Top of Your Intelligence Intensive

At first, Rachael Mason‘s workshops sounded deceptively similar to ones I had taken before: listening and two person scene work, heightening, the Harold, and character. However, when she started contrasting “rookie” and “experienced” improvisers through their choices, I realized that I was in the middle of my first intensive on playing to the top of my intelligence.

On the face of it, teaching how to play to the top of one’s intelligence sounds dicey because it’s both subjective and difficult to measure. The top of Adam’s intelligence may not be on par with the top of Betty’s, so how does one judge it? Rachael succeeded by making us aware of how we were making choices and exposing cases in which we were implicitly imposing artificial constraints on our choices that prevented us from taking full advantage of our knowledge and experience.

To help me describe this better, let’s visit an example that comes from a jam that happened a little over a year ago: the first set I ever did at a jam. It’s hard to get more “rookie” than that.

Let’s suppose that one’s scene partner initiates with the following line:

INITIATOR: I need to pee.

There are obvious “Yes, and…” choices: “Let me help you find a place to pee.”; “I need to pee, too”; or “The restroom isn’t working, and the nearest place to pee is two hours away.”

I think Rachael would also describe such choices as “rookie” or “lazy” because all of them attempt to move forward the need to urinate without moving forward the relationship or characters. Following a premise about the need to urinate might eventually lead to the act of public urination, which accurately summarizes the trajectory of the first jam scene I was in.

Rachael made the point that an “experienced” improviser should be more strategic in deciding how to forward the scene, perhaps by looking at subtext in the other person’s statement. For instance, rather than taking the sentence at face value, one could consider situations under which one person might tell another that they need to pee. It might be a passenger on a road trip or maybe a toddler that is in the middle of being potty trained. Such an improviser could then sigh and respond, “Again, Jerry? We’re already five hours late thanks to your pee breaks!”; with a wide smile and muse, “You’re growing up before my eyes, Jimmy. I’m so proud of you.”; or any number of other possibilities that complements the initiation in a way that helps move forward how the characters relate to one another.

Let’s say we now have the following two lines of dialogue:

JIMMY: I need to pee.
PARENT: You’re growing up before my eyes, Jimmy. I’m so proud of you.

We now know that Jimmy is a toddler, so how might that inform what Jimmy does? Rachael had us talk like toddlers and chewed us out for our “rookie” statements. We were placing limits based on our assumptions about what a toddler could say (“One, two, twee,”), rather than taking advantage of our knowledge and experiences. If one limits Jimmy’s responses based on these perceived constraints, it might look like this:

JIMMY: I need to pee.
MOM: You’re growing up before my eyes, Jimmy. I’m so proud of you.
JIMMY: Yay, Mommy! I can wear po-wup pants now.

Rachael’s take was that this Jimmy is an unusable character because his lack of knowledge relegates him to being a prop, and most of the responsibility for the scene is now on the mom. Jimmy could instead take advantage of the improviser’s knowledge that one wouldn’t normally associate with a toddler:

JIMMY: I need to pee.
MOM: You’re growing up before my eyes, Jimmy. I’m so proud of you.
JIMMY: Mommy, most people consider pwide a sin, with the notable exception of Awistotle.

There are now potential avenues to heighten. For instance, Jimmy’s mom can continue to be more and more proud as Jimmy continues to demonstrate how he is growing up before her eyes.

Let’s take a step back and consider the form. For a Harold, the opening stems from an audience suggestion. Suppose the audience suggestion is “restroom”, then one might explore the suggestion literally in the opening, and maybe that leads to a scene with the initiation line, “I need to pee.” Alternatively, in the same way one could look for subtext in “I need to pee,” leading to any number of directions like being away from home, the feeling of relief, or a place to reset.

As a result of workshop, I’ve started to become more conscious of when I’m constraining my choices and hope to find techniques that get me in the habit of eliminating such self-imposed constraints.

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