Funny thing about having improvisation on video. In many ways it’s totally inadequate. But it’s still a tool that can be incredibly valuable for evaluation and a reminder of what you want out of the form.

Here’s a case in point. It’s several years old – considerably older than the 2010 upload dates – but it’s always been a fond scene for me. I’d suggest watching it and then hear my post-mortem…

OK, scalpel out.

First, it begins from nothing. We’re just looking at each other, mirroring a slight contortion in each others’ faces, and James gives me an arbitrary action as an offer. I like this – it’s one of my favorite things about improvisation when rolling well.

Second, I say what I see. The contorted faces and the rhythmic movement spur the words “Physical therapy” from me. This is not a light choice – it’s harder to hear on video, but I remember an intake of breath at that point, at the prospect that we’re going to do a scene about stroke or palsy rehabilitation. I like this too.

Third, we don’t go there. I fix it, by putting this in the context of a revision of many types of therapy. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I believe strongly that improvisers do ultimately have a responsibility for what they put out there on stage. I don’t believe it’s ok to perform a scene that displays and reinforces prejudice, and then shrug and hold ‘spontaneity’ as your excuse. On the other hand, you can find pathos and indeed comedy in a scene about rehabilitation; there would have to be a lot justified (who are we to each other, why are we standing up and both looking so bemused) but there could be richness in it. Granted, I’d been performing outside of classes for just a few months at this point, but if I came up against this choice now I hope I would go with it.

Fourth, we find some differentiation, mainly in status. James plays naive fool (in his peerless way) and I play a bit more upwardly mobile, a little straighter. I like this, it’s not obligatory but it adds texture to the scene.

Fifth, we find some physical patterns that we can return to. Thinking about this, the physicality is inspired from the initiation of the scene, the somewhat gormless postures and arbitrary movement. Our failed high-fives, our confusion about the seating, and the general tentative body responses when tested. It’s not really ‘game of the scene’ stuff because it’s not quite specific enough, but it is a sensibility that infuses the scene and I quite like it.

Sixth, we have a game of naming therapies. I ID it and then James plays it exquisitely. One interesting feature of this scene, and the kind of thing I like to puzzle over after the fact: some would say the game is enough, and that additional content just dilutes the essence of the scene. I’m not sure I agree (see below) but I can definitely see occasions in this video where the game pattern could be played with even more, and is ignored in the aim of ‘pressing on’ in some way. As I say, James is bang on it, he has a great intuition for this stuff.

Seventh, we create some story around the situation. The therapy game is placed in a fuller context, there are stakes, character aspirations. I’m pretty happy with this, I feel it gives a bit of a richness, opens up and specifies the scene a bit more and gives us other dimensions to play with. However, it risks hitting Exposition Mode, and is not as effortlessly playful as the first part of the scene. Could we have just stuck with the games? Maybe. I’ll stick to my guns and say that elaboration of character and relationship – even when you have a game going – is often a useful way to go. Which is not to say it can’t be done more smoothly than in this case.

Eighth, we have a potential status reversal in a callback to aromatherapy (that Dewi correctly intuits is a wonderful offer). This is interesting. I’ve been leaning over James in status at points, particularly when it came to his inability to name that particular therapy. So in principle, my forgetting it is a chance to find the ‘point’ of the scene, maybe see his character blossom, and mine learn some humility. But it didn’t quite go that way, and I think part of it is that I’d not kept enough of that status separation: in the joy of returning to those comedic patterns such as stumbling physicalities, I think the two characters joined to enough of a degree that it just felt better to keep going with it.

So keep looking for something from nothing, be provoked by your partner, notice patterns and extend them. Find what makes your character, be prepared to change. My big two takeaways from reviewing this are firstly, to hold on to my character’s shit a little more. And secondly, to be aware of when I am looking to shape or fix the scene rather than being swept up within it – see 3, 6/7. It’s not a perennial sin but it’s something I do notice, and it’s less fun than Being There. Most of all, I shouldn’t be seeing it as my responsibility alone. Direction will emerge between me and my scene partners, after all.

Playing with your voice

Julia has been back in London, and we managed to cram together a string of shows, from awkward to joyous. We learned a lot.

Firstly, a reminder that improvisation is all about connection. As well as raw time spent together, we managed to fit in two rounds of contact improvisation and pulled some solid rehearsals, which began after the first two (awkward) shows and took us to a good place together, with better performances as a consequence

One of those later, fun shows was a duo set at Hoopla’s crash pad, where we performed Postcards from the Edge, something we tried in Marburg and inspired by Moon’s Pocket, a show we watched on our arrival to the Würzburg festival. The form is sitting really well with us now, and I’m hungry to get back to it. My learning from that show was if you honestly talk about sex it is the best kind of funny.

The other two shows we trio’d, the first with Ed Bennett in a family gathering form we’ve toyed with before and the other with Brandon again, a montage begun with a painting of a two-dimensional picture at stage front. The former was simply wild fun, with the three of us in hysterics after finishing the show, the second had some magical moments, from slow discoveries to gentle monologues to steamrollering our scene partner (yes I did but it’s ok).

My learning from those is just how important voice is for me to get out of my head and be active. In the family gathering opening scene, when I opened my mouth I made an arbitrary choice to sound Russian. Now, I’m not good at accents. I want to be better, am even doing accent classes, but I know it’s not a strength. And my Russian simply wasn’t good enough to be pleasing as an offer in itself: I could feel it from the audience after a few lines, an almost disappointment ‘oh. It’s an accent but not really, and not in of itself funny’. And I could feel the pressure to drop it, to accept that I’m not delivering something useful there, but stuck with it.

One thing to note is that as the character became more familiar across the show and his turns of phrase became reused, then something that wasn’t funny became funny-ish and then plain fun. Stick with your details and give your audience the gift of familiarity. But my main point is what the voice did for me. It took me out of my head. How?

Firstly, a booming, clipped and jolly diction is simply distinct from myself naturally. When I use my natural voice, the voice that I buy chips with and talk to customer service reps with and probably have anxious thoughts about improvisation with, I’m holding my own identity close. A different voice doesn’t so readily cue those memories, and once the character has started rolling the voice will cue character memories, which are far more useful. As a case in point, my Russian had at least three games running (talking about life on a Gym Ship, finding wisdom in Dumpling-making, and preferring to examine people indirectly through a mirror) and I never felt myself trying to remember any of them, they just kept returning.

Secondly, the voice was strong and diaphragmatic. I’ve done Trance Mask work for coming up to four years now, and it’s clear there that the state of effortless trance that the masks allow you to discover is accessed in part through bodily vibrations from the sound that each mask possesses. In a sense, simply speaking louder gets you some of the way there – which is what I discovered in the steamroller scene I played with Brandon, and is akin to Christian’s scene mentioned elsetumblr. Even more fundamentally, the quieter you are the more inward you are retreating, and the louder the more you approach and mix yourself with the outside world.

A final caveat to myself. Julia reminded me afterwards that techniques such as voice, physicality and stream of consciousness (which we rehearsed heavily to great benefit – do it if you can!) were just one approach to staying out of your head, with another being to simply be present and not want anything, just let it come. I know that’s true – we had found that on stage the day before – but I can easily find myself worrying that I’m not giving enough to my partner, or indeed the audience, if I’m not bringing at least a specific energy to the stage, if not a more explicit offer. Devolution into ‘you-first’ improv, essentially, the crime of the polite English. The fact that I’m resisting this evident second wisdom as being so useful to me makes it certain that I need to approach it more, and be, shall we say, present in active emptiness.