Tips from Tom 2: Spontaneity Exercises

By Tom Soter Soter 

Emotional Symphony

For this, each improviser becomes an "instrument," assigned an emotion by a member of the audience. A conductor points at each instrument at various times and then that person has to emote, non–verbally, with sounds not words. This is a good exercise to use as a warm–up. It demonstrates that in improv, the sum is greater than the parts. The conductor has to be tuned in to how strong each player is and not dwell on someone who doesn't have a hook for his emotion. He must also have an ear for the differing sounds, because part of the interest in a well–done emotional symphony is playing the sounds of the players off each other (a moan versus a scream, a sigh versus a laugh, etc.). The other good thing about this exercise is that it demonstrates there is no "right" or "wrong" in the best improv. There is no wrong way to do an emotion; there is your way. If you commit strongly to an emotional choice, you can make it work. The worst thing you can do is be indecisive, or try to fake it, hoping no one will not notice. If you get a "non–emotion" –– schizophrenic or Ed McMahon–like –– the trick is not to turn it down but to come up with an emotion that is close to that, or see how that emotion makes you feel. Then play that emotion.

Lying

What the improviser does here is create an incredible lie, in which one improviser "yes ands" another. The goal is to be spontaneous but a little more structured. The excuse the two make will take the form of a story. They should stay in the moment and agree with each other. Remember: you don't know where the story is going to go, and you only know where it's been. The story starts small and builds and builds to an incredible finish. Each person adds action. There is not a lot of description. You don't want to get into a lot of your "thoughts," even though that is a natural tendency: your brain is trying to slow things down to figure out what's happening. We want to work around that. The goal is action and more action –– like a Schwarzenegger movie. For example:

BILL: Dan and I were both finalists in the kickboxing competition at Madison Square Garden –– and we were both in the dressing room and...

DAN: and some really mean guy came in and he was an expert kickboxer and he kicked us through the roof...

BILL: and we both, because both of us were still tied together at the wrist for the performance, went sailing through the sky...

DAN: into the air. People were cheering and they had this new champion, but what good was it to us we were just...

BILL: we were just two finalists and here was the guy who was last year's champion and he kicked us out of the ring. And, as you know, once you're kicked out of a stadium in a kickboxing tournament, you're not allowed to come back.

DAN: So what we do? Where would we land but in this one tree, this one tree around Madison Square Garden...

BILL: and it was the sacred tree of Chung–Chowng, which was at that very moment being immolated in an ancient...

DAN: tomb and there were photographers around taking pictures of it. Nobody had ever seen a thing like this.

BILL: And suddenly there we were looking down at photographers from Time and Newsweek snapping pictures of us as the flames got higher...

DAN: and higher, enveloping us and everyone saw these two men there and they thought it was part...

BILL: and they thought it was part of the Druidic ceremony and they started sprinkling us with gasoline...

DAN: and we exploded, and I don't know. We just woke up and we were on the ground.

BILL: And we were right outside and that's when we rang the buzzer and that's why we were late.

That is a nice length. It is not too long. And each improviser was surprising the other (good example: when Bill said "we were enveloped" and Dan said "in a tomb." It was a surprising). After they exploded, how could you top that? Sense when you've peaked.

Tom Soter, host of SNITom Soter, host of SNI