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5 Mistakes to Avoid at the Top of an Improv Scene

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.

Feeling a little rusty in your improv? Want to work with other advanced players to up your game? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Advanced Two-Person Scene Tune Up on June 1, 2019! ONLY A FEW SPOTS LEFT!

Don't be afraid of anger

Anger is one of the most intimate emotions and the one many improvisers are most terrified to play on stage. Instead of thinking of anger as a gift to their partner, they think they are doing something wrong. And when even a hint of it starts to bubble up in scene, they stop it immediately, backing away from it like a hot stove. They shove it down, deny it, suppressing the emotion and the scene. Afterwards, they will say things like “I wanted to get angry, but you’re not supposed to get angry. Anger is conflict and you told us we were supposed to avoid conflict.”

It’s safe to say many improvisers are confused about playing angry. Let’s be clear: Anger is not conflict, anger is an emotion. And emotions are energy that can fuel a scene.

Improv Tips: How to use anger in an improv scene

“Ok,” you’re thinking. “Now what do we do about it?”

Easy. First, when anger comes up in a scene, look at is as a gift that you are giving to your partner, they same way you would when supporting a game or building off of the the last thing that was said. You are giving them an emotional gift — something they can react off of, which creates energy and tension — all necessary ingredients for comedy.

Second, when anger comes up, heighten the emotion and commit to it 100 percent, knowing that if you commit your ass off it will transform into another emotion.

Think of the last time you had argument or fight with someone you were close to. You started out yelling at the person, knowing physically you can only do that for so long. Then it transformed into exhaustion or you started crying or laughing hysterically. Either way the anger was transformed. If you deny or suppress anger and only commit to it lightly, you will never give it a chance to transform, and that energy will be trapped inside of you, causing you to feel stuck.

Finally, and most important, is “Agree Through The Anger.” When most improvisers hear someone screaming at them in a scene, they naturally want to defend themselves, just like we do in life. This causes the players to get defensive, which leads to an argument and typically degenerates into a whole “Yes I did… No you didn’t… You’re such a jerk” kind of scene that goes nowhere.

Instead, agree your way through the anger. Take a look at the improv scene below.

Man: (Very angry and accusatory) I can’t believe you flushed the pot down the toilet.

Woman: (Very angry and accusatory back) I am tired of you being high around the baby.

Man: (Self righteous) It was Chuck’s weed.

Woman: (Enraged) Your freaking dealer was over here? In our house?!

Man: (Enraged back) Yeah, his neighbor has been snooping around, and he was afraid he’d call the cops, so was like ‘Could you store this for me?’ That’s what friends do!

Woman: (Incredulous) In C-a-r-oline’s diaper!

Man: Yes, I am taking care of you and this family. I am not willing to risk everything I work hard for to be taken away from us.

Woman: You have not worked in two years, Stu. You are on unemployment!

Man: And if you get a felony do you think you are still eligible? They will take that right away from you before you even go to court.

 

As the argument gets more and more heated, keep agreeing and adding specifics that heighten the stakes of the scene. If you do this, you will start looking forward to adding anger to your scene work and won’t be so afraid of it!

Improv Tips for Your Life: I have seen this work in my real life as well. My girlfriend used to say, “Are you making fun of me?” I always agree to this question and say, “Yes, I am always making fun of you.” It diffuses the situation and it’s fun to watch people’s responses. The words “thank you” are also always a good substitute for “yes” in life. People have said “You are so mean,” or “You are so selfish.” Instead of defending it, I say “thank you” and then watch their jaws drop.

Improv Tips: Stop creating a problem

Jimmy Carrane and Ryan ArchibaldLately, I have been noticing that students in my improv classes feel they have to create some sort of problem at the top of the scene.

They’ll say something like: “You didn’t pay the rent,” or “Oh, great you broke the TV, now what?” or “I broke Mom’s favorite vase.”

This is not a good initiation. A better one would be something where you state how you’re feeling about the other person or noticing how they’re feeling. You could say, “I feel hurt you didn’t come to my birthday party,” or “Boy, Carol, you look sad today.”

I can’t think of anything that will bring a scene to screeching halt faster than INVENTING some problem.

By inventing a problem, you automatically put the other players into plot mode. Instead of improvising, they will be desperately trying to “play write” themselves out of corner. Plot is death to improvising. I have even seen scenes going along nicely and then out of nowhere one of the players will slam on the brakes by manufacturing some cliché problem. It’s tragic to watch.

Why do improvisers do this? The simple answer is fear. We are afraid that nothing is happening in the scene, when really, the opposite is true. Instead of taking a couple of seconds to breathe and focus on our partner, we’d rather rely on our cleverness, our words, to force something into the scene that doesn’t belong. Forcing something, like “You broke my mom’s favorite vase” or “You did not pay the rent again,” makes us feel safe and in control, and in the process we stop improvising. We traded the feeling of “being in the moment” for the illusion of being in charge.

Of course, there are other reasons improvisers create “problems” on stage, too. Are you the type of person who is always creating problems that you can avoid the connection and the joy in your life? If so, then chances are you may be doing the same thing in your improvising.

Improv Tips to Try

Next time you’re up on stage, try this: When you start panicking, stop and wait in the silence, then look for the emotion in the scene that’s already there. You’ll find you have great stuff to work with.