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More Important Than You
What I've learned from scene work so far is that there are way too many things that make you think. There seem to be too many "dont's" or "rules". However, these rules are not to make everything harder, they're there to make things easier. And not just easier for you. They are there to make things easier on the most important person in the theater: the person you are doing the scene with. Blocking, Denying, and Questions are three very common ones.
An actor is Blocking when they essentially say "No". They are not allowing the other actor to get they're idea across. This sometimes happens because they might think their idea is better than their partner's. That is a source of many problems. In fact, that is the one reason why you should never block. Every idea that your partner gives you is a gift; take it, unwrap it, then wrap it up even prettier and give it back.
Denying an offer is similar to blocking. It's a gift when someone does great environment work and sets a table for you. You're denying that if you walk right through the table. It also can occur when someone gives you a character: "Hi Grandma," should be embraced. Do not ruin their idea by saying, "I'm not your Grandma, I'm a TV repairman." You can be both!
Every idea that your partner gives you is a gift; take it, unwrap it, then wrap it up even prettier and give it back.
If you understand why Blocking and Denying are harmful, you pretty much grasp the idea of giving gifts. And you know how nice it is to receive them. Well, asking Questions is the opposite. It's a greedy, selfish way of receiving gifts. You are requesting that your scene partner give you a gift when you ask a question. It also forces the scene into a bottleneck. Questions have to be answered, and if they require more information that they give, they slow the scene down because they make both actors build one part of an idea together, instead of sharing ideas back and forth.
But the rules are just part of it. We learn so many things that are geared to making scenes "better". In fact, just writing this makes me think of 77 spin-off articles that could be written by anyone who has ever done improv scene work. We learn about all these things to think about, then we learn not to think at all. Is this a total contradiction? Is someone wrong? Are all these books and teachers full of plastic balls? Some may think so, but they are not. There are unlimited things to think about when approaching an improv scene. But not until these things become "instincts", can you start to improve at a quicker pace.
I fully believe that you can focus on one part of your improv, and put the rest on cruise control. That way you can improve one area and let your experience carry you through the rest of the way. If you know why some improv habits are bad, you're off to a great start. And if you feel one taking over, focus on it and tweak it.
Reacting honestly to your scene partner's actions or statements results in some of the best work.
Reacting honestly to your scene partner's actions or statements (or even questions) results in some of the best work. Thinking that your partner just "broke a rule" is not the way to go. In fact, thinking about all the junk that you learned will hurt a scene as well. Instead of branding those rules into your mind, know why they are there and practice them. The best way to approach it is to understand that everything we learn is there to make it easier for your scene partner:
"Don't block or deny reality."
It's not only about making the scene go faster or smoother. It's a trust builder as well. Think about those for just one second. They all take the pressure off those on stage with you in one way or another. It's not about making what you're doing look better to the audience. That will come... it's a direct result. All of these things help other actors out in countless ways (yes, even the confidence one - if you are confident and sure of what you are doing, they won't be confused either). Wouldn't you love it if the people on stage with you thought the same way? Well, practice it. It's contagious. Do unto others. Got any more cliches?
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