The Micro Truth

April 2012


Maybe we should restrict the use of the word “improvisation” when describing playful or spontaneous theatre in general. Or perhaps we should come up with other words that better describe what could be, but often isn’t, going on under the surface.


The Issue

Most “improv” that I see finds the players improvising on a superficial level. There is an illusion of honesty, authenticity and freshness but actually players are clinging to there own habits, patterns and tricks.

In the worst case, scenes become bizarre, violent and sexual but even at a higher stage the spirit of the work tends to hang at the level of: “look what I can do.”

I believe the audience sees everything. Some things reach them only subconsciously but nothing is missed. They know when we are actually improvising and when we are just jumping from one planned or familiar unit to another.

I’ll invent a scene now to illustrate:

The notes in brackets are when the improvising has stopped.

Wife is at home. The improviser pretends to clean up and does the same action until the next character enters. (whew, safe for at least 20 seconds) (You can tell they are not in the moment when, if the second character is late entering, the improviser begins to panic and glance at the door.) Husband enters. His character is without emotional elements and begins some comic business like taking his coat off clumsily and hanging it on a hook that isn’t there. (30 seconds without interaction). They greet each other and begin defining the content or background of the scene. Let’s say a parcel has arrived for the husband that he wasn’t expecting. (The mystery is good but the improvisers cling to safety by not defining it. Eventually the package is opened but neither will say what it is. If they did, the story would be thrust into an unknown future.) The husband won’t tell the wife anything about the delivery. Fearing infidelity, the wife gets angry lists all of the other problems they have. She begins to sob. (Emotion is great but in this case that part of the story had be predicted so now the audience can put their attention to the side while the improviser indulges in “safe danger”. She projects the emotion rather than live in the volatility of it. It won’t spark a real change in either of them.) The husband becomes afraid of her and she begins to throw things at him. (more time wasted grabbing the audience with comic violence) Scene ends with neither of them leaving the stage or the relationship and funny abuses continue from both sides.

Sound familiar? A scene that on the surface had no actual planning but kept the improvisers stepping from one predictable unit to the next.

What if it was a mistress care package that had meant to be sent to his office. The husband instead of fighting or making excuses could hold back tears and whimper as the wife realizes how inattentive she has been. Perhaps she leaves and he is left to straighten up the place on his own. Or maybe there are some hooks in the package so he can hang up his coat for real.

“Death in a minute” scenes expose a similar issue of always moving the improvising into the future.

(Scene must last exactly a minute, and one person must die)

Improvisers will almost always spend the first 55 seconds of this scene building a reason for the death or murder. Some never get to it. Or they start with a situation where a death is inevitable and “kill time” till the end.

Far better is to start a scene where death is hardly conceivable, like a newlywed scene, then have someone keel over in the first 20 seconds. After that the audience will certainly pay attention as they watch an improviser totally off his or her guard trying to justify it.

It should be clear I am not saying that all time on stage should be full of deep interaction and character vulnerability. Nor are all the actions criticized here, in themselves, wrong choices.

It is often what is behind the choice that reveals its value or not.

Are we making choices steeped in aggression and fear or in exhilaration and benevolence? The second pair show when one is open and receptive and therefore ready to really improvise.


Towards a solution

One way to train “living in the moment” is through mask-work.

(I will address full masks here. Half masks have their own advantages and pitfalls to be discussed another time.)

We use language to distract from our emotions, even suppress them, to get back into the logical and intellectual realm. How often do people talk themselves out of crying or compliment someone they feel like strangling.

It is more difficult to distract the audience away from emotions or feelings when the use of words has been removed.

The human impulse to suppress feelings is actually a good one for the theatre so long as we don’t weaken the emotion or distract from it with words. A mask replete with feeling with face completely immobile and body attempting the same creates an amazing event for the audience. It is now the viewer’s chance to become active and like a detective, to discover the tiny clues that tell us the personal journey of the character.

Children love games where they must search out details in a big picture or drawing. Where’s Waldo?

Adults and kid’s alike are doing this with faces and bodies all the time. We hear the words then check the body for “the truth”.

So if we can become masked experts in telling stories of hidden emotion and sensation we can captivate the audience.

For improvisers, the main thing is to stay in touch with your partner or partners on stage. If each is ready at every moment to adapt to or incorporate others, the work feels fresh. It is even more effective than taking turns leading and following.

For full masks, this communion with another happens most powerfully with the audience. If a mask can incorporate the signals given by the reactions of the spectators it can be a magical gift to them. They instantly understand why they have come: To be heard and to see their story.

It is also highly practical for a mask player to stay in touch with the audience so that he/she can understand what the mask is doing; what effect it is having and even what it looks like or how it is changing.

When improvisers ask me if they should look in a mirror before they play a full mask I remind them that the audience is their best mirror. But they are a different kind. A reflection in sound and mood. A vibrational mirror.

Regular improvisation should strive to work at this level of sensitivity as well. Not only would it make the audience tingle at the level of care you have shown them but you would also be able to sense that tingle and respond to it rather than registering only laughter. Too often giggles are the only sign of success.

So keep improvising but search for what it really means. Do it more continuously and do it with the innocence and spirit of the mask.