I’ve often wondered why so many improv scenes start with:
- silently digging a hole
- silently burshing your teeth
- silently opening a cupboard
I call these scene starts “the classics”. Don’t get me wrong, I rock “the classics” all the time, and so do many improvisors around the world. There are awesome scenes that come out of “The Classics”, and we all understand these as patient, universal, environment-focused scene starts.
But no matter where you go, be it Milan, or Bogota, or a high school in northeast Edmonton, “The Classics” prevail as ways to start a scene. How can this be? Certainly in people who live in different places have different experiences? In fact, as improvisors we all have diverse and rich histories? So why are we all starting scenes the same way?
For six years, I was the Artistic Director of Rapid Fire Theatre, and it ruled. During this time, each week I was performing in multiple shows, teaching several classes, doing corporate events, working on show programming, meeting with fellow artists to discuss how they were feeling in the company, attending board meetings, and generally giving most of my time, and pretty much 100% of my creative brain-space to improv, and improv-related pursuits.
If you all you do is dream, scheme and breathe improv, your scene work might begin to feel a bit repetitive. I noticed that I started to have a constant feeling of déjà vu. I’d lived this scene before, either by seeing it in a class, or talking about it in notes, or doing something similar on stage. Everything felt recycled.
In other words, the only input to my inspiration was improv, so my only output were things that looked like “improv”, like “The Classics”.
So if you’re stuck in this improv feedback-loop, what’s the fix? How can we start having more varied inspiration? How can we move beyond what the audience has begun to expect? The answer is pretty simple, but it can be challenging to make time for it.
Do ANYTHING else. Let yourself live some more life. Take a risk; join a softball team, shadow someone who has a weird job, go parasailing, buy a paint set, go on a blind date, ask a grandparent a deep question. You will return to the stage richer, more knowledgable, with a deeper understanding of the one thing you practiced. Curiosity makes you stronger.
The designer, Stefan Sagmeister talks about the importance of giving yourself time to gather inputs, in my favourite Ted Talk.
Sometimes taking a week off of improvising can be the best thing for your improv.