Every improv theater has its own style of teaching and performing. UCB preaches “the game” over everything else, while iO demands a wholesale commitment to organic group choices. Second City uses improv as a means to an end (sketches), and The Annoyance asks that you please just “do something.” No matter the particular theater’s creed, empirically good improv has a few principal tenants in common. The one that stuck out to my analytical brain the most when reading about the art form on my own was the idea that you should develop a “base reality.” Creating a vivid world for your improv helps bring the audience into the show. The people watching your run are like a talented-if-not-arrogant high school basketball team. They’re ready to laugh, but only by getting them to buy into the work you’re doing can you maximize their potential. When they’re fully invested in the show, they start to forget that they’re watching a group of goofballs make stuff up for 25 minutes.
Every time you drop a cup or look directly at the person making side support noises offstage, you remind the audience that none of this is real. It’s as if you’re forcing them to take the red pill when they were having a perfectly good time in the Matrix.
In addition to painting a picture for the audience, a base reality functions as a set of ground rules for you and your scene partner. In our everyday life, gravity, finding zombies scary, and dogs not talking are all part of our base reality. We have a more-or-less-agreed-upon expectation of the normal, so when something outside of the normal happens, we have a shared reaction.
Red paint doesn’t show up on red canvas. Only with a grounded backdrop can the absurd stand out. That’s how the UCB manual defines “crazy town” (p. 89). I often hear people bring up this phrase when talking about a particularly exotic scene or run. To me, “crazy town” isn’t just a descriptor for bizarre scene work, it means that the improv being performed didn’t have any grounding principles. A scene about riding pigs through an abandoned theme park isn’t necessarily taking place in crazy town. If the characters are participating in an honest discussion about the merits of having children, you’ve got a grounded scene. It’s when the improvisers in the scene don’t agree on a set of common rules about the world in which they live that they ride the eccentric CT monorail.
The best way to avoid crazy town is to listen and react to the words and actions of your scene partner. The UCB manual also prescribes solutions like the “peas in a pod” mentality (p. 169) — which is essentially a more analytical approach to mirroring.
If you and your scene partner react differently to something that happens on stage, the scene isn’t necessarily shot. When one character considers an occurrence normal and another character considers the same occurrence absurd, we may witness a conflict in expectations and reactions. Conflict, in this case, isn’t bad, but it needs to be explored. Why did Character X react differently than Character Y? Even if you fail to react to a scene partner pulling a gun, you’ve told the audience something about you and the world you’re inhabiting (e.g., you see guns all the time, or you’re unafraid of death).
Because this post sounds teachy/preachy upon rereading it, I want to incorporate a real-life example to support the base reality point.
Even with a recent surge in mainstream-adjacent popularity, most people don’t watch professional wrestling. If you didn’t fall in love with it as a kid, you’re unlikely to develop an infatuation with this form of entertainment as an adult. However, wrestling offers plenty of guidelines for strong improv scene work:
The outcomes of wrestling matches are predetermined, but the athleticism and danger on display are real. Without a shared understanding between two wrestlers, things could spiral out of control quickly.
When one wrestler reacts to taking a bump from another wrestler, they help maintain the reality of in-ring conflict. While the characters wrestling are at odds, the wrestlers themselves are in agreement.
Additionally, professional wrestling is about putting on a show. Competitors telegraph their moves not only for their opponents’ sake but for the audience, as well. This creates an expectation and anticipation for a coming clothesline or a leap from the top rope. When the opposing wrestler counters or dodges the move, the subversion of audience expectations stimulates an audible reaction.
At the start of every match, wrestlers assume an identity. There’s usually a good guy (face) and a bad guy (heel). The way they interact with the crowd and the way they wrestle tells the audience how to feel about them. They have strong perspectives established at the top of the match that they carry through to the end.
To close, here’s DCH’s resident professional wrestling advocate, Jua Holt, on the connection between the two artforms:
“At a basic level, pro wrestling is two people working together to put on a good performance. If you trust the other person and share the load, then your match — more often than not — will go well. One of the biggest things I’ve been able to bring to improv from wrestling is that the commitment level of your character can make or break a performance.”
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.