The Five Tools of Improvisation

On Reddit’s Improv subreddit there’s a discussion about what would be improv’s “five tools”.

Scouts in baseball will rate hitters on a scale of 20 to 80 (20 being a total lack of that ability, 50 being average among peers at that ability, and 80 being among the best ever at that ability) in five key aspects to playing baseball. In baseball those tools are:

  1. Running speed
  2. Arm strength
  3. Contact hitting
  4. Power hitting
  5. Fielding

While I find Reddit useful for information and ideas but generally abhorrent as a community, the post did make me think about what the five scalable tools of an improviser would be, how I’d rate players if I had to objectively rate them.

Much like how I conceived The Improv Diamond, I brainstormed ideas until I found they all revolved around five improv skills. In listing what I consider the five tools of improvisation, I also provide examples for what would be rated a 20 (rock bottom), a 50 (average for their peers) and an 80 (top level in this skill):

Cooperation. This person’s ability to yes-and stuff, and build character relationships. Also, how this person is for other players to work with. While those items seem separate, they do go together on several levels.

20 – Oblivious to what’s happening in a scene, in their head, and in their own world. A difficult person to work with.
50 – Builds well on what is introduced, with a focus on the relationship between their character and others. Invested as a player in what’s happening on stage, whether in rehearsal or in a show. No big problems working with this person.
80 – Present and aware of everything their scene partner does, treating every offer like a gift while building on it with their own gifts. People love working with this person. They have their shit on lock.

Acting. The thing actors do in theatre and film. The ability to demonstrate emotional investment in a scene and get people watching to believe that you are playing a character. The charisma to make an audience and players believe in you.

20 – Is always themselves on stage. Doesn’t react to things that happen in the scene. No real charisma. Audiences wonder what the hell this person is doing on a stage.
50 – Can buy into a scene and react accordingly to things that should affect that character. May be able to play some characters outside of their usual quality. Audiences don’t feel this person is out of place on stage, though they probably blend in with other such improvisers and only stand out if they’re in a group with weaker players.
80 – Can become a wide variety of colorful, amazing characters at will. Audiences are hooked by this person, and many pay/attend to specifically see them.

Risk. The courage and will to take initiative and make moves on stage. The lack of fear of making moves.

20 – Stage fright. You have to make that person go out and do a scene.
50 – Will readily initiate scenes and has little problem carrying a scene. May brush off offers to do riskier moves, but will readily provide what is needed.
80 – Will do or play just about anything.

Specificity. The attention to detail in a player’s dialogue, action, character choices, object work, etc.

20 – Vague, not at all clear, to the point where it seems like they’re waiting for the other person to establish details for them. No intent effort to provide any information about the scene, setting, characters or relationship.
50 – Consistently, clearly establishes who, what, where early in scene, and their offers establish or acknowledge details in the scene. Rarely do they give more than what is needed to make the scene work.
80 – Establishes things so clearly you and scene partners can see and feel where they are, what they mean, and they recall these details throughout the piece. TJ and Dave level attention to detail.

Intelligence. A player’s level of observation and knowledge about improvising. Seeing or knowing what to add or heighten in a scene to best serve a show, the sense of when and how to edit, etc.

20 – No real vision of what’s happened or is happening. At best they see and respond to what’s immediately offered to them. If queried about a show, probably has no idea or opinion beyond whether or not they liked it. They either lock up or make moves that clearly came from in their head rather than building on what was established.
50 – Can add needed moves or characters to a show. Choices add to the theme of the show rather than come out of nowhere. Can match or change energy of show as needed. Knows when to edit. Readily does all these things as needed. Can effectively observe, analyze and discuss moves made in a show, though they’ll leave any higher concept stuff to a coach or director.
80 – Easily, readily identifies the show’s arc and effectively collaborates with cast to build upon it. Always seems to make a great show-building move at the right time. Has such a high level grasp on improv that they should teach or coach others.

——

Those are my five tools of a successful improviser. Your mileage may vary! But I believe a successful improviser should carry effective ability with cooperation, acting, willingness to risk, specificity and improvise with intelligence.

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