Little things that tend to take the air out of improv scenes

I’ve taken a lot of notes in improv classes, shows and practices lately… not just on things I learn, but also observing and noting some moves that several current instructors have noted tend to let the air out of scenes.

– Talking about the past
– Talking about the future
– Entropy, aka silences caused by indecision and inaction
– Talking about people outside of the scene
– Meta commentary: Talking about objects in the space, about tasks that you’re doing, about yourself i.e. “I am the type of person that ______”.
– Something I like to call “Almanacing”: An uncharacteristically itemized discussion of details in a character’s history. Examples: “I graduated law school from Harvard” or “He left home two years ago and we’ve been living all alone since.”
– An unclear relationship between the characters… not so much establishing the base relationship like “mother-daughter” or “coworkers”, but establishing the contextual heat and weight of how the two characters get along, e.g. whether they like or hate each other, how one feels about or affects the other, how they commonly interact, etc.
– Debating “fake facts”: Two characters arguing who did what or what is or isn’t true, in lieu of moving the scene forward through exploring their relationship.
– Bailing on your character’s essential action. This is not necessarily conceding an in-scene conflict, which can be done while still maintaining a character’s essential action or point of view. A bail is usually out of character and clearly a choice of the performer rather than the character.
– Bargaining and transaction scenes.
– Two people who don’t know each other at all, instead of a scene with two people who do know each other well.
– Qualitative platitudes, e.g. “I love _____” or “The best _____ ever” or “I hate _____”.
– A character’s lack of an essential action, or what some call the objective. It’s the thing motivating and driving the character in that scene. It’s an important element of acting, and important to improv too, whether or not improvisers practice it. (The essential action is also a key way to avoid “corpsing”, aka breaking into laughter during a scene)

Over the last week I have watched improv scenes and sets while, without tracking any performer names or even much about the scenes themselves… writing down any instances of the above situations occurring. I even wrote them down for my scenes afterward, and I certainly made a few of them myself.

I wrote instances down whether the scene was going great or going buh, even if they were parts of really good moves. I only noted the moves to see how often these instances occurred, not to judge any of the scenes or performers.

So far, four particular moves have risen above the others:

– Meta commentary: Talking about objects in the space, about tasks that you’re doing, about yourself i.e. “I am the type of person that ______”
– Talking about people outside of the scene
– Talking about the past
– Talking about the future

Almost all the other items in the larger list happened with some regularity (about 10-15 times in the scenes I’ve surveyed the last couple weeks). Scenes where people don’t know each other have only happened twice out of the dozens of scenes I’ve watched during this study.

However, the four items I noted above occurred 30-40 times. And the good news is they all can be addressed by focusing on one simple thing: The current relationship in the moment between the characters on stage. This has in turn helped me focus on avoiding the listed habits, and countering with more present and connected moves. This exercise also gives me a helpful point of focus in watching scenes, making the exercise of watching classmates or so-so show scenes a more interesting and fruitful one.

Rather than be paralyzed by such a laundry list (incidentally, Mick Napier has an exercise where he cuts off scenes whenever anyone does any of these things), it helps reinforce the importance of the moment, of essential actions and the character relationships on driving a fruitful and fun scene.

I’ll continue this survey over time, and see if any other trends emerge.

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