March 12, 2010

Improv 101 – Don’t Plan Ahead

The Hermit

I've worked with many improvisers over the years. Some were amazing talents. Some needed to be carried a bit until they found their footing. Others were "look at me" spotlight hogs who had no business on the stage.

I've done shows that I'm incredibly proud of, scenes that still make me cringe at the memory over a decade after the fact, and thousands more scenes that if you pulled out a videotape which had secretly recorded those performances I would have absolutely no recollection of having taken part in them.

That's part and parcel of "being in the moment" on stage. When a pair of performers is "in the zone" it can sometimes be an out-of-body experience. It's getting to the point of trust with your fellow actors where you allow yourself that kind of "freedom to fail miserably" that's difficult to achieve, and even harder to maintain. Yet, it is in those rare moments of "improv nirvana" where the greatest work is created.

Of all the moments I've ever had on stage, one stands out as being simultaneously the most "pure" and most fleeting of them all. I was in a company called Freestyle Rep in New York, and we were doing a show which was based around the tarot deck, playing the characters of the Major Arcana.

Our set that season consisted of a series of screens (pull-down window shades) each with a different backdrop painted on it. Pull down the "city" screen and you're in a bustling metropolis. Pull down the "starry sky" screen and suddenly it's nighttime.

We were in the middle of the show, and as one scene ended, my fellow improviser, Asaf Ronen had taken to the stage to pull down a different screen, so as to intimate a change of location. Today, I don't remember the complicated plot that was going on at the time, but I do recall that the story dictated that my Hermit character needed to meet secretly with Asaf's Magician in order to get the ball rolling towards the tale's denouement. Asaf knew this as well, and was calling my character's name as he took the stage.

"Ben! Where are you Ben?"

I stood ready at the foot of the stage ready to bound on, reminding myself what we needed to accomplish in the scene plotwise, but before the scene could proceed, Asaf began to have trouble with the shades. He was trying to pull down the "forest" yet couldn't get the screen to "click" into place.


It kept rolling itself back up.

"Where are you, Ben?"

Asaf continued vamping for time as the set refused to cooperate with him.

After a few aborted tries, Asaf finally gave up and pulled down another screen – perhaps it was the "castle wall"? I don't really remember the details. All I remember is my starting and stopping as I waited for him to get a screen into place so that the stage lights could be brought up to full from their dim state and I could enter and we could proceed with the screen – and the mild tittering from the audience as they became amused with his failure to be successful.

Finally, after a delay which surely felt light years longer than it actually was, a screen clicked in, the lights shone brightly, and I finally started up the steps to the center of the stage. Asaf immediately continued as if nothing had happened, but of course, as he'd been calling my name for some time, when he finally saw me on stage, he simply said, "You're late!"

Without even a moment's hesitation, I made a small gesture towards the screen and said, "You moved."

It was pure instinct – and it was a perfect moment.

Asaf lost it.

The audience lost it, laughing and applauding.

I lost it.

And as quickly as it came, that "improv nirvana" vanished. I don't remember anything else about that scene or that show. But that moment? I still treasure it to this day, because for an improviser… that's as good as it gets.

Asaf Ronen, neither actual size, nor actual level of evil

If you love improv, be sure to check out Asaf's blog here. His advice about the craft is always spot on.

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