In theory, using a suggestion that an audience member throws out at the top of an improv scene should be easy. But in the hands of inexperienced of improvisers, a simple suggestion can cause an entire scene to fall flat. Often, improvisers either over complicate the suggestion, taking themselves out of the moment, or they hit it so hard over the head that not only do we insult the audience but anybody in a three-mile radius.
The suggestion is there to help us, to inspire us, not to get in our way. Here are three very easy ways to use the suggestion that will make you look like a improv genius.
1. Don’t use it
You heard me right. Throw the damn thing out. Ignore it. TJ and Dave don’t use a suggestion and instead they just begin their show by saying “Trust us, this is all made up,” and you don’t leave thinking the show was any less brilliant or that they weren’t really improvising because they didn’t use a suggestion.
I cannot tell you how many times I have gone completely deer-in-the-headlights-blank when an audience member has thrown out a suggestion. It continues to happen more times than I care to admit. When I get a suggestion for the improvised scenes in Improv Nerd, I am totally blank about 80 percent of the time. The difference today is I don’t panic as much, because I trust my skills as an improviser I know the audience will understand that I’m improvising, even if I don’t use their suggestion. I have had plenty of accomplished improvisers on Improv Nerd say with no shame that they often don’t use suggestion at all. If it doesn’t work for them, they ignore it.
Personally, I’d rather see an improviser not use a suggestion than smash it over the head. Nothing drives me more nuts than when players get a suggestion of “cheese” and in about four seconds they go from brilliant to stupid as they try to mention the word cheese over and over again in every single scene. We get it; the suggestion was “cheese.” Keep it simple, for my sake, and put the sledge hammer down and ignore the suggestion.
2. Use it to create an environment
If you are going to use a suggestion, one great way of doing it is to use it to inspire an environment. In fact, this technique is so simple, you’ll feel like you are cheating.
Let’s say the suggestion is “rubber.” Ask yourself where would I find rubber? Then free associate. Rubber makes me think about tires, so I could be in car, I could be on the side of a road, I could be in the pit crew for a race car. Rubber also makes me think of rubber ducky, so we could be in a bathroom or in a baby’s room or a toy store or a kid’s birthday party.
Going to the environment is great because you can usually discover more about your character and your relationship to your scene partner more quickly through the environment. Let’s say “rubber” made you think of tires, which made you think of factory. You could play blue collar workers. Rubber also make me think of condoms, so you could be in the back seat after having sex, or you could be teenagers who had just lost their virginity.
Dan Bakkedahl illustrated this beautifully in his recent episode of Improv Nerd when we got the suggestion beauty shop. Instead of simply focusing on the environment, he used the environment to inform his character, and we ended up playing two stereotypical gay hair dressers who worked there.
3. Use it to embody a character
This one is a bit more advanced. Instead of taking the suggestion to create the environment, instead you can use it to help you form your character or your character’s point of view. Let’s say the suggestion is pumpkin. Pumpkin makes me think of something round, and round makes me think of fat and lazy, so I would probably embody a fat and lazy person, maybe someone so big that he can’t get out of his bed and needs people to bring food to him. Pumpkin makes me think of Halloween, Halloween makes me think of scary, so I could I play a person who is afraid. Pumpkin also makes me think of Charlie Brown, so I could play a person who never had anything go right in his life.
Recently we had Dave Koechner on Improv Nerd, and he gave us a graduate school class in this method. He got the suggestion of kitchen and showed us how you can create a point of view from anything in the kitchen. For example, kitchen could make you think of knife, and that could mean shiny, so you could play a shiny bright person with a positive point of view. Or, knife could also mean cutting, so you could create a person who is more cutting and more of a jerk.
No matter how you use a suggestion, remember that there is no right way to use it. As long as it’s not bogging down your choices or your scene, you’re going to be fine. I’d love to hear how you use a suggestion to kick off a scene. Let me know!