Tom Soter, the co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION, remembers some keys moments from his many years of teaching and performing improv.
“When talking about making someone look good, I always remember a scene Leo Jenicek did in my class years ago. The suggested location for the scene was a clearing in the woods, and Leo was sitting with his back to his scene partner – never a good idea, by the way – and in the audience we could see that he was miming writing a letter. But his partner could only see his back and that he was doing something with his arm. She made a guess and entered, saying, “Are you still frying those beans?” – or something like that – and Leo immediately twisted his hand around to mime the holding of a frying pan. Now, an inexperienced improviser would have said, “I’m not frying beans, I’m writing a letter” (subtext: you idiot). But Leo is a good improviser and he adjusted, not holding onto his idea and not pointing out that his partner had misinterpreted his actions. When you are improvising with an expert improviser you are in good hands. Working with an improviser like Leo is fun because you know that he’s got your back, so you can relax and let the scene flow.
“In one show I was in years ago, I started a scene with Matt Ostrom in complete silence. We looked at each other. Then he took a chair that was on the stage and moved it, very particularly, and set iy down on the stage. Then I took another chair and moved it, very particularly, and set it down on the stage. We ended up alternating in the arrangement of the chairs, which was done in a very precise manner; it was almost a ballet of the chair arrangement. The opening of that scene looked very impressive. My father, who was in the audience, said to me after the show, “You must have planned that bit with the chairs. It was very well choreographed.” But we hadn’t choreographed it. It was pure agreement – I agreed with Matt’s initial action and my intention was to make him look good. I could have just watched him rearranging chairs – be passive – but my instinct was to support his idea. Even though I didn’t know what we were doing – and he didn’t have much of an idea either – I went along with him and that made him look good, and he made me look good. And the scene that developed looked good too.
“I once had a student named Rhonda, who was very talented but didn’t understand how to start a scene. She would invariably start talking the moment it would begin. She would lay out a whole scenario – in effect, saying, “This is the story, and here is your part and here is my part.” She didn’t observe what her partner was doing – which is a way to inspire yourself – and she didn’t listen unconditionally to what her partner was saying. I ended up creating a rule for her, which I called “The Rhonda Rule.” Whenever the rule was imposed, Rhonda couldn’t start talking in a scene until her partner spoke for the first time. When “The Rhonda Rule” was in place, her partner could often draw out the silence at the top of the scene, forcing Rhonda to listen and observe. Some amazing scenes came out of that. They were all based on listening, observing, and communicating, too. I now apply the rule to other students who suffer from Rhonda’s complaint.
“Silence and listening can be a potent combination. I once did a scene in which my partner started talking about her character’s problems. She went on in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, and as I listened and observed her, it seemed like she was solving her character’s problems as she spoke, so I ended up not saying anything, just nodding. The scene ended with her saying to me, “Thank you, Tom, talking with you sure helped straighten me out.” Blackout. And I didn’t say a thing. I just listened.
“Active listening is what the best improvisers do. Watching Chicago City Limits in the 1980s, I was often impressed by the “active listening” practiced by the troupe, especially when it did a “Conducted Story.” It was amazing the way the conductor could cut off cast members mid-word and the next person speaking would pick up at mid-word, seamlessly following the flow. It sounded like one person speaking.”