Improv 101

I went to my first improv class Saturday. As I walked over to the studio, absurdly enough I found myself trying to think of funny situations I could create if it came down to it, and what funny things I could say if they actually did arise. Then I realized I was mentally trying to prepare for an improv class. The irony. That’s when I got really freaked out, as I saw there was literally nothing I could do to get ready for what I’d gotten myself into. I wish I had pictures to post here.

There were eight of us, and our teacher, Bill. At first we stood around awkwardly, and then I sat down at a table with another woman and a guy. I asked how they’d gotten interested in taking the class. I really don’t want to use names here, so consider these classmates Woman 1 through 3 and Man 1 through 4. Woman 1 said she knew a guy in the troupe, See You Thursday, and he’d talked her into trying it out. Man 1 said he was taking the class as part of a New Year’s Resolution to try new and terrifying things. I could relate.

As the class started, we made our introductions. The class varies in age; the men all seem young, or at least around my age, but the three women are likely middle aged. It sounded like only two of them had previous improv experience, so I felt better about that. When it was my turn I told the group I was more used to being behind the camera since I am an amateur filmmaker in my free tie, but that lately I’ve become more and more interested in improv and stand up comedy. Our teacher told us briefly about the history of improv, and about how the three big schools in Chicago, Second City, The Annoyance and iO came to be. He also told us a bit about the philosophies of improv the different schools hold, and the philosophy we would be learning for our purposes. Then, before we knew it, we were being called on stage in pairs to act out our very first two-person scenes.

My partner and I went last and I seriously had no idea how I was going to react. Our teacher gave us a location and a relationship: We were a minister and a member of the congregation, and we were at a county fair. We were not specifically told which was which character, but my acting partner decided this as the scene started and he walked up to me and said “Hey, pastor, how are you doing?”

That’s probably not how I would have gone with things, but once it was said and out there, that was where we went with it. If I were to say in response, “No no, YOU are the minister,” that would have left my partner in a lurch, on top of killing the scene. Doing something like that is called a denial, and it must be avoided. Even if you walk out on stage hunched over like an old person and your partner doesn’t notice and refers to you as her grandson, that’s too bad, she’s got a really old grandson for the rest of the scene. This is called, in Bill’s words, “holding onto your shit.”

And so I said to Man 1, “I am well, my child, God has blessed me very much,” or something like that. I rambled on long enough for Man 1 to come up with something else to say to guide our conversation and our scene. (This may or may not be a good thing. I discovered Saturday that my reaction to being on stage without memorized lines is to NOT SHUT UP. I didn’t expect that at all.) The scene went on with Man 1 consulting me about his dream of one day becoming a magician. I told him God wouldn’t approve of using such dark arts and, since we were supposed to be at a fair, I suggested he become a carnie instead. Bill ended the scene there, thank God.

He had us do another two person scene, and in the next one I was paired with Man 2 and we were supposed to be Siamese twins in a snuff film (Man 3 had some dark suggestions to make). Had I been the one to start the scene I would have pretended my twin was trying to kill me, but since he started it, he indicated we were both being chased by a killer. I learned an important lesson in this one; it got really repetitive as we both, arms linked, tried to run away from (on a very small stage) an imaginary killer. We shifted the scene slightly to making jokes about how, despite being attached at the hip, we never talk anymore. We should have continued down this direction, but because I thought we were supposed to keep the scene about running from our killer, I interrupted my partner and pretended to spot our killer and made us start running again. After the scene ended, I learned that you should go where the scene takes you. Just because you start a scene based on an audience suggestion doesn’t mean it is strictly limited to those parameters. If it did, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. Instead of taking up the boring running again, I should have asked my Siamese twin something like, whatever happened to that girl he had been seeing who had seemed so nice. Just imagine a Siamese twin on a date. There’s a lot of material to work from there.

The third exercise we did was about building dialogue. We were advised to stay away from arguments, which can turn into repetitive “Yes you did/No I didn’t” conversations on stage. Specifics are good. For example, don’t say, “Did you see that?” Say, “Did you see that man running away in the chicken costume holding a rattle snake?” Our dialogue exercise started with one person making a declarative statement, and the other person building onto it by saying, “Which means that…” and following up with what could be a conclusion, and a direction for the scene to take.

  • Woman 1: We really need to clean up around here.
  • Me: You think we need to clean up more around here, which means that, I am a messy roommate. (Bam! It is established we are roommates, just like that)
  • Woman 1: You are a messy roommate, which means that I am always cleaning up after you.
  • Me: You are always cleaning up after me, which means that you take joy in cleaning up after people.
  • Woman 1: You think I like cleaning up after people because you are self-centered.
  • Me: I am self-centered, which means that I think we should hire a maid rather than you make me clean.
  • Woman 1: You think we should hire a maid, which means that I think you should pay for it.
  • Me: You think I should pay for a maid, which means that I will have to take on a second job to pay for it.
  • Woman 1: You will have to take on a second job, which means you will be around less to make messes.

End scene.

Our fourth exercise was intended to make us think about object work, or the use of invisible props. Basically, if you start out holding a glass, you better either set down that glass on an imaginary table or keep holding on to it until the scene ends. We each had to pantomime carrying out an every day task and the rest of the group had to guess what they were doing. One person acted out brushing snow off his entire car, one guy made soup in a kitchen we could almost see, one woman walked her two dogs who were determined to go in opposite directions. I acted out putting in my contact lenses. I was told I was convincing. I probably felt silliest at that point, on stage, by myself with no dialogue, standing at a sink that wasn’t there.

The last exercise we did had us in two groups of four, acting out a scene without dialogue. Our group decided to be a cashier and three customers at a grocery store. I was a mom with a bratty son (who was well over a foot taller than me) at the register and a guy waited impatiently behind us. That was the hardest scene yet, since we had to pay attention to what the others were doing and act accordingly. Then, we ran the same scene, but added dialogue. That made it even harder, because then we had to watch each other and think of things to say.

Our class took the full three hours, but it was so fun and interesting that it didn’t seem like it. I’m looking forward to continuing in the class and getting to know everyone better.