How to Direct Good Improv

I’ve been the Artistic Director of The Improv Show for nearly a year now, a year fully of very weird, stressful and entertaining experiences. On a regular basis I catch myself wondering what the hell I’m doing, or supposed to do. Directing an improvisation group, especially one as talented and creative as the one I work with, feels a lot more like a gardening than being an architect. Most of what I do consists of tilling the soil, making sure the plants are well-watered and not fighting with each other. I’ve tried telling plants where or how to grow, but sometimes a new plant will spring up, completely outside my plan and surprising me. I grab that new bud and give it as much water as possible to see what it will bloom into – sometimes nothing, but sometimes a pretty flower.

This summer the group was ancy for new experiences, as usual, and we delved into a type of improvisational theatre called longform (no decent links available, unfortunately). Although I perform with the group, I did a lot more watching than performing in this phase. I made rules for good scenes and wrote them down. Something deep inside me gets excited with new rules, which I thought of as lattices for vines to climb on in the garden. But, in hindsight, they were more like fences that stopped the garden from getting overgrown. We performed our new longform structure a couple of times this summer at Theatre 5, but returned to our regular short comedy improv at the Time to Laugh Comedy Club during the year. We forgot about longform for a while, and had a great run over several months, our last show at the club on March 29th. Alot of people are going away for the summer, including me, so we won’t be performing improv in Kingston for a while.

In addition to be AD of the show, I’m also the Head Trainer for the Kingston Improv Games, the regional chapter of a nation-wide tournament that got me started in improv in grade 11. The kids that perform with this group are amazing, by the way, and there will be a “Lucky 13” improv league performing with them for the month of May (see the main page for info). A few weekends ago, I went up to see the National Tournament of the games, and went to a few workshops during the day, including one on longform. At the workshop, I learned a ton about the quintessential format of longform, the Harold, invented by a guy named Del Close. I realized during the workshop that the longform that The Improv Show was performing was too strict. We were, thanks to the rules I had put in place, being forced to perform in a naturalistic, linear style.

…which is what I told the group last Sunday (two days ago). I said we needed to be more abstract. There was disagreement: not having the connections we had agreed upon earlier would lead to shitty stories. I still was not convinced of my side of the argument but demanded we plunge forward anyway.

Without a suggestion, I went on stage, speaking in foreign language, and began to dig in the ground, finding a magic bean that made me grow bigger. I kept happily gabbing away in gibberish, and found another place to dig, and finding nothing. Next, Monica came on and started arguing with me in gibberish. Evidently, it was her property and she was kicking me off. I feigned pain (Note: I’m acting like I’m feigning pain) and began to writhe on the ground. We swept ourselves off the stage.

Mike went up on the stage, filling my role as the digging dwarf, this time speaking in English. Kristin filled Monica’s role, and they reinterpreted what we did in their own way.

They swept the stage again, and Matt and Monica were now in a library. Monica playing the archetypal cute ditzy girl, Matt being an inexplicably creepy (librarian?). They played the scene, having nothing happen and drawing out so long as to be almost entertaining tense. Then, Monica’s character left the stage. Then, Mike and Kristin entered the stage, playing the scene backwards, but speaking forwards. The dialogue goes a little bit like this:

K: I’m looking for a book.
M: What are you doing here?
K: This is the Ancient History Section, right?
M: Hello?

We swept the stage…

…and talked about what had just happened. It was nice and interesting, reinterpreting each other on stage, but not as entertaining as it could be.
Somewhere in here we had a discussion about what the guys would do if they had boobs, and the girls would do if they had penises. We also discussed puppetry of the penis. I think I said I wanted both for a day or something.

We started another longform without a suggestion.
I went up and started acting as if a reflective window was in front of me (I was adjusting my hair and such), and I was about to knock on a house’s door for an important date. Unexpectedly, Mike came up and became my mirror image, just as I was about to enter the door.

Monica answered the door on my side of the house. Seeing the cue, Kristin answered the door on Mike’s side. We behaved as perfect mirror images in movement and dialogue, until suddenly we split. Mike became, from my perspective, evil and I became good, too good. Matt also turned up on my side of the house, but only my side. We played out our parts, focus going back and forth from the left and right sides of the stage, and finally came to a conclusion.

The plot of the last longform was intensely complicated. Mike’s side was very dark, and mine was extremely go-lucky, until it started turning dark after I suggested Matt should leave. Mike had revealed that he was looking for a serial killer who had come to this house a year ago. Was that person me? It was fantastic. We all had different beliefs about what was going on on the stage. Matt thought he was a vampire, which explained his ridiculous accent and why he could only be seen on one side.

Okay, we were being abstract, but I made it clear to the group that I wanted more. Mike said “the suggestion for this next scene is ABSTRACT.” I didn’t remember the next scene too well, but I’ll have to explain subjectively from my point of view as I experienced it. I was talking about what I wanted with Mike while Kristin and Monica were slow-dancing in the open space…

…until everyone except for me realized the longform had already started. I promptly shut up, and Kristin jumped up and starting yelling into the corner of the stage. Monica stayed in the centre of the stage, saying she was feeling cold. Matt was up there too. I sat offstage in the audience, enraptured in the improvisation. Everyone who went into the stage space brought an idea with them, and I wanted to wait to see them bring something together before I joined in, if it made sense for me to. Matt, Kristin and Monica were listening closely and I began to see a theme emerge. I stepped up to stage right and mimed a door, and kept trying to open it, saying “Hello? Hello?” and trying to look through the people. I repeated this as the stage continued on. Mike came up to stage left, and walked the length of the stage, and reached THROUGH the door for me, pulling me “outside” into the stage space. I started shivering, having realized by this point that the theme was cold and loneliness. Was I right? It really does not matter – it was my contribution to the scene. I sat in the middle of the stage shivering, and everyone surrounded m
e and rained on me, both physically and with insults. It felt reminiscent of the psychodramas we used the The Time Project. At this point, I don’t remember much of the scene, but it ended soon thereafter.

We agreed that that scene was extremely interesting, and we had reached a sufficient level of abstraction to make ourselves happy.

I decided it was time for the group to use a suggestion. On the whiteboard in the room we were using, someone had been studying for anatomy or cell biology or something, so there was a wealth of things to draw from. I picked “skeletal” and…

…went on stage, making the stage a bathroom. I reached under the sink and began to gleefully saw off my arm, cackling to myself. I then took it off the floor as it fell off, and in a series of hilarious movements, I nailed it to the wall. Kristin came in as my wife, and asked what I was doing. The arm became our baby, and she dressed it up and held it. She cut off her finger and drew a face on it. We swept the stage.

Mike and Monica came on. Mike was Monica’s psychologist, and they were discussing, to my surprise, me! It turns out Monica was in love with me and had killed Kirstin, hoping my affection would go to her. I had gone on stage right and mimed being on a bus as they were discussing this. As I could tell they were getting to the end of their conversation, I mimed getting off the bus and walked up some stairs. Monica and I bumped together as I was about to walk into the psychologist’s door, and had a conversation. I had gotten a prosthetic, and she was still in love with me. Mike and Kristin appeared stage right, standing on chairs and looking down on us. Monica and I faded out, and it appeared that Mike was death, talking to Kristin about us and the beyond. My arm appeared, played by Matt’s arm. Kristin said she wanted to take it with her, but Mike told her she had to wait until the rest of it came (I had to die) Kristin felt ready to say goodbye, and traveled off to heaven or wherever with Mike. Matt was left there, in the purgatorial region presumably because the physical arm had rotted away somewhere.

At this point, watching from the audience, I assumed the scene was over. This would have been a good time to end it, were we on a time limit, or not playing Harold, or afraid of what was going to happen next.

Without warning, Mike rushed up on stage and became a hand who suddenly appeared next to Matt. They had a conversation, which made me laugh the hardest of the entire night. They were two purgatorial hands, waiting for the rest of their bodies to die so they could go to heaven. The conversation can’t be reproduced here, but it involved a joke about Mike wanting to be held by Matt and then realizing they were both right hands, and Matt said he would do it but he didn’t want Mike to think he was “ambidextrous.”

We swept the stage after that, and saw that what we were doing was good. I said that they hand play made me think of a satyr play which immediately follows a trilogy of tragedies on traditional greek theatre. We immediately went into another, this time taking the suggestion “rating systems”. While I was talking about what I wanted to see in this scene, Monica, Mike and Kristin had gone up..

…and I realized, despite my best efforts, that the scene had already started again without me realizing it. Monica was a living painting, and Mike was going to buy it from Kristin. Monica was a little shocked, but then decided to roll with it. After this went on for a while, I got a meta idea and walked over to stage right, behind Mike and Kristin, and started to complain about the painting of Mike and Kristin rating the painting of Monica that Matt was trying to sell to me. Phew. This went on for longer, when suddenly Mike turned around, acknowledging me.

We swept this…

..and people were wandering the room stretching out. I talked to Mike about the scene we had just done and what he liked about it. He was acting weird, and I could read him until I realized…

…that we were still in the scene.

This process of meta-rating scenes continued, with scenes being pushed back and forth. Once, I was physically pushed into a scene that I had just been rating. I screamed trying to get out. Somewhere in here, we started giving micetro-esque commands
by the people who were rating the scene, under the guise that this would make the scene better. As soon as I was pushed into the scene, Mike said that my arms were cut off and replaced with a lobster and some cotton candy. As a physical actor, this was great fun for me.

This sort of thing continued of a long time, with scenes rebelling against their creators and raters, often with bloody consequences.

Maryanne showed up late to practice, and we immediately began to rate her entry into out scene, demanding a better story from her. Then, Matt decided to enter as the absent Laura, and suddenly everyone became Laura, then Laura became a swear word….

The workshop finally ended when everyone put a stop to this. One of the memorable lines came from Mike: “Help! I’m trapped in absurdist theatre! I can never stop!”

Look for more improv of this type coming your way.