I started reflecting on my attempts at honesty and authenticity in recent sets. There are caveats to doing this after the sets have ended. Even if one thinks about honesty during a set, it’s difficult to analyze how that honesty is landing without the perspective of an audience member because the only signal improvisers have on stage for whether they are connecting with the audience is noise from the audience. If anything, that noise is usually laughter, but it’s unclear where the laughter is directed. While comments from the audience or a coach can also help, if honesty is something I want feedback on, I should ask an improviser friend (coach or otherwise) in the audience to watch out for it before my set. This is not something I did.
With these caveats in mind, here are a few instances in which I recognized something true in scenes and how they played out:
- Recounting an incident from my life during a living room opening. I was in a living room opening and talked about my first experiences drinking alcohol, and how I started by trying to cook with wine, and when I asked for recommendations of good wine to cook with, the best advice I got was, “Cook with wines that you would drink.” There was more to the story, but the audience found many moments to laugh at this true incident from my life.
- Externalizing my internal thoughts about my annoyance via facial expressions. My scene partner and I were on an airplane, and he was playing an overly chatty character who would be my worst nightmare to be sitting next to on a flight. I started having a conversation the way I would if I were actually sitting next to someone like this on the flight: with short, guarded responses. I became conscious that the audience didn’t know how I felt internally, so as my scene partner was talking, I turned away from him and rolled my eyes with a look of exasperation on my face. The audience laughed and continued laughing at all my responses thereafter.
- Calling out what I saw as manipulation while playing a character close to me. My scene partner was my “sensei” and prefacing my name with “Little” or “Elder” based upon her opinion of me at the time. I reflected on the fact that this seemed like a manipulative tool to influence me. I called it out almost as if I were a psychiatrist analyzing the situation and not as someone emotionally affected by the manipulation. There weren’t many laughs.
- Calling out logical issues as a character in an alternate reality. My scene partner and I were mutant worms taking over in a post-apocalyptic world, and he was using false logic to describe the genius of the last woman on the planet. I responded by telling him he was “talking gobbledygook” because he was infatuated with her and had “never seen a woman: ever.” The audience laughed.
To what if anything can we attribute the laughter or lack thereof to honesty? In the first, I was telling a truthful story from my life that revealed a lot about my personality, so any laughter had to be based on the fact that this incident from my life was funny or that my natural idiosyncrasies make for a funny character.
The second scene was one that the audience either had or could have experienced, with the exception of the fact that someone in that situation would be unlikely to turn away from the person next to them to roll their eyes. However, the act of making that facial expression was what provided context that this is a moment of unwanted company over an extended period of time. In this instance, leaving the honesty of the scene to contextualize it before returning to it was the mechanism that appeared to result in audience laughter. The remaining question is whether the audience was laughing at this real-life situation, something about the context made the character I was interacting with funnier, or something else.
The third scene didn’t get many audience laughs, but it wasn’t all that realistic either. Specifically, the interaction of the characters felt somewhat artificial. Namely, while I was recognizing and calling out the behavior of the other character, that did not create an honest scene. Unlike the second scene, I conveyed what the other character was doing without filtering it through the lens of my own character to provide my point of view, resulting in a scene that lacked an honest interaction.
The fourth scene took place in an alternate reality, and the audience laughed, so one might be tempted to conclude that the laughter was due to either the absurdity of the situation our characters were in, the fact that my character had a unique vernacular and used words like “gobbledygook” when talking, or the fact that my scene partner was spouting “gobbledygook”. Despite all of that, “gobbledygook” simultaneously called out my scene partner’s false logic and provided my perspective as to what I thought about it. Thus, there was at least some honesty reflected in that moment, and it may have been a reason for the laughter.
These observations yield the following hypothesis: if a scene is taking place, and there is a mechanism to contextualize/justify how the characters are acting in a way that feels honest, the audience will connect with the scene.
Can one construct an improv exercise to test this? I think a variation of Cop Confessions would work. Specifically, two improvisers start a scene neutral. At any point, either character can start behaving absurdly. The other character then does a stage whisper to indicate to the audience how they feel about their scene partner’s behavior before returning to the scene to play it honestly based on their feeling, the status of their scene partner, etc.
I’ll have a chance to run this exercise in the near future, and if it affirms the hypothesis, the remaining question is how to bring it into scene work. The key is to replace the stage whisper with something that would take place within the scene. I would contend that any line in a scene, no matter how clunky, is less so than a stage whisper, so this should be doable.