Jason Specland: Consultant, Comedian

Making it up as I go along. Always.

It’s About the Relationship!

Last night I did New Team Lunacy at The PIT with a few friends from class, and a few others. I was not happy with my performances last night at all, but I think I got some valuable insights. I’m posting them here mostly to solidify them in my own mind.

“The things that make good theater make good improv.” This is a phrase I’ve uttered from the moment I first directed a troupe, but I never really examined it in more than a cursory way. When I say that, I’m usually referring to mundane things like physically cheating out or taking your character seriously even in the face of extreme weirdness.

But what else makes good theater?

A well-scripted plot makes good theater, but trying to plot in your head while performing improv is surely a trap. Effective props, sets, and costumes are part of theatricality, but are totally absent in improv. Direction and blocking are also vital ingredients in theater, but not to be found on the improv stage beyond instinctual movements.

So what does that leave us? People. If you have one person, you have character. But if you have more than one person, you have relationships. Improv is about relationships.

Improv is about relationships because theater is about relationships.

I often fall into the trap of forgetting that improv is about relationships, and thinking that improv is about saying funny stuff on the spur of the moment. I’m doubly “handicapped” because, for better or for worse, I have the uncanny ability to say funny stuff at the spur of the moment. Or, barring funny stuff, I can at least drop references smart enough for people to laugh at their own satisfaction of getting it.

For example: In last night’s show, we started a group game where we just found each other catching one another in a series of trust falls. This lasted for a few seconds, until I felt the urge to name it. I said:

“This meeting of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors is going nowhere! We can’t rebuild confidence in the American dollar just by doing trust falls!”

Funny? Meh. But you try coming up with better on the spur of the moment. 🙂 Was it the best move given the circumstances? Perhaps. Was it about dropping a smart and funny reference, or building relationships? Welcome to “Hey! Look how smart I am!” theater.

The problem with smart-funny-reference theater is the question, “Where does my partner go from there?” And the related question, “Where do I go from there?” Maybe, if my scene partners could drop enough references to the Fed, we could pull a minute or two out of this. But, the only way we even could get more than a few seconds of jokiness out of this scene would be if I’d made it about a relationship.

From now on, I will try and make my mantra, “It’s about the relationship.” I normally do okay with that in situations where I trust my fellow players to support me and give scenes a little while to breathe. But in situations with unfamiliar players, I tend to fall back to, “MUST… GET… JOKE… OUT… QUICKLY!” Thus it was at the Creek last week, and thus it was last night.

I must serenely accept that I will make my scenes about relationships no matter what. I will trust my fellow players, no matter if I’ve never met them, or even if I know them to indulge in joke-telling over substance. And if I am pimped into being a giant sentient marshmallow, I will still know in my heart that I did my best. I will embue my giant sentient marshmallow with human emotion, and make the scene about my marshmallowy relationship.

1 Comment

  1. I always enjoy reading your theatre stories. Your thoughtful approach to self-analysis and your sincere desire for self-discovery is immensely satisfying to read about from the outside.

    After a performance, it might behoove you to look at your choices (successful or not) and take the time to figure out after the fact (“l’esprit d’escalier” as the French would call it) the ultimate best contribution you could have made had you the time to fully consider it–a luxury not afforded in improv. Eventually, it’ll just come easily when in the moment.

    I imagine you already do this, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the progress marked here so I can witness it from afar. 🙂

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