Glued to the Back Line in Improv Scenes

We have all been that person stuck on the back line during an improv show terrified to step out and do a scene. We stand there, unable to move our bodies. We’re paralyzed, convinced we have been crazy-glued to the back wall, and we only become unstuck when the show is over.

Sometimes we are lucky and the Improv Gods smile on us, and one of our noble teammates peels us off the back wall, throwing us into a scene, like a lobster into a boiling pot of water.

But the question is, is it helpful to pull a reluctant teammate into a scene or is this co-dependent?

In one of my recent Advanced Art of Slow Comedy improv classes, one of the students was grabbing people who were stuck on the back line and doing scenes with them. Then later, we had a thoughtful discussion about whether that was a good idea or not.

So I called my friend, Dan Bakkedahl, a master improviser and wonderful actor, and someone I admire very much, and asked his thoughts. Dan said a cast member, Jim Zulivic, pulled him into a scene when he was playing his first improv set on Second City’s Main Stage.

“(I thought), Oh my God, what is he doing?” Dan said. “Even though I was frightened, he did me a big favor.”

Dan then went on to tell me about a Harold team that he was on where they were encouraged to pull people into improv scenes if they were hanging back on the back line. After a while the team stopped that because it wasn’t working for the team anymore.

I was always very appreciative when people pulled me into improv scenes when I was starting out, and I like to pull others in as well. But I am also super co-dependent, and when you spend too much time focusing on others, you ruin your chance of getting better yourself. Improv is about give and take. Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in your group, you also don’t want to always take on the role of the rescuer.

In class, a student asked me how I changed from being scared and standing on the back wall to getting out into improv scenes. For me, I started jumping into scenes when I got sick and tired of not getting out there. It was the pain of feeling shitty after the show that gave me the courage to change, and you don’t ever want to take that away from someone, because I needed to bottom out on that to get where I am today.

So, ultimately, how you decide whether to pull someone into a scene or let them sweat it out on the back line is all about balance. Sometimes we have to help our teammates, and sometimes we need to let them help themselves. Good luck experimenting and finding the balance that works for you. I would love to get your thoughts on this subject, so please let me know.

The Fastest Ways to Connect with the Audience

In most improv classes, you learn how to connect with your partner – how to mirror their energy, make your partner look good, build off the last thing that was said, all the stuff we like to say to you about good scene work. But what they don’t usually teach you is how to connect with the audience.

And let me tell you, there is nothing worse than watching improvisers up on stage who are doing lots of jokey improv and who aren’t connected to the audience at all. It’s painful, empty and annoying, almost like you’re watching people who have an inside joke that you’re not part of. It may even be funny, but you leave with that feeling that something was missing.

What makes improvisation so exciting is that is a shared experience between the players and the audience. That’s why a recorded version of an improv show will never be as good as actually being there.

Unfortunately, a lot of improvisers either choose to ignore the audience, pretending they’re not there, or worse, they treat the audience like an adversary, making it us against them.

Instead, we need to treat the audience like the third person in the scene. This doesn’t mean we need to play or pander to them – we don’t. If we learn to connect with them more, this problem will take care of itself.

Here are my top three tips for the fastest ways to connect with the audience:

1. Be Honest — Nothing will connect you faster to audience then revealing some truth about yourself or being vulnerable. We have lots of opportunities to be honest and vulnerable in improv – whether it’s in a scene as a character or in a monologue in a Harold or Armando – and every time we reveal a truth from our lives, the audience gets more on your side.

For example, let’s say you’re playing a character, and in real life, the last time you went on a date you farted while you were having sex and you felt embarrassed about it. So take that shame you felt and put it into an initiation at the top of a scene. You could say something like “Oh my god, I can’t believe you just did that!” or “The reason I didn’t call you back is that I farted when we had sex,” and see where that takes you.

Being honest won’t always generate a laugh. Sometime they will be awed, sometime they will be silent, and sometimes they’ll gasp, but they will always be connected to you because you are doing something they are terrified of doing.

In a recent episode of Improv Nerd, my guest, Dan Bakkedahl was brutally honest about quitting Second City, leaving the Daily Show and his insecurities. My favorite movement was when we both admitted we were afraid of Charna Halpern. In life, being that vulnerable may look like a weakness, but on stage it’s a strength.

2. Reveal Emotions — As an actor and an improviser, expressing emotions will connect you to the audience. Whether you’re expressing joy, sadness, fear or anger, using strong emotions helps connect you to the audience, because, again, you’re doing something they are terrified of doing in real life.

In the interview part of Improv Nerd with Dan Bakkedahl, he expressed both tears of gratitude and tears of sadness, as well a range of other emotions. When we did our scene, where we played two hair dressers, he again showed a range of emotions for that character. By expressing these emotions, rather than lightly staying on the surface, the audience was hooked.

Too many improvisers don’t allow themselves to get really mad or really sad in a scene. They stop their emotions half way, covering them up by making a joke. Instead, the more real your reactions, the more the audience will identify with you.

3. Use Humor – Humor can break down barriers both on stage and off and laughter naturally connects people. That’s why they’re willing to pay to come to your show in the first place. The problem is improvisers rely way too much on this and since comedy is subjective, what you think is funny might not be funny to other people. If you put all your eggs in the humor basket, your shows maybe me funny, but you are short-changing yourselves and your audience. If there is no truth in what you are doing up there, and your characters aren’t emotionally invested in their situations, your audience will walk away thinking they were missing something — and they would be right.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy classes start April 12 (Advanced) and April 14 (Intermediate). Plus, he has a Two-Person Scene Tune-Up workshop on April 5! Register today.