I’ve been thinking a lot about improvisation lately. I’ve been involved with it on and off for more than fifteen years. In many ways I trace my acting career back to the little improv/comedy troupe I was asked to help start at the University of Kansas in 1992. I’ll never forget the Renegade theatre (an abandoned tire shop) on the South side of Lawrence where our little company would do marathon Saturday night shows for sold-out crowds until the wee hours of the morning. I fell in love with improvisation hard and fast and I’ve always kept it a big part of my artistic life. As I have grown older (not up) I’ve had many amazing opportunities to fuse the kind of spontaneity and energy I found in that early work with my “classical” training and conservatory approach to my professional life. One of the reasons I gravitated towards the NYU Graduate Acting Program when I did was that there was a discernable emphasis put on training through improvisation in the form of games, commedia dell’arte, and clown classes. Since getting my MFA, I’ve continued to be involved in improvisation, with a concentration on long-form scenic work. The training centers that embrace this scenic (rather than gimmick-oriented) approach to the work include Improv Olympic and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre; just to name a few.
I have always felt that the work that is being done in these scenic improv theatres is such important and crucial work for the professional actor. Whenever I’m in between jobs (and have the money), I get into a class to give my imagination a place to work out. Fortunately and unfortunately the last few years have been busy ones for me professionally and the time (and occasionally, the money) hasn’t really afforded me the opportunity keep up my training or given me the time to consistently participate in the long-form “community”. One of the crucial ways of learning how to do the work well is to be part of a consistent company (or team) of actors who work in sync in front of an audience on a regular basis. I’ve rarely had this opportunity myself. When I spent some time in Los Angeles, I briefly was able to be on a couple of teams and even found myself in a situation where I would be on stage multiple times a week with different teams. However, I then booked a play in New York that turned into another play in New York that turned into the journey of the last couple of years.
Now, a few years later, as I am taking stock of my life; where I’ve been, where I am, and where I would like to go, I feel in my bones that scenic improvisation both as an end in itself and as a means of development for more "scripted" material is going to play a larger and larger role in my artistic life. When I think about the values taught and exercised within the scenic-improv community and remind myself of the amazing variety of tools I was taught during my classical training, and finally think of the most common problems facing the professional actor in today’s American theatre, I can’t help but to think that the professional actor has much to gain from incorporating the philosophies and skills taught in the long-form improv world.
What’s interesting is that not everyone who is involved in the long form world has developed the “chops” to be a classical actor. I wouldn’t think that many of the people involved would be good at, or even interested in, taking on Websters' The White Devil. However, the skill set that is being exercised and developed within the long-form world, I am convinced would be absolutely revelatory and awe inspiring to the classical actor rehearsing The White Devil. I feel like I am at a very interesting intersection of skill sets. I started my artistic life with sketches and short-form laugh-oriented improvisation and now live an artistic life where I relish being able to mine the depths of Chekhov and Shakespeare but with an approach that is probably more informed by long-form scenic improvisation than almost anything else. I often describe myself as a “classically trained improviser who mostly does plays". That said, this long form world that I am talking about, is one that I have always felt a bit dangential to because I haven't been able to focus my full energies on it for any significant length of time. I want to keep developing this skill set through classes, training, and performance opportunities but often find myself challenged by economics or scheduling. But I would love to have an opportunity to do months of "intensive" work where I could really sink in, work with others, and internalize to an even deeper degree these important skill sets.
Additionally, when I think about the trajectory of my career and of my life, I am beginning to think more about directing and teaching. I’m often suspicious of graduate acting programs that require their students to teach undergrads. My thought is, “Wait a minute. If I’m here to shake myself up, expand the definition of myself, and develop a more coherent and useful skill set…what do I really have to offer as a teacher for undergrads?” But now, as I am nine years out of conservatory and have worked in films, television, regional theatre, non-profit theatre, basement theatre, readings, and Broadway with luminaries, students, divas, friends, role models, true artists, and true assholes, I feel like I really do have some perspective now on approaches to both the work of the actor and the life of the actor that not only work but make the world a more colorful and exciting place to live in. So I’ve been thinking about teaching. I’ve been thinking about teaching for a few reasons. First, because I think that I have some principles, approaches, and perspectives that make the work more doable and more enjoyable and I’d really like to share them with actors in training. And secondly, from a more self-interested point of view, I feel that teaching a class would force me to be able to articulate these approaches to students, and therefore to myself in a more simple and understandable way that wouldn’t just benefit my students, but also myself as an actor in continual “training.” I embrace the idea of the professional teacher as someone who can constantly learn more about themselves and their own craft by teaching it to others. And when I think about teaching and the things that I would like to teach, a quick few classes jump out at me. First, I would like to teach improvisation as the bedrock foundation work for the actor and second, scene study class. I'd like to teach them both because I would love to give actors that foundation work through games and improvisation and then be able to guide them in using those same techniques for exploring a "great" piece of drama.
So I’ve been writing on and on about how much I love long form improvisation and how valuable and useful I think it is. And I have been talking in incredibly personal, but broad strokes. But it’s the specifics that are so exciting, and so useful to the actor in training and in rehearsal. So what is it that I’m talking about? What is long form improvisation? What is scenic improvisation?
It’s my belief that teaching scenic long-form improvisation to actors emphasizes the imaginative resources of the actor with the aim of developing independent, supportive, company-minded, positive, and playful actors.
I firmly believe that improvisation is the foundation on which compelling, exciting, and illuminating acting is built. There is a sense of play, fun, high-stakes, risk-taking, and cooperation present in actors well-versed in improvisation that is often obviously lacking in actors who are not. An actor's ability to be at home on stage with only their own (and their fellow actors') resources to rely on is the crucial first step to an authentic and exciting life on stage.. If an actor can walk onto an empty stage with nothing but their own imagination and their fellow actors to rely on and feel confident that what will transpire will be a collaborative work of art, they will feel all the more confident and free when they have sets, props, costumes, and the words of William Shakespeare as a prism through which to shine those strengthened imaginative powers.
I know that quality conservatories understand that improvisation is an important aspect of actor training and have a number of quality classes in place designed to free the actor, ignite the imagination, and make actors feel comfortable “working without a net” on stage. That said, I think there is another level of skill development to be introduced that would make the improvisation work even more valuable to the actor in training. The next step in the evolution of improvisation within the conservatory is to introduce actors to games, skills, and structures that make it possible for them, as a company of actors, to improvise fully realized short plays. (This is where I finally tie back in the kind of long- form work I was discussing in general terms at the beginning of this post.) Del Close, an early Second City company member, felt this need more than twenty years ago. Frustrated by the limitations (and intentions) of the short games that were featured in Second City shows, he branched out on his own and started a theatre called Improv Olympic where he invented a set structure, or long-form improvisational game that he simply called, for lack of a better name, “The Harold”. The Harold is a loose structure in which actors, through a series of recurring scenes and characters, can thoroughly explore a theme. (Del was inspired by improvisational jazz musicians. The Harold’s structure works in the same way that jazz musicians begin with a standard rhythm or key that establishes the “song” that the musicians will improvise together. It’s the set structure that allows the musicians to branch off into the unknown and be able to return to the synergistic, continually-blossoming, and mutually created song.) Within the Harold, a word, topic or them inspires a thirty minute (or longer) series of scenes that are inspired to varying degrees by that topic or word. Within the game, scenes and characters begin to overlap until, ideally, by a third round of scenes, an array of different characters and given circumstances have begun to intersect and interact in a way that’s completely surprising, spontaneously discovered, and in the best case, amazingly realized and poignant. There have been dozens of variations on The Harold structure since Del Close introduced it in Chicago (he encouraged the form to be dismantled and reassembled constantly as he refused to be dogmatic about what it was "supposed" to be...it is improvisation after-all), but what strikes me as most useful to the actor in training is the structural component of revisiting scenes and characters over the course of a game or improvised play and allowing for unpredictable and unseen connections to occur between them. No matter what variation is used, the structure relies most heavily on recurring scenes with recurring characters. Del called it “The Harold”, I call it “scenic improvisation”.
There are many reasons why the actor in training can benefit from becoming skilled in scenic improvisation. First, for scenic improvisation to work, actors must completely internalize the phrase “Yes, and…”. One of the first lessons taught in most improvisation classes (and perhaps not coincidentally in many Buddhist temples) is that the student must say “Yes” to everything that happens on stage. The actor trained in scenic improvisation is conditioned to be “in the moment” and use what is actually happening in that moment in relationship with their scene partner(s). Through time, the actor lets go of the need to impose their idea of what should happen in a scene. The instinct to judge, force, or try to do the “right” thing slowly erodes and is replaced by an instinct to embrace, support, and celebrate what actually is happening on stage rather than long for what they think or have previously decided should be happening. This is an incredibly powerful principle to be internalized by an actor. (And one that all too often is obviously not embraced or internalized by many professionals in the field. "Are you going to do it like that?") An early exercise simply pairs two actors who build a scene from scratch one exchange at a time by saying “Yes, and…” to each other. Once the “Yes, and…” becomes second nature to the actor, a new way of seeing the stage (and often the world) begins to emerge for them. The “Yes” principle helps actors get beyond muscling scenes, judging their scene partners (and themselves), or ignoring things that spontaneously happen on stage. (How many times have we cringed to see the actor ignore the fly on stage or the saucer that just broke…or the fresh way their scene partner just communicated their intention?) The actor who has an internal switch flipped into the “yes and…” position is an actor ready to celebrate tonight’s performance in the here and now, with all of its’ guaranteed uncertainty and anarchy, scripted or not.
Secondly, scenic improvisation encourages good scene work. Just as yoga is wonderful for actors in training them to be “in the moment”, scenic improvisation is excellent practice in listening and reacting honestly. Unlike scripted material, where two unskilled actors can easily recite the lines of a play back and forth to each other without listening, being in the moment, or honestly reacting, unscripted scenes give the actor no such safety net to rely on. For a scene to work, the actors must be incredibly attentive to each other. There must be a constant give and take and a constant affirmation of the choices each actor makes. If actors aren’t listening to each other, the scene dies. If judgment creeps in, the scene dies. If actors aren’t supportive of each other, the scene dies. So, when actors, versed in scenic improvisation, approach regular “scene work”, they are more attuned to each other, better at listening to each other, less likely to judge, and more likely to say “yes and…” to what is happening in the moment with their fellow actor.
Thirdly, scenic improvisation gives actors the skill to be ready to work fully and creatively on day one of any process. An empty space or stage becomes the imaginations’ gymnasium to the actor versed in scenic improvisation. While exercising within the structure of scenic improvisation, actors learn to create their locations, relationships, and given circumstances with specificity and artistic skill. An actor who has improvised for years and has had to create coffee shops, freight boat decks, the back office of a mafia restaurant, and a thousand other locations will enter a rehearsal room for an Arthur Miller play with a thousand ideas erupting from the volcanic core of their being. (And not ideas they’ve been at home imagining; Ideas erupting and born from what and who is in the room they’re rehearsing in.) These actors won’t wait for the director to give them a task to do. They won’t need the script to tell them what kinds of props and settings might make the scene work better. They will simply begin their work with imagination and skill and their fellow actors and directors will be glad for it.
Fourth, scenic improvisation encourages actors to support each other and work together as a company. There are many ways in which scenic improvisation lends itself to company development. The actor trained in scenic improvisation is constantly looking for ways to help and support their fellow improvisers. Additionally, as previously stated, in scenic improvisation structures, actors are encouraged to look for connections between scenes, themes, and characters. Because what is happening on stage between two of an actors’ fellow company members can and will effect their own scenes throughout the structure, they must pay attention, care, support, and participate in those scenes. There is no “waiting to enter” for the actor trained in improvisation. There is, most commonly, the feeling of “What can I do to help?” A scenic improvisation may start with two policemen in a break room talking about their sons. Many scenes later, a kid may get caught shop-lifting, providing a perfect opportunity for one our policemen to re-enter the structure in a completely different set of circumstances… and for the kid to end up being one of the sons that had been talked about so extensively in the opening scene of the structure. In short, the more the actors listen, remember, invest, support, and care for one another, the better the stories become and the better it feels to play the game. The sense that you've "won" in the game is predicated on how good everyone feels when it's done that they were all fully out there for each other.
Fifth, the actor skilled in scenic, character, and relationship-driven improvisation is at an advantage in the working world than the actor without it. More and more films and television programs are hiring and relying on actors trained in this kind of improvisation to make their films and television programs more interesting, more entertaining, and more honest. Tina Fey, Will Farrell, Stephen Colbert, Stephen Carrell, Amy Poehler, Jack McBreyer, and the majority of the casts and writing staffs for the television shows The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, 30 Rock, The Office, and many others all have this long-form improv training in common. More and more, there is an elite professional company of actors at work in the commercial world. This company of actors also shares the distinction of being accomplished writers and producers. This company shares a common history, a common training, and a common approach to the work. And what may be most interesting is the fact that they are, in a way, a trained company of actors. They aren’t classically trained. Most don’t know what scansion is or what operative words are and even less could tell you much about the virtues of the Alexander technique. However, they have spent years together in small basement theatres, drinking beer and talking about how to give better “gifts” to each other on stage, how to be a better teammate, how to push the limits of their imaginations further, how to be more honest in their work and approach, and how to do more work that is artistically relevant and inspired for their audiences. This company is made up from members of different theatres across the country. From The Magnet Theatre in New York to Improv Olympic in Chicago to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, they are having the same conversations and when they meet each other, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t take the same classes with the same teachers. The principles were the same all over and the shorthand dialogue about the work is fully ingrained. They work together easily and respond quickly to each other because of a shared philosophy. This company is becoming more and more artistically valuable, socially relevant and professionally powerful and any actor who is versed in the principles and techniques which serve as the foundation of this company will be at a comparative advantage to those who aren’t. Add to the mix that actors so trained who also have the incredible toolbox that classical training provides will simply be that much more attractive to this group and to each other. I realize I just made it sound like there was a long form improv illuminatti out there...and maybe there is...but they're not scary...they're mostly just funny.
Finally, to a similar point of having a professional advantage over actors without training in scenic improvisation, I believe that our culture as a whole is at a watershed moment. I believe that the contemporary theatre is poised to make a grand return toward actor-driven theatrical experiences. The economic realities facing America are going to necessitate that theatres concentrate less on ornate sets, costumes, and gimmicks and more on skilled actors telling stories in space on stage. Quality training programs have proliferated in the last few decades, resulting in the graduation of hundreds of skilled actors into the acting community each year. Where years ago, there were still many more actors than there were jobs, now the situation seems to be even more incredible in that there are so many more skilled and trained actors than there are jobs for them to do. The result is plain to see. Look at any television program and even the smallest part is usually expertly played by a highly skilled actor. (You didn’t get many Yale School of Drama Grads for one-line receptionist roles in 1973.) Look at Youtube.com and you will see hundreds of actors turned film-makers creating their own work and posting it for the world to see. (see iChannel) New actor driven theatres are popping up in places as far reaching as Kentucky, Missouri, California, and Maryland. I have spoken to many of the actors who are starting these theatres. For the most part, they are people who graduated from a quality training program, found Los Angeles and New York hostile to their desire to do good work with like-minded artists and left to find as Coriolanus said, “A world elsewhere.” These pro-active young actors are slowly and incrementally churning what I believe will become an artistic tidal wave bound to radically alter American culture in the decades to come.
It has been my experience that often the most satisfying work that an actor does is work that they have created themselves. Whether directing colleagues in a play, creating a new piece with friends, creating an avant-gard one-man show, or putting together a project for the Fringe Festival to play in a church basement on Leonard St, these actors tend to be happier and more artistically fulfilled than actors who simply wait by the phone waiting for their next audition. Scenic improvisation trains actors to be proactive and to exercise their imaginations daily. The growing skill level that accompanies practice ignites self-confidence and an awareness that directors, designers, and even playwrights are secondary additions to the immediacy and power of the actors’ independent spirit and craft. That self-confidence I believe gives actors an understanding of their own ability to not simply be a vessel for other people’s art, but become an ever-combustive muse of fire for themselves, capable indeed of ascending the brightest heaven of invention.