The first couple of seconds at the top of any improv scene is crucial, and if you don’t panic you will be able to increase your chances of doing some great improvisation. Here are the top five most common mistakes:
1. Starting with a Problem
Nothing will stop a scene faster than starting with a problem. Usually it looks like this: Two improvisers hit the stage and the first thing that comes out of one of their mouths is a problem like: “We are out of gas.” As an audience we don’t care, and worse, we know where this scene is going. Problems at the top a scene do not connect us to our partner. We think they do, but they are as frustrating to watch as they are to be in them.
SOLUTION 1: If the first line you think of is “We are out of gas,” before you say it out loud, change it into a positive statement: “We’ve got a full tank of gas.” Okay, it might not be the most brilliant initiation you have come up with, but it’s 100 times better than a problem.
SOLUTION 2: If your partner starts with a problem, react to what they’ve said and make it personal. So you could respond to “We are out of gas” with “Good, we really haven’t spent much time together since you went off to college.” Remember, the audience doesn’t give a shit about the gas and whether you get or it not. What we care about is the relationship.
2. Playing Strangers
This is such a common mistake that I keep seeing over and over again: Two improvisers come out on stage and play complete strangers. Ninety-five percent of the time these scenes go nowhere. The only thing they seem to accomplish is to test our patience.
SOLUTION: Do yourself a favor and assume you know the person in your scene. You could have known them for a couple of hours or 10 years, it doesn’t matter. But we don’t want to see the first time you two meet. We have better things to do with our time.
3. Hitting the Suggestion Over the Head
Easily the most annoying one. If the suggestion is pineapple, your first line does not need to be “Mmm, I love Pineapple” as you frantically eat a pineapple. This will turn an audience off, and it should, because you are treating them like a bunch dopes. The one thing I have learned from my guests on Improv Nerd is there is no one way to use a suggestion. You can use it to inspire you with a character, emotions, attitude, environment or objects. Some improvisers don’t use it all.
SOLUTION: If the suggestion is tripping you up and putting you in your head, don’t use it for now. It’s better not to use the suggestion than to jump on stage and say “Mmm, I love pineapple” like it’s the smartest thing you’ve ever said on stage. What I’ve found helpful is to use the suggestion to discover an environment: Pineapple makes me think of beach, or hotel, or cabana, or pool, or airplane, or airport. I have six locations, and I don’t ever have to say the fucking word pineapple.
4. Not Looking at Your Partner
Listening can be done in silence. If you don’t take a couple of seconds to look at your partner’s face, you’re not listening, and you sure as hell are not connecting to him or her. I don’t care what brand or method of improv you prefer, the best improvisers are the ones who are connected to their partners.
There is a reason we say “your partner is the most important person on stage.” It’s not for them, it’s for us, so we can get out of own way. I cannot tell you how many improvisers don’t check in with their partner on stage. It only take a couple of seconds, and you can still come in with that big character that you love playing or say that killer opening line. In improv, we are trained to do multiple things at a time, but let us not forget the most important one of them all: connecting with our partner. Without them, we have nothing to react to.
SOLUTION: This is an exercise you can use in class or rehearsal. Go out on stage and don’t plan anything. Look at your partner’s face to get the initiation for the scene. So if you go out there and she looks sad, you may say: “I know break ups are never easy.” If you go out there and she looks happy, you could say: “We are going to be great parents.”
5. Not Starting in the Middle
Sometimes, improvisers establish a relationship, but they don’t start the scene in the middle of the action. Instead, they talk about absolutely nothing. It goes something like this. “Hey, wanna go to the movies? “Yeah, great. How about Anchor Man 2?” “Sure, it’s playing at 8:15.” This goes on for a couple of minutes, but it feels like an eternity because there is no meat to the scene. They haven’t started in the middle.
SOLUTION: I got this from Jack Bronis, a wonderful teacher at Second City: Start a scene with a secret that you’ve been holding onto for six months that you have to tell the other person about. Reveal it in the first couple of lines. The higher the stakes of your secret, the more mileage you will get out of it. For example: “I know we’re only on our third date, but I want to marry you,” or “I know I’m your step brother, but I’ve always had a crush on you” are great meaty opening lines that start in the middle of the action.