Welcome to It Depends, an ongoing series where I examine the two competing sides of an improv concept. There is no championship belt at the end, just the joy of learning.
An improv show cannot start without addressing the audience suggestion. Whether that means an expertly crafted solicitation (like asking for a philosophical quandary), the standard “suggestion of anything at all,” or a TJ and Dave “trust us…” type statement. In some way or another, the suggestion gods must be sated. It’s a contract between the players and the audience that this really is all made up.
But the suggestion can be a tricky thing. What do you actually do with it once you get it?
Ignore the Suggestion
When improvisers cling too tightly to the suggestion, they end up beating the audience over the head with it. Per Jimmy Carrane:
“Nothing drives me more nuts than when players get a suggestion of “cheese” and in about four seconds they go from brilliant to stupid as they try to mention the word cheese over and over again in every single scene. We get it; the suggestion was ‘cheese.’”
Although we think the audience wants to see us use their suggestion (and they think they want to see us use their suggestion), they actually don’t. A show that revolves around the suggestion quickly gets tired. There are only so many scenes that can be done about “cheese” or “pineapple.” It seems counterintuitive, but you should take note of the suggestion and then forget about it. After all, the suggestion is just that a suggestion. Not an order.
So why take a suggestion in the first place? Because the mind works in strange ways. Like this—try not to think about pink elephants.
What are you thinking about?
Even when you “forget about” the suggestion, it’s still there in your head, rattling around, waiting for its chance to come out. By choosing to ignore it, you let your subconscious come up with a creative way to use it rather than starting your first scene with a pineapple in hand. Instead, you might start your first scene at a bar and suddenly find yourself ordering…a pina colada. These moments of unexpected discovery make the suggestion more powerful and more interesting.
Elevate the Suggestion to Godlike Status
When you walk on stage, all your bring is yourself. Granted, “yourself” includes a lot of preconceived prejudices, unique memories, and physical attributes. And yet, an improviser, left to their own devices, will typically play one style or just a few stock characters. The suggestion is the thing that gets you outside of yourself and inspires you to try something more risky and interesting. Pineapple could be the inspiration for a character that’s rough on the outside, but sweet once you get past their hard, prickly exterior.
But the suggestion can be even more than a tool for discovering character or location. Del Close created the Invocation, a Harold opening where improvisers transformed the suggestion into a god and summoned it to the stage. In the process, they identified its physical, emotional, metaphorical, and thematic attributes which could then be used throughout the show.
The suggestion must be reckoned with. In some instances, it’s all the audience knows of improv—that the actors take the audience’s ideas and turn them into comedy. So it must be addressed at the top of the show.
What you do with it from there is up to you.
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