I’m about to go on stage. I look at the grinning faces of the other players: I’ve met Lisa before but the others I met yesterday in our one and only rehearsal.
We’re all a bit nervous in our own way. We’re primetime Saturday night in a full venue at the 14th Würzburg Improtheater Festival. There are just five of us. We come from four different countries, three languages and at least two improv styles. We’re about to improvise a two act film noir set in San Francisco. And we’re playing with strangers.
This is not the only time I’ve played with folks I don’t know. It’s particularly common at festivals like Würzburg where shows are cast from participants and workshop leaders. And often we’re dropping in while travelling or playing with folks we meet for the first time on stage at the local improv jam.
So, how do we play with strangers? Not just get through it but smash it?
Unite the Team
This is what rehearsal and / or warm up is for. Getting the team working as a team, in the same style and toward a common goal.
Lisa Rowland got us to play ‘ball’ to prepare for San Francisco Noir. It’s a team keepy-uppy game where you all count out loud. It has almost everything: physical and vocal warm up, commitment, common goal, team awareness, being present in the moment… We were totally ready to work together when we were done.
My pal, Christine Brooks, ran a show in the same festival. She met the cast an hour before the show and they spent the time checking in with other, sharing experiences and connecting. That show had one of the most supportive teams I’ve seen. It was hilarious, moving and cracking good improv.
I have those ‘I’m not good enough’ voices in my head that I work to put aside. The second guessing and ‘should have dones’. But I don’t let those voices come on stage with me any more.
You see, now is not the time to sit on the sidelines until you think you know what to do. Especially if you’re playing with folks you think are better than you. Now is the time to bring all you got to the stage and give your new teammates something to work with.
Don’t worry about messing it up or doing it ‘wrong.’ (You’re going to anyway otherwise it wouldn’t be improv!) Trust your new teammates to have your back just the way you trust your team at home.
Love and Generosity
On the other side of the coin, now is not the time to question your teammate’s choices, to hate their improv style or to think you know better. Especially if you’re playing with folks you think aren’t as good as you.
How often have you seen a Noir where there are two femme fatales and one double crosses the other? Awesome right? That’s how one of my ‘mistakes’ was made to look like genius by my team mates!
I always make sure I make eye contact with my team pre show. Play with them. Crack a few laughs with them. It connects me to them and to my playful self: the improviser in me.
And here’s something I noticed David doing. He would grab my hand or arm at times during pre show / warm up. It forced me to look at him. To be physically present now in connection and grounded. He didn’t say ‘hey Clare get out of your head and back into the room with us.’ He just helped me connect and be present without making a big deal out of it. It was a real gift.
We’re not used to working with these folks so being honest (in character) is vital. Didn’t hear or understand what your teammate said? Your character can totally say so. And probably get a big laugh as Inbal did. Need a plot point clarification? Your character can ask (or tell). This is extra important when the language isn’t native for some of the players and the bulk of the audience.
There are other things you can communicate to your fellow players in character too: such as asking them to stop speaking for a bit (or to contribute more) and to talk through physical action – especially violence – so it’s safe (or to ensure you don’t surprise kiss a stranger). If you do feel unsafe your character can express that too. The honesty will be a grounded gift to the story and to your teammates.
Agree or disagree with my tips? What are your fave strategies for playing successfully with strangers? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.
Thanks to Lisa, David, Inbal and Niggi for a cracking show and for no longer being strangers 🙂 Thanks to Andris on Lights, Merik on music and Alex for being production awesome and a great non-stranger.
What you’re thinking about or noticing in life also pops up in improv sometimes. If I was at the Edinburgh Fringe, for example, surviving a long run with tired improvisers might be the subject of this blog. But no, for me at the moment one of the things I’ve been noticing in improv and life is love.
Or rather, being loving.
Making loving choices in life is something I haven’t always consciously done but I moved across the UK recently to be here for my gorgeously giggly Granny who hasn’t found much to giggle about for a while. It’s a real joy to actively bring more happiness to someone’s life by being present for them.
At the same time in improv, a loving approach to scene work has been presenting itself. I see it as a version of the start positive note (with a how-to do that).
I recently took an intensive class from Coleen Doyle and Jason Shotts from IO (Improv Olympic). Among other awesome concepts was a simple but very effective note that, no matter what happens or is said at the start of the scene / show, you love this person you’re on stage with (not necessarily romantic love). Treat the other character/s as if you’re happy to be there because nobody else really gets your character right now but them.
Basically, I think Colleen and Jason were teaching us to be loving. This has two main effects which are particularly useful in long form or narrative improv.
You’re good to work with
The real world effect is that you’re fun to play with and you’re less likely to block offers. When we’re playing with our favourite people we do this anyway. I love my Cambridge crew and the joy we have playing with each other is visible in every scene. So we tend to be open to each other’s offers and start with characters that understand each other. We tend to be focused on giving each other a good time rather than concerned about our own stage fears.
I can play that way with anybody if I start with the premise that I really like them: that this show is in a world where we’re getting along (despite any differences we have).
The improv effect is to help create excellent platform. It’s much more effective in a story or sketch to start with what normal is like for these characters before introducing trouble or the reason why today of all days is special.
If you also approach the first scene looking for what your two characters have in common it’s easier to create platform. It’s also a more satisfying start because it’s easier for the audience to like you. Once the audience like you and like your character, says Jason Shotts, then you do can anything to that character because the audience will care.
And we want them to care when our characters get into trouble. That’s how story works. And we want them to care when we torture that character over and over with their weaknesses or desires. That’s the premise of much great comedy (and every single sitcom).
The long game
The idea of being loving: of starting with agreement and commonality with every character you’re on stage with reflects the advice I got from the Closer Each Day crew who have been doing their improvised soap opera in Bristol for four years. This positive common ground approach really works for the long game or narrative when you’re playing the same character all the time, even if you’re essentially the villain.
It also goes well with the idea of being a conflicted character rather than looking for conflict (I’ll explore that in a later post).
Are you giving the improv love?
So let’s turn the title around. Are you giving the love? What different improv or life choices have you made by being loving?
Can’t imagine how it works? Try it! It’s harder than you might think. And in the middle of the Edinburgh fringe run when tired grumpy minds walk on stage it can be a mighty tool…
(Photo: Heather Yeadon and Kevin Wright of Cambridge Improv Factory photographed by James Southwick at Lodestar Festival)
Within minutes of the start, I turned to one of the only two people I knew and whispered nervously, ‘I think I need to change my character!’
I was second guessing my choices, trying to control the nerves about being in a new theatre with new people and picking the ‘right’ character to play for the next 26 hours… The lights were going up and I’d just changed my intended character accent back to kiwi. The facilitator was introducing the show and I changed her background (to fit the kiwi accent). As my character was being called up to do a scene and I still hadn’t decided whether her overarching objective was money or rural serenity…
Part Three: the Improv!
It’s been four months since I was in Bristol to play one character in the 26 hour improvised soap opera, Time Busters, run by Closer Each Day in association with Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT). How did I stay awake, stay in character and remain a functioning improviser? With folks I had never played with before?
Fortunately, I got lucky with my last minute character crisis. I ended up defaulting to a version of myself rather than the more interesting characters I had ambitions to play. I walked on stage with my own accent, my own rural background and no pre-determined characteristics other than my job title in the world of the soap opera.
Del Close famously said that “character should be worn as a thin veil” meaning that the audience want to see the actor’s truth. I’ve always struggled with that idea, wanting to be anything but myself on stage and the marathon was no exception.
But the beauty of playing an aspect of your own truth is that it’s easier and more grounded in reality, therefore much better for creating the relationships, character perspective and character based comedy that drive an improvised narrative.
Here’s a tip from by Jason Shotts and Colleen Doyle of IO: thinking of a scale from one to say, twelve, where one is you and twelve is a cartoon, begin with the character layer at about a three. This means you have room to grow (even to a twelve if appropriate) and take your audience along for the ride rather than losing them at the beginning or having to scale back the extreme to connect to the other characters.
Listening to yourself
OK. Listening is standard improv and obviously standard improv stuff applies to the soap opera. But we’re often so busy listening to others that we forget to listen to ourselves. So we drop things we’ve named at the beginning and hunt to invent new things for ourselves. Instead we want to commit to what we’ve already created and play it stronger.
In my panic I ended up with no pre-determined character layer before I stepped on stage. Whether that was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ might depend on your current improv philosophy but at first I thought I’d made it harder for myself and I was disappointed. I felt lost. Like I was wavering in a wishy-washy no character in that first scene.
That’s where listening to myself and playing what I discovered about my character harder really helped. Despite my thought that I’d like to play a character who was driven by money my character’s first words were about companionship. So that was my character veil, her thing, her point of view. When I listened to her value for companionship and played the positive and negative aspects of that character layer harder; relationships with other characters, scene games and story arcs were formed in a grounded way. The soap opera became more relaxed for me.
Concession not conflict
John Lomas of Closer Each Day advised us all to play positively to make the soap opera format work best.
“Make scenes about people working together not conflict. And to help this: play positive characters. Characters with negative attitudes inevitably end up blocking or coming into conflict. Form relationships and allegiances. This is a soap and soap is driven by relationships, be they romantic or otherwise. Let these relationships develop and play the long game. If you are playing an antagonist, then team up with other antagonists and work together. Again, make the scenes about concession not conflict.”
This piece of advice was all I remembered in the character paralysis of walking on for that first scene. It would have been so easy to block or play negative in that state of mind but the advice reminded me to help make that very first scene a no-trouble platform scene where all the characters in the pub liked each other. We got rich characters and background to use for the rest of the show out of that one generous scene.
I also noticed later in the show how difficult it was to further the story and the relationships when I did slip into conflict with my character’s ex-husband. One trick for making it work and still being true to your character is to play conflicted instead of conflict: internalise the conflict while trying to find agreement within the scene. For example: think how much we love watching a character do something they don’t want to do. Much more funny than them refusing or doing it easily with no affect on their emotional state.
Character point of view
Despite my note about listening to myself, it took me several scenes to recognise my character’s thing had already been created. I wavered in neutral for some scenes instead of stating my character’s opinion or objective. It meant that I basically never had a scene with that other character again as there was no relationship developed.
Your character needs a point of view / an objective / a desire and or a character flaw. Something that drives them.
These collective character traits drive the show and help the facilitators / directors. It’s their job to set up each scene with characters and location and to keep track of the story arcs for the characters and the show. Having a strong POV supports them in deciding which characters to throw together and what episode or multi- episode story arcs to promote.
Use your character point of view, your developing relationships with other characters and the organic games that develop to make bold story action choices and raise the stakes on existing choices (your own and other character’s). This is how the plot gets driven and prevents the facilitators from having to make up everything for you (remember they’re not getting any sleep either!).
And get on with it. Yes, we’re playing a long game but if there is too much bridging to a known end or paralysed conflict with no consequences then it’s not fun for audience or players. Let strong emotions drive bold actions, have actions lead to consequences and let the story move forward into the unknown.
Lastly, just a reminder to let go of the excellent ideas that you have and listen to what is happening now. I forgot this at the last because I was so caught up in the fact that I needed to leave the soap early. In my tiredness I didn’t see or hear some excellent offers from my teammates. I just drove my character to the sticky end I’d fixated on. It was still an awesome episode ending but it was pretty exactly the one I’d scripted moments before in my head. Who knows how much more awesome it could have been if I’d let my teammates offers affect the character and story?
Other Quick notes
Here are some other points which help make a good marathon or soap opera, either observed by me or other cast and crew. (Disclaimer: as with all improv guides there is often that moment of exception where a rule should totally be broken.)
– use your short character introduction at the top of each episode to help the facilitators with your character arc. You don’t just have to recite what’s happened to you to catch new audience up. You can state how your character is feeling, remind everyone of a dropped fact, say what your character is trying to achieve or even do something irrelevant to any plot that fills out your character.
– know most of the other characters. Have a history with them and a friendship that starts positive (with concession not conflict as above).
– endow yourself more than others. In particular “avoid ‘comedy’ endowing – giving another character a characteristic that they may find difficult to play or may contradict the way the character has developed.” If you are endowing another character, try for positive rather than negative attributes.
– keep the drama grounded. Any big world events will affect every character in the entire show so think relationships rather than natural disasters, especially at the beginning.
– raise the stakes for a fellow character or yourself with a relevant moral choice (these can also make great episode cliff hangers).
– have fun with the character games that arise in your scenes and let these drive the story rather than driving your character objective into plans and plotting
– obey the facilitator and the lights. Not doing so is blocking a teammate’s offer and breaking the reality of the world for the audience.
– try not to break character or step out of the scene to comment on it.
– try to vary the rhythm and staging from the scene immediately prior to yours.
– have fun!
What have I missed?
Agree or disagree with any of these? What improv note works for you in an improvised soap opera or improvathon?
One of the loveliest actors turns to me and says ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. I usually become a bitch when I’m tired.’ I nod back to her, thinking, am I a bitch when I’m tired? Sometimes. Sometimes I’m cute and funny and uncensored though. And sometimes I just stop listening and shut down. What was going to happen to me emotionally on this crazy 26 hour soap opera marathon?
I was sitting in the team talk before starting the improv soap opera, Time Busters, run by Closer Each Day in association with Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT). How was I going to stay awake, stay in character and still be a functioning improviser let alone human being? With folks I had never played with before?
Well! That actor never did become a bitch. And not only did I survive but I had an amazing experience thanks to the excellent organisation and generous playing style of the Bristol improv community.
We’re sitting in that team talk. It’s almost 8pm on Friday. Most of us have already done a 12 hour day and we’re looking at a straight 26 hrs 365 second more before all of this is over. I have to go back to Cambridge at hour 20 and I’m also nervous about being deadbeat on the train.
Reassurance to remember
Andy Yeoh from Bristol Improv Theatre had two key messages for us to remember in the depths of the night when the improv is getting darker and the audience is sparse.
1) You are not the worst improviser in the room
2) Everybody doesn’t hate you
I’ve been improvising for about 15 years now. I’ve been super anxious and self involved a lot of those years but by now I trust myself on almost any stage. I recognise the anxiety of not knowing my fellow players and I know it will be gone by the end. When I’m feeling left out, I notice that my character isn’t showing her vulnerability so I open up on stage. I realise when I’m shutting down mentally from tiredness so take myself off for a nap for that episode.
In all this I’m supported by the openness, warmth and talent of my fellow players. Bristol have created a generous and joyful atmosphere in which to play and it truly pays off during the marathon. And when the little seeds of doubt appear in the middle of the darkness, I remember Andy’s words and dismiss my demons with an adroitness my younger self would have paid thousands for.
But the true attack on my mental wellbeing isn’t during the improv marathon. Oh no. It’s afterwards.
The French call it the esprit d’escalier. Those witty replies you think of too late. The thoughts you have about what you could have done different or if you’re unkind to yourself should have done.
A good improviser on a good day is vulnerable. They’re in flow, uncensored, allowing their inner thought processes to be the tool of their work, open to the truth and authenticity of their character and each single moment rather than planning ahead or looking behind. For some of us, this or our failure to be this, leads to a series of insecure afterthoughts and brow beating that I think are equivalent to what Vulnerability and Shame expert Brène Brown calls a Vulnerability Hangover.
These days I’m comfortable with after show or after class thoughts. Occasionally I still mentally scold myself for too long but mostly I just nail down one thing I’d like to do differently next time and then get on with going to sleep or whatever else I’m doing.
But this time I had 20 hours worth of material to process!
It hit me two days after. The day after I’d still been elated but this day the exhaustion caught up with me. Although I wasn’t brow beating myself, I kept reliving moments, I couldn’t focus on work and all the permutations I hadn’t seen for my final character climax rose to the surface of my brain. Ah – that would have been a better ending. Oh – that’s what that genius actor was trying to do that I didn’t see at the time. Damn – I could have…
So I treated myself gently. Took the day off work (this was one of my work-for-myself days), read an absorbing book, went for a walk, talked to some awesome people, patiently agreed with all my after-thoughts, and stored some mental notes for next time. Then went to bed early!
So that’s my emotional journey through the improv marathon. Do your second guess demons rise during the show or after? How do you manage them?
Last Sunday, Heather Urquhart and Jules Munns dropped in on their UK tour to teach us some Naturalism and Intimacy in Improv. And then they promptly showed us how it’s done in their show: Ten Thousand Million Love Stories. An exhausting day for them and an inspiring day for us!
In particular, I love it when we all get a new concept or word to use. Which is why you’ll find those who took the workshop now talking about Peg-legging.
Peg-legging is the deliberate breaking of building tension, usually by cracking a joke or denying the reality of the moment or scene. Apparently the word comes from a story where a ‘will they – wont they’ kiss moment was broken by one actor suddenly switching into a pirate voice saying ‘oh my peg-leg is giving me grief today.’
Done well, and with good timing, releasing the tension is a valuable tool. We use the term Peg-legging here as a negative because breaking the tension too early or by denying the reality of the moment prevents the improviser from committing to and heightening what they’ve created. It’s often done out of nervousness about the intimacy or seriousness of a scene and can be used to mask vulnerability or discomfort.
The reason for keeping the reality of a scene is fairly obvious so I’ll talk about tension. The creative rewards of keeping tension for a bigger pay off are huge! The audience get emotionally involved and they walk away with a deeper connection to your performance. The laughs will be bigger. You may get a range of other, equally valuable, responses from the audience such as sighs, drawing in of breath, cheers, boos, screams and even tears.*
So if you’re improvising an emotion filled or tense moment hold onto your nerves, stay in your discomfort and commit to your reality until it really is over. Let the moment go further, much further, than you thought possible. Only then let that tension go – either in a way that serves the reality (such as actually getting to the kiss) and/ or by ending the scene. The applause will be huge!
*Mike Leigh’s play Grief built the audience into fidgeting tension for two hours before releasing us in the final moments. I cried for 15 minutes and I can still remember how angry I was at the situation the characters were in.