Want to Be a Better Improviser? Be a Better Writer.

This blog post is starting out pretty stupid. After all, we’re not talking about sketch here. This is improv – comedy where the only rule is that you cannot walk on stage with any preconceived (or pre-written) notion of what’s about to happen.

But then I stumbled across this:

“My #1 advice to people that want to be better improvisers is to write. All the time.”

It’s something I’ve suspected for a while, and since UCB’s Alex Fernie said it, it must actually be true – that being a better writer makes you a better improviser.

In my non-improv life, I get paid to write, and the relationship between the two is most definitely a two way street. Writing helps improvising (today’s focus) and improvising helps writing (a post for another time).

Obviously, I don’t want you to write out an improv scene and perform it. That’s called sketch comedy. But start a journal or a blog or take up another hobby that requires writing, like sketch or stand up, and you too will discover how the process helps fine-tune your improv skills.

Jaysen Cryer and Annie Niehoff write a sketch for Little Improv Shop of Horrors

Photo Credit: John Langen

 

Here are three lessons from writing that I use in improv every day:

LESSON 1: CUT THE FAT

Good writing gets to the point. Readers generally don’t have the patience to hold your hand as you take them on an epic journey through whatever the hell is on your mind. That’s why we love text messages, tweets, and blog posts. They’re short, clear, and we generally walk away with the information we need in short order.

I do an exercise when I coach improv where both performers share 10 lines and must create a scene that feels complete.

The exercise generally goes like this:

Player 1: Hey
Player 2: Hi John.
Player 1: It’s been a while.
Player 2: Sure has. I haven’t been home in forever.
Player 1: Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at. It’s kind of annoying.
Player 2: Well I’ve been busy.
Player 1: So busy that you only come home for mom’s funeral.
Player 2: I guess I could have come home and helped around the house while she was sick.
Player 1: Yeah. Pretty shitty, man.
Player 2: Well, I’m sorry.

When the scene ends, I ask the performers where they could have cut the fat. Ultimately, they discover, they could have covered all of that information like this:

Player 1: It’s kind of annoying that you only came home for mom’s funeral.
Player 2: I’ve been busy, but I guess I could have been around to help while she was sick.

And, we still have eight lines left to play the scene.

The audience, much like your readers, didn’t pay to see you traipse around the stage trying to figure out who your characters are and why we care. The audience wants you to be concise and just get to it.

Kate Bladt and Kevin Hanley performing in the Improv Shop Level 5 student showcase

Photo Credit: Larry V

LESSON 2: SHOW, DON’T TELL

Writing is most successful when the author tells a story and uses specific details and dialogue rather than just explaining what is happening. “John was scared of the zombie,” is much less effective than writing, “John saw the zombie and let out a bloodcurdling scream. He turned on a dime and sprinted away.” Sure, I never explicitly said John was scared, but you definitely got the point.

In improv, we strive to avoid the classic “talking heads” scene where two performers stand center stage and talk about their feelings. Rather than simply saying “I’m so sad,” they should show signs of their emotional state with tears, negative body language and a slower pace of dialogue.

Use storytelling and examples to prove a point. It’s much more convincing and enjoyable than simply telling your scene partner how you feel.

LESSON 3: HONE YOUR STYLE (WHILE WORKING ON OTHERS)

Every writer has his or her own style. Hemmingway is famous for writing short, direct lines while Faulkner’s sentences spanned pages. Neither of them is right or wrong – it’s just their own style.

When I write these blog posts, I write with the style I most enjoy. When I write for clients, however, I have to adopt their brand voices – from yacht owners to stay at home moms.

Improv schools and improvisers have specific styles too. They run the spectrum from fast and gamey to slow and methodical. The better you are at playing the way you love, the better you’ll be as an improviser. But, you never know when you’re going to be playing in a jam or a monoscene. You have to bring your own, strong style to the table and then be ready to adapt based on the demands of the form or your audience.

Ben Noble, Steven Harowitz, and Sara Small enjoying a show at The Compass Improv Festival

Photo Credit: Charles Guthrie

The beauty of improv is that we only get one shot. The scene happens and then it’s over. Forever. As an art, it’s beautiful. As a method for learning from our mistakes, it falls short. We don’t have the option to replay the scene and make stronger choices. When it comes to writing, though, we can always return to our work and improve it.

If you want to be a better improviser, go dust off an old notebook or fire up your laptop and start becoming a better writer. It’s an excellent way to practice and hone important improv skills on your own, any time of the day, so that when the lights come up, you’re ready.

 

Do you think writing makes you a stronger improviser? Do you have another hobby that contributes to your improv prowess? Let us know in the comments.