How to be a Better Improviser a guide to improv acting techniques for the beginner and advanced performer. Reprinted with permission from Dan Goldstein. Also see: Rules of Improv I and Rules of Improv II.
How to be a Better Improviser
All of this information is wrong in the sense that no one set set of guidelines is right for any person. However, the only way to get good in something as difficult as improv is to listen to a lot of people and choose the ideas you like. If you don't like one of these guidelines, ignore it. Or try doing the opposite -
ACCEPT INFORMATION: "YES AND"
When you get a piece of information from another actor, first, accept it as fact and second, add a little bit more information to it. If somebody tells you that you're wearing a hula skirt, tell them that yes you are, and you made it right here at Club Med. Keep doing this long enough, and you'll have a scene full of fascinating facts, objects and relationships. Fail to do this and everyone will hate you, even your mom and dad.
The swiftest way to add reality and depth to a scene is to have the characters call up specifics from their common history. A simple exchange such as:
A few words properly placed can fill provide a metric ton of information. From the example above, the audience and actors now can infer characters are college boys, they are troublemakers, they are upper-
Some people suggest staying in the present tense at all times. This is lunacy. I agree, however, that you should avoid talking to much about the future. Things is the future might happen, they might shape your characters. Things in the past did happen, they did shape your characters.
ASK YOURSELF “IF THIS IS
TRUE, THEN WHAT ELSE IS TRUE?”
Often in improvisation, things deviate from the normal, the usual. (This happens for a number of reasons and it is usually not intention – improvisation is constrained communication so misunderstandings are bound to occur. These misunderstandings, among other things, can lead to departures from business as usual.
When in situations that are fantastic, there is a simple maxim to govern your action: “If this is true, then what else is true?” It’s a question you can ask yourself at every second of the scene. Each time you find the answer, you can play it out. Before you know it, you’ve built a solid scene around a core idea.
Suppose, a character picks up the phone and makes a call. Due to a misunderstanding over names, the improviser on the other end doesn’t recognize the requested name and says it’s a wrong number. The caller hangs up and says to the scene partner that there is something wrong with him and he only dials wrong numbers lately. The other improvisers accept this as true and then ask themselves what else would be true if this guy can only dial wrong numbers.
They come up with new scenes and initiate them. Someone initiates a fire in the scene and tells him to dial 911. The person on the other end says “411”. The guy tries to call his girlfriend and gets another woman on the line, who recognizes him from previous wrong number and starts to flirt with him.
The real girlfriend suspects something is up, uses reverse lookup, and rings the doorbell of every woman whose phone number is 1 different from hers and launches into a third degree. The hi-
BE VERY SPECIFIC
If you're going to say "nice car!", why not make it "nice, a 1979 Subaru Station Wagon!" If we know the Subaru owner is a 21 year old woman, suddenly we can visualize her (well, maybe you can’t, but I can: she has dried white and blue oil paint on her fingers and long brown hair). A more vivid image opens up a rich, new world. Adjectives are the WD-
Basically, you want to cut to the interesting stuff as soon as possible. This is why we sometimes advise: start the scene with two people on, or start the scene with two people with common history.
Why have a scene that goes:
When you can have a scene that goes:
COMMENCE WITH CHARACTERIZING ACTIONS
Characterizing actions are those which define a character's occupation or role, such as a teacher erasing a blackboard, a janitor cleaning up, or a child playing with toys, are excellent for starting scenes. They say a lot about what is going on and thus help the scene get to the point faster. (Note that the scene need (and often should) not be about drinking a beer or chopping lettuce just because that's what one of the characters is doing.) Two people can start a scene engaged in an action together.
By putting status into this two-
DON’T DENY (beginners)
Denial is trashing what somebody else has set up or is trying to set up. There are many forms:
Mime Denial: Somebody spends five minutes setting the dining room table, another character walks right through it. This will make the audience squirm and gasp and have an icky feeling.
Character Denial: Not letting the other person be what she wants to be.
Location Denial: Contradicting setting information someone else established.
The denying actor is not reacting to the presented information. Denial makes audience and cast uncomfortable. All denial can be rectified with Justification, but it's a real skill.
People advanced in improv can tell the difference between bad denial and comedic denial. In the latter, denial can make sense within in the logic of the scene: i.e., if Don Quixote were the helicopter pilot, he may say "periscope down" and need to be corrected by his straight-
Furthermore, experienced actors may appear to deny each other when playing games of one-
The response accepts what was stated, and one-
Two exercises can help people overcome the denying urge. One is playing the denial game (i. e., playing out scenes where every line denies the other character's previous line) to make one another conscious of the bad habit. Another rehearsal exercise, just for beginners helps to point out each others denials in scenes: simply respond to your fellow actor's denials with "there's no denying that!".
ENTER AND EXIT WITH PURPOSE (beginners)
Entering, exiting and staying put should have a reason, be justified. This is the purpose of playing the game Entrances and Exits (go figure) in rehearsal. Don't just say "OK, bye" and walk out of a scene. Give a reason. Unjustified exits tend to be a problem novices have.
GET BEHIND THE STORY
Try not to think about yourself in long-
GIVE YOURSELF A SUGGESTION WHEN YOU DON'T ASK FOR ONE
We all know scenes are better when you enter them with an attitude, activity, or emotion -
GO AGAINST THE VOICE OF REASON
In our everyday lives, it often makes sense to follow the voice of reason. In real life, if your friend says “I’m ugly”, you may tell them they aren’t, even if they are. Why? Perhaps because you feel it’s not important, you want them to feel better, you want to preserve your friendship, and so on. On stage, a different logic may apply.
Audiences come to the theater to escape the mundane logical world, they sometimes want to see the barriers lifted. You may respond to “I’m ugly” with “you know, I’ve been meaning to say something...”. You may rob a bank because someone tells you to. You may play sycophant to your abuser. In short, you may do things onstage the real you wouldn’t do. Try going against the voice of reason, it’s liberating. You don’t have to justify your actions much, sometimes “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but ...” is sufficient.
GO LINE FOR LINE
You can almost guarantee a good improvisation if each player says one line at a time and then listens to the other character's line and responds. The response should be based on the last thing the other character said.
Never try to be funny or tell jokes on stage. Humor will arise naturally out of tight relationships and solid, simple plots.
You must provide reasons for everything the audience sees that doesn't make sense. If you don't, it will disconcert them. That is, if 3 characters each mime the refrigerator being in different places, then the character who damns putting rollers on the thing will put the audience's mind at ease and allow them to get into the story and characters. They will also get a laugh, but that doesn’t matter as much.
KEEP THE FOCUS HUMAN AND ONSTAGE (beginners)
Careful not to stare too long at objects that are offstage, on the floor or in your hand. What's interesting is a human reaction to the object, not the object itself.
MAINTAIN YOUR CHARACTER'S POINT OF VIEW
If a character starts out adoring spider monkeys, but then decides she hates them 10 minutes later, it may confuse the audience and your fellow actors. They'll be like huh? If you're consistent, then the other actors will best know how to support your character.
MIME BETTER, MUCH BETTER
50% of what the audience thinks of you as an improviser hinges on the quality of your mime and physicality. Don’t believe me, go out this week and watch the best improviser in your city. I’ll bet you they do incredible object work. Sadly, few improvisers ever do anything to improve their mime and few teachers have any worthwhile mime exercises. Use this fact to get ahead in life, kid.
PLAY THE OPPOSITE EMOTION
Something to try now and then in two person scenes. For example, if one person is frustrated, come on at ease and relaxed. A basic comedic structure which is the basis of many comedic movies, plays, and TV shows.
PROVIDE INFORMATION ABOUT THE OTHER PERSON
Scene going nowhere? Tell the other character something about him/her self. The simple comment "Nice tuxedo", can launch into a back-
RAISE THE STAKES
Scenes that are going nowhere can be much improved by putting more at risk, that is, introducing some large consequence for the characters.
When you can have:
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
This simply means going into every scene with an activity or emotion. This does several things i) it gets the scene going faster ii) it provides information which your partner can use iii) and, perhaps most importantly, it gives you something to do which makes the audience comfortable. What do I mean "comfortable"? If the audience sees you standing there doing nothing, they think "oh no, he doesn't know what to do. He's worried. He's confused". Then they feel bad.
The audience wants the actor to succeed. The moment you launch into an activity (baking bread, counting money, sweeping the floor) or an emotion (hope, love, pride), the audience thinks "oh, I see. They know what's going on. They have a plan" and then they relax and enjoy the show. Of course, you don't really have a plan, and you don't really know what's going on. As Mick Napier said: "improvisation is the art of being completely O.K. with not knowing what the f-
THE BEST ADVICE I CAN GIVE ANY IMPROV GROUP ***
See “Go line for line.” It’s really that simple, people.
TWO PERSON SCENES
When your long-
on stage unless they want to be left alone there.
QUESTIONS THAT TAKE WITHOUT GIVING ARE BAD
Why ask a question on stage? Are you expecting your fellow-
Any question can be turned into a statement. The nice thing about statements is that they provide information you and your fellow actor
can immediately start building upon.
Why go through:
When you could have:
Questions which don't require answers are fine. Questions which provide more information then they demand are fine, too, e.g. "Think I have time to run to the bathroom?" This question introduces information, raises the stakes, and doesn't require the fellow actor to come up with a response. Rhetorical questions are fine, e.g., "Why don't I ever get paired with Johnson?"
A drill to point out question-
“WHAT MAKES TODAY SPECIAL?” IS A FINE QUESTION TO ASK YOURSELF
Think about a scene as "a day unlike any other day." When it seems like something big or outrageous is going to happen (e.g. someone is about to confess their love, someone wants to rob a bank, wants to swim naked in the river, don't just talk about it -
“WHO WHAT WHO WHERE?” ARE GREAT THINGS FOR PEOPLE STARTING SCENES TO ASK THEMSELVES
A fine way to start a scene is to lay out who both people are, where they are, and what they are doing. You may provide this information or do it for the other character. Just be sure to accept all information the other character provides for you. Who? what? who? where? is nicely followed by raise the stakes -
Here are some vocabulary terms I've grown to know and love:
Three of them make a runner.
characterizing action -
These are often used to begin scenes, such as when teachers erase blackboards, and what not.
fourth wall -
gag scenes -
geography warmup -
Trinidad and the big Mississippi
and the town of Honolulu
and the lake Titicaca.
The Popocatepetl is not in Canada
but rather in Mexico, Mexico, Mexico
Canada, Malaga, Rimini, Brindisi
Canada, Malaga, Rimini, Brindisi
Yes Tibet Tibet
2 3 4 (repeat)
Notes: Popocatepetl ((po po ca te' petl) nickname Popo) is a volcano in South central Mexico which erupts all the time, even 11 days before I wrote this. It is not a seaport. Malaga is a seaport in Southern Spain, home of strong, sweet Malaga wine. Rimini is a seaport in Northeast Italy, which is like Fort Lauderdale for European youth. Brindisi (Brin’de zi), sometimes nicknamed and mispronounced "sleazy Brin dee' zee," is a seaport in Southeast Italy where you catch the ferry to Greece. A girlfriend and I once asked the tourist office if there were any movies in town. "Only for men," they said.
reflexive action -
rule of a thousand -
rule of three -
yes and -
by Dan Goldstein
About Dan Goldstein:
Dan embodies the unique combination of a Ph.D. in business decision making with over 10 years of experience teaching improvisational theater. Dan began creating improvisational theater formats in 1994 with Chicago's SITCOM, which went on to be produced over 13 times in cities from San Francisco to Slovenia, and followed its success with COMMEDIA DELL'HIGH SCHOOL, produced in Chicago, Boston, New York, and Seattle.
Dan's teaching experience includes giving workshops at The University of Chicago, Stanford University, Harvard University, Columbia University, as well as at festivals in the US, Germany, The Netherlands, Slovenia, and Bosnia-
As a specialist in the field of decision making, Dan has lectured at Columbia University, The Free University of Berlin, and The University of Chicago in addition to speaking at over 25 conferences in more than a dozen countries. Before moving to New York, Dan was worked as a Research Scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, where at age 26, he was one of the youngest people to hold the title of research scientist. In 1996, he was awarded Germany’s Otto Hahn Medal for achievement in science.
Used by permission of Dan Goldstein
Dan Goldstein (Copyright, 2003) Visit Dan's Site: Dan's Site
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