Q: What are these techniques?
A: They are all embedded in a carefully sequenced set of fun and varied games,
exercises, and scenes that permit students to learn various dramatic devices from the inside. Eventually, students learn
to create exciting and dramatically coherent pieces lasting long enough for character development to often occur, one
of the touchstones of a great work of art.
For example, a well-known playwriting principle dictates that there must
be some kind of conflict in a scene. This principle is certainly easy to practice when improvising. All you have to do
is tell your scene partner “No,” whenever they want something from you. Instant conflict! But conflict without
context is not satisfying to an audience.
So, we practice doing scenes in which we do not impose a conflict. Instead,
we spend a lot of time improvising scenes and performing exercises that focus on two related skills: becoming aware of and
then acting on our honest spontaneous reactions to our scene partners while exploring how to establish emotional intimacy
with our scene partners.
What we discover after improvising dozens of scenes is that if two people in an emotionally
intimate relationship react honestly to each other, conflict will naturally arise without conscious volition. We don’t
need to impose conflict from without. It will arise from within if we follow our honest reactions. So, we learn from the
inside, how to generate conflict completely believably in a scene. And by the end of the semester, these and other acting,
directing, and playwriting skills build on each other to allow the students’ honest and spontaneous reactions to
generate an entire play without having to think about a lot of playwriting rules.
Q: This sounds like great training
for improv actors, but what about actors who prefer to work from scripts?
A: Since actors who prefer working from
scripts can find improv intimidating, especially the improvising of entire plays, I create a supportive, fun, and no-fail
environment in which students feel comfortable taking artistic risks. In the first class, I quickly get scripted actors
feeling comfortable and safe with improvisation, and once students become comfortable with this kind of spontaneous exploration,
they become adept at identifying and acting upon their honest, spontaneous impulses. But even if I can make scripted actors
comfortable with improv, the question is why should the scripted actor learn improv? Well, it is my belief that improv
skills are an essential tool for scripted actors to create great performances, whether it’s in an audition, a rehearsal,
or in front of the camera or on stage.
Q: Would you please explain that?
A: The goal of scripted acting is
to create a double illusion: that the actors are characters different from themselves, and that their words and actions
arise spontaneously in response to unfolding events. And while the first skill is important, any performance will fall flat
without the second. Actors learn many techniques to create the illusion of spontaneity; but audiences and auditioner’s
can tell the difference between the illusion of spontaneity and real spontaneity. Only real spontaneity generates the
kind of excitement associated with great performances.
The ability to be completely present and to explore one’s
honest spontaneous reactions to everything that happens on the stage or set (within the confines of the script and the
blocking) is the essence of improv training. With good improv training, the scripted actor can learn to inject spontaneity
into even the most tightly choreographed scenes.
Q: Would you give an example?
A: Sure. Imagine that your
scene partner shouts a line of dialog with more intensity than you’d worked out in rehearsal. Your real, honest,
and spontaneous reaction will be one of surprise. And, if your character’s reaction to that line, worked out in rehearsal,
was a combination of fear and anger, you may find yourself honestly reacting more fearfully and/or more angrily than you
did in rehearsal. These are real feelings, generated spontaneously and without your conscious volition in response to
the real and unique circumstances on the set at that moment. If you ignore those impulses and react as you did during
rehearsal, the audience will sense that your reaction is not quite honest.
Since no two performances are ever exactly
the same, in the course of the play or film, there will be dozens of opportunities to react honestly. If these opportunities
are missed, the accumulation of these missed opportunities will result in a performance that falls flat, or at least fails
to excite. Because the audience senses at some level that the performance is not quite honest.
In contrast, great
performances use all of those spontaneous reactions, within the context of the blocking and the script, creating an on-the-edge
excitement that is thoroughly captivating. Average performances don’t. Improv classes train the actor to become more
aware of these spontaneous reactions and impulses, and to learn how to welcome, trust, and use those reactions and impulses
to create great performances.
Q: I heard you also teach improv classes for writers. What is that about?
I taught a class at the Bethesda Writer’s Center last Spring called “Improv and the Writer” and I’m
teaching it again in the Fall. The students were writers who wanted to use improv to help them write. Most of them had
never acted before, let alone done improv. We had a great time and they learned a lot. We did scenes more than entire plays,
though they did create a twenty-minute piece once. What they did was amazing – startling in originality. I think
the students were a bit in shock at the end of several classes as to the high quality of scripts they had created improvisationally.
Some writers report, when they talk about their writing, about entering another world – living, seeing, and feeling
it, either observing the characters or being the characters interacting, and part of it becomes almost like taking down
dictation. That ability to so powerfully enter another world, to enter your imagination is part of what the improv exercises
are designed to do. They are designed to give you such a high degree of emotional connection with your material that writing
becomes much less of an effort.
Q: What is your background?
A: I have produced, directed, taught, and acted
in improvisational theater for 28 years. My improv career began in 1979, assisting local improv teacher and director Sylvia
Toone in producing, acting in, and directing improv shows with S.T.A.R improv company. She taught me the basics of improvisation
and because she was such a good comic director, I learned the essentials of comedy writing and directing from her. When
she left town in the mid ’80s, I stumbled into once in a lifetime opportunity: I had the chance to apprentice for
ten years with Michael Gellman of Chicago’s Second City Theater Company. In my opinion, he is one of the few geniuses
in the field of improv. He understands the art of improvisation more deeply than anyone else I have met. After almost ten
years with Sylvia and ten more years with Michael, I felt ready to take up the challenge in Precipice’s ambitious
mission: to extend the limits of what is considered possible to do with improvisation.
Q: Why did you choose the
A: For some reason I was always attracted to improv because it is the most dangerous art form. It
is dangerous because the performers court total failure at every moment since there is nothing to fall back on when you’re
improvising. If you’re having an off night, the script itself will be off. Short form improv mitigates this danger
by its very structure because if one scene or game doesn’t work, you can start the next one right away. And even
if the earlier game did not go well, often the next one will. But that option is not available to Precipice since Precipice
has chosen to improvise an entire play that the audience experiences just like a scripted play (without stops and starts
for new suggestions from the audience).
In each show, the actors ask the audience for two contrasting locations
(such as an oasis and a freight elevator) and then immediately, without any discussion, start the play, using nothing but
the simple audience suggestions and their imaginations. And just like in a scripted play, the actors on stage continue
performing non-stop until the play is over ninety minutes later, usually when the characters have confronted issues large
and small, and achieved some measure of insight or growth. Our successful plays are exciting, very funny, moving, clever,
and perceptive. But because Precipice is a work in progress, some pieces aren’t, reminding us that the risk of failure
We struggled for several years to find a word that embodies this palpable sense of danger felt by the actors
and our audiences during a performance. After three years of performing without a name, one of our actors suggested the
word “precipice,” which means on the edge. A more appropriate name I cannot imagine.
Being on a precipice
is a very dangerous place to be. But how does anyone get to be on the edge? None of us is born there. Some of us take
the journey there, taking a risk to achieve an important goal. Every time I hear the word “Precipice” I think
of danger, and I also think about the possible rewards (the discovery of techniques to create good and great scripts 50
times faster than the fastest writer, and the creation of an unlimited number of wonderful plays).
But mostly, I
think of the courageous performers who go out in front of an audience at every show without a script and without a pre-set
character to attempt a nearly impossible task. By all rights, they should never succeed. The fact that they sometimes
do is miraculous.