For me, one of improvisation’s major appeals is the infinite number of possibilities permitted by the medium. In any given show, you can be a time traveler, a dinosaur, or a laser cannon. In fact, you can be all three in the same show. The absence of boundaries should be liberating. In our everyday lives, we are just a few things. In improv land, we can be anything.
And yet, many of us tend to block our own imaginations. We get caught up in the rules, our scene partner, and all too often, “being original.” Because we can be anything, we feel we must be everything. We shut out good ideas—quick ideas—in favor of more inventive or interesting choices. Often times the best choice of action is actually a reaction.
In his book Impro, Keith Johnstone notes the importance of accepting your own ideas:
An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts (88).
As a beginning improviser, you’re advised to avoid asking questions in scenes. Questions place the burden of creation on your partner, and it’s a heavy burden. Initiations are tough. There’s so much groundwork to lay and asking a question of your partner is essentially shirking your responsibility. However, if faced with an inquiry, you have a simple solution:
‘What’s for supper?’ a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original. Whatever he says he’ll be too slow. He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he’d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting (Johnstone, 88).
Obviously, sometimes your scene partner will ask you a loaded question, teeing you up for an answer. But at the top of the scene, with infinite choices available to you, it’s more important that you choose (confidently), rather than what you choose.
Too often we put pressure on ourselves to be funny or original or creative. We judge our own ideas harshly when they don’t live up to the lofty, ambiguous standards we’ve set. Johnstone argues that simply having an idea is enough.
People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers. Ask people to give you an original idea and see the chaos it throws them into. If they said the first thing that came into their head, there’d be no problem (88).
The new Star Wars film shattered nearly every box office record (1) in the books, and it was essentially a retelling of the franchise’s original installment. You may take issue with Hollywood’s extensive recycling program, but it works.
By no means am I arguing that it’s cool to rip off old material. Throwing out classic Saturday Night Live characters and lines from 1980s comedies in your improv scenes is weak and unnecessary. You have a wealth of personal experience and perspective to pull from. That’s enough.
In his book Improvise., Mick Napier offers plenty of advice to performers looking to shed the burden of creation. To paraphrase a collection of concepts, he advises that when the lights come up on the stage, you do something. Anything. Once you’ve chosen to act, you can decide how to proceed. Moving with confidence allows you to mitigate the minutiae of naming the unnamed or wading through an ambiguous setting.
That doesn’t pertain strictly to your own ideas or moves either. An easy-but-underutilized way to “yes, and” is to get even more excited about your scene partner’s idea than they do. Oh, we’re about to do a scene as knights? F*** yeah! I’m gonna be the knightiest knight ever.
David Allison is a pro at this kind of move. He acts confidently in any idea at the top of the scene, not just his own. David is like an inspiring high school guidance counselor for each choice you make. You think your idea is just another C+ student roaming the halls, but David shows you all of its potential. I asked him about his approach at the top of the scene.
Often times, beginning improvisers are far too choosy. They watch experienced players on stage get laughs and they think that it's because the veteran is coming up with amazing ideas. That simply isn't true. With stage time, you realize that there isn't a perfect source. Every jumping off point is equal, so just take the first one! The heightening and exploration is where the real fun is, not the source idea.
And that’s part of the point: Improv isn’t a family vacation, it’s a road trip. The destination doesn’t matter nearly as much as the journey. Free yourself from the shackles of being creative, funny, and original. Just act and listen.
Johnstone, Keith. Impro. London: Methuen, 1981. 88. Print.
Napier, Mick. Improvise: Scene From the Inside Out. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. Print.
Danny Neely is currently a Level 4 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of the time as a freelance writer. You can see him at the theater as one-fifth of the troupe Coiffelganger or as one-oneth of the Wednesday night house manager.
(Image: Dirks Hirnableiter)