I posted about what improv means to me lately, but how do you do it??
There's no easy answer. I have been teaching a workshop for a while now about how to start scenes (or really shows) in a way that I feel most reliably leads to this sort of work and, in my experience, has a big rate of success leading to rich, meaty scenes. This was developed out of how Change Machine has been starting scenes for 1+ years, and how I would later get my guests to start on Gray Matter. This is how I have the most fun on stage and feel like I am not doing a ton of work. This is not true of everyone, and if your fun is elsewhere I take no offense if this is not a good system for you. A few people have asked me for notes or a description of YETI, so I thought I would put it up here.
So here is an overview of YETI or Everything You Need is In Your Partner's Eyes.
The acronym walks through the first moments of a scene:
Let's walk through each of those in turn. Note this process begins with the lights down, before the show properly begins:
To begin, both (or any number of) players make a small, physical, human choice. Some players when they hear this contort themselves into downward facing dog. The goal here is not to "transmit" information to your scene partner (e.g. I am playing baseball) but just to stumble into some choice that you, yourself made. Human here means that your shape should be the shape we find a person when no one is looking.
Make eye contact with your scene partner. This cannot be overstated. Until the final step (Information), this eye contact should not be broken. More often than not, when a player breaks eye contact I can see in that moment that they feel like they've figured out what the scene is. They've got the plot down. So they disconnect. The eyes go out to the crowd or up. But I promise you the flow of information to and from your scene partner is still at paramount importance. It is very difficult to be planning ahead when staring into your partner's eyes.
When the eye contact is established, the lights come up!
Things just keep getting harder don't they? Now I push you to take all of those ideas that are storming your mind and let them flow back out. Your instinct is to think, "she is sitting and looks angry, I bet we're kids and I broke her toys." But I will push you to react physically. If she looks angry, perhaps you back slowly away. Perhaps you close your posture. Your unbroken eye contact will ensure she reacts immediately, perhaps easing closer and closer attempting to open you back up. Throughout all of this we are delaying as far as possible labeling anything. We are just reacting to what is happening right in front of us as dramatic tension builds.
I put discover in quotes because a) it does not fit in the acronym and b) it really is not very distinct from the following step. But I will separate it here for clarity.
At some point, the tension gets so high that it boils over and you discover the first line of dialog when one of you cannot help but speak. You will feel the difference between this and your typical improv initiation. Compared to
"Can I get a suggestion?"
"Flask, thank you"
(internally) "Hmm, flask makes me think of the town drunk, so I'll say"
"Hey, you better not be drinking whiskey in the street, Hank!"
Ugh, all that thinking all that work. In this model we take all of this natural behavior, our built-in reactions to body language and facial expressions and as it happens we begin to build a picture in our head. In the previous example let's say you chose to back away slowly and your scene partner inched ever closer, her angry look turning more and more psychotic. Your arms now open wide as you back up faster and faster until you hit the side wall. You feel protective of something certainly. Just as she is inches from your face you yell, "You can't have her!"
No work, no thinking. Just makes sense. And already by the first line of dialog there is so much happening.
In a lot of improv, someone comes out with an idea, and we give them space to get that idea out. In this worldview, no one has an idea. We do not sit idly back and assume someone else will do the work. From the first line on we add information in every line. This is harder than it sounds. This is beyond yes and. This is not resting, not repeating what we know, but building the momentum of the scene at breakneck speed (also tends to lead to action):
A: "You can't have her!"
B: "You are not powerful enough to stop me!"
A: "I am willing to sacrifice more" (mimes a blade, at her own neck)
B: (backing now away) "You can't. You won't. Neither of us would survive."
A: "I never wanted it to end this way. But you forced this on us, Gwyneth! You did this to us!"
I just made that up as I wrote it. Not quite the same as being on stage but you get the idea. See how every single line, new information is added. The second line, it may be our instinct for B to say "Yes I can!" or "Give her to me now!" but that doesn't really tell our partner or the audience any new information. We know B wants her and A doesn't what B to have her.
This also happens to be an incredibly high energy scene. In TJ and Dave terms (as I understand them), it has high heat and heavy weight. It does not have to be that way. That was just the scene I made up writing this post.
Here's another example:
I really love this stuff. The more people ask good and interesting questions, the more I refine my own understanding of it. If you're interested in learning more, let me know!