Why Bill Arnett says you should play it real

I have known Bill Arnett for some time. I think I first became aware of him when I was teaching at iO Chicago. Bill has always been a thoughtful improviser, teacher and director with a stellar reputation. As a fan of his improv blog, I was excited to find out that he recently put together a book explaining his philosophy on improv and how to execute it with some terrific exercises that have been classroom tested.

In the book, The Complete Improviser, Bill outlines five basic assumptions that we should all have about improv audiences. From these assumptions, he offers his advice on how to do the most effective improv. Below is an expert from the book that explains the first assumption.

ASSUMPTION 1: A truthful, reasonable, and clearly played scene will hold the audience’s attention.

Since the invention of the printing press in 1450, 129 million different books have been printed. Most titles have been forgotten and have fallen out of print. There are, however, some famous books still in print and still being read. Some are really old. Books like The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, and the works of Shakespeare come to mind. They deal with complex questions of humanity and have so successfully captured the timeless spirit of humankind that they resonate with readers today.

There’s another book to add to this list of really old, still-in-print books, a book I took as inspiration for the title of my book. It was written in 1653 by Izaak Walton. It isn’t about kings or love affairs or epic adventures. It’s about fishing. After 350 years, The Compleat Angler, is still in print.

Does it contain secret fishing knots and fly-tying techniques indispensable even to today’s modern fisherman? Not really. The subtitle of the book is “A Contemplative Man’s Recreation,” and much of the book is spent in contemplation of what it means to be a fisherman. It spends just as much time on the psychology of fish as it does on the psychology of people. By his own admission, Mr. Walton was only an average fisherman, but for him the bait, lures, and different ways of casting were secondary to the spirit – the truth – of the fisherman.

It is this foray into the truth of the moment, and not just into fishing technique, that has held our attention and kept The Compleat Angler in print.

What can we say about our improv scenes? Are they just a demonstration of proper technique, or do they feature real humans living real human lives? The first assumption – a truthful, reasonable, and clearly played scene will hold an audience’s attention – illustrates a perfect baseline for our improv scenes. We don’t need to be funny to capture and hold the audience’s attention. We just need to be real.

Being real onstage, something called drama, has worked successfully for countless not-funny books, plays, and movies. So why can’t it work for improv? For one thing, players often hear “drama” and “play real” and do scenes about people with cancer, but drama and reality simply mean portraying the people and behaviors of typical daily life, not just the occasional heightened experiences or brief moments of tragedy.

Attempting to play true to life can be tricky for experienced improvisers because it puts us in conflict with some traditional improv rules. Much of the well-meaning improv advice that I was trained with (don’t say no, don’t ask questions, don’t talk about people that aren’t there) prevents many of the real moments that happen to us in our lives from ever appearing onstage. In my life, I have said no, asked questions, and talked about people that weren’t there. So, based on my first assumption, out go the old rules and in comes this advice:

Playing the simple reality that your scene presents to you is always a strong and correct choice.

To read the complete version of Bill Arnett’s new book, The Complete Improviser, you can purchase it on Amazon for $15.

Interested in trying a new approach to your improv? Check out Jimmy Carrane’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Feb. 22. Only $259 if you sign up by Feb. 8!