conscientious people want everything they do to be a success. The truth is that improvisers need to figure out ways to take the pressure off, so they can enter a state where they're playing on stage. Del Close used to say, "F@#$ it" right before he got on stage. It sounds weird, but that's the attitude that usually gets people in the right mindset for great performance.

I once took a jazz masterclass with a piano professional who told me, "don't think, just play. Eventually, the notes you want will start coming out." It's actually pretty true, but this is easier said than done. Most of us have been trained to be analytical/critical. Time to unlearn that for improv.

4. Embrace the awkward moments. There will be many, and they can be comedic gold. Lean into them and let yourself feel it. And, they're suddenly not that scary. Usually what improvisers consider to be long awkward pauses, the audience thinks are set-ups, and usually aren't really that long. Unless you normally move at the speed of a dead turtle, pauses are a good thing. Some of the best moments I've seen were prompted by real awkwardness when it was clear the improvisers were temporarily lost.

5. Utilize other resources than words. Too often we get stuck because we can't think of the right words. But, words are just a small part of improvising, and movement uses a totally different part of our brain than thinking up witty sentences, so you really don't need to think about it. Just MOVE!

What other resources can you use? Emotions like anger, fear, surprise using your face, physical characteristics like limps, hunching your shoulders, posture, all sorts of actions like drinking, digging, writing, sawing, exploring your environment, being silenct, falling down, etc.

6. Work the process, and don't block each other. What's the improv process? It goes something like this: One person says something and does something. The other person believes it, and says or does something that adds to what the first person did. The process continues.

7. Give up control. Chances are the audience will like you. They paid money and cognitive dissonance theory states that most people will justify their decision to go out and spend money on improv rather than bitch about it. That's good, so you don't need to control scenes and make them end the way you would if you were writing a screenplay. Instead, just enjoy the process, experience each moment, and see what happens.

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