I used to do improv—classes mostly, occasionally on stage. Improv is done without props, no scripted dialogue—everything is made up which can be incredibly freeing or akin to that floaty feeling after a round of the childhood game, who-can-out-hyperventilate-whom (if passing out was winning then the answer is: I can). When an improv scene worked—the characters were interesting, there was a beginning, middle, end—it was amazing (surely SNL would be calling). When it didn’t work, it was that dream of going to school wearing only a t-shirt that barely covers your bellybutton.
When most people hear the word “improv” they think comedy but true improv can be comedic or dramatic. It’s really just having the courage to be in the moment, to respond honestly to what you’re given and to let the scene take you where it will. It’s that Zen idea of enjoying the journey with no attachment to outcome (and good luck with that if you’re human).
To start an improv scene you are given a suggestion—a place, maybe character relationship, a situation. Then the teacher tells you to begin and it’s just you and some other schmoe up there with nothing. And did I mention people are watching? They are and they expect to be entertained. No pressure. If you think too much about it you are doomed. No wonder so many famous comedians (and writers) are drunks. In one improv class scene, I was a cashier in a store. A customer came in wanting to buy a gift for her daughter. Without preconceived thought I walked over to what immediately became a shelf and pulled out a book. Without hesitation, I read the title: Plot, Plot, Who’s Got the Plot? It got a laugh and surprised me. I was taking a screenwriting class at the time but had no story. I thought maybe the act of signing up would result in a geyser of ideas (not so much; sort of like the time I slept with notes under my pillow in lieu of studying and yes, I failed the test). So plot, or lack thereof, was peripherally on my mind and made its way into my scene which is how a line from the radio (Grandma-the-Clown is being inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame today), a man’s relationship with his love doll (a photography exhibit at SF MoMa) and the good old self-generating future machine (former-trapeze-artist-turned-workshop-writing-teacher’s exercise) have made their way into my writing.
The one basic rule of improv is Yes, and. It’s a basic agreement to agree. If your scene partner hands you a letter it’s a letter. You don’t get to change it to a ring or a cake or a sponge because you have some great idea about what you will do with a ring or a cake or a sponge. You accept the letter and get to discover what it says, who it’s from, what it means to the scene—yes, and OMG I got accepted to sorcerer’s camp or yes, and you wrote “your welcome” when it should’ve been “you’re welcome” and now we have to break up. An improviser has to trust his gut. A writer must do the same. While it’s true, a writer has the freedom to change the ring to a cake or to a sponge and back again, at some point—for the love of God!—it’s necessary to make a choice and commit. The difference with improv is choice and commitment take place instantaneously in order to move the scene along (and not bore/scare the audience with one’s neurotic inability to simply do something). And there’s the added benefit that watching someone with intention and purpose is interesting (and sometimes sexy, too, but I digress...)
Counterintuitively, when starting a scene it’s the second line of dialogue that matters, not the first. The first line is interesting mostly because someone had the guts to actually say something, anything (hearing almost any line after a period of uncomfortable silence is a relief). What follows is where story begins. So while Mother died today (Camus), They shoot the white girl first (Morrison) and Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins (Nabokov) are all captivating beginnings it’s what comes next that brings the story to life.
I’ve read stories about people (men mostly) who develop improv-like, acquired-savant creativity after being forcefully hit on the head (wives/girlfriends, do not try this at home). One guy knocked himself silly after diving into a pool and the next thing you know he was a piano-playing prodigy (with a day job, finally; thank you Universe for small miracles), another, beaten by muggers, could draw mathematically-accurate fractals by hand (hand-drawn fractals folks! get your hand-drawn frac...), while a third, hit on the head with a baseball as a child, could recount the weather, the day of the week and what he was doing for any specific date (not October 5, 1983 again). Clearly, there are creative centers in the brain. Some people’s get tapped more than others. Until a piano falls on my head or I slip on a banana peel I’ll have to keep at my writing the only way I know how, by sitting down with hope on one side and fear on the other (and a nice, long t-shirt and pair of pants in my bag, just in case).