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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (9/27/10) 2:10pm - ... wherein Peter speculates about the kinds of people who do well in improv.

My latest formspring reply:

What personality characteristics tend to do well in improv?  [9/25/10, Lani]

Here's the full text of Lani's original question:

Peter! I was going to ask you this over your formspring, but I can't find it - has it gone away? Anyway, my question to you is: what personality characteristics tend to do well in improv? I'm mildly curious about improv. It seems to be all about lateral thinking - which is something I do all the time anyway - but it requires "performing" on stage and attempting to be funny to people, two things I'm pretty rotten at and so generally dislike (but wouldn't mind actively working on them to some degree). I'm wondering if that last one would be a benefit/detriment/make no difference one way or the other.

I don't even remotely have time for a new hobby right now, but just as something to tuck in the back of my head. Thanks!
This is a good question.  To some extent, I've seen lots of people succeed at improv in lots of different ways, playing to different strengths.  But in my opinion, you can make some generalizations.

Frankly, I've seen some people get a long way on being an interesting performer and being funny.  So if somebody's just a good actor, with the stereotypical "look at meeee and I will do something *huge* and dramatic to reward that attention" personality, they can be an entertaining improvisor.

But frankly, that doesn't get you far in the long run.  People like that -- actors or comedians without a lot of improv ability -- wind up in shows where the audience comes away saying, "Well, that one actor/comedian was *awesome*, but the show overall was really bad."  Or worse:  "That one actor/comedian was *awesome*, but the rest of the cast sucked."  Or still worse (and most likely):  "I hated everything about that show, especially that one improvisor who kept trying to be funny."

What matters most in improv, personality-wise, is an ability to roll with counterfactuals.  For instance, if you and I were talking, and I mentioned "Colin has a basement full of attack ferrets," you could respond with:
1.  "Wait.  Colin doesn't have a basement."  This would be the 'mildly autistic' response.
2.  "Ha!  Ferrets.  Funny.  Anyway..."  This is where 90% of the population lives.
3.  "Thank god.  Now maybe he can put those teensy Kalashnikovs I bought him to good use."  This is rolling with the counterfactual.

Generally, when you get a bunch of people of type (3) together, you wind up telling stories relatively easily.[1]  You don't have the narrative gears seize up as an improvisor puzzles over some new bit of information -- or worse, contradicts the information.  If you're not trying to support what your fellow players are doing -- if you're focussed instead on putting on an interesting performance and being funny -- you'll pretty much torpedo the show, and the best you can hope for is the audience will say, "The show was crap, but that one performer was alright."[2]

This "Yes, and"-ing is pretty much lesson one of improv classes -- and like most such initial lessons, it's the one you try to learn for the rest of your career.[3]  Granted, it's a teachable skill, but you can still tell when 'civilians' are predisposed to (a) roll with crazy stuff, and (b) *enjoy* rolling with crazy stuff.  Really, the folks who see "pretending some strange thing you just made up is real" as a sort of gleeful playtime -- those people are already improvisors; they just don't know it yet.

That said, nearly all of my improv friends know more than I do about this sort of thing, and I'd be keen to know their opinions too.

[1] At the risk of immodesty, see the recap of the 1/30/10 performance of One More Night, where just accepting that, yeah, I was holding my scimitar funny sent us rumbling on into a whole set of adventures in China.

[2] And as it turns out, the audience usually *hates* it when they see an improvisor make an overt attempt at being funny. It's just eerie.

[3] Compare to a dance class where they [say] teach you to relax unnecessary muscles in the first lesson.  Ten years on, and I'm *still* hunching my shoulders.

Side note:  My formspring page still exists!  You can ask me questions here, and see all of my answers here!

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Date:Monday (9/27/10) 2:01pm
I think "holding my scimitar funny" needs to become the next big internet meme. Oh y hello thar chatroulette....
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