The House That Del Built

The Intellectual Musings of an Improv Wonk.

Why You Two? Why Today?

In almost every improv program I’ve been through, from high school to college to my professional training as an adult, I’ve gone through the initial and ubiquitous “three line scene” drill. You know the one—it’s a little different everywhere but it generally works like this: the class or team divides into two groups on either side of the stage, one of whom is responsible for the initiation, the other of whom is responsible for the response, followed by one more line from the initiator. Usually you do it where the two people then switch sides and go to the end of the other line so that each person gets to initiate and respond. The first time I did it I learned it as “Who what? Who where? Raise the stakes.” In other words, the first person says who they are and what you guys are doing, the second says who they are and where you’re doing it, and the first person then adds something to the situation that increases the tension/heightens the conflict/etc. Since then I’ve experienced this same drill with some variation in every course of study I’ve been in. I’ve even written it into various curricula I’ve created for schools and theaters. And there’s a definite value to codifying the moves like that as an early introduction to the structure of an improv scene, but recently I’ve also noticed a few potential flaws with it as an early introduction to scenework, especially in terms of the results I get from students and its efficacy on their growth as performers. Primarily:

  1. That it teaches students that if this information is not introduced in the first three lines of the scene, your scene will be, if not ruined, somehow “in the hole.”
  2. That it teaches students that they are individually responsible for a part of the scene, rather than collectively responsible for the whole.
  3. That it teaches students that the “work” of a two-person scene can somehow be codified, distributed, and “checked off” as it is done.

And so lately, perhaps because of those pitfalls I’ve noticed, perhaps because I’ve spent most of my directing time with very experienced improvisers who already know the basics, or perhaps because I’m always looking for more efficient and effective ways to get good results, I’ve found myself dropping the “two rows/three lines” scene learning model for a more holistic approach to teaching basic scenework, even to students new to improv. This holistic approach still focuses on the scene start as a place to make the important initial discoveries of the scene, but instead of assigning roles and dividing students into those roles, any two students/performers can come out together, the admonition being that, within the first “several” lines (so as not to put a determinate limit on exactly how long they have to achieve their goal) the pair of performers must answer the questions Why you two? and Why today? In other words,why does this scene have to be between these two characters and not any other combination of characters, and why are we watching this particular moment in these characters’ relationship as opposed to any other moment we could have been dropped into?

This shift from the “Who what? Who where? Raise the stakes,” or any other “Person A does x; Person B does y; Person A counters with z” model does a few specific things, namely:

  1. It puts the onus on the collective rather than the individual.
  2. It privileges relationship over setting or action.

This first item means that no specific line need carry with it any particular data, but that between the two performers, there should be a sense of clarity around what’s important about the scene within the first several lines. If your scene partner starts with a clear premise that involves the two of you riding the rapids in a kayak, you might feel the “Why today?” building, but you’ll sense that the “Why you two?” still needs establishing and offer up the context of the relationship (“I’m so glad we came on this daddy-daughter trip” or “I wonder if the kids are okay with the babysitter?”). Or maybe you’ll find yourself wanting to amp up the “Why today?” with a huge rapid up ahead, in which case the “Why you two?” still needs answering, but now within the context of those heightened stakes. There’s no “right way” to get through this information as much as there is an implicit agreement that it will be established in one way or the other early enough that the two of you will be able to use it to appropriately follow the thread of whatever ends up being the comedic center (the “game,” if you like) of the scene once it emerges.

Neither does the second item above mean that nothing is happening in the scene (the “Why today?” implicitly requires an event or interaction of significance), but rather that the action is led by the weight given to the relationship at hand, or vice-versa; it implies an interconnectedness of character, relationship, and action that makes the events of the scene feel less arbitrary (“We need to be doing something interesting because this is an improv scene!”) and more natural (“We are doing this thing because of how it fits with who we are” or “Because of who we are, we are doing this thing in this particular way”). The “Why today?” also allows stakes to be addressed (Mark Gellman loved to remind us all the time in my Second City Conservatory class —usually with an aggressive bark from the back corner of the room—that “Today’s the day!”) without artificially “raising” them in a single, self-consciously crafted statement.

Of course, the primary objection to this kind of holistic approach is one to which I’ve already alluded—new students to improv need structures, the conventional wisdom goes. Sure, when you get good you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be self-conscious about covering all the information or what the game of the scene is, etc. But someone who’s never done this before will be lost at sea without some concrete rules to their initial scenic interactions, one could argue.

But, frankly, I just haven’t found that to be the case, no matter how much I once thought it was true. And the reason it doesn’t end up being true is because the people I’m teaching or coaching are, you know, people—people who’ve been in relationships, gotten themselves into difficult situations, engaged in confrontations with other people, loved, lost, and loved again. Instead of treating them like people who’ve “never done this before,” then, we can treat them like people who’ve done whatever “this” is every day of their lives. And all we are teaching them is how to simulate that “this” on stage. And that “this”—the reality of living—is collaborative, and starts from who you are and with whom you find yourself. You’re not assigned specific lines or kinds of lines in a confrontation with your boss about being overlooked for that promotion. And it may or may not matter whether you’re in his office or in a conference room or by the water cooler. And if it matters you’ll acknowledge that location, and if it doesn’t it might be perfectly sufficient to know that you are somewhere in a work environment. And if the person playing the boss decides to establish in the third line that you’ve barged into her home at midnight, that will change the dynamic of the relationship, and the stakes of the encounter, and that will be great. But she doesn’t have to do that just to fulfill some rule of scenic exposition or heightening.

I’m not saying that (especially new) performers won’t need some side-coaching or coaxing toward more impactful choices, more authentic relationships or more resonant details, but allowing them to feel when a scene locks in based on organic choices will empower them more quickly to recreate that feeling without the training wheels of line restrictions that can make the scenes of young performers feel stiff and overly technical. And sure, no matter what, it will take time for new performers to get to a place where the majority of their scenes just naturally find their comedic center. But, staying with the bike riding metaphor for a moment, “training wheels” are actually somewhat of a misnomer, since the most important part of riding a bicycle—relying on and trusting the physics involved in the interaction between you and the machine—isn’t something you can ever truly feel until those two wheels on either side are removed. In fact, those wheels are keeping the rider from experiencing the intuitive kinesthetic experience that allows most people to successfully ride a bike.

It’s actually a crazy thing that, in the end, bikes are so simple to ride. In fact, apparently scientists aren’t even really sure exactly why bicycles actually work (No, seriously!). And yet this strangely inexplicable and somewhat counterintuitive phenomenon has become the basis of the idiom for an activity that is so intuitive that once you learn it you never forget it.

So think back to when you learned to ride a bike. Your mom or dad gave you pointers, of course. They reminded you to keep the handlebars steady, to keep your eyes open, to keep pedaling no matter what. But in the end, it wasn’t until your parents let go and you felt the bike lift itself, and you with it, into that invisible track that held it suspended perpendicular to the ground along two thin strips of rubber, that you understood what it meant to ride a bike. And then, even when you inevitably fell—that time and a hundred times after that—you knew the feeling you were chasing. And you knew when you felt it, not just because there was a certain pleasure that was unique to the experience, but because when you did feel it, you knew it meant you had the freedom and means to go anywhere.

The Fourth Wall in Improv

The “fourth wall,” that invisible barrier set up between the edge of the stage and the audience and meant to separate the fictional world of the performance from the real world that the audience inhabits, came into existence (at least as a conscious psychological and artistic object) in the 19th century with the advent of theatrical realism. Unlike with, for example, Shakespeare, where characters frequently spoke “asides” that were both “to” the audience and ignorant of their existence, realism did not allow for such ambiguity. If you are in the world of the play, the audience does not exist; if you address or acknowledge the audience in any way, you have “broken the fourth wall” and are now in the realm of metatheatricality.

Of course, recently, many television comedies (The Office taking the lead among them) have popularized the use of the camera (and hence, by extension, the audience) as a complicit participant in the action. I’ll leave what this means to television critics and media scholars, but I do think, especially in light of improvisational comedy’s influence on contemporary comedy in general (at this point, most current comedy writers and performers have been trained in improvisation), that it’s worth asking whether this rediscovered permeability of the fourth wall might relate to live improv’s relationship with this invisible barrier.

The reason why fourth wall-breaking moves in improv are particularly interesting to consider is that they have a way of making the audience feel complicit in a way that no other art form can. If a scripted play were to utilize these tactics it could be fun and surprising, but the audience will always remain conscious that the move was decided upon beforehand—by the playwright, the director—and acted out according to plan rather than according to some compelling, immediate reaction to the moment. Only in improv is there the potentially for the feeling that this choice to break through the wall was one that genuinely and necessarily grew out of the performance itself in real time.

There are, as I see it, three distinct categories of fourth wall-breaking in improv (but, of course, as many endless permutations as there are new scenes to perform) that both come from and lead to different places, with varying degrees of success in different ways. To wit:

  1. The “Meta” Break: This move occurs when performers literally stop the “make-believe” action of the show to talk about the show itself. This happens not infrequently in group games of Harolds where someone will begin with something like, “This show has had a lot of dinosaurs in it so far, huh?” Sometimes this move can be less directive, as when one performer might break in to another performer’s monologue with a “Wait, did that really happen to you?”, acknowledging that this person is, in fact, a performer who can be spoken to within the show itself. This kind of fourth wall-breaking is so overt that, once done, it usually either throws everyone off (if the players become self-conscious of the performative nature of their actions) or flavors the whole show (especially because one of the ways to structure especially a long form performance is to repeat noticeable patterns once they emerge). Given a “meta” move’s strong power over the performance, such shows either go very well or very badly, depending on both the performers’ comfort and skill with this style, and the audiences’ “gameness” for this type of performance at any given performance.
  2. The “Extending the World of the Scene” Break: If you’ve ever been to an improv show where one or more of the players on stage is suddenly out in the audience—in an empty seat, usually, but sometimes just standing somewhere in the house—you’ve seen this move. Sometimes it literally just means to show physical distance (two people are on opposite shores of a river calling to each other), in which case although the stage has been left, the fourth wall remains roughly intact in that the audience is still “ignored” in the course of the scene, even if it takes place among them. What does effectively break the fourth wall, however, is when that player in the audience is actually an audience member to the action on the stage. To be clear, it is not that they become part of the audience of the improv show in progress—instead, they are the audience for the spelling bee, or the parents in the risers at the big football game. In making this move, they actually bring the audience into the performance, not as they are currently, but as they are transformed into a theatricalized audience in the world of the scene. As an audience member, you are now parents at the spelling bee, the big game. You are in the show, cast in the role of spectator.
  3. The “Winking to the Audience” Break: The final kind of fourth wall-breaking has both less far-reaching effects than the first and is less conscious (or at least less planned) than the second. If you’ve ever seen a performer make a truly bad (or truly great) pun or pop culture reference or callback on stage you’ve probably seen it to one degree or another. They’ll say the line, hear the groan or the cheer or the laugh of recognition, and then quite often shake their head in shame, or smile, or half look to the audience and say—in a whisper or even out loud—“I’m sorry” or, “You’re welcome,” before moving on with the scene in character. It makes some sense—unlike other performative arts, the improviser is 100% responsible for the content that she produces, and producing that content in real time for a live audience means getting immediate feedback that a performer can sometimes feel obligated to acknowledge. It’s also a much more prevalent occurrence when the performer is in the more self-conscious “joke producing mode” than when they are in a more responsive, relationship-building performing stance. In other words, if you’re so immersed in your character and the scene that you “forget” you’re performing, its unlikely that you’ll even make that pun in the first place, or, if you do, you’ll make it because your character is the type of character who’d be compelled to make it, in which case, no acknowledgment of audience reaction is required, since your character sees no audience. While it isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing to ignore or acknowledge the audience in these cases, it’s worth noting when one finds oneself in each mode in order to take note of the relative success of each in a given show.

Again, each of these kinds of fourth-wall breaking, in their own way, have the effect of making the audience feel complicit, like “part of the show.” The negative side of this coin, however, is that, in the absence of a sense of predetermined purpose (as with scripted theatre), the audience can potentially see fourth-wall breaking as some sort of shortcut—something that doesn’t honor the work that’s happening on the stage or the suspension of disbelief agreed upon by both performers and audience when they show began.

I’ve written before about the dangers in destroying that suspension of disbelief. With no costumes or props and minimal sound and lighting, the only thing keeping the performers and the audience walking the tightrope of this suspension is the will of the audience and the skill of the performers to make that audience believe that these characters, created instantaneously before their eyes, are real enough to care about for as long as they exist on stage. In this case, performing any type of fourth wall-breaking can jeopardize that delicate balance, and, as such, is something not to be taken lightly or go unconsidered.

Regarding the first kind of fourth wall-breaking, as I mentioned, I find that it either works or doesn’t, but that it ends up taking over the entire flavor of a performance, for good or ill. That means if you engage in it, you have to be ready for it not to be a “one-off” gag but rather a show-defining choice. While this might be said for any move one makes in a show, a choice to “go meta” is one of the stronger and more influential choices one can make. Ask yourself if its worth it. Maybe it is. But know the risk you’re choosing.

The second type, if done as a last resort or an effort to add interest to a show, can feel cheap and forced. But if done skillfully, the performer has the power to bring the audience along into this moment of make-believe. There is, yes, a slight nod of the performer by even implicitly asking for the audience to pretend that, for the moment, they are playing too, and have become the audience to the thing being made up on stage. But if done with conviction rather than self-awareness, the performer can get the buy-in he needs to make the move work, and the fourth wall will remain intact after the move is over and the show shrinks back to the confines of the stage.

The third type, the one that says, “Yes, I know I said something funny/dumb/awesome/etc., and I know you heard,” provides a momentary heightening of the connection between you and the audience. But it should be noted that the connection that is heightened is the one between you the performer, and the audience, not you the character. Jim from the office can give the camera a knowing glance and he gets that feeling of intimacy with his character intact. We don’t think that Amy Poehler is talking to us when Leslie Knope gives an impassioned monologue to the camera about waffles. But alas, performers of live comedy do not have the extra layer of disconnect that comes with a recorded performance, watched by people on a device, in their homes. When we are on stage the audience always sees both the performer and the character. The fact that we walk out to the stage as ourselves, that we get a suggestion in our own voices and with our own personas, means that our fourth wall is rice paper thin.

So, maybe it’s just so thin that it effectively doesn’t exist? Maybe those conscious nods of the performer to the audience can and do occur because there’s no pretense that there is space between us? Honestly, that might just be the answer in some cases. But it probably depends on the type of show you’re doing. Doing short form where there are tons of breaks where the personas of the actual performers reveal themselves through game introductions, suggestion-getting, etc.? Maybe there’s not even a fourth wall to maintain, in which case it can be part of the fun to acknowledge when you’ve hit with the audience, and even more fun to acknowledge when you’ve missed. Performing for other improvisers and “improv nerds”? You could assume that the fourth wall is a formality easily dispensed with among friends and let them know you see them seeing you seeing them; but then again, these “trained audience members” might want to see you at your most focused, and may not want or need that periodic acknowledgment of their existence that an audience of short form assumed they’ll get. Performing artistic or experimental long form for a more traditional theater audience? You probably want to tone down the winks and try to give them a coherent performance that highlights and celebrates the power of improv to create sustainable and believable characters and worlds. Performing a Harold for a mixed crowd on a stage at an improv theater? You’re on your own, buddy.

In the end, one of the primary beauties of improv is its power to create meaningful experience based on the interaction between audience and performer in real time. But that doesn’t mean that interaction takes on the same character from show to show. Feel out your fourth wall. How thick is it tonight? How transparent? How tall? Is there a door in it? A window? Build it special for this show and this show only. Then tear it down if it feels right. After all, sometimes destruction itself is its own creative act.


An Annual Meditation


For about the last decade I’ve been saving quotes that have resonated with me for whatever reason. They speak to my morals, ethics, beliefs, dreams, selfish desires, whatever.

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten in the habit of reading them on 1st of the year. It’s the closest thing I have to a…

Thanks, Will. A great collection! The Saint-Expiry quote is especially poignant for me: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Gonna use that to inspire the start to my year as a performer, director, and producer.

Some Observations on Auditions and Gender

As an improv director, I’ve sat in on my fair share of auditions. It’s a great thing—seeing the new talent that’s coming up in a training center, or through the indie scene, or watching talent develop audition after audition. It’s also a weird little improv laboratory with conditions somewhat unlike the ones in which most improvisers usually find themselves. It’s being “judged”, after all, and not in that ComedySportz “the points are mostly for fun” way. How you perform in those 25-30 minutes affects your future at the theater for which you are auditioning. This should mean you show the auditors your best work, but, as we all know, can sometimes mean freezing up, getting stuck, “getting in your head,” and all the other things that can come with performance anxiety. To summarize, here are the components of an audition that can (sometimes and unfortunately) bring out less than our best:

Competition: It’s a weird thing. In improv auditions, people will often tell you to “make your scene partner look good.” And while we want to trust that by doing this, we will, in turn, look good ourselves, our lizard brain isn’t always so sure this method works. Even at our most altruistic, what one strives for in an audition is to make his/her scene partner look good, but to make him/herself look just enough better to be cast over that person in the case of a tie. It’s terribly mercenary, but it’s true nonetheless.

Lack of Intimacy/Trust: In most cases, you don’t really know the people you’re auditioning with. Or maybe you know them, but you haven’t spent months building the kind of rapport and trust that comes from being on a team together. You don’t necessarily trust that they’ll give the scene what it needs, and so you can, in a moment of panic, resort of standbys, clichés, etc. in order to maintain control and/or “show your stuff”.

Adrenaline: You’re anxious, excited, pumped. These are the moments when, if you know the other players well, you can all “turn off your brains” and give over to the group mind you’ve cultivated. But in an audition situation, that adrenaline rush can lead to some knee-jerk behaviors or moves that, when more in control of your faculties, you’d be able to stop almost subconsciously before they hit your mouth or your body.

By noticing these issues, I’m not suggesting we fundamentally change the way improv auditions run. I’m not even sure what that could or would look like. I’m just pointing out that auditions, by their nature, set up some specific and specifically anxiety-provoking conditions that can cause people to act in ways that they might otherwise have been trained out of or, in a calmer frame of mind, would be aware of the impact of, for both their scene partner and the quality of the work.

This is the unfortunate reality of the process, but it also means that you can learn a lot about a person from the moves they make when they’re in this kind of high-pressure scenario. In particular, I’ve started to notice that you can learn quite a bit about a man’s (sometimes subconscious) beliefs and assumptions about women from how he treats a female scene partner in an audition scene.

The truth is, you can see these behaviors outside of auditions, too, but I find them to be so much more prevalent under these heightened conditions. So if you’re a man and you do/did one of these at your last audition, don’t beat yourself up. You were nervous. It’s cool. We get it. I bet, in general, you totally love and respect women as equals both on and off stage. But if you read this list and say to yourself, “Hey! This is my improv bread and butter! That stuff is hilarious!”, you are doing yourself and your scene partners a disservice, and you probably need to do some serious soul-searching about how your see women as comedic partners.

By the way, I’m also not saying women don’t fall prey to this (I’ll get to them at the end). But I am saying that, in a persistently male-dominated field set within a persistently male-dominated society, men run a higher risk of exploiting or demeaning the women with whom they are on stage than the other way around. And with that, I present to you my list of the most frequent moves made by men, at the expense of women, in improv auditions:

  1. After already having established a perfectly sufficient “game” of the scene, the male character makes a negative comment about the female character’s appearance/sexuality in an attempt to add humor to the scene. The comment will almost always portray the female as insufficiently sexy or oversexed in a way that is meant to be comedic, but that the women neither established about her character beforehand nor feels is an authentic addition to her character (i.e. “You don’t shave your armpits?!” in a scene about two people in a yoga class or “Is this about how I wouldn’t sleep with you?” in a scene where a man is being fired by a female boss).
  2. After having established herself, either implicitly or explicitly, as a male in the scene, the male improviser denies the female improviser’s gender, often at the expense of the reality of the scene (i.e. the female establishes herself as the uncle teaching his nephew about sex and the male improviser says, “Aunt Bonnie, it’s a little weird that you’re giving me this talk instead of Uncle Ned” when the female had initiated with “Look, as your dad’s older brother I had to give him this talk when we were kids, and now I’m giving it to you.”) Notice that the gender denial often turns the focus of the scene on gender itself where it had not previously been, thereby once again changing the “game” of the scene and throwing off the comedic center at the expense of the female.
  3. When a female improviser establishes herself as an ambiguously-gendered character of higher status, the male improviser labels the female as a male, revealing his bias toward assuming that people of high status are generally male. While this can look like the reverse of #2, it is actually more like the contrapositive of it, revealing a similar bias regarding gender and power. Most women would agree, however, that this is a less egregious infraction than the previous two in that there is not a flat-out denial of a clearly established game or gender (although what it reveals about the male’s biases regarding women and power may be even more insidious because it is more subtle and harder to “call out” as a “mistake”).
  4. A hybrid between the three moves listed above, but which deserves its own mention for its ubiquity and specificity involves allowing the woman to retain high status as a woman but making the “game” of the scene about that disconnect (i.e. “It’s so crazy that we have a female president. Are you sure you can attend this Camp David peace talk on your period?!”). Like, #2, this is usually done either before the female has an opportunity to define the game in a non-gendered way or after a different game has been established.

Notice that in almost every case, the key to the move is to take power away from the female, either as the character or the improviser herself: claiming that her female character could not possibly have high status, or that if she does, her sexuality is involved; changing the game to put the female on her heels; denying her gender both implicitly and explicitly, which both throws off her performing and reduces her status both in the scene and outside of it. Unfortunately, in an audition scenario, a man can sometimes reap the benefit of reducing the perceived skill of his female scene partner by making these kinds of moves, although the astute auditor (male or female) can see through this trick to the lack of confidence and/or respect for the scene partner that lies beneath it.

And, women, we’re not off the hook here. When we get nervous, we often do the some of the same things that men do to us to ourselves and each other. I’d say, on the whole, we’re less problematic on the gender denial, but we’ll add in a sexualized dimension to a character or scene that’s probably not asking for it when we feel like it’s not getting the laughs we want, or we’ll fall back on the worst kind of stereotypes about our gender that we would never tolerate being assumed of us by men (or women) in real life. That’s not to say we can’t play women with issues/concerns unique to women on stage, but that we, too, have to be careful of “selling out” for the sake of the kind of retrograde laughter that only perpetuates outdated ideas about women (and men). Success on those negative terms only shows us that harmful gender stereotypes are still alive in our 21st century brains. Only by replacing them with a more authentic gender narrative will we be free and able, as men and women, to mine the truth in comedy that exists within all sorts of relationships and situations, gendered and otherwise. Reaching that place is the job of men and women alike, and we’ll only get there if we first look inward and acknowledge the biases we subconsciously maintain that are holding us back from revealing those deeper, more satisfying truths. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, so does the arc of comedy. Let’s follow it there. Or better yet, take the lead.

Dark Corners

When I was eighteen, I saw John Malkovich in The Libertine at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Years later, the specifics of the plot had become a blur. I knew that it was about a debaucherous man living in a particularly decorous time in English history (was he Victorian?) and that his debauchery eventually led to his demise (was it syphilis?). But the details were less important than the singular fact that something happened to me at the end of the play—during Malkovich’s final monologue, spoken over his character’s own dead body—that changed the course of my life forever.

I am not being melodramatic; I am not remembering it as more important than it was. Even in the moment itself I ascribed a supernatural, transcendent quality to the experience. My head was buzzing on the bus home from the theatre. When we arrived back at the dorm I couldn’t sit still. Something inside me was demanding that I devote my life, however futile the attempt, to creating moments (perhaps even only one moment in a lifetime of attempts) of artistic transcendence the way Malkovich had done in that play that night. I was so determined to create something right then and there that (and this you can corroborate with them if you’d like) one of my friends literally sat on my back while the other pinned my arms to the ground, insisting that there was no art to be made on a Friday night at midnight, and that it would do just fine to begin my lifelong and quixotic quest for transcendence in the morning.

The rest of my college career I spent trying to be a poet. It made sense—the title character of the play was himself a poet, and as an artistically high-minded spirit, I was under the impression that poetry was one of the loftier methods or exposing and expressing the human condition. I don’t think I was wrong about that, but there was something about my poetry that wasn’t quite getting to the place I wanted it to. I wasn’t bad at it, not for a twenty year old anyway. But there was something else “off” about my attempts to fully express myself and my understanding of the world through verse.

It wasn’t funny.

Which would be fine—most poetry isn’t—if it wasn’t so noticeably detached from what others saw to be my authentic spirit. I remember my BA advisor’s first note upon reading the draft of my BA project—a play-length poem about my relationship and break up with a guy I met (of all places) in my college improv team. “Why isn’t it funny?” my advisor asked, confused. To me the answer was obvious: This is a story of heartbreak and self-discovery and hope and loss—where would I put the jokes?! But I now realize that this was precisely what my advisor meant—that the play that I wrote about heartbreak and self-discovery and loss, if it were true, would also necessarily be funny. That humor was my default condition, and to deny that was to be inauthentic, even (or maybe especially) when addressing the most serious and important aspects of my life. 

I could have saved myself all of this misunderstanding if I’d just reread The Libertine a few days after I’d watched it, after the initial high had subsided. Instead, I waited exactly half a lifetime to see the play again in Boston when it was playing this month at Bridge Repertory. I was anxious to compare the lead actor’s performance to Malkovich’s and find it lacking in some way (the way no kiss will ever compare to your first kiss, if your first kiss was with a young Paul Newman). I didn’t even consider how reminding myself of the actual plot of the story would impact my understanding of one of the most important moments of my life, or how seeing a different interpretation of the play could potentially enrich my experience of it, rather than diminish the impact of the initial experience. And indeed, Bridge Repertory’s interpretation was different. There was something about the clip of the dialogue and the playfulness of the staging that highlighted something that seemed so obvious now but that I hadn’t noticed the first time around. Within the first five minutes of the play I had stopped comparing it to the Steppenwolf version and was instead struck by a realization almost as profound as the original one I’d had back in Chicago eighteen years prior: John Wilmot, The Earl of Rochester, infamous gadabout, drunk, and thorn in the side of the English Restoration, was a comedian.

How had I not remembered that? How had that obvious feature of his character not embedded itself in my mind the way Malkovich’s portrayal itself had? I did some research into the historical Earl of Rochester. Indeed, his contemporary Andrew Marvell called him “the best English satirist.” By all accounts, it seems that if he hadn’t allowed his personal excesses to rot his body (a bit more research revealed to me that he did, in fact, die of a venereal disease, although in the play they intimate that it was the kidney stones that took him) and his cynicism to rot his spirit, he would be remembered more widely for his brilliant satirical mind. The Restoration’s answer to Jon Stewart, if Jon Stewart was also a philandering drunk.

But I guess that’s precisely the point as well, since John Wilmot died at thirty-three, not having had nearly the influence or impact he could have had on the world. And it’s not just because he wasn’t good to his body. In the play, his greatest failing is depicted as excess, certainly. But his excesses of the body seem less important than the excesses of his own satirical perceptiveness. He was too acutely aware of man’s failings, too constantly reminded of the absurdity of living, to feel anything but disdain for himself and his fellow man. Only with his lover Elizabeth Barry, does he seem to find moments of quiet joy and appreciation for the beauty that exists between the horrible hypocrisy and despair of the human condition. But these moments are fleeting—he feels them only in the privacy of their bedchamber and can’t seem to leverage them into any kind of lasting happiness. One might say this is as it should be—that it is the nature of the satirist to see the meanness in himself and others, that in doing so he martyrs himself for us and provides us the kind of insights into our own condition that only someone so disturbingly aware of the dark corners of man’s motives can supply.

And indeed, any death at thirty-three will beg a Christ comparison. The Earl of Rochester, looking into the mirror of humanity and finding it lacking, reports his findings and is crucified for the truth he reveals. And that’s part of it. But here’s the other part: John Wilmot hated humanity, hated himself, too much to ever be a truly great satirist. Because only half of comedy is noticing the darkness and absurdity of the human condition. The other half, the harder half, involves loving people so much, having so much hope for their goodness and their intelligence and their ability to learn and grow and change, that you believe that holding the mirror up to their darkness will reveal to them a new light. It involves a belief that admitting how bad we are can help us be better—if even for a brief and fleeting moment—that acknowledging that humanity is doomed is a necessary step to its (however small and short-lived) salvation. To be a great comedian you have to believe that comedy matters, that it does something, that it works.

I didn’t realize the full significance of why that moment struck me back when I was eighteen because I hadn’t yet realized how profoundly I believed in the power of comedy, and didn’t have the foresight to see just how central a role it would play in my own life. And because, in that moment, I didn’t see Malkovich’s reading of the monologue as comedic, but rather cynical, angry, sad. As he said the line “There I go,” he flapped his arms through sleeves of a billowing white nightgown like an ironic angel who didn’t even believe in himself, and his gaze panned upward toward heaven. But now I realize, that is what a comedian is. Not a sad clown, but a reluctant angel, with powers he didn’t ask for and tasked with a mission for which he feels woefully unfit. The secret to not completely destroying oneself under the burden is not to believe in oneself, but to believe in others. A comedian’s martyrdom is less valuable to us than his minute but persistent hope that everything is not total shit. And if he can convince us that he has seen the dark corners of humanity and still persists in that hope, that is his gift to the world.

The Star and the Leaf

In one of my favorite musicals, The Fantasticks, the love-sick boy says of his romantic interest, “You are Polaris, or the inside of a leaf,” expressing poetically that sense of expanse and wonder that love can make us feel, both outwardly, endlessly out into universe, and inwardly, deep and seemingly without limit within our hearts. But what this character is expressing isn’t just poetical—it’s an actual mathematical reality. Things (or sets of things) can have different scales or sizes but still have a large (sometimes infinite) expanse within them. The inside of the leaf is physically smaller but potentially just as infinitely populated and intricate as a constellation. Both can mean the world in a moment.

One day I was thinking about this line, and questions of size, scale, and importance, and I said to myself (as I often do), “Self, what would this concept look like in an improv show?” Lucky for me, I have a little improv lab called Maxitor, and it’s full of not only some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with, but with people who are continually game to play guinea pig to my improv experiments. I think there are potentially infinite ways of playing with these two kinds of scale in a show, but here’s one we played around with that we call (in honor of the line that inspired it) the Star-Leaf Opening:

In keeping with the descriptions above, here the “star” represents expansiveness of space and the “leaf” represents the contracted but equally complex world of the leaf. The Star-Leaf opening, in its simplest form, is a set of three monologues where the first monologist begins with a real-life monologue, inspired from the suggestions, that feels “neutral” or “medium-sized.” This “neutrality” could be interpreted and executed in a number of ways (and really, as you’ll see, it’s somewhat up to the second monologist to decide on what point the neutrality hinges). But the basic idea is that, for example, it’s not the most traumatic, or intense, or life-changing thing that every happened to you. It’s not about something physically or emotionally “big.” It’s just a true, probably funny (but don’t worry too much about that) anecdote.

Monologist two then has the power to choose the hinge point (some attribute) of that monologue and expand it out in the largest possible way (the “Star” of the opening). This is similar to a standard monologue opening where the second person chooses an attribute or detail from the monologue to inspire theirs, but adds a conscious manipulation of scale to the pattern. 

Here, of course, “large” can mean a number of different things, just as when we heighten in general in improv there are many options for how to do so effectively. Two clear and easy heightens in the Star-Leaf monologue are stakes and/or size.  So, if the story was about how the monologist got corn stuck in her teeth once during a date, the second monologue might be about a time that the monologist was in the ICU and had three different IV-needles stuck in her arm because the nurses couldn’t find her vein (this happened to me once). In this case, the physical size of the stuck object is comparable, but the stakes involved are blown out (there was actual risk of serious bodily harm in the second, whereas in the first the result is likely just embarrassment). Or the second monologist could instead talk about the time when he created a scale model of the solar system only to have it get stuck in the car door on the ride to school and be destroyed. (Notice here that the size increase is symbolic but it works—it’s not the actual solar system, but a model of it.). I also use this example intentionally to show how the Star-Leaf opening does not restrict us to literal and linear interpretations of increased/decreased stakes and size. This is important for people who might feel like this opening would be too hard to execute because they “can’t think of a story that works.” In fact, anything will “work” if it feels like an expanding of some attribute of the first monologue.

Once monologist two is done, monologist three has the fun challenge of matching up with the previous two monologues by a) maintaining the pattern of the attribute that has been isolated (in the case of both examples here, things being “stuck” in things) and b) bringing the scale down to the small, even microscopic level represented by the inside of a leaf.

Again, creativity is involved. Despite the explicit nature of the formula, there are many stories that might track with the previous two. If we follow the stakes path where it was corn stuck during a date, then needles stuck in the ER, the third monologue could downgrade the stakes to an almost reversal by telling a story of a time when she was three and purposely tucked her skirt into her underwear because she liked how it looked (very low actual stakes, if any). Or the third monologue could go with the size manipulation that started with corn and went to the solar system. Here the monologist might be inspired to tell the story of the first time he saw an illustration of how viruses attack the body and was horrified to see what looked like a microscopic space ship sticking itself onto a cell and releasing its RNA into it (this also happened to me).

Really, in the end, this should look to the audience like a regular monologue opening. Very astute students of improv might notice how the monologues play with scale, but they might not. It doesn’t matter, because you’ve still generated the same amount and kind of material you would from a standard monologue opening, and by using a particular attribute as your hinge (“things getting stuck”) you’ve also generated the baseline of a theme to play with in your first beat. 

Inspired by the very Boston-free form notion of allowing the first moves of the show to dictate the style and structure of the rest of the show, we also played around with maintaining that “neutral-star-leaf” pattern in the scenework as well (playing with scale and stakes among the scenes in each beat, for example). It’s a nice point of inspiration, and can give the show a cool “expanding-contracting” feeling. Or, on the other hand, it can start to feel too forced, at which point you throw it off and just do great scenes.

And that’s probably the most important thing to remember with any prescribed structure or style or rule in improv. In the end, of course, no Harold or Party Quirks or Deconstruction or whatever the hell you love to do is worth anything if you’re not doing solid scenework, connecting, supporting and listening to the rhythm and needs of your fellow players and the show. Everything else is just bonus, in any scale.


Transformation and Decoration

Last month I was in France for the first time, and one of my favorite things we did was check out the incredibly well-curated Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Centre Pompidou (of course I had to go to France to see a great exhibition of an American artist). I’ve always found Lichtenstein to be one of those artists who you either “get” or “don’t,” and until last month, I was in the latter category. I understood his basic project—the idea of “transforming” of mass-produced images from popular culture into a kind of art that was a commentary on the production of itself—but I didn’t see it as much more than a slightly precious intellectual exercise.

Now, I may have no one but myself to blame for that opinion, but I will say that this particular exhibition of Lichtenstein’s work told a much richer and more complex story than the ones I’d been told before, so maybe I’ll put some of the blame of the curators of previous Lichtenstein exhibitions that over-represented his comic book transformations as somehow the only portion of his work worth presenting or discussing. The story this exhibit told, however, was must more expansive and inclusive, and suddenly struck me as quintessentially post-modern in a way I hadn’t considered before.  In particular, I was struck by this series of ceramic tableware Lichtenstein had created:

Except that it wasn’t really tableware. I mean, it looked like plates and cups and dishes. Presumably, one could even use them for that purpose. But to Lichtenstein, they were facsimiles of those objects—art pieces that approximated their functional cousins. As he explained: “I like the idea of a sculpture of a cup done in the material and size of the cup, so that there is no apparent difference between the cup and the sculpture of the cup, except, of course, for the decoration.” At first I found this commentary to be, again, somewhat precious. After all, if it looks like a cup and walks like a cup and quacks like a cup, it’s a goddamn cup! But apart from the almost tautological definition of such an object as art simply because the artist deems it so, there seemed to be something real to his claim that demanded exploration. After all, these “cups” would never be used to hold liquid. They would never sit in a cabinet, never be put in a dishwasher. They were cup sculptures. And it seemed that, for Lichtenstein, the key feature that differentiated them from actual cups was “the decoration.”

I sat with that concept for a while. I looked at the cup-like sculptures again. What was the essence of this “decoration”? Well, as with a lot of Lichtenstein’s work, the decoration simulates, in an almost cartoonish fashion, the play of light and shadow on the contour of the shape of the object. This was a major interest of Lichtenstein’s—the “flattening” of the three-dimensional object in space. What made these sculptures special was that, unlike much of his work—his paintings, even his sculptures of light fixtures themselves—he created these cups with dimensionality. They’re not flat paintings with painted-on simulations of contour. They’re three-dimensional objects upon which he has superimposed his own interpretation of how that dimensionality would interact with light in space at a certain fixed moment in time.

When an improviser creates a character in the world of a scene, he’s similarly “flattening” the three-dimensionality of the human experience. He doesn’t have the luxury or time to create a rich backstory for each character, to live in the character over weeks or months (as method actors do), to make that character almost live and breath in the world. No matter how masterful we are as improvisers, our characters are almost always facsimiles represented in a relatively fixed moment in time. Just as Lichtenstein’s cups are not cups, our characters are not people. They will never live outside of the world of the scenes we create for them and, in fact, will never live again once the lights are pulled. But for all that lack of permanence and function, we can give our characters elements of humanity that make them feel not just like facsimiles of people, but like works of art that conjure up the sense of what it means to be human. And that sense comes, as Lichtenstein realized, from the “decoration.”

As Lichtenstein did with his cups, the improviser must create the impression of dimensionality. And we can do this using the same method that Lichtenstein did: by observing the object (the cup, or the human being) in many different states, conditions, scenarios, etc. and taking note, without judgment, of what we see. By noting how space and time and experience “play upon” the object at various fixed moments so that we can faithfully recreate not the reality of those moments, but our unique rendering of that reality. That unique rendering is the improviser’s personal “decoration” of the character. It’s what makes my substitute teacher character different from yours, and our break-up scene different from theirs. And it shouldn’t mean that our characters start converging to the same couple of barely-veiled version of ourselves over time—a great artist has both a unique style and a desire to continue to push herself to experiment at the boundaries of that style (and part of my lack of appreciation of Lichtenstein was just that misconception that his art was simply a collection of comic book page recreations rather than a lifetime of artistic exploration in which the “Lichtenstein transformations” were one stop on the journey). But it does mean that each of our unique processes of turning life into art bears a familiar “stamp,” like Lichtenstein’s primary-colored dots or Monet’s water lilies. The process of observing, interpreting, and rendering reality into art is the project of our lives—to take in the world we live in, interpret it, and offer back to it something new and uniquely ours.

Person, President, God: An Alternate View of Heightening Through the Harold

If you’re a student of the Harold, at some point you’ve learned that failsafe trick to heightening through your beats:

Beat One: Regular people doing unusual thing (“game” of the scene)

Beat Two: The President and a Vice-President doing the same unusual thing (or some equivalently heightened pair—Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, for example).

Beat Three: God and Jesus doing that thing again (again, replace Lucifer and Satan for the same effect).

It’s a pretty sound method. Regular people, famous archetypal versions of those people, Gods. Teachers teach it to their students because in this progression, it’s easy to see how the game is preserved yet the stakes are raised by sheer virtue of the greater and greater gravitas of the characters.

Additionally, following the “game” through two heightened archetypes is a great way to avoid the opposite pitfall of the Harold, which is to follow an uncompelling narrative through three beats. But, it can also raise its own problems, such as retreading territory you’ve been before as you slip in your “go to” archetypes, or losing the emotional center that made the original game fun to play in the first place by playing your archetypes as shells rather than full people. And often, because the value inherent in the archetype can wear off fast (especially in the case where you play them two-dimensionally), you need to bring in more information, more heightening through external means (tag outs, usually) to find the button for the scene. Which is fine, but we shouldn’t feel like we’re stuck with this progression as our default option.

But order to free ourselves from the constraint of archetype, but not find ourselves back in the dissatisfaction of forced linear narrative, we have to step back and talk about the purpose of heightening in the first place, and reconsider our options from that root.

And at the root of most things, we often find Aristotle. He was an all-around smart guy about life in general, but he had some pretty insightful things to say about theatre specifically that are worth considering, especially about how a performance achieves that ultimate and elusive goal: catharsis. Yes, the purification and purgation of emotions through art. Aristotle first spoke of it in reference to Greek tragedy, but if we work through the methods for achieving it, we’ll see how it can relate to comedy as well. After all, it was also Aristotle who saw tragedy and comedy as mirror images of each other, one dealing with the audience’s feelings of pity and fear and the other with its recognition of the ridiculous.

We don’t have a complete theory of comedy from Aristotle, but we do have extensive writings of his on tragedy, and the core of his theories here might help us understand why we find ourselves gravitating to archetypes in the Harold. You see, Aristotle laid out some qualifications for the tragic hero: he must be relatable (not evil but not perfect), somehow “better” than us so that we see his fall as all the greater (being king helps, but you could have beauty, fame, money, etc. as well), and he must have a flaw or error in judgment that leads to his utter downfall. If these qualifications are met, the audience (not the character—a common misunderstanding about tragedy) will experience a catharsis in his fall. And that was the goal of Greek tragedy—it was a communal experience wherein the audience itself was transformed by bearing witness to the story.

And it is the tragic fall itself that provides a model for the reason we heighten in comedy as well. Because the catharsis is something that can only be felt when there is a sufficient gap between the character’s greatness and his end. And as the play proceeds, that one flaw or error becomes more and more magnified, resulting in worse and worse consequences, increasing this gap by increments until he meets his worst possible demise.

But that’s tragedy, and we want to make people laugh. Well, mirror-images aren’t opposites; they’re reflections. Which means that in comedy, the gap or distance between the character and his scenario should increase at the same rate as in tragedy (the way an object in a mirror is as far from the mirror as its reflection is), but the direction will reversed. Instead of the situation becoming worse and worse, it becomes more and more ridiculous.

Now, there are lots of ways of making a situation more ridiculous. Archetypal second beats do this by keeping the situation the same and force it upon a “nobler” (higher status) character (Obama complaining to Hilary that she keeps her office messy; God and Jesus arguing about how Jesus has been sloppily tending to mankind). But watching famous people or Gods forced into absurd situations fulfills only one type of the potential catharsis we can experience, and it’s not the right move for every show’s tone or trajectory. There are other needs we have, other kinds of heightens that speak to our lives and experiences (and to the comedic center of different kinds of first beats scenes). At this point in my thinking about this issue, I’ve identified several major categories for second beat heightening that seem to cover almost any successful second beat scene I’ve seen. Each of them achieves that gap we’re seeking in its own way, and in a way that, if well-chosen, speaks to its correlating first beat scene (Note: I’m leaving off Narrative Second Beats for now since I think they come with their own baggage that requires a bit more unpacking than I have space for in this discussion, but rest assured they are possible):

Heightening the Relationship/Game (Non-Famous Person Variety): Sometimes we want to see how someone “greater” than us—someone with more responsibility, a higher education, etc. (but not necessarily famous or recognizable)—would deal with a situation. This provides the pleasure of feeling that the person is still somewhat relatable. In fact, despite his “high position,” he has to deal with the same absurdities we do. A father and son fight over the son’s messy room in the first beat, and in the second a head surgeon yells at a resident for being so messy during surgery. Is it Dr. House? No, it’s just some surgeon. But the fact that his job is heightened, and the scenario is inherently higher stakes (there’s literally a life on the line), gives us the pleasure we need in seeing the role of the characters increase in gravitas without the need to recognize the character by name.

Heightening the Character: Yes, I know some teachers/schools will tell you never to bring back a character in the second beat, but what if her point-of-view was so in conflict with her world, in such a humorous way, that we just had to see her again to see how she’ll deal with that world in a new, more ridiculous context? In this case, the character stays an Everyman—relatable, average, unremarkable—while her world becomes more and more absurdly out-of-step with her point-of-view (see: Curb Your Enthusiasm). This gives us the pleasure of seeing someone “just like us” deal with issues that start recognizable and become caricatures, and the pleasure is in both the recognition of these scenarios and the safety of watching them without feeling the discomfort of living through them directly. Changing venues can help enact this heighten, too, since there are different levels of stakes inherent in different areas of one’s life (e.g. you saw her at work with her passive-aggressive boss trying to get her to work late, now see her at home with her passive-aggressive husband, except that it’s about whether or not to have a baby.)

Wild Card Heighten: In some cases, you might actually allow the most absurd element in the scene to slowly overtake it.  Because sometimes, despite our best efforts to maintain control of the scene, a moment or detail organically emerges as the comedic center. Often these are beautiful mistakes—a word pronounced strangely, a detail with just the right amount of strange specificity that it steals the show from whatever we thought was the relationship, the “game”, the story. In that case, attempting to force a game-based archetypal second beat or force the return of a character is like trying to force a conversation back to the topic that interested you when the rest of the group has moved on. In this case, the best thing to do is embrace this wild card and let it heighten on its own terms. The goal is still to increase the gap between the characters and the detail at the center of the scene, which will naturally be achieved by allowing this detail that seemed small in the first beat to somehow dominate the lives of the characters in the second. Two people were talking to each other from an unusually far distance, but not really about anything interesting or compelling? In the second beat, two neighbors who live on adjacent mountains have to yodel to each other to communicate. About what? Whatever. That’s not what’s important anymore.

Okay, great. So how can you tell, in the moment, which of these areas would make for the most compelling heighten? It seems like a pretty big risk to open up all these possibilities—until you understand and believe that any given scene has the potential to have its comedic center fall in any number of places, and you commit yourself to allowing that comedic center to drive your choices in the moment. Once you commit to that, all you have to do is watch and listen, to the players in the scene, to the audience as they respond to what is most pleasurable in each scene. Watch, listen, notice, and then reward everyone by pulling the string of that center through to the second beat, increasing the gap between the characters and their reality until each string is stretched and twisted and crissed and crossed almost to breaking in the third, and then let them all snap at once. Button. Lights. Harold.

As Long As You Listen to Your Body…

Every couple of years I get really into spinning. Not the DJ kind, but the “riding a stationary bike in a room with forty other people while a trainer at the front of the room barks orders at you” kind. I like spinning because I’m not very good at self-guided exercise, and I’ve found that it’s the class that provides the best results if I just do it the way I’m told.

This last time around in my spinning obsession, though, I’ve been more acutely aware of different instructors’ teaching styles. Some ride with you the whole time, others walk the room; some like to run sprints, others like sand traps. They all like hills—but they all do them differently. And oddly, although I thought it couldn’t possibly matter to someone like me who doesn’t actually ride a bike for exercise in real life, I’ve gravitated to one teacher among the half-dozen or so I’ve tried. I consistently like her class far more than the others. And the other day, I decided to figure out why. So I asked her.

I explained to her that a few days before, I’d been in a class where the instructor was making us do a lot of sprinting, and that during the class I felt a bit oppressed by her demands, and afterward I felt pretty nauseous, which surprised me because I’ve been spinning for months now and I’ve gotten in pretty good shape. And I asked why I felt so crappy during and after that class but felt so great (if exhausted) during and after all of hers.

Her answer, stated as politically as possible, was fascinating and revealing. She explained that a) very high-speed sprinting is almost never a mode that one encounters in actual bike-riding, where if you find yourself pedaling very, very quickly, you’ll more likely increase your gear than keep pedaling that fast, but that b) many instructors find it easier to coach speed because it is an absolute that they can control and direct (as in, you can tell people what speed to go, and you can yell at them if they’re not going that fast). As she said it, “It’s sometimes just easier to yell at people to move their legs faster.”

This instructor, however—my favorite—teaches instead at a “scale of perceived exertion.” That means you personally calibrate how hard you work on an internal scale of 1 to 10. As she explains it, “A 1 is riding downhill a million miles an hour, a 10 is so hard you get off your bike and carry it.” So when she says “ride at an 8,” for example, you do whatever that means for you in terms of speed, gear, watts, etc., which should be close to the hardest you can work before you give up. “And,” she always adds at the end of her opening spiel, “as long as you’re listening to your body you can’t do it wrong.”

Now, my preference for this self-regulated experience seems to go against my original claim that what I like about spinning class is the structure of it. But I realized as she was describing these differences between coaches that there’s a difference between providing a structure and context and forcing an inorganic and external set of rules onto someone. And—yup, here it comes—as she was talking, I suddenly had an epiphany not only about my own preferred style of improv coaching, but about why I find certain styles to be more ultimately effective than others.

Sure, just like the spinning coach who yells “Faster!” sometimes it’s easier to yell, “Do this! It’s funny!” from the front of the room. And, frankly, sometimes a player needs that immediate feedback and the push to ramp up their “exertion”.  But although I’ve talked before about how “coaching the character” is a generally more effective method than stopping a scene in its tracks to tell the improviser what he or she should/should not do, the metaphor of spinning helped to actually put a finger on why I find that such overly-directive side-coaching is ineffective in the long run, because it a) represents an inefficiently unnatural simulation of reality, and b) relies on the (constant and constantly reasserted) assessment and intuition of the instructor/director/coach rather than that of the player.

One of the most compelling features of a staged performances is to present a heightened version of reality. As the audience, we recognize the tropes, characters, and situations, but get to see them played out at their most beautiful, or tense, or ridiculous. But there’s bending and there’s breaking. And, as with the unnatural sprint on the stationary bike, there’s an unpleasantness that comes from playing (and watching played) a scene that oversteps the boundary between heightened reality and unnaturally forced absurdity.

So when the improv instructor or director who subscribes to this method of coaching ostensibly yells the improv equivalent of “Faster!” to his players, what he’ll get will be heightened, yes. It will be technically “more,” but it may not actually be authentic, pleasing or even comedically efficient. “Do a bigger character!” “Now stick your hand in the blender!” might get the initial laugh of surprise, but, like the unnatural sprint, they not only aren’t natural outgrowths of the experience of the scene, but they exhaust the player and the audience members too quickly, and maybe even make them feel a little pukey.

Regarding the reliance on the expertise of the coach, there is, of course, a difference between the novice and the experienced improviser. Because the beginning improviser might go to a hack joke or non-sequitor before he is coached away from such ineffective moves (just like the novice spinner might perceive her exertion inaccurately, especially if she’s not accustomed to feeling where her aerobic threshold is, etc.) it’s okay to give some direct feedback while each is learning the “feel” of the discipline. Just as a spinning coach might say, “Feel that bounce? That’s because you’re at too low a gear”, the improv coach might say something like, “Feel how that line just dropped heavy on the scene? That’s because it felt forced and we didn’t believe you.” But even this kind of direct feedback is best when it’s in the name of building that person’s own ability to sense how the work feels in her own body (the performer’s intuition), rather than just acknowledging the director’s expertise.

And even if you’re working with people who have some experience, it’s still often easier (in the short term, at least) to simply side-coach “funny” choices than allow your players to rely on their comedic intuition—and maybe even safer and productive of better immediate results if you perceive their intuition to still be “less reliable” than yours as the coach. But if you’re a confident coach, and one who believes that, in the long run, your players will get better results for themselves and you if they can monitor and modulate their own exertion (their own “scale of perceived comedy”), you’ll be able to forgo that immediate control for a more nuanced approach that will grow your players into their own best coaches. You’ll side coach types of choices rather than specific moves (“Get back to the reason you’re upset with him” rather than “talk about the toast!” or “How are you going to convince him to do what you want?” rather than “offer him lemonade!”) so that your players can feel how that type of choice gives them the results they want, and how they can replicate that type of move in future scenes with similar variables (rather than the exact same scene, which as we know will never recur).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that my instructor (kind and magnanimous as she is) did offer the caveat that “sometimes it’s good to sprint and want to puke after.” She wasn’t critiquing sprinting, or coaching sprinting, as inherently and always bad—just like sometimes it’s good and helpful to have a director just knock you out of your complacency by forcing you into a place in a scene you wouldn’t have gone yourself. She was critiquing the style of coaching that relies on those external commands as the primary source of motivation. As a coach or director, it’s not easy to let go of that direct control, to cultivate your own set of side-coaching skills that will allow you to maintain your authority while allowing your performers to find their own internal comedy calibration system. But I guarantee it’s a better way to build real and lasting talent in them, and you. Because they won’t always have you sitting at the front of the room barking orders at them, but if you help them grow, they’ll always have the comedy intuition you helped them develop, and as long as they can listen to that intuition, they can’t do it wrong.

Yes And (No)

You know how after a few years of doing improv, someone lets you in on the secret that denial isn’t about literally saying the word “no,” but rather about saying “no” to the reality that your scene partner has created, to the expectations of the scene and the situation in which you find yourself? It’s an expansive feeling—suddenly you find yourself being able to still say “yes” while your mouth says “no,” and you remember that improv, in the end, is less about rules and restrictions than freedom and play (For a reminder of how that works, reread this and watch the video of Amy Poehler presenting a veritable master class on the subject).

Well, I’m starting to realize that there’s a (perhaps even contrapositive) experience with “yes, and.” We learn from day one to say “yes” to our scene partner: Yes we’re on the Moon; Yes I’ll go to Prom with you; Yes it’s raining and also there’s lightning. Yes. Yes. Yes.

But sometimes there’s a way of saying “yes” that actually feels like a big, fat “no.” And I don’t mean just some sneaky form of denial (“Yes, you are the captain of this ship, and this ship is actually just an inflatable raft in a backyard swimming pool”). I’m also not talking about the infamous “I’m going to acknowledge that you just walked through the imaginary table we established earlier thereby calling out the fact that we’re improvising and breaking the fourth wall.” That happens, but as long as it’s not a habit, we can all just acknowledge that it’s generally rare among experienced performers, and, although sorta hack, forgivable in the grand scheme of things.

What I’m talking about is the persistent affirmation of the details at the expense of the whole—saying “yes” to the facts, the premise, the scenario, but “no” to the larger proposition of the scene, or even, in the worst case, saying “yes” to the facts and “no” to the larger collaborative project of improvisation itself. I call this behavior “YES(no)” because what you hear is a loud, resounding “yes,” but what you feel is a silent, nagging “(no)”.  Because what the “YES(no)” comes down to a disconnect between the improviser and the character she’s playing. It’s a conflict between a stated “yes” of a character and an implied, more meta “no” of that same person as your scene partner. “Yes, as this character I acknowledge that we are fighting a zombie apocalypse, and I’ll get the machete,” but actually, “As a performer, I prefer my ideas and choices to yours, so I’ll play along with this basic premise, but I’m gonna use it to do this killer pantomime bit with the machete over here that will quite likely undercut whatever could have happened between us if we’d just engaged with each other directly.” In this example, the machete pantomime isn’t a denial at all. In fact, it’s a totally legitimate expansion of the reality of the scene. A machete is a great thing to have in a zombie apocalypse. What’s at issue here is the motivation of the move—the performer uses the reality of the zombie apocalypse as little more than a springboard for self-serving laugh generation—a “move” he knows will “succeed.” Not that machete pantomime can’t enhance a scene where the two performers remain engaged in each other, but it can derail the trajectory of a scene when it’s done self-consciously, by the performer, as a “bit” at the expense of the reality. And that’s not just selfish; it’s a form of denial.

Now it’s possible that, on the surface, an audience might not be able to distinguish that scene from a more inherently collaborative one, just like a teacher can’t always tell whether everyone shared the work equally on a group project just by looking at the poster. The scene centering around your scene partner’s physical ineptitude with a machete might end up being very funny, even if it’s not emotionally honest or organic, just as the group project might end up being well done, even if one person dominated and drowned out the other voices. But as the participant in the collaboration, you can feel the lack of engagement. Sure, sometimes in school someone had to take over the group project—others weren’t pulling their weight or didn’t understand the material—but sometimes one person just wanted control, or thought her ideas were better than others’.

Now, no audience member wants you to tell them that their laughs are somehow illegitimate or tainted by a “mean old scene partner who wouldn’t share,” just the way no one ever wants to sound like the whiner whose ideas weren’t taken into account in that poster on the French Reformation. In school, the teacher might care, because your learning is affected if you aren’t allowed to contribute to the project, but why should an audience member care if you didn’t get the opportunity to be heard in a scene that they thought was perfectly funny? When you get down to it, laughs are laughs, and your scene partner got ‘em. So why should we split hairs about whether you felt eminently supported in those two or three minutes? Calm down, take your compliments, and get a drink at the bar.

Well, indulge me while I argue why we should care. Because, firstly, even in the short term, those moments can add up. Sure, one moment of selfish “Yes(no)” might just be a fun little bit, but when they occur over and over again over the course of a longer show, they can, at best, put the rest of the performers on edge, and at worst, alienate players from each other enough that they stop listening and working together—it’s only a quick slide from that subtle “Yes(no)” to full-on denials as members of the cast attempt to “protect” their ideas from each other and make their reality dominant. And that the audience will notice.

But what’s worse is that, in the long term, the person who consistently gets her laughs by saying “yes” just enough to play in the scene but “no” to trusting, engaging, giving over control to her scene partner eventually wears out her welcome on a team, and with an audience. Sure they’re funny once, twice, maybe a few more times. But if their go-to move is one of shutting down the scenic development in favor of unilateral joke production, it stops being fun to play with, or to watch over and over. Because watching new characters engage with each other in new worlds can be fun and surprising each time, but watching the same performer you saw last week doing basically the same gags he did to get a laugh this week wears down the impact of the pleasure the gag once elicited, and takes away from the collective experience of the performance.

Okay, so what to do? Should we just bitch about this person behind his back and half-ass our way through scenes with him? Or fight fire with fire and double down on our own jokes and make our scene a battle of wits? Of course not. First of all, to be fair, we are all guilty of this from time to time. If you’re reading this you’ve probably already realized that, even just sometimes, you’re that “YES(no)” player. And there’s a lot of reasons that can happen.

It could be you’re just having a hard day/week/month. You’ve got a lot going on, and you’re naturally turning inward and having trouble “getting into” your scenes, so you’re falling back on easier moves you know you can control. That happens to everyone, and it’s no big deal. If you’re a genuinely collaborative player you won’t be stuck in that place forever, and a few shows there isn’t going to hurt the audience or erode your team’s trust in you. Just keep trying to open back up and you’ll naturally get back in the groove of collaboration.

Or maybe you’re still young and learning and you just get anxious when you’re in a scene and you shut down a little bit. And that’s normal, too. Just stay open to the process, keep learning, and you’ll learn to trust both yourself and others.

If you’re a veteran, this behavior can develop over time from an opposite experience as the newbie—you’ve been doing this forever, you know what works for you, you know what you need to “bring” to a show to get laughs, you’re a goddamn professional. And that’s all true, but if you’re experienced that also means you should be confident enough to let go a bit, to shake it up and let yourself feel that imbalance of entrusting more of the scene to your scene partner and the interactions between you and them. It’s like in yoga class when the teacher suggests that, if you’re very comfortable in a balance pose, you purposely switch it up—look up to the sky, or raise your arms, etc.—to give yourself an opportunity to find your new “edge,” the point of imbalance from which you grow. Especially if you’re a veteran “rock star” performer, you owe it to yourself to stay fresh by reengaging with the newness (and, yes, the fear) that you felt when you first started playing and had no clue what was coming next. Trust me, your scenes will still be great and get laughs, because hell, you know what you’re doing up there and most likely, so does your scene partner.

And what if you’re the one trying to connect but you sense that you’re in a scene with someone who’s playing a “Yes(no)” game? Although the deeper issue is one that only they can address, here’s a tip for trouble-shooting the problem in real time, rather than whining or shutting down: Give every move they make weight. Don’t ignore or undercut the moves they’re making that you feel are distracting from the scene; make them indispensable to the collaboration. They go for the machete to do a pantomime bit where it’s too heavy and they can’t pick it up, etc.? You comment on how they don’t have to worry about trying to prove their manhood just because they were cut from the football team that their dad was the star quarterback of 20 years ago. Or avoid a bunch of backstory and information dropping and simply acknowledge how touched you are that they’re trying to defend you and how much it means to you. You just don’t let them get away with the disengagement. And using their own moves to bring them back doubles down on the collaboration of the scene and, most likely, gets them to turn back toward you with a fuller “yes.” And that’s something you and your audience will appreciate, even if they can’t pin down exactly what made that zombie apocalypse/machete scene so satisfying to watch.