I was teaching the Maydays Drop in class recently and two of the students who are recent converts to improv and now completely obsessed with the form (you know who you are you two!) cornered me afterwards and asked me,
“How do we get to be good?!”
I gave them my best answer but came away thinking about it; How does one get good at improv? (barr experience and time) and here’s what I came up with.
Heather’s top 10 tips for how to be a better improviser
1. Do a lot – There can be no denying that experience is everything. I’m not saying new improvisers can’t be good but everyone experiences those wobble moments on stage and the more you do, the more you learn how to navigate your way out of them. Consistently the best show I’ve ever seen is the Armando in Chicago. Almost every player is 40 plus and the weight of experience is palpable. The audience knows they’re going to have a great time because they know they’re in safe hands. I think improvising is a bit like muscle memory in dance training so I’m sure the act of practising as much as you can helps you improve faster.
2. See a lot – Go and see as many shows as you can. Good and Bad. When you’re doing bad improv, you don’t necessarily know it. When you’re watching it, you do. Seeing those sticky moments from the outside is massively helpful in identifying how you can improve your own practice. Watching good improv is equally helpful, thrilling and inspiring. Like Katy and Rach say – like watching people fly.
3. Get a director – I absolutely believe that no matter how much improv you do, you’ll never get significantly better without someone kicking your arse. Without feedback you’re likely to keep the same bad habits all your improv life. A good director should identify your strengths and develop your weaknesses, like being a human top trump. Maybe your speed (let’s call that object work in this scenario) is 100 but your stamina (character work) is only 40. Your director should be working to get everything to 100.
4. Improvise with the same people a lot – Group mind is invaluable in improv. When there is trust on stage you can do magical things. A crude example of this is being physical. Us English lot aren’t very good at getting in each other’s personal space so when you’re working with a group you know really well it’s easier to do things like make people fly, become one being, play an intimate love or sex scene. It shouldn’t matter if you’re with strangers but it really helps when there’s an unspoken level of communication between your whole troupe.
5. Improvise with different people a lot – Equally, it’s great to get out of your comfort zone and improvise with people whose behaviour patterns you don’t know. Maybe you’re the dominant player in your troupe – go to an open workshop and maybe you’ll be forced into the role of supporter or any other role you don’t normally fall into.
6. Be authentic – Whole heartedly bring your life into your improv. There are two ways of doing this practically. One is to see the world as a scene, if someone calls out “Butcher” – don’t be generic, be your local Butcher Stan or a guy you were standing next to at the bus stop that day. Notice everything, use the real language of whichever profession you’re portraying in that show, do some research. “5 things a _____ would say” is a great game for this and you can play it on your own. Alternatively – experiment with putting yourself into the scene, if you’re feeling scared bring it into your character. If you’re feeling randy – hump everyone! It’s great to be imaginative but if you can start from a place of being real it can add a whole new level to your performance.
7. Learn stagecraft – I know some amazing amazing improvisers who are not so hot when it comes to improvising on a stage for an audience. Get an outside eye or take an acting class if you need to. If people can’t see you, people can’t hear you or your stage pictures look dull and sloppy, it doesn’t matter how good your scene idea was or how naturally hilarious you are.
8. Serve the scene and not yourself – Speaks for itself. Don’t plough into scenes or bulldoze other people. Make it your mission to make everyone else look good and you’ll look good. As Charna Halpern says “ Treat others as if they are geniuses, artists and poets and they will be.”
9. Read some improv books or blogs and talk about it exhaustively and obsessively – Well it can’t hurt.
10.Have a secret – This is my favourite thing to do. Pick something just for you to take into a scene, that no-one needs to know about. Have happy hands, be a lizard if a lizard was a human, decide to always stay 2 feet away from whoever you’re onstage with. Whatever you do, bring something to the table. It might never come out, it might get toned down and you should always be prepared to drop it if there’s a cross initiation but aswell as adding some depth – it’s fun!
This is the little passage I wrote for a business and improv book.
While studying music at University I was fortunate enough to play the violin in a string quartet. Being students, there were many convoluted and bizarre relationships among the four people playing, and we would often bring unresolved arguments, unrequited love and seething jealousy with us to rehearsals. After the cursory and often bitter verbal exchanges we would place our bows on strings and begin. At this point, our verbal communication channel was muted, talking was reserved purely for practical purposes. At the end of rehearsal however, the air was often cleansed of the heavy emotional content that had suffused it so thoroughly beforehand. Arguments dissolved, passions muted and conversation would often return to more mundane practicalities of the day.
I was also studying psychology at the time and distinctly remember coming fresh from a lecture about non verbal communication into one of our rehearsals. As the first violin, it was my job to “lead” the quartet. This means that the tempo, dynamics, phrasing and synchronising were my responsibility. A bow high in the air descending towards my strings would allow the other members to time their simultaneous entries so we all came in together as one. Leaning forwards would bring down the volume, sitting back and broadening my shoulders could result in a triumphant crescendo. Eye contact could encourage a tune to rise above the others, a slight frown could send a tune scuttling back to a supporting role.
In amongst all the artistic decisions being made were entire conversations. A slightly pleading expression could say sorry; a faint smile, I forgive you. Arguments could also be started. One I remember clearly was during the Shostakovich string quintet. I had the job of stating a new, jaunty theme on the violin before passing it to the viola. I gained eye contact with her just before finishing the tune, a slight nod and she was off. She stamped on the tune, growling it out, giving it a complexion I had been utterly unaware of until that time. The exchanges became more and more violent, and at the end of the rehearsal, she packed up and stormed out.
I am convinced that the three years of playing in that string quartet improved my ability to communicate effectively without speaking. I now use those skills as musical director of improvisation company, The Maydays. As the sketches develop, I need to make the decision when to start playing, what to play, and what emotion to bring out. Once the song has started, it is my job to give it structure and to signify any significant changes in mood or style without giving any visual signals. As the end of the song nears, I am looking for someone to take charge of the ending of the song. If no clear leader emerges I will make it as clear as I can when I think the song should stop.
From the singer’s perspective, things look rather different. Essentially the performers are making a case, putting forward a point of view, but doing this as a team, without preparation and without verbally communicating with each other. The success of the song is measured directly by the reaction of the audience, whether it be one person or a room full. The fact that there is music which has a definite speed, rhythm and harmony means that there is little room for hesitation. Full commitment is required not just for the individual, but so the rest of the team understands their role.
There are many parallels to the business world here. There are often times when a case needs to be put forward by a team to an audience, whether it be a board of directors, or a room full of employees. Often the narrative will turn in unexpected directions and there is no time for discussing strategy, the team must move as one and communicate with conviction and without hesitation. The success of the team is measured directly by the response of the audience and the acceptance of the proposition being put forward. Let’s look at some specific skills that are required for this dynamic strategy to be effective.
As I mentioned before, if no clear leader emerges then I will make the decisions myself, being behind the keyboard. Performance becomes significantly easier however if an individual steps forward, often physically and takes control. In business a leader will be predetermined by their profile within the company, however there are times when the leader needs to have knowledge in a specific area such as I.T. or H.R. In these situations, the right person needs to take control or the message can easily become unconvincing. Leadership can be transferred so that the best person is in control at any one time, or it can be maintained by an individual, so that they are always in control of the team. An effective interviewer will take charge of the entire conversation and make it clear when the interviewee should start talking, and more importantly, when to stop. This can be done by positioning the body, gaining effective eye contact, or even audibly taking a breath. If control is given away to the interviewee, the results can be disastrous.
One of the worst case scenarios in a performance is when two people start singing together. At this point the façade comes tumbling down, and there is no way of convincing the audience that this was supposed to happen. The same is true when speaking. Speaking over someone else is rarely an effective way of getting your point accross. When putting a case forward as a team, it is even more important that everyone takes their turn without crashing anyone else’s point. Just as in leading a string quartet, signals of when to start and stop can easily be given with eye contact or intonation. Listening is not just about words, it is about body language and facial expression. Only when you can “listen” to all the channels of communication can you really work together effectively as a team when delivering a message.
Once a leader has emerged, they must then carry the role with 100% commitment. Many songs have begun with a ridiculous line such as “Aliens have stolen my dog”. If this song is sung with a feeling of apology or embarrassment then the humour is not as effectively delivered. If however, the performer steps up to the front of the stage and sings the line with a full voice, wide gestures and complete commitment, the humour is intensified massively. The same is true when trying to persuade someone of your point of view. If the listener detects a hint of insecurity, they will most likely remain unconvinced. After all, if you do not have faith in your own convictions, why should anybody else? It is far funnier if the performer really thinks aliens have stolen their dog, than if they are just putting that forward as a funny idea.
Give the same speech to two different people and they will deliver two different messages. It is possible to read a speech with the same words in the same order, but communicate an entirely different meaning. Our body language, intonation while speaking, expressions and eye contact will all tell their own story, and it is often far more powerful that the story the words are telling. How many times has a text message you sent been completely misinterpreted, and then you spend the next four messages just trying to communicate that you were joking, or you thought they were joking? Effective speakers often have very well rehearsed movements that they use to deliver their messages. One only has to look at world leaders to see that their use of their hands, eyes and body is very carefully controlled. When part of a team, you must not only use these skills to communicate with your audience, but also with the other members of your team.
Speeches are only as good as the person speaking. Most of the time, having the words written out for us is a hindrance. Losing eye contact with the audience, losing our place on the page and stumbling over words are very common problems, even for the most experienced speakers. Being able to construct a speech or conversation on the spot is a far more powerful way of communicating. The best public speaker will have bullet points, or general headings to structure their speech, but will not rely upon a script. When a conversation or discussion takes an unexpected turn, the improviser will be right there, ready to respond, ready to turn the surprise back on the other person.
All of these skills can be practised. Traditionally this has taken the form of painful role-play situations at training days. It does not have to be like this! Joining an improvisation workshop gives a safe, supportive environment where these skills can be honed within a group of like-minded people. The role of comedy is to give the performer a clear objective, and also makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable. From my point of view, the role of music within improvised comedy is to break down inhibitions and really nurture commitment. It is a very personal experience to sing in front of a group of people, but in the right environment it is also very empowering. There is no need to have a good voice or musical experience, singing is a natural extension of talking, and we can all do that. You will be amazed how quickly fear can turn into self-belief, and often into addiction!
For more details on how to join a workshop, visit themaydays.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.