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