I always start my styles classes with a reminder that we are always improvising in a style. Both individually and as a group. Most Western improvisation I see has a very clear style, and most of us see it so much, we stop paying attention to the details. But we must know what that style is if we would sometimes like to change it.
Today, I’m posting some ways of looking some of the physical choices improvisers make which I find helpful, as well as a few tools to help address those choices which have become habits.
What Is The Physical Style of Improv?
I recently found myself in the tech booth of our theater, watching a show with the window shut, so I couldn’t hear the dialog. I asked myself: Just by watching, how do I know that this is improvisation and not, say, scripted theatre? Here are a few observations.
These were experienced improvisers who put on a fine show, and so these observations aren’t intended as insult—merely as what stands out to me when performers play in what I’ll call “default improvisation style.”
- The performers stood a safe two-to-five feet apart from each other: rarely closer, and rarely further.
- When this safe proximity is threatened, one of the improvisers would almost always resolve the tension through movement into the “safe” two-to-five feet zone, usually within a few seconds.
- The performers moved a lot, but without clear purpose.
- Or more specifically, with the purpose of the improviser, not the purpose of the character or the purpose of some imagined “director” of the show.
- The performers often moved with the physicality of the improviser, not the physicality of the character, except when playing very strong stereotypes.
- Improvised objects appeared with ease, with very little weight (both physically and emotionally) and were discarded with ease.
- These objects rarely changed the way the character expressed themselves, the way they do when an actor in a scripted piece picks up an actual prop, with weight.
- The performers created the environments by decorating the space with cabinets, refrigerators and drawers, often in places that would block any audience’s view of the performers.
- In a film style, where directors might place cameras in all sorts of clever places, this is fine, but had the improvisers wanted to create the feeling of a play, they’d need to make different choices..
- The characters appeared to move furniture (aka, blocks) around the space with ease, to suit the performer’s purpose.
- I can’t think of the last time I saw a character in, say, an August Wilson play casually slide a couch across the living room so that they could have a conversation with someone.
Why Do Improvisers Make These Choices?
Obviously, improvisers lack a script, stage directions, or scene rehearsals, so we shouldn’t expect everything to have the polish of scripted theatre. But when we improvise theatrical styles, we want to create the feel of a scripted piece, so it is worth breaking down why improvisers fall into these patterns.
The improvising performer, who is writer, director, actor and live human being with wants and desires all at once, has the freedom to decide what purpose to serve. Unsurprisingly, our choice is going to sometimes to serve our own human purpose or agenda.
Some performers prefer safety. Some prefer risk. These preferences, though, are the preference of the performer, not necessarily the preference of the characters they would like to play. Nor are they the preference of the imaginary “director”, which in improvised theatre, might be an actual director or might represent the needs of the show or of the group mind.
Here are a few examples of how I see that play out:
|Performer Agenda||Character Agenda||Director Agenda||Consequences of Prioritizing Performer Agenda|
|To physically communicate ideas to the audience or to other performers.||To be seen and heard by the other characters, not just through words, but by physicality, presence, and action.||To create space for the audience to witness and participate in the show.||The performer who gives into their own agenda often indicates rather than embodies what they are doing.|
|To give and receive offers as clearly as possible, so that they understand and exert control over what’s happening.||To affect change on other characters or to protect themselves from being changed by other characters.||To build tension around the crossed purposes of the characters, and to only resolve them when the time is right.||The performer who gives into their own agenda often fails to create or discover interesting tension through proximity, movement, and gesture.|
|To protect the performer from harm, embarrassment and discomfort.||To protect the character from harm, embarrassment and discomfort.||To put the characters into situations in which they risk harm, embarrassment and discomfort.||The performer who gives into their own agenda will keep themselves comfortable. This might mean taking more risk or less risk, depending on how the performer reacts to anxiety, rather than what the character or show is calling for.|
The improviser who wants to leave the style of improvisation behind must leave even more of their own agenda behind than when playing in their default style. They have been trusted with the responsibilities of both actor and director, and so must not cede these responsibilities to the anxiety of the improviser.
Exercises and Tools
A lot of improv training has developed to help the improviser to let go of their own agenda. “Yes, And” for example, teaches improvisers to cede some level of control over narrative, to the agenda of the ”director” or the show, rather than their own agenda. Unfortunately, many of these techniques are developed verbally and intellectually, but not physically (or in a topic for another day, emotionally).
Training improvisers out of physically protecting themselves can take years. It has been almost twenty years since I first received the note that I have a habit of shuffling on stage when things aren’t going well, and I still haven’t fully dropped that from my repertoire of bad habits. But developing film and theatrical styles give us an opportunity to, at the very least, temporarily don a mask that can help us.
Here are some exercises that I have found helpful to encouraging improvisers to learn to give priority to the physical needs of their characters or to the needs of the show.
- Imagine there are marks on the stage, and that a director has blocked you. Move with purpose to these marks: not your own, but the purpose of the character, or (sometimes) with the purpose of the show. Move between lines and in reaction to offers.
- When you do move, pay attention to why. If it is to resolve tension, try NOT moving. Is someone in your space? Hold the tension. Is someone begging for your help across the stage? Hold the tension.
- Build an instinct to avoid playing on the same plane as other players.
- Deliver lines without eye contact. Receive them without eye contact. We are better communicators with eye contact, and good improvisers maintain eye-contact when they can, but great improvisers break eye-contact when the purposes of the show dictate it. And many styles, both cinematic and theatrical, require characters to speak out to the audience or into the “camera”. Similarly, many styles require characters to receive offers with their face to the audience, so that the audience can watch the character react.
- Ask your technical improvisers what your habits are. Our regular techs at Unexpected Productions can often, with a good degree of accuracy, predict where any given performer is going to stand, how they will move, etc. They can tell you what your defaults are, and your defaults can force you to ask what your purpose in taking that position is.
- Trust the audience to observe without your direct communication. As poet Richard Hugo once said, “If you want to communicate, use the telephone.”
- Trust your fellow performers to receive your offers without you constantly checking in. If they don’t, have a conversation about why. No improviser should live in a state of having to work hard to simply be observed by their fellow performers.
- With the freedom afforded by all this trust, give it to your character. Let them feel things about space, about the objects, about the other characters. Let them move about in your body. And when you intrude upon their freedom, let it be with the purpose of a director, not the purpose of a performer.
- Play with styles like film noir or Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone, which require very limited movement and strong stage picture. Notice where you, the performer, feel yourself straining against the imposed stillness.
- A good exercise is to put marks down on the floor, five or more feel apart. Performers must land on the marks. They may join someone on a mark, but they must REALLY be right up against them. Observers must shout at the performers if they wimp out and back off the mark. Performers should only change marks if their character is compelled to do so, never because the performer wants to move.
- If you’ve never taken a Viewpoints workshop, or it’s been a while, the work can give you a great shared vocabulary for talking as a group about movement, and both Overlie’s and Bogart’s approaches include a great number of exercises for improvising movement in interesting ways. (h/t to Órla McGovern for reminding me to include this!)
Tony Beeman has lived in Seattle as a writer, performer, director and software developer since 1998. In addition to performing, directing and serving as Artistic Associate at Unexpected Productions in Pike Place Market, Tony performs regularly with 4&20 Improv, Seattle Experimental Theater, and Improv Anonymous. He has taught workshops in seven countries. His Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INFP.