Improv Diary: Begin in the Middle

This is my fourth week of an eight-week “Intermediate Improv for Adults” class at ComedySportz in downtown Indianapolis. 

What I Love About the Class

I love that the class is teaching me about story crafting as well as about acting.  It is not a writing class, but it makes me want to try writing fiction again.

I love that the class is teaching me about generosity, boundaries, and community on stage.  It’s too soon to tell if these lessons will affect the rest of my life, but I bet they will.

I love that the class is both mentally and (for me) physically demanding but not crushing.

I love that the class is thoughtfully structured, with a notebook of lesson plans that the instructors refer to, but within that structure, the instructors make each night unique.  They respond very specifically in the moment to our attempts, pulling from their own years of improv experience to offer advice.  I love that the instructors take the work seriously without taking themselves seriously. 

I love that the fifth rule of improv at ComedySportz Indy is “Have fun.”

“There’s no way to do this wrong,” instructor Michael Davis said on the first day.  “However, there are always choices.  Some choices are stronger than others, so I’ll be giving you feedback to help you learn how to make the stronger choices more often, but don’t worry about…” making a mistake, being imperfect, looking foolish, whatever.

I “failed” again and again that first night (and in the nights since) but it was in an atmosphere that made me want to keep going, keep trying, keep working, keep playing.

The Rules

There are actually all kinds of rules in improv, but here are the five we started out with:

1.   Pay attention.  (For example, if your scene partner mimes putting a chair in the middle of the stage, don’t walk through it a few moments later.)

2.   Agree. (For example, if you enter a scene thinking you’re going to be in a garden shed and your scene partner says, “Welcome to Disneyland!” then just go ahead and turn your imaginary rake into an imaginary mouse balloon or whatever.)

3.   Put the ensemble first. (Don’t judge or blame.  Do contribute.  Don’t overwhelm.)

4.   Commit. (For example, if you find you’ve become a frog in a scene, then hop your little heart out.  Use all your energy.)

5.   Have fun.

6.   There are no rules.

Other rules that have come up along the way so far:

  • Don’t ask questions.  Michael said that asking questions is what we’ve all been trained to do, socially, to show that we’re interested in other people, but in an improv scene it just means you are making your scene partner do all the work.  So, for example, don’t say, “What are you holding there?” say, “I love that machete you’ve got there.”  Don’t say “What are you going to do with it?” say, “Boy, I hope you’re planning to use that machete on the weeds in the back yard rather than on my neck” or whatever.  If you forget and do ask a question, fix it yourself by turning your question into a statement.
  • Begin in the middle.  Use names and other things to show that you and your scene partner have pre-established relationships.  The “hi, nice to meet you” stuff is boring. 
  • Get out the names, place, and situation as soon as you can.
  • Don’t block other people’s ideas. (Wait, that’s the same as the Agreement rule.)
  • Listen, watch, remember.  (Wait, that’s the same as the Pay Attention rule.  Hmm.  Maybe everything is a version of those basic five rules after all.)

Warmups and Tools

So far, we have had three instructors: Michael Davis, Jon Colby, and Ed Trout, all excellent.  I think Michael will be teaching most of the rest of the sessions but it is nice to work with other gurus once in a while. 

No matter who is teaching, each week we first stand in a circle and stretch and chat a bit.  Then we play games in a circle:  to warm up our mouths and vocal chords; to raise our energy; to focus our attention; and to hone our imaginations.

Then we take turns getting up on the tiny ComedySportz stage and doing various kinds of scenes.  Michael said this week that both the warm-ups and the scene work are meant to give us tools that will come in handy with any kind of improv work.  I think they will come in handy with life, too, but as I said earlier, it’s too soon to tell.

My Take-Aways So Far

Each two-hour class is filled with experiences and ideas.  Here are some things that particularly resonated with me:

Week One:  Most people that do improv will tell you that “Yes, and…” is the most important thing to remember.  I realized as we worked that first night that this expression does not mean “be a doormat.”  The “and” is as rich and important as the “yes.”  Yes, I accept what you’re saying and doing AND I’m now saying and doing such-and-such to help us move forward in the story.  The story on stage or the story of our lives.

Week TwoToday is the day that _____ happens.  ComedySportz shows are funny but actually, improv work is not about being funny.  This surprised me.  Improv is about being honest and open and strong and vulnerable and present in the here and now.  People like to laugh, but even more, they like to watch authenticity.  Also, people like to watch someone going to the place where they want to go but are reluctant.  Improv is about the unusual, even the unique. If it happens every day, why show it?  In improv, today is the day that a meek man tells off his boss, asks out his neighbor, takes a voyage, whatever he wants to do but would normally not do because of his inhibitions.  And what an optimistic, exhilarating approach to real life, too!  Today is unique! Today is the day a drunk man stumbles into our class, thinking ComedySportz is a bar, and our instructor, Jon, says firmly, “Yes, and I need you to leave now.”  Today is the day a gorgeous man offers strong, independent me his hand to help me down a tricky set of stairs, and I accept and am simply grateful for the help.  Today is the day that _____ happens.  I wonder what the “blank” will be today!

Week Three:  We worked hard this week on discovering and developing characters, first by “walking them” and then by using their inner and outer wants to drive scenes.  We practiced building tension with silence, too, and other improv tools.  It was all fascinating and more complex than anything we had done before, and by the end of the night I was exhausted and very aware of the opportunities I’d missed in our scene work.  Ed said, “Forgive yourself.  If you missed opportunities, eh, it’s improv.  You’ll never have to see it again.  Of course, the reverse is true, too.  If it was brilliant, you’ll never get to see it again, either.”  In either case, that’s just life.  I mean, improv.

Week Four: This week we continued to work hard.  Michael told us afterwards that the black notebook calls this lesson “Keeping the Story in the Scene.”  We did “freezes” – where two people do a scene for a few moments until Michael says, “Freeze!  Hope, change places with ___.” Then I go up on stage and put my body in the exact same position as my classmate’s. She or he leaves the stage and then my other classmate and I start a new scene from that frozen position.  We also practiced doing 3-person scenes in which the first two people give the 3rd person usable information about himself (or herself) before he enters, through their conversation.  It is much more helpful to say something like, “you know, my friend Joe that limps” than “my friend Joe who has brown hair,” for example.  We also practiced paring down minute-long scenes into 45 seconds, then 12 seconds, then 6.  Then we practiced expanding a 6-second scene into a minute, which was much harder to do.   I realized that even though I am taking this class for personal growth rather than from any desire to get back on stage for a paying audience, I am still interested in the artistry of the work as well as the therapy of it.  Michael said, “One difference between doing improv and just playing make-believe on the playground is that in improv you say, ‘Later, at the barn’ or you open an imaginary door and walk out to the barn.  You don’t just appear there.”  Improv is a lot of fun, and it offers food for thought about life, but it is also worthy of respect as an art form.

Homework (aka Icing!)

This 8-week, 2-hours-per-week course cost $195, which is a bargain in and of itself, but guess what else?!  Everyone in the class received a handful of free passes to ComedySportz shows so that we can go to them for observation and enjoyment as “homework” in between classes!  What a treat!

‘See you at the theatres, including Comedy Sportz…

Hope Baugh – and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

(Photo above taken by me with my trusty old iPhone.) 

© 2013 Hope Baugh

3 thoughts on “Improv Diary: Begin in the Middle”

  1. Yay! Hope! I’m glad you are enjoying your Comedysportz classes! Improvisation is such a great tool to help overcome so much stuff– both on and off stage. I like how it teaches me to be flexible and role with things that are unpredictable. I LOOOOOVE when I get to use it onstage in shows, when things don’t go as planned, and I can trust that as long as I make a choice that is honest and true for the character, it will be ok. 🙂
    Hope to see you soon!
    Rebecca McConnell

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