Is it wrong or right to “know” ahead of time what’s coming up in a scene? If you’re supposed to proceed through an improv by feeling and discovering everything about the scene in each moment, is it OK if you have a strong feeling about what’s coming next?

Real beginners at improvisation tend to navigate their way through a scene by trying to think up and implement a set of “ideas.” While they are in the middle of performing a scene, they use up half of their brain power by trying to “think up stuff to talk about” or to make decisions about what the scene is like. If it is a narrative or dramatic scene, they also use up a lot of brain power trying to think of all the ways that their ideas fit in with the ideas of their scene partners. What all of this amounts to is that, because half of their brains are busy inventing ideas and manipulating data, they are only partially inside of their character and inside of the feelings of the scene, producing a scene which is shallow, not credible, cluttered, incoherent, inorganic, and overly intellectual.

As an actor begin to acquire technique, she begins to learn that the proper way to navigate through a scene is by feeling the scene, that is, by opening herself up more and more, each moment, to feeling the flow of energy-and-emotions which make up the scene, and thus discovering along the way what the “content” of the scene is. If she doesn’t understand this process clearly, she can become confused about if it is OK or not to “know things before they happen.”

One actor in my group used to occasionally ask me about this problem. “When the scene began,” he would say, “even before I said a word, I could feel that the mood of the scene was quiet and sad, like an elegy. I even knew that I would begin to speak mournfully about the death of a childhood pet. If I’m supposed to be discovering everything about the scene by feeling it in each moment instead of by thinking up ideas, isn’t it wrong if I know ahead of time what the scene will be like?”

Well, no, actually, it isn’t. This actor was suffering from the following misunderstanding:

If you don’t proceed through a scene by “thinking up ideas,” that means you’re supposed to remain throughout the scene in a state of completely suspended “unknowing.” Each element of the scene enters into you as a total surprise.

That’s not what is meant by “discovering the scene by feeling it.”

The point of “discovering the scene by feeling it” is not to put you into a state of blank “unknowingness.” The point is for you to place yourself, as you work through the scene, as directly and fully as possible into the richly pleasurable flow of feelings-and-energy which is the actual source of the scene, rather than placing yourself inside of your intellectual manipulation of ideas about the scene, which you then have to try to artificially transform into actual feelings, slowing down your responses and taking away the authentic, organic quality of your work. Once you are fully inside the flow of feelings-and-energy, you will generally find yourself in a state of rather full “knowingness,” rather than in a state of “unknowingness.” That is to say: You will “know” what the scene feels like, and you may very well “know” what’s coming up next in the scene as well.

Does this mean that, besides knowing what each moment in the scene feels like, you also “know” what’s going on in the scene in the intellectual sense? (This question is basically equivalent to asking if you would be capable of describing the feeling in words.) It depends. Some of the time, you might also “know” what you are doing in a conscious, intellectual sense. If, for example, the feeling-state you are in at a certain moment happens to be a very familiar feeling-state, for which there are very well-known terms, such as a state of “overwhelming jealousy,” and if the director happened to stop the scene at that exact moment and ask you to verbally describe what your feeling-state was, you’d be able to describe it easily. If, on the other hand, your feeling-state was an odd, hard-to-describe state, and the director stopped you and asked you to describe it, you might not be able to. If you happen to have a sense of poetry and you worked hard at it, you might still be able to come up with a description of it after a while: “I was feeling a kind of light, suspended, round floating quality, almost as if I were a glowing pink soapdish which was floating through a blue sky.” In either case, if the scene wasn’t interrupted by the director, and you just continued to move through it, you wouldn’t need to describe it to yourself, to your scene partner, or to the audience. You would just need to be inside of the feeling as fully as you could be, and allow that feeling to affect your language and your behavior.

The same thing is true about those times in which you “know” ahead of time what you’re about to say. If you are building your scene by staying inside of the flow of feelings, you may, at certain times, have a very clear notion of how those feelings are about to translate into language. You just “know” that you’re about to talk about being in a parking garage, or whatever. At other times you may have no idea how the feeling-state you’re in will translate into language, you only know what it feels like, and you will be genuinely surprised at the words which pop out of your mouth.

The point is that you construct your scene by remaining fully inside the flow of feelings, rather than by partially pulling out of the feelings in order to “think up ideas for the scene.” This means that your goal is not to place yourself in an ignorant state of “unknowing.” You do want to “know” what is going on at every moment, in the sense of “knowing what it feels like.” This kind of “knowledge,” knowledge in the sense of being completely filled up with feeling, is the knowledge which becomes the very basis of the scene. So, while you do want to keep yourself in an “open, receptive” state, a state where you can constantly pick up more and more information (feelings) from everything which is going on around you, that doesn’t mean you’re trying to remain in a state of “blankness” or “emptiness.” On the contrary, you’re trying to feel as fully saturated, as filled with feeling, as you can possibly be at each moment.