I have a vivid memory of one of my very earliest improv workshops. It was a seven-day intensive class taught by Dylan Emery, culminating in a performance of an extemporised musical. I look back on those days with great affection. Due to the fact that I had no idea what improvisation was, I made mistakes with greater confidence than I ever have since. It was the steepest learning curve I have experienced in my life.
During one session, Dylan had noticed a tendency (which, after all these years, I have yet to overcome 100 per cent) of rehearsing my words in my head before allowing them out through the front of my face, so he side-coached the scene by yelling out ‘New choice!’ after everything I said. Everything. The great thing about this was that I was unaware that ‘New Choice!’ was a well-worn shortform game and exercise designed to take you to an uncensored and unprepared state of mind. But in my ignorance, I simply assumed that everything I was saying was wrong, and that he was discounting every line I came up with in an attempt to steer me towards the perfect line. The memory of myself sweating and struggling, thinking to myself, ‘What on earth does he want me to say?’ makes me smile now. But eventually I reached the end of the list of things my brain could think up in advance, and Dylan was able to coax something genuinely spontaneous from me, perhaps for the first time in my life.
I was thinking back to that episode the other day after running a rehearsal with Luke. It’d been a while since I’d run a rehearsal, so beforehand I sat down and prepared ten different exercises to help us approach our chosen topic, which happened to be ‘creating strong initiations’. I wanted to make sure we had plenty to do, and that we wouldn’t get bored. At the rehearsal, we blasted through these exercises, and each one gave us a little glimpse into a particular technique, a way of thinking about how to create strong initiations.
But afterwards, I couldn’t help but think that we’d have achieved more if I’d just picked one or two exercises and we’d drilled them continuously for two hours. For me, exercises like ‘New Choice’ and ‘Endless Box’ only seem to work if they go on longer than I want them to. In fact, I often find that it is necessary to get bored of an exercise – to go through and past that moment when I’m starting to wonder what the purpose of it is – in order to reach the point where the rational part of me has entirely given up, and I’m learning with my instinct.
So while it’s fun to come up with lots of different exercises – which might be useful if I were introducing a new group to a range of things for them to go away and practice – I’m learning the value of taking a single idea and pushing it just a bit further than my comfort zone allows. Everything was like that when I was first starting out, and it was amazing.
One of my favourite quickfire warm-up games is called “Endless Box”. This is how I play it:
Two improvisers – for our purposes named Improviser A and Improviser B – crouch or sit opposite one another. The game begins with Improviser A with his hand resting atop a mimed cardboard box, about two feet square.
At a given signal, Improviser A opens the mimed box, reaches inside and pulls out random objects and names them. The aim of the game is to go as fast as possible and to get as many different objects out of the box within a given time, usually only or minute or two.
Improviser B’s job is to help them in three ways:
- by reacting with joy and excitement to every object that appears
- by helping them overcome any stumbles or blocks
- by encouraging them to go faster
- When naming the objects, avoid additional words such as “It’s a”. So don’t say “It’s a shoe, it’s a horse, it’s a flatiron.” Go straight to: “Handbag! Apple pie! Rhino! Clothes line!”
- If you get stuck on one object, for example, pulling only shoes from the box, you can push your mind to other places, by pulling different types of shoe: “Brown shoe! Old shoe! Tennis shoe! Tennis racket!” etc. Improviser B can help by pointing to different parts of the box, which for some reason yield different kinds of object.
- If your whole head goes blank, then literally draw a blank and name it. “Blank! Blank! Blank!” Keeping the fast rhythm going will help to restart the flow of new ideas. You won’t find anything by trying to think stuff up in advance.
- If you start pulling filthy, dark and depraved material from your box, don’t worry! No one is judging you except you! That stuff in your head is the result of anxiety, and if you simply allow it to come out and don’t feel anxious, your box will start to deliver up happier goods.
- Have fun.
I’ve noticed that different improvisers seem to develop different tactics for discovering and naming the objects they pull from the box. Some manage to really “see” and “feel” the objects before they name them. Others go faster, but pull abstract or gibberish words out, without physically feeling them. Whichever you find to be your default method, try it the other way.
There is joy in absolutely surprising yourself, of stepping outside your comfort zone and allowing yourself to be an egoless conduit for ideas, and this applies in both the role of naming objects and that of assisting.
I played this game for the first time in ages at a Crunchy Frog workshop led by Ruth Bratt a few weeks ago. I noticed how easy it is to get locked into the same set of objects, to go around in circles, or to get attached to a set of related ideas.
It occurred to me that the difficulty wasn’t in coming up with objects, but in letting go of them. Amazing ideas are everywhere, but even when we’ve named them and used them in a scene, there can still be a sense of ownership over them. Thoughts are adhesive, remaining stuck to their originator long after they’ve emerged from the mouth. But as soon as they’re spoken, the words, ideas and feelings we produce should belong to the entire scene. When I’m on stage, I want to be like Improviser B, encouraging my scene partner to let go of their ideas so that they don’t get stuck in their heads, and so we can all enjoy them.
I played the game again, concentrating less on what object I was going to pull out next, but on how to get rid of the object in my hands. It became much easier.