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Nothing Doing

Before I ever had my first formal acting class, I took improvisation classes. San Francisco old-timers may remember the Committee and its offshoot, the Wing, and the public workshops the Wing held in North Beach. Those Saturday afternoon classes were wonderful fun and whetted my appetite for performing, although in the end I chose the more traditional route for my training.

Recently, with modern-day improv-guru-in-spite-of-himself Keith Johnstone in town to teach master classes through Bay Area Theatresports, I thought about how the basic principles of improv apply to acting in general. Yet, as Uta Hagen points out (in A Challenge for the Actor), improv techniques are often taught separately from basic acting techniques, as though they were not interrelated. In fact they are.

Improv is fun and challenging to learn and perform as a genre in its own right, a topic that was discussed in detail in a recent issue of Back Stage West (7/12/2001). And improv exercises in scene study classes or in rehearsal can help you connect with the scripted material in an intuitive way, as pointed out by Hagen and by Michael Chekhov in his book On the Technique of Acting. Hagen advises actors to use improvisations to help understand the play's realities and to "arrive at the definitive actions of our life onstage." She writes that improvisation helps her explore her character's given circumstances scene by scene and establish prior relationships with the other characters. She also cautions against improvising, or paraphrasing, the text itself, regarding that as a "dangerous detour" that can make it harder for you to internalize the playwright's words as your own.

Chekhov, on the other hand, suggests improvising (whether paraphrasing the text or verbalizing the subtext) during the final stages of rehearsal, after you think you've established everything you need for the play. He writes that it is in these last-minute improvs that you discover new nuances and stage-worthy moments.

Aside from improv-as-performance and improv-as-rehearsal-tool (not to mention improv as a useful skill in auditioning), the experience of improvising teaches you many of the basics of acting. These include how to be spontaneous in the moment, listening and reacting and allowing yourself to be affected and changed, just as Sandy Meisner taught; the necessity of choosing high stakes and taking risks; how to not anticipate; how to play an objective fully, the importance of avoiding cheap tricks and the urge to be clever. (This last may sound like the exact opposite of what improv's about, but followers of Johnstone, and other serious practitioners of long-form improv, try—as was noted in BSW—to resist the urge to be clever and focus instead on the story and on allowing the other characters to affect you.) About the only thing improv won't help you with is script analysis.

Out of Control

All this came home to me in a big way as I attended one of Johnstone's lecture-demonstrations. Johnstone is, of course, the English-born inventor of Theatresports (improv as a competitive sporting event) and author of Impro, the post-Viola Spolin improv bible, as well as Impro for Storytellers. Now professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, he's white-haired, quirky, and gently provocative, clomping around in baggy black clothes and combat boots—the very image of an iconoclastic eccentric.

The demonstrators he worked with were a small group of Theatresports performers from all over the world, in San Francisco for Johnstone and the seventh annual Summer Improv Festival (through Aug. 26). They included Bay Area Theatresports' own William Hall and Los Angeles Theatresports' Dan O'Connor. Johnstone chatted with the audience and directed scenes to show how the various techniques work. His latest, as yet unnamed, game (in addition to Theatresports, he has invented such commonly used forms as Gorilla Theatre, LifeGame, and Micetro) proved particularly challenging, especially when a group of audience volunteers attempted it. In it, a small group improvises a scene with the proviso that no one can do anything at all—no words, no gestures—unless someone else narrates it. And the narration must always direct someone else's action, not your own, as in: "Tom opened the castle door." "Susie screamed."

Later, I asked Johnstone why that particular exercise is so difficult. "Actors are afraid," he said. Fear, he asserted, is the greatest problem in theatre. "They're all fighting for control. You feel if you're being stared at by strangers, you ought to be in control." He added, "To be onstage doing nothing takes such courage." Don't we all know it!

In an effort to counteract that impulse to do something, he is experimenting with this new game, a modification of an existing game. "The idea of a group making suggestions that only apply to what others have to do, we think, is very corrective," he explained. "If instead of saying, 'I think I'll shoot the deer,' you say, 'John shoots the deer'—it may not seem difficult to someone not onstage, but it goes against your instincts."

In scripted acting, too, we struggle to maintain control of the scene. We do too much, eschewing stillness and silent listening and processing (unless we're in a Pinter play), often sacrificing the opportunity to be truly affected by what's happening in the moment, whether it be an unexpected tone of voice from another character or a subtle impulse rising within ourselves.

The Harm in Habits

Improvisers tend to go for cleverness, for the easy laugh, sacrificing the story and the truthfulness of the situation, said Johnstone. Just so, I believe, do traditional actors fall back on personal tricks and quirks. We've all done it, and it takes a strong director to make us give up our habits and crutches, all those winning little ways that we know will charm the audience. I can't help thinking that the undeniably brilliant Robin Williams has rarely had a director strong enough to make him sacrifice the easy laugh. In the lecture-demo, Johnstone pushed the actors to establish the relationship and pursue the storyline.

The funniest thing that happened that night was when one actor, in a prop wheelchair, attempted to rearrange another actor, who was reclining on a couch. Johnstone insisted that the actor in the wheelchair really try to accomplish the task. The actor didn't speak, didn't attempt to be clever, but rather directed all his energy into accomplishing the task despite the obstacle of his wheelchair. The act of trying so wholeheartedly was a visceral lesson in pursuing an objective—and killingly funny besides.

Trying to be clever and to control the scene are ways of feeling safe onstage. "It's hard for improvisers to reveal themselves," said Johnstone in class, and when I asked him about that later, he said, "It's hard for actors to reveal themselves."

Another way of hiding—not revealing ourselves, feeling protected—is making safe choices. This is more apparent in improv, where you're actually making up the lines, than in scripted theatre, but it happens in both circumstances. "After years and years of training, the actor will try to lower the stakes, make less important choices," lamented Johnstone. "Most improvisers head for trivia." We are a society that loves trivia, he said. Even these master improvisers in the lecture-demo occasionally veered toward the less meaningful choices before Johnstone stopped them midstream to point it out.

Traditional actors have that tendency, too, although we are loath to think of our choices as trivial. But we have to keep reminding ourselves to make the most personally high-stakes choices available, to up the ante for ourselves, to make the things that are happening in the play really matter.

"Theatre is about one person being changed by another," Johnstone told me. "That's very tough for actors to learn. When you're being looked at, you don't want to change. And trying to be clever wrecks you."

He concluded, "The reason I'm still interested in improvisation after all these years is because I don't know how to do it. If you know how to do it, don't do it! Where's the fun? If you're full of fear, you can't do it. Trying and failing, but not being miserable about failing—that's what it's about. If you're not failing, you're not learning."

As with almost everything else about the art of improvisation, the exact same thing can be said of scripted acting. BSW

You can find out about Keith Johnstone's workshops through workshops@ For the Summer Improv Festival, call (415) 474-8935 or visit By the way, Johnstone recommends Michael Shurtleff's classic "Audition" as an acting text for both improvisers and traditional actors.

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