Play: The Great Mystery of Improv

This article is about the great mystery of improv that has been called by many, many names over the years. I hope to give greater clarity to this mysterious force and to do so I will fall back, again, on my sports metaphors.

Back in 1981 Keith Johnstone had been asked to come to Vancouver with members of the newly formed Loose Moose Theatre company and compete and teach in the world’s first improv tournament. This was prior to the creation of the now 25 year old Vancouver Theatresports League and was the brainchild of several actors in Vancouver who had befriended the Calgary artists and wished to learn more from our experience.

Even though I did not even play on this team I was so keen on this new artform that I travelled to the coast to cheer on my pals. After the first half of the first show the Loose Moose team had put in a fairly dismal performance and I joined the team backstage to hear what coach Keith would have to say about it. Keith Johnstone may be the world’s foremost expert on improvisation but his sports knowledge leaves something to be desired, and here he was in the locker room at half-time with a dispirited team playing poorly and he tried in his theatre way to "buck up" the players.

He told them this - and I will paraphrase as it was so many years ago: “Its important for Calgary to win this match. We must show this new group that our style and approach to improv is the only way to perform. What seems to be missing from your play so far is the ‘magic’.” I remember this phrase well, ‘the magic’. It stands out in my memory as certain players were actually angry when they heard this. What do you mean, ‘magic’? What technique are we missing, what moments are we not grasping? They wanted details and exact ones. All Keith would say is there needed to be more "magic".

The second half resumed and in a close match the Calgary team won but it was not a decisive victory in any way. However, the audience loved it, a new theatre company in Vancouver was born and they have been selling out shows for 25 years - so a great success.But this idea of ‘magic’ haunted me. I did not understand it at the time, but I now know what he meant. Improvisors need to learn the techniques of improv and presentation and learn them well: Say yes, offer and accept, bring charactors to life, advance the action, be aware of the sticky stage, make the other player look good, etc etc. Then there is the ‘magic’. Keith’s lack of sports education (he never played any sport in any time of his life ever) did not give him the vocabulary he needed. What he was referring to was "play".

Hockey players learn and practice the skills of the sport: skating, shooting, passing, etc. but when they are in a game they do not think about doing these skills, they simply play. Teams that have fun play well and win often. Teams that look unhappy, who don’t work tougher, play poorly. They lose.

So new improvisors must learn all the basic skills of improv, but when it comes time to perform they must put all these skills into the back of their mind and simply play. Pre-school children have the most fun when play is easy and co-operative. They create little narratives and often act them out, basically improvising. As you grow, the concept of play becomes uncool and is beaten out of you by your teachers. Improvisors must re-discover how to play. Some young improvisors believe that mis-behavior is the route to play - partially true - but mis-behavior over and over again becomes tedious, hogs the focus and is not a good way to make the other team members look good.

Mis-behavior in improv is just like mis-behavior in real life. During a show a player will speak out of turn, jump into the audience for no reason, throw stuff, etc. I was the master of this in my first year of theatresports, so much so that a penalty box called “the bag head” was invented for me. Offending players would be punished by sitting for a period of time with a paper bag over their head. To date I have the most recorded bag heads so I know of what I speak.

My advice to new and intermediate players is simply this: learn the techniques of improv over and over until they become intuitive and when it comes time to perform: PLAY. If you and your team mates are having fun, the audience will be pulled into the atmosphere you have created. But you must learn the techniques. There are workshops being taught by less experienced improvisers who are telling new players that anyone can improvise at anytime with no effort. This is bullshit. It takes time and effort to learn the skills of this artform and then you must re-learn how to play to bring the ‘magic’ into your performance.

Many thanks to Keith Johnstone for the years of wonderful training.

Word at a Time: The Three Man Weave of Improv

In my workshops I am constantly using sports metaphors to try and explain improv devices and techniques. What’s with that? Those of you who have participated in some kind of sporting event, from golf to football, are well acquainted with the concepts of focus, concentration, and reading the tempo of play. During practice, your coach had drills they insisted you learn and learn well. They would instill in you concepts such as: keeping your head on a pivot, reading the playing field, anticipating the puck/ball/whatever, keeping your head in the game and most importantly: focusing.

Improv is the same.

During a performance you will never know where or when an offer will come your way and you must see the whole stage all the time (even behind you). Getting to know your teammates is important as you can then begin to anticipate better and focus on incorporating their offers seamlessly into the scene. However, if you are not paying attention to what is going on around you, things can get pretty messy. Say, for example, you are in a scene and behind you enters a key character or another player with an offer and you don’t see it or acknowledge it. Not only do you look stupid in the eyes of the audience, but you also unintentionally block the other player.

Improv artists must see all of the stage all of the time. You must see and recognize things faster than your audience does. You must listen to the other actors to know where you are in the story. You must know when to accept an offer, and if a scene is entering the dreaded boring zone, you must then put an offer on the table or advance the narrative.

But now to the drills. Players hate drills. Same puck passing/skating thing over and over again. I have learned through years of playing many different improv games and excercises that the most important improv drill is the word at a time.
Some cities no longer play this game as to master this one takes a lot of time and effort. Unfortunately, improv actors tend to be a bit of a lazy bunch when it comes to their artform (probably because there’s no money in it!), so this exercise is often ignored.

But to me, the word at a time is the 3 man weave of improv. For those of you who have played basketball or hockey, you know that the 3 man weave is THE drill to improve speed, skill and coordination. If you can’t do the weave, you’re welcome to a seat on the bench during the game. Word at a time (WAAT) is a game where you need to use the two basic improvisation skills: giving up control and listening. Sound easy? Go ahead and try it! Before you do, however, there are a few guidelines that can help you craft a quality scene. I’ve learned the following are the keys to a successful

  • Keep the intent of the story in the present tense.
  • Think as if you are one person.
  • Physically act out your story.
  • Do not ask questions.
  • Remove adjectives and focus on nouns.
  • Do not introduce third-party characters into your story (we want the action to happen to you, not to some nebulous character we cannot see).
  • Take time in your story to revel in the emotions you introduce (ie. you are in a scary scene - stop talking and act scared!).
  • Do not try to control the scene, let it control you.
  • Keep it grammatically correct.
  • Listen, listen, listen to what your partner is saying.

You do all of that, spontaneously and instantly without hesitation in a charming and happy way and not only will your audience lap it up, but you, the improvisers, will enjoy it as well. Master the WAAT and you will have an intuitive understanding of improv. What I mean to say is that the same concepts that allow you to succeed at word at a time, are central to all improv work.

To sum it all up: Never stop listening, even when you have something to say. Don’t think about the past, other than to remember where you’ve been, and keep your mind focused squarely on the present. Don’t ask questions, give answers! A question is a hedge and all of the world’s answers are right in front of you. Be grammatically correct whenever possible because if nobody understands that when if you speak to all of him that you can be never followed and nobody maybe enjoy it. Take the time to develop your story. Give up control and attachment to your ideas and let the scene guide you. Physicalize your story by allowing yourself to move about and mime the actions. It gives your story life! Keep your head on a pivot so you can see and hear everything on stage. Commit to the scene, focus, and keep your head in the game.

Storytelling: Advancing the Scene

How can you hold the attention of an audience without a script, any rehearsal time, and with very simple production values? It’s not an easy task. Ask yourself why you go to the movies. What are you looking for when you sit down on those cushy seats and eat overpriced popcorn? When I go to a movie I am desperately hoping for two things: a compelling story and time away from my daily worries. Improv, as a form of entertainment, should satisfy those same desires. If you are telling a nice story, time becomes irrelevant to those who are watching, as they are involved in the story.

So telling stories is what it’s all about. How do you do that without any script?

The first step is to give and accept offers. It’s important that these offers are ones that your audience can relate to. Keep your offers in the "everyday". By keeping them ordinary and by making the acceptance extraordinary you will hold your audience a little longer.

However, experienced improvisers will often notice that as a scene is progressing there are moments where it just doesn’t ‘feel’ right, or worse it actually feels boring. I use the word ‘feel’ because only by being in those moments time and time again can an actor recognize this boring moment. It has a feel to it like wearing a shirt too small or pants too tight. Something is off and you feel a bit like a jerk.

Being able to recognize this moment quickly is a skill that comes from practice and allowing yourself to fail in scenes time and again. You need to advance your skills to the point where can you see this moment coming before it happens and in that way stay ahead of your audience.

An untrained spectator only notices boredom moments after boredom has been created. Create boredom? You bet you can. So you, as a skilled improviser, need to see or ‘feel’ this boredom before the audience does. Once the audience feels the boredom, the scene is lost and it’s too late to save it. You’re already boring them and your only hope is a merciful ending. So how can you prevent boring the audience? By understanding the concept of advancing.

Ahh, advancing. This is a term coined by the great Keith Johnstone and is the perfect word because you, the skilled improviser, need to take the offers you are giving and accepting and simply move them forward. Advance the idea or action, advance the scene. First, make entering your scene as interesting as possible; make putting on your jacket as interesting as possible; make driving your stupid mime bus as interesting as possible. Once you’ve exhausted all opportunities to make your current action more interesting, then you must advance the scene.

This is the next step in telling your stories. When you are in a scene and you get that ‘shirt’s too tight’ feeling, it’s time to advance. At this point ask yourself, “Who am I? What am I doing?” If you can’t answer those two questions, get the hell off the stage and take my Monday night class. When you know who you are and what you are doing on stage, then the answer to the question, “How do I advance this scene?” is right before your eyes.

You are driving your stupid mime bus and now the ‘feeling’ is upon you so in a heartbeat you must allow your imagination to create the next progression of your moment. Things that have happened to me whilst driving my stupid mime bus:

  • The steering wheel has come off
  • I have been overcome with an emotion ( any emotion)
  • I have run over many things: people, animals, cars etc.
  • I have robbed myself, and one time I hijacked my own bus

Those were all advances I did during the bus scene. As advancements like these are made, a story begins to evolve. Opportunities for storytelling present themselves in the form of questions: How does he drive without a steering wheel? Why is the driver crying? He is robbing himself?! What the hell is up with that? These are the questions the audience asked while they watched the stupid mime bus scene and it is your job as an improviser to answer those questions and advance the scene. Instead of feeling bored, the audience now wants to know more and a simple story is taking shape.

An advance can come from your acting partners as well: A passenger enters the bus with a hidden agenda (he too is crying, he is carrying a wheel from another bus, he is actually the hijacker etc etc.). You can advance the story yourself or your playing partners can advance the story with you. Another way of looking at this concept is the idea of introducing ‘trouble’ to the scene. Note that ‘trouble’ in this context is not necessarily a bad thing like: “My pen just exploded on my boss!”. It could also be something positive such as: “I’ve just won the lottery!” As long as the trouble moves the scene forward and keeps things interesting, it’s a good contribution. Trouble will lead to more trouble and finally (hopefully) a resolution.

Ta Da! You are now telling simple stories without a script. The goal is to make them intelligent and relevant stories, and the only way to accomplish this is to practice, experiment, fail and learn. New players must take regular workshops to go through this process in a safe, non-threatening environment. I cannot stress enough the importance of failure in the creative process. You have to allow yourself to fail over and over again because embracing failure is the most effective way of learning. Even if you are failing in front of an audience, if you fail with charm and grace the audience still enjoys themselves and thinks highly of you for at least trying. Johnny Carson always made fun of his bad jokes. You can always make fun of your bad scenes, but as an improviser your job is to learn from them and make different mistakes next time.

Offer and Acceptance: Just Say Yes

In my early days of improv, circa 1978, I often marveled at the talent and skill of those who had been improvising before me. “How did they do that?” At that time Keith Johnston was toying with the concept of a competitive game based around not blocking or simply always saying “yes”. To me this was the magic elixir. It was a Newtonian moment of, “Ah ha!”. I could survive on stage in front of any number of people simply by saying “yes”.

Saying “yes” to every offer that comes your way from your fellow actors not only helps the new player survive but also makes those that give the offers feel like you’re a real team player, someone they like, and someone they can trust. Simply, you make them look good and they become pals for life. It’s like karma; an offer arrives, its accepted with joy and good spirit and suddenly the scene you’re in looks better. Really, what are we on stage for? To entertain the wonderful people kind enough to show up to watch.

You are not there for your own ego or your career enhancement and god knows you’re not there to make any money. That’s what real estate sales are for. I hate to use the term, but this is art, dammit! So to survive you must first accept with joy and charm. However, that alone is not enough. Now you too must cough up some offers. It’s the only way narrative will appear and that’s where the great scenes need to be. Storytelling. Stories from you and your team, stories about you and your experience and most importantly stories the audience can relate to. However, a discussion of narrative will come later; this article is about offer and acceptance.

When I say, “accept every offer”, I don’t mean accept every offer from the audience if you are asking for suggestions. Take only the suggestions that inspire you. In the early days we thought: “the first thing we hear, we take”. To hell with that! I have done thousands of shows in front of a wide variety of audiences and sometimes the things they say are just plain stupid. Look at the politicians we elect as a clear example of how stupid the collective can be.

So while you must take every offer from your improv team that comes your way, take only the offers from the audience that turn your crank. Some have argued that blocking or saying ‘no, but’ or ‘yes, but’, is ok. I say, “show me”. I have seen these games on stage with my own eyes and even if you get a laugh, your improv partner feels like a doofus every time. I know; it’s been done to me. Many times. When my offer has been rejected in a scene in front of a viewing audience, all I ever wanted to do was leave the scene, return to my chair and hang my head as clearly I wasn’t as smart, talented or creative as those who just blocked me into hell. Bottom line is I believe absolutely in saying “yes” every time, all the time, unconditionally.

Those who still cling to blocking as a means to get a laugh are simply stroking their own ego, desperately putting them and their ‘career’ ahead of you, the scene and the audience. Accept the offers that come your way and in turn give back offers that advance the ideas of the scene while keeping all offers in the real world with real people and real situations. That’s where your audience lives, in the real world.

With beginners I force them to alternate back and forth: offer/ accept, offer/accept. That’s just to beat it into them. However, as an experienced improviser, I have played many scenes in which my low status character simply takes offer, after offer, after offer and then at the opportune moment slams one back the other way. It’s fun, but it’s impossible to pull off without proper tempo and timing and all of the intangible skills that can only be learned through repetition and experimentation.

Your improv brain is a muscle that needs to work out. Since I stopped running marathons, I grew a gut. You stop improvising, and your brain will grow a gut. It will be harder for me to start running again, though I must, and the same holds true for your improv brain. Keep exercising the brain and it does sharpen up. Everyone grows in their own way, though some new players find it discouraging. So they should. This art form is really difficult and after 30 years of practice I still screw up, regularly.

I am still learning with every scene I do. I performed last night in a stand up club (as I have done for decades) and still found myself using these basic skills of taking only the ideas from the audience that I liked and listening to my teammate and saying yes to his offers. What did I learn last night? People who drink will always yell out “hooker” and “proctologist” when prompted for a profession. Oh so funny Mr. drunken stupid man!

Improvisation as a performance device is still a new art form. It’s only been since the late 70’s that regular shows of improv even existed so no- one really knows all the answers to every question. That’s what makes this art form great! But what I do know after 30 years of playing, watching and directing is there is no place for blocking. None.

You give and accept offers with charm and grace and that is your first step and the most important step in making an entertaining scene that your beloved audience will enjoy! Hopefully, they come back next week with some of their friends.

This is the first in a series of articles I have been asked to write on improvisation. I hope you can learn from my years of play and screwing up and that your growth as an improv artist is sped up by what I can pass on to you. Keep an open mind and say “yes!” If you want to have a dull life, say no to everything. If you want to have a dull scene, say no to everything. Same in both cases.

Just say yes.

The Making of the Impro Depot

A bit of history of the Impro Depot.

You may be wondering, “where did you get this incredible space to put on your incredible demonstrations?!” And if you are in fact wondering that very thing then (I am psychic and) this is the very place to read that tale.

In the cold winter months of aught eight the Imrov Guild was in a dire place. We’d been renting the Green Fool’s Theatre as a Friday night sublet to put on our Friday night shows. We’d even managed to pack the house a few times… but disaster struck and the Green Fools were issued a cessation order from the city that left us without a space to perform in as well. Our Artistic Director however, and general guru, Rick Hilton was not without hope and, more importantly, an idea. He’d noticed that the former Electronics Recycling Depot just across the alley was sitting dormant and unused and inquired with the owner on the availability of the space.

The owner said it was, gave Rick a lease price and…

Beginning in June of 2008 the Improv Guild had a space to call their own. A dirty, disgusting and drafty warehouse we hoped we could transform into a place to do our thang. The call went out for help. Improv Guild members, associates, friends and acquaintances were dragged through the doors to spend hot and sweaty evenings and weekends doing what they could, with the cheapest materials we could scrounge up, to make it a place to call home.

It started with an intense afternoon of pressure washing the entire building. The mud ran thick, black and in large volumes from out of the large overhead door that day. The breathing masks were absolutely necessary from the dust and filth that was kicked up into the air as a result. They started out pristine white masks, but by the time the day was done they were caked with grime and filth, grey and black as though they’d been dragged through the marshes of Vietnam.

While the cement floors dried, the next day the painting began. While Corina headed the team in the front part of the building with a group of devoted assistants, Rick began with the assembling of the scaffolding in order to hang the ceiling and spray paint the walls. It was hot those last few weeks in June, but cool to finally be in a building of our own. It slowly took shape. But an interesting tidbit during the painting is the conversation that people get into while high on paint fumes always seems that much more hilarious and inventive than it does to those who are not high on paint fumes.

One of the more complicated and impressive renovations was renovating the ceiling. The ceilings were hung with ten foot by 80 foot black polyurethane – otherwise known as the material that makes up generic garbage bags. The manner of their application was a difficult process involving caulking, black masking tape and hours upon hours of backbreaking labor on the scaffolding with our arms above our heads. But we did it. With only a few minor repairs in the months since, it’s held up and the heat in very well.

The floors were washed, primed and painted. The furnace was fixed, fixed again and finally fixed a third time. And as the Fall slowly knocked the leaves off the trees the stage was brought in, the lights were set up – the foosball table donated and the hockey table purchased. Without having done a show yet, we suddenly had the best clubhouse in the world.

California Closets donated a mini fridge and a really nice cougar asked us to remove from her garage a giant monstrosity of a circa 1980 refrigerator. It was picked up in a rickety u-haul one rainy September Sunday afternoon and delivered to serve its express purpose: keeping our beer and wine cold.

The couches at the Improv Depot were donated from all over and for a while it looked like they were reproducing, so often were new ones dropped off. We’re always looking for comfy places to sit, and now we have them, with enough for several friends to lounge as well – and oh, how about the entire first row of the theatre? Yes, the entire front row is made up of couches and love seats.

But one thing about the Impro Depot is that it is much like improvisation itself. It’s a work in progress. There’s always something crazy going on, always something that could have been done a little easier, a little better – but without a doubt, it was all done with good intentions and a lot of love. Welcome to our home.