Lets talk about not following the rules.
Technically any move in improv can be made to work in a scene. The rules that are taught in classes are descriptive of what generally helps in a good scene, they are not prescriptive in the sense that “you must do [rule x] to do a good scene”.
Generally however, the more rules you choose to break the harder you’re making it for your scene partner. Most improv rules increase the odds of a good scene because they simplify the effort required to do a good scene. Anyway, this is kind of a rambling preamble (a Preramble? Urgh...) to get to what I actually want to discuss; how performers react when their scene partner “doesn’t follow the rules”.
Regardless of how great your scene partner is, they will at some point do something that will throw you off. They’ll mishear your initiation, they’ll fail to react to an offer, they won’t know obvious stuff, their commitment will drop below yours. This could be during a show, or it might be in a workshop. You might be doing an exercise and the other person mishears the instructions. You might be working on 2 person scenes and 3 people step out. You might be learning the Harold and someone starts a group game “early”.
This list is spiralling but there’s a core piece of advice for to all these; you can’t control other people’s behaviour, just how good you make it look.
Okay okay I get it. It can be frustrating. You’ve finally figured out how to play a good voice of reason, and mid-scene the other person implies you are the unusual one. Or you’ve finally cracked premise initiations, and your partner decides to interrupt you mid-sentence to blurt out some truly garbage chaff.
None of your frustration can show on stage, because it literally never looks good. You should have a coach; it’s their job to catch & manage bad habits. The only thing you can do is ensure you’re doing as much of the work as you can. Partner isn’t listening to you? Fine, listen to their ideas. They’re not reacting? You can react to that, it must be on purpose. Is their commitment levels weird and stilted? Maybe it’s a deliberate choice, maybe they want this to be a soap-opera or (sigh) panto style scene…so support it!
Two wrongs don’t make one right. If they’re not listening, you can’t “not listen” back. You can’t bulldoze them into your idea, even if it’s genius and you “followed all the rules”. Try and follow this logic EVERYWHERE. 3 people step out for a scene? Do a 3 person scene, don’t even blink. Someone sweep edits during a monoscene? Fuck it, not a monoscene anymore.
This all kinda boils down to the classic “make your scene partner look good” advice, but sometimes expanding on what that means can be useful.
Here’s a fun exercise that works this muscle:
- John McInnes
When I first started performing Improv, the thing I found most scary would be the idea of having a mind blank on stage. We’ve all been there, right? Maybe you’re in the middle of a scene or on a backline waiting to initiate a scene. You need an idea, but you’ve got nothing. No matter how hard you try to rack your brains you can’t come up with anything. For those new to improv, panic can sometimes set in and the stage can feel a lonely place. But it doesn’t have to be like this. So, let’s talk about how we cope in situations where you might feel like this.
Let’s look at initiating scenes. Say, your group is half-way through a show; everything’s going great, you do a great scene, it gets edited, everyone hits the backline. Then, nothing. You look at your teammates and it’s clear no one has an idea. What do you do? You know the stage is empty and you know someone needs to go out soon. Even if you’ve forgotten every half idea you had or you can’t remember the suggestion you got at the start, someone’s got to do something. So, if you’ve got no ideas, you’re just going to have to go out with nothing and find something organically.
If you’re initiating a scene without much of an idea, try to make life as easy as you can for yourself and do the basic’s up top. Figure out who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, how you feel about any other character you’re on stage with. You don’t need to force anything too quickly, just set the base reality and play out the scene. Something unusual will come up and you can play with it. You’re a good improviser, trust yourself! You’ll find something!
As well as having confidence in yourself, one of the key things for me is having trust in your teammates. It’s a lot easier to step forward with nothing, knowing your teammates have got your back. The onus on making any scene good is not just on whoever initially steps forward, but on the whole team. Depending on the format you’re doing, your team can help with anything from walk-ons, to tags, to edits. Your team are probably good at improv too! Trust them, they’ll help you out!
Whilst there are techniques to help you remember ideas you have had from an opening or to generate ideas during a show, it’s also helpful to embrace the idea that from time to time you’re going to have come on stage with nothing and find something organically. The more comfortable you are at practising organic scenes, the more comfortable you’ll be doing it on stage. Some of the funniest scenes I’ve watched and performed in are ones that came from nothing. It’s improv after all, half the fun is making it up as we go along! So, let’s embrace the organic scene!
Happy New Year from everyone here at BLC! We hope you've had a nice 2019 and may your dreams and desires become a reality in 2020.
We're very excited to get back to work after we took a break in December!
Here are a few things we've achieved since forming in March 2019:
- We've had +60 students take classes with us in the last ten months!
- We've hosted 18 courses so far!
- We've had 12 students complete the entire curriculum!
- We've started our first ever House Team, made up of students who completed the courses!
- We have four wonderfully talented teachers join our group!
- Our first batch of guest teachers came from the US to come teach with us! (Devin Bockrath and Alan Starzinski)
- Our monthly night The Double Dip has encouraged students and audiences to jump up and try longform improv on the stage!
We will use this list, not to merit ourselves, but instead encourage us to do even better for 2020.
We will work harder to maintain longform improv in Bristol, and to encourage new people to see the positives of learning and performing at an affordable price.
We hope we can work and contribute with other communities in Bristol and the UK, to help bring improv as an art-form to as many people as possible.
We will hopefully have more House Teams, more guest teachers from the world of improv joining us, and more importantly a greater diversity in students and teachers.
Bristol Longform Comedy is for the students, it always has been, it always will be.
See you in 2020!
With every company or school it’s important that the students get the full experience they’ve paid for.
It’s very common to see students do all the courses in the curriculum only to finish and find themselves saying, “What’s next?”
To me, this is a waste of potential.
I see a lot of improv teams/shows perform one class show, or one weekend show, and that’s it. They had coaches and they had a rehearsal space, but then after a show, no more.
Of course the team isn’t going to last!
Get. Yourself. A. Coach.
It’s the number one reason why improv teams don’t last.
Get a coach, get a regular rehearsal going, and try and get gigs.
For a new team, it’s tough. It feels like they have all the support leading up to their first show and then it all stops, I don’t blame them. The responsibility should be on coaches and schools to help guide these teams forward.
Improv is all about improvement; no one ever really becomes “the best” at improv. It’s constant practice, constant improvement.
The best improvisers are consistent, the best teams are consistently making audiences laugh.
BLC takes great pride in being able to give students that extra step after a course.
You’re not finished after the 401 course, you are encouraged to start a team and we do our best to give you everything you need, from coaches, rehearsal space, gigs, advice.
Your improv journey isn’t done after a course or a show, the training wheels might be off but the bike is still wobbling and it takes a little more time to be fully comfortable riding.
I think schools should at least be aware that improv teams need support when starting out. Give them a place to rehearse, give them a coach, give them another show, encourage them to continue performing. Improv is built from the community, from starting teams with new people and the desire to practice new formats.
I kept coming back to improv because I was learning new things, I was performing with my best friends, and more importantly there was a desire to improve; every step forward there was a new challenge.
Your improv journey doesn’t end at 401, it begins.
Alrighty, folks. Let’s talk about the straight man. No, I don’t mean a cis-gendered heterosexual man – I mean the “voice of reason” in a scene. In a basic longform improv scene, you will often see 2 characters – the unusual person and the straight man. These 2 characters work together to find, frame, and explore the unusual thing, or the game, of the scene.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Self, I don’t want to be the straight man! They’re boring and argumentative. I want to play the fun, unusual character!” Well, let me give you some good news – the straight man doesn’t need to be boring and no fun! In the following points, I’ll give you some advice on how to be a fun and helpful voice of reason in a scene.
1. Call out the unusual thing. The first and, arguably, most important thing a straight man can do is to call attention to the unusual thing that their scene partner says or does in a scene. If you’re in a scene at an aquarium and your scene partner tries to catch a fish, the worst thing you can do is just ignore it and keep going. Call that out as weird! And then start exploring.
2. Be curious. Once you’ve noticed the unusual thing, start exploring that. Often when one character does something CRAZY, it’s our instinct to say “YOU’RE CRAZY” and leave it at that. But that doesn’t make for a very fun scene. So the secret is, be curious and ask questions – often a bewildered response is more productive than an angry one. In the previous example, say “Wait a second, why are you trying to catch a fish?” and go from there. This will help you get a justification from your scene partner, which will then allow you to explore and expand the game.
3. Be almost convinced. One piece of advice I’ve received as a straight man is to be 10% away from being convinced by the unusual person. If they explain to you that they want to catch a fish because they believe that if they paid admission, they should get a souvenir, be compelled by that. Keep asking questions, and try to strike a balance between getting close to believing them and backing off a bit.
4. Point out obvious consequences. One of the best and funniest things a straight man can do is to bring the scene back to reality by pointing out some of the most obvious and basic consequences of the unusual behaviour. So, in our example, if they want to catch a fish, bring up some immediate and practical consequences – where are you going to put it? Do you have water to keep it alive? If you put it in your pocket it’s going to leave a weird wet spot and look like you soiled yourself. The list goes on. Draw from your real thoughts and experiences as a human being who understands cause and effect to think about these practical downstream effects.
5. Have fun with it. Once you find the justification, start throwing other things at your scene partner to see how they react. Think of new situations where they may be expecting an odd return on investment, and throw them in those scenes – i.e. taking a cinema chair from a theatre after buying a movie ticket, captaining a train car after buying a train ticket, taking the cellist home after going to see an orchestra play. Think of what’s funny to you based on the established pattern, and make it happen. It’s improv! The world is your oyster! (Though we kindly ask you not to take the oysters from the aquarium, as they belong in their exhibit.)
While these are some helpful guidelines for being the voice of reason in a scene, they aren’t hard and fast rules. Keep them in mind when you do a scene, but feel free to experiment with breaking them as well (i.e. joining in on the unusual behaviour in a pea-in-a-pod scene, having a big, angry reaction, etc.). Overall, remember to follow what’s fun for your character, and this will set you up to be a helpful and fabulous voice of reason.