These are some notes from the Monday workshop at The Rag Factory a couple of weeks ago.
Spontaneity pops up as one of the overall points in impro with everything else we do, but it’s good to do a workshop solely on it every now and again.
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, it’s you afterall.
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 defences, 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.
Man With The 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 the Caribbean. There are hundreds of gorgeous of people in swimsuits splashing around, flirting, drinking cocktails and playing steel drums. There’s music playing, the sea is warm, the sun is out, everything is good. But there’s a little man 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 little man chill the fuck out and stop trying to control everything.
Your man 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 man with a clipboard is fucking rubbish at making up comedy on the spot. But the trouble is this man with the clipboard thinks he’s bloody amazing at making up comedy on the spot! So at the exact moment a party on a beach starts to happen he pops up and starts to try and control everything.
He pops up to protect you, to save you, to help you. The second you feel any pressure, unsafe, or unsure, there he is. But he’s rubbish at being funny. There’s already a party on a beach going on, he just needs to get out of the way.
The good news is that he’s really easy to distract. He likes small repeatable logical tasks and seems to think they are really important. Everyone else on the beach let’s him think they are really important, so they can get on with having a party on a beach.
Give him a Rubik’s cube and he’s set. He’ll happily play with that and suddenly everyone on the beach will start humping 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 man with the clipboard something to concentrate on, so that he 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 man with the clipboard gets bored of the Rubik’s Cube. Maybe he finishes 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 man with the clipboard has caught up with their techniques and taking over again.
The good news again 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.