About a month ago, I received a message from the amazing Chris of Bendy House/Dogface improv. He said his friend Rob was in town, was a great guy, and was looking to do some coaching/connect with some improvisers in London. I responded with a big “Yes And” and arranged for Rob to come to coach us during one of our rehearsals.
The morning before the rehearsal I decided to look Rob up. Let’s just say my search engine blew up with Rob’s extensive experience…. 15 years in improv, head of long-form for The Second City, a published author, co-host of the long-running podcast The Backline. Wowza.
Five minutes into our session, it was clear that Rob had a tremendous amount of experience both as a player and as an instructor. Although the session was only a couple of hours, we learned so much from Rob. We left the room being more excited than ever for our group, our new format The Cause, and improv in general.
Here are some of the lessons that we took away.
Some context for improv nerds, these were notes we received based on our long-form, non-narrative, format.
Work your way up to a 10
Don’t start a scene at a 10, otherwise, you have no place to go. Start at a 1 and build it from there. Build the energy, build the relationship, build the obscurity. This is also true of your entire show. You want to finish on a high.
Play a scene until you break it
The question came up about the best time to edit. Rob’s response was to break the scene. Play whatever game is so hard that it eventually becomes so obscure that it is nonsense. Someone just missed their bus, that’s unlucky. Someone missed the last space shuttle off the Earth before a meteor hits and destroys it.
Invest in and help your partner
The partner you’re performing with is everything. Make eye contact. Affect each other. Help your partner do more of what they’re doing/feeling. React to one another, use your scene partner for inspiration with what comes next…don’t reach into the ether. In other words, use what’s already there/what’s already been said. Don’t try and come up with something completely new.
Maintain your character’s perspective… no matter what happens
You walk into a scene as a jolly character. The second character on the stage told you their cat died… so you’re now sad and sympathetic. Why? Everyone in the world would react that way. That’s boring. Maintain your jolly demeanour. “That’s great, now we can get that dog we always wanted.”
Use the ‘negative space’ of an offer
Many improvisers know that an audience suggestion is just a jumping-off point. If you get a suggestion about doughnuts.. don’t do 5 scenes about bakeries and police officers. Use the exact opposite of what was suggested to inspire a scene… instead of doughnuts, do a scene about healthy eating.
Move beyond what the audience has already seen
Rob brought in his friend the mean director. This guy would not let our team get away with using any similar element we used in a previous scene. Every scene should be truly unique. Your character choices, body language, object work, premise, stage position, emotion, energy level, etc. should all be different in every scene. I mean… how boring would a buffet be with only one type of dish? Think about what you’ve already done and do something different!
You can do anything; be courageous
You can be and do anything on stage. Anything. Why start a scene by cutting carrots, being two people on a date, or being at an office job? Push yourself to take risks.
A huge thanks to Chris for the intro and Rob for coaching our rag-tag group of improvisers. If you want to benefit from Rob’s extensive experience, here are two ways: