Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Brussels and teach some improv workshops, and coach one the resident English speaking troupes there. Here’s what I discovered: just because I studied improv in New York does not mean that I am some sort of improv guru. Not by a long shot.
Now, for those of you reading this thinking to yourselves, “What a pretentious asshole!”, allow me to clarify. Yes. I am a pretentious asshole. I also happen to be a nice, genuine, see-the-forest-for-the-trees type of person. In order to get gigs, one must “sell” themselves, because no one is going to do it for you.
So anyway, yeah. I traveled across an ocean for the express purpose of teaching some workshops, and performing in some shows. I was supposed to be “the guy from New York” (insert ooo’ing and ahhh’ing). I was supposed to be “the expert”. I wasn’t. Not by a long shot. A lot of the people there came with a more extensive improv background than myself. I felt like a small dog in a big pond (I think that’s how the analogy goes). But I was there to do a job, so I was going to do the best job I knew how to do.
We began by running a lot of emotional response exercises like “It’s Tuesday” and “Emotional Rollercoaster”. Then we worked on scene work. Slow paced, take your time, ground your scene work in something real. That’s where the emotional exercises came into play. React and listen to your scene partner. React and listen. Use your emotions. Have real responses. That kind of stuff.
It wasn’t anything new. It wasn’t anything that they haven’t already done before. It was simply the basics. That’s it. And that’s when I realized that we did some amazing work together. One girl even did a 10 minute solo improv set while the rest of her team sat in amazement at her skill and attention to detail she brought with her to the stage. Her scene was about a girl who was waiting on a park bench for her blind date to arrive. When “he” finally showed up, he couldn’t stop talking about his ex which made the main character incredibly uncomfortable. It was a masterful scene that exchanged loud belly laughs for beautiful, tender, delicate moments. And it wasn’t the only one.
The rest of the troupe ended up performing longer dramatic scenes versus comedic scenes as well! I think I speak for everyone in that room when I say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They were so interesting and engaging, and REAL! Everyone was expressing real emotions and turning their scene work into something that meant something. And it was glorious!
But it wasn’t because of me. Not by a long shot. The improv was already IN them. I didn’t teach them anything. All I did was rehash the basics. That’s it. The basics. Focus on grounded scene work with real emotional responses and your scenes will flourish in a way that you never imagined! I promise!
Mike is a blog contributor to the National Improv Network. If you would like to contribute please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to consider you.