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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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