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Guess what? You're acting

This message is going out to all you talented, young improvisers out there: Good improv is good acting.

I know what you are thinking: “I am doing comedy, I don’t need to be a better actor.” Or maybe you’re you didn’t even realize that what you are doing on stage when you’re improvising IS acting. I am here to tell you that it is, and that the better you get at acting, the better you will be at improv.

If you say that you don’t want to learn how to act, it’s like saying you don’t want to learn how to do object work or learn how to do yes… and. How many more father and son scenes can we see where the improvisers aren’t really emotionally invested in the relationship? Naming someone “Dad” in scene does not mean you have created a relationship that the audience cares about. We’re doing theater, here, people. If we’re not acting, we’re just doing a parlor game, and a hacky one at that.

I just had John Hartman on Improv Nerd this past week, and we did a scene where I was a restaurant manager who was trying to get his employee to keep working during the lunch rush instead of going to see his wife have their baby. What made the scene great was John’s emotional reactions to me as the bullying manager. Because we were both invested in our characters, the audience was invested in us. We were acting.

I’ve taken Meisner classes, cold reading classes and scene study classes over the years, and the biggest thing I’ve realize is that it’s not about the words, it’s about the connection. We believe a character by who he IS and not always what he says. I know improv is slightly different and the words are important to keeping a scene going forward, but if you are willing to put the acting first and the words (i.e. trying to be witty or clever) second, you will see a big difference in your work.

Recently, in my Advanced Level class of The Art of Slow Comedy, I had student who was naturally funny and a seasoned improviser who seemed to be getting in his own way by worrying about being funny. I could relate, so I gave him this note early on in the six-week class: “Think of this as an acting class.”

Gradually his work came to life. He focused on listening and emotionally connecting to his partner. His scene work became fluid and he even admitted a couple of times in class that he resisted going for the laugh. That’s always a great sign that he took the note to heart and was willing to try a different approach to the work.

And it paid off. At the last class we did a long form performance for family and friends, and he and the group hit it out of the park. Because he was listening and reacting to his partner on stage, he was ten times as funny and 100 times more compelling to watch. He was acting. After the show, when I was giving notes, he said the thing that help him the most was the note “Think of this like an acting class.”

Personally, I forget this note all the time and need to be reminded. When I am terrified to improvise, I will sometimes call my friend, Bill Boehler, before a show, and say “I don’t feel funny,” or “I am afraid,” and he will say “All you have to do is act up there.” I am not the most gifted actor, but I know exactly what he means.

So to all you talented young improvisers out there, “All you have to is just act up there.”

Going to the dark side

There’s been something coming up lately in my improv classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, that I call the dark side.

Students will be doing a scene with a so-called dark subject matter — pedophilia, racism, abortion — and the scene will end up being more dramatic than funny. Afterwards, the students will look shaken and have a stunned look on their face, and the first thing that will come out their mouths is, “What’s the point of doing that? It’s not funny.”

In most cases it’s not. Is it emotionally compelling? Yes. Funny? Some of the time. As Norm Holly from Second City recently said to me, it takes a sophisticated player to make dark subject matter funny.

So if you’re just starting out in improv, what’s the point to doing a gut-wrenching scene about finding out your girlfriend had an abortion she never told you about or playing a creepy neighbor who is having sex with a 14-year-old?

The point is going to the dark side helps you learn how to act.

Listen up, here, because this important. First and foremost YOU ARE AN ACTOR, which means you have to learn how to react with emotional honestly. Before you can play something funny, you have to learn how to play it real.

You might think that improv is just comedy, not acting, but that is not true. The best improvisers usually are the best actors, and if you want to go on to do work that eventually pays and gives you more exposure, like commercials, TV and film, you are going to have get comfortable with just acting.

I totally get why improvisers resist doing dark scenes. Often, improvisers are also afraid to play dark characters because they think when they get off stage people may think they are actually the character they just portrayed.

But learning how to go to the dark side is important because we need to learn how play a variety of characters and a variety of emotions. The goal of an improviser is to play all spectrums of life, the dark and the light, and to use all the colors of your palate. Most improvisers have the whole playing positive thing down pretty well, but they need to be pushed toward the thing they avoid the most — the dark side of life.

If you want to be good at long form, you have carry “variety” in your tool belt and be able to do the dark scenes as well as the positive scenes.

So if you find yourself doing a dark, dramatic gut-wrenching scene about date raping your girlfriend — and it will happen, it’s bound to happen, I hope it happens — by all means stay with it. Commit even more to the emotions, heighten the drama and then when it’s over, see what it’s like to come out on the other side.

Whatever you do, don’t rip yourself off from this experience by bailing on yourself and scene partner by trying to turn it into something funny. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Actually it’s good, and it doesn’t have to make sense while you are doing it.

Trust me, you will learn a lot from this — how far you are willing to go, how far you need to go, what it’s like to take up that much space on stage and not be funny, what you can do next time to make it funny, and on and on.

Sometimes it’s just helpful for an improviser to go there, swinging the pendulum to other side, just to see how it feels. And when you are finished, by all means ask your teacher: “What was the point of that? It isn’t funny.” And see what happens.

It's not about being funnny

Steve Waltien and Improv Nerd comedy podcastIt’s Not About Being Funny

If improv is not about being funny, then what is it?

You’ve heard it a million times: Improv is not about being funny. But what does that mean? If it’s not supposed to be funny, what’s it supposed to be?

I have students pull me aside all the time after one of my improv classes saying, “I am not funny,” or “I am not feeling funny.” I’ll have students look dazed and confused after doing a wonderful scene and say “But it wasn’t funny.” Like that is the point.

Recently, I had Steve Waltien from Second City’s Main Stage as my guest on Improv Nerd, a comedy podcast and live show. He is a great improviser who also happens to be very funny, and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s not about being funny on stage, it’s about being interesting on stage. That’s it!

When I studied with Del Close back in ’80s, he beat it into our heads that improv is not about being funny. I have adopted that philosophy in my teaching and in performing as well.

What I failed to see in my teaching was that by telling students that it’s not supposed to be funny, I was not offering them an alternative, so they didn’t know what it was supposed to be. And on some level I didn’t fully understand it myself, until now.

The point of improv is to show the audience recognizable behaviors, stuff from real life. And the thing I like about what Steve said is we can all be interesting. We all are interesting, unless we are worried about being funny, because there is nothing less interesting than a person worrying if he is funny.

I had a student the other day in one of my improv classes, and in the scene she was watching TV and was not paying attention to her husband as he was putting away the groceries. It was so simple and played so real and they were both so emotionally connected that you thought you were watching a play. I could relate to what they were doing, because this kind of thing happens between me and my wife all the time, and I imagine most people could, too. That is the best kind of scene: behavior we recognize from our own lives.The best laughs will usually come when the audience can recognize behavior that is universal.

Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to this. You have to learn to be grounded and real on stage. You have to learn to emotionally react to your partner. You have to learn to listen and build off the last thing they said, you have to agree and follow the game in the scene. If you do this, you are bound to be funny. The funny will find you. If you put the funny first, you have no craft to rely on, none whatsoever. It’s no longer a skill, but a game of chance, and the odds are not in your favor.