Think fast

Two boys running away from home. A girl who is forced to eat pickles and who befriends a dying dragonfly. A woman who has left her husband for her neighbour – who doesn’t care for her.

Contrary to what you might think, this is not the plot of a French art house film – and the picture above isn’t really related to it either. I’m at my first ever performance of improvisational theatre and it feels strange to sit in the audience watching others come up with characters and scenarios on the spot. I want to run on stage and help an actor who has talked himself into a corner, or shout out ideas to move the plot forward. Because performing without a script can scare an actor shitless. There is no ready-made plot to cling to, no lines that have been rehearsed. All you’ve got is yourself, your fellow actors and the audience – and no one knows where you’ll end up or with what.

There are a bunch of rules or tips that people are given when they start doing improv, but the most basic of them is to listen and to communicate. This might seem like stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how difficult it is to master. Even at this performance (with professional actors who know what they’re doing and who have rehearsed before the show), there are moments when they struggle to make their co-actors understand their actions or thoughts of where the scene is going. Most often, improv is not a one-man show, which means that the people on stage have to work together. This requires paying attention to each other, being open to offers (if your partner asks you to go to the movies or to the moon, you accept: turning them down will take the scene nowhere) and working as a team. The worst kind of improv (and yes, I have been both the guilty party as well as witness to it) is when people try to be funny by hijacking a scene and completely disregard their fellow actors. Instead of being funny, it becomes painful and awkward to watch.  And I want to let you in on a secret: against expectations, improv doesn’t have to be funny. It can be sad or serious or touching. The girl who befriends a dragonfly starts off as funny and eccentric, but we soon see that her parents are cold and don’t understand her love of nature. When she manages to leave the house (after a horrible dinner where nothing but pickles is served), she visits the dragonfly one last time before it dies. It’s not Shakespeare or Chekhov being performed, but the emotions and the sympathy of the audience is there.

Improv is about creating something in the moment: with places, characters and scenarios that are given life there and then and that disappear just as fast. When it works, you see the actors reading each other’s thoughts and simultaneously speaking the same word or performing the same movements, and in my opinion, that’s as close to magic as you can get. I laugh at people who think improv is easy because it’s not: I would say it’s one of the hardest things to learn. You have to think on your feet but also listen to others, give your partner space and know when you’ve outstayed your welcome. This is the first improv performance I’ve seen as an audience member, and like all improv, it has its strong and weak moments. But when it does work, you see that it doesn’t happen on its own.

In case you’re interested in trying out some improv exercises, you can find a really good selection here.
I also suggest that you read the introduction since it explains some of the “ground rules” and why they are useful to you. So, have a go, learn to listen to others, to say yes to offers – and to think fast.


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