Private page for participants in the Freedom & Joy course. Notes from the previous Delight of Surprising Yourself course are here.
“When we’re doing something well, we’re repeating it. When we’re wobbling, we’re improvising.” John Cremer
“If it feels like shit, then recommit!” Jules Munns (Improv advice, not necessarily life advice :-))
Often when we hit resistance or not knowing, we pull back when really we need to dive deeper in. Think of the amazing metaphors and poetry you came up with in the “Life is like” exercise. Your genius lies just on the other side of resistance 🙂
Know what you’re doing. Care about what’s happening. Say how you feel – From Will Hines How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth
Opening Up & Letting Go
A legend of Wu Doazi – Chinese painter. Legend of him painting mural landscape of mountain with cave at the bottom then disappearing into the cave. Our art is best when our ego disappears. A lot of anxiety and locking up around improv comes from our ideas of how we’re “supposed” to be. How much could you be present. That’s where the best improv is. A lot of improvisers (aka “people”!) go off searching for coins when they’re already sitting on a treasure chest.
How far can you open up? Nicole Gibson of Love Out Loud suggested a practice of noticing “Am I open or closed right now?” But it doesn’t have to be black and white. Perhaps “How open am I right now?” There are times when it’s good to be a bit closed to keep yourself feeling safe. But often we could open up a bit more than we normally do. “What would a little more open be like?” Notice your resistance patterns to it too.
“How can I allow this to be easy?” We don’t need to press harder on the accelerator, to “try harder”, but to practice releasing our “brake.”
There’s a right amount of inspiration and letting go that you can tolerate right now. Like a river can only channel so much water before it bursts its banks. Most of us could channel quite a bit more. But it changes day to day. Find your edge but notice when it’s too much.
“Your inspiration lies on the other side of your resistance.” Dave Rock
A little reminder of this. There’s a danger after getting past the first amazement of doing improv to then get to serious about it again and focus on the ‘skills’ part. Keep the “joy” and “risk” 🙂
“Tools not rules” these notes are help you, not restrict you. You can’t get it wrong!
Finding a Character
Having something is usually better than having nothing! You can always drop it if you need to.
- Voice placement – using different voice registers and resonances to as a way to find a voice and character
- Be 20% like an animal of your choice e.g. a human who is a bit ‘spider-y’, ‘dog like’
- Find a physicality – one shoulder is a bit higher, walk heavily – allow that to spread through you
- Choose a status you will be – higher or lower than your scene partner.
I, You, We
If you’re ever stuck or the scene is drifting, say things beginning with “I”, “You” or “We”. It will bring you back to the relationship while you find what’s going on.
Crazy / Voice of Reason Dynamic
A simple but really powerful thing to understand. You’ll start to see it everywhere!
Often called Straight / Crazy. Double acts used to have a “straight man.” I prefer ‘dynamic’ to remember it’s fluid. Your character might be the voice of reason in one situation but over/under react in another. Like we are in real life: Totally competent adults in some ways & irrational nutcases in others!
Most laughs come from the crazy person’s escalation but it’s the reasonable person who creates them by
- Pointing out the craziness
- Being curious – asking them to justify their belief
- Finding a reason why you have to stay with them rather than just leaving them
- Adding new information so you don’t get stuck – “If this is true, what else is true?”
- Making it worse
- Being almost convinced. The voice of reason should normally never entirely ‘win’ the argument or else you’ll squash the fun.
Example: Ross’s Sandwich
Ross is the “crazy” one. Everyone else is playing the voice of reason and “if it’s bad, make it worse”
- Big overreaction to a detail (over or under-reactions are a great a way to endow yourself as the crazy one)
- Justifying that reaction (it’s the only good thing in his life)
- Why his new world makes sense – “mental” is now a good thing
- The reasonable colleague keeps “making it worse” and they escalate to the climax
This is a more nuanced understanding of “yes and”. As improvisers you can be saying “yes” to the dynamic by your characters disagree with each other.
- Voice of reason: “But it’s just a sandwich” to another improviser means “You keep getting more crazy and justifying it while I make it worse”
- Crazy: “But it was the only good thing in my life!” is the other improviser saying “yes” to heightening reasonable / unreasonable dynamic.
Never solve a problem. If it’s bad – make it worse!
Being Creative with Suggestions
If the suggestion is “banana”, you don’t have to just start with “look at this banana.” See if you can find something fresh e.g.
- slipping over
- being the president of a “banana republic”
- being worried you’re going bananas
- being jealous of 80s pop band Bananarama
- being obsessed about nutrition (“I need more tryptophan in my diet.”) NB You don’t have to get it right
- being worried you’re getting old
The object itself doesn’t matter. It’s what it inspires in you that matters.
Spotting What’s Unusual or Significant
“[People] occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”Winston Churchill on Improv
Whatever is unusual or significant is the fuel for your scene. Open scenes often start horizontally – exploring and working out what’s going on. And then they hit something. That’s time to go vertically – dive into whatever that thing is.
- If this is true, what else is true?
- If it’s bad, make it worse!
We played with describing objects in great detail. It’s a fun game but bring it to your scenes too. The details can bring their inspiration.
If you’re looking for inspiration, start describing things in more detail. “Nice Hawaiian shirt you have there. I really matches your shorts.”
We played this as a game “Well if it isn’t my long lost French acrobat uncle.” But it’s something you can use in open scenes. As well as making choices for yourself, you can make choices for your scene partner – and be listening to how they “endow” you too.
Try to give them something they’d enjoy doing.
Editing = “ending” a scene or show. Often done by a director shouting “scene!” or simply turning to the audience and announcing “And that’s the end of our show!”
Up to now, I’ve been editing but in longform, players usually edit each other.
If in doubt, edit sooner. Generally, we let scenes run too long – out of politeness, hoping a lost scene will get better, because we’ve missed the moment and we’re hoping for another one later. Editing isn’t a judgement on the scene, it’s about finding a rhythm. If you feel an impulse, go with it. Your team mates might be delighted to be rescued from struggling through a difficult scene! If they were enjoying it, they can bring the same characters back later.
It can be a bit hard to edit on Zoom. I suggest coming on doing / saying something that is clearly nothing to do with the current scene. You might have to keep it up while your team mates react and leave. Zoom only allows one voice at a time so you might have to repeat what you’re saying a few times to get through.
Some nice times to edit:
- On a high – when the players have found a fun thing (“game of the scene”) and escalated it to a climax. Edit then.
- On a ‘button’ – a nice joke that gets a laugh.
- As a rescue – when the scene isn’t working or the players look lost for quite a long time. They’ll likely be grateful! They can always bring the characters back if they like them.
- On a strong character / plot point – “I suppose we won’t know until we get to the cave….” // Edit // A few scenes later the same characters are now in the cave.
[So you can read my writing – the blue line represents the scenes. Green says “Edit on “This is amazing – I wan’t this over several scenes” e.g. strong character / plot point. Red top says “Edit on a high or joke / ‘button'” Red bottom says “Edit if the players are lost. They can bring it back later.]
High/Low Status Competition
You get a word or location and both players compete for being the highest or lowest status. Great to watch and also really good practice at focusing on the relationship.
Tips for playing
Remember high status people can be kind. And low status people can be happy. For lots of status fun, listen to the BBC radio sit com Cabin Pressure.
Variation – Status Swap / Emotion Swap
One character starts high status. One starts low status. Over the course of the scene, they gradually swap statuses.
Yet another variation, each character is given a contrasting emotion. Over the course of the scene, they gradually swap them.
Tips for playing
Make the moves gradually. Like episode of US detective drama Columbo, we already know the ending. The pleasure is in watching each logical shift happen along the way.
Based on Star Trek style shows. One person is the captain.
Ask: We ask for their name and the name of the space ship. This should be enough to seed some ideas.
The captain does a monologue “Captain’s Log” – like an official diary entry of what they’re doing, what the mission is, any trouble on board.
Other players then start bringing in reports from the rest of the ship based on the log or other reports.
The captain may make another log entry if they wish.
Tips for playing
- The captain is likely to be the voice of reason while madness escalates all around
- Walk on players – bring your own ideas, especially at the beginning, but notice and build on what other people have already offered
Example captain’s log from Star Trek. It doesn’t have to be this serious. It’s just to set up what’s going on.
Headlines from an imaginary local newspaper. Each headline for a new article starts with the last word of the previous one. e.g.
- Bus Drives Into Ditch
- Ditch Contains Medieval Skeleton
- Skeleton Comes To Life
- Life Found On Mars
Tips for playing
Try to avoid it turning into one story. Use it as an exercise in lateral thinking. Good one to play by yourself 🙂
Oscar Winning Moment
Three players do something fairly mundane together, for example working side by side in a factory. They talk about their lives. (Not about what they’re doing.) Patterns begin to emerge. Try to spot what’s unusual or significant – this is how your character grows.
When the director can see something, they can call out “[Tracy] Oscar Winning Moment!” The other two characters can go still while Tracy steps forwards into a hugely emotional overacted monologue about her hopes, dreams, and fears. After it’s peaked, she steps back and the group continues their activity for a few seconds before the end.
Tips for playing
- This is a two stage discovery game – discovering your character at the beginning then in your Oscar Winning Moment, amping it up to the max. Commit to the process and keep going. Your inspiration is on the other side of your resistance!
- The other characters don’t hear the monologue. Like in a film or stage play, it’s in the character’s head.
- It’s fun to step from the maximum drama back into the mundane activity.
Making a random movement then explaining what it means.
Tips for playing
This is all about exploring the “not knowing” and slowly discovering. There’s no pressure to be fast or clever. The beauty is all in the unfolding. We usually play it as a warm up but it can also be a performance piece where a member of the audience makes a movement while you describe it.
Four players. Two non verbal “athletes” competing in the Olympic event of a household task supplied by the audience e.g. ironing, pairing socks, peeling potatoes. Two commentators – with their cameras off. The athletes do everything in slow motion for extra drama.
Tips for playing
Athletes – Its all about your physical commitment. Total focus on your “sport”. You can lead the commentators too with your emotional reactions, slips, triumphs, how you look at the start, how you are afterwards.
It’s helpful for the commentators to create some structure so the audience and athletes know what’s going on. This can also be led by the athletes. e.g.
- Warm up: “Welcome to the [washing up] Olympics. The two finalists today are [Igor Boynovich representing Russia] and [Marissa Keystone representing Hutsville Carolina, USA].” Use the athletes’ physical offers – does one look confident or unsure? What’s at stake? What’s the backstory between them? Any injuries? Speculation about what might happen.
- Match / playoff: Either commentators or athletes can signal it’s about to start. Nice to make it clear so we know it’s beginning. What happens during it? One might pull ahead or fall behind. Mistakes? Drama? Sabotage? Hubris? Late comeback? Disqualification? Maximum commitment from athletes and commentators. Sport is incredibly important to the people involved!
- Aftermath: Who won? Who lost? How do they feel about this? What are the implications? Find a way to climax and end. Commentators sign off with maximum drama “What a day it’s been!” or whatever.
Fun things: Parodies on sports shows are fun. Naming the show you’re presenting, the sponsor? Jargon specific to the sport “Oh I see Dexter is using the unbent back-fold. Well out of his normal repertoire. I wonder what other tricks he has up his sleeve.”
Long Form formats
A “Harold” is a structure devised by Del Close & Charna Halpern to make a bunch of scenes feel like one whole piece. People often make this sound WAY more complicated than it is by talking about “scenes” and “beats.”
- You use opening suggestion to inspire some ideas in an opening piece. Like the group movement opening we did in week 5. It’s called an “organic” opening, though there are others.
- Then the first three scenes create three separate worlds based on the ideas that come up in the opening.
- The next three scenes explore those worlds.
- Then the next few scenes allow the most interesting parts of those worlds to come together into some kind of resolution or climax.
- Someone then ends the show by turning to the audience and triumphantly announcing “And that’s the end of our show!”
If you like images, it’s like this.
Notice that each set tends to have a different focus. The first set (aka “beat”) of three scenes is to establish the world – who everyone is, how they feel, what they’re doing, their relationship.
The second set/beat explores those worlds. Whatever ‘usual thing’ jumps out from the first beat in that world. They usually have at least one character from the first beat but not necessarily both.
The third beat connects the worlds. Some characters will meet and find a climax.
Sometimes there are interludes, called “games” between each set. We didn’t do any on our first time but just so you know.
Sound and Movement “Organic” Opening
From a word all players follow each other as movements emerge into specific things, which then quickly dissolve into the next thing. A bit like a dream.
These can then be inspirations for the scenes that follow.
Tips for playing
Copy and exaggerate whatever you see other people doing. Allow it to grow. Don’t get stuck in any one thing for too long. Let it turn into a specific thing then move it into something else.
Long form “no format format”. A run of scenes each inspired by either the original suggestion or what’s come up in other scenes. Characters may come back or not. Sometimes there’s a story, but there doesn’t have to be.
Tips for playing
- Follow the fun – If you enjoy a character, you can bring it back. Allow yourself to be inspired by what other people do.
- Don’t force a story, it’ll take you into inventing rather than discovering
- Choose yourself and get involved so you don’t lock up. If your mind is blank you can support someone else or go on with a movement or character.
We did this before. It can be a way to enhance a scene or a way to generate ideas for later. Specificity helps. Notice what catches your attention while you’re building the environment. Can lead nicely into a montage, for example.
This song has struck a nerve recently. It seems to be largely improvised. Notice how their sometimes not knowing where it’s going makes it even more powerful.