I learned about the concept of Tactics in an acting class I took a long time ago. At each moment a character not only wants something he is also using a tactic to get what he wants. The overall motivation may remain the same, but the tactic can change from line to line.
In this exercise we’ll work on exploring tactics. Two players, Kyle and Laura, get on stage. Kyle is instructed to sit and not talk, not move, and not react. (He may be sidecoached constantly to “do even less” throughout the scene.) Laura is given a scenario to play out. She will do everything she can to make the scenario clear.
The scenario will include a want. Some examples include:
-Laura is an orderly, Kyle is an old person in a home, and Laura is trying to get him to eat his pudding. - Laura is a babysitter, and she is trying to get Kyle to turn off video games and go to bed. - Laura is an exgirlfriend and she is trying to get Kyle to take her back. - Laura wants her uncle, played by Kyle, to put out a stinky cigar.
In all of these, Laura is asked to not hurt or physically manhandle Kyle. She may start by using reason to convince Kyle to do what she wants. We will quickly see that this will not work, so she must switch to a new tactic.
What this exercise does is help us develop self-reliance. If a scene partner doesn’t seem to be giving us what we want, instead of interpreting it as them effing us over we interpret it as our character’s tactics failing. We need to use a new tactic. We grow comfortable with letting out characters “lose.” Instead of trying to harp on winning or gaining what we want, we can react to the loss and explore that emotion.
A few other things to sidecoach in order to create a stronger scene: Allow them to “Go there” emotionally, choose reaction over reason, and create a specific character wants.
We don’t realize that even doing nothing can be an extraordinary gift from our scene partner. All we need to do is develop the tools to utilize those moments to their fullest potential.
Way back in 2001 I took a comedy writing course at Second City. It covered certain very basic comedy structures one could use when writing a sketch or humor piece. Two examples of categories are the somewhat self-explnatory Fish Out of Water and the Simple Yet Impossible Task. Categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but knowing them helps focus your thinking when writing or brainstorming. The broadest category was labeled as “Clash of Context.” A Fish Out of Water is a clash between the metaphorical fish’s old context and the new one it finds itself in. A Simple Yet Impossible Task is a clash between the context of how easy something should be and a new context that makes it dreadfully difficult. But we can also create a clash by juxtaposing two things that don’t belong together.
The trick is that the Clash of Context flows from what is known and understood about the existing contexts. A Fish Out of Water doesn’t work if the nex context isn’t somehow directly torturous, uncomfortable, or antithetical to what the fish knew before. A Simple Yet Impossible Task doesn’t work if the obstacles are random, unrelated, or unbelievable. Any general clash doesn’t work if we just slam two things into each other.
This is all a very wordy way to say, yes, opposites can be a key to comedy. I was taught it as Clash of Context, which I find useful as it covers more ground and puts into more precise terms what parts are supposed to be opposite.
I’m not sure why, but a lot of improvisors forget that they’re allowed to move while performing their scenes. Very often we’ll fall into a very simple pattern of talking heads: two people standing 3-5 feet apart and just talking. This is not fatal, but why not move around a bit? A stronger scene will certainly emerge.
The way to get improvisors into moving around more is to show them that moving around actually helps. In Pivot, we imagine that the stage is a plate balanced on a single point in the center. The 2 or 3 improvisors on stage are imagined to all be of equal weight, which means that in order to keep the plate balanced they must adjust their position in relation to the other players. If a player moves for whatever reason, the other player must react. A suggestion is given and players perform a regular scene except for the added rule of having to keep this imaginary balance.
Players may need to be side-coached throughout this exercise. They’ll need to be reminded to react and, if they all settle into not moving, suggest a movement to somebody. Point out if the plate is woefully unbalanced. Players can be given permission to “get it wrong,” i.e. move in the incorrect direction for balance. The important thing is that they do move and pay attention to their scene partner’s movements. Ideally the players will give and take in reaction to each other, constantly switching off, neither one truly leading or following the other.
What should result are highly visually dynamic scenes. Players should also notice that they are completely active and involved in the scene: their every moment is in relation to their scene partner like it should be.
Step Then Line
Lack of movement may come from playing too intellectually. We want to show that movement, a very intuitive thing, can inform what we say in our scene. In Step Then Line two players are instructed to begin by facing each other a comfortable distance apart. Now before a line is spoken, players must take either a step forward or a step backward. Hammer this point home, before you speak, you must move. You cannot speak first, you cannot speak as you move. You may be tempted to, but you cannot.
This will be very weird to do, because movement and words are so closely married. It will be downright impossible for the players to do. But we want to divorce movement from words for a moment. Side-coach the players to move first before speaking at all times. We want people to pay attention to how their distance from another player affects how they feel about the other player at any given moment. Standing closer means a very different thing than standing farther away. We may notice dramatic changes in characters as the space between them shrinks or grows.
As we break down these scenes, we’ll note that we’ve discovered a very useful tactic for our scenes. If at any point we feel that a scene needs a higher dramatic push, all we need to do is change our spatial relationship to the other person. Or if we want to communicate how we feel without saying the words explicitly, we can change our distance to a person. How inauthentic is it to see two characters claim to be in love yet stand 6 feet apart? Why not move in closer? If you have an argument, why not physically grow more distant?
There are things you shouldn’t do when you’re a beginner that you can do after you’re more experienced. One of those things is leaving the stage.
I’ve seen beginner improvisors in the middle of scene get to a point where they think they’ve run out of ideas. At this point, I’ve seen them reference something that exists offstage that they have to go to. Another shop in the mall, a different room in the house, and so on. They will then walk offstage towards this thing expecting the scene to be over. Naturally this is a very weak way to end a scene, and a very weak choice to make within the scene.
Another I’ve seen recently is a player setting up a situation for two other players to participate in and then leaving once the set-up is complete. This strikes me as a very odd move. It stinks of pimping, of expecting the other players to do all the dirty work. Often times the idea they drop out isn’t bad, but it is definitely made weaker by the fact that they are no longer contributing to their own idea. Stay on stage and build up the thing you want to see. It’s just seems more courteous that way.
Beginners should be challenged to stay in the space in the moment. Hopefully they will push through that intellectual “I’ve run out ideas” place and move into a much more honest emotional reality to play from. The two players are in an intellectual place where they believe they have run out things to say. Now imagine two characters on a stage honestly reacting to the fact that they have run out of things to say. We may have just witnessed the death of a relationship in a mall, which is a beautiful scene to see. These players have been challenged to stop relying so much on wit and more on gut and feeling.
But we don’t want people to feel that leaving a stage is somehow abandoning it and a scene partner. There may be moments when a person might very reasonably exit the stage. A character who has declared that they’ve dumped the other and are now moving out of the apartment - they might leave very shortly. A character frightened for their life might run off stage. Yes, it is possible for them to stay on stage, but it wouldn’t be completely unexpected if they did not. And it might lead to a very interesting place.
Hopefully we trust our scene partners and believe in their strength as improvisors that leaving them alone on stage is not a deadly evil thing to do to them. An improvisor might shine when given a moment to act in a space by themselves for a moment. An awesome punchline might be reached once a character is alone with their thoughts. A genuine moment of solitude might be a very interesting thing to see. When we start out, let’s make sure we stay on stage to support our scene partners and to find that real honest place to play in. As we gain more and more experience we should be able to handle ourselves alone and know when to leave people alone.
I’m always interested in the hybridization of improv: taking thoughts and skills from one discipline and applying them to another. One particular oddball thought of mine is to lead an improv class in Life Drawing. Life Drawing is, of course, drawing from live human models both clothed and nude. I’ve taken a few Life Drawing classes, and there’s a few lessons we can take and use in improv.
Life Drawing classes often begin with a series of gesturals; drawings made in 30 seconds or less. The idea is to partly to loosen and warm up your drawing hand, but also to get you looking at the whole picture first. You may draw one amazing fantastic eye or arm, and then another amazing body part, but when you step back and put it altogether it doesn’t fit. It all looks wonky. You’ve gotten mired in details and have lost sight of the entire drawing. A body exists as a body first, and as a series of details later. Scenes exist as scenes first. Some big, broad, strong concept we can hook into and grasp first and flesh out with details as we go. Those details should serve and support the overall scene. If we spend too much time cementing idea after idea, all we have are a jagged string of disconnected ideas.
Students new to Life Drawing will draw intellectually. People believe they know where eyes go, what hands look like, the shape of the head. They don’t. The human brain stores that information in an imprecise exaggerated manner. What a student eventually has to do is begin drawing what they see. They have to stop listening to what their brain thinks and just put down what their eyes see. The parallels feel obvious: The more we rely on reacting to the moment and less on intellectualization, the more naturalistic our improv will look.
The slightest change in position of any muscle will yield an entirely different drawing. Every muscle is connected, every movement affects every other part of the body. There is a sensitivity to the shape of the human body that a skilled life artist develops. At its most basic level, a sensitivity to the human body, how it moves, how it fits together, is paramount in improv. We communicate so much in our bodies. To see that ripple of motion means we can eventually learn to work backwards. We can see only the ripple and know what caused it. We can begin to make bolder choices and confident assumptions based on less and less information.
And a piece of life drawing doesn’t look like much until you’ve called it finished. Sometimes all it takes is that one little stroke and suddenly a nose emerges. It takes great patience not to believe that all you’re creating is crap.
This may be a pipe dream. But I would recommend to any improvisor to take a Life Drawing class.
The following is a thought that I’ve been developing lately. As I write out these exercise descriptions a word keeps popping up again and again.
I love tactics. As a coach I enjoy giving my players tactics to use that will help put them in stronger places. But behind every tactic, tool, trick, or rule is a reason. There’s a reason why we’re doing any move.
I was watching a set recently where a player essentially “no-but’d” every offer her scene partner gave her. A friend of mine and I were talking about it, and we named several things the young woman could have done. So many other things could have worked; even what she was doing could have worked had she had some stronger idea behind it. But the values behind her moves were missing.
Values are big conceptual things, and are often quite abstract and difficult to sharply define. Always bringing your A-game. Being truthful, being intelligent, and having fun. Being giving, strong, and present. Teamwork. Commitment. Discipline. Patience. Professionalism. Not being a jerk. These are just some that I’m coming up with off the top of my head.
As important as skill set can be, it is useless without the right mindset. A player may know how to do a split screen, let’s say, but if he doesn’t want to ever do them then he might be creating a detriment to the team. A student who has just finished Level 1 might not have done a split-screen yet, but if they have the proper mindset they might be willing to go along with one if it pops up.
Any move can work when driven by the proper values. The more and more we internalize those values, the more our outward actions will be “correct” moves. We may notice that “rule-breaking” scenes still seem to work, and “rule-following” scenes can still fall flat. The best scenes are going to be the ones that embrace the values behind good improv. Whatever tactic you use in the name of those values will be a useful workable move.
The following is an exercise that I like to run. It’s name and mechanics are based on my understanding of a TJ and Dave exercise that was explained to me.
This exercise is all about create complex layers of emotional truth in a scene. Two players, Kate and Liam, face each other. They both close their eyes. Kate or Liam may take a step forward or backward, adopt a posture, put on an emotion, or not. They don’t have to make any changes at all but they can if they want to. When given word by the director, Kate and Liam open their eyes. Their first lines will be “You look ___.” That blank will be filled in by whatever emotional state they read off of their scene partner. Kate may think Liam looks sad, so her first line would be “You look sad.” Liam may think Kate looks smug, so his first line would be “You look smug.”
These are now the first lines to our scene. The scene between Kate and Liam continues on like any other normal scene. However, those first two lines are our emotional truth. Liam is sad and Kate is smug. Liam may not have been trying to look sad, but he knows now that Kate thinks he’s sad, and Kate knows that whatever Liam does will make her think he is more sad. Kate may not be smug at all, but that is the impact her actions have on Liam. Our drama will also come from the meeting of these two emotions. Kate’s smugness may be what is making Liam sad, Liam’s sadness makes Kate more smug.
If the scene seems unfocused, ask the players to repeat their first lines. This will help remind them what the thrust of their scene was. It’s also a useful tactic in regular scenework; if a player gets lost, repeating the first line they said will help cement their position. Push the players to say things relating to emotional states. “You look tall” is a physical descriptor. “You look like you’re about to burp” doesn’t really help us find an emotional truth.
I also like this exercise because it gives us a tactic to create something from nothing. If we have no suggestion, or if we feel lost in a set, or we otherwise have nothing to go on, we can use this to begin a scene. And it helps us cut to the heart of the matter quickly and strongly.
National Sketch Writing Month (NaSkeWriMo) begins tomorrow. In past years, I’ve not done too well. I’ve signed up at least twice before and I’ve written a few sketches, but I haven’t come close to writing 30 sketches in 30 days. I think this year will be different.
This post is about things you can do in your improv sets that provide instant gratification in terms of laughter from the audience and are also usually (though not always) healthy for your scene overall.
I’m thinking about when you’re about to do an indie show and you just want to HAVE FUN, but…