Just knowing the information of the scene is not enough anymore. I understand the comfort of knowing the who, what and where, but the thing you need to learn to “yes and” more than anything is what your connection to that information is.
There is a reason why some art hangs in motels and some hangs in museums and it’s not strictly the content. You look at a painting and you can see the trees and the mill and the sky and it all looks exactly like what the artist intended. Yet there it is hanging in a motel, because that’s all it is.
Meanwhile, another piece contains the same elements: the tree, the mill, the sky, but it hangs in a museum. It’s not just because it has Cézanne’s signature at the bottom of it; that would be oversimplifying.
Every artist goes through this learning transition from focusing on what they see to focusing on what they feel. We can decide at the start of the scene that we’re in a parent/child relationship – you call me “Dad”, I call you “Honey”. We can decide early on that we’re in a supermarket together – I’m pushing a cart, you’re looking through cereals. We can convey all those things, talk about cereal, talk about school, etc. And it will be motel art.
“But, that looks like it could be a fun scene?” you might be thinking.
And it could be. And the fun that it could be is different for each one of you. That’s because you’re looking past the information of the scene to the interpretation of it. That’s what makes art. Unfortunately, what I see time and time again is improvisers getting so caught up in making sure they agree on the information that they never get to the art. “Do we know we’re in the same place?” “I should do more things that show my scene partner I know where we are.” “Oh, they might think we are someplace else than I do. How do I correct this?” This happens in the first thirty seconds of the scene.
They are busy writing the script instead of acting the script. Thing is, if you decide to really let yourself – I mean realllllly – get into the scene, everything works out. For example:
I’m the dad and you’re the daughter. You’re throwing a bunch of cereals in the cart; you’re giddy about it, and somewhat rebellious. I’m taking a fatherly tone and reprimanding you: “Honey, you can’t just eat cereal all the time.” You respond: “I can do what I want.” Here’s the thing, you haven’t called me “dad” once. In fact, three lines in, you call me “Darling”. It turns out that we are married. This rebellious child is no child at all. She’s actually a very childish, rebellious, but adult woman and I’m married to her. Are we still okay with the scene?
If you’re like me, you’re more in love with the scene. Here we are in a unique relationship based on us interpreting the same information in different ways. More importantly, we’re allowing both interpretations to be correct.
Here’s the thing about information: sometimes it’s concrete and sometimes it’s abstract. Sometimes you’re playing a child and sometimes you’re being childish. Sometimes you’re playing a woman and sometimes you’re playing a feminine character. Sometimes you think you’re roommates and sometimes you’re in a marriage where you treat each other like roommates. Information will adapt in an improv scene. That’s the benefit of having no sets and scripts to nail things down. We can defy all laws of physics and logic to find new worlds and all the fun that exists there.
Artists are defined by the point of view they bring to their art. The content of the scene is not as important as what they are exploring through it. Be more than a painter. Be an artist.
Written by Asaf Ronen
Education Director, The Institution Theater