In part two of my conversation with Edmonton-based improviser, actor, film-maker, and director Dana Andersen, we try to get to the heart of what makes some improv good, and other improv great. Dana Andersen agreed to an interview after I returned from Die Nasty one evening questioning whether it would be possible to review an improv performance.
Jenna: After the show, do you ever sit down and break down what did work or what didn’t?
Dana: Not in our particular show because we’ve been doing it so long – it’s our night to just go out and have fun and no one particularly wants to hear a grand slam of notes of why you did this and why you did that. The audience and how you’re feeling after the show will dictate if you did things right or wrong. We don’t really dwell on that because it’s improv and the chances of it being different each time are so great that it’s hard to give notes because the next time it won’t be the same… The thing you need to get to is people not talking over top of each other, so it seems like your dialogue is… you want it to seem like it’s been scripted, but there’s no rehearsal or no planning on anything but you want to give the illusion that you’re skillfully pulling off a play of some kind and giving all the correct theatrics.
Jenna: The ability to be an improv actor – is that something someone is born with? I know there are improv classes available in the city, but do you think that it’s something someone can ever really learn?
Dana: I think you have to be at least a performer to learn how to improvise, so you’re not just mortified to be in front of people. After that, I think the better actor you become, the better improviser you become. The better improviser you become, the better actor you become. I think they complement each other. It’s always good to have an improv skill if you’re an actor and you forget a line, it’s always good to be able to be able to doodle around and not sweat it. That’s why listening is such an important skill. Usually when people forget their lines on stage, it’s because they haven’t been listening to what the other actor has said to them. If you’re listening, you can only respond correctly.
Jenna: Yes, especially if you really know your character well… Do you think it is possible for someone to review improv?
Dana: Well, I think it’s possible to review anything. You just have to know it’s improv and judge it so… If it’s perfect improv, then that’s no fun for a reviewer either. Everyone wants them to sweat it out a bit. I think that … there has to be some sign of a flaw or some sign of “yikes, this guy is in trouble!” or else improv doesn’t have any sort of purpose. It’s got to have some sense of danger to it for the performer – you have to slip on the tightrope when you’re on a high wire act, even if you’re not actually slipping. You know you’re doing it just to give the audience the sense of danger that you put yourself in.
Jenna: It’s sort of the art of the unexpected.
Dana: It depends what kind of improv – our improv at Die Nasty is pretty tongue in-cheek. So, breaking the fourth wall is a good way to show that you’re improvising, that you’re actually using the audience as another character or as a sound effect every once in a while. You know, if someone’s cell phone goes off, incorporating that into what you’re doing. It’s pretty obvious then that you’re improvising. Those are sort of the improv god’s gifts. If the power goes out or an airplane flies over or a fire truck is outside and you kind of reference it and you can justify it in the scene that you’re doing, then the audience realizes, “okay, they’re improvising and there’s some skill going on there.” But I think you can tell bad improv just when people are talking at the same time. Or when people are yelling at each other, they’re not usually good improvisers either.
Jenna: Why is that?
Dana: Because they’re not listening, they’re just trying to get their point across and not giving into the drama. People want to create conflict when they’re improvising – what is the conflict? Well, if I yell at you and you yell back, then we’re having a conflict, but that’s not necessarily good. There’s more nuances – like being able to turn your back on the person and make a face when they’re not looking. You’ve got to pretend that you’re in a play that’s been blocked by some sort of director but you move around the stage and balance the stage so you make a good picture. There’s a million things going on. The worst is getting four or five improvisers and they all end up standing in a row talking. They’re just talking heads and it’s like, okay, we’re all clever but you might as well be listening to the radio. That’s no fun. I like physical comedy – someone goes and sits down and someone gets a drink and while that’s happening it becomes real life and it kind of paints a picture and makes it a more dramatic event rather than people just baiting each other on an early morning talk show – you know the witty guys versus someone trying to do a relationship scene.
Jenna: So, then as someone who might want to try to review improv – sort of watching out for when someone is going for those cheap thrills?
Dana: Yeah, you’ll notice that a good improviser never asks another improviser a question. They’ll always make assumptions, so you’re talking all the time, but you’re never going “so, where were you yesterday?” and then the other improviser has to go “oh, well… now I have to think of something.” You go “you were at the bar yesterday” and the other guy can say, “yes I was, I was having drinks with your wife.” You know what I mean? It just moves the story ahead way faster than [asking questions].. Saying yes to everything is the most important thing. It’s just, “yes, of course that happened.” Even if it’s, “you jumped out of an airplane yesterday” [you reply] “yes, both of my legs were completely broken! That’s why I’m sitting in this chair.” You can’t go, “no, I didn’t” then the other guy has to say, “oh, I guess you didn’t and nothing happened and we’re just going to argue for a bit.” No matter how ridiculous the offer you get, always try to justify it. That’s how the audience knows you’re improvising.
Jenna: Does that sort of avoiding or not bothering with questions, does that sort of give the improv actor more control over the scene, is that why it’s used?
Dana: Not so much, it just takes the pressure off the other actor to have to think of stuff. You don’t want to have to think hard, you just want the stuff to be laid out so you can give it nuance or embellish it. So, giving someone a hard question to answer it’s just like, “ah, now I gotta think of this,” when you just want the story to shoot along. Especially when you don’t have a lot of time – like in short form improv – you gotta land the joke. If you’re asking questions, you’re just stalling because you don’t know what to say. But if you do know what to say, you’ll give them names and you’ll get an activity going and get something cooking without putting it on the other actors.
– Jenna Marynowski