Beginning improvisers live in the “next.” They spend their time in a scene building towards something. Will Hines describes this phenomenon:
“A new improv student looks at their scene partner and thinks: Maybe my character is going to fall in love with this other character. Okay, that’s my choice. I’ll start planting seeds now that we will someday be in love. And they say out loud, warmly, ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’”
But in improv, what’s interesting isn’t the buildup. It’s actually not even the climax. It’s what comes after. It’s how Diane responds when she finds out that her best friend is in love with her. It’s how the best friend responds to that response.
Students don’t see it that way. And they’re not at fault. Media is at fault. After all, most rom-coms don’t begin with a breakup or a proposal. They begin with a lot of build up—meeting the main characters, seeing their personal lives—they might not even meet until the middle of the movie! And so students model their improv scenes off of those cultural touch-points. They start very slow, build to a climax, and end.
When I see scenes with a lot of buildup in my classes, I’ll stop students and ask them what they want from the other character. Their responses are often detailed and surprising. Things like:
- I don’t think she deserves this promotion, so I’m going to sabotage her.
- I’m only dating him to get to his best friend.
- He’s being creepy and I wish he’d stop walking me home from school.
Despite these complex desires, no one is actively doing anything about them.
Hiding your true emotions is probably good life strategy—telling your date you’re just using them isn’t going to get you very far. But improv is not life. Hiding your true wants makes for a boring scene. Instead, you have to live in the now. You have to force those things to happen so you can get to the reaction.
In life, “next” is always just around the horizon, but in improv, there are no guarantees. You can’t control when your scene will be cut or if it will come back later, which means you have to live in the now. This is, quite literally, your only opportunity to express those hidden desires, so you might as well do it.
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