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diaryland: entry for 2004-03-21 (23:43)
In which our plucky young hero confuses knowledge with prejudice, again.

Every now and then, I feel the need to update how I feel about improv. So, based on about 1.5 years of classes and watching and loving and craving and seeking improv, here is a ten-point summary of how I feel about the art right now.

1. 90% of improv can be summed up in the following exchange:

Person 1: It's my birthday.
Person 2: I know! That's why I brought this cake!

2. But the other 10% takes a lifetime to master. I've got about 0.1% of that 10% down so far.

3. Since improv is all about acceptance, the truly emotionally involving improv happens when everyone involved is working together to thwart someone's desire. When everyone agrees that someone on stage will not find the love they need, or the closure they demand, there is an immediacy that scripts just can't afford. In scripted material, the actors are in a sense held hostage to the words on the page; in improv, they are constantly, continuously, cheerfully choosing to break your heart.

4. Several of my instructors at Second City had a two-dimensional axis of character and situation, either of which could be normal or abnormal. The best scenes happen in normal/abnormal, the hardest happen in normal/normal, and the worst happen in abnormal/abnormal. That's why the funniest scenes, I find, are about embracing the strangeness of an offer and just extrapolating straight ahead from it. Yes, we're moon bandits out to take over Luna City - what does that mean? The weirder the situation, the more you must play it straight.

5. Your environment exists to save your ass. (This is a reversal from the thoughts I had after CIF. I was wrong.) It contains anything you need, anything at all. A lot of stalled scenes can be saved by asking what's within arm's reach. And if you don't know, just reach for something, and decide what it is when you've grasped it. That said, object work is still my stupidest area. I still haven't figured out how to create a teevee remote that doesn't end up looking like a gun.

6. Annoyance is right; give yourself a gift off the top, and don't let anyone take it from you. You should be affected by your partner - you should always care what they're doing, even if it's to angrily rail against it - but you must keep your shit. You will come at a scene from a position of strength only if you make yourself strong.

7. One of the first things I figured out on my own is still true: nothing is funny to your character. Whatever improviser-you brings to the scene, it is in service of character-you who has no idea they're in a scene, or that they're making people laugh. There are very few scenes that survive your character realizing they're involved in some sort of joke.

8. The hierarchy of choices goes as follows: interesting, boring, crazy. I think, at least until my next diatribe, that the Johnstonian "be more boring" doesn't mean that you should strive for boredom so much as it means you should strive against wackiness.

"I love my car, but I'll sell it so I can buy my girl an engagement ring" is interesting. "I'm selling my car" is boring. "This is my car, which is inhabited by the spirit of my dead mother, and boy does she not like that I'm selling her!" is crazy.

Crazy choices lead toward abnormal/abnormal scenes, and require a lot more work to explain to your audience than interesting ones.

9. If you find yourself making a choice that would make a great 1960s sitcom, it's probably the wrong choice to make.

10. If your character is going to lie onstage, be blatantly obvious. Trust the other players to recognize that you're setting up a lie. It's only an offer if everyone recognizes it as an offer, and your well-crafted lie will look like a denial later unless you do the whole shifty-eyed, stammering, guilty-blushing thing.

And with that random bit of disconnected practical advice, which once again I could be totally wrong about, that's it for the State Of Improv, March 2004. Be sure to tune in a few months from now, when I inform you it's all about silly hats.

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