A very important question in improv, and in life, I guess, but let’s stick to improv for now.
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, as improvisers, to be funny. We think that because we are performing comedy we need to sling jokes constantly. When we don’t get the laughs we think we should be getting, we can resort to some desperate tactics. Ah, the goofy face / elaborate physicality manoeuvre is one I know better than I would like. Sometimes, beginner improvisers don’t know what to do, so they’ll tend to trod into taboo territory; much like beginner stand-up comedians, in search of a reaction, any reaction. Mostly, I think young as well as experienced improvisers often forget this one very important detail:
You’re not alone out there.
You aren’t. There’s at least one other person on stage with you, sharing the burden with you and maybe, just maybe, that person doesn’t want to be playing with someone in desperate search for something funny. Likely, they just need you to look at them. Pay attention to them. Discover the scene and inevitably the funny together.
I recently took a workshop with beloved improv guru Keith Johnstone, who had us play and observe an exercise between two improvisers, that completely blew my mind. In it, the improvisers would perform a scene, but the scene would stop as soon as one of the improvisers felt they didn’t like the offer given to them. For the untrained eye, this might seem antithetic to the “Yes And” principle, and in many ways, can be seen as such. But this exercise transcended “yes and.” It forced you, the performer, to look at your partner, and get a feeling for what they did or did not want you to do or say.
We’re talking group mind. We’re talking body language. We’re talking sociology. It’s the power of observation. And most of all people, it’s not always about YOU!
Look at your partner; are they over 40? Hell, 30? Ask yourself; do they really want to play the role of mom or dad… again?
See your partner; is it a woman? Maybe she doesn’t want to enter a scene in which you, a man, make use of your position of power and status to get her to do something morally questionable, because maybe that’s the kind of thing she’s had to deal with over and over again in her life offstage.
Really look at your partner. It’s likely they want the same thing as you. To have fun.
Play being conscious of your partner instead of sticking inside your own head searching for ways to make the audience laugh. The answers will reveal themselves when you look at your partner, see that little gleam in their eye and know in that moment, it’s playtime.