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Rhythm and self-centeredness

June 13th, 2007 · 2 Comments

I was directing an adult beginner’s workshop last week, with unfortunately only two participants. But directing such a small group I realized two important things in improv that I never really paid attention to before. The first thing is that we all have our own personal rhythm when it come to expressing our emotions. And the second one is that trying to be creative on stage comes from being self-centered.

I realized the first thing when I asked the participants to do a “Gift game”. The “Gift game” is a game where you have to make a gift to your partner, but you are supposed to do a blind offer. The one who receives the gift is supposed to tell what the gift is, and be delighted about it. I asked the participant to really be delighted first, and then only after that, justify by explaining what the gift was. One of the two improvisers had a hard time really being happy without knowing why. I tried to remove control by accelerating the speed of the exchange of gifts. It seemed to work for after a minute or two, genuine expressions of delight and surprise could be heard. The other improviser however, just didn’t seem to be able to maintain that expression. He just felt that doing the same expression of surprise and delight was like “planning too much” and tried to change the way he expressed it every time he received the gift.

In my opinion, this was a bad idea. The purpose of the game is to be genuinely delighted at every gift (without knowing what the gift is). And what the game seemed to show was that the harder he tried to be original in the expression of his emotion, the less believable it was. We could all sense when he was truly delighted, because it always followed the same rhythm, a natural rhythm. And the other improviser, who caught his own rhythm quickly and decided to stick to it, seemed to be genuine every time he received a gift. They both had different rhythms.

For Improviser A, the tone of voice would remain neutral as he said the first syllable (’Su’), then quickly go up and become more powerful and take more time on the end of the word as he said the second one (’per!’), pronouncing a genuine “Super!” [Ssu’pe-r] (’Great’, in French) as he received the gift. He would from time to time replace “Super” by another two syllable word, like “Genial!” (’Awesome’, in French), but the rhythm would remain the same. He would then have to quickly proceed to tell us what the gift was, because waiting too long often resulted in complicated ideas (like receiving “the color White”, as he said at some point).

Improviser B was more comfortable with three syllable expressions. His tone would quickly and neutraly go through the first one, quickly ris up on the second syllable, and slowly go down on the third, producing something like “Ouais, merci…” [Way!, mer-ci…] (’Yeah, thanks…’, in French).

I’m not sure this theory is quite reliable yet, but I’m sure that there’s something behind it. Keith talks a lot about rhythms of scenes in Impro for Storytellers. I’m sure improvisers (and actors) have their own emotional and personal rhythms too when they express their emotions. Trying to change or fake your rhythm is interesting, but as much as possible you should try to stay on your own natural rhythm and not force it.

The second thing I noticed was revealed to me by Improviser A, who tends to be a very “complicated” improviser, one that always seems to need to be “creative” on stage. For example, tonight, we were playing “Word At A Time Story”, telling a story of sailors on a boat in the Antarctic ocean who were attacked by Polar bears. At some point he made the Polar bears use bazookas, which totally destroyed the story: I’m talking about “that” kind of creative.

Anyways, I decided to have them play the “Good Improviser / Bad Improviser” game that I discovered at the Keith Johnstone and Patti Stiles workshop last February. I was expecting the complicated Improviser A to completely suck at the game. But to my real shock, he was really good at it! He even found by himself some advanced ‘tricks’ of the game, like relying on a dialogue with the audience to justify the other person’s behaviour. For some reason, he was now making strong choices before justifying them, was committed to character and was making simple and obvious offers.

The reason is, in my opinion, that this game places the focus on justifying the other person’s behaviour (the Bad Improviser’s behaviour). “Creative improvisers” think they need to be creative because they are self-centered: they feel they are being judged when they step on stage, and compensate for that stress by making counter-intuitive choices (like bazooka wielding bears) hoping that these “creative” ideas will please the audience, when they only destroy scenes. When they open up to their partner, their quick thinking so good at finding “creative ideas” is now working on justifying the other person’s behaviour, even if that person is an Bad Improviser (rejecting ideas, no commitment to character whatsoever, violence, etc…). The Good Improviser assumes a choice has been made (even if none has been made, in fact, he assumes one has) and justifies it on the moment, using his creative brain for the success of the scene, and not against it!

Some time ago, I was mentioning in this article here Keith’s big secret of improv of “Making your partner have a good time”, and I made it one of my core improv principles. However, I have just finished reading Mick Napier’s book. That guy is brilliant, but it’s difficult to continue believing in improv principles after reading that book, as he spends nearly two thirds of it meticulously destroying every idea behind the very “Rules” of improv. I do tend to think nonetheless, that Keith’s secret is one of the few rules to abide by: this is a quote from Colin Mochrie that illustrates this, which was pointed to me by the French improv reference Christophe Tournier

The most important thing to remember when improvising is just to listen and don’t have anything planned. If you are thinking about what you want to put into the scene you may miss a nugget that your partner may have given you. I never keep my mind sharp. Improv may help in getting out of a parking ticket but nothing else. I have nothing left to say.

This quote illustrates the mindset with which I believe the “Good Improviser / Bad Improviser” game should be played. In fact, every improv scene should be played that way.

Tags: Techniques · English

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Patti Stiles // Sep 29, 2007 at 11:25 am

    I am happy the good improvisor / bad improvisor exercise has been useful. There are many discoveries to me made in it. Happy impro-ing! Patti

  • 2 Ian // Sep 29, 2007 at 11:55 am

    Thanks Patti!

    I really LOVE that exercise. Looking forward to your coming to France.


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