Friday 1 July 2011

The Perfect Form

A lot of comedy relies on the personality of the performer. Improv is rarely an exception. However improv is a discipline where the personality of the performer can actually get in the way.

In acting, certainly, the ideal is to lose oneself in the role. Become that character. However, that ideal is at odds with what the public seems to want. Many of the most popular actors tend to be people who keep the same character no matter what the role. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, etc. Most of the early Hollywood stars can be included as well. That's not to say they can't (or couldn't) act, but their success was in part due to a constancy in the characters they played.

Actors who lose themselves in a role tend to take a lot longer to get recognised by the public, basically because they are harder to recognise.

There is actually a very similar phenomenon in improv. The person who the audience goes home remembering is not necessarily the best improviser. He or she was the one who shone, who was the funniest, the one the audience warmed to the most or got the best line in. But he or she was supported, set up and allowed to shine by other players who yes-anded no less (and often more) than he or she did. In fact, sometimes, because audiences can often enjoy jokes that are at the expense of the scene, or having the ridiculousness of a situation directly pointed out to them rather than it being used to create a new world, and they do find utterly hilarious the destructive mischief of a deliberate block, it can be that the player the audience remembers and loves the most was, ironically, the most destructive player in that show.

When the direct audience feedback of laughter is all that is sought by a player or a group, it is very easy to fall into bad habits. Joyful, well-rewarded bad habits, but habits that can make telling longer stories or playing scenes with any realism or honesty difficult.

So, in the same way that the perfect actor is one who loses him- or herself in a role, the perfect improviser is one who loses him- or herself in the scene. That is by being, saying and doing whatever the scene needs regardless of their regular habits, the things they like to do, their usual way of standing, moving and talking, and their standard set of stock characters. And often at the expense of the jokes that keep appearing in their head.

It seems like the path to getting singled out for praise less, but, if your fellow players all think the same, you will find yourself in a group that can play or do anything: tell fantastic stories, make awesome scenes and allow rich, nuanced characters to emerge that will stay with an audience long after the cheap fizz of a knowing block.

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