I have been looking over old videotapes of improvised scenes. (I’m looking for an improvisation to use as the basis of my next film.)

A couple of notes, based on what I’ve watched, about The Unfolding Structure in Classic and Landscape form:


•There is a central issue of improvisation technique which has been a considerable challenge to me over the years. Here’s the issue: In looking for a Classic Form improv scene to use as the basis for a film, I invariably prefer to find a scene in which there is a clear sense that the entire piece deals with one particular subject matter or area of concern. (Such as the improvs I used to make Privy or The Linen Closet or Invincible City.) I am looking for a piece which feels as if it explores deeper and deeper into its subject, and that, as a result of the exploration, the two actors have discovered something fairly substantial about the emotional reality which forms the subject matter. (This substantial discovery is necessary for the piece to feel as if it has a real payoff by the time it comes to its conclusion.) It is not necessary for the theme to be an obvious one which is easy to describe; it merely needs to feel like there is a coherent theme.

Using Classic Form technique as we practiced it over the last several years (that is, before using the image of the Unfolding Structure), there are actually not too many improvs that have this quality. There are many improv tapes I watch in which the actors seem to have excellent technique, in the sense that the actors are deeply engaged with the material and with each other, and therefore all of the individual moments are striking, specific, and compelling. But it is pretty rare to find a scene in which the subject matter truly feels coherent, or one that feels as if it reaches a substantial payoff.

Long ago I realized that it was futile to create a coherent subject matter by directly, intentionally setting out to do so. If we say to ourselves “every thing I do in this scene will be an exploration of one idea or one emotional area” it kills the life of the scene immediately. By sticking so rigidly to a pre-decided template, we cut off our connection to our immediate intuitive feelings, and thus we cut off our connection to the life source of the scene. The power of the scene goes dead immediately. The solution has to be an indirect one.

The solution we were using over the last few years was that of following the curve, or trying to focus on the connectedness of all the moments. We would make sure we felt the exact way that each moment evolved into the next moment, and thus (theoretically) all the moments in the scene would be organically related, because there were no blank spots in the scene, where we lost track of the connections. The scene was supposed to be coherent the way that a plant is coherent, when everything in the plant grows out of the original seed.

The problem is that, based on the evidence of the videotapes, this idea doesn’t actually work that well. Even when the actors are clearly doing the technique extraordinarily well, the number of scenes that end up feeling coherent, with a substantial discovery in them, is pretty small. (Maybe one or two such scenes out of 30 or 40 improvs.)

Our new model, which is to navigate through the scene by unfolding the scene, looks very promising as a solution to this problem. A much higher percentage of the scenes we have done using this model come out feeling very coherent. But it will work even better if we are aware of why this model helps us address this issue.

The unfolding model says that for each and every moment in the scene, we look inside the moment, and open up all possible feeling centers within us, to allow whatever is hidden and latent in the moment to become manifest in the next moment. Note that this is completely different from artificially trying to make the next moment be about the same subject matter. Instead, we are making ourselves more receptive to layers which are hidden and latent in the energy-and-feeling of the moment, not the intellectual idea of the subject matter. So there is still tremendous room for surprise and change within the texture of the work. The new moment, discovered by unfolding, may simply be a clearer restating of the previous moment. It may be an intensification of the moment, an amendment or a correction of it, an expansion of it, or a revelation of hidden aspects of the moment. Or it may indeed appear to be a complete and sudden change of subject, but this seemingly abrupt change of subject is really a deepening and a continuation of the subject on a deeper level, because it is still arrived at by unfolding the previous moment, and not by veering off in a new and arbitrary direction.

It is important to note that, for this idea to work, we must remain committed to the idea that every new moment in the scene is discovered by unfolding. This amounts to a deliberate choice that the two actors, working together, are in fact constructing the scene by looking deeper and deeper into a single idea or emotional area. This model does produce a very high percentage of scenes in which all of the material feels like it belongs together. This model is also helpful for producing more scenes that have a substantial discovery or payoff moment with the scene. Of course, in any exploration, it is impossible to guarantee that something highly valuable will be discovered. But if the actors are consciously using a technique of unfolding moment after moment after moment, it means that they will be moving, throughout the scene, into deeper and deeper territory. This means that the chances for them to find something substantial are much higher. If, at any moment in the scene, you allow yourself to simply follow the energy along, rather than unfolding it, you are introducing more incoherence into the scene, and producing the feeling that the scene is wandering aimlessly.


•Looking at the Landscape Form improvs in our old tapes has also given me some insights. The thing that interests me most in the Landscape Form is the language. When two actors try to use words in order to experience different textures or energy states, often states which are very physical and not verbally-based, they are forced to come up with highly unusual and striking combinations of words. This unusual language is fascinating and poetic, and is the stuff of which a good Landscape piece is made.

Of course, this is yet another area where it is impossible to achieve the goal directly. If the actors say to themselves “I will use interesting and unusual language” they will create a forced, artificial, and stilted intellectual exercise. Their search for “interesting words” cuts them off from the immediate physical experience of the textures and energies, which is the life source of the scene. The scene immediately becomes so bad it is unwatchable.

The quality that makes language interesting in a Landscape improv is that it is highly specific, as the actor attempts to use words to grab onto a fleeting impression of texture or energy. The Prime Directive for Landscape form, as I formulated it most recently, is to feel the rhythm and feeling tone of the energy in the space more and more fully and more and more physically. This turns out to be an important formulation, because it makes it clear that the goal is the fullness of the feeling, not trying saying a lot of words. If I can get a fuller sensation with a silence, I will use a silence. When my partner is speaking, I will generally get the fullness of feeling by being inside of his voice, unless it becomes necessary for me to add my voice in order to get the fullest possible feeling. This allows both actors to find the silences, and to allow phrases and sentences to be fragmentary and unfinished, when needed.

To achieve the goal of finding very specific language, you might think you should use an instruction like “use words to feel each moment of the energy with as much detail and nuance as possible.” But we have to keep the possibility of using silences as well as words. We have to keep the idea that the goal is to get the most feeling, whether through words or silences. So the Prime Directive for Landscape can be restated as follows: “I will use words or silences to get a more and more full, detailed, nuanced, and physical sensation of the energy.”


Technique notes which are specific to your current work:

•Classic form: remember that “I will unfold the moment in order to find the next moment” does not mean you have to constantly move, change, or go to new places. My use of the phrase “navigate to the next moment” was initially confusing, because it had the connotation of constant movement or change. The formulation above avoids the word navigate.

•Landscape form: remember that, in order to have the most physical experience of the energy possible, you must feel everything from a very low center in the body (base of the spine). Also, remember that the “energy” you are feeling is not external to you, it is the total energy of everything in the moment, both around you and inside of you. This way, you won’t put too much emphasis on feeling physical discomfort when the energy is “touching” you, because it is not a foreign substance, it is something already inside of you. Of course, individual acting moments may still occur which are about “feeling uncomfortable about being touched” but your conception of the form itself won’t place undue emphasis on such moments.