I know it isn’t always realistic to pigeonhole improvisers into one bracket or another, but in planning a rehearsal for the Maydays, I realised that there are things that we get into the habit of practising and avoiding depending on our innate style and on what the groups we play with NEED.
I read something interesting in a book called Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps. It points out that in a romantic relationship, we sometimes work like a two-person ant-colony; if one of us can do one job, then there is no point in the other taking up brain space to do it too. One of us learns everyone’s names at a party so the other one doesn’t bother, one knows how to make the surround sound work so the other one doesn’t bother. We have one double-sized brain between us. In an improv troupe, there is something similar. After years of playing with the same people, we can end up having a specific role in our company shows and rehearsals. The positive aspect of this is group mind. The downside is habit and stagnation.
Without really thinking about it, I know that within the Maydays, we have improvisers who are stand-out aces at character, singing, rap, game of the scene, follow-me initiations, object work, clowning, emotion, lateral thinking, topics, support and of course cock jokes. Because individuals are so good at their particular forte, sometimes it is easy just to leave it to them. The only reason we don’t leave it to them the whole time is because we generally have a cast of 4-5 per show and our company has 12 improvisers. Each show has a different vibe and we find that there are golden combinations. An argument for getting good at all the stuff you normally avoid is so that when you’re in a show where everyone you’re on stage with is character-driven, you can be the one remembering names at parties or sorting the surround sound.
I guess what I’m saying is; to be the best improvisers we can be, and to be able to play excellently with improvisers we’ve hardly even met, we have to have the whole set. If you don’t practice all your improv keepy-uppy, you won’t be good enough at it when the nerves kick in, when you’re under the weather or tired, or when your mind goes blank.
What type of improviser am I (or what role do I play in my company)?
Clowns love to come on stage with a strong character or emotion. They sometimes pull their character idea off the call-out/scene before and sometimes just pick an arbitrary emotion, choose to lead with a certain body part (stacking), or alter their face or voice. They love to sing or rap - and find it easy - because it is a way of channelling their emotions.
Clowns avoid driving the plot of a show or the journey of a scene and they don’t like to be the initiator. Their reasoning is often that they aren’t ‘clever’ like that or that they can’t think of anything in time. If they do initiate, it is often just an initiation for themselves. They don’t want to be in charge of the other improviser and their journey through the scene.
Bad clowns are particularly scared of initiating and just wait for their scene partner to do the work, partly out of misplaced politeness. The other type of bad clown is someone that will just cock-about until they get a laugh. It’s often funny, but can end the scene abruptly and make the show pretty shallow. Bad clowns can also get stuck in stereotypes or in their regular go-to characters.
Good clowns really listen to the show as a whole and allow their rich characters to embody the themes and feelings tackled. They can change the rhythm of a show and take the audience into deeper states of emotion. Good clowns often get the audience feedback ‘wow, you were just like this person I know’.
Conceptualisers love to initiate and drive scenes and help tell the story of a show. They love to talk. They’re very good at conversational topics, verbal games of the scene and reincorporation. They always remember names at parties.
Conceptualisers avoid playing big characters or characters that are wholly different to themselves. They also don’t tend to go for full-on emotional responses or very physical scenes. Their songs will be all about the lyrics, less about the melody.
Bad conceptualisers tend to talk about action or plot instead of showing it to us. They get cross when the scene or show isn’t panning out how they thought. They fight against ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ moves by other improvisers (which are actually just different than theirs). They sometimes announce out loud what will decidedly happen in the next scene in order to control the show.
Good conceptualisers are ready to drop their heavy concepts at a moment’s notice. They also let the show as a whole be determined by the group and not by them as an individual. They are great lateral thinkers and inspire originality.
Adaptives love to help their scene partner. They see what’s happening in a scene and do whatever is needed. They are just as happy playing strong characters as they are initiating a verbal follow-me scene. They will initiate just as much as not.
Adaptives avoid freedom. On paper they are the perfect improviser, doing whatever is needed. And though you’ll get a good solid show every time from an Adaptive, it won’t be a life-changer. Adaptives avoid just fucking around. They want to know what is needed and how they should do it. They don’t take enough risks or really surprise themselves.
Bad Adaptives do too much. They see a fun scene going on and they want to get in there, as a walk-on, as a scene-paint, as another character. Sometimes scenes need it of course, but bad Adaptives overdo it. It’s not a lack of trust, they just want to play.
Good Adaptives are just as happy ending up as the lead as they are being one of the chorus line. They see what the show needs and they do it.
No one type is better than another.
We talked about whether it was a good idea to have a balance of these types cast in our shows, but were more excited by the idea that we could all be freed up to serve the show.
How Can I Work On This?
Well, that's a whole other blog for the future, but here's a taster: I gave the Maydays piles of post-it notes for each type to draw from. Each had a mission on it, based on what their type avoids doing. They used these as the inspiration for a set of scenes. We did a few sets with everyone working against their fears and into the skills of other types before looking at how that worked out or didn't work out.
We learned that when Clowns initiate a game, when Conceptualisers do a silly voice and when Adaptives fuck around: magic happens.
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Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who teaches improv classes in London, Europe and the States. Katy performs with Project2, The Maydays and Destination. See her live show dates for upcoming shows.
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