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Saturday, 1 March 2008

The Sloppy Art of Improv

I haven't been posting much recently. This is because I volunteered to take part in an improvised comedy show at the local university, and the performances have been taking up most of my evenings. It's good fun. The last time I did improv was years ago. I'd had a crazy crush on this guy, in part because he was brilliant at improvisation, which was something I'd always wished I could do myself but never felt up to. So after he dumped me I decided that the sensible thing to do would be to take the plunge and learn how to do it myself rather than trying to obtain it vicariously.

It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It's not just that I removed one of my reasons for being so crazily in love with a guy who didn't love me back. Learning to do something I hadn't been sure I could do was also a brilliant way to salve my wounded self-esteem.

The hardest thing about improv is coming up with stuff. But there are tricks to that. Think of something. Anything. Can you? Suppose you're playing the classic improv warm-up game "What are you doing?"

B (to A): "What are you doing?"
A: "Climbing a tree."
(B mimes climbing a tree.)
C (to B): "What are you doing?"
B: "Brushing my teeth"
(C mimes brushing her teeth.)
D (to C): "What are you doing?"

When it comes to your turn, all the stuff that's based on the objects in the room, the things you were talking about in the prior conversation, the picture on A's T-shirt and so on have already been said. You're not allowed to repeat things. What do you say you are doing?

Think of something!

Okay, try this. Think of a letter. Now think of something that begins with that letter.

Easier, isn't it? Improvisation is always easier when you have something to work with. You can work with a random letter that you've picked yourself. You can work with the rules of a theatre sports game. But the main thing you should be working with is the things the other people on the stage are putting into the scene. If two characters are talking about the weather and they say it's raining, find a way to make the rain part of the story. If somebody mimes handing you something, name it based on how big or heavy it seems to be. If someone accidentally trips over while walking into the scene, there had better be a reason why they tripped, and someone had better supply it. "Sorry about that -- forgot to warn you about the electrical wires," you say, or "Oh, that's my mouse! I've been looking for him for ages!" or "Yes, watch out for the elaborate contraption, won't you?" That last one will require you or someone else to then elucidate exactly what the "elaborate contraption" was supposed to do, and what the potential effects of somebody tripping over it are. If you don't already have a story-line in place, the elaborate contraption will probably take over the whole scene. Possibly it was designed by an evil genius. Possibly it was designed by a bored kid to do his homework for him. Either way, the fact that this new character has tripped over it may well have created the central problem that needs to be solved.

So, yes, that's what I've been doing for the past four nights, and that's what I'll be doing for four nights of next week. It's odd, how right it feels. When I first started to get the hang of improv, I remarked to a friend that it was strange, because I'm not normally the sort of person who likes to come up with strange, random stuff to do out of thin air.

She just looked at me with a slight smile, and said "Yes, you are."


C. L. Hanson said...

Wow, that sounds like so much fun!!! :D

Alon Levy said...

How many people are usually in the room when you do improv?

Lynet said...

You mean, on the stage? Or watching? We've been getting pitifully small audiences, actually, but there's a local professional group that regularly performs to upwards of fifty or a hundred.

On stage, well, we have six people rostered per night. A single scene doesn't usually have more than four people, but they have been known to expand -- sometimes you find you need more characters. Other times, you'll have two people on the stage, building a scene, with one person standing ready in the wings, only to find that the scene is working perfectly on its own with just two characters.

I believe the usual size for an improv competition team is four people. So, yeah, between two and four people in a given 'story' would be the usual.

L.L. Barkat said...

Oh, I like that ending. Yes you are.

And isn't blogging a little like improv? Without the same pressure of immediacy; still, it happens in a time frame that is more immediate than ordinary writing.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like great fun.

Anonymous said...

Hehe, sounds fun.

Before you know it some guy will fancy you for being really good at improv.

Psychodiva said...

I have always wanted to do improv- all I get to do is role play in therapy work with the kids lol- not quite the same thing- I can't find a group near me tho :(

L.L. Barkat said...

This is something I thought you'd really like. A civil and intelligent discussion on evolution and creationism and science and faith.