For the last 8 weeks I’ve been secretly taking Improv 101 over at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles. This is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life!
“Melly, are you dropping photography and becoming an actor?”
No, not at all! As I mentioned in previous posts innately I’m an incredibly, shy person and throughout the years of developing myself as a photographer I’ve had to push myself to become more assertive and creatively more bold. Although the first thought of what a photographer does is hide behind a large camera and push a button –I assure you there’s more to it then that. In many situations a photographer is hire to direct and art direct a shoot in addition to the actual shooting. To push myself to becoming a better director I decided to put myself in a very uncomfortable position –on stage in front of a live audience.
By putting myself in the spotlight I not only walked a mile in my subjects’ shoes, I also was challenged to be confident and commit to the choices I made during a scene (or not give a f*ck –whatever you want call it.) I can confidently say improv has definitely made me a better director and that I’ve found a new creative outlet (you can bet I’m taking Improv 201.) Here are the key points from Improv 101 that are applicable to any creative person:
Establish the Base Reality: Who? What? Where?
At the start of the scene you and your scene partner need to establish a foundation for the scene: (as my teacher who drill into my head) What is the Who, What, and Where? Who as in what was the relationship between my partner and I. Were we friends, parents, lovers, students, janitors, etc. What as in what were we doing. Where as in where was the scene taking place. Although this information is self-explanatory it’s very necessary as a foundation. Without having a base reality it’s hard to heighten the scene without it looking too forced or absolutely crazy.
With my creative projects keeping a base reality in mind helps me build upon ideas and concepts.
Doing what comes to your mind first is the most honest you can be in a scene. If you try to think of something that could be funny and then act on it, it’s probably not funny and you’re going to fall flat on your face. The funny in improv comes from the build up of the little honest moments regarding what’s weird or quirky in your scene.
Being honest to yourself is also one of the hardest things with doing anything creative for a living. To be honest with your own art direction you need to be able to tune out what your peers are doing and what’s trending then do what comes naturally and innately to you.
Since everything performed is made up on the spot without prep or written parts a scene would die if you’re not listening to your scene partner. As scene partners you’re each giving each other material to work off of. You react and continue to develop your character and the situation based off what is said. If you’re not listening you might break the logic of the scene or create more work for yourself.
There’s No Such Thing As Being Too Specific
As you and your scene partner are listening and feeding each other material to build the scene with, you shouldn’t be afraid to give specific details about whatever you’re talking about. Specific details as in the beautiful use of adjective. If you’re doing a scene in a kitchen the way you describe it defines a lot about you and your partner’s characters. If it’s an old, grimy, sticky and yellow kitchen that has it’s utensils wrapped in aluminum foil and plastic wrap with plastic boxes and mounds of cigarette ash outside –you guys are probably a pair of workers in a C-graded Chinese restaurant. Or if it’s a pristine, steel and spotless kitchen with perfectly matching top of the line utensils and everyone is dressed in almost clinical white and working on specially one task while getting barked at by an angry European man –you guys are probably in Chef Ramsay’s kitchen.
The small details add up and say a lot of about the story at hand.
If You’re Going to Go Big, Commit!
My teacher would often pause scenes in my class to ask us where we were going with Who we were. Many times we’d be in the works of building up to being an extremely character or straight man. He’d quickly reply that if we were aiming to be a particular character to jump right into it. Committing to the creative decisions that you’re making right away will get the audience as the same page as you. If you take too long to get there you’re going to lose them.
I think the fear of commitment holds back a lot of creatives. If you’re going to be a creative person go all the way, don’t have one foot on each side of the fence.
Be Willing to Fall Flat on Your Face
As with everything else with life you got to be willing to make mistakes and fail. When you’re performing in front of a live audience there is always a chance that they’re not going to vibe with you and then think of you as a clumsy, fool on stage. With any of your creative choices there’s always going to be chance that our ideas aren’t as grandiose as we thought. There’s always going to be a chance that you’re going to blow a lot of budget on something that won’t work or thing just won’t seem to fit together in the end. This shouldn’t hinder you from trying out an idea though. The direct feedback you’ll receive from falling smack dab on your face will pinpoint what you need to work on and help you grow.
And if you don’t grow you’ll fall back onto your face until you get the message. 😉
Never Anticipate the Blackout
At the end of my graduation show my teacher told us to never anticipate the blackout, when the lights go down and the scene has ended, because mentally as improv actor we’ll stop working and feeding lines to each other. It’s like going into a game expecting to lose. If you’ve already lost in your mind then you’ve already mentally checked out and handed the win to the other team.
Metaphorically this applies to all creative fields. If you have a creative project you’re trying to put together and you keep finding excuses to not start/can’t finish because it’s not going to be good enough, it’s not original, I don’t have money, etc.. you’re already expecting to fail and then guess what you will fail. Whatever you’re investing your time and resources into commit to it and don’t expect to fail.
And in the occasion that you do blackout it’s not the end of the world. Get back up and try again. There’s always other options or perspectives if you’re willing to look for them.
You can enroll in classes online (and maybe be my 201 classmate!?) or pick up the manual, Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, on Amazon.