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The 2Q Approach

I was reflecting on last night’s Local 154 show on the train this morning, and I think I realized something important about why I felt negative after the performance.

In the first scene I did with James, which I really enjoyed, we played two roommates snacking on spare ribs and talking about relationships.  James’s character had a very cynical viewpoint on them—his claim was that they’re great for a year, but then, inevitably, you become bored with each other sexually and the it’s only a matter of time before one person cheats on the other.  My character chided him for being cynical, saying that the fact that he had such a dim view of relationships had made me less willing to spend time with him.  His reply was essentially that this was because I secretly knew he was right.

I think the scene worked because we were being very simple and clear in our intentions with one another, but on a deeper level, I felt very connected to it personally, because the idea of sex as a casual thing that’s unconnected to a meaningful relationship is something I’ve always been uncomfortable with.  And furthermore, the imagined scenario had enough similarities with unfortunate experiences from my own life that I felt like it was very easy to relate to.  It was one of those wonderful fleeting moments in performance where I didn’t feel any obstacles between myself and the scene.

Later, I entered a scene at the same time as Ben and Ariel.  Ben clearly had an idea for an initiation, so I waited for his set-up.  He and Ariel squatted behind the two chairs that were on the stage, and Ben said something like, “What are you worried about, Tyler?  Come to bed—we won’t bite!”  It was clear to me that I was a young child, and these were the monsters, real or imagined, who live under my bed and torment me on a nightly basis.

I should pause here to explain that lately I’ve been working very hard to stop pushing myself to come up with funny ideas in improv scenes.  I often feel that when I’m really in a groove improv-wise, all I’m doing is answering two questions for myself:

  1. Where am I?
  2. What do I want?

It’s probably a slight over-simplification, but I really do think that if you can answer both of those questions for yourself at any given moment, you can play any scene in a fun, exciting way.  Moreover, I find that it keeps the work real, present, and relatable—it feels like you’re behaving truthfully according to the circumstances of the moment, and I think the audience picks up on that and feels much more like they’re sharing an experience with you, rather than having Humor foist upon them by virtue of your infinite cleverness. 

For the last six weeks or so, I’ve been trying to push myself to adhere very strictly to this two-question approach, and avoid using voices or exaggerated physicalities (both of which have always been major crutches for me) to try to squeeze out humor at all costs.  

Last night, however, was my first show in two weeks (I have been traveling for my day-job), and so my crutch-inducing instincts kicked in following Ben’s initiation.  Since I’d had my hands on my knees when he started speaking, I decided that my character was somehow defiant towards these bedroom monsters—and in a vague sense, I thought it would be interesting if tonight was the night that my character refused to be intimidated.  This is a good start, I suppose, but then instead of taking another split-second to take stock of where I was—a childhood bedroom—and what exactly I wanted to say to these monsters, I instead panicked because nothing “funny” had happened yet. I launched instantly into a vaguely-accurate “little kid” voice, and started furiously making up joke responses about being a big kid and having Nutella on my pancakes and playing Nintendo games and looking at Playboy magazine with my friend Kevin.  Instead of taking a deep breath and occupying the bedroom, I began pacing aimlessly back and forth across the front of the stage, trying to use the movement to push jokes out of myself, and because I was thinking about that, I wasn’t sure where to look, so I was kind of awkwardly half-focused on the monsters and half-focused on some nebulous point above the audience’s heads.

It wasn’t the worst scene of all-time, but I didn’t feel good about it in a way that bothered me for the rest of the set and throughout the rest of the night, until this morning, when I think I figured out why it was bothering me so much.  

I was thinking about the moments following Ben’s initiation, when I had the general impulse to be defiant because I was starting to feel more like a grown-up.  And while I of course can’t guarantee that this would’ve happened, I’d like to think that if I’d taken another moment to put myself in a recognizable bedroom—like my own—and think about the ways in which I was feeling more like a grown-up, I might have been able to connect more quickly with the idea of sexual anxieties from that first scene with James, and turn the scene into an interesting re-examination of where those feelings come from.  My kid character, Toby, could’ve perhaps just seen his first Playboy at his friend’s house, and the experience could’ve been making him wonder about sex for the first time, and made him feel intimidated.  I’d like to think that the context of having a heart-to-heart about this with the monsters under his bed—who usually terrorize him about trivial things like being eaten by them as soon as he closes his eyes—has the potential to have been both funny but also compelling in terms of the narrative of the first scene, and maybe even somewhat relatable.

Of course, there’s no way to know if I would actually have come up with that in the moment, and it also completely disregards the possibilities of what Ben and Ariel might have said or had planned for the scene, so who knows.  But I do think that the Two-Question approach would’ve served me better than the Panic-And-Pace approach, and last night was a firm reminder of how easy it can be to forget that.