Why do some improv performances seem overwrought to a degree that is fake? When is exaggerated, over-the-top behavior a liberating, thrilling, hysterically funny and enjoyable experience for the audience, and when does it feel, somehow, not justified by what’s going on in the scene?

Some performances are also too underplayed. Certain moments can come off as vague, underarticulated, and simply hard to read.

The trick, naturally, is to play each moment at exactly the right size, the right energy level. But how do you do this?

The basic model for improvisation which I use in my technique, as outlined in this blog, is that you approach each scene as if it already existed in its ideal form. That is, you view the scene as a continuous flow of feelings, energy, rhythm which already exists, and your job is to experience as fully as possible each moment of that flow, by using your words, your silences, and your actions. One aspect of that flow of energy is its size.

Each moment of the scene will have its own energy level, on a continuum from very low and quiet to vast and overwhelming. (Of course, most moments are somewhere in the middle.)

As you go through the scene, feeling the flow of the scene, one aspect of what you are feeling is the size of the energy at each moment. Your goal should be, at each moment, to feel the exact size of the energy flow, not a hair bigger, and not a hair smaller. (Remember, at different moments, you may be “using” words, silence, actions, or stillness as a tool to feel the size of the flow, but this shouldn’t make any difference. You will be able to feel any size of energy, regardless of whether you are silent or talking, still or in motion.) Try to get the size of the flow with pinpoint accuracy.

You can practice feeling this aspect of the flow by doing an improv making nonverbal sounds, and making yourself especially aware of the size of the energy flow at each moment. (See the section on working “holistically” for a discussion of why you should work on feeling size as an aspect of the whole flow, rather than trying to concentrate on “just feeling the size by itself.”)

There are different challenges for you to practice when doing such an exercise. If you come to a moment where you genuinely feel a tremendously huge flow of energy, it may be difficult to find enough “largeness” in your physical instrument to accommodate all of this energy. In a moment of very tiny, nuanced energy, the flow may feel almost imperceptible. In all the moments of middle-sized energy, it takes practice to feel the exact shade of “middle” which you are doing.

Make sure you have no biased beliefs that “bigger” moments are “better” in any way: funnier, more exciting, more dramatic. They’re not. You could have a scene that consists exclusively of quiet, subtle actions and words, and, if the performance is perfectly “true” to the underlying energy, it will be a great scene. In general, it’s a good idea to have an attitude that you are almost resisting having any huge, dramatic climaxes. That way, if a huge climax does occur, it will occur because the internal needs of the scene are so strong that the scene overcomes your resistance. The result is that the huge outburst will seem completely justified. (Just like in real life, where most people do not enjoy having huge dramatic displays in public, and only do so when an inner necessity compels them.)

In other words: what makes any moment in the theater moving and believable is when it is played organically, that is, it is exactly true to the flow of energy which underlies the scene. The enormously big moments, if there are any, will seem believable because the huge amount of energy has built up organically. The quiet moments will also seem justified, if they fit with the underlying dynamic. In fact, the jarring experience (for the audience) of feeling like a moment is “overplayed” or “underplayed” refers precisely to the feeling that the size of the performance is not organically related to the feelings underneath.

Therefore, go into the scene with absolutely no preconceptions about climaxes, high points, low points. Every scene will have its own organic shape. Some scenes will have no extreme high energy moments. Some will be almost all high energy. Your goal is to discover, by feeling it, exactly what the shape and contour of this particular scene turns out to be. The truer you are to the size of what you are feeling, the more believable and organic the scene will be.