Monday, July 13, 2009

Question 1: The suck

From a reader: Are you taking questions? Would you answer them in blog form?
  • What do you do when your scene partner gives you nothing, and takes everything you give and puts it essentially in a void?
  • In relation to that, what techniques can you use when your scene partner throws so much random crap at you that there is NO possible way that you can rationalize it all?

Dude. It is not easy to improvise with a black hole—or a supernova.

But eventually we all find ourselves there…in jams, in workshops, in classes, in our own troupes on a bad night…hell, in meetings at work.

And here is what I believe, at least after 12 oz. of a waaaay-better-than-expected Missouri wine from Cellar Rat: This is no time to play a slavish game of “yes, and.” This is a time to play hard-core Annoyance style and take care of yourself. I’ll quote an interview with Mick Napier about his approach:
If I want to help my partner onstage then I need to take care of myself first and take care of my own power first, otherwise all I’m supporting my own insecurity and my own fear, which is not very supportive.
You'll notice that Mick never says, "Be an asshole." This isn't about screwing your scene partner back to avenge your perceived screwing-over. It's about making the decision to take care of slash control what you can—which, as Susan Messing says, is your own body—nothing more.

Here's what I think that looks like.

The Black Hole

You're getting nothing. No. Thing. Fine. Take the Steve Martin approach: "I don't need you. I can do this scene alone. I often do."

Make sure you have a strong character—whether it's built from something physical, intellectual, emotional, whatever. Knowing who you are is going to be critical, because you're going to let everything that happens make you more of who you are. (Thanks to Joe Bill and Mark Sutton for practice doing this.)

The person you're sharing the stage with, in this case, isn't really performing as your partner—but s/he can be your muse. Dave Razowsky says everything you need to know is in your scene partner's face. When your character is strong enough, even a blank stare is enough to set you off—and, to squeeze some of Bill Arnett's workshop into it, you can react even to the most ridiculous thing by just saying what your character would say. Do the next logical thing.

Here's the deal: You're the grownup, in this case. Playing the martyr is bullshit. You may have to initiate, or you may find it more fun to react and respond, but you have the power to make a choice that will make the scene better.

To paraphrase Joe Gideon: "You can't make it a great scene. I don't even know if you can make it a good scene. But, if you keep trying and don't quit, I know you can make it a better scene."

The Supernova

This (thank you, Wikipedia) is what happens: "The explosion expels much or all of a star's material[2] at a velocity of up to a tenth the speed of light (30,000 km/s), driving a shock wave[3] into the surrounding interstellar medium."

So it could be even worse than the black hole.

It might be a character who talks in paragraphs instead of sentences and WON'T SHUT THE HELL UP. Or someone who starts scene-painting before your first line of dialogue because they have an IDEA! AN IDEA AND IT'S SO VERY EXCITING TO HAVE AN IDEA!!!!* Or someone who doesn't realize that you don't have to FORCE INTERESTING THINGS TO HAPPEN ALL THE TIME and insists on turning you into things like bugs or robots or on making you seven years old or notices that SUDDENLY SOMETHING WEIRD IS HAPPENING. Or someone who just denies the fuck out of everything you say or won't let you, under any circumstances, have what you want.

The supernova improviser could destroy everything in its path. EXCEPT YOU. Because you are powerful. (See above.) There are a bunch of different fun ways to play this. My favorites:
  • Revel in being the low status character/victim. Everything your scene partner does is wise and right and good, and your character clearly doesn't understand/is a moron/is unworthy.
  • Focus on the relationship. Everything is innuendo or a metaphor. Handy lines: "I know what you're really saying." "When you get like this, it makes me ______." "But that's not really what this is about/why you called me here, is it?" "I love you."
  • Make the weird shit normal, and focus on the relationship. If it's turning into some bizarro world, let the world be normal so you can ground it in a relationship. ("OMG! You're a bee!" "Obviously. But this bee wants your body.")
Here's the cool thing about improv: If you know the chords and are comfortable with your instrument, you can join in the jam. And even if you're not all that good, the people who are better than you have the power to take care of things.

On one trip to Chicago with my improv kids, my friend Tim Mason, who plays with Second City, invited me to join their improv jam. I hadn't played regularly in years. I felt rusty and stupid. But (in addition to taking some serious shit from my kids about pushing against my comfort zones), Tim said, "We'll take care of you." They did. I relaxed, and didn't completely suck.

At one point or another, you'll be the improviser who has to take care of someone. When you do, remember to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others.

So, KC Improv Person Who Asked The Question, I hope this answered it. But I'd love to hear how others deal...

*Real conversation between me and an improv pal:
HIM: I had to hold myself back from saying, "There's a dead hooker on the table in the kitchen."
ME: Um. Thank you.


  1. Once you get past the name-dropping, there might be some good advice in there. Geek.

    The one thing I've tried to keep in mind when I've gotten railroaded is to stay professional. You owe it to your audience, and you can take solace in the fact that a large number of them understand what is happening. Salvage what you can and keep your cool; the scene will end eventually. And you may get a good story out of it.

    If it's a recurring issue, fix the improv or fix the cast. Life's too short to improvise with willful buffoons.

  2. "Life's too short to improvise with willful buffoons" would make an excellent t-shirt.

    Also, just to clarify...I don't name drop to show off. I do it so it doesn't seem like I'm taking credit for an idea that isn't mine. I steal from a LOT of people and have very few thoughts of my own.

  3. My questions are: Why are you holding back saying, "There's a dead hooker on the table in the kitchen."? Would it have been the initiating line of the scene? If so, don't hold back, say it! There's a world of possibilities at your disposal, so go play and have fun.

    Is it in response to something your scene partner said? There are a couple ways to break this down. Is it being said just for the sake of being weird or unusual - something out of left field - or because you feel the scene isn't going anywhere and that's as good a place to go as any? If so, then you might want to hang onto that, save it for later, because chances are you're saying it out of fear - fear of what is or isn't happening on stage at the moment, fear that you don't know what's going on with your character or your scene partner, fear that the audience thinks you suck, you get the idea. If it's the truth of your character - you went into the scene with the idea that you are an investigator or a frightened call girl/gigolo or a quirky taxidermist - then again, I say don't hold back, say it! Sure, it might not make sense initially, but you are now approaching the scene and your partner from a position of power and the audience is in for a white-knuckle thrill ride of discovery.

  4. My feeling is that 99% of the time someone wants to scene paint a dead hooker on to your kitchen table, it's "being said just for the sake of being weird or unusual" to get a laugh. I'm agin' that.

  5. I wanna know who this anonymous person is asking questions, and why they afraid of posting them on city3? This would have been a perfect opportunity to use the heavily requested "serious answers only" thread.


    I was going to post a link to that thread, but It looks like it has been removed. Probably due to inactivity. Oh well.

    To throw in my two bits, I would say that if you are worried about being thrown off by another performer while one stage, then perhaps it is you that is not ready to be put up in front of an audience.

  6. If a question is posted on City 3 and no one answers, was it ever really asked?

  7. And to comment on the hooker, a few posts ago was all about going blue in a show. Now you don't want hookers in the kitchen? Trish, you're all over the place.

  8. It's like getting nekkid. All about time and place, man.

  9. I think the "dead hooker in the kitchen" comment has less to do with going blue and more to do with just saying something outlandish with no regard for what to do with it. Some people confuse off-the-wall with interesting.

    And I'm fully aware that your name-dropping is rooted in geekdom; otherwise, I'd have called you a show-off.

  10. Jared, I sent Trish the questions, but I didn't write them. A friend posted them elsewhere and got no response. I didn't think who the questions came from was that important a detail, as I've been wondering the same things, and I figured other relatively new improvisers might be as well.

    I think I forgot that thread existed on city3.

    Anyway, thank you, Trish (et al). In the first case, I'm more often the culprit than the annoyed scene partner, and I can probably use the advice from the other side to break a bad habit or two.

    That dead hooker was my mother,

  11. I hate the dead hooker. It's almost always a cop-out and a pimp. And the person who called it almost never has the decency to confess to the crime. You killed the hooker! Admit it!

  12. The dead hooker on the table is wearing a tube top, of course. Did I mention that? It's sparkly, too.


New rule: I'm not approving anonymous comments. If you want to sit at the grownup table, you have to sign your name.

Now c'mon. Pick a fight.