I’m off to Bristol tomorrow morning to teach my Taking it Easy workshop as part of the Bristol Improv Fest. I’m really looking forward to getting to be a part of that festival, and getting to teach this workshop again.

Since I first taught Taking it Easy – in Brighton last September, I’ve been able to refine it and focus on exercises that try and really get at the core of what good improv scenework is about. It’s led me to pinpoint what I think makes good (or misguided) scenework.

To be or not to be
There are really only two ways to go. Essentially we, as performers, either work cooperatively to tell the story that presents itself (emerges) in the course of our improvisation. Or we miss the signs – or wilfully try and push an idea – and the scene veers off into incongruency or stangnation. It will be a scene, or it will be something else less satisfying.

No offense to incongruency, but once a story has declared itself on stage, it’s much easier to just fulfill the promise of that – as that’s what the audience wants to see, and what the scene wants to be. That’s not to say that there’s only one possibility for what a scene could be, there are millions of shades and directions, but they all need to relate to – and be rooted in – what has come before.

The trick is that there’s no need to be quick-witted, or a mindblowing object worker, or a more brilliant character performer (although those things can help, so long as they’re not getting in the way). In fact all these things can help your scenes become even more engaging and magical.

But if your scene lacks the core element of ‘going with the flow’ all your authentic accents and stunning spacework won’t save it.

Complete listening
What needs to be developed is a sensitivity to the minute offers your scene partner makes, the possibilities presented by the scenario, and the instincts that you have need to be trained to respond appropriately – whatever that means to you and the character you’re playing. This means you need to be ‘listening’ to your partner and everything around you.

The good news is that the process of learning to do this is in itself fun, and once you get out of your own way the scenework that occurs will, nine times out of ten, be immensely satisfying. If you’re listening to each other and telling the story that wants to be told, there is very little likelihood that you and your partner will finish your scene and ask each other: “What went wrong?” Because it will have unfolded in a seemingly natural way, no matter how strange the world you’ve created. The audience will love it too.

Because, just by listening, being aware and following on logically from what each person does, a delightful story will inevitably develop. This is the hard thing to deal with. Because it’s much easier than we think it should be and more than we want it to be.

But paradoxically, I’ve found this super simple approach is difficult for beginners to get. Which is fine, because there are lots of other things they can be working on. And even experienced improvisers take a while to come to grips with the notion of doing less.

Last night
I had my first evening coaching Dutch improv group the Ugly Ducklings last night. I will be working with them for the next two months, and I’m really looking forward to the challenge. And the opportunity to be able to go back week on week, to pick up on threads and help them move in the direction of more sensitive scenework.

They’re really nice folks, good experienced improvisers, and they even made an effort to play in English for me. We focused, in this first session, on just the listening element of the Taking it Easy approach. Just pay attention, listen and respond. I would tell them over and over. I planned on covering this for only part of the lesson, but we spent the whole evening on it. The last hour was just straight-up scenes coached by me.

I was amazed at how often offers were ignored or rejected or wilfully misinterpreted, and how, each time this happened, the scene would make like a bird with a broken wing. There could still be beautiful moments of flight, and occasional updrafts, but it was always heading for a crash landing.

But each time this happened, we were able to go back a beat, or a couple of moments, and pinpoint the moment when the players were disconnected from each other and/or the story. And then, once we made a course correction, beautiful scenework unfolded, and they found a conclusion and the satisfaction and audience appreciation that comes with making the whole flight.

I’m looking forward to trying to get at this notion of taking it easy (or getting out of your own way and letting the scene tell the story) all over again tomorrow.

To Bristol!