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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...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

This Is Your Brain on Improv

I have never been able to come up with a reasonable answer for the oft-asked question, "How do you do that?" ("that" meaning, interchangeably, long-form improv, a specific improvised game, or even improv in general). How do I do improv? I don't know -- I just do it, I guess. I mean, I've taken hundreds of hours of classes, read dozens of books, practiced-practiced-practiced ... but in the end, it's just a matter of doing it. That answer, however, doesn't ever seem to satisfy either myself nor the asker.

I recently read an article in Scientific American about choking under pressure. You know -- you've practiced your convention speech a thousand times in front of the mirror and anyone who'll sit still to listen. You know it backwards and forwards ... but then you get up on the podium to deliver it and -- choke! You can't remember a thing. The old advice, when this happened, was to slow down; with relaxation and calm, your speech would return and you'd be back on your feet. But SciAm differs, suggesting that a better move would be to plunge right in without thinking and hope for the best. The super-boiled-down reasoning is this: your memorized speech is controlled by the cerebellum, land of the automatic; if you think about it, you're using your cerebral cortex, the brain's thinkiest bit. So of course your thinky brain can't retrieve the speech; it's in your monkey brain, safe and sound. It's like looking for your keys in the refrigerator -- better to check the key rack, where you left them. By jumping into the speech without thinking, your cerebellum is triggered, the speech is retrieved from its storage space, and you're the hit of the dental convention.

So how does improv figure into all of this? At the beginning, when you're taking classes, improv is mostly cerebral cortex, the higher-order-thinking part of the brain that gets involved when you're learning new skills. And that's good, because there's a lot to absorb as your mind becomes more flexible and you practice all the new stuff you're learning. As you're busy building new neural pathways and training your brain to think the way you want it to, all this improv knowledge is becoming more familiar. Until one day, thunk!, you're not reminding yourself to "say yes" anymore -- you're just doing it. The cerebellum, your animal brain of instinctual reactions, has kicked in. With practice, all the basic skills will make their way into that part of your brain, leaving the cerebral cortex free to work on higher-level improv stuff.

This is something that improvisors talk about amongst themselves (you know, when you're learning a new improv skill, and it's just impossible, and you know you're an idiot and you'll never get it, and then suddenly, you can do it, and it's easy, and you can't remember what all the fuss was about?), but it's hard to explain to someone in the midst of the struggle. Thinking about it in terms of cerebellum vs. cerebral cortex might just help banish the voices of despair and make it all make a little more sense.

So how do I do improv? I still don't really know. But I might be a little closer to a satisfying answer.

Improv Hours Today: 3
This Week: 9
This Month: 50
This Year: 118
Total: 5,618

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


When you're onstage in the middle of a long-form show, you're a juggler working to keep a lot of balls in the air. And all the balls are equally important in creating a well-rounded story that's satisfying to audience and fellow improvisors alike. While the number of things you need to think about may seem innumerable, they can be broken down pretty easily into three categories: character, story, and improv. Since almost every aspect of a long-form story can be thought of from all three perspectives, it might be helpful to think about each category as a separate brain.

Character Brain
Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. So the Character Brain thinks about the person you're portraying onstage. How do they talk? How do they move? What do they want? What is their history? Their hopes for the future? Your Character Brain thinks about all aspects of your character, giving it depth and making it real, whether you're a walk-through waiter or the mustachioed detective in an Agatha Christie-style mystery.

Playwright Brain
Your Playwright Brain worries about the story. Who's the protagonist? What style or genre are you trying to create? What has happened so far, and what needs to happen next? Your Playwright Brain is writing the story as you go, constantly trying to make sense of what's happening in the greater context of the story as a whole. So while your Character Brain has created a whole world of nuance for the character you're playing, your Playwright Brain reminds you that your purpose in the scene is to be the third guy in the Starbucks coffee line, raising the stakes for the harried teenage barista (the story's protagonist) behind the counter.

Actor Brain
Finally, your Actor Brain, or Improvisor Brain, is keeping track of all the good improv practices you've learned over the years. Yes-And, Make Your Partner Look Good, Go Into the Cave--all that stuff. This part of your brain is focused on the other actors onstage with you, being present in the moment, and noticing what's going on around you. Someone pulled you onstage for a scene--what do they want from you? How can you make their idea happen? This brain is also looking for patterns, opportunities for reincorporation, chances for a lazzi, and other ways to have fun onstage and engage your fellow actors and the audience.

A fun and satisfying long-form story depends a lot on engaging these three brains and getting them to work together. With practice, the three brains will become instinctive, freeing you to relax and have fun onstage.

(Props to Christian for the idea of three brains. He's working on a book. You should read it.)

Improv Hours Today: 1
This Week: 6
This Month: 19
This Year: 87
Total: 5,587