Intense Improv 101

I'm halfway done with an intense-beginner improv lesson series. It's a jam-packed 3.5 hour weekly lesson, with a cohort of 10 students. Our homework was to watch live improv, and reflect on concepts we’ve covered. This post reflects on my improv experience, and doubles as my homework assignment.

Everything is an offer

An offer is any input to a scene. So everything you say or do has impact on how a scene is built.

I thought the point of improv was to be funny myself. But that doesn’t go very far, because good improv is collaboration. The best offers account for the collective context built by my scene partners as well. A mindset of 'Does my offer move us all forward?' prioritizes collaboration over ineffective focus on myself.

Achieve Agreement

Improvisers are in agreement when they’ve created and accepted a shared reality. Scenes begin with little context, upon which improvisers start building that reality. Using a technique called 'Yes, and...', improvisers extend each others' thinking to advance the scene:

Scene: Two soldiers in trenches.

Alice: We've been stuck here forever! Bob: Yes, and we need to call for backup...

Yet agreement is not universal. We can always nudge the scene in another direction, while still accepting base reality:

Alice: Hand me that box of grenades! Bob: I’m afraid we’re all out. But we do have…

Improv looks easy from the outside. All you have to do is show up and say whatever, right? Having been on in the inside now, I can safely say there’s much more to it.

There’s an infinite number of ways to go with a scene, but far fewer ways that lead somewhere useful. There’s even fewer ways once you account for all the shared context. Not to mention if the right ways come to mind in during the urgency of a scene.

Showing up is a start. But saying whatever is not enough. It takes listening, strategy, and effort - all in the face of uncertainty - to achieve agreement.

Justify Justify Justify

Justification give scenes rationale; it ties everything together. Our job as improvisers is to give scenes a reason to live through justification:

Alice: We’re so ready for this skydive! Bob: Yeah, good thing we brought a cameraman to this tandem stunt!

Effective justification adds clarity to what’s happening around components of a scene:

  1. Who are the people in this scene?
  2. What are they doing together?
  3. Where is the scene taking place?

In scenes, specificity adds constraint. And constraint breeds freedom. While it’s tempting to make vague offers to leave things open for others, it can become a crutch. It’s rare to be so specific that you can’t wiggle your way out of it, so err on the side of detail!

You can’t break it.

Mistakes don’t matter. It costs nothing to start from scratch. If something doesn’t work during a scene, just toss it. This is not an invite to bomb, or discard scenes at a whim. But this does mean feel free to experiment with scenes, and adjust without worry. It’s great to have successful scenes when everyone is on the same page. But the reality is (especially in the beginning), things will not be perfect a lot of the time.

In some sense, improv is about making the most of experimentation. This takes a while to internalize completely; it’s human to be mistake-averse. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.

Build momentum to roll with it later.

Scenes have little detail at the outset: Example: Two people operating a nuclear reactor

  • Why are there only two people operating the reactor?
  • Are these people qualified at all?
  • Are these people emotionally stable?

The initial moments have an outsized impact on the rest of the scene. Aim to fill in the blanks with an intent to capitalize on it later. Scenes I’ve enjoyed the most share this quality building of up to something bigger. Eventually, there’s a tipping point after hilarity ensues smoothly. Working hard to get the scene “architecture” right gives everyone involved a springboard for later.

Slower is better

I’m on high alert in the beginnings of a scene. Who knows what prompt is coming? It’s natural to feel vigilant. Alertness can turn into urgency if I let it. I act without thinking and it’s the wrong move. I end up offloading my tension onto the scene. It’s frenzy if that energy gains steam among everyone else.

A few moments to pause, breath and collect my thoughts is extremely valuable. It enables thoughtful engagement with the scene. At the very least, it buys my scene partners some time attempt the same. It’s even better when we can all make it happen for each other.

Slower is better in the long run. No harm in measuring twice.