Difficult Gifts

I have to confess that this whole week I was pretty snobby about when I entered scenes and who I’d play with. My 301 class is amazing and I love improvising with them, but some of the open workshops and jams I went to have a much more mixed crowd. Many of them are just trying it for the first time, and lately I’ve avoided playing with them.

I’m not proud of that. Not only was I there myself less than six months ago (and it’s not like every scene I do now is some groundbreaking revolution in the performing arts either) but I actually think they’re the ones who are going to help me get better at this.

Part of improv is making others look good. “When you make others look good, you look good.” But if people get better at things by practicing pushing themselves with bigger challenges, then it’d make sense that you get better at improv when it’s more challenging to make your scene partner look good.

And really, if you’re actively listening and giving your scene partner the benefit of the doubt, there’s plenty to unpack in bad improv and terrible offers. Maybe your scene partner is nervous. You have the option to throw them under the bus by acknowledging the performer’s nerves, or to make them look good by accepting that part of the offer too. Their character is nervous, and the performer is just doing an amazing job of portraying that.

When your scene partner stops in the middle of a line to tell the audience “I don’t know…” keep your filter up and hear it from the perspective of your character. This is just a person who’s nervous and doesn’t know.

When they panic and turn to shock comedy in the middle of a classroom scene, that’s fine, it really happened in this world. Your character is shocked, because that’s what they were going for. Cut to the PTA meeting where the parents are demanding that they be reprimanded for the outburst. Cut to the playground where the kids are practicing all these fun words they just learned.

Even if they totally freeze up, that’s a lot. Characters freeze up sometimes too. Maybe this is just someone who needs a pat on the back and a little support from a friend.

I think truly committing means being able to handle a scene partner who’s fumbling, not only without breaking your own character, but by learning to spin what they do into the reality yourself. When their nervousness or panic comes through, listen to it through the lens of your character. There’s plenty to work with if you accept it. The show must go on. Don’t let someone else drag you out of the reality you’re building.

Good improvisers are really easy to play with, and are great for helping beginners learn what they’re supposed to be doing and gain some confidence. But it doesn’t take long before it becomes tough to even gauge your own skill level when you’re performing with people who are better at it than you are. You do a good scene and walk away feeling like “this is easy, I can do anything” because they’re good at making you look good. That’s the point.

If I’m never challenged, am I actually improving? Having good scenes with other good improvisers only means that someone there brought the good stuff, but it doesn’t tell me much about my own contributions. On the other hand, if I can share a stage with a brand new improviser, or someone who consistently forgets everything they know as soon as the lights come up, and we can still have entertaining scenes, isn’t that more meaningful feedback?

From Improv4Humans – Ask the UCB: Playing Gay Improv Characters

From Improv4Humans:

In this bonus Ask the UCB episode, Matt Besser, Seth Morris, Eugene Cordero, and Will Hines discuss playing gay improv characters and improvising with what you know.

This reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from last weekend. We were doing a series of two-person scenes where each of us gets an emotion-related suggestion that the other doesn’t know. The suggestion that I got was sappy romance, and I gather that the emotion my scene partner got was some kind of fear.

The scene involved my character pleading for his partner to come around to my side of a subway platform so that we could be together. We found a game where he would confess to something terrible, I would try to forgive him, and then he’d freak out thinking I was just messing with his head before confessing to something even worse. Repeat.

I say he because my scene partner himself was male, and nothing about his offer specifically said otherwise about his character. So I went with the least surprising option. At some point I think I named him Jimmy.

I don’t think my scene partner ever specifically identified my character’s name or gender, because it was never really important. His character was focused on his own past actions, and my character was focused on him, so that’s how we identified each other. Maybe half the audience thought we were a gay couple, and the other half thought I was playing a woman in that scene. If he’d specified something one way or another, then it’s my job to take that on, but until then, the audience gets to fill in the blanks with what they want to get out of the scene.

In this case it just never became important to answer that question, and that strikes me as a good thing.

Playing the Straight Man

Last weekend I spent a bunch of time playing with silence when opening a scene. The thought was that if I’m patient with the entrance, rather than jumping straight into dialogue, it gives me time to observe my scene partner(s) and discover an idea that really fits with what we’re already doing, so there’s almost no work at all to embody that fact. We’re already there.

Also, suspense is fun.

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi (of TJ & Dave) inspired me to try it. I’ve probably watched this video a dozen times at this point.

During the YAP workshop we did a fun exercise: Start a scene with the absolute worst opening line you can think of. These are the kinds of lines that give your scene partner nothing to work with. They’re not awful because they make you feel uncomfortable, they’re awful because they make you feel nothing. They’re boring, and they don’t contribute to a story.

One scene partner gave me a perfectly terrible opener:

Him: What did you say?

The only thing there is that we had been talking. There’s no relationship, no setting, no activity, nothing. He might as well have said “no, you open the scene.”

I didn’t say anything right away, and stared at him. Giving myself a second before I jumped in let me find something in his face that suggested that this wasn’t a happy conversation. I think the rest of the class picked up on it too, because they laughed. There I discovered that the silence was actually my character staring at him in outraged disbelief.

Me, shouting: Are you deaf? Did I stutter? I said get the fuck out!

And then we yelled at each other for 30 seconds in front of a bunch of strangers. It was great fun, and I highly recommend it if you find the opportunity.

When it was my turn to open, I went with this:

Me: Looks like it’s gonna rain.

Great. Let’s talk about mildly inclement weather. That will be interesting to watch.

Him, deeply concerned: Yeah… I see you out here a lot. Do you have a place to stay?

Oof. I didn’t think I was homeless when I stepped out, but I sure was after he said that. Now we have a scene worth watching. It ended up being a really sweet moment between a lonely homeless guy who just wants a break, and a genuinely caring person who’s “trying to be a better Christian” offering him the guest bed for a while.

A lot of improvisers had a lot of great scenes during that exercise, and they all highlighted that you don’t always need to start at the most interesting place. I suppose you should probably be ending at the most interesting place and building to it along the way. A bad opening doesn’t mean the scene is dead, and a slow one doesn’t mean it’s boring. It’s just one thing that gets followed by everything after it.

This week I want to continue the same idea throughout the rest of the scene. Silence, patience, and letting it move forward at whatever honest pace it feels like it should move. If I’m flustered and yelling, that’s fun to watch, but if I have nothing to say, that’s really ok too, because my character doesn’t really have to have anything to say either. I don’t have to force it. Let the audience wonder for a moment what’s going to happen next while we take whatever time it takes to discover it.

It’s hard to come up with clever ideas. Some people are really good at it, and can push scenes into some really funny places. I’m not that much of a big loud goofball, but I love people who are. I have a bias toward things that are practical. I tend to look for truth first, and jokes if I get around to it. I think I can contribute more to a scene by embracing that, and playing a better straight man.

At some point that will be something to work on, because I think it’ll help me a lot with short-form improv. But for now, this is good, if I own it.

…And Scene.