A writer writes of what they know. An actor prepares. As an improvisor, you are both actor and writer at once.
We spend a lot of time, in the improv world, flexing our pattern-recognition muscles, our acting muscles, and working a thousand different techniques to prepare ourselves for the stage. Most of these are “acting techniques”, and are focused on what we do when we set foot onstage to create believable, interesting characters who inhabit an exciting world that’s worth watching. In fact, it’s practically everything we do. We work almost entirely on “the craft”.
But we are more than just actors. We are also writers. Writers do exhaustive research, pore over documents, build worlds and characters with depth and detail. As an improvisor, there’s not quite the time to do that sort of work onstage. Something has to happen in advance.
Every time I start a rehearsal process with a new ensemble, I try to get everyone to speak to what they do outside of improv and performance, just to gauge what else interests them. All too often, the responses lean in the direction of acting techniques or research. Going to films, plays, watching people on the train to pick up on their physicality, trying to learn accents or voices- all things that are just fine, but that never quite answer the question.
Additionally, it’s often the case that improvisors who start a training program or start in a new ensemble are advised to go out and see as much improv as they can. To take advantage of the fact that many (if not all) schools let their students see shows for free. It’s good advice, to a point. You should see what everyone else is doing. You should get a feel for the individual training center’s school of thought. But all too often, that ends up being an all-consuming task. I know improvisors who spend 5 nights a week in rehearsals, classes, or seeing shows- sometime multiple shows in one night. It consumes their every waking moment. Then they go to an audition, and all they have fed their brains with is other people’s work. I have seen tons of students and auditioners doing “bits” they saw someone else do, or making pop-culture references in hopes of getting a laugh, and it just hurts to watch. It’s mimicry. It’s second-hand passion. But it’s so easy to do better.
Feed your brain…
There is a great podcast with David Razowsky, one of my favorite teachers, where he discussed what it was like to be in a class with iO Theater co-founder, Del Close. Del would often ask everyone what they were reading, and inevitably, he would know the book, know a bunch of other books by the same author or on the same subject, and just generally be a rich fountain of knowledge, something he encouraged in his students, as well.
That’s the kind of mindset that feeds into good work. If you are passionate about a multitide of things, you won’t get stale with the circumstances of your scenes. You’ll always have fuel for the fire. You won’t be reaching out for something to inspire you, because it will be close at hand. Not only that, but it will be something you care about, which will give it context and emotion- great stuff for great scenework.
I haven’t been to see the show “TJ & Dave” in several years, but they are a legendary pair. Smart, funny, full of pathos, and a joy to watch. If you are in Chicago and get the chance, I highly recommend them. Part of what draws me to them is how Dave approaches scenes. I’ve often gotten the impression that he just grabs some random factoid that he has at his disposal and folds it into his scenework, which gives his character something to anchor them to the real world. A detail that is rich and true. It’s a very endearing quality. When my own actors in shows I direct pull similar tactics, it makes the scenes just a little more three-dimensional.
As an actor/writer, it is your job to do research for more than just one half of that position. You’re a writer as well as an actor. So you must endeavor to fill your head with new information, as much as possible. Read non-fiction books. Read trivia websites. Watch some TED talks. Listen to a podcast on something you know nothing about. Do something that isn’t just performance-related.
The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. If you feed it new information, it will make more and more connections. You will feel invigorated by performing, even when you have an “off night”. Your improv will get better, and you won’t feel overwhelmed or burnt out by your fifth night in a row of improv if you take a night off from improv to watch a bunch of documentaries or read some non-fiction. A full brain is a happy brain.
And just to feed your brains a little (and this list might grow), here are some websites to whet your appetite:
Today I Learned
The Straight Dope
Crash Course (YouTube series)
Today I Found Out
How Stuff Works
Just as a total side note- last November, I participated in (and finished) National Novel Writing Month. It’s a wonderful writing event that spans the month of November. Your task is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. When mine was complete, it was over 95,000 words, which I never thought I’d be able to do. That gave me the impetus to try again this year, and I’ve been brainstorming on what to write this year. As part of that process, I’ve been heavily reading trivia websites and making note of any factoid that I find fascinating. Perhaps this is just me, because I’m an oddity, but I’m finding that the story is already coalescing in my brain, largely due to the process of constantly feeding myself new facts on a daily basis. I highly recommend it.
Looking to join a TM production? We’ll be holding auditions for Detergent Symphony coming up on August 8th and 12th. Get signed up!