Feel Something. An improv epiphany.

Chris Mead
Aug 11, 2014 · 4 min read

According to Susan Messing, we all go through roughly the same process when we start to improvise. It happens something like this.

Stage One
HOLY COW, I HAVE FALLEN DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE OF JOY! THIS IS LIKE JUMPING OUT OF A PLANE, HAVING A HOT FUDGE SUNDAE ON THE WAY DOWN AND THEN LANDING ON A SOFT CUSHION OF BEAUTIFUL NAKED PEOPLE. I NEVER WANT THIS TO END.

Stage Two
I can’t do this. I hate it. What is funny? Why is everyone better than me?

Stage Three
Thank god I’m getting better…

Stage Four
Thank god I’m getting better…

Stage Five
Thank god I’m getting better…

Stage Six
Thank god I’m getting better…

Stage Seven
Why aren’t I getting better…?

Stage Eight
Why aren’t I getting better…?

Stage Nine
I’m amazing.

Stage Ten
I suck.

Now repeat stages nine & ten for the rest of your life.

I’ve been improvising for about 7 years and I bounce between stages nine and ten so often and so rapidly that, were my self-worth a pinball machine, it’d be constantly flashing all its lights and making a bunch of pinging noises.

Sometimes I’m on top of the world. Witticisms and word play pour unhindered from my lips. I make strong, clear choices and communicate them elegantly. I find joy in movement. I paint new worlds in the air. I sketch characters in quick, deft strokes. I am alive with possibility.

But just as often, I stand rooted to the spot with my hands in my pockets and simply talk at my scene partner. My words trip over my tongue and land twitching at my feet. I play myself. I don’t listen. I chase laughs and end up sounding like a failed stand-up comedian from the seventies. Seriously, I might as well be telling mother-in-law jokes. I become small and scared and uninspired. I don’t know where to turn and I make my team mates look as dull and lifeless as I am.

Up until recently I had no idea why certain shows would soar while others would fall and fester. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. I’d blame environmental factors, “work brain”, audience numbers, insufficient warm-up time, type of venue, temporary insanity, wifi coverage and the geo-political situation in the Middle East but deep down inside I knew the problem was far simpler.

It was me. And I didn’t know what to do about it.

Until now.

Here’s what I’ve learned since studying at iO in Chicago. It’s a simple trick and it’s transformed my improv as easily and completely as anything I’ve ever been taught.

Feel something.

That’s it.

Feel something. Anything. Anger. Joy. Sadness. Fear. Come into a scene with a tiny emotional motor buzzing in your chest, powering your actions.

Just feel something. Even better, feel that something for your scene partner. You’ll be amazed where your scenes go when they start from a place of grounded, emotional honesty and connection. It’s like magic — when you feel something there’s no need to craft responses or create content, it all sort of tumbles out of you fully formed.

And you know what? All that good stuff — the funny lines, the silly games, the clever plot twists — they still happen but now they are the icing on your improv cake, the additional layer of awesome on top of the deep, well-rounded, believable characters you are suddenly playing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating turning the emote-o-meter up to 11 at every possible opportunity but try playing at 6 or above on a regular basis and be prepared for a transformational change in your game.

Now I’m sure the vast majority of improvisors already know this. Doubtless many have been playing these rich, funny, emotional scenes for decades but to everyone else — my people: the technicians, the writers, the head-centrics — this is a really scary but really rewarding piece of advice.

Feel something. It seems too easy to really make a difference, doesn’t it? Play from the heart not the head, allow yourself to be vulnerable, eschew clever lines of dialogue for truthful ones. I promise you you’ll be spending a lot more time from now on at Messing Stage Nine.

As an old teacher of mine said before every show:

“Let’s go out there, get into trouble and fall in love.”

And oh what glorious scenes will follow.


Hello. I’m Chris. I’m an improviser, director and podcaster. If you like this article then consider sharing it with your own improv community. You can find out more about me on my websitetake a workshop with me, see one of my shows or just listen to my improv podcast. You can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Improv

Articles and essays on improvised comedy and theatre by Chris Mead.

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