These are some notes from one of our Monday classes a couple of weeks ago.
Spontaneity pops up as one of the themes in impro with everything we do, but it’s good to do a workshop solely on it every now and again too.
In ‘real life’ not being spontaneous is quite often a good strategy. It keeps us safe, it stops us getting into trouble, it stops us from saying the wrong thing. We learn to look before we leap, think first then act, and make the best decisions. Keith Johnstone tends to write about this as if it’s an awful thing, but I don’t think you have to change how you live your ‘real life’ just to make up some stuff in ‘stage life’. When on stage improvising, being spontaneous becomes a very good idea. When negotiating a mortgage with your bank, being spontaneous is not such a good idea. You can have control over both types of behaviour, just switch from ‘real life’ to ‘stage life’ behaviour as you see fit.
With improvisers on stage we seem to appreciate people who don’t worry about danger (of the scene, we don’t want to see actual physical danger), who get into trouble, who say the wrong thing, who look before they leap, who act first and think later (if at all), who just go with the first decision not the best decision. You can always go back to another way of behaving in real life, or be free to choose how you want to behave, but on stage it’s fun to drop defenses, open up and be spontaneous.
When getting people to be spontaneous in a workshop, or if you’re directing a show, the first thing to do is create the right environment. An environment of safety, trust and support without judgement where people can feel secure and happy with being whoever they want to be without fear of retribution. John Cremer writes loads about this in is awesome book. Any threat to this environment and people will tend to snap back to the ‘real world’ method of behaviour where they are forced to defend themselves, judge themselves, edit themselves. The stage has to be a safe place.
I could spend 2 hours teaching people how to be spontaneous, or spend 2 minutes setting the right environment and they will just be spontaneous automatically.
Jobsworth with a clipboard
This extended metaphor came out of workshop ages ago but it keeps coming back to me, so here it is in its full madness:
There’s a massive party going on on a beach in Ibiza. There are hundreds of gorgeous of people in swimsuits splashing around, flirting, drinking cocktails and playing bongos. There’s music playing, the sea is warm, the sun is out, everything is good. But there’s a total jobsworth with a clipboard running around saying things like “it’s 2:30pm, time for a game to Twister everybody! Stop doing that it’s Twister time now. We’re playing Twister now!!!!” The general consensus at the beach party is why doesn’t this idiot chill the fuck out and stop trying to control everything.
Your jobsworth with a clipboard (inner judge/editor/ whatever you want to call it, I’m not a psychologist) seems to be very good at organising things and getting you places, making to do lists and getting things done BUT this jobsworth with a clipboard is fucking rubbish at making up comedy on the spot. But the trouble is this jobsworth with the clipboard thinks he/she is bloody amazing at making up comedy on the spot! So at the exact moment a party on a beach starts to happen they pop up and starts to try and control everything.
They pop up to protect you, to save you, to help you. The second you feel any pressure, unsafe, or unsure, there they are. But they are rubbish at being funny. The deeper you, the party on the beach, is endlessly funny and creative. There’s already a party on a beach going on, the jobsworth with the clipboard just needs to get out of the way and let it happen.
The good news is that they are really easy to distract. They like small repeatable logical tasks and seems to think they are really important. Everyone else on the beach let’s them think they are really important, so they can get on with having a party on a beach.
Give the jobsworth a Rubik’s cube and they are set. He’ll happily play with that and suddenly everyone on the beach will start dancing like mad and he’ll be all like “whatever man, I’ve got a Rubik’s cube here, this is clearly the most important thing on the beach.” Vikings will invade, dragons go water-skiing, Mr. Blobby makes cocktails, and he won’t try and stop them because he’s got all his attention on a Rubik’s cube.
More good news is that a load of impro exercises seem to work by giving your jobsworth with the clipboard something to concentrate on, so that he/she stops trying to be funny and organise stuff and stop stuff and your beach party can come out. You’ve got all you need in your subconscious, there’s so much in there waiting to come out. There’s even the collective subconscious, which is a whole world of cool stuff. When you’re improvising it can feel like at first that the Rubik’s cube is important, and at first it is as it’s that which let’s you get out of the way. But eventually you realise there is a world of stuff going on. Basically, everything.
Bad news is that sometimes the jobsworth with the clipboard gets bored of the Rubik’s Cube. Maybe they finish it, or it becomes too easy, or too difficult. He looks up and sees a dragon and a Viking on his beach playing volleyball with three nuns and a camel and he suddenly stands bolt upright and shouts “STOPPPP! It’s time to play Twister! NO! NO! NO! NO!”
Improvisers can be using the same performance techniques for months/years and then suddenly BLAM they are stuck on stage stuck in their heads thinking “she’s said something now, everyone is looking at me, so I should say something”. Their jobsworth with the clipboard has caught up with their techniques and taken over again.
The good news though is that there is no end of different techniques and exercises to get through this. There is no right or wrong one, it’s whatever one works for you in that time. It’s a constantly changing fluid thing.
Sometimes it’s just going line by line, adding a detail to what’s just been said, or trying to name everything in the environment, or just saying the first thing that comes to your head, or going from character, or throwing yourself into a physical action before you know why, or having an emotional sound and response to everything that’s said, or only talking when you touch, or being as serious as possible, or limiting your own words, or doing an A-Z game, or listing a load of random words, or doing great object work, opening your hand and seeing what’s there, throwing yourself into the unknown.
They all help to make great scenes and stories, and they all can help distract the man or woman with the clipboard.
My own person man with a clipboard story was before I got into impro. I wasn’t really going anywhere with jobs/career/life and then one week I started to learn to windsurf. I didn’t want to be a windsurfer as such, but the opportunity had popped up to do it for free. So for seven hours a day seven days a week my man with a clipboard was completely engrossed in learning about windsurfing, and making me climb back on and pull the sail out the water every time I fell off. At the end of the week I suddenly walked back onto the beach and declared to everyone there “I know who I am and what I’m doing” and then fell onto the sand in a fit of giggles. There had clearly been something else going on all week I wasn’t even conscious of. Everyone cheered, even though they didn’t even really know me.
I should probably go windsurfing again.
Oh fuck. Just finished writing this and realised I have a clipboard when teaching. I’m the jobsworth on a beach. What a wanker.
Blog by Steve Roe, director of Hoopla Impro.
Hoopla’s next improv classes start next month.