I participated in an improvisation workshop this week led by Betsy Stover of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) and it was remarkable. The way Betsy (and the UCB) approach the art of improvisation highlights a fundamental characteristic that is often overlooked – it is a conscious act of creation. During the workshop Betsy let us explore the game based scene work that is at the heart of the UCB style of improvisation and in doing so shared invaluable rules of thumb for engaging in conscious improvisation. And these rules of thumb apply just as much within organizations as within improvisational theatre.
· Go from A to C: An improvised scene usually begins with a suggestion from the audience. They may yell out anything from “fishing” to “mother’s day”. Betsy made it clear that as artists it is not your responsibility to pick up a fishing rod or start shopping for a card. Rather it was your responsibility to reflect on the suggestion and be inspired. You may hear “mother’s day” and think of brunch in a restaurant and so the scene begins in a restaurant (again without the need for it to be mother’s day). This she called going from A to C. As artists it was our responsibility to act from inspiration, since that will give us the most energy and engagement in the work. Suggestions were never to be taken as direction and that we rob the scene of power and possibility if we treat them literally.
· Start by doing (and join in by doing): When we step on stage to begin a scene don’t try and think of what to say; instead invest yourself fully in an action rooted in your understanding of the situation and let ideas flow from that involvement. And that as a scene partner join in by first doing the action you see taking place to connect yourself immediately to the situation and the other person before you start to contribute.
· Work from your biggest dream: Improvising is about dreaming up what could be, so take license to think up the biggest possibility in the situation. Rather than creating a reality where you live in a horrible apartment, what about a situation where this crappy apartment is what you have been looking for all your life? Or that living in an awful apartment is needed to realize the dream of writing a great novel? The question you ask yourself is “what is the biggest dream that could happen in this situation?”
· Work from the top of your intelligence: within the situation ask the questions that come to you naturally. If something looks or sounds odd to you, give that feeling voice or action. By doing this you are adding to the reality of the situation and investing yourself into the world. This rule of thumb is a command to remember ourselves and be fully present within any situation.
· Find the Game: With UCB finding the game is at the centre of their style of improvisation. It is the fuel that propels the scene forward. When a scene begins the two people onstage quickly establish “normal” – whatever that may mean. This is done by going from A to C with the suggestion, starting by doing (and joining by doing), working from your biggest dream, and working from the top of your intelligence in order to quickly establish who you are, where you are, and why you are. Once that “normal” has been established you look to see what unusual thing pops up organically. If the scene is established as a husband and wife living in a horrible apartment so she can write her great novel, you then look for what unusual thing occurs. Maybe she has been writing it since she was ten. If that is what is recognized as unusual, then both characters begin exploring the question “if that is true, then what else could be true?” Maybe the novel is now so long, the boxes of pages occupy most of the floor space; maybe the furniture is actually boxes of pages from the novel; maybe the Guinness Book of World records is coming by today to confirm he as having written the longest novel ever; and on and on. The game is what both characters begin to pursue and expand on as they live in the evolving reality of the scene.
What I find most amazing about the work of UCB is that they show that improvisation is a practiced, conscious art of creation. They have done excellent work articulating what are the steps we take to find the game and begin to improvise (and if you want to read about it, they have published a book outlining their ideas in detail). Within organizations there is often a desire to embrace improvisation but I worry that it is looked at as a quick fix. We want to get people thinking on their feet but we are not taking the time to identify what they need to be doing in order to be thinking on their feet in the situation. UCB has thought about what it takes to get into the game and be able to improvise well. Not because you are lucky or naturally funny but because you are practiced at key skills and can draw upon those to consciously create in the moment.