Improv is the exploration of the unknown. In its most magical form, shows look like acts of God — preordained explosions of kinetic energy being directed at a single target. Performers’ improv mana comes from a variety of sources: good chemistry, an interesting format, loads of energy. However, one of the richest resources you have at your disposal lies within. I’m not referring to the heart, but rather its calculating counterpart.
Improvisors are terrified of being trapped in their heads, and that leads many of us to become afraid of our own brains. But you see, your mind is Dragon-type: it’s super effective against Dragon-type. By choosing to harness your own brain, you can avoid improv’s most common pitfalls.
House of Cards is at its best when the characters wield the power of knowledge against one another. One character is leveraging intel against another’s congressional clout that they earned by doing a favor three episodes earlier. The characters have confidence, and they make strong moves because of it.
Improvisors deal with infinite possibilities at the top of a scene. You’ll often hear the phrase “choose to know” coming from teachers and coaches. I endorse that phrase, but I want to take it a step further: “Choose to know that you know.” Or if you need something less contrived: “Choose to know the shit out of it.”
When you play the game “expert circle,” it’s your job to field an array of questions on a particular topic. You are freed from the burden of the unknown and you get to take on the persona of a trusted source. But you’re an expert on the topic. Don’t just swat uncomfortable questions away with short, defensive answers; share your knowledge. Your expert brain knows secrets about the topic. You get excited when you get to educate other people. Maybe you’re even a little condescending about how much you know.
Knowledge is complicit with agreement. Any time you choose knowledge, you support your scene partner, and finding your collective way through a scene becomes easier. A few weeks ago, Kyle Austin told our Level 5 improv class, “There’s no reason to ever be surprised in an improv scene.” When you choose to know, the scene can move beyond an explanation or a slow group decision as to what is going on.
What makes Ocean’s Eleven awesome? (Too tough of a question; too many answers, I know.) Certainly one of the reasons is that the characters pulling the heist know what they’re doing. They’re experts in their given fields. While each character has his quirks, each is a valuable team member.
Competency porn is fun to watch. For comedic purposes, we often choose to be bad at our profession in improv scenes. Wouldn’t it be funny if this mechanic couldn’t fix cars? Yeah, I guess, because I would usually expect a mechanic to know something about cars. But wouldn’t it be funnier if the mechanic could fix cars so well that the vehicles ran better than when they were new on the lot? What are the implications of that choice?
English teachers will tell you to eliminate phrases like “I think” or “In my opinion” when writing essays. Your writing reads better when you make an assertion. Statements that come with caveats usually become inherently weaker.
Treat your improv like writing. Have confidence that your spontaneous choices are as good as carefully selected words penned on a page. Knowledge fuels confidence and vice versa. Choose to know (the shit out of it).
Danny Neely is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of the time as a freelance writer. You can see him perform as a member of Big Turtle, Clover, Coiffelganger, Empty Inside, and Warm Milk.