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.
In improv, it’s a common mistake to make too much of the surface details of scene’s first line or two. For instance, if your scene partner starts a scene by flipping a pancake and asking if you want fresh blueberries on yours, there is no need to make the whole scene about pancakes and the relative merit of blueberries on top. And yet, I see scenes like that all the time.
Instead listen to what’s behind the initiation. What is implied by the action? How are they behaving and what is their mood? These are the real clues to figure out what is going on.
Your scene partner is making you breakfast. Perhaps you have just spent the night together for the first time. Maybe it’s your anniversary. Maybe he did something wrong and he is trying to apologize or perhaps he’s buttering you up for a favor. Maybe it’s simply that he’s the person in your household that makes breakfast on Saturdays. That’s how you really yes and something, you go deeper.
I came across an extremely simple idea to help improvisers who have trouble with agreement, which is just about everybody. Just nod your head yes when you are listening to your scene partner. I tried it in a class recently and it works quite well. You don’t have to think specifically about yes anding what they say. Just nod yes a couple of times, especially right before you speak. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to agree to what they’ve initiated.
I thought of trying this because of two things. First, I had heard of a study that asked some people to nod yes while they listened to an editorial. Afterwards, they were more inclined to say they agreed with the editorial than people who were encouraged to shake their head no while listening. The difference was rather large, not just a statistical blip. It suggests that nodding your head up and down causes something in your subconscious to make your conscious thoughts more agreeable. Second, I watched the video of a show that my class had performed. I was looking for things we could work on for the next class. In the first moment of the first scene, before anyone started talking, one of the students was shaking his head no… even before he heard the initiation of his scene partner. Watching that made me think of that study. And that made me think, “I’m going to make my students nod yes constantly and see what happens.”
And you know what? It worked. They actually were much more agreeable. I suppose that doesn’t really prove anything. This was directly after I gave them several notes about how they weren’t agreeing very well in their show. So perhaps it was simply a physical reminder to be more agreeable, but it sure seemed to work.
There were a few students who struggled with it. They didn’t like nodding. Perhaps it felt a little silly or artificial. But if they really tried nodding, they had no problem agreeing.
The day after the class Robert, my assistant teacher, pointed out that he thinks that more than a couple of great of improvisers do this unconsciously and he gave a couple examples. I think he’s right, and I’m going to do it regularly too until it becomes an unconscious reflex for me.
Update September 17, 2016: Today in class I encouraged students mix affirmative words and utterances while nodding. For instance saying things like yes, uh-huh, right, and yep while their scene partner was talking. It really does work.
When working with a script, an actor knows a lot about the scene they are about to perform. They know where the scene takes place and who their character is. They know the relationship between themselves and the other characters in the scene. They know what they are going to say. And if they are properly prepared, they know what their character wants and what actions they will do to try to get it.
When an improviser begins a scene, they know none of these things. They face a stage that could become any setting they can imagine. They can play any character they choose and so can their scene partner. Their choices are infinite. So at the beginning of an improvised scene, the most important thing they must accomplish is to decide on the circumstances of the scene. And the most important tool for deciding those circumstances is agreement.
Simply put, an improviser must agree to all facts and circumstances that their scene partner establishes via dialogue, behavior or action. If I say that I’m a plumber, you must agree that I’m a plumber. If you act like you are in car, I must accept that. If I say that we are in an airport bar, set down your luggage and grab a drink.