The issue is: what to do when a longer improvisation ends up feeling shapeless, as if it is wandering into too many side pathways, and losing its coherence. The scene goes in so many different directions that it loses the sense that everything in the scene belongs together, in one world. It loses the sense that the scene is, at every moment, taking the viewer deeper and deeper into a specific world. How can we keep the scene coherent? How can we maintain the sense that each moment in the scene carries us deeper inside of it?

I have written about this issue in the past, notably in my blog post Following the Curve. But I’d like to address it here in terms of my current understanding of the technique and how it works.

First, what is definitely the wrong way to address this issue:

It is wrong to try and force the scene to become “coherent” by trying artificially to make references to images, characters, or events which came up earlier in the scene. If you are somewhere in the middle of the scene, then it is most definitely wrong to do this by trying to remember something that was mentioned earlier in the scene, and trying to think of a way to mention the same thing again. This is a recipe for disaster.

Your connection to each present moment in the scene is the lifeblood of your performance. Each moment in the scene feels significant and compelling to the degree that it comes out the dynamics inherent in that moment. The overall form of the scene feels organic and justified, to the degree that each thing you say or do in the scene comes right out of what is happening in the moment. If you interrupt your continuous, connected experience of the scene in order to think back and try to remember a previous image, you have severed your connection with what is going on in the scene now, and pretty much ruined the moment you are in, and everything that follows. (This is true even if you are not the person speaking at the moment, because you will still lose your connection to the unfolding sequence of feelings which makes up the scene’s structure.)

At the same time, if you self-consciously try to make a new reference to an earlier image, because you think this will tie things together in the scene, your new reference will not spring organically from the inner necessity of the moment you are in, and so it will be artificial and weak.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with images, ideas, or references which keep reappearing in the scene. On the contrary, of course it is a very good thing when certain images or references constantly reappear in the scene, often in new forms. This, after all, is precisely what achieves our goal of making the scene feel coherent. (I discuss the technique of this extensively in my post Key Images.) These recurrent, key images keep coming back because you are constantly on the lookout for them, not because you artificially try to re-insert them into the scene. In other words, at each moment in the scene in which a new image or new idea appears, your attitude is “Aha! This is an important new image in the scene. This image may provide an important clue about the world I’m exploring. I’m going to be on the lookout, in case this image comes back again, and perhaps it will provide further clues in the future.” Then, when the image organically reappears at a later point (because you have maintained perfect continuity throughout the scene), you will be ready to receive it, and you will recognize that it has come back. You will be able to take advantage of its reappearance. As you move through the scene, you regard everything that appears in the scene as a vital clue, an important piece of data that helps you uncover more of the mystery of the scene. In this sense, you regard an improvised scene as being like a dream or like a parable, in which every single element is a meaningful sign, meant to reveal something to you. Nothing is random, and nothing is irrelevant.

Viewed this way, it becomes clear what the technique is for keeping the scene coherent and meaningful. It becomes clear how to create the feeling, for the viewer, that the scene is revealing more and more about the mystery of a particular world. It is a technique for recognizing the scene’s coherence when you see it, and taking advantage of it. And it must be done from inside the flow of the scene, because stepping outside the moment-to-moment flow of the scene is the very thing that would destroy the scene’s coherence.

In method acting terms, you could say that, as a performer, your “action” in the scene is to explore the world of the scene. Your action is to continually uncover more and more information about the scene, to open up its mysteries and discover more and more about it. And you accomplish this goal by means of feeling it, that is, by using words (and silences) as tools for opening yourself up, layer by layer, and allowing yourself to uncover more and more hidden, latent elements of the scene.

You regard every single thing that appears in the scene as if it is a vital clue, giving you more information about the world of the scene. As you enter each moment, you go further inside of what you are feeling, and then open yourself up so that the moment becomes whatever it is plus something more. That unspecified “something more” becomes the new data, the new information that constitute the next moment. Every image is potentially a “key image,” and may possibly reappear later in the scene, possibly in a new form, to offer more clues about the world of the scene.

In many situations, the connection from one moment to the next is one is obvious and easy to follow. For example, in one moment, you might be consumed by a feeling of anger. When you enter that anger and open it up, you may discover that the anger is caused by a feeling that others have betrayed you. This feeling of betrayal tells you “more” about the anger in a way that is very easy to understand.

But what if the new moment which comes out of the anger is strange and surprising? Suppose you enter into that anger, and what you find inside of it is a room filled with red and green rubber balls, which are bouncing crazily all around the room? What on earth is that telling you? How is that a further clue to the anger, and the world of the scene?

Of course, we don’t want to avoid these moments of surprise, these moments of strangeness. The strangeness is one of the elements that make improvisation compelling, and so we are delighted when anything particularly strange becomes (organically) part of the scene.

The point I’m making here is that you do not, at any point, need to understand the unfolding meaning of the scene intellectually. Since you experience the entire scene from the inside, from how it feels, you never need to or want to verbalize or analyze what the scene is about. You would never need to (or want to) stop the scene and say “this scene is about x.”

Instead, what is important is that you approach each new image which appears in the scene as a vital new clue, a vital new piece of the puzzle, which reveals something new about the world you are exploring, and usually about the immediately previous moment. Your action, your job in the scene, is to learn more and more about this particular world, by sensing and feeling each clue as you open yourself up, and so you treat each new image as if it is adding to your familiarity and knowledge of that world. Whether the moment of anger is followed by a feeling of betrayal or by a room full of rubber balls, whatever comes next is still telling you something important about the world of the scene. If what comes next is something quite strange, like the rubber ball room, you do not simply dismiss it as a bit of random weirdness. Your action is to discover more and more about this particular world, and so you must go into the rubber ball room and gradually discover within yourself what is going on there, and why it emerged directly from a feeling of anger. Perhaps the red and green balls are the actual colors of the anger. Perhaps the anger is the anger caused by the discomfort of feeling like you are being pummeled by too many obstacles, like the balls. You were very careful to make sure that you arrived at this moment by going deeper inside of the previous moment, inside of the anger, and so something about the anger turned into the rubber balls, and your job is too explore what it is.

Use the technique. Think of the scene as a coherent, meaningful world, and your job is to explore that world, and find out as much as you can about it. For every moment of the scene, go directly inside of what is happening, and open it up, to uncover the scene’s next moment. Then, regard what ever comes up as an important clue, telling you something more about the world which you are exploring.

This should also clarify how we recognize that we have reached “the end of the scene.” When both actors, together, feel that their exploration of the world of the scene is very complete and satisfying, and that they have uncovered something of the mysterious heart of the scene and learned something about its essence, they will feel that the scene is coming to a close. Note carefully that the end of the scene comes when the two actors feel that their exploration is complete. Their understanding of the meaning of the scene is not intellectual and never needs to be verbalized or formulated, so they do not need to be able to “say” what the scene is about or why it is now over. They simply know that the scene is coming to an end because their exploration now feels full and complete.