Physicality and Improv

One of my weaknesses in improv is that I have a poor understanding of physicality.

I have a hard time, for example, watching someone and imitating them afterward. I can do the “mirror exercise,” where I stand face-to-face with someone and copy their actions as they’re happening, but I have a great deal of trouble trying to recreate a sequence of actions.

This was strongly evident when I tried taking an improv workshop on dance. I was able to keep up with the first few things we learned, but before long I was completely lost. I could watch the instructor doing the steps, but I couldn’t figure out how to recreate them… even though I could tell that they weren’t “advanced” steps.

The trouble I was having seemed to be that I didn’t have instructions for each component. I might understand what I was supposed to do with my arms, but not my feet. Or, I’d understand what I was supposed to do with one foot but not the other… and if I managed to learn what I was doing with my feet, it was only then that I realized that I was ridiculously stiff in the torso.

I’ve had the same problems in other areas of life. For the life of me, I cannot shoot a layup in basketball. Layups are fundamental to basketball, but I’ve never figured out how to do them. I could manage free throws and even three-point shots (undefended, anyway) — but there were fewer variables involved.

I play the drums, and that takes coordination of all four limbs… but the very fact that it’s done in a specific, finite number of locations on a rhythm means that I’ve been given the mathematical program for how to do it. There’s little or no “judgement” involved on the relativity of distance, and there’s a limited number of options. Admittedly, when you really start adding it up there are a lot of options, but it’s still limited. Moving from the snare to the floor tom is a defined distance within certain tolerances; making a particular step in dance, on the other hand, or figuring out where to plant your foot when trying to make a layup — I don’t have a framework of relative positions to understand where the foot is supposed to go. The rhythm isn’t a problem — the distance is.

In improv, this mostly rears its head when I’m trying to play a simple game like “Freeze.” A great deal of the time, when I am obligated by the structure of the game to take over the physical position of someone else and then create a new reality from it, justifying the position… I just can’t figure out what the position might mean other than what I just saw. Sometimes it comes to me and it works really well, but alot of the time I just don’t have the gut feeling of what I could do from those positions.

In practices where I have this trouble, the usual “workthrough” is to talk through it. However, this gives me the time to step back and utilize my intellect to extrapolate possibilities. It quashes the “animal brain” that’s supposed to be what informs your improv. So by the end of practice, I seem to be on top of things… but the next time the game comes up, I’m stumped.

Similarly, I’ve had multiple practices in which you create characters from a posture. (In fact, it’s one of the six options of Jill Bernard’s VAPAPO, which you need to need to need to study if you do improv. Fortunately, Jill once told me that if the posture thing just doesn’t work for me, use the other options.) In those practices, the instructor may say things like, “Walk around. Pick a part of your body. It’s much heavier now. Walk around with that heavier body part. How does it affect the way you walk? Now… what kind of person has a walk like that?

And my response is always (mentally): “Uhhhh… someone who was told to walk around like that part of his body was heavy.”

I just have trouble extrapolating from physical position.

But my trouble with the physical doesn’t stop there. If you factor in my natural social awkwardness, there’s one more issue. Physical contact.

Years ago, we had a practice where the artistic director, Ed, would have us replay scenes but make certain emotions and reactions bigger. (Bigger is usually better in shortform, I’ve found.) At the end of our scenes, Ed would ask the rest of the troupe what they saw from us that they weren’t used to seeing from us.

Several people pointed out that I had “actually touched” my scene partner. (I had grabbed her leg in desperation after falling to my knees.) And I realized they were right. I never actually touch other people up on the field.

There are a very few exceptions, but the fact that I can specifically remember many of those situations kind of proves my point. I’ve done it, but seldom enough that those moments stick out.

And the irony is, I’m actually a very touchy person by nature… but it’s something I stopped myself from doing at some point. If I just let go of my social anxiety, I’d be a hugger. I’d high-five people way more than necessary. I’d jostle, I’d bump, I’d tag.

But even with my dear friends in my troupe, I’m never sure if they’ll be bothered by physical contact on stage. I hold back.

And that’s what I don’t want. I don’t want to hold back.

I need to get more physical up on the ComedySportz field.

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