Improvising

I taught improvisational acting for a few years at our local community college. It’s simple to learn the basic concepts of improv, but much harder to actually master it. I’m certain I never did, but I could improvise well enough to be able to teach others how to do it.

The main rule of improv can be stated in two words: “Yes, and…“. This simple idea means that when your partner says something to you, the scene can only be moved ahead if your response is in the general form of “Yes, and…”. You don’t have to literally say, “yes, and…”, but you must agree with what your partner said and then add something that keeps the scene going. If you disagree, you’ve probably killed the scene.

It sounds simple, but in practice it’s quite difficult to do well. You have to overcome the urge to throw in a punch line, or take the scene over to move it to where you want it to go. Impatience is your enemy; you need to relax and trust that you’ll get an opportunity to use your great idea, if not in that scene, perhaps sometime later.

Improvising can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying. The risks of looking stupid in front of your peers (or even worse, a live audience) are real. Many actors never get comfortable with improv. They go through the motions in their classes when they’re required to, but never really dedicate themselves to it.

Most actors have traits that interfere with performing improv well. A big one is that we don’t listen well, or perhaps it’s better to say that we don’t listen completely. We’re used to jumping in with our idea as soon as we have it, rather than letting the person we’re talking to finish their thought first. So much context is lost in that kind of interrupted conversation.

Another common issue, which I mentioned earlier, is impatience. We want to get to the funny part (or the “big moment” if the scene is dramatic instead of comedic) right away. Selfishness is a problem, too; we often have a hard time letting someone else get the big moment or laugh. Improv also requires a lot of trust between scene partners, and that can take time to build, just as in other types of relationships.

Improv is helpful even when you’re doing something familiar, including acting in a scripted play. What happens when someone forgets a line, or a light or sound cue doesn’t happen, or another actor misses their entrance entirely? The ability to gracefully improvise in those situations has saved many a scene, sometimes so well that the audience is unaware that anything went wrong.

Most of us improvise every day. Nobody wakes up in the morning with a script lying next to their bed. Every interaction we have is unscripted, though certainly some situations are more common or familiar than others and end up playing the same way as dozens or hundreds that came before. Each of us has a level of tolerance for improvisation. Some prefer to only engage in situations that are predictable, while others relish the chance to experience something new.

The ability to improvise well can make the difference between a career that requires only repetitive tasks and one that allows you to be creative and effect change. How comfortable are you with improvisation?

Adventures with Tevye

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a legendary character. He has many noble qualities: he works hard, he’s loyal to his family and his community, and he has a deep respect for knowledge and scholarship. When faced with a series of crises in his life, he reacts with wisdom and courage. He’s a good man. I like him; he’s a little crazy, but I like him.

I’m playing Tevye the Dairyman in an upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof with the St. Clair Theatre Guild. It’s a role I’ve wanted to play at least since high school, and probably earlier, because I know I’ve been listening to the music since I was seven or eight. The music is wonderful, haunting and beautiful, and it’s a joy to get to sing the songs even in rehearsal.

I saw an interview with Harvey Fierstein (whose birthday is today), who played Tevye on Broadway a few years ago. I’ve heard Tevye described as an “everyman,” an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. Fierstein disagreed with this, arguing that if Tevye were merely an ordinary man, he wouldn’t have had the strength and ability to react and change as his traditions were challenged by his daughters and by the world around him. I agree. And it makes theatrical sense as well, because we don’t go to the theatre to watch ordinary people do ordinary things, but rather to experience the lives of amazing individuals in larger-than-life situations.

Tevye is a devout man, but his relationship with God isn’t rigid, but instead is rather playful and informal. He believes that God is able to control things, but Tevye isn’t afraid to talk back to this all-powerful being. He believes in the power of tradition to hold his family and his village together, but is also flexible enough to see when a tradition no longer serves its purpose and needs to change.

But even Tevye’s open-mindedness has its limits. There is a line in the sand that even he can’t cross. And the moments where he struggles with these decisions are among the most challenging I’ve played as an actor. The emotions that I’m feeling as I react to my three oldest “daughters” are as raw and real as anything I’ve experienced on stage. (It helps, of course, that all three of them: Ellie Wentzel, Ciara Adams and Tyler Nevison, are wonderful actors in their own right.)

It’s easy to see stage musicals as something light and silly. Fiddler has always been much more than that, and I think its universal, lasting appeal to performers and audiences is the result of this realistic emotional depth. I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to know Tevye well. Like most memorable characters, I imagine he’ll be sticking around with me far after our final performance on Saturday night.

The St. Clair Theatre Guild presents Fiddler on the Roof this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 12-14, 2014, at East China Performing Arts Center, 1585 Meisner Road in East China Township. More information is available on the Guild’s website.

No rules. Just create.

I came across this post by independent playwright David Rush today. He describes how the “rules” he’d been taught about playwriting turned out to be more of an obstacle than a help, so he finally starting “drifting” as he wrote, trusting his instincts and inspiration as he writes.

I followed the rules carefully, outlining and filling in and making charts and graphs. And so forth. It would take me, on the average, several months to actually chart all this stuff out. […] My imagination ran riot and I invented all sorts of wonderful stuff. Interesting characters, bold adventures, climactic scenes. […] And then I sat down to write. And it all dried up.

no_rulesI think the “rules” of acting can have a similar effect of stifling the freedom to create a full, vibrant character. I’ve worked with many actors who are trying to “follow the rules” they were taught in acting school or college. But art isn’t about rules, but about creation. I’ve pointed out before that there are as many “styles” of acting as there are actors. We need to be free to create in our own ways. Ultimately, the deadlines of a production do dictate that certain “rules” be followed: learn your lines being the most important, of course. But within the rehearsal process, we need to create an environment where the freedom to try anything, to break rules, and to create in our own way, is respected.

I have never gone back to the old method of charting and graphing and filling in the spaces. I have continued to write without a road map. I continue to drift. And playwriting continues to be fun, as each new writing day is always a surprise and an adventure. To be honest, sometimes it doesn’t work and I drift until I sink. But when it does work, it’s great.

Indeed.

Read David’s complete post at independentplaywrights.com.