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.
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.
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.
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