Not What… When

The Art of Directed Impro

January 2013


Guiding Impro players from the director’s chair can be compared to improvising on stage.

Successful players begin scenes positively, they respond to offers and build on them. Set-ups, characters and actor challenges are prepared in advance for use when the flow of inspiration is lacking. On the outside they play up the struggle and drama of the show while at the same time maintaining support for and connection with the others.

All these are elements of a good “off-stage player” as well, but directors can play an even more significant role during the show that sets them apart.

They can build confidence and remove stress.

Most directors I have seen ignore the personal state of the improvisers when giving guidance or suggestions. They propose situations and characters, add plot points, edit ideas and generally manipulate the games or stories that make up the show.

Few have confidence enough in themselves or the players to fill the role of mentor and to support the improvisers fully.

Good parents let kids climb out of their reach but are still there to catch them if they fall.

Keith has cultivated a cannon of exercises designed to reduce stress on stage. Games and tasks take the improviser’s mind away from anxiety either by enhancing enjoyment, (like pretending you have jealous knees) or sharing responsibility, (like providing the other’s players stage directions) or keeping you busy, (like maintaining three word sentences).

It is in this spirit that a director should guide a show.

Don’t give what you want, but what the players need. And listen.

Even more important than what you say is when you say it. And how.

Watch to see if the improvisers have something to offer. If their searching turns to worry (or worse, panic), provide something, anything: a place to start, a character, kind words. Be clear and strong. But don’t improvise for them.

For the most part director input should be in the form of suggestions, not orders. Tone is important. Say “How about a scene involving betrayal?” or “Does science fiction inspire you?” If they don’t light up, be ready with something else. Don’t get attached to your plan. It is hypocritical for others to follow your direction if you can’t even follow an impulse or adapt to a new idea.

Another issue involves the discovery of meaning or feelings by the improviser. Most of the time ideas should seem like they spring from the players. To encourage this, a director can offer something one or two steps removed so there is an unsolved element.

If you think two young lovers might like to get together, don’t say “You really like him, ask for a date.” Better to instruct: “Accidentally brush his shoulder”. Then let the improvisers play for a while.

Rather than: “The police enter”, say: “there is a forceful knock on the door” and hope you have guessed what is in the player’s (and audience’s) minds. (Notice I didn’t say “…hope they guess what is in your mind”)

The director may not even know what should happen next a scene. Good, it is not their scene anyway. Better to stir things up in the minds of the players. If a scene is stalling, try something like: “What I meant to say was…” or “What I love about you is…” or “That depends on one condition…”

There are also scenes set-ups that do the director’s job for you: like getting an audience member onstage to instruct how to play their family, or having a player write in their diary and the director tells them went to jump to the next day, or getting a female improviser to snap her fingers to exchange men on her “dream date”.

Other useful ways to help:

  • Give players mantras
  • Suggest they change one part of their body or face
  • Ask something about their real life: fears, desires, etc.
  • Get them to continue in Italian gibberish
  • Ask if they want to restart the scene
  • Encourage one to confess something
  • Have a player speak his/her inner thoughts to the audience
  • Get them to notice something happening behind them or that they missed

So many things improve with good timing: sports, comedy, marriage proposals, compliments (insults).

Directed Impro is another.

A tilt can only be effective once a platform is fully established. An entrance, emotional reaction or ending are only realized at the correct moment.

It is the same thing for the directors.

Don’t just look for what is needed but when and how they need you.