I took my first improv classes at the UCB and then years later I really learned how to improvise at the Magnet but one of the best improv classes that I ever took was with Ali Farahnakian at the PIT. I think it’s also the only class I ever took at the PIT. This was years ago. The Magnet may not even have existed when I took this class.
The class was called Advanced Improvisation. It turned out to not be that advanced at all but it was awesome and what every single one of us needed. It was more like basic scene work for improvisers who had been through all the levels at a theater already. As you take classes, your head gets filled with jargon and improv speak and structures and by the end you don’t even remember what being funny feels like. This class made scenes simple. That thing you just did, do it again, only bigger. It was the first time I had heard that note and it was revelatory to me that it worked. Most improv notes I had received up until that point were drawn out ruminations on the authentic behavior of people and what constituted an interesting scene. But in this class? Just do something, then do it again.
There was one scene I remember that two other students in the class did. They were in a baseball game and one guy was the pitcher and he was saying, “I’m going to throw this at you.” The other guy, the batter, would then say, “You don’t have the guts to throw that at me.” They went back and for a couple of times. “Yes I do.” “No you don’t.” “You don’t think I will?” “Not a chance.”
Ali paused the scene. “Guys, that ball should have been up his ass five lines ago.” Basically, throw the damn ball at him.
It was a little jarring but it was also true. That’s what needed to happen, otherwise it’s just no you won’t yes I will no you won’t yes I will now you won’t yes I will ad infinitum. I had sure as hell done that scene a few hundred times by that point.
Improv is inherently scary. You don’t know what you’re going to do. So, when you have something familiar, you hold on to it. Whenever I was in a scene like that, I wouldn’t throw the ball (whatever “the ball” happened to be in that particular case) because I didn’t know what I would be doing after that. But you have to do that thing and then discover the next part of the scene to move forward.
That’s how the seed was planted for my ingenious improv philosophy, the one that I have been imparting on my newer groups. Are you ready for it? Because it’s brilliant.
If there’s a thing, do the thing.
That’s it. But, frankly, you would be amazed at how many scenes it applies to. Two improvisers are standing around talking about how they’re going to rob a bank. “Guys, rob the bank. Do the thing.” Two improvisers are in surgery but they’re talking about how risky the surgery was. “Guys, start cutting the body up. Do the thing.” Have the sex talk with your kid. Jump out of the airplane. Get divorced. Do the thing. The scene won’t really start until you do.
Notes are hard to remember. When you’re in a scene, it’s hard to remember to maintain a relationship, hold on to your character, keep your object work real, look for a game, heighten and explore it. But “do the thing”? Asinine stuff is easy to remember. You can have a whole toolbox full of tools for every job but sometimes you just need a hammer.
I’ve been working with one group for over a year now and I drilled “do the thing” into their heads. After one of their first successful Triple Crown shows, before I even gave notes, one of them came up to me and said, “We did the thing!” But another guy in the group had nightmares about me where he would be trying to accomplish some task and I would be standing over him telling him to do the thing.
They’ve all improved and I haven’t had to bust out my magical key to improv lately but it served its purpose (nightmares notwithstanding).