Don’t just justify mistakes, Yes And the hell out of them!

Yes and mistakes!

Maria Peters (Music Box, Arthur, 8 bit and more), a great improviser and friend of mine recently went to New York and saw loads of shows at The Upright Citizens Brigade. She thought they were awesome and said that people were queuing round the block to get in.

I asked her what it was the improvisers were doing that made the shows so awesome, and she said that they just had full confidence and just didn’t give a shit (in a good way). The attitude was ‘hell yeah, I meant to do that! And hell yeah, my scene partner meant to do that too!’

Absolutely everything that happened on stage was treated as if it was the best offer ever given, and jumped on and yes anded without any hesitation. So if a ‘mistake’ popped up instead of it creating an awkward silence or half-hearted attempt to justify before brushing off, it was instead jumped on by the cast as if it was the best offer ever made and yes anded and ended up being the point of the entire show.

I saw this myself in one of my favourite ever shows – One Night Stand the Improvised Musical. An improviser was on stage early in the show being a professor, with another improviser as a cat. We all thought he was in an office, but it hadn’t be clearly stated. Halfway through the scene another improviser spent ages coming in on skis, shaking off snow, crawling through a tunnel, and then popping up next to the professor. All the way through this mime at the time the audience were thinking ‘eh?’ as we thought the professor was in an office, and it felt like a massive mistake. However the professor jumped on it, and immediately without hesitation his office was inside an igloo in Antarctica. Furthermore the next scene mentioned Antarctica, and then in fact the rest of the show become a huge adventure to Antarctica. At the end the whole audience were saying how cool it was that the show went to Antarctica, but it all came from a mistake that was jumped on and treated as if it was the best thing ever.

This was making me think that there is nothing to be scared of in impro. The worse thing that can happen is that you make me a mistake, but the mistake can create a new game, a new character, a new laugh, a new story, a new direction. So what feels like the worse thing, can actually be the best thing. Some feel before a show ‘I don’t want to make a fool of myself’, but the beauty is that making a fool of yourself is the entire point, it’s comedy and personally I don’t care if people laugh with me or at me. In fact the only bad thing that can happen is actually looking scared in front of an audience, because then they think something is wrong. So don’t be scared, there’s no point in being scared in impro.

This discussion lead to Maria and I doing a new warm up game before an Arthur show. Some of you might be aware of 8 things:

1. Improvisers get into a circle.
2. One improviser jumps into circle and shout “hello everyone my name is…”
3. The circle shouts “Hello NAME”
4. Someone in the circle gives them a category.
5. They then have to list 8 things in that category as quickly as possible.
6. After each thing the circle shouts the number.
7. At the end they get a big round of applause.
8. Next person jumps in.

For instance:

“Hi everyone I’m Arthur.”
“Hello Arthur!”
“8 types of cheese”
Fish Cheese
Snail Cheese
Quail Cheese

Encourage them to not have any fear of making mistakes. Also encourage them to stay bouncy and happy while they do it, make friendly eye contact with the circle, and not put pressure on themselves to be clever or funny. Having someone just go for it is a lot more fun than watching someone err and stutter and withdraw from the group while they think of something clever.

What we’ve added to this game now is that after someone has listed 8 things someone else jumps in and picks up on one of the offers that happened accidentally and makes something beautiful out of it.

So with the example above one of the actors might jump in immediately afterwards and say:

“Snail Cheese! It’s my favourite type of cheese. It’s garlic flavoured and it’s made by milking snails in the Alpine region of France by tiny milk maids.”

After that someone else jumps in and lists 8 things influenced by the person before, for instance ‘8 delicacies of the Alps’ or ‘8 types of garlic’.

Soon people sense that there is nothing to fear in making mistakes as they trust that they will be supported and have them turned into something beautiful. Also people stop being hesitant and learn to jump on offers, whether they happened accidentally or deliberately, big or small.

Lots of love,

Fun and friendly improv classes in London. The UK’s 1st improv theatre.


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