The transition from classroom to stage is not always as easy as it may seem. More often than not, an interesting phenomenon occurs when a student begins the process of blossoming into a performer. I call it Modus Ponens improv, and this is how it works: During those first few shows, fear levels are high ñ and understandably so. Improvising without fear is easy in a class where everyone knows you and supports you, but improvising for people who are paying to watch you ìbe funnyî throws a completely new energy into the picture. Add this to the energy that is created whenever you try something new, and now you are very distracted. Everything is larger than life ñ the lights are too bright, the crowd is borderline-rowdy, and your heart is hammering in your chest.
Suddenly, you realize you donít feel very funny, and now youíre close to panic. They want you to be funny. And you really want to be funny for them. So there you are, out there flying blind, trying desperately to remember how to be funny like you always were in class. You remember what they said to you right before you went on stage: be fast, furious and physical. OK, letís try that!
So now, youíre clueless and running madly about, making lots of noise. But wait ñ hey, here we go ñ now theyíre laughing! (Well, of course theyíre laughing ñ youíre acting silly! But in the heat of the moment, this silliness escapes you.)
Ah, you think: A solution! IF I am highly active and very intense, THEN the audience will laugh. Now you've added this to your "bag of tricks" so you can use it again and again. Beware, though ñ a bag of tricks can only serve you when you think about it in terms of the big picture. Itís good to have a nice selection of references and mental templates to use as jumping-off points toward discovering new material. But if your focus is too narrow, all youíre left with is Modus Ponens (IF-THEN) improv ñ pratfalls, blue humor and one-liners ñ and you are seriously compromising your artistic growth.
On the surface, it seems like a good idea ñ IF I (fill in the blank), THEN the audience will (whatever ñ laugh, swoon, etc.). But thinking on the surface doesnít serve the higher purpose of your role within the ensemble. Remember that you are there to help drive the scene forward toward its logical, natural conclusion. This is always your first responsibility. You may be able to guarantee that you can provoke a certain response from an audience on demand ñ but if the intent is to goad the audience into a response, rather than drive the scene forward, youíve overlooked your responsibility to the scene and to your fellow players.
Instead of trying to be funny (which almost never works anyway), find the humor organically within the scene. Forget about the audience for a moment, and concentrate your attention on doing the work ñ that is, working as part of a team that serves the scene, which in turn serves the artform. If you are truly working in service to the artform, you will find all the humor you could ever want without even trying.
Remember, improv is all about play. When you were four years old, sprawled out on the living room floor playing with your toys, did you worry about how you looked to other people? Of course not! It didnít even occur to you that anyone might be watching ñ not because you were a bad person, or arrogant, or selfish, but because your concentration was so focused on what you were doing, nothing else mattered to you at that moment. You were so caught up in the joy of the playing the game you didnít have time to worry about whether anyone thought you were ìdoing it right.î
The lesson: Focus on the task at hand ñ follow the rules, play the game. Invest in the scene until itís as real as your pretend games were back when you were four years old, and youíll never risk committing Modus Ponens improv again!
*Modus Ponens, or ìthe mode of affirming,î is a form of argumentation that is central to propositional logic. It takes the form ìif p, then q.î Martinich, A.P. (1996). Philosophical Writing. Austin: Blackwell.
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