The Room Where It Happens…
We recently got a puppy. She is an adorable little pain in the butt, and we love her to death. But what always so amusing to us is how she cannot stand it if one of us is out of the room. Step into the bedroom and close the door, and she will whine by the door like the most interesting things in the world are happening just on the other side. She wants to be in “the room where it happens”, as we’ve found ourselves saying constantly.
The audience is like a puppy…
In 26 years of performing, teaching, and directing improv, I have seen countless scenes, and it is always striking to me how often players will focus on anything and everything that is outside of the scene. I have seen more heist scenes than I care to watch, and I always hate watching them. Because 90% of them are not the damn heist. They are an elaborate discussion, sometimes with funny characters, building up exactly how these characters will go about the business of robbing… whatever. A jewelry store, the student union. An Arby’s.
Here’s the thing. Great heist movies are interesting not because of the heist itself– that is often secondary. They’re interesting because of the characters and how they relate and grow. Ocean’s Eleven was fun to watch because of how cool Clooney and Pitt were and how much fun it was to watch them play off of each other, not because of the specifics of the heist. If you watch the movie, you’ll note that breaking down the specifics of what they’re going to do is often jammed into a montage and surrounded by hip music. That’s because we, the audience, don’t want to watch the elaborate discussions.
We want to be in the room where it happens.
As an audience member, you want to see action. You want to not spend time hearing a discussion of what’s going to happen down the line, so that you can see it… later… someday… You want to actually get to that action. And I can tell you, actors who sit and discuss what’s going to happen later are usually spinning their wheels trying to think of something interesting to say, rather than relating to one another.
Your audience knows that, if you’re talking about something that’s on the other side of that door, that’s where they wanna be. Just like our puppy and the bedroom door. So take them there.
Ghosts in your scenes…
Two weeks ago, we did an exercise on this very subject, in Workshop-in-Progress. There had been too many scenes lingering on people and places outside of the scenes. I call these “ghosts”. When you spend a lot of time talking about someone else (e.g., “How’s everything going with the new girlfriend, son?”; “Not bad, Dad. How are things with Mom’s new job?”), you have put the “ghost” of that person between you and your scene partner. It becomes harder and harder to communicate when you have that extra person infiltrating your scene at every step. If you want to have a scene about the son and the mom, then put them in the room. If you have the dad and the son in the room, then the scene is about them. Right now.
So we ran an exercise:
Two actors would start a scene.
The offstage actors would wait for the onstage actors to mention someone outside the scene, at which point I would wave one actor onstage to physically place themselves between the two onstage actors.
The onstage actors would continue their scene with the extra actor between them, blocking their view of their scene partner.
Now, this, of course, devolved into chaos quickly, as is the way with some exercises, but the point was reached. We didn’t quite approach the second part, however, which is how to get there.
Be present, be connected.
It is a useful set of training wheels to say that all scenes should be in the present with people who know each other and care about one another. Sure, you can do workable scenes that don’t include this, and it’s possible to even do great scenes that ignore this entirely. But it can be a bit of an uphill trek to make that work. So, here’s a shorthand: Let your language and your movement be your guide.
When you are in a scene and you find yourself talking about someone else, do one of two things. Touch your scene partner, or connect yourself to them with an I-you statement: “I love you”, “I’m proud of you”, “I would love you more if you brought me a piece of that cheesecake.” Whatever works. Connect yourself to them, emotionally, and you’re in a great place. It kinda resets the scene, emotionally, to use those words, or to connect physically.
And if you make good use of your environment (even if your mime work is terrible!), then you will always have something to keep you rooted in the present. This exact physical space doesn’t exist in the future or the past, it exists in the here and now. Root yourself to that.
This is not to say you cannot ever talk about the past or the future. In fact, talking about character history is rife with opportunity to feed the present. Talking about the future, less so, in my opinion, but still valid. And absolutely, there are ways to use talking about someone else or the future/past to create subtext… that’s an entirely different blog. More on that later.
For now, put this lesson in your back pocket: if you’re spending so much time talking about the past or the future that you’re ignoring the present, you’re not doing your best work. Give the most time to the present, and you’ll be in terrific shape.
Please note, we will not have a WiP session on Sunday, March 11th, as we’ll be holding auditions for Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics that day. You’re welcome to come audition for that, as well, if you like!