Improv Wisdom

I am reading Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, an improvisor and professor who is very thoughtful about how the elements of improv might work off the stage. Each chapter is a maxim, and I’ve listed them below. They provide a handy little overview of her focus:

Say yes
Don’t prepare
Just show up
Start anywhere
Be average
Pay attention
Face the facts
Stay on course
Wake up to the gifts
Make mistakes, please
Act now
Take care of each other
Enjoy the ride

It reminds me of the wisdom prints by artist Suzanne L. Vinson.

Improv Performance

Somehow, less than a year after taking a beginning improv class in an attempt to deal with the crippling stage fright I’d begun to experience when speaking before groups of parents on curriculum nights, I find myself in the fourth class of the improv series at the Upright Citizens Brigade training center. And in 401 we have not one but THREE performances.

It is a testament to the efficacy of improv in dealing with my stage fright that I am now suggesting anyone I know come to the show.

When: Saturday July 14, 5:30pm
Where: 153 East 3rd Street, at the UCBEast Theatre

Just be sure to sit where I can’t see you or you may witness a world class regression. Unless that’s your thing, in which case, knock yourself out.

Improv According to Matt Besser

I had the chance to attend an improv lecture/workshop with UCB founder Matt Besser this Sunday at the UCB theater in Chelsea.  He favored a socratic style, peppering the audience with questions about what makes for good improv.  He was extremely insightful and unsparing.  I salute the brave souls who agreed to take the stage to perform some sample improv for Besser to dissect. Here is what I learned:

Start out being as logical as possible.

“Yes-and” ONLY until you find the UNUSUAL thing. THEN ask, “if this unusual thing is true, then what else is true.”

“PLAYING AT THE TOP OF YOUR INTELLIGENCE” means you should react the way a real person would react. It is not about smarts so much as
authentic response.

The funny thing that you pick to start a scene with is your PREMISE.

You don’t have a GAME until your scene partner interacts with you

LISTEN to each other . React accordingly.

HEIGHTENING is not about raising stakes. It’s “What’s another great place to play this game.”  In other words, find what’s funny and make it funnier.

EXPLORING helps you answer why you are doing the unusual thing.  (I took this to mean you are exploring to find your justification?)

Lack of Trust

In Improvising Better we learn that “the experience we are constantly seeking as performers, is that rare time when it feels like someone is putting the words in our mouths. We are no longer working, something is working us.” I have experienced this once or twice both in performing and in writing and I agree that it is marvelous, though difficult to achieve.


Exposition at the top of a scene seems so clunky and obvious, but I’ve found in my short time improvising that it is hugely helpful.  Say WHO you and your scene partner are. WHERE are you? WHAT is your relationship? Right there, you’ve done a lot of the work in creating the scene, and you can relax and have fun with the connection between you and your scene partner.

Anger is Okay

One pitfall of the “yes and” rule of improv that demands agreement in order for a scene to be successful is that is that it can be tricky to deal with anger while agreeing.  So the easy thing to do is avoid anger in scenes, but that’s not always the best thing to do.

Improvising Better suggests an exercise called “Emotional Rants,” to counteract this tendency, where one actor is essentially emotionally neutral and the other is a hothead, raging at the most banal line.  Then you switch places.