It’s just a thing…
-Paul Sills

Improv is about moving from the general to the specific—the more specific, the better. This isn’t science so I can’t prove that statement but it is a commonly held belief in the improv world and my experience certainly tells me it’s true. Specificity is a component of focus. That is, there has to be focus in a scene and the more narrow the focus is, the easier it is to work within that scene and the more understandable and entertaining it is to an audience.

Creative writing courses often have an assignment to write about a small, concrete object, say a pencil, a desk, or a mug. Students generally are surprised at how much they can write about such a small, seemingly insignificant object. Indeed they may find that their imaginations are spurred by the details they observe. Teeth marks on a pencil, nicks on a desk, chips or lipstick on a mug are all specific details that almost tell a story in and of themselves.

By contrast, imagine being assigned the task to write about the universe. You can hardly get more general than that. Well, where do you start? Certainly the universe is big and meaningful but how do you grasp it? Those who engage in spiritual practices strive to commune with and grasp the divine, the great mystery and often do so by making it concrete or specific; contemplating nature, lighting a candle, rubbing beads.

Beginning improvisers are often hesitant to be specific. A scene partner might be holding some imaginary object and rather than saying something like, “Say that’s a beautiful cockatiel and a nice cage too,” or “Wow, a cake,” they’ll ask, “What’s that thing?” Maybe they avoid naming it because they’re afraid they’ll somehow be wrong or screw over their partner, but it’s awfully hard to make a mistake within the realm of the imagination.

Making a scene about something specific feeds your imagination and the imaginations of those around you. “Thing” is just too general to spur any kind of connection and specific things can be fodder for surprise and delight.

Similarly improv novices often refer to their partner as “you” but won’t add anything more about that person. It’s obvious that there’s a “you” there but who is that person? Is it your foot doctor, your mechanic, your lover, your child, your boss, your employee, a shaman? Who? That’s significant.

And again, if you give someone a name, don’t just call that person “Dr. Jones” or “Mrs. Smith.” That’s boring! In rehearsal I once interrupted a player who called someone else “Mr. Johnson,” and told him to think of a different name. The new name was something small but silly and later in rehearsal someone introduced herself as having the last name “Catheter.” Hey, there could be nothing else amusing in the scene but having “Catheter” for a name was at least entertaining.

Specificity also applies to the qualities of a character; the character’s “deal,” as in, “What’s the deal with that guy?” What is it specifically that makes this person different, and by virtue of that uniqueness, noteworthy?

A character’s “deal” can be any number of things. It can be an external trait like a limp or a scowl. It can be aural, such as a high-pitched voice or a lateral lisp. It can be behavioral, like nervousness or giggling. It can be something interior, such as a desire to love or to be accepted. I could go on but I think you probably see the enormous range of possibilities.

The key is to pick at least one “deal” so that other players, the audience, and even you know who you are and how to interact with you. If your character has a “deal” then you can make even the smallest contribution significant. That’s true in scripted theater as well. By the way, I’m not suggesting scene-stealing here.

Specificity has applications outside of improv. Have you ever been in a work situation where you’re told improvement is necessary but no means of improvement are proposed? Have you ever been told there are problems but no examples of them are given? What could be less useful than someone telling you s/he doesn’t like something (or you!) without explaining why? Theory has to be backed up with the specific and words with action.

In improv, specificity leads to focus, which is the topic of the scene, the “thing” in the scene. When improvisers can’t find the “thing,” they’ll jump from one idea to the next, never settling on one, and the scene consequently goes nowhere. Or it goes elsewhere—desperate players often suggest the characters in a scene leave one location and go to another.

Being aware of what the significant aspect—the “thing”—of a scene is requires experience and acuity. Often in rehearsal or class I’ll stop and ask the players what the scene is about. Often they’ll say it’s something that might have been mentioned in the scene but doesn’t have the emotional resonance that the real “thing” does.

For example, instead of being about trying to get pregnant, a scene is about how a husband and wife feel about each other as manifested by the way the husband ignores what the wife says or the way the wife constantly interrupts the husband.

A scene can be about anything. Indeed a scene can be about nothing. A scene can be about the curtains or the way someone clears their throat. I relish scenes that create a tiny little self-referential world in which everything that is said and done matters and nothing else does. It’s economy. It’s dramatic cold fusion.

I’ve worked with many fine improvisers over the years but I never fully explored or was aware of the self-referential scene until I developed a habit of doing them with Steve Scott. We found ourselves doing an old standby short form, Historical Event. We both agreed that we were not trying to reenact or comment upon the event but just to use it as a springboard for whatever might follow.

Once we freed ourselves of historical veracity, we found that the scenes were about what was actually happening on stage. The first time this happened, as I recall, we were doing a scene set in Russia and Steve started commenting on my accent. So instead of the scene being about Lenin or Gorky or Stravinsky, it was about an accent and a relationship. The more we did this Historical Event, the more it came to be about what was actually happening so that its title might well have become “Moment in the Present Suggested by Historical Event.”

One of the all-time funniest Transactors Improv scenes involved Tim Johnston and Dan Sipp doing something called “Animal Therapy,” in which some animal suggested by the audience would be getting analysis.

In this particular scene, Dan was a sloth and Tim the Freudian therapist. As a sloth, Dan was moving very, very slowly. I can’t remember what they were discussing but at some point Tim got up and started pacing behind Dan. Because Dan was moving so slowly, every time he turned to look at Tim, Tim had already moved to the other side. It was hilarious. Who cares what they were saying! The scene was about the scene. By being specific and aware, they had discovered something far more delightful than discussing what might cause neuroses in a sloth.

So it is of paramount importance that players are aware at all times of what is going on in a scene. A scene is a mystery waiting to reveal itself and like a detective solving a crime an improviser must attribute great importance to everything within a scene. You may think a scene is about the French Revolution or insoles and indeed those things may figure into it prominently, but in true improv the scene has a life of its own and it directs you rather than the converse.

You’ve got to find something specific toward which to direct your energies, whether it’s improv or business or whatever. A good improv scene or a successful business is too general a goal. It must be something concrete. Do something specific! Then be open to whatever happens next.
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