You ever have that nightmare?
No, not the one where you’re standing on the pyramid in sun-god robes and hundreds of naked women are throwing little pickles at you. The other one, where you’re in a play, on opening night. It’s all exciting, with all the other actors and backstage hubbub going on. You’re not a lead, but you’re a substantial part, and you know that there are a lot of places in the play (or musical, take your pick) where you have key lines, or dance numbers, or just chorus parts.
There’s just one problem. You can’t remember ever seeing a script.
You don’t know any of your lines. There’s not one iota of blocking (the directions for where and when to move on stage) in your head. But people are hustling backstage, you have minutes, no, seconds before curtain, what do you do?
Anyone in theatre (and many who aren’t) know the answer to that question: The show must go on.
So you do. And you watch your fellow thespians for subtle cues as to when you should go on, or where you should be. If you’ve been in theatre long enough, you can get pretty good at this – you see where the hole is, and where to fill it. You know enough of the general story to be able to improvise the lines, and your fellow actors, if they are also at par, know enough to follow along, to get the story moving.
Let me give you an example: in a production of Fiddler on the Roof, there was a scene where I and a whole bunch of the rest of the male characters in the cast were all on stage. The proper lines were given, and then there was a pregnant pause, while we waited for Tevye – the lead – to come on stage and deliver his lines.
The pause went on…and on…until slowly we all realized Tevye wasn’t coming. More than that, we realized why: the person who hustled us onstage had done so an entire scene early, so Tevye was back doing a costume change, and there was no reason for any of us to be on stage.
Nor was there likely to be any reason to get off of it, any time soon.
It’s a special kind of agony, for both actors and audience, not knowing what comes next. The audience watched us, wanting us to tell the story. Somehow, what we’re doing didn’t make sense to the arc of the story. Nor would it, since it didn’t actually have a place in the story.
I can’t remember who it was who spoke, but one of us improvised a line: “Say…have any of you seen Tevye?” Sweaty, nervous eyes glanced at each other around the stage, a general susurrus of Nope, not me, haven’t seen him, no idea.
Then another actor – I believe it was my best friend, playing Lazar Wolfe – saved us all. “We’d better go look for him, then!” Never has an idea been greeted with such enthusiastic assent. Exeunt omnes.
Having the skill of improv is one of the most useful things an actor can bring with them to the stage. It not only can save you when things go wrong, it can make things go more right with just the little added frisson. It’s very hard to cultivate well, though, and it’s why the masters of the craft are people like Robin Williams, superstars who are often simply given the direction: go onstage and do something entertaining.
However, because it’s so hard, improv tends by nature to be short-format. You don’t have the long scenarii of the Italian Commedia del Arte, where full-length plays (many of which were stolen by people like Shakespeare, Goldoni, and Moliere) were done with the barest of outlines and chock-full of improv. Today there are short-form improv festivals and shows such as Who’s Line is It, Anyway? and Comedy Sportz. Short, often hilarious bubbles of not knowing what’s going to happen and that’s what makes it so exciting.
Occasionally you will see long-format improv happening. Usually it’s in some out-0f-the-way experimental theatre, and if you go (which you should, local theatre should be supported) be prepared for one thing:
It’s likely to be bad.
It’s very, very difficult to have a cohesive, entertaining, and meaningful story arc actually play out on the stage. Coming up with the endings for scenes? Is this a sub-plot or the plot or just a small mis-en-scene? Staging on the fly, costumes improvised, it’s really, really hard, and most of it that I’ve seen – or performed in – can really suck.
There are also flashes of brilliance and ephemeral ineffable beauty and power, which is why people still do it. But you have to be prepared for the suck, too.
But back to my nightmare: I was doing my best to support my fellow actors through the show in my dream, not having any real idea of what I was doing, improvising as best I could, and I could see the looks on their faces. They were annoyed with me, angry, even, and I gradually realized: they thought I had a script. They thought I hadn’t bothered to learn my lines, or pay attention to the blocking, and that it wasn’t me doing a brilliant job of improvisation – it was me screwing off, incompetent and careless.
Thankfully I woke up quickly. I lay there, in the early morning, thinking about the dream. I knew, pretty quickly, what it was about. It’s about a feeling I often have, as I watch people happily go about their lives, knowing what they want, working to get it. Hell, I even developed my own system, called The Defining Moment, that has helped people in workshops figure out what they want and how to get it. I know it’s possible, I know it’s worked.
I just can’t figure out how to do it myself.
So I tend to improv. I take my cues from others, try my best to help the story move along, to fill in the gaps in the blocking where I can to make the staging more aesthetic and graceful. But really? I feel like everyone else got the script, and has been rehearsing for months, whereas I just showed up minutes before curtain and was told “Ready in 5-4-3-and-go!”
Which is why articles likeÂ The Life Plan by Royale Scuderi, terrify me. The article is very matter-of-fact: ask yourself a few basic questions, things like “Where am I heading?” and “Am I happy?” and such things. Figure it out, so that you’re not just aimlessly floundering around.
I look at those questions and I really don’t want to answer them. So instead I take the interesting diversion and ask myself Why don’t I want to answer them?
Why do you think? More to the point: does your life have a script? If so, where did you get it? Did you write it?
We’ll come back to this…
*Yes. That misspelling was intentional.