Johnnie Moore

Beyond marshmallow motorbikes

Improv can still be powerful when it's mundane
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

The power of ordinary in improvising

Transcript of this video:

In my little book Unhurried, I talk about how when I’m watching improv comedy, we sometimes get scenes that I call marshmallow motorbike scenes, where you start off with a fairly down to earth scenario: here’s a scene of two decorators working in a funeral home.

But because the actors are a bit nervous and they’re kind of tripping over each other, they keep adding ideas to it, to the point where the scene becomes increasingly absurd and they end up travelling to Mars on marshmallow motorbikes.

And it gets a kind of awkward laugh from the audience, but it doesn’t feel like very satisfying improv.

It feels a bit rushed and absurd. And although I think there are fantastic lessons that teams can learn from the world of improv theatre, I think it’s sometimes a bit inconvenient that it’s identified with that kind of funniness and absurdity.

Because a lot of really good quality improv is about much more minute exchanges between the players. And actually that’s the quality that I think teams need to inculcate.

And I was explaining this more ordinary, low key form of improv to a group, and somebody said, “oh, yes, but what you are describing there that isn’t really improv, that’s just adaptation.”

And I thought about it and I thought, well, you know, maybe in some ways it might be more helpful to talk about the skills of adaptation.

It might get away from the idea that improv is always about being wildly extrovert, wildly creative, and often leading to absurdity… that it becomes a more accessible and more human skill.

I was explaining a similar idea to another group, where the session was on using improv in relationships. But before it began, we’d had lunch together. And when we’d gone out onto the patio at the hotel, the table set up was wrong and we couldn’t really see a member of staff to change it.

And we wondered if we needed permission to move the tables. And we ended up going, well, we’ll grab that table and, oh, I’m sitting in the sun. Could I move into the shade? Could we swap?

And we rearranged ourselves and gradually settled down to lunch. And I said, well, you know, that was an everyday bit of improvisation.

We were just in a sense, making up what we did as we’d go along with a series of gestures and exchanges between us.

Indeed one of the great teachers of improv, Keith Johnstone, is famous for probably his most constant coaching tip to improv actors trying to make the scene more satisfying is to be boring or more ordinary.

And how often when he offered that coaching tip, the whole scene came to life and felt much more satisfying and realistic.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about that more everyday version of improvisation.



Photo by A F ⚡ on Unsplash

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