Did you ever notice that some improvisations feel very coherent, as if all of the material in them really belongs to the same play or scene, while others feel as if they have wandered too far afield and have lost their structural integrity? Improvisers need a subtle technical tool for keeping each scene coherent, while still staying fully immersed in every moment of the scene.

This problem is most apparent in abstract, free-form improvisations without a narrative or other imposed structure. These scenes need to somehow create the impression, for the viewer, that they are coherent and meaningful, even if the material in the scene doesn’t have an obvious idea or story which ties it together. Plot-driven improvisations, on the other hand, usually at least create the illusion of coherence, since they tell a story. Yet a narrative improvisation can also suffer from the feeling that, inside, it is an incoherent group of incidents and events that don’t belong in one scene together.

The first thing I discovered, while working on this problem, is that simply trying to consciously force the material in the scene to be coherent is an approach that doesn’t work. About 20 minutes into an extended improvisation, I would often get a panicky sensation that I couldn’t remember how the scene began, and that the scene was wandering around and losing its sense of connectedness. (See the blog entry “Connectedness” for an introduction to this topic.) If I tried to make myself remember the first moments of the scene, and then “think of an idea” so that I could make a connection between the scene’s beginning and the present moment, the results were generally disastrous in a couple of ways:

• I lost my connection to the present moment, actually ruining the moment I was in and, counter-productively, destroying the connectedness of the section of the scene I was performing.

• The “idea” I thought of, because it was not grounded in any organic, felt relationship to the material, was always artificial, intellectual and inferior.

I will use an analogy to explain my approach to creating a coherent-feeling scene, while still remaining completely immersed in each moment of the scene. If the scene, explicitly narrative or not, is like a journey in which you take the audience along with you, than that journey has a shape and contour, which you can imagine as a curve or wavy line which is drawn on a graph, with the line moving up and down as the energy in the scene goes up and down. The line represents not just the changing energy dynamics of the scene, but the connectedness of the scene, where each moment directly creates the next one.

Since, using my technique, we use the image that “the scene already exists in its perfect form,” we can imagine that this curve, representing the perfect form of the scene, is already drawn on a piece of graph paper. Imagine that, like the paper in a lie detector, a machine slowly rolls this paper from right to left. Imagine that you are holding a pencil, and that your task, as improviser, is to hold your pencil directly over the paper as it slowly rolls underneath you, and, by moving your hand up and down, to make a perfectly exact replica or tracing of the curve on the paper, by keeping your pencil line precisely inside of the curve already drawn there.

Please note well the limits of this analogy: what we do as improvisers doesn’t really feel like “tracing,” “replicating” or “copying.” You can’t and shouldn’t actually try to think of this image while performing. I am simply using this image to illustrate a specific point about how to keep the scene coherent.

Next, imagine that the light which you have to use while tracing your curve is a narrowly focused beam, almost like a laser pointer, which you can hold very close to the paper, where it illuminates quite clearly about 1/4 inch of the curve you are tracing. The light has a sharp drop-off, so you can’t really see outside of this circle. This light represents your consciousness, in the present moment, which gives a crystal clear picture of only what is happening now in the scene.

A mathematician will tell you that, by looking even at a very tiny, local portion of a curve, you can learn all the information you need to know about the shape of that curve as it comes into and goes out of a given point. This means that, although your laser pointer only illuminates a tiny portion of the curve, this little portion is completely sufficient to enable you to do a perfect job of tracing the curve. As long as you keep the laser light of your moment-to-moment concentration pointing straight down into the present moment, you will end up at the end of the scene with a perfect copy of the curve, which means, by analogy, that you will have performed for the audience the scene as it was meant to be done, with its perfectly coherent and meaningful form.

The panic which I described myself succumbing to above, is the feeling that, when you rigorously force yourself to stay completely embedded in the present moment, that you can “only see a very tiny part of the scene” and so you become afraid that you are losing control over the scene’s overall shape. A very understandable thought, when experiencing this kind of panic, is “I will just pull back for a moment, and shine my light over the whole piece of paper, so that I can get a good look at the overall shape of the curve, and then I’ll really be able to trace the curve much more exactly.”

The analogy helps explain exactly why this idea is so mistaken. When you take the laser pointer and pull back away from the paper, the illumination becomes so weak that you can’t see the part of the curve you are currently drawing at all, and your pencil wanders way off the mark, ruining the curve. You might not even be able to see if your pencil is on the paper at all any more! Furthermore, your laser pointer cannot cast a wide arc of light, and so it can’t enable you to see an overall picture of the curve. If you point your light to the beginning of the curve, trying to remember how the scene began, the section of the curve you are currently supposed to be drawing is completely in the dark. If you try and point your light to the end of the curve, imagining how the scene should end, the light goes completely out, since it is impossible to see into the future. Lastly, the idea that “getting an overall view of the curve” will somehow help you to make a better tracing is completely mistaken. All the information you need to make your perfect tracing is contained within each tiny section of the curve as it passes underneath your pencil, and you can make the best, most perfect tracing by keeping your laser pointer of consciousness as close as possible to the paper, from the scene’s first moment to its last, and keeping your pencil firmly embedded within the curve of the scene.

If this imperfect analogy isn’t useful as an image you can think of while you’re actually performing, how can you make it part of your actor’s preparation, so as to utilize it to make the scene coherent? You can incorporate your own version of this thought into your preparation: “I will follow the scene’s curve, and trust that the scene will be most coherent if I stay inside of this curve, feeling the contour at every moment.”

However, I will warn you that this preparation, while helpful, must be followed by an emphasis on the Primary Goal of the scene, which is to continually open yourself up, and allow yourself to feel more and more of the rich, delicious sensation of Saturation with each moment of the scene. (See the blog entry “take the audience on a journey” for an explanation of this concept.) If you prepare only be telling yourself to “follow the curve” of the scene, you will likely perform a very musical-feeling scene, where the energy dynamics of the scene are perfectly clear as they go up and down, but it will feel to the audience like a technical exercise that isn’t taking them anywhere or revealing anything new to them.

Another, simpler and more general approach to using your preparation to make the material in the scene coherent, is simply to remind yourself in your preparation that “all the material that comes up in the scene belongs together, because the scene already exists in its perfect form. I will feel and discover at each moment the scene’s connectedness and its coherence.” By taking, as an actor’s “point of belief,” the idea for granted that all of the material in the scene belongs together, you will remind yourself to consciously feel and discover this coherence along the way, as one of the scene’s intrinsic properties to be discovered by you. “Staying inside the curve” is the only way to actually do this.