Improv Tip; It's An Actor's Job to Justify.
"It's An Actor's Job To Justify."
Del Close & Elaine May
This is the last of 3 principles from Elaine May & Del Close, as I read them in Jeffrey Sweet's book Something Wonderful Right Away.
As actors we're in the business of justification.
We stand in a room with 3 walls and pretend that there's a 4th.
We stand in a room full of people and pretend that we are alone.
We do and say things that we ourselves would never do, but we do and say those things in service of the story we're telling.
In improvisational acting, we don't get to plot out those stories ahead of time. We are the conduits by which the story reveals itself. I think that's what Elaine May & Del Close meant when they wrote that it's an actors job to justify.
That which has happened in a scene has happened. In improv there are no magic erasers and no do-overs. If someone said it, if some one did it, (like in life), it happened and you deal with it.
I find justification in scenes requires 2 steps. Emotional justification and narrative justification.
Emotional justification is simply the acknowledging that your partner did or said something. Every moment, in the scene needs to be recognized as having happened. Good improvisational actors don't gloss anything over. Every breath and glance is an offer and as Michael J. Gellman likes to say..
"Every offer is owed an emotional reaction."
Like in life, you don't have to like what your partner does or says or agree emotionally or intellectually with what they said. You do have to acknowledge that they said it, have an emotional reaction to what they said and an verbal and/or physical response.
As David Razowsky says...
"Well... THAT happened."
It's a great way to make sure you've incorporated an offer into your own emotional and intellectual reality.
Narrative justification is how the offer fits into the story as it has already been revealed and the offers as they have already been given. Remember... whatever happened or was said is NOT CRAZY! Only the very worst improvisors endow their partners as being drunk or insane when they don't understand their offers.
Whatever happens is perfectly normal for this reality. Trust that somewhere during the scene the offer will magically fit into the narrative. Relax and don't force it and it will make sense. Keep it simple.
Here's a real life example that I love to give that involves 2 terrific improvisers I've worked with. Sam Katz & Johnny Harkins.
They got a. location from the audience. A bowling alley. One of my least favorite locations, because it can lead to static repetitive activity. However, both Sam & Johnny are experienced improvisors.
Johnny comes off the back line and comes down stage left. To avoid this trap of static repetition, Johnny starts an logical activity. He's working in the shoe rental counter. He checks the shoes to make sure they match. He takes a pair of shoes out of their cubby holes. He puts one on the "counter" and the other he sprays with disinfectant.
Now, one of the problems with back-line work, is the players on the back line can only see your back. While Johnny was doing space work to establish the shoe rental counter, Sam was looking down the alley at a 7-10 split.
Sam mulls over her best options, turns to Johnny and takes out of his hand what she assumed to be the ball that he was polishing, but what the audience saw as a shoe that Johnny was spraying.
When she threw the shoe/ball down the alley (towards the pins that she smartly placed deep in the audience), and got a huge laugh. Now, Sam has enough experience to know that something was up. That shouldn't have gotten a laugh. Also, Sam is smart enough to know that she missed something, somewhere. She looked to her partner.
That's what I love about this place!
It's the only bowling alley in town where you bowl with shoes.
Sam immediately jumped on board and I watched the best improvised scene I've ever seen in a bowling alley. They connected as people, while bowling with shoes. Brilliant!
Whatever happens, embrace it and apply this simple equation for justification...
THIS + THAT = THE SCENE
YOU think we're in a space capsule.
I think we're in a church confessional.
GREAT! Space Confessional!
Here's your checklist as you enter your next improv scene.
Observe your partner carefully.
Without asking questions, try to figure out what your partner is doing, who they are and how they feel.
Embrace the "mistakes" because there are no mistakes!
The scene will go where ever it goes. Don't fight against the current. Float along with it like a river that's taking you where you want to go.
Try it out and tell me how it goes,
And while you're at it... buy my book on Amazon
In the meantime, don't sit around wondering,
"Would I be good at Improv?"
FIND OUT! Go out & improvise.