Present, Presence, Presents
There are 3 basic concepts that are key to creating amazing, funny, truthful improvisation... Present, Presence, and Presents.
The present, the now, the moment - This is where (or perhaps when) improvisation happens.
The audience wants to see something happen. That "something" doesn't have to be huge or whacky, it can be subtle and personal, but it needs to happen in the present. Watching two actors talk endlessly about something that has happened (the past), or about something that is going to happen (the future) is generally quite unsatisfying.
Staying in the present means the audience gets to see what is happening in the lives of those characters in that moment. They get to see how the characters deal with events as they unfold, and how they relate to each other in that moment. That is when you get to see a compelling performance.
Of course, as with everything in improv, there are no hard and fast rules. A brief dip into backstory that informs us about the character can be great, as can two characters planning a future event.
Some improvisers even get away with long reminiscence stories, that we never see played out. But I think this only works when the real story is not the one from the past that they are telling, but the one that is happening in the present - the story of how past events make these characters feel about life and about each other right now.
Good improv happens in the present, and good actors achieve this by being present (mindful and aware).
Being present allows you to be aware of everything that is happening on the stage, in the moment. You know what your scene partner is doing, you are attuned to the emotional state of their character, and you are aware of their shape, their gesture, their tone, their tempo, and the spatial relationship. between you.
You are also mindful of the inventory of the scene (the things that have been created up to this point), and of the physical space around you (both real and imaginary). Being truly present in the scene is a wonderful experience for the improviser, for her scene partner, and for the audience - but it's not always easy to achieve, because your ego likes to get in your way and put you "in your head".
Things your ego will do to screw you up...
- Plan where the scene is going.
- Try to control your scene partner or drive the scene.
- Worry about being "good".
- Try to "fix" the scene.
- Look for gags / one-liners.
How do you avoid this?
- When it happens, acknowledge it and move on. It will happen from time to time, so don't beat yourself up over it.
- Look to your partner. Connect with them. If in doubt you may find it useful to mirror them in some way, or even to repeat what they just said.
- Recognise that whatever is happening - that's what's happening, that's what the scene is about.
- Trust yourself. You've got this.
One of my favourite Dave Razowsky quotes is "You're the Santa of Nowtown".
It says it all really. When you're on stage you are constantly giving gifts (presents) to your scene partner. Everything you say and do. How you move. Your silence. Your stillness. Your gestures. Your shape. All of these things (and more) are gifts to your scene partner. She knows everything that you are doing (if she is present), and that's what she's responding to, so keep doing it - keep giving gifts.
I hope you enjoy applying the 3 P's to your improv.