There is no stage for the actors.
In fact, the performance space is barely wider than an average bathtub. There are no big backdrops, no props, no special lighting except for the same set of fluorescent lights that hang over all the customers in the small restaurant. None of the actors are in costume, and only some are wearing light, everyday makeup. Two of them are holding microphones, introducing their improv comedy group to everyone in the room. The audience gives them a round of applause, and the show starts.
“Improv,” explains one of the two hosts, “is a form of drama that uses no script. Everything we act out is made on the spot! That’s why we need your help!”
“Our first game is called Quick Change,” says the other host. “Two of us will act out a scene based on your suggestion. When we ring the bell, the player who spoke last must change their last line. If we’re not satisfied with the new line, we ring the bell again. And on and on and on. Now, can any of you tell us, what is the worst place you could take someone out on a date?”
Hands are raised, answers shouted, each one wilder than the last. “A school locker!” “A dumpsite!” “A confession booth!”
The hosts choose the craziest one. Two other players join them in the performance area. “Presenting ‘Quick Change: A Date in the Confession Booth’,” the hosts introduce, and then they wait on the sides with the rest of the group as the two players act out the scene, creating the beginning, climax, and conclusion of a plot right on the spot, with not even a second to talk and plan things.
“But I’ve only been a priest for two months,” says one of the players. The bell rings.
“But I’ve only been a priest for two years,” the player repeats. The bell rings again.
The player pauses. “I’m not actually a priest, my boy,” he says. The audience roars with laughter. At the end of the scene, the two players smile at each other with pride for the success. One of them assumes the role of host, describes another game as three more players jump in. A few games later, the show ends to everyone’s satisfaction, including the improvisers’.
It happened almost a year ago.
It’s crazy to think that had I known exactly what I was getting into, I would have backed out, or avoided it at all costs. I knew I was not a good comedian. I knew I was an extreme introvert, with stage fright, and being awkward took the same amount of effort for me as breathing.
The class I had signed up for was called “Presentation Skills.” I assumed we’d be taught how to speak clearly, enunciating consonants and things like that, or that we’d have lessons on appropriate body language and posture. I thought it would tackle the stuff we needed to nail a job interview. Had “improv comedy” been in any part of the class description, I would have run away from it like the plague and never looked back.
But they only showed the class titles, not their descriptions, and this was the first time our school had offered Presentation Skills. It turned out to be a class on improv comedy.
I should have known. It was listed as a theater arts elective, after all, and most of my classmates were drama veterans, active in campus performance groups or minors in theater arts. There were only nine of us in class.
Improv is simultaneously convenient and difficult. On one hand, it does not cost much, since there is no need for elaborate technicalities. Only the players, a good sound system, a bell or a buzzer, and slips of paper and pens for the audience to write their suggestions on are needed. The ideal audience size for improv shows is small, preferably less than a hundred, so each viewer has a better chance of having their suggestion used.
However, the very same liberties that make improv convenient can be hurdles in presenting a good show. Since no script is used, it is completely up to the improvisers to ensure each performance is engaging from start to finish. Using only the suggestion of the audience, the improvisers must establish a coherent story together. As much as possible, they must avoid unnecessary dialogue, while remembering the rules of the game. For example, in Quick Change, they must come up with a good replacement for the last line as quickly as possible.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for any improviser is the willingness to be laughed at, to be vulnerable. In ordinary drama, scripts are analyzed by actors so their characters can be taken seriously by the audience and understood the way the playwright and the actor understand the character. Not so with improv, where characters and relationships are created on the spot. The occasional awkward silence, deadpan jokes, and misunderstandings among fellow improvisers cannot be avoided. They all must find a way to make it work towards the end—and they can only do that when their inner critic has been sufficiently silenced.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for any improviser is the willingness to be laughed at, to be vulnerable.
We played simple games in the first few weeks. Those were icebreaker games. I now recognize the wisdom of our instructor, Missy Maramara, herself a member of a prominent local improv group called SPIT, in strengthening our friendship first. To do that, we had to be willing to show our true selves. One of the first and most important concepts we learned in improv class was silencing our inner critic.
The inner critic is a little voice in your head that keeps you from embarrassing yourself. It warns you when you’re doing something stupid or shameful. When someone’s inner critic is very loud, their ability to have fun, make friends, and show their true self is compromised. In short, an overprotective inner critic is the last thing you’ll need in an improv show, where you’re expected to be put in embarrassing situations in front of an audience.
Later we were playing short games with a scene partner, then short scenes with two or more people. After our first exam, where we put on a show at the Fine Arts Theater, we moved to longform games with multiple scene partners. It became easier and easier to tell if any of us had a noisy inner critic during the show. We knew the audience could tell, too: the long pauses, out-of-character laughter, stumbling over words, desperate uses of slapstick jokes. The more we listened to each other over the voices of our inner critics, the funnier shows we had.
Once your inner critic is silent, it’s easier to make use of another principle: being in the moment. Being in the moment is crucial in any improv game. You don’t need to have a special funny bone or be the class jokester to be adept at improv. The funniest shows are those where improvisers are completely in the moment, listening to each other and making each other look good.
The funniest shows are those where improvisers are completely in the moment, listening to each other and making each other look good.
Being in the moment means to temporarily forget that you are being watched by an audience. For a while, you must believe you are a character, and that your scene partner is also a character, and that both of you have some sort of relationship, which must be established on the spot. Besides the relationships between the characters, you and your scene partner are also in charge of defining the other Ws: where are your characters at that moment, when is it taking place, why are you there, what are you both doing, what do both of you want to happen. To make the audience laugh, they must understand the situation, and for that to happen, the improvisers must first be familiar with the world they’re creating.
Don’t worry about the audience. Instead, put all your energy in defining the situation with your partner. Offer an idea to your partner, and accept theirs. This basic principle is called, “Yes, And…” When your scene partner calls you his wife, you must accept it with no qualms, and then offer him a suggestion. YES, you are his wife, AND he crashed your car last weekend. Your scene partner must then add something to the situation, but he has to make use of the fact that he was the one who crashed his wife’s car last weekend. He can say no and pretend he didn’t do it, but he must let the audience know that he is pretending and that he actually had crashed the car last weekend. You can pretend to be fooled, or you can get mad about him lying, but you must not disagree with the offerings he established. Neither should he disagree with any of yours.
Silencing the inner critic. Being in the moment. Yes, And. Not exactly the primer for nailing job interviews, but they can help a lot. And they are useful in any social situation, where quick thinking, alertness, and listening are much appreciated.
The easiest way to master all these is to use them frequently. Use them amongst peers to turn potential arguments to healthy discussions. Use them to be less biased in acquiring information. Use them to get a better understanding of anyone and anything. The things you learn in improv or theater can be applicable to any tricky situation.
This story has been published in our November-December 2016 issue and has been edited for web.
By Carmel Ilustrisimo
Illustration by Lianne Fondevilla