Everything I know about improv I learned from Tetris.
Okay, maybe not everything, but that seemed less clickbait-y title than “12 things about Tetris that also apply to improv! #4 will surprise you!” Welcome to my head.
I started playing Tetris back in the 80s, when it came out, and in various iterations since then. I played it on my old flip phone, since it was one of the few games that would work on it. I haven’t played it in a while, but I’ve lately played other similar puzzle games, and it got me to thinking about this simple and elegant game, as a metaphor for improv.
For those of you who don’t know what Tetris is (hi! You’re in for a treat!), it’s a game where blocks of differing orientations of 4 smaller blocks fall down a screen. The player can move the blocks left, right, or down the screen, but they fall ever-downward. You can rotate blocks, and the purpose is to make a continuous row across the screen. Making a continuous horizontal row make it disappear, making more room for more blocks. If the blocks pile up all the way to the top of the screen, you lose. Also, it featured some Tchaikovsky music in all its electronic glory.
Anyhow! Back to the story.
Here’s some stuff that I’ve found interesting.
The scene/game moves on without you.
In Tetris, the blocks are constantly coming at you. You cannot avoid it. In a scene, no matter what you do, the scene moves forward. You can choose to simply sit idly by, and your scene will move on, regardless.
Even making no choice is a choice.
In the game, if you make no choice, no movement whatsoever, the blocks will pile up and end the game. Sometimes, you will get lucky and a block will just drop into the right place, but that’s rare. In a scene, you can elect to make no choices, no movement, no eye contact, no words. But even that has consequences to your scene.
Making a move of some kind is almost always better than just letting the pieces drop.
Inevitably, if you choose to not to move in Tetris, you’ll lose. If you make movements to try to get the pieces into the right spots, you may win, but you’ll always be better off than simply letting the pieces drop down the screen.
The same can be said about an improv scene. Electing to remain silent, still, apathetic is often going to drag your scene down. It’s one thing for a character to choose to be silent or still (this can happen for a million reasons), but if the actor does that, it’s often from a place of fear of making the right choice. Any choice at all… is the right one.
Also, apathy is not a choice. Get over it.
If you’re always planning for that perfect piece, you will miss other opportunities.
In Tetris, there is a nice bonus you get when you clear out 4 rows at once, and the only way to do that is with the rare “long block”. You can sit and wait for it, building slots for the piece to fit into, and all too often, it will not come.
In a scene or a show, you can end up in the same position. If you wait for the perfect time to edit a scene that’s happening, it can drag on terribly. If you are in a scene and have something to say, but are looking for the perfect moment, you will be missing what’s going on in the scene in front of you. And you’ll miss other opportunities that aren’t the exact same as your rare “long block” moments.
You don’t know what’s coming next, so preparing for it is moot. Work with what’s in front of you.
In Tetris, you can only see the next block, not the next several. So, you can only work with what’s coming immediately. In a scene, you can’t read your partner’s mind, no matter how much you’ve worked with them. So you should only work with what’s in front of you.
The most successful approach to both Tetris and scene work is to keep planning to a minimum and work on a line or two at a time.
Be flexible. Opportunities will present themselves when you least expect them.
When you’re playing the game, you can easily get caught up trying to find the perfect piece, but the best tactic lies in being flexible. There will be moments you aren’t expecting, pieces that you think don’t “fit”, but that you’ll suddenly be looking for, and times when you suddenly find exactly what you needed.
In a scene, it’s very much the same way. If you can leave yourself open to anything, rather than looking for something “perfect”, you will be surprised in wonderful ways. The opportunities will present themselves to you because you are leaving yourself open to a wide array of possibilities. It’s a lovely thing.
If you intentionally avoid dealing with what’s already been dropped/built, it gets harder and faster, because things are always happening.
Tetris is relentless. If your stack of blocks gets higher than the middle of the screen, the pieces drop faster, making it tough to get the rows cleared. Scenes are much the same way. If you avoid dealing with what’s going on, you have a larger pile of information to deal with, and it becomes a nuisance. You won’t “lose” the scene (what would that even look like?), but you will lose your focus.
When you play it long enough and focus on the here and now while being open to new opportunities, it will seem magical when those tough pieces just suddenly fit. It will look like you planned it all along.
I am no Tetris Master. But, the best scores I’ve gotten have been when I’ve stopped working on it, and have just let my brain relax and be open to the opportunities. The pieces move with a zen-like fluidity, and suddenly I’ve gotten a ton of points. When you watch great improvisors, there is a similar quality. They aren’t working at their performance. It appears effortless.
Thinking harder instead of reacting and letting your subconscious find the patterns will lead to failure. Be in the moment.
Another game that I am a fan of, which has a similar feel to Tetris, is “Unblock Me”- a sliding block game where you have to move horizontal and vertical blocks out of the way so that you can slide one singular block off the screen. I’ve played it a ton, and whenever I am playing it and really focusing on how to get this block moved out of the way of that block, everything moves perfectly. When I overfocus, I get locked up. I can’t figure it out. When I stop focusing on the “solution”, in the game and in improv, I find that my subconscious finds the patterns without all the work.
Knowing there is a “solution” to every “problem” helps you to get okay with relaxing into letting your subconscious find said solution.
With Tetris, there is always a “solution”, way to win the game. Knowing that makes it easier to let go of the “figuring it out” thing and just ease into the game. The same goes for improv. When you realize that every scene has a way to be interesting, important, worthwhile- then you stop striving for it, and you can feel free to let your subconscious do a lot of the work.
Failure isn’t the end of the world. There’s no real stakes.
At the end of the day, Tetris is just a game. There’s no stakes here. Improv, while an awesome artform, has no real stakes in every scene. Doing well or doing “poorly” are neither one the end of the world. Chill out, relax, and enjoy a game.
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