These notes come from the Being Altered and Emotions workshops I ran a couple of Mondays ago at The Rag Factory. This Monday's workshop is on Presence.
Sometimes you can watch people improvise and everything seems to be going 'right' - they are listening, saying yes to each other, building platforms, taking on characters, but for some reason the impro just doesn't look alive.
Other times we can watch impro where all manner of offers are being dropped and missed, yet we find the performers and the show engaging and fun.
In my opinion this is all about the reactions and the connections between the performers. We really want to see improvisers who are alive, and more importantly alive to each other.
Just listening can make people too passive (Mick Napier writes some cool stuff about this) as they stare blankly at the other performers in a zen like trance. We're sometimes taught to make the other performer look good, but this shouldn't be misinterpreted as 'make them look good by doing nothing yourself'.
Instead I prefer active listening, where people react to what's being said by the other performer. Preferably with a reaction that the audience can hear and feel. This is when impro becomes alive, and a constant flow and connection forms between the performers. This is also what makes the other performer look good.
For instance if your scene partner is stuck on stage, can't come up with anything, and comes on and says "Where are we?" and the other performer mirrors that energy and just stares blankly at them passively listening then we've just made them look like someone who can't create a platform.
However if they say "where are we?" and we let out a loud scream and shout "trapped!" we've made their offer look deliberate, and more importantly it's affected us emotionally and suddenly looks like a bit of something going on. In fact any audible reaction to the offer would sell it better than just passively listening.
Audible emotional reactions sell the other person's offers, and make things matter.
When these reactions really become alive though is when they are happening all the time, not just at the end of the offer. In real life, especially in dramatic moment, we don't have a feeling about a person at the end of the thing they were saying, we feel things all the time. People actually make all manner of strange emotional sounds when we listen out for them.
For instance imagine someone in real life being told this:
"Hello Mrs. Jones. I'm from five doors down the street. Look, I'm really, sorry, but I've got some bad news. I was driving home this evening, and your cat ran out in front of me. I'm afraid I hit it. I just didn't see it in time, I feel awful. I've rushed it to the vets, but I'm afraid it's died."
In that short passage there are probably all manner of emotions for Mrs. Jones. There's probably the friendly acknowledgement of who this person is, surprise at their visit, shock and curiosity at what the news is, sadness at mention of cat but maybe relief it isn't a child, empathy with the honesty and guilt of the neighbour, sadness at loss.
Don't just react at the end of the offer, react during it, react all the time
Each emotional reaction has a corresponding expression, breathe, and barely audible sound, that in real life we can't but subconsciously release. Mrs. Jones wouldn't stand there and then decide to show some emotions, she'd be subtly showing them all the time as her view of this reality changed word by word. The person delivering the news would also be altered by Mrs. Jones and her reactions, perhaps they'd even be more overcome than her.
The above story is made up by the way, no cats were harmed in the writing of this blog.
This is what we need to create on stage if we're going to bring impro to life. A constant connection where there is a constant flow of people being altered.
And these emotional reactions aren't an addition or distraction to the scene, they are the scene. We need to follow them and go with them and explore them.
We need to go do down the emotional rabbit hole of the scene, the emotional reactions are your guide to the scene not a distraction to it.
Here are some exercises that can teach this:
Emotional Sound Ball
First teach normal sound ball. All actors in a circle. They throw an imaginary ball to each other, giving it a sound as they throw. When they receive the ball they copy the sound exactly and then throw it out with a new sound. The ball is rapidly passed around the circle. Encourage them to remove the gaps between the sounds, less thinking space, so that one sound morphs from one to another.
Then repeat using emotional sounds - oh, ah, ooooh, mmmm, grrr, yeah, uh, errr etc. Although actually any sound a human can make can be interrupted as being emotional.
Now rather than firing out a sound they sound a line of dialogue, and when the person catches it they make an emotional sound and then fire out another line of dialogue. Lines of dialogue don't have to be connected and the words don't matter. For instance:
Actor A: I've got a pen.
Actor B: Ooohhh well aren't you clever
Actor C: Ahhhhhh I'm going to Bournemouth
Actor A: Grrrrr men can all go fuck off
Actor C: Ah, I love you so much more than cheese
Encourage them to still keep the ball throwing. Making a reaction sound as they catch it and then throwing out a line.
Encourage an audible reaction first. The first thing that happens is the reaction to the line.
Encourage a constant flow around the circle. It's not line-stop-reaction-stop/think-line, it's got to be a constant flow.
Encourage them to be already reacting as the line is said.
Encourage them to increase the reaction as they say the line, the reaction inspires and grows throw the line, it's not just a random sound beforehand.
Using In Scenes
We then started some scenes, with people starting obviously. We played them out and then repeated them, this time adding emotional reactions to certain lines so they were sold more to the audience and the scene had more depth and color.
For instance the suggestion of a space ship was given, with a commander, 2nd lieutenant and work experience person. At firs the scene started like this:
Commander: Comms check.
2nd Lieutenant: Comms check affirmative. Work experience?
Work Experience: Comms cleared.
2nd Lieutenant: Comms cleared Commander.
Commander: Good. Taking off in 3 seconds.
Scene continues with them them taking off.
Next we repeated the scene except this time they were directed to have emotional reactions to the offer 'Taking off in 3 seconds'. This time the 2nd Lieutenant suddenly started jumping for joy and laughing and saying 'Yeah! We're going into Space' while the Work Experience screamed and started crying. An offer that at first appeared routine and almost meaningless was now totally sold to the audience by the other two performers, and the scene had emotional depth and real characters on stage. The commander might have had plans for what would happen in space, but the scene took the human direction of why his crew were behaving like this.
Impro workshops every Monday, Thursday and Saturday in London