I’ve started frequenting jams again, and it’s satisfying to watch an experienced improviser play with someone new and make the new improviser look more experienced. Here are a few observations I’ve made with regards to assisting a scene partner.
The most common assist is justifying the choices of one’s scene partner, and there are ridiculously many examples of this not just between experienced and novice improvisers, but between two experienced improvisers, as well. By justifying the choices of one’s scene partner, one is helping create context for those choices. When done well, justification can have the side benefit of clarifying the other character’s point of view (see e.g. Cop Confessions).
A less commonly discussed assist is to make the other improviser look important. The best advice that I’ve heard about how to do this comes from Jason Shotts. He recommends smiling at the other improviser and putting weight on whatever they say. The conjecture is that the simple act of being interested in what that person is saying will make it look like whatever they say is important to the audience. I’ve seen Tara DeFrancisco do some form of this when performing with improvisers less experienced than she, and it worked.
When an improviser discovers an interesting choice, they should assist the other improviser to follow it. A trap I can fall into is to ask the other improviser permission to proceed with it. The problem with asking for permission is it invites the other improviser to choose not to grant it, especially since there can be a temptation to create conflict and have that conflict drive the scene.
Like the adage, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, I’ve seen interesting choices most successfully applied when the choice is forced: either the two people in the scene are already doing it or they’ve already agreed to do it, whether the characters like it or not. One of the coolest examples of that came in a set with Adal Rifai, who handed a wad of cash to his scene partner after making an offer, and while his scene partner flipped through the wad of cash (great space object work!), continued, “By flipping through this wad of cash, you’ve accepted the deal.”
The final thing is to make sure the other person actually plays. During one of the first jams I was ever a part of (circa July of 2013), it turned out that a character in the scene was a dragon; following this, one of the more experienced improvisers motioned for me to follow him onto the stage, and we became the right and left wings of the dragon. More recently, I was invited to play as a guest on an existing team of improvisers who play really quickly, and after I’d spent the first few scenes on the side, someone on the team wrapped her arm around mine, and we walked into an existing scene together.
To rephrase a comment made by Will Hines about good improvisers in terms of assists, I’d like to think an experienced improviser is one who is regularly making assist moves while simultaneously tending to accept assists that are offered.