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Improv Techniques From An Improvisor: Part 2

Working With Your Scene Partner

I pointed out in my original article on improv techniques the importance of listening to your partner’s ideas, how branching off their ideas makes the scene work and make their dialogue (as well as your own) become funny. But that’s easier said than done.

If you’ve ever tried your hand at improv more than likely you’ve heard the adage about saying “yes, and…” to your scene partner; saying yes to their idea while adding your own information. While I agree with the philosophy, making the scene not only work but becoming memorable to your audience goes beyond saying “yes” to everything your scene partner says.

In this article I want to expand on ways to help the people you share the stage with, make their ideas as well as your own stick out, and share a perspective on culture and society. A good place to start is…

Responding To Dialogue, Not Reacting

Words and emotions are inextricably bound. If someone says something that makes me angry, like, “You don’t deserve to work here,” my first instinct would probably be to attack them; or tell them to shut their mouths; to shout back; to tell them that they don’t deserve to be there either.

While on a human level this course of action makes sense, and indeed seems natural, it’s not necessarily the right choice in an improv scene.

I’m not going to tell you that emotions are useless on stage. Even a first-year theater student knows better than that. Nor am I going to tell you to ignore them. They can act as the best source of dialogue to draw upon if you find yourself with hundreds of eyes on you and nothing to say. Finding an emotion you have towards the other character can be the driving force of a scene.

But it’s important to not let your emotions get the best of you. It’s especially important in finding where your scene may take you.

If you take your time in responding, you won’t go to your knee jerk response for a cheap laugh or alienate the other person with an insult. Remembering my first article, you don’t want to trick yourself into making the scene about a petty argument, or people or places that aren’t even in the scene. So you want what the other person says to affect you in a way that’s not going to derail the scene. Which is why when you respond to what the other person says, it will help if you…

Respond To The Last Thing They say, Not The First

I know before I started doing improv, my first reaction when I heard someone talking to me was to find a response as fast as humanly possible. What better way to impress them than to immediately know where they’re coming from or what they’re going say. The pressure can be especially scary on stage. I never wanted to be caught in any kind of situation where I found myself at a loss for words when someone stopped talking.

But 9 times out of 10, the heart of what people want to say doesn’t come at the beginning of their statement. The beginning of a statement serves to set up what comes at the end. For instance, if I wanted to tell a story about how I escaped prison, I may start with why I came to be in prison in the first place, or what part of the prison I lived in, or about my relationship with my accomplice.

It will add a tremendous amount of weight to their lines and yours if instead of responding to the first idea, you wait patiently until the end of their sentence/phrase/or monologue to respond to their last idea. This way you’re not leaving out any of their details (especially the big ones). Nothing said gets lost. And everyone’s lines have the due diligence they deserve. Even little statements like “Yeah,” or “Uh-huh,” peppered into their dialogue, takes the energy out of what they’re getting at.

It’s a leap to go from knowing what to say to trusting yourself to find the right response at the right time. But if you put faith in yourself to wait it out until the end, I think your brain will surprise you in how intuitive it can be.

It can also make it easier if you’re…

Matching Energies With The Other Person

We all know that it can be hilarious to act superior to a crazy person; be the voice of reason that points out how they’re over-reacting, out of control, off-base, delusional, idiotic, or not quite fitting in with everyone else. That’s perhaps all the humor for Steve Urkle in Family Matters or Kramer in Seinfield.

But it may not be funny to that person. In an improv scene, where someone is counting on you to make their ideas work, they may not agree with you that what they’re saying is off-base. To them, getting angry about teacher’s salaries may be right on target. Feeling empathy towards people of the Middle East could be what society is overlooking. And getting frustrated with bikers is perfectly natural.

Making their passion “misguided” pigeon-holes their idea as “insanity.”

Instead of being cool, match their energy or their emotion. If they’re happy about women’s rights, get happy with them. See what you can add to the topic that they’re not saying. If they’re mad about the government taxing us unjustly, get furious too. It will inject energy into both what they’re saying as well as your stage presence.

It will also help you from getting into petty arguments about nothing. Matching energies syncs you up with where the person is coming from and makes both of you allied in the same cause. You also won’t find yourself wondering what the scene is about. At it’s most basic level, the scene will be about the two of you feeling [blank] about [blank].

And just like making their ideas seem stupid, it can be just as detrimental if you’re NOT…

Making Yourself Smart

I should clarify. You as a person don’t know everything. That’s okay. That’s 100% of everyone else on this planet.

It’s especially a given if your scene partner mentions something about astro-physics, a topic that maybe they study in their real life as a career, you may or may not know everything about astro-physics. Don’t even try keeping up with them.

What doesn’t work is for your character to pretend they know nothing about anything. It’s especially frustrating to initiate a scene as simple as “running a farm” and someone decides they are an idiot who doesn’t understand that water makes seeds grow. Or if someone claims to be a taxi driver and doesn’t understand you’re supposed to stop at a red-light.

I blame Saturday morning cartoons. Kids think it’s funny when the coyote doesn’t see the edge of the cliff until 5 feet after he’s gone over. We equate acting like a cartoon with playing below our normal intelligence because that’s what we see zany characters on television do. They’re funny because they’re dumb!

Instead of playing dumb and leaving your partner to lower themselves to make the scene work, play a character like they know everything (even if you as a person do not).

It’s never your first day. You’re never trying okra for the first time. You’re the leading expert in psychology. If you’re a surgeon, you’ve cut into a person a thousand times. If you’re a superhero, fighting crime is nothing.

Don’t worry if you have any real world knowledge in the subject. It will make you a more confident performer and make your scene go in a direction beyond figuring out how to do a rudimentary task like driving a car or blowing bubbles. It can bring you back to that relationship with the other person, who also knows how to do all those activities.

I agree, it’s a riskier choice to fane knowledge about something you know nothing about. It also makes it incredibly exciting to watch. Taking the chance to play at the height of your intelligence can add depth to characters who’d otherwise seem mediocre. It also makes everything you do in improv work in real life because the people don’t think you’re just being a spaz when you’re pretending like you don’t know how to eat a sandwich. lt can make you scene partner hate you for making them crawl down to that level.

By the way…

You Can Hate The Other Character, But Don’t Hate Being In That Scene With Them

Improv scenes are at their heart characters coming closer together or falling apart. Two people can start out as sworn enemies to find out they’re actually best friends in much the same way a married couple two minutes later can be squabbling over the terms of their divorce. This is the important shift in character dynamic that we watch the show for.

But there’s a difference between hating the character you’re talking to, and hating to talk to the character physically in that space. Psychologically, if your character wants to leave, or not talk with the other person, or indeed says, “I’m getting out of here,” than you as the actor on some level you will want to follow through and edge your way out. The audience is going to want you to get out of there. Your scene partner is going to wish had just left. If everyone wants you to get out, then why are we bothering to watch the scene? It’s like eating at a restaurant where the servers tell you as you sit down they’re closing. No one is enjoying you being there any more, even if they agree to along with it.

Instead act happy to be there. Even when you’re furious, get excited that you get the opportunity to tell the other person how you feel. You both can get mad at each other and revel in it. You both can enjoy torturing each other because you’re enduring it together.

Wanting to be present in a scene makes everyone in it and watching it feel like they belong. It also doesn’t leave your fellow performers obligated to keep up or carry the rest of the weight on their shoulders, when the other person is trying to leave. If you imagine every scene as if it will go on forever, you’ll never worry about when a scene ends. Kind of like how I’m not worried where this article will end.

John Granatino is a writer and improvisor in Asheville, NC. To read his earlier article on improv, click here.

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