By Adam Meggido
In this edited extract from his new book Improv Beyond Rules, Adam Meggido reveals the three basic principles of improvisation, and how it’s a craft anyone can learn.
Improvisation is currently undergoing a surge of popularity in the UK. Adam Meggido has been a big part of that renewed interest – his many credits include co-creating and directing the hugely popular, Olivier Award-winning show Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, as well as being a consultant director on Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel and Mischief Movie Night by the renowned Mischief Theatre (The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong).
Improvisation is ancient. We have been ‘making things up on the spot’ for much longer than we have been writing things down. You improvise most of your daily life. You don’t go around with a script and sometimes you don’t even have a plan. Improvisation is natural and most people do it easily without realising it. But when placed in front of others and asked to entertain, without script or preparation, many will experience anxiety, tension and stress. What if, amid all those seemingly infinite possibilities, you do something wrong? Or boring? Or what if you reveal something about yourself? Is that bad?
Improvisation is a craft that anyone can learn. It has three basic principles, and I believe that a performer who has an understanding of these could play in any kind of improvised performance. There are also numerous improv techniques, and knowing them helps you build a diverse toolkit as a performer. But if you don’t know the principles behind the work then you won’t know how or when to use those tools.
The three basic principles are: listening, accepting and committing. Whether you’re doing what I call development improvisation – where improv is used as part of rehearsals to refine, rework and improve a final scripted product – or performance improvisation – where performers engage the audience without a script and often with nothing prepared or rehearsed in advance, these will stand you in good stead.
The best definition of listening I know comes from improvisers: ‘Listening is the willingness to be changed.’ Listening, for our purposes, is not solely aural. It is not merely retaining words or information. Listening requires paying attention to the demeanour and behaviour of others like a poker player looking for tells. Effective observation sparks impulses in the observer. These impulses are the lifeblood of your work.
All forms of drama, scripted or otherwise, require characters to affect each other. Real listening is the willingness to be affected and changed by what is said or done.
Improv is often analysed in terms of what people say, rather than what people are doing and how they are doing it. But observation of behaviour is essential because the majority of our communication is non-verbal:
A and B are holding hands.
A. I’m crazy about you.
B. (withdrawing her hand and presenting him with a terse smile). That’s wonderful.
B’s behaviour here tells us more than the words do.
The American acting teacher Sanford Meisner, who developed a methodology for training actors based on observation and repetition, said: ‘Acting is not talking. It is living off the other fellow.’ Outward focus is the key to all effective acting. The audience is fully aware of (in fact, finely tuned to) a performer’s behaviour. The improviser, however, loses this awareness when worrying about what to do next or when uncertain about where to focus their attention.
‘Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O, the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?’
Chorus, Prologue, Henry V
How do we take a blank stage with no set or scenery and turn it into ‘the vasty fields of France’? Or a New York diner? Or a cruise ship, an office block, a swanky hotel, Eighteenth-Century Versailles, the Liverpool docks?
Those famous opening lines from Henry V go straight to the heart of how theatre works. They are an invitation for an audience to play a game with the performers, a game where we all agree. The performers put forward a proposal – ‘What if we were actually in France?’ – and the audience is invited to agree, to pretend along with the actors. We create a consensus for reality. Note the words ‘what if?’ as a vital tool for imaginative engagement in theatre and acting.
In improvisation, the performers agree with each other’s suggestions to create every aspect of the reality of the scene – setting, character, relationship, mood, genre, tempo, etc. The characters can be in conflict, or even in differing realities, but the actors must work in agreement with each other. This agreement to play lies at the core of all theatrical forms. Defy this principle and you make it very difficult for the audience to engage with you.
If you have done any kind of improvisation, you will have come across the phrase ‘Yes, and…’ For some it’s a mantra, for others it’s an unbreakable rule. ‘Yes’ embodies the spirit of improv and ‘no’ is considered a ‘block’.
Such approaches are oversimplistic and inevitably problematic. ‘Yes’ relates to building something with your fellow players, a desire to create and develop collaboratively. ‘And’ relates to the forward movement of the scene. ‘Yes, and…’ facilitates collective progression.
‘Yes, and…’ was designed for shortform improvisation (games and scenes that don’t aim to have any narrative connection with each other, unlike longform or narrative improvisation) over sixty years ago and it remains an effective tool for that format. A novice player can accept ideas and build upon them, thereby making progress quickly:
A. Nice day for tennis.
B. Yes, and this time I brought the rackets we had when we were kids.
A. Did you just get fired?
B. Yes, and they want you to take over my job.
A. Your sister told me you’re starting a band.
B. Yes, and I need a drummer. Interested?
But there is a difference between saying ‘yes’ and engaging with the essence of the offer. I have seen many players say ‘yes’ dutifully because they are trying to be good improvisers. This kind of mechanical ‘yes’ is difficult to deal with because the player is disconnected from the moment and unaffected by the offer. When a player gives a mechanical ‘yes’, they are psychologically stuck in the classroom, not present in the moment of performance.
‘Yes, and…’ is a principle for improvisers to work with, not necessarily words the characters in a scene should say. A real ‘yes’ is to be affected by the offer, whether you actually use the word ‘yes’ or not. Remember – listening is the willingness to be changed.
A. Do you want to make yourself comfortable?
B. Yes. (Doesn’t move or change position.)
Actor B has listened to actor A and verbally agreed with them, but has not been changed or affected by the offer.
A. Do you want to make yourself comfortable?
B. I’m afraid I can’t stay long.
(Sighs, smiles, stretches out, and kicks off shoes.)
Here actor B not only accepts A’s offer and is affected by it immediately, but also delivers a line of dialogue contrasting with their physical activity. B claims not to be able to stay for long, but B’s behaviour – the stretching out and kicking off of shoes – implies the opposite. This contradiction also reveals something of B’s character.
In improv there is nowhere to hide (and no fun in hiding). If you stand in front of an audience and declare that everything you are about to do is improvised, then you had better perform with commitment. Audiences will forgive almost everything except a lack of it. Why should they downgrade their expectations simply because what they are watching is improvised? A lack of commitment makes an audience insecure.
I have seen mediocre content succeed purely on the strength of the performers’ delivery. I have also seen evenings of improv undone by a lack of commitment in its many forms: a lack of confidence (usually caused by a lack of basic performance skills), a lack of knowing how to communicate with an audience, or a glib playing style employed to avoid emotional engagement.
The nervous novice improvises while signalling: ‘Don’t judge me, because I’m making this up as I go along.’ But to make improvised performance really count, the performer has to be more committed, more dedicated, braver.
Nobody learns improv overnight. And it may not be a skill that one can ever master. Jeff Haslam of Die-Nasty (a leading Canadian improv troupe) once said to me: ‘It’s not possible to be an expert in this subject.’ I agree.
These principles will help you ‘be in the moment’ – something many actors regard as the Holy Grail of acting. There are monks who have spent decades studying and meditating in the pursuit of being in the moment, and many of them will tell you that they are just getting started. To seek to ‘be in the moment’ is only the beginning of a journey.
You can learn how to play poker or chess in about twenty minutes, although excellence in those games may take a further twenty years of study and practice. It is the same with acting or improvising. The basic principles and techniques employed in order to be (or appear) spontaneous are relatively simple, but years of dedicated application and experience are required.
Adam’s new book Improv Beyond Rules – packed with games and exercises to help you practice, grow your confidence and develop your craft – is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.
To get your copy for just £11.24 (RRP £16.99), use code: SARDINESIMPROV when ordering at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/improv-beyond-rules