Simplicity in Improv

'Tis a gift to be simple.
-Quaker hymn

Simplicity is one of the keys to good improvisation in the Transactors approach. This might come as a surprise to someone who sees one of our seemingly complex long-form performances, such as The Musical!.

The easiest way to explain this is to state that these pieces are more than the sum of their parts. They are an aggregation of many simple ideas that then take on a life of their own, that are transformed by the alchemy of group creativity.

Simplicity helps us in this process. If we communicate simple ideas both fellow players and the audience easily understand them. Simple ideas are communicated more efficiently and more easily built upon than complicated or obscure concepts.

Not only that, but magic more readily happens to simple ideas. This magic is what happens when an idea is acted upon by several people rather than controlled by one. The concept is suspended and blossoms among members of the group instead of being held and stifled by one ego.

There are other, less ethereal applications of simplicity as well. Take, for instance, the music we improvise. Generally we strive to have our music cleave to a structure, be it the classic AABA form, verse/chorus, blues, or some other form. In sticking to a structure, the singer(s) and accompanist(s) know where they are in the song and in relation to each other.

Add a simple musical and lyrical 'hook' (basic summarizing idea that is repeated in each verse), and suddenly you have a song. The performers can approach it confidently because they know what they're doing. The audience appreciates it-even believes it is not improvised-because it has the simple logic and predictability that most great, or at least catchy, songs have.

Another example of simplicity might be in the story line of a long form. If we can tell a simple story, that's good. If it is predictable in some ways, that's actually good too. This is not to say that we're trying to bring Momma's Family to the stage, but rather that the mind appreciates both predictability and diversion from it.

Furthermore, we trust that whatever we do will contain the unique imprimatur of our imaginations. Even if we're heading in a predictable direction, something bizarre or wonderful will happen because of our individual and collective idiosyncrasy.

The concept of simplicity has a definite application in teaching improv as well. Most students, especially novices, want desperately to be original. Thus they avoid or censor obvious or simple choices and go for the arcane or complex. This is not only the trap of self-evaluation while performing; it is also a manifestation of distrust of one's uniqueness.

Time after time I see students get into trouble in scenes because they don't make the obvious choice. When questioned, they respond that the obvious idea wouldn't work because it is too obvious. My assertion is that the obvious, combined with the beauty of idiosyncrasy, results in the sublime and wonderful. Asking the imagination to reinvent the world every time puts too much pressure on that delicate resource.

"Just do the thing," the famous improv director and teacher Paul Sills would grumble. And I would agree, believing that you will put your individual or collective stamp on any simple concept and make it your own.

-Greg Hohn, Director