In the winter of aught-six, I took a beginning improv class at DSI Comedy Theatre and learned a lesson that I pass along almost as holy writ to others.
As an actor who always preferred having a script in hand, lines memorized, and my character’s blocking pencilled in, improv struck me as insane as Frost’s tennis without a net. Improv always scared me to death, yet I always loved watching it. It was a mystery. So I decided to face up to it and took the class, which was excellently led by Ross White (who now edits Inch).
Ross taught us that there were — invisible to the audience — many little rules and guidelines to improv and, weird to say it, but I actually did feel my mind change its shape and stretch to make new neural connections about halfway through the 6-week class. Many of my assumptions about how to act onstage were challenged.
Of the many things Ross taught us, there were two principles that stuck with me. The first was counter-intuitive. In a two-person scene, when given a random prompt (“You’re a chocolate chip in a cookie — go!” “You’re superheroes who work as janitors — go!”), the pressure is on and the temptation is to force the scene to a conclusion, to lift it and drag it — and your partner — to where you think the scene should go.
As Ross explained, though, that’s working way too hard. Beginners think that, in a two-person scene, one actor needs to give 50% and the other actor needs to give 50%. In fact, Ross said, the breakdown is this: one actor gives 25%, the other actor gives 25%, the situation gives 25%, and the audience gives 25%.
When you look at the scene in that way, you can relax and make more impact with less effort. It’s not all up to you; you’re simply one of many people ensuring that the scene will succeed. Everyone is pulling together.
Which leads to the second principle: trust. You simply lay back, let the water support you, breathe, and just float. Relax and trust that your partner will contribute ideas to the scene (though you have no clue what they’ll say till they say it) (and they probably won’t know until then either), trust that the scene will take wing and lift off, and trust the audience, which really does want to see you succeed. When I learned to stop forcing the punchline or forcing the moment, I found myself enjoying improv more and being delighted and surprised at where our improvised scenes wound up.
I explained the 25% principle to fellow neighborhood association board members last night after they congratulated me for working so hard to organize the NNO event. As I told them, it wasn’t that difficult. I only had to give 25%, the other board members gave 25%, the potluck event on its own gave 25%, and all the neighbors who came out to eat and meet gave 25%.
After people started trickling in to put their dishes on the tables, it really was like an improv scene come to life. No one could control what was going to happen next; you could only go with the flow, work with what your partner gave you, and trust that it would all turn out just right. Which, I’m pleased to say, it did.