Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Improvise: Be Obvious

There are two things to do to improvise: generate, and justify. Both of these things are instinctual (i.e., our brain can do this for us without us forcing it to do so). First, the improvised item must be generated ("improvised"), and then justified within the context of the scene/environment. Here's how to do both (though you already know how to?):

As to the generating, (and the expectation of having to create something "original"): Keith Johnstone writes in Impro:
"The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really 'obvious' idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some 'original' idea because they want to be thought clever...
'What's for supper?' a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original...he'll finally drag up some idea like 'fried mermaid.' If he'd just said 'fish' the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears."
The mind can immediately generate a response for what something (imaginary) is - it is more one's desire to appear imaginative (or the fear that an immediate, subconscious response will negatively reflect on oneself) that slows its expression. Our imagination, then, (*without prompting*) is a near-infinite generator of what something could be. Johnstone again:
"...I explain that I'm not interested in what they did, but how their minds worked. I say that either they can put their hand out, and see what it closes on; or else they can think first, deciding what they'll pick up, and then do the mime [of the object]. If they're worried about failing, then they'll have to think first; if they're being playful, then they can allow their hand to make its own decision."
Johnstone goes on to show this at work - having a student repeatedly take something from an imaginary box, continually changing the context so they can't plan what (potentially 'clever thing') to take next. J-stones:
"If I make people produce object after object, then very likely they'll stop bothering to think first, and just swing along being mildly interested in what their hands select. Here's a sequence that was filmed...I said:
Keith: 'Put your hand into an imaginary box. What do you take out?'
'A cricket ball.'
'Take something else out.'
'Another cricket ball.'
'Unscrew it. What's inside?'
'A medallion.'
'What's written on it?'
'Christmas 1948.'
'Put both hands in. What have you got?'
'A box.'
'What's written on it?'
'"Export only."'
'Open it and take something out.'
'A pair of rubber corsets.'
'Put your hands in the far corners of the box. What have you got?'
'Two lobsters.'
'Leave them. Take out a handful of something.'
'Feel about in it.'
'A pearl.'
'Taste it.' What's it taste of?'
'Pear drops.'
Take something off a shelf.'
'A shoe.'
'What size?'
'Reach for something behind you.'
He laughs.
'What is it?'
'A breast...'
Notice that I'm helping him to fantasise by continually changing the 'set' (i.e. the category) of the questions."
Note this student is not planning these things, but they are being supplied instinctually. I've done this same exercise as a director and the results are the same - eventually the mind supplies its own items without them being consciously planned or strictly supervised.

If that's the Generating, then where does its counterpart Justifying come in?
We'll call this instinct The Justifier, which responds to the question "why" of "why do i have this thing/how do i justify it's presence?" This is instinctual in a scene because it's the same one we use in everyday life to situate ourselves.*

This Justifying instinct can be nearly as responsive and usable as the generating, particularly following Johnstone's creed of "Be Obvious! Don't try to be clever" -
if in a scene you partner asks why you're holding takeout, the "obvious" answer is because you just got from a restaurant. No clever "an alien from Saturn gave me this doggie bag, its got soup recipes in it."

'The obvious' serves as a much stabler, stronger platform to build the scene on. The takeout's presence could lead to revelation of having eaten with someone, which could cause tension upon returning home, which could lead to something all the more dramatic. An interesting scene has been created with minimal stress or 'i have to be clever!' pressure on the part of the performers.
That is all that is needed to improvise - generating, and justifying. Johnstone also recommends the use of 'reincorporation' - using what's already been introduced in the scene - tobuild a story and find an ending. This, combined with Johnstone's concept of Status, mentioned in this previous post, are additional concepts that can be plugged into the base that's created by the generating and the justifying. The fact that improvising is simply what our brain does on its own, means that anyone can improvise. It's not about your funniness, cleverness, or brainpower - all it takes is awareness and using what you have already.

*The Justifier is, I believe, our innate pattern-searching and pattern-recognition mental instincts. "Why would i have this?" is searching for a pattern, and Johnstone's 'Be Obvious' injunction reminds one to be comfortable picking the obvious pattern.


  1. I realize that this is to be taken in the context of theatre, stand-up comedy and so forth but it seems to me of wider relevance, and I especially like what you say about "awareness and using what you have already". I suppose there is a connection with my enthusiasm of today - spiritual dandyism - and living as a kind of performance, being oneself the work of art.

    So please please do that follow-up! What you write about the Justifier is confirmed by the observations of psychoneurologists Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio. For instance, a person with brain lesions resulting in massive memory loss, or living in the past, will never fail to come up with a justification for every event.

  2. when an improv performer is in tune with the audience there is no time between what the he/she is generating and the reaction of the audience/large group. i think KJ's rapid fire of direction moves the pace up to a speed of what the audience is EXPECTING.

  3. Johnstone is eerily close to Johnson. Too close.
    Is that surprise or is it expected?