Musical improv

Play to the Top of Your Intelligence

Anyone who’s taken an improv class has probably heard the teacher say “play to the top your intelligence,” and if you are like most improvisers, you’re not quite sure what they mean.

Believe me, I’ve been saying that in my classes for more than 20 years and sometimes I’m confused by it.

If you asked ten different improvisers what “play to the top of your intelligence” means, you’d probably get ten different answers. That is what makes improv so fascinating and frustrating at the same time.

Improviser Katie Novotny, who has gone through Levels A through E at Second City and Level 1 at iO Chicago, recently sent us an email about what “playing to the top of your intelligence” means to her:

Play to the height of your intelligence. I’ve heard it. I thought I understood it. But it wasn’t until Level D, Week 6 with Michael Gellman that it really clicked for me – not just on stage, but in my real life as well.

A male classmate initiated.

“I can’t believe you slept with Jason.”

“Psh, Jason slept with me.”

I was shocked those words came out of my mouth. I battled (as most female improvisers do) being put into the role of the girlfriend, the slut, etc. with many male counterparts in my short time improvising. But this was different. I was the high-status hero. I played to the height of my intelligence. I did it. After that class, I realized that I shouldn’t only be playing to the height of my intelligence when I’m on stage, but in every aspect of my life. Stop skating by at work. Stop letting friendships fizzle. Stop treating your body like shit. Be the best “Me” in all facets of my life. Now, my bosses are recognizing my improvements. My friendships are reignited. I’ve lost weight. This improv principle not only makes me a better improviser, it makes me a better person.

Del Close believed when you hit the stage that you actually got dumber, because when people are afraid they want to make broad, obvious choices because they think they are funnier.

For me, I think playing to the top of your intelligence means not making the obvious choice, but instead making the choice that comes from honesty, that reflects life. Katie’s example is perfect. By not playing the obvious choice, Katie’s character comes across as more real, more true to life, and therefore the character is stronger and more three-dimensional.

Playing to the top of your intelligence also means not pretending not to know something that you do. For example, when most improvisers are starting out, if they are asked to sing or dance in a scene, they will sing and dance poorly because they think that is funnier choice, but 95% of the time it not.

There was amazing Harold Team when I was starting out called Grime and Punishment, with Tim Meadows, Mick Napier, Dave Razowsky, Rich Laible and Madeline Long. Periodically, these guys would break out in ballet. Though none of them were professional dancers, they didn’t try to dance badly. They totally committed to it, and after a couple of minutes you were like, “Shit, these guys are good!”

Or take the musical improv group Baby Wants Candy. These guys are not always the best singers, but it doesn’t matter. They don’t apologize for the singing, they do it the best of their ability.

So if you really can sing or dance, or speak French, or know a lot about the Civil War, and it comes up in scene, by all mean use it. Don’t pretend you can’t because you think that’s funnier.

My experience is that learning how to play to the top of my intelligence didn’t come over night, and sometimes I still relapse and make obvious, dumb choices, usually because I panic. But the more comfortable you are with yourself and your life experiences, the more you can start playing it real.

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4 replies
  1. Stuart Green
    Stuart Green says:

    Thanks Jimmy,
    I’m glad you chimed in on this and think that there’s similar grist to the term “Heightening” a scene. In regards to playing at the top of your intelligence, I agree with the importance of taking yourself into account. It’s like we come onstage showing the best tip of our IQ Iceberg (a solid floating mass of what we’ve learned and how we apply it), with the knowledge that there’s fertile ground to be explored, if we honor connections with our present scene partners, and aren’t afraid to engage our past or thoughts about the future. I hope that makes sense.



  2. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    The top shelf of my intelligence sits very low in the scheme of Who’s Who. But when it comes to politics, my curiosity is boundless.

    A few blogs ago, in one of my favorite blogs to frequent, Improv Nerd, Jimmy Carrane wrote a piece called “When Lincoln Did Improv.”

    I googled the Gettysburg Address. I read it. I re-read it. I re-re-read it, dedicating myself to the task of committing Lincoln’s pithy masterpiece to memory.

    Essentially, the Gettysburg Address follows the rule of three’s. It’s broken down into three parts. I’m here to report, I have two-thirds down. But the last third won’t stick.

    No biggie!

    In the scheme of Who’s Who, I’ll never be a memory champion. But then again, I’m not particularly interested in treating my imagination like a drill sergeant.

    Thank you, Jimmy Carrane, for creating a safe place where grown ass men can play make believe.

  3. Jordan Weimer
    Jordan Weimer says:

    I feel like it’s an obvious choice to “play to the top of your intelligence” by playing a smart character. A dynamic emotionally loaded dumb character is really fun for me to play. I like that juxtaposition. Or, a dumb character that is unknowingly brilliant. There’s always something below the surface that I like to play with. Vulnerability masked by aggression. Arrogance masked by vulnerability. Aggression masked by arrogance. It’s fun to figure out why a character has an emotion and to find a way to expose the characters core. Gellman guided me repeatedly to cut deeper and deeper into a character’s soul until the true nature of the character’s deepest emotions where clear. “I’m a professional ultimate frisbee player. How dare you cut me from the team like I’m nothing. I was your best player for six consecutive seasons! You can’t cut me I paid for the team t-shirts and half of you didn’t pay me back! I don’t care if last week I called all of you losers. I’m not off the team. You’re all off the team.” It’s always fun to discover the true nature of a character or relationship dynamic of people of which you previously had never even seriously thought about. Fun stuff every time.

  4. John Michalski
    John Michalski says:

    I have always believed that your big mind needs all of it’s resources to create and guide the choices of your character mind … To play dumb about something is always stronger if you have knowledge about that something so you can shape the character choices. Dumbness can often be used as a tool to create profound accidents in dialog … Use all you know … know all you know … choose what you share. Hey, are you coming to my show Friday (improv inst reunion) … if not send friends … we need an audience … Love to see you.


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