Relationship in improv: What does that mean?

When I taught at the UCB in NYC, the most important word was ‘game’. In Chicago, the word I hear from students is ‘relationship’.

When I taught at the UCB Theater in NYC, the most important word was ‘game‘. In Chicago, the word I hear from students is ‘relationship’.

Often students are told to focus on the relationship by teachers. It sounds like a good idea, but I think it sometimes trips students up. The reason is that students often equate it with back story. Defining it seems to mean labeling it to these students. They aren’t just a manager and an employee at a McDonalds, but they are also cousins that live next door to each other. This added detail often doesn’t help much, and it doesn’t actually say much about the relationship.

How much back story do we need? Just enough for us to understand who these characters are and how they might behave. If you want to create a compelling relationship in an improv scene, focus on behavior and not back story. For instance, when you ask someone about their romantic relationship, it matters if they are dating, engaged or married. That can tell us something about how they relate. But what matters much more is how they treat each other and how they make each other feel. That’s the relationship!

A little back story helps. But if you want interesting relationships, focus on how your partner is behaving and how it makes you feel. This may lead to discoveries about the characters back story, but what keeps an audience engaged is how characters treat each other. And unique and specific behavior leads to compelling games in your scenes.

This was originally a thread on twitter:

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Base Reality is more than a who, what and a where

For a base reality to be useful, we must be able to ask and answer the question, “What is weird or unusual for this base reality.” If it’s too weird to begin with, it may be hard to answer that question.

When I introduce the term base reality to my students, I often begin by saying that it’s similar to having a who, a what and a where. Often, this is how improv is taught to beginners. You use agreement and yes-anding to establish who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing.

As far as I know, the term base reality was coined by either the UCB or one of their teachers to describe what I have often called the situation. It’s more specific than just any old who, what and where, because they need to feel like they belong together. It may be a situation that you have experienced in real life. It may be one that you’ve only seen on TV, in a film or in a book. Perhaps it’s a situation that you’ve never encountered before. But whatever the case, the base reality probably shouldn’t be funny or weird or absurd. If it is, then it’s more than a base reality.

Let’s look at some examples. Let’s say your ‘where’ is a cruise ship. Your ‘who’ is a psychiatrist and a lion tamer. And your ‘what’ is that you are playing Russian roulette. In many improv classes, this would be a fine example of a who, what and where. But it’s not a base reality. It’s too weird to be a base reality.

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Kissing Family – A Breakdown of the Game of the Scene

Recently, some friends brought this SNL sketch to my attention. It’s an excellent example of what we mean by Game of the Scene, with many moments that illustrate different features of games.

What do we mean by Game of the Scene? The game is the part of the scene that makes the scene fun, unique, interesting and probably most of all, funny. Games are usually an aspect of the scene which strikes us as inappropriate, weird or in more subtle cases, just a bit more heightened than real life.

It’s probably a good idea to watch the sketch before you read my breakdown of it:
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Taking responsibility for your scene

This year I attended the Improv Fest Ireland and one of the shows that got me thinking was Neil+1. In it Neil Curran finds an audience member who has never improvised before, preferably someone who has never even seen improv, and makes them his scene partner for a 45 minute show. It’s a daring concept, improvising with a complete newbie in front of large festival audience. And yet it works.

I’ve seen demonstrations like this a couple times before, taking someone from the audience and creating a scene or a show with them on the spot. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but it always seems to work. In part, it may work because the audience lowers their expectation of what the newbie can do, so any good move by them is treated as particularly surprising, but I think something else is going on. I think it tends to work because the experienced player takes on the full responsibility of making the scene work and making their scene partner look good.

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A new start for me and the Improv Resource Center

Over the past few years, I’ve been a co-owner and the Artistic Director of Under The Gun Theater in Chicago. During that time, I’ve had the pleasure of producing many shows at our space in Wrigleyville, and being a part of an incredible ensemble of performers. On the whole, it has been a wonderful experience. I’ve learned much about producing and marketing shows. And I’ve sharpened my vision of the kinds of shows I’d like to direct and perform in.

However, after discussions with my business partner, we agreed to part ways. Our projections for the company were different. And week by week, our visions for the theater and our strategies for getting there were diverging more and more. In the end, she offered to buy me out and I agreed. As of about a month ago, I resigned as the Artistic Director of Under The Gun Theater and notified our ensemble and staff shortly after.

I also formally started a new company, one that I founded nearly 20 years ago, the Improv Resource Center. For the first time, the IRC will have a physical place in the real world to call home. From there I will be offering classes in improvisation and sketch comedy. And I will produce a number of shows in the next year, but at a much more reasonable pace. Instead of directing and producing a dozen new shows a year, I look forward to working on 2-4 shows instead.

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Deliberate Practice, Not Just Reps

Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about how we approach improv training, and I think we can do much better than we do. To develop mastery in any art form takes practice, not just reps. What is the difference?

Deliberate practice means focused, challenging exercises with specific goals, led by a coach or teacher who knows how to encourage you to be better. It means nudging students to get to that sweet spot of learning where they are reaching just beyond their current capabilities. Truly effective training is hard, it should leave you mentally tired. But when you practice like this, you get better.

Improv programs shouldn’t just be about filling a notebook with ideas that you might practice later. They should be about getting better now. You should be able to walk away on the last day knowing that you acquired skills that you can put into practice the next time you improvise.

If this kind of training sounds intriguing to you, think about studying with the me at the Improv Resource Center. We offer drop in classes and the Core Improv Program – 24 week program which teaches a specific process for improvising scenes. Find out more about it at classes.improvresourcecenter.com.

Improv Resource Center Podcast with Amey Goerlich

Amey Goerlich talks to Kevin Mullaney about improv exercises and concepts. Amey is the host of the Indie Cagematch in at UCB East and an independent improv teacher in New York. We talk about Krompf, pummeling, improvising with your eyes closed, bad rap warmups, half ideas, button lines, teaching film to 5 year olds, e-Improv, and bonsai tree houses.

Links related to this episode:

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Improv Resource Center Podcast with Karen Graci

Karen Graci is a coach and performer at iO West. She is also a writer for Girlboss, a new Netflix show in production. We talk about about coaching Harold teams, openings, group games, short form, and Vertical Harolds.

Karen Graci is a coach and performer at iO West. We talk about about coaching Harold teams, openings, group games, short form, and Vertical Harolds. She can be seen performing with King Ten at iO West. Special thanks to Camp Improv Utopia East where this podcast was recorded.

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Do we really need a straight man to make comedy work?

I love the concept, it’s extremely useful, but I hate the term. Every time I hear it, it sounds more and more tone deaf.

I’d like to propose a simple change in terminology for analyzing comedy and improv scenes. Often two person comedy scenes will have one character who is inappropriate, absurd, irrational, illogical or weird, and another character who’s role is to react to this strange character as we think an average person might. This other character is usually more reasonable, skeptical, logical, or rational than the strange one.

The term that most people use for this is “straight man.” I love the concept, it’s extremely useful, but I hate the term. Every time I hear it, it sounds more and more tone deaf. Instead, I think we should use the term “voice of reason” instead:

the voice of reason (definition): Often when one character in a scene is odd, weird or strange, we need another character who is the voice of reason. This character’s job is to react as an ordinary person might to the absurd character. They might be skeptical of the other character’s point of view. They might react by being annoyed, or amazed, or shocked, or nonplussed.

The voice of reason does not have to act straight, or like a man, they have to react as a person, a person usually very similar to the real life performer behind the character.

If you don’t like this idea, feel free to keep using the tone deaf term. But if you are open to it, start using “voice of reason” instead. I think you will see it’s much more accurate and leaves out all the cultural baggage that normal and ordinary equals straight and male.