By Dingdong Rosales, May 2016
Make your partner look good.
This, I believe is the most important improv principle. The best improviser is the one who is most selfless. When you think only of “the other” and never of yourself; then and only then can you be a ‘good improviser.’
This principle, I think, stumps all the other principles. Being truly focused on ‘the other’ means actively listening to your scene partner and all the other elements and stimuli available to you at any given moment. This in turn allows you to be more open and ready to accept and build on these gifts (Yes, And…). And more importantly, this means you truly are ‘being in the moment.’ Because you are not busy thinking of your next move or your next punch line, rather you are completely focused on this present moment with your scene partner.
It doesn’t matter if you’re doing short form or long form, slow or frantic Improv, comedic or dramatic. Always enter a scene with the intention of being simply a support to the more important character, your scene partner.
Just give her the damn bacon!
Once in my level 2 class, we were doing 2 person scenes. The instructions were simple, Actor 1 enters and starts the scene by doing something (object work), Actor 2 enters, starts with the first line, built on what was established (by Actor 1’s activity).
In this exercise, Student 1 comes in and starts frying and cooking “something.” Actor 2 enters as his little girl and starts asking him for bacon. Actor 1 then proceeds into giving her all sorts of stuff, from eggs and ham to a vodka spiked chocolate drink and many other random objects he could grab from the (invisible) cupboard. The girl would then protest, ask for her bacon and the dad would offer her something else. This went on for a few minutes. The scene never progressed into anything other than an argument between a girl and her dad.
I stopped the scene and asked the actors how they felt about what just happened. They obviously weren’t very pleased about how it turned out. So we tried it again. Same activity, same first line (the daughter asking for her breakfast/bacon). The dad starts giving his daughter ‘stuff’ from wherever. (He would physically stop his “cooking action” and grab something from the cabinet or whatever then return to frying). Obviously, not much has changed. They ended up arguing about breakfast rather than have a more interesting scene.
I paused the scene again and asked Actor 1 a very simple, but as it turns out, a very important question: Why won’t you just give her the bacon?
He was frying what seemed like bacon (which I think is what prompted the girl to ask for bacon in the first place), so why not just give her the bacon? He said, he never thought about it. It just seemed more natural to give her “something else” rather than the obvious. It seemed more ‘natural’ to give her a glass of vodka spiked chocolate drink, than give her bacon for breakfast!
Oftentimes, the things we need are right under our noses.
So we reset the scene. Started with the same activity and same first line. Little girl asks for bacon, dad gives her her breakfast, and they start eating. Then the conversation suddenly was no longer just about the food or what she could and couldn’t have for breakfast. When they skipped the ‘argument’ we discovered a beautiful story about a single father and his little girl. A story we would not have discovered had he not decided to “just give her the bacon!”
Let’s dissect this scene and see where and how we can apply the above principle. (This is in no way a critique on the actors’ choices or ability to improvise. I am using this example to help illustrate a point. And I would like to thank my students for this wonderful gift.)
This is basically what we started with:
Actor 1: offered by frying something
Actor 2: accepted and added 3 elements–
1) their relationship (father/daughter)
2) her character, that she was a little girl (by speaking bratty)
3) that she wanted bacon
Actor 1 then accepted these offers by showing panic. And then decides to give the girl random objects while maintaining his stage business of cooking/frying something.
Actor 2 responds by objecting like a brat about wanting bacon!
Actor 1 panics some more and gives Actor 2 some other random thing.
This goes on for a few rounds until Actor 1 ran out of ideas and finally gave the girl a glass of chocolate drink with vodka! If we were playing New Choice this offer would have gotten loads of laughter from the audience. Except we weren’t playing New Choice!
Unknowingly, Actor 1 thought that by creating a scene one must introduce conflict. By doing so, he unintentionally felt the need to give his scene partner anything except what she was asking for. Negative = Conflict. On the surface this seems like a pretty interesting premise. It would, and it turned out to be, a tug of war of sorts.
She asks for bacon, he gives her something, she protests, he gives her something else, she protests some more, so on and so forth. It’s interesting for maybe the first 30 seconds of the scene. But someone, at some point has to give in; otherwise, the story wouldn’t progress into anything but an argument. Except nobody wanted to give in. Because neither was thinking about the other.
An argument does not necessarily mean conflict in a story.
Sometimes an argument is just that. An argument. You don’t need to argue to have an interesting, conflicted story.
If your instinctive response when in a scene is to ask yourself “what can I offer the scene?” or “what can I bring in to the scene?” this means you are still focused on yourself and not the other. Your instinctive response should be “how can I make my scene partner’s story move forward?” “What can I do to make him/her develop his/her character better?
In the example above, given the same initial offers of Actor 2, Actor 1 should have focused and based his response to the following:
1) How was their relationship as father/daughter?
2) Why was the girl bratty? What could be the reason behind this behavior, based on/or in relation to offer #1? and
3) What’s with the bacon? There has to be a backstory to her craving for bacon, still in connection to offers #1 and #2.
In my years of doing Improv, I noticed that the tendency really is for one to “grab anything” from “anywhere” or ‘somewhere” and bring it into the scene. This is why we tend to bring in too many elements into the story to the point of confusing not only our scene partners but ourselves as well.
By virtue of the principle of accepting and building, you will eventually get things complicated because you’ll find yourselves ‘Yes, Anding’ each other and constantly adding new elements to the story. So why rush? Start simple and small. Allow the story to develop and unfold on its own. Everything you need for the scene is already there. From the initial offer of Actor 1 (act of frying) and the initial response of Actor 2 (3 offers), we see a wealth of possibilities. There is so much material waiting to be discovered. There is no need to look “outside” (in this case the cupboard) for clues and ideas. It’s right there. Just give her the damn bacon and get on with it!
Once they got past the argument and shifted their focus on the initial offers and helped each other develop the other’s story, we discovered (as the scene unfolded) that the father was feeling inadequate though he was trying so hard to be both mom and dad to the girl. The girl was bratty because she misses her mom. She wanted bacon because it is what her mom would give her every morning. Dad feels like he was failing as a parent because he couldn’t cook bacon as well as the mother did. The girl reassures her dad that he’s doing ok and acknowledges his efforts. Dad promises to try better as he assures his daughter that he loves her. End scene.
A beautiful, heart wrenching, very truthful and grounded story based on 3 things: relationship, behavior and bacon!
External stimuli tend to distract us from what is essential: our scene partner. Focus on your scene partner. Actively listen to his/her every offer. Build solely on these offers. One can only do this if you are focused on every moment you spend with your scene partner on stage.
Every moment spent thinking about yourself is a moment spent away from your focus. If you must think about yourself, it must always be on how you can make your scene partner look good and have a fully developed character and story. It should never be about you and your own character’s story.
Let him worry about you, as you worry about him. Always reassure your scene partner that you got his back, as you relax and fully trust that he’s got yours. This, to me, is what Improv is all about. The Other over the Self. Taking care of the other. Supporting each other, each and every moment.