10 January 2017

'How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth'

I’ve never done improvisation as a performance except occasionally as a mime a long time ago.  The closest I’ve come to the kind of improv that Will Hines writes about in How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth, “the art of making up comedy scenes as you go, on a stage,” I’ve only done in acting classes or rehearsals as an exercise.  So I’m not really qualified to judge Hines’s advice from the perspective of a professional or wannabe improviser, the kind of performer who would take one of Hines’s classes and work with companies like the Compass Players, Second City, Chicago City Limits, The Committee, ImprovOlympic (iO), the Groundlings, and the Upright Citizens Brigade.  Early in the book, in fact, Hines affirms that he assumes the reader has “studied the fundamentals” of improv.  (Later in the book, the author recommends using Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh’s The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual [Comedy Council of Nicea, LLC, 2013] as a reference for explanations of basic terms and improv forms.)

It looks, however, like a lot—though not all—of Hines’s improv guidance is valid for "straight" acting as well—except for different terminology.  At the top of a section entitled “Be Authentic,” Hines quotes UCB co-founders Roberts and Amy Poehler emphasizing, “Improv rules are life rules”; the fundamental rationale for the acting system of Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938), based on the psychological theories of Théodule-Armand Ribot (1839-1916), is that the rules of acting are the rules of life.  So my approach to discussing Greatest Improviser will be the relation of Hines’s advice for improvising to basic acting technique—about which I do know a thing or two, having been an acting student for a good number of years and an acting teacher for several as well.  I’ll consider how parallel improv is to dramatic acting and how different.  

How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth (Pretty Great Publishing Co., 2016) is a how-to book by Hines, long-time member of UCB (he’s from the troupe’s second generation of performers, following the founders Roberts, Poehler, Besser, and Walsh) who eventually became “one of [UCB’s] most sought-after teachers.”  Greatest Improviser, aimed at performers who are already working on stage, provides a copious helping of advice on performing improvised comedy based on Hines’s own experience and lessons passed down from his own teachers and coaches.  The lessons are illustrated by scenes from actual performances and the author provides a number of exercises for practicing each category of advice he discusses. 

In addition, Hines asserts in the official description of the book that Greatest Improviser is “also an examination of how doing improv transforms you.  The book gets into the mental habits you automatically acquire, and how to encourage that change.”  The author explains that the lessons in the book teach “the skills that the real world burns out of you.  You’re socialized to think ahead, stay rigid, be careful, and often be false.  Many are never taught to be funny or healthy.”  Greatest Improviser includes, among others, chapters entitled “Be Present,” “Be Changeable,” “Be Brave,” “Be Authentic,” “Be Funny,” and “Be Healthy.”  (With the exception of “Be Funny,” except under specific circumstances, these are all lessons a dramatic actor must learn as well.) 

The book was edited by Malin von Euler-Hogan, whom Hines identifies on his blog, Improv Nonsense, as an editor who’s also on a UCB improv team in New York, with a cover by Maëlle Doliveux, a freelance illustrator, animator, and UCB-trained improviser.  Hines self-published Greatest Improviser because, as he explains, “I tried to court it to publishers and had some nice meetings.  But basically, I have better direct access to potential customers than any company, so besides the prestige of a publishing company, doing it myself made more sense.” 

Improv, colloquial for improvisational theater, is a type of performance in which all or most of what’s presented is created on the spot as it happens.  In Hines’s work, the characters, story, action, and dialogue are all created without a pre-written script as a collaboration among the improvisers as the scene unfolds in real time.  As Hines describes the phenomenon, “A group of people get on a stage, ask for a single suggestion, and then create one or more comedic scenes based on the suggestion.”  He lays out the creative process, which he asserts “[g]enerally . . . looks like a comedic play,” this way: 
  1.       Do something inspired by a suggestion.
  2.       Understand each other.
  3.       Move the scene forward.
  4.       Find/do something funny.
  5.       Do more of the funny thing.
Throughout the book, the author makes the art of improv sound easy and logical, as if it should come naturally.  Of course, it isn’t (otherwise everybody’d be doing it, right?), but I suppose, as the book’s intended for those already in the business, perhaps understatement’s the best approach for Hines’s audience. The author does, though, acknowledge that “good improv scenes always feel so much grander than what a small piece of advice looks like.”

Though there are improvised (or partly improvised) dramas, especially among avant-garde companies—Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater and Richard Schechner’s Performance Group were both celebrated for developing their dramatic pieces through improvisation and then using improvisation in performance before an audience—and even improvised films, the kind of improv about which Hines is writing, arguably the most common, is comic. 

Furthermore, he states in Greatest Improviser (as well as on his blog, Improv Nonsense) that his focus is the long-form comedy, the category in which the improvisers create complete shows in which short scenes are connected by their stories, characters, or subjects.  (The other improv category is the short form, which is comprised of unrelated brief scenes.)  In both long-form and short-form improv, the scenes often proceed from a suggestion from the audience; Hines’s type of improv follows this pattern.  The long-form improv was championed by Del Close (1934-99), a Chicago improv performer, director, teacher, and coach (with Compass Players, Second City, The Committee, among others) in its early days.  An example of a long-form show is called the Harold, the common standard devised by Close for long-form improv.  The signature performance structure of the iO Theater and UCB, it’s composed of the following segments:
·   a suggestion from a spectator
·   the opening, like an overture in which bits of the ideas developed from the suggestion are depicted
·   three scenes (“first beats”)
·   a group scene (unrelated to the interconnected “beats”)
·   three “second beats,” scenes which revisit characters or situations from earlier scenes
·   a group scene
·   three “third beats”
Most long-form shows are variations of the Harold.  (The name, by the way, is arbitrary and bears no relation to improv or performance.)

Modern improv comedy got its major start in Chicago with Paul Sills’s Second City (1959) and that city became a hub of improvisational theater in the ’60s and ’70s.  (Sills, 1927-2008, was the son of Viola Spolin, 1906-94, author of Improvisation for the Theater [Northwestern University Press, 1963], the description of Spolin’s acting exercises and theater games often called “the bible of improvisational theater.”  His mother’s teaching, directing, and coaching methods were the initial inspiration for Sills’s improv troupe.)  Several prominent troupes started in Chicago, such as the Compass Players (1955) and ImprovOlympic (1980). Toronto, Canada, became a secondary center and the impulse spread around the U.S. and Canada to the United Kingdom and Australia.  The original cast of NBC’s Saturday Night Live (débuted in 1975) was culled largely from Second City in both Chicago and Toronto (and the Canadian branch launched its own popular NBC show, SCTV, in 1976-1981); talk-show host Stephen Colbert and film actor Steve Carell both started in improvisational comedy (with Second City in Chicago).  The current Broadway duo of John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, creators and performers of Oh, Hello (closing 22 January), are both UCB alumni.  Sketch comedy shows like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-73) and Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74), precursors in a way to SNL, and The Kids in the Hall (1989-95), were largely developed in rehearsal through improvisation—though performances were (loosely) scripted.

Will Hines was born in 1970 in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in Ohio and Connecticut.  He graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in journalism and wrote for papers in New England and then worked as a computer programmer.  He started improvising on his own after moving to New York City in 1996, going to open-mic nights at local clubs.  “I just wanted to meet funny people,” Hines says, “because as I got older I was being surrounded by more and more boring, resigned people, and I had been friends with a lot of funny people in college and high school.”  Then he took a class with the Upright Citizens Brigade in 1999.  Dissatisfied with living the “square’s life,” the world of “a normal day job and . . . a family,” the “adult world” that “was looking more and more stilted,” Hines found the improv classes “felt like tests to see if I could shake off the dull world and connect to this new exciting one” where there “were cool and interesting people.”  He performed with UCB in New York and ultimately became a member of the troupe.  By his own account, he developed into “a respected performer” with UCB.  The company invited Hines to become a trainer of the next generation of improvisers and, in 2009, he was chosen to run the New York school.  In 2010, Hines launched the blog Improv Nonsense (http://improvnonesense.tumblr.com), whose posts became the basis of Greatest Improviser.  (The posts of the blog have been compiled and published as Improv Nonsense: All The Posts [Pretty Great Publishing Co., 2016].) 

In 2013, Hines moved to Los Angeles—his successor at UCB-NY is his brother, Kevin—where he performed and taught at UCB-LA (and where he became a coach, occasional instructor, and fellow performer of Heather Woodward, ROT contributor Kirk Woodward’s daughter who’d joined the West Coast troupe in 2010).  By May 2016, Hines estimates he’d appeared in “more than 7,854” scenes and, “as a teacher/coach,” watched “about 46,660 more.”  He published How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth in June 2016.  In addition to teaching, coaching, and performing improv, Hines now writes comedy sketches, performs sketch comedy, directs and appears in comedy and improv videos, and does occasional roles on television. 

The Upright Citizens Brigade was founded in Chicago in 1990 by “the UCB Four”: Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh.  The four had been trained at Chicago’s ImprovOlympic by Del Close before coming to New York City in 1996, where they performed in various venues until opening their own space in Chelsea on Manhattan’s West Side in 1999.  This was the first permanent stage in New York devoted to improvisational comedy.  UCB started the Upright Citizens Brigade Improvisational and Sketch Comedy Training Center, the only accredited improv and sketch comedy school in the country, a year before they moved into their Chelsea theater.  (The school’s Latin motto, Si Haec Insolita Res Vera Est, Quid Exinde Verum Est?, translates as “If this unusual thing is true, then what else is true?,” a variation of one of the Del Close/UCB impov principles.)  The troupe opened its Los Angeles branch in 2005 and a second New York location, in the East Village, in 2011.  Three of the company’s founders compiled The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual, published in 2013.

The main distinction between acting in a scripted play (or film) and performing improv, of course, is . . . that the latter is improvised!  Obvious, I suppose, but nearly all of conventional actor training, from Stanislavsky (and even his predecessor, François Delsarte) to Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Uta Hagen and all their heirs and successors, is aimed at one thing: to make rehearsed behavior seem intuitive and spontaneous rather than planned, practiced, and repeated.  In improv, the behavior on stage is all spontaneous.  (This makes theater improv different on another level as well.  Both forms are evanescent, but in theater, the performance is gone as soon as the lights come back up—though the play remains.  In improv, even the material is gone after the show.   I’m not sure this is relevant to the performers, however; theoretically, they shouldn’t be thinking about “posterity.”)

This distinction raises another important difference: making up the words and the actions.  Unlike a dramatic actor, an improviser has to become something of an instant playwright.  As Hines advises in the book, “You are a co-writer of every scene you’re in.”  Except in stage mishaps (I recount a few of these in “Short Takes: Theater War Stories,” 6 December 2010), most dramatic actors never have to be this quick on their feet—though in Realistic and Naturalistic plays, they have to seem to be.  Speech on stage is behavior just as any movement or action is—and has to appear just as natural and impromptu.  But dramatic actors don’t have to write the dialogue and create the plot (at least, not on the spot)—that’s usually someone else’s job.

Another difference in improvising, particularly the kind in which Hines is involved, and most acting work has to do with props, both set pieces and hand props.  Put simply, improvisers don’t use them.  They mime all the objects that appear in a scene, a task most dramatic actors aren’t called to perform unless they’re doing Our Town or some other exceptional script that calls for mime or pantomime.  In every acting class I ever took (or taught), the students were admonished not to mime props called for in a scene; even if we had to substitute an easily-obtained item for the one described in the script, we had to have something because handling objects is a fundamental part of acting. 

Costumes, too, were part of my acting training regimen—again, even if we had to approximate the dress of the character for the scene.  “Clothing so influences my character, is so crucial to me,” says the late actress and acting teacher Uta Hagen (1919-2004), “that I would find it impossible to come to a rehearsal for Blanche in  Streetcar Named Desire dressed in slacks and sneakers as it would be for me to work on Saint Joan in a frilly chiffon dress and high-heeled shoes.”  Playing a businessman in jeans and a T-shirt was out of the question in my acting classes (unless, perhaps, you were doing Steve Jobs, I suppose); even if the student didn’t have a business suit, he was expected to come to the studio in some kind of tie and jacket and slacks.  (Aaron Frankel, who taught a classical scene study class at HB Studio, kept a locker of period costumes for his students to use so they wouldn’t be tempted to do Oedipus in khakis or Chimène in a mini and boots.)  I once did a scene from Albee’s Tiny Alice in  which I played a cardinal, so I had to come up with some kind of robe, cap, and staff to sub for the cardinal’s regalia.  Later, when I played an officer in a Revolutionary War play, I wore a rehearsal costume of an 18th-century-style cutaway coat, breeches, English riding boots, and a saber to get used to the restrictions and problems caused by the uniform I’d wear in the production.  Improvisers aren’t obligated to follow this procedure because, not knowing what characters and situations will be thrown at them, they can’t dress for every possibility.

Hines, however, acknowledges the cross-over between improv and straight acting to some degree.  Most of the people whom Hines quotes in Greatest Improviser are respected improvisers, including many of his own teachers; however, he cites a few figures from straight theater as well, notably Broadway casting director Michael Shurtleff (1920-2007) and famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner (1905-97).  Of Meisner, Hines notes that the director of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre’s book Sanford Meisner on Acting (Meisner and Dennis Longwell; Vintage Books, 1987) contains “many passages that make for great advice for the improviser” as well as the actor.  (He also mentions Shurtleff’s Audition [Walker and Co., 1978].)  Hines says in his own professional life, in fact, he recognizes the significance of dramatic acting as an asset.  Having had no performing or acting background before beginning improv, he took an acting class (a monologue workshop) in 2001.  But if Hines (and, I would presume, other improvisers) find some actor training useful in the practice of their art form, dramatic actors will conversely find some of the facilities of improvisation that Hines inculcates beneficial in their work in scripted plays.

Among the skills Hines posits a performer will learn from doing improv or taking an improv class, he lists those below, to which I’ve added my own remarks about the applicability to scripted acting:
·   “Listening.  Deeper, fuller, more actively.  Time will slow down during conversations and you will be able to hear them more accurately.  This absolutely will happen to everyone who takes improv classes for any decent length of time.”  There’s almost nothing more important to an actor than to listen to what her scene partners are saying—even if she’s memorized their lines—no matter how many times she’s heard them.  It’s an important way to assure being connected to the scene.  In his instructions to his acting students, Aaron Frankel (b. 1921), one of my teachers, stressed that at rehearsals, actors should look at and listen to the others in their scenes.  (References to Frankel’s teaching are more fully discussed in “An Actor’s Homework,” posted on ROT on 19, 22, 25, and 28 April 2010.)
·   “Brevity.  Improv rewards succinct, direct talk.  You’ll learn to do it because the audience laughs and listens to you more when you get to the point.”  Obviously, an actor has no control over the length or brevity of his lines—but he can control the expression of such techniques as his objective,  character action, and inner monologue, which should always be as concise and direct as he can make them.  Loquacity gets in the way and muddles the playing of these actors’ tools.
·   “Empathy.  You will more easily be able to see things from other people’s points of view.  You will be able to argue the other side of an argument better.”  In Greatest Improviser, Hines speaks of empathy for the character with which the improviser’s been endowed, particularly if it’s a popularly unsympathetic one (Hines used Hitler as an example).  Frankel would admonish his students that Hitler, Iago, Richard III, Fagin, Lady Macbeth, Joan Crawford, and all other stage villains don’t see themselves as bad guys or gals.  It’s incumbent on the actor to find the empathy for his or her character in order to play him or her without coming off like a villain out of a 19th-century melodrama.
·   “Acting.  Improv is acting and writing but it’s more acting.  You become more reactive and emotive just through the sheer reps of playing make-believe in front of others.”  I think this one speaks for itself  and needs no further comment.
·   “Clearer opinions.  You have opinions all the time but very often you don’t pay attention to them as they’re forming.  Not the big ones, but the little ones.  You see someone on the street eating an ice cream and lots of tiny versions of superiority, jealousy, gluttony will flit through your brain, and then vanish.  Improv makes you notice and then hold onto those opinions because in a scene you might need them.”  My first thought on this facility is for the actors’ habit of observing real people they encounter in their daily lives because they never know when they’ll have to play some character who reminds them of the stranger, friend, or family member.  But the truth is that actors need to approach the other characters in their plays the same way.  One of the techniques Frankel teaches is for the actor to determine what he calls the “main character action” (what Stanislavsky-based teachers often call the “superobjective”)—but Frankel goes on to require his students to devise a version of their MCA as it’s directed toward each other character with whom they come in contact in the play.  He also teaches that actors must glean what he calls “hearsay” by going over what the other characters say about them and make judgments about whether statements are right/true or wrong/false.  None of these applications will work efficiently or usefully unless the opinions are succinct and clear.
·   “Patterns.  Patterns are funny, and you will learn to see them early and often.”  In Michael Kirby’s theatrical structural system (see “Theatrical Structure,” 15 and 18 February 2011), Patterns are a significant connective device in all aspects of a production, including dialogue and acting—both of which are the purview of actors.  Kirby (1931-97) identifies several other structural devices related to Patterns, such as Themes and Echoes, which are useful for the actor to spot and capitalize on, so becoming tuned into these phenomena, whether generated by the playwright, director, designers, or other actors, is beneficial.
·   “Knowledge.  You’ll learn more since you’ll run across so many scenes where someone mentions something you don’t know.  You’ll find out what they were saying and remember it.”  Actors, especially young ones who started focusing on theater training in high school and then majored in theater in college and maybe went on to an MFA in acting, develop tunnel vision, knowing about little more than their own field.  Hines calls this “a deficit of life experiences to draw from.”  Actors who know something about the world create deeper, more interesting characters and bring more to the play than those with limited scopes.  (I once advised a high school actress who’d decided to drop out of a trip to Paris with her French class in favor of staying home to do a community theater production that she was making a foolish choice.  There would always be another community play for her—she was pretty talented—but that the trip to Paris, her first visit abroad, would benefit her in ways she couldn’t even predict, both as an actor and as a person.  The young woman rejected my advice, unfortunately; I don’t know if she ever regretted it—but my first trip to Paris, at just about her age, had been life-changing.)   I can’t begin to count the number of times some obscure piece of knowledge about the world and the way it works has come into play in a role I was doing or a production I was directing (see my posts, “Liberal Arts in the Real World,” 24 July 2010, and “The Relation of Theater to Other Disciplines,” 21 July 2011); closing oneself off from those discoveries is limiting to an actor.  Or, as Hines advises: “[Y]ou should try to keep up with what’s going on in the world.”
·   “Bravery.  You will be more comfortable to have people see you and watch you.”  Believe it or not, there are actors, especially novices, who are drawn to the stage but are uncomfortable in the spotlight.  If working on improv can help solve this dilemma, it’d be an excellent asset.  Just as I’ve known lawyers and priests who’ve taken acting classes to help them appear before audiences (of jurors or congregants in their cases), actors taking improv classes or performing improv to learn to put themselves out there would be beneficial for acting in plays.
·   “Being Present.  You’ll worry less about the future, less about story, and more about what the moment feels like and what that implies.”  As I noted earlier, while improvisation is by definition spontaneous and in-the-moment, acting in plays is rehearsed, prepared, and planned—but has to seem as if it’s happening in real time.  Rehearsal is where the planning and preparing happens; by performance, the actor must appear to be living the circumstances as they’re happening.  Combating all that rehearsing isn’t easy, and if working in improv can develop that skill, so much the better for the actor.  (This is often the goal of doing improvisations in rehearsal, but not all directors use the technique, and additional practice is always good.)  Furthermore, as Hines writes, the improviser becomes “a Sherlock Holmes of observing the present instant.”  Granted, an improviser has “to figure out from context clues what [is] going on” in a scene that’s just starting up, something the playwright has given the straight actor; nevertheless, this skill will stand a dramatic actor in excellent stead for gleaning the “present circumstances” of a scene so that she can immerse herself in them.  (Uta Hagen devised an exercise about a character from a period play in a made-up scene—that is, one not in the play—outside the crisis of the drama, like Desdemona getting ready for a ball in Venice before she met Othello.  The point is to explore all the ordinary things a woman does and feels when she’s not the subject of a play.  The same examination is useful for contemporary characters, and the goal is to find the reality of their moment-to-moment lives.)

Arguably, the clearest convergence of improv and scripted acting is in the somewhat abstract and diffuse advice Hines gives to commit to the premise of the scene and the character with which the improviser has been endowed.  Accept the circumstances of the scene and go with it.  This is what’s called “yes-anding” in improv-speak: you say “yes” to the set-up and then you take it further.  Hines writes that the improviser needs “to stop thinking and to start watching and committing.”  He commands, “Get out of your head”!  Every acting teacher and director will tell students and cast members to commit to their choices and to the circumstances in the script, to make bold decisions for their characters—dramatic for dramas and comedic for comedies, but big.  As for getting out of their heads, Aaron Frankel had an expression that revealed what he thought about actors’ getting stuck in their heads and over-thinking or over-intellectualizing their roles: he called it “head-fucking.”  (I always thought this was an especially apt term: not only does it communicate the point that relying too much on left-brain analysis was counterproductive, the expression also connotes that the actor’s using the wrong body part for the function indicated.)

Part of committing to and immersing themselves in the scene requires improvisers to engage the creativity of their right brains.  When confronted with an "unfamiliar scenario,” Hines instructs the improviser, “Use an ‘as if,’” one of the most familiar tools among Stanislavsky-based actors and teachers.  Also known as the “magic if,” it’s “a lever to lift us out of everyday life onto the plane of imagination.”  According to Hagen, it ties the actor’s imagination to the given circumstances of the scene.  It’s an essential technique for both improvisers and actors in scripted plays, virtually a sine qua non, for, as Stanislavsky declares, if a would-be actor lacks imagination, “He must develop it . . . or else leave the theatre.”

Of course, even where there are parallels, the applications can be different, from just slightly to vastly.  Among the reasons for this is the development time for an improv scene and a play: improvs are fairly brief, several minutes on average, so the performers need to get to the meat of the scene—what Hines calls the “game of the scene,” the part that’s funny or “the unusual thing”—pretty quickly; the dramatic actor has anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for a short one-act to two hours and up for a full-length play to build the arc of his character and his objective.

Another reason the function of similar skills can be different is the goal of improv, which is comedy, in contrast to dramatic acting, which can be funny, seriocomic, melodramatic, or tragic—or various combinations of any of these (“pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”).  When faced with choices in a scene, straight actors select behavior that’s appropriate for their characters within the play, always taking into consideration the genre of script on which they’re working: actors in comedies pick funny actions, actors in tragedies pick tragic actions, actors in dramas pick dramatic actions.  Improvisers, however, are constrained to make comic choices.  In the chapter “Be Funny,” Hines warns: “to be good at improv, you have to be funny.”  That’s not a burden the conventional actor must bear; many an actor who can’t be funny on cue has had a perfectly successful career in dramas.

Being changeable, Hines insists, is “uniquely important” to improvising, but it, too, has a practical application to scripted acting.  Unlike improvs, plays may be rehearsed and “set,” but there are accidents, and actors also change what they’re doing.  If your scene partner does this without warning you (an ethical breach, granted, but it happens), you have to be ready to go with the new impulse—even if after the performance the stage manager comes back stage and says, “Take out the improvements.”  One of the facts about live performances is that they’re never the same from show to show—and actors have to be prepared to respond to changes, intentional or otherwise.

An aspect of changeability Hines identifies is switching from thinking “What is going to happen next?” to “What must have already happened?”  In other words, Hines says, “Stop thinking forward and start thinking about the moment before.”  Usually, a straight actor is oriented toward the future, pursuing his character’s objective, which is his goal in the play.  But Stanislavsky requires that the actor must never appear to anticipate his actions (because the character can’t know what’s going to happen next), and Hagen writes, “The fight to prevent anticipation, to prevent thinking and planning ahead . . . is a struggle that seems to go on and on . . . .”  To help establish “immediacy” (Hagen’s term for “being present”), she has exercises to guide actors to work on the “immediate preceding circumstances” of each of their scenes, each entrance they make so that they’re coming from a past in which they were doing something specific somewhere specific under specific conditions—a life before the scene starts or the entrance is made.  “While waiting for the entrance,” explains Hagen, “you have responded to an imagined immediately preceding event by a real doing which allows you to continue your assumed life on stage.”  Though the application of inventing what’s just happened is different for an actor in a play and an improviser (for whom, Hines instructs, the “future is not worth worrying about”), the task is analogous. 

To accomplish authenticity, to make their characters truthful, Hines tells improvisers “to simply be yourself.”  He asserts that great improvisers’ “real selves—their temperaments, their opinions, their reactions—are a huge part of every character they play.”  Now, obviously this advice can’t be applied directly to dramatic acting—every character an actor plays can’t be himself.  But acting teachers will all tell their students that when building a character, it’s always advisable to start with themselves—to use as much of their real personalities and lives as they can and build on that (with endowments, “as ifs,” substitutions, and so on) because, as Hines continues, “As an actor, you’ll never have more experience playing any character besides yourself.”  (In eight of Hagen’s ten Object Exercises, the actor uses himself as the “character”; the same is true of eight of the ten assignments in my own acting technique curriculum.)

Nevertheless, despite any appearance that improvisational theater and scripted acting are incompatible performance forms, there are cross-overs.  The fact that Hines sought out an acting class in his early training and refers to theater figures like acting teacher Sandy Meisner and theatrical casting director Michael Shurtleff, whose books he obviously studied, demonstrates that he finds parallels.  In fact, Hines considers himself an actor and has said that improv classes are “more like acting classes” than exercises in silly fun.  When I was an acting student and, later, when I was trying to carve out a career on the stage,  it was clear that the fundamentals of improvisation were useful skills for a straight actors, too.  (I suppose that’s obvious considering how many acting teachers and directors use improvisation in their classes and rehearsals.)  So, how well does Hines press his case for improv—or, to be precise, his guidance for the improviser?

There are no professional reviews of Greatest Improviser of the kind that run in the New York Times Book Review or the arts pages of your local paper.  There are blurbs on the back cover of the book from improv pros and reader reviews on sites like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.  All of them are extremely positive and laudatory.  All of the reviewers I read seemed to be improvisers—which is the audience Hines is aiming at, so that makes sense.  But I do wonder what someone like me, someone in the performing arts or at least knowledgeable about the field but not an improviser, thinks about Hines’s book and his advice.

For instance, my friend Kirk Woodward, who, in addition to being the father of Heather Woodward, a member of UCB who’s quoted in the book, is an actor, director, and acting teacher himself, liked Hines’s book “a good deal, mostly because he seems to keep his chosen field in perspective.”  Indeed, the author points out, “Improv doesn’t doesn’t try to lead you anywhere.  It’s just something that attracts certain kinds of people.”  He acknowledges, further, “Improv is something you do because you like it, not for what it gives you” in terms of financial rewards or notoriety.  This is awfully close to Stanislavsky’s advice to actors: “Love art in yourself and not yourself in art.”  Hines warns that “commercial success is not the same as happiness.”

I had a serious and continuing problem with the scenes Hines presents as illustrations of his instructions, however.   Hines’s own definition of  improv is “making up comedy scenes” and he bluntly states in the book that ”to be good at improv, you have to be funny.”  Funny is kinda the point of the form.  But I was very disturbed to find that most of the scenes Hines describes in Greatest Improviser just aren’t funny.  (A couple even struck me as downright creepy.  One focusing on menstruation has a decided ick-factor!)  Now, maybe Hines’s readers are more in tune with improv than I am and I just don’t get it.  Maybe the scenes don’t seem funny on the page—after all, improv is not a literary form—but when performed live before an audience by improvisers using all their intuitive acting talents, it works.  I’m usually very good at visualizing a performance from a description, though.  When I read a play (or even a review), I “see” the performance.  

Alternatively, maybe the parts of the scenes Hines cites illustrate something instructive, but aren’t actually funny.  That could be true, but it seems counterproductive—especially when it’s operating nearly all through the book.  (Furthermore, most of Hines’s examples are whole scenes—or, at least, the game of the scene—the part that’s supposed to be funny.)  What were not talking about here is what in acting classes is called “studio acting” where the student actor is working on a specific acting problem, not trying to solve the scene.  This is particularly true in acting technique classes, but even in scene study classes the student isn’t focused on performance issues like pacing, timing, or even staging.  If a civilian watched an acting-class scene, she’d probably think it was awful—because it’s not a performance.  I’m sure there is similar classroom work in all the arts, whether it’s dance, singing, music, or improvisation.  This is not that; the scenes Hines cites are from actual performances.  Where spectators (presumably) laughed.

I broached this quandary with Kirk, who agreed that it’s “possible that some of this material doesn’t look funny on paper because it isn’t, but that it’s given life by the performers,” but went on to propose, “A lot of it seems to be of the ‘you had to be there’ quality.”  The difficulty here, though, is that if Hines is presenting these scenes as teaching points in a book, they should come off the page as funny so the reader, hopefully even a non-improviser like me, can see the culmination of the lesson Hines is trying to impart.  This strikes me as a serious deficiency for a how-to book.

This isn’t to say that the pointers Hines provides aren’t useful and even fundamental truths in improv.  I have to trust the dozens of readers who testified that Hines’s techniques have worked for them.  Hines’s reputation as a performer, and even more as a teacher and coach, leave me little choice, given my own lack of experience on which to base a judgment, but to believe the testimonials.  (Also, nothing Hines says in Greatest Improviser seems remotely illogical or unlikely.)  If Will Hines is the Uta Hagen of improv (I’m thinking Respect for Acting here) and I were an improviser, I might be out putting his lessons to the acid test on stage forthwith.  Except, how do I get around the impression that the product of his advice isn’t funny?  How’d you feel about a book on carpentry that presents instructions for building a chair that sound fine, but are illustrated by a photo of a chair that doesn’t look like it’ll stand straight or hold your weight? 

“I don’t think you can teach people to be funny,” Hines admits.  “But you can teach people how to maximize the funny that they have,” he continued. That’s what the UCB training, including the advice in Greatest Improviser, is all about.  As Kirk phrased it, “[T]he whole point of the UCB approach seems to be to set up something, if not permanent, at least more structured than just getting up there and being hilarious.”  It’s precisely the rationale for Stanislavsky’s development of his actor-training system (and for Hagen’s book and teaching philosophy—as with nearly all modern training for the stage): teach the student actors (or improvisers) how to marshal what innate talent and inspiration provide them so they can control it, use it, even call it up when needed, rather than wait around for it to show and just let it run wild and lead them by the nose.  “You can teach people to take the things they are amused at in the real world,” Hines explains, “and translate that to the stage.”

In the introduction to the UCB improvisation manual, the authors affirm, “In reality, no matter how much fun they are having onstage, great improvisers are working together while adhering to a set of clear guidelines.  Every improviser who starts a scene with another improviser is entering into a tacit agreement to use these guidelines to build a comedic scene with his or her scene partner.”  As Hines puts it, “Improv is a real art form that can be worked at and that takes preparation.”  That’s what UCB’s classes, the UCB manual, and How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth all are about. 

1 comment:

  1. David Shepherd, the co-founder, with Paul Sills, of the Compass Players of Chicago in 1955, died at 94 on 17 December 2018. Compass was the progenitor of the improv movement that ultimately led to Second City, Compass's successor, and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Among Compass's members over its brief life and short revivals included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris, Shelley Berman, Alan Arkin, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Alan Alda, and Diana Sands.