Come to my improv class (we tell you) and be (we promise you) finally, truly free! Step into the void and discover that others will catch you. You may even catch yourself. You were worried about tripping, but instead you soar on liberated wings. Dream with me, little one.
Improv classes abound with the language of joy, heart, inspiration. And I see why. The business of neoliberalism is to keep us working and the business of the internet to keep us distracted. Put them together and we are constantly distracted from the work we should be doing and always, terribly guilty. Under those circumstances, we could all do with some joy, heart and inspiration (JHI). There are few feelings as wonderful, elusive and wonderfully elusive as working in sync, the fluid and paceless unfolding that makes a show feel both surprising and inevitable. It’s the dragon we are all chasing. Plus, JHI sells.
You have felt it coming, so here it is: But.
Improv is hard. It’s really really hard. It is unrecordable and unrepeatable, gone almost before it has happened. It collapses easily under the weight of analysis (oh, physician – heal thyself!), and as soon as we think that we have mastered a skill, not only do the goalposts move, but the rules of game change and then someone changes the physics of the whole ruddy universe.
In a small measure of balance, allow me to offer you the following three things. When inspiration just won’t come, and chasing it seems exhausting, try these simple ideas instead. The Three Least Sexy Words in Improv. As inevitable, effective and boring as exercise, a varied diet and reading a good book.
Make your shows hang together. That’s it. Make moments part of the same scene. Then make each scene be part of a show. When designing a show, work out a format which will make scenes which are part of the same show. When choosing people to play with, do so in order that your moment will cohere into scenes and from there into shows. This does not mean create a monoculture. That will fail, festers and destroys friendships. Make things which build bigger things.
If something seems random, odd, an outlier, return to it, deal with it, hold it to you until it is part of you. A random selection, while momentarily, chaotically delightful, will not sustain your attention. The business of the mind is to find order in chaos and, where necessary, make that order more orderly still. Be silently structural. Create (just enough) order onstage.
Watching a show, an audience will often have a thing which they want, even need. Be the person who gives them it. They will thank you. If a question needs answering, answer it. If a scene is drifting away from its roots, return it there. If something is not happening that needs to, make it happen. If something is being avoided, say it.
When you start to improvise, you learn that you control less than fifty percent of a scene, but when you advance, you might learn that fifty percent is a lot. It’s almost half. How many other situations are you a full fifty percent in control of? Do not wait for the improv to happen, be the person doing the improv.
I still snort when I remember Paul Foxcoft entering a scene with the line “it’s me, two other bears”. The current characters were, of course, Goldilocks and one bear, and the show had a cast of three. Job done; now we can play. Obvious has a habit of looking like genius, and no improviser at the end of a scene wishes their partner had been less clear. So when you have detected an incoherence, take responsibility for it as your own, then deal with it as quickly as possible. Subtly has its place, and elegance will come with practice, but for now, clarity will do. Get it done.
Where (comes the reasonable question) is the space for inspiration? Inspiration is great when it strikes. I do not discount it, and I may write about it next week (if the mood strikes), but when it strikes it must find you working. Working coherently, responsibly and efficiently. Exercise, a varied diet and reading a good book.
These three multi-syllable, latinate words sound dry and a bit like work. They are not telling you to follow your bliss, or that each improviser is a starchild born with a unique shard of the infinite in their breast. But they will serve you. My mistress, when she improvises, treads upon the ground.