I am teaching a class at the moment on Duos, or Twoprov, as we call them in the UK, shows with only two performers in them. It’s the first time i have taught it, and I had all kinds of complex plans about the skill sets and ideas I wanted to communicate. But this is improvisation, so that didn’t happen. I wasn’t surprised. Like many improv teachers, I see leaving your plans behind as a sign things are going well. The question which ended up being almost the most important was a real surprise to me though. It was: “How do you usefully talk about improv afterwards?”. I had never taught a class specifically in this topic before, but I gave it some thought and although I am sure there are a lot of other angles, here are some thoughts.
The post-scene discussion question that I have always found most useful, most likely to lead to greater complicity and trust between you and your partner is not about whether it was good, or well mimed, or on game, or believable, not even if you enjoyed it or not (bear with me here). The question that i have found most beneficial has always been “What did you notice?” It is as simple and as complex as that. What did you notice? What was the data which your senses gathered from the world and how did your brain synthesise that data? Please share with me the information that you took in from the show.
When you ask this, many improvisers look at you with a sort of distrust. That’s can’t be true. That’s not how education works. We need to have a syllabus, some KPI’s by which we can assess our success. And there is, of course, some of that in improvisation. There are skills to be learnt, like mime, and who what where. Plus more abstract ones like remaining calm under pressure. But there is no single skill that is essential and there is nothing more important than the subjective experience of the people in the room. “What did you notice?”, can only be answered subjectively because it is based explicitly on the information passing through your consciousnesses.
It is important to ask this question in a way that does not place a value judgment on what you did. It is easy to write a myth of a show in the few minutes afterwards. “That was really fun!”, or “That really sucked!”. These are dangerous firstly because one myth tends to end up dominating and drowning out others, sometimes simply because it was the first one expressed, or because the most experienced or loudest member of the group expressed it. The vast complexity of a set of consciousnesses acting on each other in the creation of an artform where you can do or say anything is reduced to a simple good/bad judgment. Secondly, and i think more importantly, it is dangerous because these judgments are not inherently, empirically true, but values which we place on the experience.
It’s a deliberately open question and the beauty and frustration of it is that you can answer however you like. By describing your inner emotional experience, your observation of a pattern or how an audience reacted to a line. The thoughts that occur to you, large and small, subjective and factual, fully formed and half-baked, all are valid and essential responses to this. No matter how your brain works, you can answer it. And your way of answering it is correct because it is your way of answering it.
The thing is about the question above, no matter how you answer it, is that you are teaching your partner how you think, feel and respond, helping them towards a mental map of your brain. As you have these conversations with people, you start to learn how they work. Sometimes in a very conscious way, sometimes by accumulating a more instinctive, nebulous understanding of how their minds work. Doing this, the boundaries of the skull slowly become less defined, a set of people become a team and slowly, by increments, you learn more and more about how people work in general. You become more connected with humanity in general.
So the next time you have rehearsal or a show, ask this simple, deceptive question. What did you notice?