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5 Simple things to improve your Improv

Updated on May 30, 2015
Brent Tubbs profile image

Brent has been doing improv comedy across the country for the last 15 years. Along with comedy, he has also written a Y.A. Novel called Tusa

"Improv is simple, but not easy"

Whenever anyone ventures into the vast splendor that is the art form of improv comedy for the first time, there is so much unknown. How does this work? What makes it easier? How can I be better? And if you are one of the many victims that gets bit by the improv bug, you cannot consume this information fast enough. You want to know it all. So, you buy every book ever made about improv. You read them all in one weekend and feel like you might explode if you can’t get on a stage A.S.A.P. to try everything out you just learned. And in doing so, when you finally find a stage and an audience to try this stuff out on, you spend the whole time in your head. You end up thinking about every little morsel of wisdom that made so much sense to you when reading, but is now manifesting as a giant cluster f*$# in your mind. You get so caught up in trying to do the things you read about, you forget to do the most important improv rule out there…have fun. Below are things that I have picked up over the years that have made sense to me, when it comes to making improv scenes “feel better”. I’m not going to say this will make scenes “work,” because as we know, you can do an improv scene completely by the book and do everything “right” and it could still just fall flat. It’s not that it “didn’t work”, it was just lacking something. Whether you are a beginning improviser, or a seasoned one going through a rut, here are 5 simple things that every improviser can do to help spruce up their improv scenes and help improve your chances of making everything “feel better”. As one of my great teachers Tom Booker said, “Improv is simple. But it’s not easy.”

1.) Everything Means Something

  • We are in the business of making assumptions. And in improv, when we jump to assumptions, it is easier to have more information to draw from. That’s why if we assume everything means something…read that one more time. EVERYTHING, means, SOMETHING. Then the truth of every situation is at our finger tips. If I assume the way you are looking at me means you are angry with me, that gives me a lot to play with. If I assume you are picking up that glass because you are an alcoholic, my character can make an emotional choice as to how they feel about that. I assume the way you crossed your legs means you don’t want to have sex. I assume the way your eyebrows went up means I’m right. Everything, every, little, thing that happens means, and tells your character something. This might sound to some of you like something that will put you in your head. But when you break it down, slow it down, at a rehearsal or workshop perhaps, you have time to just let everything hit you in an instinctual way. Meaning, everything that happens on stage is going to affect you in an emotional way if you let it. You have to be open to letting it, and listen to your bodies’ response to it.

2.) For Goodness Sake...Look At Each Other!!

  • When a scene starts, start by looking at each other. Make that eye contact. This gets you and your scene partner on the same page right away. Energy wise, and focus wise. You can see if your partner is smiling, or angry, or sad, and that informs your character how they should respond.

3.) Move the Chairs In Between Scenes

  • The quickest way to tell the difference between a good improv show, and a great improv show is to see if the performers move the chairs in between each scene. If the group does not move the chairs, you’ll notice that the next scene will probably be pretty similar to the last. The performers will probably stand in about the same place, the characters will be somewhat similar and the scene becomes a talking heads scene. This is because the performers have no sense of where they are. Their environment does not exist to their character, therefore it does not exist to the performer. And vice versa. A great way to automatically change the feeling of the scene is to change the space. Simply grab a chair and set it somewhere else. Then look at the space and let it tell you where you are, and how you feel. Again, make an assumption as to why you are standing in the spot you are standing in.

4.) Make “I” and “You” Statements That Tell How You, or Your Scene Partner Feels

  • This is a good one if you are ever doing a scene with someone you are unfamiliar with, or if you simply feel like the scene isn’t going anywhere. We’ve all been there, where you’re in a scene or you just started a scene and it feels like you and your scene partner are just floundering. Panic sets in as you are going through the scene rolodex in your mind thinking of some way to save this. Trying to grab any morsel of information or gift that you can latch onto to then try to build something from that. But there doesn’t need be that panic. If you are always present in the moment, that feeling should never happen, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that still happens to me every once in a while. But the easiest thing to do, is simply look at your partner, and make an “I” or “You” statement about how you feel. “I’m really nervous right now.” “You look like you are very uncomfortable. Let me get you a chair, a drink, a blanket”. And then build from that truth.

5.) Go After The Shiny Thing...Without Calling Attention To It.

  • What do I mean by “Shiny thing”? By that I mean either the first thing to be repeated, (some refer to this as ‘the game of the scene’) or just the first fun thing that happens. Maybe your character trips over a bear rug in the middle of the room, or your character keeps dropping things, follow that. Follow the fun in it, and heighten it…BUT, don’t talk about it. So often in beginning improvisers I see this happen, where they find the shiny thing, and then they vocalize it by saying, “Hey, we discovered this fun thing. Awesome! Let’s talk about this fun thing.” (They don’t literally say that.) The second you talk about it, it just lost all of its power. The joke has been deflated. When you don’t talk about it, its power only grows and grows like the big black ball in “Fifth Element”. (Too obscure a reference? Look it up).

You got this! Now go get out there and don’t think about any of this on stage and have fun!

- Brent

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