by Katy Schutte
Improv is largely about the suspension of disbelief. This is a blog to look at how we can hold the audience’s attention and how we can take them with us wherever we go. It’s not about short form where there is always a nod to the fact that you are improvising and there is a level of enjoyment where you are always meta-aware that the improvisers are messing with each other. I’m talking about improvised theatre. How can we create comedy or straight theatre through improv that hooks the audience as deeply as a well written play?
Objects versus object work:
When I first saw the two-man improv show TJ and Dave, I remembered it as if it was a film. This was due to their amazing accuracy with mime, or ‘object work’. I could tell which bills and coins were going in the till and which sweets were where in the DVD rental store. Object work is a skill that’s worth spending time on. To achieve this effect in your work there are a few tips:
Treat everything you hold as if it has weight and depth. Make space between your fingers even if you’re holding a pencil or a comb, show the work of your muscles if you are moving something heavy. And make a clear decision in your head; what is this bowl made of, what colour is it, does this drink have ice in, how hot is my tea, how big is this coat? Specifics are super useful in improv and you can be specific with everything you touch. The audience love it when you agree physically about where things are and what things feel like, just as they do when you ‘yes, and’ in your language.
I have been on tour with Fluxx this year and it’s the first improv company I’ve worked with where we have used physical props. At first I found it very difficult because your choice is hugely narrowed down from ‘anything’ to ‘these things’. This worked in a different way, meaning that the choices were made for you and the audience was easily on board with anything you used. I had a scene where I took a pack of cards on stage. I played Snap with another character and it was perfect that his character won the game. For performers and audience members this is a very accessible form of improv. The Showstoppers use costume, set and props to make their show look more like a familiar musical so the audience doesn’t need to make such a big leap to believe them.
Personally, I’ll always be married to object work over objects, as – once you’re specific enough – there are a lot of beautiful moments that come out of it. Rachel and I had a fun show where we were a group of magicians in the Magic Circle. We had a great scene where one guy could turn his wand into anything at all. That’s the sort of stuff you can only do with object work.
This is a difficult one. There’s really no way of looking neutral. You can choose show colours, a t-shirt with your logo, a genre costume, suits, or anything uniform, but everything will have the audience form an opinion. You just have to decide what you want the audience to think.
What I don’t think works is skirts, dresses, and high heels and that has to do with the Male Gaze. I’m not well read enough to give you a Feminist discourse, but I know that when I am watching a woman improvise in a dress, she is limited in what she can do. In shows, I find myself doing handstands, performing dance moves, being animals, banging and a million other physical abominations. If you’re doing that kind of thing and you’re wearing a skirt or dress, it’s doing to ride up and no one is going to be thinking about how hilarious/interesting this scene is, they are going to be thinking about your c**t. Thick tights and leggings don’t do anything to solve this. I saw a girl at the Priory Arms recently wearing skin-tight wet look leggings and that created the same problem. I just kept looking at her arse and ignored her improv. If your improv is a bit crap and you want some glorious male producer to hire you, it’s totally a good idea, but otherwise, put some trousers on.
Heels are a problem in another way in that they restrict how you move (and there are other clothes that do this). It’s going to be tough convincingly playing a man if the way you walk is changed by your shoes. Playing a woman who wears heels when you’re an improviser in flats is a lot easier. There are of course exceptions like Austentatious where the women always play women (in long dresses) and they never play animals or do anything physically crazy that’s gonna get their bits out.
I for one always want the choice of playing any gender or age by suspending disbelief and being able to do a handstand whenever it seems like it might fit.
This is not meant to be a dig at women (though it reads this way). I feel the same about guys wearing baseball caps or having hair in front of their faces. I could write a whole blog on when I think it’s good to wear your glasses on stage and when not, but I’ll spare you…
Let me start by saying that I don’t have a solution for this one. Whenever I see improvisers kiss on stage it pretty much throws me out of the show. Even some of the best shows I’ve seen totally lost me on this point. In a scripted show, the writer has decided that these two characters will kiss, so the actors do it. In an improvised show, the actors are writing the show as they go along, so there’s some odd self-interest at play in the pleasure (or not) of kissing. I always wonder whether they are loving or hating that moment and forget who they’re playing and why this moment has happened. I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen, but I am searching for a way to keep these intimate moments from bursting the bubble. The same goes for simulated sex and any other strong physical intimacy. I suppose the only thing to do is for the moment to be played truthfully. Avoiding a kiss that has to happen would probably destroy the moment just as much as doing it apologetically. There is a responsibility for the improvisers off stage during these moments to edit the show where it has the most power. Tune in to what seems okay for your fellow performers so that they always feel safe to explore these moments. They will save you if it goes too far or they will make it worse if the show needs that to happen!
Summing up – I think there are broadly two types of shows; one that simply gives you appropriate props, costumes, set and maybe a narrator or director to steer the show. It holds your hand and does the imagining for you. The second is visually neutral and minimal so that it can go absolutely anywhere. The improv itself is steered by the whole group, not one person, so that you are not distanced by one authorial voice. If you are doing a genre like musical theatre, Austen, Shakespeare or science fiction, having a visual hook may help your audience get on board. If you want to have the world at your fingertips and the audiences’ imagination as your prop store, learn how to:
Do object work well.
Be open to playing anyone. Anyone.
Be so comfortable on stage that anything can happen and have your other improvisers’ backs when they put themselves out there.
Play to the top of your intelligence and allow the audience to do the work with you.
The best improv I’ve ever seen has let my imagination and belief play a big part.