The Improv Actor - Director
As improvisers we mostly focus on our acting, emotional choices, dialogue, environment work and complementary skills like character work, editing tools, music and choreography. What we sometimes forget while we wear our many hats on stage is that we also have to be the active director of our own improv show. I'm not referring to your actual show director who is observing you from offstage...I'm referring to your role as an Actor-Director.
Being in the mindset of the Actor-Director means that while onstage you are conscious of the following details:
- Stage Picture
- Audience Response
The first impression an audience has of your show is what they see. It can't be disputed, it's science. Light travels faster than sound. Before a word is even uttered, how you look on stage is what's important. Even the lack of light means something...if you choose to start a show or scene in darkness, there needs to be a reason for that.
Sometimes - especially for improvisers who are untrained in formal acting techniques - blocking during a scene becomes an afterthought. We more often than not end up as two individuals facing each other at about 45 degrees and talking. We are reminded by our instructors and coaches to not be talking heads and to "move around", "make yourself a sandwich", "do something", etc. All of these are fine directions but we, as an Actor-Director, should have tools onstage that we can apply when side-coaching isn't possible. Here's a quick list of ways to modify blocking while in a scene:
- Triangles - The simplest of blocking strategies is to play with depth of field. If there are more than two people onstage, try to consciously form a blocking triangle...put the middle person more upstage from the other two. If its a two person scene, make an inanimate object in the scene the third point. The fridge, the bed, a car, whatever. Bam! Depth! Important distinction - if an actor is the third point, put them upstage; if an inanimate object is the third point, put them downstage.
- Levels - Another strategy to make for an interesting stage picture is to play with the Z-axis. One person sitting, another standing; One lying down, one standing; etc. In addition, both the audience and the players can assume status from levels which adds to the texture of a relationship. The simplest choice is that the higher person is the higher status person but even that can be played with. Pro-tip - Play the game "Sit, Stand, Kneel" to further refine this skill and intuition.
- Mirroring - The easiest move is to mirror what the other person onstage is doing. It's so easy and so rarely done that it feels like cheating. But it's not. Look at what the other person is doing and do the same thing. Now, not only do you have your blocking but you're automatically on the same page.
- Show me your face - Unless you mean to have your back to the audience...don't have your back to the audience
- Do something - I don't care what it is, just do something. Remember, most of the time, the scene is not about what you're character is doing; It's about what they're feeling while they do it. They would be experiencing the same emotions whether they were fishing, playing basketball, working out, whatever.
Your actor-director's eye should also be aware of the beats of your scenes which will then help contribute to the flow of the show. Actual flow is dictated by the whole group but your contribution to the flow is determined by how well you're listening.
- Early beats - The scene is still forming and no resolution has appeared but an early opportunity to edit due to a pregnant pause or laugh line has revealed itself
- Late beats - Scene has resolved and the event that brought these characters together has passed. There's a wake after the resolution that allows for a transition to the next scene.
- No beats - The edit points are not dictated by the scene itself but by content points within the scene. Specific lines, movements, staging choices are used to pivot into a new scene.
Pattern work is an important part of improvisation. It helps us achieve the nirvana of group mind in the quest for comedy and truth in our work. It also provides us the path to the form of the show. I truly believe that any show can have any form and the first few minutes of the show will reveal what its form will be. It's your job to recognize that form and seize it.
- Visual/Physical cues - The way the first scene is staged is already informing the canvas that the rest of the show will be played on. Will the next scene use the same information, go against it, take a portion of it? How and when the first edit is executed will dictate the form and pace of the second scene. How the second scene relates to the first scene will begin to reveal the form.
- Aural/Verbal cues - Just like the physical cues, the first few minutes of verbal information can dictate the rest of the show. Verbal cues can reveal location, relationships and context of the show. Will the next scene build on that information, go against it or take a portion of it?
- Genre/Specificity cues - Genre and specificity opens up opportunities for tons of references that can contribute to a scene. If a scene begins in sci-fi, that should immediately activate the sci-fi portions of our brain and all of that knowledge should come to the forefront and be ready to be used.
Finally, the benefit that we have as improvisers is that we can act on feedback immediately. If something is not working, we can adjust it on the fly. We do this by listening to how our audience is responding.
- Laughter - Laughter is the best cue. It tells you what is funny and what's not. When you strike on something funny early in the scene, follow the funny. However, don't follow the funny at the expense of the scene or the show. Recognize what the foundation of the humor was and keep building on that foundation instead of building on the joke itself. Over-saturating a joke on a weak scenic foundation can kill a scene.
- Silence - Silence is a tricky cue. It can sometimes mean that you have captured the full attention of your audience...but in comedy, silence can sometimes mean death. Be able to recognize both. If its an intentional silence where it is clear that the audience does not want to miss a detail, keep following that road. However, if it's a silence that is clearly uncomfortable, be aware of how the audience might be giving casual clues of boredom by sighing, shuffling, etc. An audience that is paying attention will sacrifice the relief of comfort to not miss a detail. If they do seem uninterested, take this as a cue to pivot the focus of the scene. If you've hit this point it might be best to just cut your losses and reset the scene.