Seemingly, this is the first topic covered in this blog which applies mainly to the abstract, music-and-language improvs which I do at Lake Ivan, and doesn’t seem to have a direct application to comedy or dramatic, narrative improvs.

And yet…

The concept of Counterpoint Form, if you tweak it just slightly, does have an important function in comedy and narrative scenes. It helps to accomplish the crucial goal of giving the scene overall focus and shape, preventing it from splintering up into unrelated parts, and, just as crucial, makes clear to the audience that the actors are listening to each other on a deep level. It even provides a simpler, more elegant version of the “Yes, and…” technique. Read on, if you wish to see this mystery revealed…(at the end of the entry I describe what on earth this has to do with comedy and narrative work.)

In a scripted piece, the writer and the director are able to keep the scene focused, to direct the audience’s attention to the center of the action, and keep the various elements onstage in balance. In an improvisation, the actors have to accomplish this goal collectively. They cannot lose their awareness of the total stage picture, or of the totality of the sound of music-and-voices, at any time. They cannot simply settle into experiencing their own inner throughline, their own inner logic, while losing touch with what’s going on around them. This necessity is what led me to working in Counterpoint Form.

Here’s how I currently do it in our Lake Ivan pieces:

We like to use the image that the “piece” we are about to form is something that Already Exists, in all of its details, in its Perfect Form. Note that “the piece” is not thought of as the particular words we will say, or the actions we will take, but, rather, the “piece” consists of the Feelings and the Energy which lie underneath these words and actions. Our job, as improvisers, is merely to experience (feel) each and every moment of this piece. Since we are feeling the piece by using our voices (and our words) as well as our bodies, it will end up being translated into a form which is visible and audible to the audience. (See previous entry on Words as a Tool to help you Feel.)

There are many complicated reasons I could go into which explain why this image, that the piece we are about to perform already exists in its perfect form, and we are merely there to experience it by feeling it, is so helpful for performing improvisation. But the bottom line is: it works. It works wonders.

If I am performing a two person scene, I prepare myself by saying to myself that my job is to feel and experience The Whole Piece, that is, a complex whole which consists of my energy, my Vocal Line, as well as my partner’s energy and her Vocal Line. These two Vocal Lines combine to form a musical whole, just as two or more musical lines combine in the counterpoint form of Baroque music. In fact, if we are performing our duet along with a musician, then the music that she is playing is also a part of the complex whole. The light and the colors of the set are part of the whole. everything that I feel or am aware of within the stage space is part of the whole.

My job is not to just experience my own throughline, my own Vocal Line, my own story. My job is to use my Vocal Line (my words and my silences) to feel this complex, contrapuntal flow of energy-and-feelings, which contains the energy of two people. (More, for a scene with more than two people.)

In the case of a two person scene, if I am thinking of the piece as being like a piece of music, then it is one of those compositions that prominently features two melodic instruments, such as the Duo Concertante of Mozart. Or a section of a jazz piece in which two soloists are playing at the same time.

The use of this image has all sorts of beneficial results. Because my partner and I are both focusing on feeling the whole rather than just our own parts (in other words, we are focusing on feeling the same thing as the audience feels), we collaborate at every moment on shaping the flow and development of the scene. The audience can feel that we are not ignoring each other and getting lost in our own worlds, but are collaborating. The piece has a clear, coherent shape at each moment, as well as a clear overall shape. The scene has a natural balance between the two voices. If we speak at the same time as each other, because we are both focussing on feeling the “two-voiced music” of the piece, our voices naturally blend in such a way that the audience can understand what both of us are saying. It doesn’t mean that my energy has to be the same as my partner’s, it just means that I am aware of the way that our two energies blend together. In other words, during a certain section of the scene my energy might be belligerent, and my partner’s energy might be soothing, and we would both be concentrating on feeling the way that the belligerent energy and the soothing energy blended together to create that part of the scene.

Here’s what this has to do with comedy and narrative improv:

In a narrative improv, the piece has a “dramatic” shape, with “dramatic” rhythms, rather than a musical shape. If the actor goes into the scene thinking “I will concentrate on feeling what my character feels, thinking what my character thinks,” then she will probably lose track of the overall shape of the stage image and of the scene, creating an impression that she is in her own world, ignoring the other actors. But she can solve the problem of keeping the whole scene coherent and focussed, by simply going into the scene thinking “This scene already exists in its Perfect Form. My job is to experience every moment of the scene, to feel the flow of the Complex Whole which is the scene, which includes the energy and presence of all of the performers. I will experience this Complex Whole from inside the point of view of my character.”

If she is in a part of the scene where her character is arguing with someone else, they both need to feel the Rhythm of this argument, so that they (as actors) can collaborate to make the scene work properly. (Even if their characters are doing the opposite of collaborating.) Likewise, if her character is pointedly ignoring or snubbing another character, both of them have to feel the Rhythm of this snubbing, so they can cooperatively create the effect.

If you apply this technique in a larger group scene, you will never again have the problem of certain couples or individuals breaking away and losing their relation to the whole scene.

Note that if you use this technique in a narrative scene, you can elegantly get rid of using the “Yes and…” and other (to me) rather cumbersome techniques which force you to keep track of your ideas in relation to the other actor’s ideas. If all of the actors enter the scene thinking that the Scene Already Exists in its Perfect Form, and that they are all going to discover and feel that Scene together, they will naturally collaborate and support each other’s ideas, since they are each concentrating on feeling what the collective Scene is about, rather than on “thinking up ideas” and “fitting those ideas in with what the other actors are doing.”

Here’s an example: on the blogs of the Improv Resource Center, I read a discussion about what to do if your scene partner begins a scene by saying “Isn’t it lovely here in Paris?” There was a discussion of the different consequences of responding by acting as if you really are in Paris, or, responding by acting as if your partner is lying or is crazy, and you are really in New York or somewhere else.

Using the counterpoint technique, I would enter the scene by thinking that my job was to discover what the scene was about, and what the form of the scene was, by feeling it at each moment. When my partner begins the scene by saying “Isn’t it lovely here in Paris?,” I will (mostly likely), because I am focussing on learning what the scene is about by feeling the scene along with her, also feel the reality that we are in Paris. I won’t have to remind myself to support her choices or to “think up” a choice which fits in with hers, because I will already be focussing on discovering what the scene is about collaboratively with her. It is also possible that I will “feel” that she is a crazy person, and that we are not really in Paris, but I will probably only feel this if there is genuinely something deluded in her character’s energy, and so I will probably only end up responding that we are “really in New York” if that is also the direction for the scene that she was sensing.