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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

About Improvisation Part II: Something Wonderful Right Away

"Something wonderful right away" is the title of a book about the Second City. It chronicles the birth of the Circle Players, who later became Second City, and how improv went from backrooms to a formal night club to a diverse national trend in comedy, theatre, television and even film.

It is not a matter of going to a class and simply playing, although it can and should be a form of play. It is not just imagination, although it should tap and well spring of imagination. It is about work, and then using the tools to have fund and create a whole new world, for the enjoyment of others and to help point to changes needed in our overall society.

And it is now a necessary tool of the craft of acting.

Commercials and increasingly film makers are using improvisation both for auditions and in filming. 

The comedy club regular is now a needed tool for acting. 

Everybody who wants to be an actor must do improvisation. It is important on resumes. It teaches your things about yourself as a person and a performer. You confront your own obstacles, blocks, hang-ups and limitations. It teaches you to take gifts and accept the moment of the scene. It also saves your butt in many situations when things go wrong.

Too many workshops, so called classes, and even schools use it for fun or a fast buck, rather than the hard core training and craft that is needed to really put improvisation to use on the stage or on film.

It is not about being funny.

There needs to be honesty not just going for the "funny" or reaching for the "joke". It is humorous, but it is funny by reflecting reality and the humor we have in life. Firemen, police and emergency rooms face great pressure and crack jokes in the midst of those very real dramatic situations. Surgeons will do what they need to to relax in the operating room. Teachers have to have a sense of humor to put up with difficult students and the politics of education.

And just as in real life, things do not always go right.

You have the freedom to fail.



Improvisation is made up on the spot, usually with audience suggestions. You may use some stock transition or ways to end agreed upon by the players. but for the most part every performance is unique and different, reflecting the players and the mood or environment in which they occur. 

Improv requires heightened communication skills. You need to learn how to take the other persons ideas and comments without question (known as accepting "gifts"), to avoid denial (never say "no" or reject a "gift"), and to understand the who-what-where of a given moment or situation. What are the points of views of the character? 

Two dimensional does not work in improv. For it to work you must have a full character with a life, a before and after, a real environment and situation. Put them in situations that are absurd or uncomfortable and create situations comedy on the spot from there.

Sketch comedy is based on brainstorm sessions or ideas drawn from improvisation, but then written, rehearsed and polished. It draws upon and grows out of improvisation or an improvisational creative way of thinking. Sketch comedy is usually a satiric view of the world around us, of current events and what effects your audience in their daily, social or political lives.

Comic reviews are written through improvisation, with a strong local focus on local issues, local people and the audience. Sketches run a few seconds or an hour, as long as the audience is entertained and the statement is made. The trick is to not try to be funny, but be open to it. Use conversation as a base, against situations or locations or both. The ideal is a scene that can have a shelf life of six to eight months, with minor adjustments if needed. Saturday Night Live relies heavily on sketch comedy, and adds music and variety acts to broaden the programs appeal. SNL began by importing the cast of Chicago's Second City, drew heavily on the other full permanent Second City cast in Montreal, and later from other improv groups across the country. 

It is never about being the funniest, or grabbing the spotlight. It is always about ensemble and setting each other up through "gifts" and a situational reality (or absurdity).


Long Form grew out of Second City.  From a single suggestion where you went for twenty minutes to over an hour, creating a full play as you go. A knowledge of scene structure, sociology, psychology, general liberal arts and an openness to both new and often uncomfortable ideas are essential to pull off long form improvisation. Most important, you are an ensemble and the flow must involve almost magic communication between ensemble members.

The "game" of the scene is what is funny about the scene. What makes it funny, and how can it be used in a real situation? You need to ask 'if that is true what else is true'

Short form improvisation can be found in theater games, often in bars or backrooms. It is what most people think improvisation is, due to the popularity of such programs as "Who's Line is it Anyway?"

Improv short form and Long form should reflect the issues of the day, reflecting on politics, social issues, the quirks of people and of society.

Today if you do improvisation, you need to work toward being able to transfer it to the Internet, to Funny or Die, to YouTube, webcast or cable television. Not only is it expected, but it is the most common place to showcase your talents. If you are an actor in Los Angeles, the use of media is an essential part of your career tools. Improv has gone beyond the moment and an intimate audience to something shared with the world, a quantum change for the art form.

Situation comedy is at the core of most improv, therefore it is logical that writers use improvisation when working on situation comedies and even dramas where humor is part of the mix. Actors need to understand the timing, energy and focus of what the writers create, bringing to it the energy of improvisation.

Improvisation requires you being intelligent, empathetic, observant and to care about society and about others. You can then tear them a new "a---hole," but do it with love.

It takes work and study because it is not easy to stop thinking and rely on learned or experienced income. You have to rely on instincts, both natural and learned. 

Learn names. Listen to other people. Observe them in their natural habitat. Improv has much in common with social anthropology. It was in fact there at the birth of sociology and social work as professions. 

Make it real, as real as the first time and as real a "real life.


Four basics that must be considered.

1.Point of view. Always make sure your character is complete and enters with a strong point of view.

2. Personal Perspective. Always make sure that point of view has a wider perspective to support it. Your character has to have a way of looking at and understanding the world that is different than other characters.

3.Environment. Create and use a strong sense of place.

4. Emotion. If you have real emotion, even if overdone for comedy, it will be believed. People will laugh with your and cry with you and relate to your character, no matter how absurd they may seem in the given situation your ensemble has created.

All scenes should have a structure, come from the point of view of the characters and relate to the audience or very current issues and times. Improvisation can help with any acting in any form, and in your own self image. Improv allows you to empower yourself in any situation.

When I studied with Second City in Chicago, the modern improv mania has not spread beyond actors studying improvisation for their greater craft. That was the 1970's. In the mid 80's it began to spread like wildfire. First, as members of the original Second City moved to San Francisco, London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere the form morphed in many directions. Theater games began in San Francisco and jumped to London, where they became the base behind "Who's Line is it Anyways" original productions.

So, just as in the overall society, today when you say you want to do an improv, you are actually speaking as if it were one things, when in fact the term covers a wide range of types of creative forms, all with one thing in common.

You are charged with creating "something wonderful, right away."

There are regional differences.

Chicago and New York are more about the craft and the art, while Los Angles is about "me", "you" and the industry. There are major differences, including less potential for ensemble and less localized social issues and messages for LA companies. The west coast is more about individual stand up comedy and a focus on being funny, whereas improvisation elsewhere tends to be more about ensemble and the story. When Second City set up shop in Las Vegas they found they served tourist but did not have the wealth or depth of the original companies, which drew heavily on local matters and issues in Chicago and Montreal. 

Improv, the LA style, can be stand up comedy. The Midwest and eastern variety must be ensemble and story centered. LA Style talent builds resumes and careers. The artist in Chicago are doing it as a job and a career in a much more industrial mindset.

I invite you to sample all major groups online, to go to improv theaters and showcases and to jump in with both feet and try it for yourself.

It is fun.

-Art Lynch



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