Sometimes in an improv show we find ourselves in a bad scene. How on earth do we deal with that?
Trust that your team will edit you.
They should know you well enough to feel when you’re uncomfortable, or when the scene isn’t working that well. They will edit the scene, just like you would do for them.
Stick With It
Okay, so no one edited you. Shit. Ah, man, now you’re up in your head. What do you do? The first thing is, don’t edit yourself. It can be very tempting, but it will look like you are bailing on the scene (which you are). By making an excuse to leave as your character, you are leaving the other actor(s) high and dry. By editing the scene itself from inside, you are not trusting your team to edit at a good time. We have other people edit because we are bad judges of the scene we are in. There’s a lot going on in our heads, so it’s best to let the rest of the crew take care of that while you stay present in the scene.
So no one’s editing you and it’s bad practice to edit yourself. It doesn’t help being up in your head, but since you’re there already, let’s use your brains to help you. Your scene partner has everything you need. Look them in the eye. What is the emotion that’s coming across? How do they feel about you? It may be that we’re both thinking ahead and forgot to connect. We can build this show together.
What You Just Said is Very Important to Me Because…
Listen to the last thing your partner said. What were the exact words? Why is that important? Forget the rest of the scene for now, what did they just say? Now decide why that’s so important to your character. Why is this thing so important to me? It works for any line. If they say “Peanuts are shitty” what they just said is very important to you because you also think peanuts are shitty and the amount you have in common suggests they would be a great life-partner.
Have an Emotional Reaction
It’s great saying that something is important to you, but the best way to telegraph it, is to have an emotional reaction. If knowing your relationship is going really well makes you feel good, show that. It also helps your scene partner react off of you.
Say What You’re Thinking
Can’t decide on an emotional reaction? Say exactly what’s happening in your head right now.
“I can’t do this”
“Why is no one helping me?”
“I can’t wait till this is over”
“What’s wrong with me, I could do this yesterday”
These are all really great offers for your co-pilot. Don’t break the fourth wall by commentating on the scene: “This scene is shit”. Say how you feel as if it was happening to this character in this moment. “I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do this”. It helps you be authentic while also giving your fellow improviser something to play with.
Build a Platform
If you’re feeling lost, see if there’s anything that hasn’t been defined. Knowing what your relationship is to the other player(s), where you are and what’s going on is really helpful. You don’t always have to do these things in the first few lines, but if you’re unsure, setting up the pieces will help you play the scene.
Some shows can get very information heavy with full and complicated plots and/or lots of characters. Sometimes I will fall behind. If you don’t quite know what’s going on in the show or in the scene you’re in, take a second. Some people’s coping mechanism with a fast paced, complicated show is to add more information. If you’re talking over one another, trying to solve a story by putting more facts in there or adding something different because you don’t want to contradict what’s already happened, just breathe. You don’t have to be talking all the time.
So, Let me Just Get This Straight…
If you’re not sure what’s going on, there’s a good chance that at least some of your fellow players and the audience will be lost too. Try saying ‘so, let me just get this straight’ and outline what’s going on as best you can. You will clarify what it is for yourself, your team and the audience. If you’ve massively misunderstood something, great; you’ll probably get a laugh and someone will fill you in with the ‘correct’ information or justify your mistake.
Use Your Environment
What if the problem is that nothing is happening? What if you’re just a rabbit staring into the headlights of the audience? What if no one joined you on stage yet? Discover your environment. Perhaps you know where you are and perhaps you don’t. If you don’t, make a decision. It doesn’t matter where you decide to be; make that decision and stick to it. Now reach out and touch something that would likely be in that environment and use it.
How You Do What You Do is Who You Are
The way you use objects and environment gives you clues about your character and emotional state. You picked up an apple. Did you peel it with a knife, did you break it in half with your bare hands (my Mum used to do that) or did you bite into it? What are the clues you get from these decisions? Are you aggressive, are you smug, are you considered? Whatever it is, use it to form your character and emotional choice for this scene.
Don’t Drop Your Shit
Great. You know what’s going on, you have made a connection with your partner, you’ve made a character and emotional choice. Now stick with it. You don’t have to keep thinking about whether or not they were good choices, you just have to double down on them. Escalate the shit out of them.
But… if your scene partner offers you something that might change your outlook or your emotional state, use it. It’s a great gift. Allow your peanut-loving old man to fall in love, despite his reservations and his penchant for carrying an apple knife.
Now They Edit You
And you feel pretty good about it.
Thanks for reading!
Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who plays in Destination the improvised podcast, a whole bunch of live shows including Project2 and The Maydays and teaches improv classes.
I have written an improv workbook that will be coming out later this year. Join my mailing list for updates!