In doing some improv research, I stumbled upon a link to the video below. It is the 2012 commencement speech at Smith College delivered by Jane Lynch. She talks about the improv concept of yes and..., and how it can be applied to life. It's a good 22-minute watch. (Note: there is an f-bomb in there.)
This is part one in a series of posts describing the development of a high school improv education program.
One would assume that professional improv troupes already have the basics tenets of improv well in hand - their rehearsal process is designed to increase their group mind, chemistry, and so on. Coaches of high school improv troupes have the challenge of having members of the troupe have to learn improv from the beginning (for the most part). They don't have good habits engrained in them yet - in fact, some of the kids who may show interest in improv probably have some bad habits:
In order to help develop the habits and skills you want your students to have, you need to develop an educational program. Think of it as a lesson plan - or, more accurately, a series of lesson plans - designed to guide your students towards the foundations you want them to have. It's just like any other subject in high school - teach them the basics, make sure they know them, and then give them additional "problems" to "solve" to help them expand their knowledge base and skill set.
I'm currently working with my high school troupe's officers to develop a much more cohesive educational plan. In the past, we've varied who runs the weekly rehearsals: me (the troupe sponsor), a very knowledgeable troupe officer, the occasional workshop professional. What we haven't had was a common reference for what skills we wanted to make sure students were developing and at what pace. As a result, I feel like our troupe still remains at varying levels of ability - instead of everybody having a basic skill set at a certain level, on which we can continue to build. Our educational program is designed to combat that.
We're working on it over the summer, and hope to have the beginnings of it formed and ready to go by August. In the next post, I'll share with you how we're laying out the basics of what we want our troupe to know and learn.
A fabulous blog post just came through my email. KQED's Mind/Shift posted the article How Improv Can Open Up the Mind to Learning in the Classroom and Beyond.
The article talks about how the tenets of improv are easily applied to teaching and learning. It mentions things like:
The article is very well-written, and we don't do it justice here. Make sure you head over to the original article and read the whole thing.
Improv seems like the last thing that would require rules, and yet it's bursting with them! Don't deny your partner; don't turn away from the audience; don't try to be funny; don't say no; don't laugh on stage. Am I doing improv or am I getting married? (I am aware of how bad a joke that was). Improv has so many, many rules that sometimes it gets overwhelming for a new improviser. But here's the short and long of it: improv rules weren't made to be followed. Well, not by the book, at least. Let me explain...
Take the historic "Yes, and" for example. I have seen many a scene ruined by players just accepting everything (ex: "Give me all the money in the register!" "No, I can't!" "Oh, okay then."). "Yes, and" and it's twin "No, but" are more of a standard than a mantra. They mean that an improviser must accept the idea presented ("No, I can't give you the money!") and add to it ("In that case, I guess I'll have to take it!"), not literally say yes. You ever seen Yes Man? Yeah, not good.
But the rule I'm really here to dispute is the one that has been drilled into any young improviser's head by now: "Stick to logic!" We aren't Vulcans (which is a bummer) for Pete's sake! You may have played this game by now, but if not you can click the link and read about it there in detail. The gist of it is, the players have to make a story, trying to be as logical as possible. But I HATE that game! I hate, hate, hate it! Spit in the face of logic as an improviser! Go against the voice of reason! You know what happens when you follow logic? Vulcan gets blown up and Khan destroys San Francisco.
The greatest tip I can give is to go to the third spot in your brain. You get a more interesting scene that way. Your suggestion is sandals? Okay, so sandals remind me of shoes. Shoes remind me of preppy blondes. And preppy blondes remind me of young Hollywood, and young Hollywood reminds me of the Paparazzi. Boom - there's where I go. I'm a paparazzo on a mission to get the dirt on Hollywood newcomer Scarlet Williams, and I am undercover at a local shoe outlet. Now, doesn't that sound more interesting than say, me just being a lazy employee in a shoe store and performing some scene that's probably about a difficult customer? Boring! Been there, done that!
When doing a scene, move the plot along by going against the first thing you think of. Here's some more examples: "I love you!" ("I love you, too!" > "I don't love you." > "But what about your wife?"); "There's a cat in a tree!" ("I'll call the fire department!" > "I can get it down." > "What if we chop down the tree?"); You character needs to move a box. (Move the box > Drop the box > Steal the box). See, going to the third, or even farther, place in your mind creates scenes that the audience won't expect. Scenes about wrestling that end in tea parties are exciting for a crowd! You want your audience to be wowed and shocked and to walk away thinking "I thought they were going to..." at the end.
As an improviser, you shouldn't be afraid of going so left field you leave the park. Baseball kinda sucks anyway.
I am going to get so real with you guys for a hot second here: denying in improv is so easy to do, it's no wonder we have a problem with it. Denial on the improv stage can vary from discreet levels (ex: "Can you show me your ID?" "No.") to a very obvious level (ex: "Hi, I need a haircut." "What are you talking about, I'm your pediatrician!").
Denial during a scene helps nobody and it is uncomfortable as hell for your audience. I need to make a lesson about taking care of your audience, because there is some serious neglect going on here. #SavetheAudience2k15.
Let's begin, as I usually do, by analyzing the problem. Because improv is, of course, made up on the spot, players do not enter the scene with a clear, thought out idea of what is going to happen; however they do typically create a general scheme up in their think tank. With mere seconds between suggestion and scene, each player scrambles for a witty, working opening, and this is where the denial starts. That moment when the scene begins and you're just about to give your opening line, your scene partner jumps in with something in another realm. "Hi, welcome to Spacy's!" Your mind is scrambling, you're gasping for breath. This was not how it was supposed to go, you tell yourself. They're looking at you expectantly, your nanosecond of thought is running thin. What do you do, what do you do? You're so shot down you can't think! It's like your brain only accepts one thing and only that thing, so you blurt it out: "What are you talking about? I work here, idiot."
Your scene partner's eyes widen, the elders in the crowd shake their head. You've blown it. You left him behind on enemy lines, soldier! Have you no shame? The guilt fills every part of you as they start blubbering, grasping at vowels. "S-Sorry, we j-just haven't had a customer in so long," they say, altering their character from the spunky (maybe too helpful) employee to the dumb, bottom of the barrel coworker. You have managed to both grab the crown and have it thrust upon your head at the same time (Shakespeare spins in his grave). You want to turn back, but you can't now - you've made this bed and now you're going to sleep in it. Who even is your character? It's not what you had in mind, either. No one is happy, and it is all your fault.
You may think that sounds a tad far-fetched, but I have lived the nightmare. Improv Denial is the player not responding to the facts presented to them, in short. This can range from walking through a table clearly set up multiple times, to not letting your partner do what they want (like above), or just blatantly disagreeing to the point that it leaves comedy and becomes a rocking chair (in other words: it's something to do, but you're not going anywhere). And the three biggest fuels for denial are Long Range Thinking, Ignorance, and Nervousness.
Long Range Thinking
One of the biggest issues in my above scenario is the players both trying to sculpt the scene before it even started. The best improv truly is line for line, and troupes should exercise the habit of basing their line off of their partner's last line. .When you start entering scenes with an idea in your head, rejection (or, you know, the other player not reading your mind) becomes harder to face and get over, causing that "I can't think of anything else now" spasm. Some improvisers try to avoid long-range thinking by starting a scene with a clear head. Establish a ghost of who you want to be, but allow that to adjust to who your partner comes in as. Group mind is important here, the bond warding off awkward "who starts the scene" jitters that lead to pre-planning. But the most proactive tip is to set up your scene versus jump in with dialogue. Spend a second observing each other in silence while setting up your location, and project to each other who you want to be.
Newsflash! Ignorance is anything but bliss when it comes to improv. You need to be on top of your game when it comes to a scene, because if your partner mentions their dog named Sparky you best remember that like it's the golden gospel. We can't be having you calling my chihuahua Rover halfway down the road, son. Yes! plenty of denial comes from the players just not knowing what the hell is transpiring around them; not listening, forgetting important stuff, or being so wrapped up in their improvising that they don't even notice the scene stopped moving and fell asleep at their feet. Rocking chair, amiright? You recognize these types because they're the ones calling Clark 'Robert,' they're the ones walking on your desk, they're the ones saying, 'Well of course I can't be the robber! Even though you established you aren't, and so did the only other person on stage in this scene. I'm not, but maybe you actually are, because I didn't hear you basically paint the crime scene with my DNA a little while ago. Sry.' I can only help by telling you to set an example. Always be aware, listening, even if you're in the back. And don't be afraid to call a brother out.
Nerves get the best of us sometimes. Improv is no exception. In a moment of fear and loss of brain activity, you may just start asserting what you want and know onto the scene. This part comes with the long range thinking and ignorance as well, but can some what stand alone. Maybe you just don't want to be the bad guy, or you know that the direction of the scene is not something you can handle. Maybe this is all going way over your head. When the scene is moving at one million miles a minute and your brain is drawing blank after blank, it becomes harder to accept the facts and go with the flow. Instead, you start calling decisions, thinking blindly and trying to follow your own plot. Soon enough you've derailed it. Beat this beast by calming down and not being afraid to take a moment of silence to think (of course not an awkward one), and learn to live with not getting your shining moment. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy, idiot, or simply the guy who is dictated by everyone else. You have to be able to accept that sometimes.
You and your troupe can treat a denial problem with a rousing game of The Denial Game, and Dan Goldstein recommends simply (in rehearsal, and nicely) calling your scene partner out by meeting their denials with, "There's no denying that!"
Of course, make sure your troupe knows that some denial is okay. You know, comedic denial. Denial that isn't actually denial. Like one-up dialogue (ex: "My sword is the sharpest in the land!" "In the land? You obviously don't import your swords!" DG) because that's denying that something is that thing, without totally wrecking what they've said (ex: "Well your sharpness certificate lied so ha."). There also may come a time when your character needs to say no. Just remember, "No, but" is p much "Yes, and" (some people don't get this - but that's a story for another day.).
Sir Patrick Stewart is a self-professed horrible improviser - he never had much training in it, and whenever he had to do it felt very inadequate. But in his short but sweet article How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Die on Stage (from American Theatre), he talks about his invitation to perform with the Improvised Shakespeare Company. the single most important thing to do: LISTEN.
Mick Napier is the founder and artistic director of Chicago's Annoyance Theatre, which has produced a large list of notable professional improvisers. (See their Wikipedia page for more info.)
In this presentation at Chicago Ideas Week, he talks about what the creative process looks like at the instant of creation, and how "yes" helps to develop that. It's a great 10-minute overview of the most fundamental rule of improv.
That's the idea behind "Yes, and..." It overcomes these two obstacles.
Let's redo that first scene:
A: Let's go to the store.
B: Yeah! And remember, you got to pick the ice cream last time, so now it's my turn!
Much better, B! Not only is B agreeing to go to the store, but they're offering more details about the scene: what they're going to get, even something about the relationship between these two characters.
Keeping the "Yes, and..." rule in mind helps you stay in the mindset of collaborating with your scene partners, and making sure that everyone is adding to the scene.
Improvisers will tell you that if there were no rules in improv, this would be the only rule. It's a mantra. It's gospel. It's sacred.
So much of performing improv is encompassed in that simple statement. Saying Yes is acceptance of your partner's offer - what another person says on stage now becomes "true" for the scene, and everyone has to play it that way. It might not have been the choice you would've made, but it's been made, so move forward with it. Saying and is what moves everybody forward. You're making an offer yourself - you're adding to what's been established and giving everyone more to play with. You're not leaving it all up to your scene partners to do the work, but that you're willing to take a risk and contribute to the scene.
It's a tough thing to do, especially for beginning improvisers. There's a lot of fear in performing something that could go in any direction. How are you going to know what to say? Why can't everyone in the scene just do what I want, because then I'll know where I'm going and what I'm saying?
Well, that's what this site is about. Stay tuned... you'll learn how and why.
Looking for better ways to teach or learn improv? Want to hear from the masters? Here's your online classroom.
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NOTE: Most of the blogs above are maintained by adult improvisers, and as a result may contain scene descriptions or language that are not school-appropriate.
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