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  October 29, 2014

I should probably start this by saying that the following will not apply to every scene, it may not be how you want to play as an improviser, it might be something you vehemently disagree with, and it certainly will not help you choose the perfect Christmas present for your mother (it’s probably something that smells of lavender. Mums love anything that smells like lavender. Get your mum some lavender). 

All of this has been knocking around in my head recently, and I thought I might share it with you, because it might help your scene work, it might make things easier for you, or it might just lock a little bit more down for you. 

Along with a sense of play and fun, we’ve been looking a lot at mirroring in Level 1, and there’s a pretty simple reason for that – it’s a really quick and easy way of connecting with you scene partner. 

In real life I talk like my best friend. We have the same idiosyncrasies and fairly similar vocal intonations. That’s because I’ve been best friends with him for almost 17 years. As improvisers, we don’t have the luxury of time, so copying your scene partner’s movements instantly establishes a sense of long lasting friendship, even though you don’t have those stories of that time you shaved his leg whilst drunk, or that time he pissed on you while he was asleep. Mirroring also helps you get on the same page as your scene partner, and makes the “yes and” so much easier. 

As humans, we’re hardwired to look for differences, to stand apart. As improvisers, this makes scenes hard. Rewiring the brain to stop looking for differences takes ages, because you have to learn how to stop doing one ingrained habit, and start doing another. It’s like if you were suddenly asked to only ever talk in French. You wouldn’t just have to learn French, you’d also have to learn how to stop talking, and thinking in English. So don’t beat yourself up if you find your brain constantly looking for differences. French is hard, yo. Like, seriously. Who the fuck decided that a table was feminine, but an airplane was masculine?! WTF?!

Anyhow, what I’m saying is: Just be the same. Just be the same. Just be the same. Just be the same. It makes scenes really easy, and when scenes are easy, you relax, let your defences down, inhabit characters more, “yes and” faster and more imaginatively which leads to discovering more things together, and you’ll have more fun. 

Which leads me to my next point – empathy. I’m sure there’s like a billion books that have been written on this, and probably at least 6 of those have something to do with improv. Sympathy is the understanding of the suffering of others, but empathy is the mutual understanding of the suffering through direct experience. Since we have about zero time to create strong relationships on stage, empathising is one of the most important tools you have. At its core, it’s being the same. It’s emotional mirroring. It’s “yes and”-ing the fuck out of it. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Offer: “Mum, I don’t want to go to school today because I’m scared of the other kids”

What’s the fastest way to block this offer, tell your scene partner their ideas don’t count, and they should think up something better because time is ticking away and they’ve failed the task and their mum is in the audience with a lavender broach on, watching them with the disappointment only a mother can muster?

Weak Response: “You’ll be fine.”

No empathy. Not even sympathy. Congratulations, you’ve found a way to be as different as possible, now your scene is going to be hard. Just be the same. Just be the same. Just be the same. Just be the same. 

Empathetic Response: “Yeah, other kids are scary. You know what’s scarier? Adults. I don’t want to go to work”. 

Now you’ve got two people who are scared together. This scene is probably going to be easier than a mother trying to convince her child to go to school, because all the improvisers now have to do is “yes and” each other’s fear. 

Which brings me to my last point – problems. I don’t know if this is going to always work (it probably won’t) or if I’m going to remember to do it (almost definitely not), but I’m going to stop calling them problems. Because problems and adventures are the same thing, it’s just that one is light, and one is dark. As an improviser, the adventure isn’t the thing you care about. It’s not the hike up Mount Everest, the rocket to the moon, or the drive to the shops, that matters. It’s who you’re going on this adventure with. So if you look at problems as dark adventures, they don’t matter. It turns out mum was allergic to lavender and now she’s dead. The pugs have taken over and enslaved us all. I don’t want to go to school because I’m scared of the other kids. Just be the same. Just be the same. Just be the same. Just be the same. 

Mirror. Empathise. Discover together.  

There’s much more to it than this, obviously, but if you can find the thing that connects you as quickly as possible, then you can find your own thing, and jump between the two pretty easily. 

And if none of this helps you or makes any sense, then I officially blame the French. Because seriously, guys. A feminine table?