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10,000 Hours

In his book  Outliers , Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink ) maintains that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be wor...

Monday, January 5, 2009


When I was at BATS, Keith Johnstone entreated the players in his workshops, and when he directed Micetro, to be boring. We would roll our eyes and snort (albeit quietly), then endeavor to be boring -- whatever that meant.

Of course, later I realized what he was going for. He probably didn't really mean "boring" -- he meant "simple." Pick one idea -- ideally the first one that comes up in the scene -- and run with it. A scene about shopping for lettuce in your corner grocery store can be just as interesting as one about defending the galaxy in a spaceship you built yourself out of cheeseburgers and dental floss. More so, in fact, because the audience can relate to it. Most people have bought lettuce; the majority of us have never defended against alien invaders. And a scene that the audience can relate to is much more satisfying to watch than one that is just played for laughs.

Where simple really helps is in long-form. You can get away with complex cleverness in short form; in fact, you'll probably be rewarded for it, with audience applause and laughter. But in a format where you're telling a single story, in the same "genre universe," for 30 to 120 minutes, the simpler you can keep things, the easier you're making your life onstage -- and the happier you're making the audience.

Think of it this way -- as you and your fellow improvisors are building your story, the audience is figuring things out along with you. They don't have any additional information; neither do you. So if you're confused onstage, you'd better believe they're confused. And if they're confused, their attention is going to wander. And if their attention wanders, they're not going to be paying attention to the story. And if they're not paying attention to the story, they will get even more confused, until you've completely lost them. Then it doesn't matter how brilliantly you tie up all your loose ends -- if nobody in the audience cares, what's the point?

Better, then, to keep your story simple. If you've got a simple, familiar narrative arc (like boy meets girl, they meet with an obstacle, overcome it, and live happily ever after), it allows you to get more in-depth with other things (character development, relationships, locations, even side stories) that make the core story more real and dimensional. And comedy will come out of that! The audience can follow the story, so they're not confused and checked-out. They can relate to it, so they'll find the humor in the truths that you tell and the real, nuanced characters that you portray. And they'll leave the theater laughing and satisfied, eager to return and see another show.

Improv Hours Today: 1
This Week: 1
This Month: 6
This Year: 6
Total: 5,506

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