“Can I get a…”

Note: This is a reprint of a previous Improv Illusionist newsletter. If you’re not receiving my email newsletter, you can subscribe here and get my “Learning the Improv Illusion” series as a bonus.

Welcome to another issue of the Improv Illusionist Newsletter, a monthly update from me, David Raitt, with a focus on the improv skills of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance. I’m honoured by your interest.

Welcome back, fellow improvisers!

The release date for The Improv Illusionist book is getting closer! (24 Aug 2023)

It covers all the concepts I teach in my basic and advanced workshops on object work, environment, and physicality in performance. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Be on the lookout for some special promotions coming soon. Maybe even a giveaway for readers of this newsletter… 😉

Now, on to this month’s big idea…

How to get better audience suggestions for your scenes

“Why do we ask the audience for suggestions in improv?”

I’m sure there’s a whole history behind this. But I ask my students this question for a more practical purpose: getting better suggestions.

The usual answers I get are:

  • To involve the audience in the show
  • To prove you’re improvising (by taking the first suggestion you’re given)
  • To inspire the improviser

These reasons are all valid and good. But asking for suggestions is only a convention. You don’t have to do it. You can get inspiration from lots of other sources, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody, and the audience will enjoy the show just as much.

The drawback to suggestions is you’re expected to use the idea you get, even if it’s confusing, offensive, or uninspiring. Rejecting it and asking for something else is always an option, but the next suggestion could be equally problematic. Being fussy starts to look bad—the audience wonders why you’re asking for ideas if you don’t want to use them.

One way to manipulate a tough suggestion is to use it as inspiration for something else. It can help to describe your thinking (“You know, ‘toilet plunger’ makes me think of my grandfather…”), but you can lose the audience if they suspect you’re trying to evade them.

Many suggestions are too generic to be really useful (except to inspire the same old boring scenes). Bizarre suggestions may initially seem great, but often lead to weird scenes, or the idea burns out quickly. Is there a happy medium?

One way to do this, which I’ve found especially useful for locations, is to drill down into specifics. Take the suggestion of “an office” for example. There are lots of sub-locations inside an office: your cubicle, the boss’s corner suite, the boardroom, the break room, the water cooler. What about the basement, the service elevator, the roof? What other sub-locations can you think of?

Try again with a scene “at home.” Is it in the kitchen, the bedroom, a closet, the attic, the backyard (with or without a swimming pool), the furnace room? Or, if you’re in an apartment, you’ve got lots more places in the building.

Notice how, for at least some of these sub-locations, your mind naturally drifts toward filling that place with characters, or activities, or a story starts to form. This is the power of specificity.

You also get these benefits, which happen to be improvements on the reasons we get suggestions that I mentioned at the top!

  • It involves the audience more. You can ask them to think up sub-locations, which gets even more people involved in setting up the scene.
  • It lets you take the first suggestion without being locked in. By exploring it further before beginning the scene, you definitely prove you’re improvising.
  • And of course, you will be more inspired by suggestions.

Consider drill-downs for other types of suggestions, too, like character quirks, genre tropes, or activities. How can you move from the general to the specific?

Things to Try

Ideas for exercises or scenes to work out your physical improv skills.

  • Experiment with Sub-locations (as above). For long-form improvisers, try generating a list of sub-locations of a generic place, then visiting all those sub-locations during a single story.
  • In a similar way, can you drill down on other types of suggestions for better inspiration? Genre tropes? Character quirks? Emotional inspirations?
  • Practice setting up your scenes by explaining the game or format and asking for suggestions. Remember that, especially for short-form, setting up your scenes in a polished manner also sets up the audience to trust you more.
  • Scene-Painting Curveballs exercise: Have players start a scene. At one or more random points, have someone outside the scene describe something in the environment; for example, “There’s a beautiful portrait of her mother on the wall,” or “A large window looks out over the city skyline.” Be careful about abrupt changes, which draw focus and alter the scene; for example, “A rock crashes through the window.” You want to inspire your partners, not hijack their improv.

More for the Improv Illusionist

Emotional Safety Resources

Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

Improv Books — Reviews & Recommendations

Improv Podcasts — Reviews & Recommendations

The Improv Illusionist book is coming August 24, 2023!
Get more info and pre-order links here.

Notable Quote

“I get annoyed when people say I sat there and thought up games. I never even realized they were games. I used to call them problems.”
— Viola Spolin, from “Something Wonderful Right Away” the new edition by Jeffrey Sweet

Question(s) of the Month

How do you get inspiring suggestions for your improv scenes?

Hit Reply and share. I love to chat with readers, and it gives me ideas for future content to help the whole community.

Do you have any feedback about Improv Illusionist, either these newsletters or the website? Send me a message or just reply to this email. Seriously, I read and respond to just about everything.

See you again on July 6th!

Ex nihilo!

David Raitt - Headshot

Hi, I'm David Raitt. I've been performing and teaching improv and sketch comedy for over 25 years.
MY MISSION: To help improvisers everywhere (re-)learn the power of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance.

Learning the Improv Illusion

A free series introducing the techniques of Physical Improv.