Prescriptive v Descriptive

Assessing a scene in hindsight is a different exercise from improvising a scene in the moment, but there’s an overlap of vocabulary for both describing a scene and prescribing improv rules, and this common vocabulary can lead improvisers astray. Consider the following excerpt from TJ and Dave’s book:

We don’t even use the term or concept of “heightening,” which usually looks like artificially turning up the dial on an energy level. Instead, we find the idea of developing
more useful. As in a darkroom, a photograph develops; it becomes clear and specific. That doesn’t happen from heightening. Rather than thinking of it as increasing any single element, we consider this process as revealing the characters and their relationships.

I’ve noticed that telling an improv student to “heighten a scene” can make the scene louder or increase the energy without moving the scene forward. However, having the improviser think, “if this is true, then what else is true,” or alternatively, “what is true of the scene and your character; now respond as your character would” both feel like more natural ways to prescribe to an improviser how to move a scene while still leading to something that we might consider heightening when assessing the scene in hindsight.

On the other hand, when side coaching, “heighten” feels like a convenient shorthand, and as an improviser starts internalizing how to play, they may no longer be thinking about what they’re doing consciously. Is fretting over what terminology to use with students much ado about nothing?

It’s likely true that through sustained practice, an improviser will develop instincts that will make it more natural for them to make a choice that develops a scene in the moment. On the other hand, terminology that confuses them along the way could lead to unnecessary frustration and slow down progress, all of which could have been avoided if only we’d been clearer.

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