Do you remember the day you found out about Santa? For me it’s the same as the day I found out that improv isn’t maths. I had a teacher who totally contradicted what another teacher said. I really didn’t know what to do with that for a while. I imagined there must be some grand unified theory, but really, it’s a case of finding out what works for you, without letting fear keep you in too safe a place.
There are a couple of reasons for these contradictions, apart from the fact that there are different styles of shows, different schools and different philosophies. As a student at any level, there’s only so much stuff you can work on at one time. If you were just told all the wisdom that experienced improvisers have right at the beginning, you’d go back to Zumba. Good teachers can sit there with 20 notes in their head and only give you two because you can work on that many. The other thing is that some of the guidelines we give new improvisers are just training wheels. You can’t ride the bike just yet, but it’s great for you to experience what it feels like without your dad holding the back of it the whole time or you falling off. Here are a couple of the lies we tell you when you’re starting out.
Don’t ask questions.
We tell you this because it gets you to a solid scene more quickly. Just coming on and asking ‘where are we?’, ‘what’s in that bag?’ or ‘who are you again?’ means that the other improviser has to do all the work. They have to decide where you are, what’s in the bag and who they are. Changing to statements makes you answer your own questions and we can find out what’s going on more quickly. We’re in a football stadium, there’s a mascot costume in the bag and ta da! you’re the guy that has to wear it.
But do ask questions.
Because people do in real life and one of the things we want on stage is a feeling of authenticity. The difference with more experienced improvisers is twofold. Firstly, questions aren’t being asked out of fear. Secondly, questions can be really valuable when they contain information; ‘Are you putting me in the mascot suit because I broke up with you?’
We tell you that everything must be met with a ‘yes, and’ because we want you to accept and build on what your scene partner is giving you. We give you exercises where we make ‘yes, and’ a bit of text that you have to use at the beginning of every line. ‘Put the mascot costume on’. ‘Yes, and.’
Later on, we start to get the subtleties of what is actually blocking and what makes for a better scene. We ask our scene partner to put on the mascot costume. A more experienced improviser remembers that they’re the ex-boyfriend and there was some subtext suggesting that they don’t want to wear it – it’s humiliating. So they say ‘no’, but they are saying yes to the dynamic that is happening in the scene. Also, they will definitely end up in that mascot costume at some point. It’s either now, in a really begrudging way (while verbally saying ‘no’) or later on in the show. You know that bit in sit-coms where someone refuses to do something and then they cut to them doing it? That.
So, sorry about Santa, but now we get to dress as Santa and lie to our own children.