“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana
Ever watched or performed in a vague, low-energy, hesitant, abstract scene that seemed like it might be about something important, if the audience could just keep their eyes open long enough to be sure?
Ever watched an improv showcase, and felt like the earlier classes were a lot more fun to watch than the more experienced students?
Ever ended a show with that feeling that it should have either been funnier or more meaningful, the cast divided, and everyone shrugging and not sure what to do about it?
A friend of mine calls it SadProv. It’s easy to identify and hard to fix. And it happens all the time as performers try to make the jump from short and absurd to longer, meatier scene work. I thought I’d put forth some theories and questions, although some of it remains an open question.
Entering The Dark Forest
Joe Improviser sits in his house in Laffy-Town, where he’s been happy but is starting to get a little bored. On the horizon, he sees the distant mountains of drama, theatricality, long-form, and meaningful improvisation, and one day, he decides to set out. As he begins to journey, he enters into a dark forest, where things are less funny than they used to be, which is a bit frightening. Back in Laffy Town, he imagined he would pick up the Sword of Art, and audiences would applaud his vision. But now, in the dark forest, everything seems vague and slow. Ahead, things are even darker. And Joe improviser has to make a choice: dash back to Laffy Town, or plod on through the dark forest.
Assuming you’re a reasonably funny improviser with a few years of experience, funny short form shouldn’t be that hard. You’ve got a bag of tricks, you’ve developed an instinct for how to make people laugh, and you’ve probably got enough moxie to gag out of any bad scene. But now you’re pursuing more dramatic work, which means taking bigger risks. And let’s be honest: your bag of tricks isn’t going to work here. Improvisers are usually full of bravado, and they don’t like to admit they aren’t good at things, which I think leads to one of two negative strategies, rather than the third positive one:
Stepping Backwards: Some improvisers decide that all this drama is lame. The audience is bored! The improvisers are bored! Let’s pull out the old bag of tricks! This scene about a failing marriage is slow and boring? Time for a funny character to save the day! Time to comment on how slow everything is! These improvisers never stay in the risky dark forest for long before running back home.
Standing Still: Some improvisers decide that all this vagueness is ART! The audience is only bored because they’re the wrong audience! The audience isn’t working hard enough! This scene about a failing marriage only seems slow and boring because people don’t get it! These improvisers may languish in the dark forest for years, pretending that they’ve reached the distant mountains.
Passing Through: Hopefully, many improvisers finally admit that they have a lot to learn. They recognize that they’ve relied on their personalities and their sense of humor to keep the audience engaged for years, and now they need to develop some new chops and different instincts. They admit that they’re taking bigger risks, and that they need new tools if they’re still going to keep an audience engaged and happy they paid for the show.
Surviving The Dark Forest
Alright, so you’ve decided to try and make it through. But right now, you’re either boring your audience, or you’re having to fall back to being funny too quickly. (By the way, dramatic improv is usually funny too: it’s just funny in an honest way that doesn’t need to wink at the audience too much). You have a tricky journey ahead, because relatively few people have made it before you. The art form is still answering the question of how to put on more dramatic improv for a general, public audience.
I don’t have close to all the answers, but here are some things I’ve learned in the last few years.
Vague isn’t the same as Dramatic!Please, define things! Don’t wait for your scene partner to define them, either. Don’t pretend that your hesitation or your fear of not being on the same page as others is a dramatic choice. There are mysteries to be explored in dramatic improv, but they’re usually not, “what am I holding?” Defining things builds a platform for more interesting questions. If you’re going to free fall, free fall as an old widow writing letters in a room with a mahogany desk and an old antique clock that occasionally skips a tick: not on a blank stage with nameless characters picking up unknown objects for an unknown reason.
Update, Aug 9, 2012: Ian Schempp makes a good point: “What an object is is less important than your relationship to that object: I don’t care WHAT you are holding, I care HOW you are holding it (which probably leads to why you are holding it). It’s that balance between information and emotion: information makes a scene funnier while emotion makes a scene more stable.”
I agree with Ian, but I do want to feel that the character knows what the object is. In this case, the specificity is in the emotional relationship with the object: It should feel like a real object. And I also don’t like to see improvisers default to not defining things: there should be a good reason for it, not because the improvisers are worried about defining it.
Pregnant Pauses and Low Energy Are Not The Same Thing. Starting a scene in silence can be great. Starting all your scenes hesitantly and low-energy is not. Even in silence, you’re still making offers, so make them! Know what you feel! Really look around the room, take it all in, and be affected! Please don’t sigh, unless its a strong character choice! I hate sighing. Anytime an improviser sighs, I die a little inside. So does the audience!
Be Interested In Your Scene! And be interested in your scene partner. You’ve got to find a reason to care! You need to be passionate about the content of your scene. There’d better be something in the scene that’s interesting to you, or you shouldn’t be inflicting it in on your audience. There’d better be something in your scene partner that interests you, or you shouldn’t pretend that you’re able to be a supportive player. Find it, and hold on. Let yourself get excited, curious, and passionate about it. Let that energize you until the audience can almost feel it in you.
Don’t Give Up The Game. Hey, don’t fool yourself, it’s still improv, it’s still spontaneous, and the audience is still usually there to have a good time. And you’d better be having a good time, too, or why the hell are you up there? Have fun! There’s a lot less room for commenting and gagging in most dramatic work, and if you’re going for that much of the time, you’re keeping your group from getting through the dark forest. But beneath gagging and commenting is usually a great sense of the absurdity of life, people, love, and all that stuff that makes for great Art. Trust that, and let your character honestly dive into moments that you know will produce funny moments. And once in them, play them honestly! Find games with your fellow improvisers! Dramatic playwrights are full of verbal games and funny moments: usually honest moments, but still funny. Mamet, Shaw, Simon, and Shakespeare write plays full of humor and games. Don’t be anxious when your scene isn’t funny, and don’t force humor, but don’t run away from it either!
Change it Up! If you’ve just done a dark, ponderous scene, try to follow it up with something different! If you’ve just done a two-person scene, consider a crowded scene next. Vary energy, number of improvisers, scene length, volume, tone, and anything else that can be varied and still be honest to the show. And change up how you play things! Play environment, play characters who enter and leave right away, start a scene by introducing the main characters of the scene and then leave.
Don’t Hesitate! Just because you’ve made the jump to more dramatic choices doesn’t mean that your scenes are any more precious. Just because a follow player is out on stage doing something vague (are they painting a wall or making pizza?!?) doesn’t mean their idea is precious. Go out there and define it! I love it when I have an idea and someone redefines it midstream. That’s what improv is. You’re leaving your fellow improviser out to dry if you don’t jump in an give them offers to work with. Yes, there are people that jump out there too much (and yes, I’m one of them sometimes), but there are far more people who don’t jump out often enough.
The Other Side
I’m not cocky enough to say I know what’s on the horizon, past the dark forest, because once you get there, there’s another horizon. I know that I haven’t yet seen even a sliver of the potential that’s out there. I do know that the most engaging improvisers I work with don’t believe they’ve arrived, and are humble enough to admit they still spend days in the dark forest. Don’t be afraid of it, but don’t pretend that you’ve nailed it, either. Learn to have fun and really engage your audience, and don’t let yourself off the hook if you’re not doing both, everytime you play, no matter who you play with. And by that, I mean: don’t ever let yourself off the hook.
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.