When you’re performing a scene from a script, or even just a scene with an outline, a traditional way of structuring your work is to play your character’s motivation. But this won’t work in a completely open improvisation, because you don’t know anything in advance about who your character is. It also won’t work in more abstract forms of improvisation which don’t use characters at all.

A workable substitute is to work from your own personal motivation as an artist. In your preparation, clarify to yourself exactly what you hope to get out of the scene.

One of the strongest motivations you can use to propel yourself through any scene is the pleasure principle: the idea that filling yourself with the flow of feelings-and-energy which are the understructure of the scene is an intense, physical pleasure, and that your goal in the scene is to feel more and more of that pleasure.

We’re all familiar, on one level, with the idea that being “inside” of a theatrical scene is pleasurable. This is the actual reason why people go to the theater, and it is also the reason that people become actors. It explains why even performances which are about the deepest despair become pleasurable experiences in the theater. In real life, if your children are killed, or your husband cheats on you, or some such thing, it totally sucks. It hurts, with a horribly debilitating pain. But actors know that if you sing a torch song about a great unhappiness, or play a tragic scene, that it is a wonderful and healing experience. Audiences for these performances feel elation, at the same time that they feel despair. I believe this is mainly because in the theater, unlike in life, when you play a tragic scene you are deliberately and consciously choosing to enter into feelings of despair and unhappiness and you are choosing to experience them as deeply as possible. When a tragic event happens to you in real life, the assault is so great that you try to hold back and avoid the full sensation. This holding back makes the pain itself much worse.

In the theater, when you play a tragic scene, or watch one from the audience, the difference is that because you are consciously choosing to fully enter into the feeling, you allow all of it to “flow through you,” and therefore it heals you, rather than hurts you. It helps you release all the left-over pain from the tragedies in your real life, by giving you a safe place to finally fully experience the pain. This wholeness and fullness, by the way, is what makes tragedy seem sublimely beautiful, more than the elevated language.

All of this is just to point out the obvious-but-easy-to-forget fact that the mere act of immersing yourself into the stream of feeling which makes up the scene is inherently pleasurable.

You can use this idea in your preparation for an improv this way: “The scene I am about to perform is a flow of feelings-and-energy. Being inside of that flow is an intensely pleasurable experience, and my goal is to constantly immerse myself in it more and more, and feel more and more of that pleasure.”

This has two beneficial effects on the scene: the first is that it is a good test of how “inside” the scene you are. In other words, in order to be sufficiently involved in the scene for it to be convincing and make sense, you need at a minimum to be “inside” of it enough to experience pleasure.

The other benefit is, that by making clear to yourself before you begin that your goal is to experience more and more of the pleasure of being immersed in the scene, you are insuring that you will remember to become more and more “saturated” with the energy which is the very lifeblood of the scene, and the source of all the best choices you can make for the scene. It is too easy to become distracted, and to think that your job is to fulfill a million other agendas (“be funny” “explain the story” “think of an interesting idea” “make something unexpected happen”) and this preparation is a way of reminding yourself of the one thing which is your only true goal for the scene.

An interesting side observation: people often think (incorrectly) that when a performer is performing “for her own enjoyment,” she is creating one of those self-indulgent performances which are so tiresome and boring to watch. Not true! The more an actor really tries to experience pleasure from acting, the more pleasure the audience will be able to feel along with her. The real cause of those horrible self-indulgent performances is when an actor doesn’t get any pleasure from what she’s doing. When an actor drones on and on, keeping you a prisoner in your seat, and she doesn’t even have the decency to enjoy what she’s doing, this is what cause you to feel that she is wasting your time, along with her own, and creates the kind of performance commonly referred to as “self-indulgent.”