Tips from Tom 3: My Dinner with Miriam

By Tom Soter

The scene is a coffee shop. Miriam Sirota and I are talking about improvisation.

“What do you feel has to happen between a group of people to make a group scene work?” Miriam asks.

“They have to have a lot of silence at the beginning. And beyond the silence, they have to clear their heads of any preconceived ideas. Then they have to watch what the other people are doing, listen, and observe what’s happen and not speak until they feel they have something to say. Sometimes you speak without knowing what you mean entirely. You have to trust and leap somewhere. I know that sounds very mystical, but you rely on techniques to try and figure out who the people are, even as you’re acting them out. The best thing that can be said is you have to trust who you’re working with.”

“For me,” says Miriam, “in a group scene where so many people are involved, you have to be aware of what is the scene is about. Who are the people in the scene? Who is the conflict with? And you have to play the part that you need to play within that. Because a lot of times, people try to pull focus in a group scene, they try to take over instead of listening and observing.”Sirota and SoterSirota and Soter

“There’s a very good example of that. We did a scene at a funeral and someone made a mistake and made a reference to one of the dead people being our mother, when we had established that it was our father. And some other improvisers offstage rushed on and changed the coffin – it was very broad and comic and explained the confusion, but it also broke the realistic mood and made it into a big gag. Instead of trusting that we could have explained the mix-up ourselves. But it didn’t stop there. Soon they started changing the coffin regularly and turned that into a pattern, a disruptive pattern, because they didn’t trust that we had anything happening and they wanted to get some immediate laughs going. That’s a good example of what happens if you don’t give improvisers their space you don’t give the scene its space to breathe.”

“You’ve taught improv for years. What do you think is the most common problem that most newcomers have?”

“They think they have to be funny. They feel like they have to come up with gags and quips and play zany characters. They’re not real. They try to come up with one-liners, rather than realizing that what improv is about is playing a thinly disguised version of yourself in different situations and using the same skills you use in life, which is to listen, to observe, to communicate, to try to not judge. And they’re very judgmental of themselves when they get up there.”