I experienced a rare moment of effortless clarity in improv practice yesterday. I’m on DSI’s hip-hop improv team Versus, and yesterday we were practicing infusing our scenes with emotion.
Our director, Rose Werth, instructed us to get on stage, choose an emotion, play in silence for about 15 seconds, and then speak when we were ready.
I got up on stage with Kit FitzSimons. Our suggestion was stargazing. I sat down. I chose “curious/confused” as my initial emotion. I knew, having played with and watched Kit for almost a year, that in that 15 seconds of silence he was going to commit to some very detailed object work, and I didn’t want to do my own object work that might conflict with what he was doing. So I gazed up at the stars. Looked over at him. Watched him fiddle with knobs on an invisible object. Looked back up at the stars. Looked back at him. Watched as he looked through an invisible eyepiece. Realized he was putting together and testing a telescope. Looked back up at the stars. Looked at him. Stood up. Cocked my head to the left. Took one step toward him. At which point he said,
“I’ve got it.”
And we were off. Over the course of the scene, we revealed that our characters were on a date and he was putting together this telescope as a gift for me, but I was constantly trying to help and provide advice and generally, in as polite and loving and in-a-new-relationship a way as possible, tell him he was doing it all wrong.
At one point, he said, “Well, I’m not a professional astronomer.”
And I paused, then said, “But I am.” And then proceeded to prove that assertion over the course of the rest of the scene.
When we were done, Rose and some of our other teammates said, “That was such a smart choice, for you to be a professional astronomer.” I really didn’t know how to respond, because in that pause before saying, “But I am,” I had thought, “There is only one best way to respond to what Kit just said.” So it hadn’t felt like an especially smart choice to me, but more the only one that made sense. So I just mumbled “Uh-huh” or nodded or something and then shared a look with Kit to sort of check in and see if he was thinking the same thing as me, which he seemed to be, and then practice moved on.
But after practice I continued to think about this moment, and why it had been so impressive from the audience when it felt so obvious on stage. I tried to imagine myself a year ago, in the middle of taking 401, watching more experienced improvisers. If I had seen that scene, would I have been impressed in that moment?
And I decided I would. I decided that the very act of effortlessly making that choice, of listening and recognizing and following what seemed like clearly the best path, doing that was impressive, especially because it was something that in the past I was so proud of doing consciously and with great effort. And I decided that it was a gift to have people outside the scene present to verbalize that I had done it, and it was also a gift to have a scene partner who had intentionally set it up and trusted that I would make that choice.
DSI founder, owner, and three-times-my-teacher Zach Ward often tells students (usually in 301) that to him, improv looks like all of that code from The Matrix. He sees the underlying patterns in scenes, not the details on top. And that often involves automatically recognizing the natural consequences of what has happened earlier in the scene. And, thinking more about that moment in practice, I realized: this was a Matrix moment.
I’ve struggled to create my own metaphor to describe that moment. In that moment I was on stage, all possible choices of how to respond to Kit’s offer were laid out before me like so many possible paths, like trails of light. The one I chose glowed brightly, and all the rest were so dim as to not even be noticed or considered. It was so clear and so obviously right. It was the answer.
I’ve also thought about what kind of ingredients go in to the improv cocktail that makes that moment happen. How can we manufacture effortless clarity?
Well, two years of practice doing improv certainly helps. Thinking about improv academically, reading all you can about it, reflecting on both what you do and what you see, all of that helps. It gets you to a place where you can recognize the underlying patterns that make comedy happen.
But there are other components, and I think the most important, and probably easiest (but also most time-consuming) to manufacture, is the relationship between scene partners. Get on stage with somebody that you’ve played with a lot, preferably in a variety of styles (short form, long form, weird formats); that way each of you trusts the other to knock down anything you set up. Get on stage with somebody you’ve watched a lot; when you’re in a scene with someone, no matter how hard you’re listening, you’re focusing on yourself in a way that you won’t as an audience member. As an audience member watching the same players in a variety of shows, you’ll get to know their personal patterns of play and be able to respond to them on stage. And get on stage with somebody you’ve talked to about improv and how it works, a lot.
Probably you’re not going to become improv BFFs with every potential scene partner. But the closer you can get, the more effortlessly you’ll be able to apply everything you’ve learned about improv in the past.