Okay, here it is, the real deal, the pure uncut shit. These are 100% guaranteed cheats to doing a good scene, [your local theatre] HATES that I’m sharing these with you for free. Many of these rules were discovered in area 51, when an alien (the same one that made the pyramids) visited earth and told us how to do improv. Most presidents don’t even get access to the information I’m about to leak in this blog.
Okay not really. But when you start out it definitely feels like those rules exist. When you do improv classes, most of the tips or rules you’re given feel vague, even “Yes-And” can feel hard to practically use in a scene. When I was a kid I was dumb so I was bad at videogames, so I got a GAME GENIE, a thing that allowed me to cheat at games. I decided it might be fun and informative to try do that for longform. These are all very subjective obviously, but these tips made ME find scenework easier and felt very unambiguous/practical.
These tips are the most practical and straight forwards things I can imagine for improv. I’m sure your favourite improv teachers have all given these notes. I’ve included an exercise with them all, and given the current COVID-19 situation I’ve tried to make them solo or conversational things you can do.
1. Stop laughing
It truly can only help. Think of the greatest sketches and comedic scenes you love. The majority of them don’t have the actors laughing at their own contributions. Commitment to the reality of the scene is paramount. It’s also something you can directly take control of in improv! As an exercise, try watching a sketch that you love without laughing the entire time. Try imagine actually being a background actor in the scene, react as if it’s really happening.
2. Talk Less
When you have a funny idea in your head that you want to contribute to the scene, it can feel like it’s SCREAMING to get out there. The SECOND it occurs to you, your life mission becomes to blurt it out. Do NOT do that! So many early improvisers/teams are just talking over each other the whole time. Again; you are in control of when you speak. So talk less in your scenes. In scripted work, dialogue tends to be incredibly concise on purpose, you want to get across your ideas without being “wordy” and we often want our scenes to look scripted. By talking less you’ll also listen more. As an exercise next time you’re talking to someone in real life, choose to let them fully dominate the conversation. Even when they’re done talking, ask them questions about what they’ve said that seemed interesting. When you contribute to the conversation, take a couple of seconds before you talk take a beat and consider a concise way of responding.
3. “Do” more
Stop standing in the middle centre of the stage talking. Go anywhere else specific on stage and start your scene there. Do some object work you’ve never done before. If you want to communicate an emotion, really DO something with your face, your hands and your body to show it. Now that you’re not laughing and not talking, you should have all the time in the world for this stuff. As an exercise, go look at your face in the mirror and try to convey as many “expressions” as you can. How many different ways can you smile? How many different ways can you look angry. This tip’s core goal is to remind you not to “check-out” during scenes. Trying stuff which feels “new” to yourself has an astonishingly high hit rate, probably because you’re more present and considered about your actions than usual.
4. Admit everything, immediately
No secrets in scenes. Ever. It’ll never work. Okay, okay, okay there’s plenty of counter examples but I mean…why complicate things? I guarantee this will make your scene easier, even if in the moment it’ll feel more scary. It’s kind of hard to do this as a solo or conversational exercise, I guess you could confess something to somebody that you’ve never done before…maybe not. Just try do it in scene.
5. Just YOU & I
In a scene it’s amazing how often people want to talk about somebody who isn’t there. A crazy neighbour. A wacky uncle. Anybody except the 2 people on stage. It’s a bad move! Your scene will be way easier if you exclusively talk about the 2 people on stage, even if you’re strangers in the scene. As an addendum, if you’re going to make anyone weird in the scene, make yourself weird. Again, this blog is mostly about things you can control in a scene, and that’s pretty much just yourself. So give yourself the weird behaviour. If your scene partner becomes weird, try adjust OWN behaviour match that they’re doing (by being a voice of reason or a pea in a pod). As an exercise, next time you talk to someone try to start nearly every new sentence with the sentence “I”, “You” or “We”.
- John McInnes