In baseball, the most elite athletes are called “5 Tool Players.” These all-stars specialize in five different categories: hitting for average, hitting for power, running the bases, fielding, and throwing. Because improvisers and professional athletes are so often compared (due to our similar income levels), I thought it’d be interesting to see what traits would make a “5-Tool Improviser.”
Here are the best traits you need to be a great all-around improviser:
- Hitting For Average — Scene Work
It doesn’t matter what position you play, you will always have a job as long as you can maintain a high batting average. The same goes for your ability to perform scene work. If you have the ability to step into a two-person scene and execute grounded, patient play, you will always be able to find yourself a team or a slot to perform. It’s the foundation of all improvisation.
- Hitting For Power — Characters
Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays… all were players who could change an entire game with a single swing any time they stepped into the batter’s box. If you want to be a power hitter in improv, you’ve got to be able to come up with iconic, three-dimensional characters. Improvisers who can create memorable characters can dramatically shift the energy of a show and have a lasting impact on an audience for years. As The Second City’s Michael Gelman used to say, when an audience leaves a show, they won’t remember the exact plot of what was happening in each scene, but they will remember the characters that made them laugh.
- Baserunning — Musical Ability
Good base runners are electric athletes who specialize in scoring runs. Likewise, brilliant vocalists are electric improvisers who specialize in scoring points with your audience. Nothing lights up a crowd more than when the keys start playing, and someone confidently steps down stage and belts out an impressive tune. You can improve your mechanics to sing better, but you can’t teach raw vocal ability, just like you can’t teach speed. And just like it’s fun to watch someone sprint, boy, is it fun to watch someone sing.
- Fielding — Willingness to play for the audience, not yourself
Snagging flies, fielding grounders, running down a pickle… yeoman’s work. Fielding is rarely sexy, and for improvisers, putting the audience’s pleasure above your own isn’t either. Some improvisers do too many bits on stage that are inside jokes with their friends, or they make references to things only improvisers will understand that goes over the audience’s heads. As satisfying as it is to stroke our own egos, we have to remember the only people we should perform for is the audience. Without them, we’re just doing rehearsal. Grab your glove, get down in the dirt, and make them laugh.
- Throwing – Listening
Having a strong and accurate throwing arm helps you prevent problems or stop them from getting worse. This arm prevents doubles from turning into triples. It stops runners from stealing second. It guns down someone at home plate from deep right field. Being able to throw is a basic skill that we often take for granted, but it’s essential in being a great player. The same is true for listening in improv. Hanging onto every word and making direct eye contact with your scene partners will not necessarily win you any big laughs on its own, but it will prevent you from losing track of the scene and allow you to make stronger, more authentic discoveries alongside your audience.
Sam Bowers was the director of Improv Nerd with Jimmy Carrane for five years. He has toured nationally with ComedySportz, created The Second City’s “24 Hour Sketch Comedy Competition,” and is a member of the iO Cagematch’s “Greatest Team Of All Time,” LL Cool Beans. Sam lives in New York where he’s the producer for Doctor Mike. Follow him @SamDonaldBowers.