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Solo Improv: The Art of Playing with Yourself
by Jesse Parent


The suggestion drove my monologue to my childhood, when a friend and I made up comic books about heroes with snake names and villains named after snake fighters like Mongoose and Kookaburra. It then went on to how girls don't dig guys who do comic books, and how I took auto shop to work on my car, because girls dig cars and that kind of work built character. In reality, it only built debt and a failing grade. From that monologue, I did a series of scenes where I was everything from a crooked mechanic, to a psychotic drifter, to a company executive. All of this was accomplished in ten minutes.

Thus ended my first public attempt at a solo improvisation. This format seems to break a lot of improv conventions that had been drilled into my head on and off for almost ten years: support each other, group mind, collaboration. Alone on the stage with no support from anyone, all of the characters represented by one person. And yet, it's more fun than I could possibly imagine.

I first encountered the concept of solo improvisation after taking a class in Chicago with Andy Eninger, creator of the Sybil form of solo improvisation. Basically, a monologue is given that is inspired by a suggestion, which in turn inspires a set of scenes that follows. I was curious when I signed up for the class, but I went in with a rather critical mind. "How could this be improv if you are the only one on stage? Where is the collaboration, the give and take?" I asked. It turned out to be a tremendous learning experience, where I was forced to look at myself as a performer in a whole new light.

With solo improv, Eninger points out that "you come up against any weaknesses you have - big time!" By not creating environments, relationships, and opportunities to progress a scene, you end up hurting yourself. Solo improv can expose some of your innermost thoughts, personal themes, that "come out in the characters and situations you create."

"You come up against any weaknesses you have - big time!" - Andy Eninger

Knock Your Socks Off's (or KYSOff's) Troy Taylor, who has also taken a class with Eninger, describes the delight of being by yourself. A stand up comedian as well as an improviser, Taylor enjoys the opportunity to get up on stage and develop situations on his own. Making yourself a strong improviser just helps out incredibly when you are in a group scenario, allowing stronger characters to develop and stronger relationships to be established.

Lisa Jolley, creator of the one woman show "Jolley on the Spot," agrees with this experiment in solidarity. "If you're not a good supporting player with your group, you'll let yourself down when it comes to solo work," she says. Jolley also mentions solo's ability to make you a better initiator. "Doing it alone ups your skill level across the board."

But what about the "rules" of improv: denial, asking questions, "pimping" (forcing a fellow actor to create something out of nothing, like "read this book" or "show us that dance")? As Eninger points out, real denial hurts just like in any other improvisation. However, since you are playing all the characters, object or reality denial is less likely to happen. Eninger also notes that pimping would be almost impossible. That becomes a gift for the other character. "In the end," he says, "you have to play that legless Albanian-Lutheran one-eyed old lady that you pimp into existence, so you'll learn your lesson quick."

So now we get to the characters and their development. This is one of the best reasons to try this form out, in the first place. As the only person on stage, with few props (using props in solo for anything but a monologue can become problematic and could limit the audience's imagination, according to Eninger), how do you establish who's who? Two things, Eninger states: "Play physically contrasting characters, and put your characters in very specific spots on stage." This establishes some clear differences that the audience can use to figure out which character you are playing at a given moment. Having a physical habit can also help, offers Eninger. Give them a certain posture, a nervous tic, a specific look or way of moving their head.

When you change characters, don't try to do so at a frantic pace. Find a neutral position that shows you are in transition. Don't try and put the characters right next to each other, it isn't as interesting to watch. Just put them where they would normally be if the scene wasn't being played by one person.

Jolley adds her own insights to character creation in solo improv. "Tell the TRUTH," she advises. "You're all alone up there, so if you forget a character's name, your teammate isn't going to help you." She also advises that the actor creates a space, an environment to be in. "The great thing about creating a space by yourself is that no one's going to walk through the table." She echoes Eninger's advice to make strong character choices, and since she often plays actual audience members in her shows, she does use their personal items as props to help establish who is who on stage.

"Doing it alone ups your skill level across the board." - Lisa Jolley

Solo improv is much easier to do when you have a longer time to establish characters and relationships. This isn't just, as Joe Bill of the Annoyance Theater in Chicago puts it, the improviser's tendency to enjoy performing longer pieces and watching shorter pieces due to their egos. As Eninger points out, longer pieces allow the improviser to explore themselves, reveal personal themes, thoughts and beliefs. A lot can be learned of yourself as you are left to explore how a topic makes you feel through characters, helping you to become a stronger performer and draw on that knowledge of self. As self-serving as that sounds, audiences seem to enjoy watching people introduce viewpoints that have a ring of truth in them.

Obviously, solo improvisation leans more towards long form than short form improv, concentrating on scene work and characters rather than relying on the energy of an improv game to help in slow moments. So is this a venue that could work in Utah? According to Taylor, not yet. Utah audiences, he feels, are more used to the competitive short form format of entertainment when it comes to improv. Even in a stand-up environment, he says, the limits on time to perform prevent a real ability to perform more than five to ten minutes, which is hardly any time at all to establish anything too complex.

So even if the time is short, what is the focus of this form? What is the most important thing to be aware of when doing a solo improv? "The moment," says Eninger. Recognizing it and staying in it. Commitment. Taking it to the next level. Heightening it. As in any improv, progression and raising the stakes can make a scene so much more interesting. Why not focus on that even more, especially when it's just you? Certainly it can keep a scene from becoming just a set of characters talking and exchanging jokes. And perhaps it can help you keep yourself on your toes.

Mick Napier of the Annoyance Theater has a credo: Take care of yourself on stage and you will take care of others. Solo improv seems to do that in spades. By recognizing your own improv and artistic voice, you are able to make stronger contributions. As Eninger puts it, "While we all know that there's something magical in 'group mind,' we forget that the mind of a single artist can come up with some pretty incredible things when pushed to the limit." By taking care of yourself, improving your own skills and recognizing your weaknesses, you can help your troupe become that much stronger in a performance.

Are you still asking "Why would I do this?" Maybe Lisa Jolley can finally convince you with this answer:

"To see if you can."

Andy Eninger is the creator of the Sybil solo improv form (www.sybilization.com). His newest solo show, "One Man Seen," opens September 1, 2002, and will play Sundays in September at the WNEP theater, Chicago, IL. Information is at http://www.fuzzyco.com/productions/onemanseen/index.html

Lisa Jolley perform in her one woman show, "Jolley on the Spot," where she combines elements of music and improv through audience interaction to create an "improv cabaret."

Troy Taylor is a member of the Utah comedy improv troupe Knock Your Socks Off and performs stand up comedy every Sunday night at Wiseguys in West Valley City, UT.

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