Robotic Impro

In a workshop the other day I combined a few exercises together and was quite surprised at the results.

The class contained fairly experienced improvisers who do a weekly successful impro show. Lately the teaching has been very games focused with lots of repetition of the games and a focus on successfully performing them.  As a result, the work on stage tends to be hyper, largely talking head, verbal quick witted based, and the majority of players are glibsters*.  There is not a lot of variety in the show.  They don’t necessarily play a lot of games in their show, but the scene work still has ‘need to get it right’ game energy in the work.  The company has a long history and in the past some excellent teaching as a result the players are very generous and the atmosphere of the company is a good one.  Though there have been directorial influences that have moved the company from process to product, from discovery and exploration to trying to compete with what other ‘funny’ groups are doing.  Now they are the same as so many others.  Shame.  In watching the work the players are not present they are always a few beats ahead of the moment and in their heads processing.  They all look and play the same. Which is actually quite boring to watch.   I love a stage filled with different types of improvisers, the promises are huge.  Anyway, as a result of all of this these players are always playing for the hit of the gag and they no longer sit in the beautiful spontaneous discovery.

My aim in the workshop was to remove their ability to be ahead of themselves in verbal work and put them in a place where they surprise themselves.

I combined these exercises;

  • solo physical advancing

  • monologues with colour / advance direction in story

Why these two?  Well, the company does very little solo work so the players are in a routine of verbal interplay off of each other.  You can see in the eyes of a player when they have stopped listening because they are searching for the gag or waiting for you to shut up so they can deliver the line.  Having someone else on stage speaking can often give people that search and plan beat.  Also in the panic of moving forward these improvisers forget the joy of reincorporation, symbolism, holding a moment, emotional change, detail and the skill of being calm and confident on stage.  Monologues, done well, allow for this.

Solo physical advancing is of course challenging the verbal improviser to be physical.  In this context there is a further challenge that they are allowed to speak but NOT talk about the action they are doing.  The exercise allows for discoveries to advance the routine and often those discoveries change the players emotion, which leads to some interesting changes in the monologue (without players being conscious of this). 

My set up.

1 player is playing a physical advancing routine, something normal like making a cup of tea.  While doing the physical advancing they must also improvise a monologue, not about making tea.  While doing the monologue a director player will coach colour (for more description in the monologue) or advance (move the action of the monologue forward). 

In life we frequently chat away with friends while making dinner or a cup of coffee.  We frequently have little mishaps in our actions like too much milk, forgot to add something to the stew, spill water etc.  and yet we can continue with the verbal part of the interaction.  When asking the improvisers to do this they had a very difficult time doing it.  They would want to stop the action to think of words, stop talking to play the physical, the ability to do both was a massive challenge.

I’ve tried this same exercise on a group of improvisers who were taught more in the process of improvisation work.  The games and exercises were used but the teacher understood the values under them and knew how to inspire the class into a state of abandonment, acceptance and embracing failure.  The aim of the this teacher was to unleash the impro beast, feed the spirit and see where that took the players.  Not, make them good game players.  This group seemed to have little difficulty doing the exercise.  Their ability to do more than one task, more than one focus was not a big challenge.

If teachers teach improvisation in a mechanical style that is a repetitious, academic, ego based form then we generate robotic high achieving (perhaps) performers of impro games.  But we do not inspire free thinking improvisation artists who challenge and explore.  Improvisation is non-mechanical, it is organic and impulsive.

Perhaps this is why most new improvisation formats are just redoing or replaying what already exists.  How many genre based shows are out there?  Entertaining yes and yes there is skill in getting the genre right or right enough to parody but it is not NEWimprovisation.  In truth there is so little true invention.

But then, robots only do what they are programmed for.

Glibsters: A Keith Johnstone term for a player who is not emotionally changed or effected in any of their work.


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