No time like the present?Posted: 18 February 2013
The best improv takes place in the present tense. What happens, happens now, in the present.
Interestingly, English appears to be chocka with different present tenses. Compared with other languages, the English present tense is a remarkably complicated place to be.
German: ich spreche
French: je parle
English: I speak, I do speak, I am speaking, I have spoken, I have been speaking …
The distinction between the habitual ‘I speak’ and the continuous ‘I am speaking’ is critical. No wonder we get so unnecessarily confused working out what’s going on at the start of a scene. When two characters come on and start painting a fence, there is often a hiatus while we decide whether ‘they are painting’ today or whether ‘they paint’ as part of their routine. Are they or are they not painters? What will happen to the world we have created when one or other of them stops painting? To shift from one present tense to the other marks an arbitrary and occasionally unsettling conceptual leap, one of finding patterns and routines and then breaking them. There’s nothing unusual in this shift in thinking – we do it all the time unconsciously, but not always creatively. It effects every one of the myriad choices we make while we are improvising. But if it is done clumsily or in a premeditated manner, the audience will be intuitively aware that something has gone wrong.
Conceptualizing a scene cannot take place on stage. By the time you’ve weighed up all the different present tenses on offer, the moment has passed and you’re already in the past. Accordingly, to avoid these difficulties, I have resolved that from this point on I will do all my improvising in German.