A Lack of Originality in Improv

I have a confession to make. I don’t like being original onstage, in fact I think trying to be original is a block to true creativity.

I read an interview with Roman Krznaric recently that reminded me about this shift, and the specific moment I had in a workshop that revealed this to me.

A few years ago I started playing more emotional characters, and just reacting to things with emotion on stage instead of thinking about the best move to make. Then in Chicago last year I was in a class and I tried to react to something on stage, but I couldn’t think of an emotion to use. I got stuck, another character suggested something and I didn’t want to love it or hate it because it seemed to me that I had already done those too many times. But then I had nothing else and so I didn’t know what to do.

Then in the final week the teacher we had for our last week, Craig Uhlir, said something about making choices that really resonated with me. He said “Just pick one, you love it or hate it, you can find out why later,” and that solved the problem I was having. I realised that pretty much everything outside a character can be classed into two attitudes, towards or away. Either I want more of that thing, or I don’t want more of that thing. What I needed to be doing was to pick one and then find out more about it and define it. Maybe I love the suggestion of picnic because I need a break from work, maybe there is a girl in the office I want to chat up at the picnic, maybe it reminds me of my family picnics as a boy. Those things will only appear after I make the simple, boring, ‘unoriginal’ choice of saying “I love that idea!”. That made me understand the improv teaching about not being original, just being ordinary. That’s where it all starts.

The other thing that reinforced this in my head was learning more about monologues. We did a few in class and identified the ones that were easier for the audience to remember, or had more effect. And they were all the personal ones, where an event happened to the person speaking, and they told us how that affected them, or their opinion on it. When people talk about an idea or go on a clever riff without giving me anything of themselves it feels a lot less different to me than people who really share their point of view. I find the same in standup. Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks are two comics I have been inspired by, because they spoke truthfully. They were different by being themselves, not by being original.

In my attempt to do something different I was in fact cutting off my momentum in scenes, I was rummaging around in the dressing room instead of leaping from the starting block into a real unknown. I think because I wanted to be recognised as being different I was actually doing the same thing as everyone else, which was pulling up ideas and lines to show off to people, like trying to prove that I was worth listening to. But actually I am already worth listening to, by virtue of being a living breathing human being.

This is now how I understand the instruction of being ordinary or obvious rather than funny or interesting. It’s about exploring what is already there instead of trying to ‘make’ something with it. Exploration through individuality.


2 Comments on “A Lack of Originality in Improv”

  1. Hey Luke

    This definitely makes sense to me. From the off my impro teachers urged me not to try and be original. Spon Shop’s Tom would always say ‘trust your obvious – it’s different from everyone else’s! Keith Johnstone himself intones ‘be more boring’ at every opportunity. I think it’s a key learning, but one that is easy to forget. I like the way you have unpacked it here.

  2. Luke says:

    Thank you. I think it’s good practical advice because it gives you and internal locus of control. What is interesting or original will change from audience to audience, but making your own discoveries is up to you.

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