At some point or another every actor has done an exercise of give and take. It usually consists of meandering around the stage, clapping at each other, and making strange sounds. Although this is an effective exercise that hones holistic listening skills, it’s not what I’m talking about here. Back in the day, Martin DuMaat – one of Chicago’s most influential improv teachers – had one direction for improv scenes: “It’s your scene partner’s birthday,” he used to say. He went on to explain that scenes flow when each actor gives his partner “gifts”. It was in the giving, that the inevitable receiving would instantaneously occur. And like breathing, every inhale exists because of an exhale. What is “gifting your partner”? It’s a lot of things, but mostly it’s
The conscious introduction of discoveries.
Not new ideas or inventions, but discoveries – discoveries that go beyond the usual ones of location (where) and activity (what). Over and over again we see players throwing out “wacky” situations in zany locales in order to get a laugh. (They’re usually inventions anyway.) That’s fun, but for the most part, it’s playing for the end product – the joke. An honest improvisor plays for the now, not for the future. I’m not saying that the where & what can’t come by honestly. I’m saying that they must be discovered in the moment as opposed to being discovered as a joke. If you play the joke, then the back and forth ends right there. End of scene. (I’m talking about the joke, not the game.) But if you’re genuinely in the moment, you will infinitely discover infinite possibilities. By stating them, or living them into the scene, you have now given your partner “gifts”. So what happens next? Their in-the-moment-response (receiving) will spark another discovery, and so on. And deeper discoveries will emerge, like relationship (who) and needs (why).
If you think (key word, think) that your scene partner is giving you nothing, then you’re judging them, their gift, and you’re judging/limiting your ability to receive. Now it’s your turn to play as if they think it’s your birthday. Let go of the judgment, and see them as their character. When the character “gives nothing”, that’s something wonderful – the actor is actually giving you something for your on-stage relationship. Too often an actor will see a glimpse of something, but not respond to it, and later will say “Hey, I thought you were gonna blah, blah, blah, so I waited for you to blah, blah, blah.” Don’t ever assume. Don’t ever wait for your partner to do what you expect. Find joy in the unexpected, and respond to it. Unless that gift is received, then infinite discoveries will shrink into finite ideas. Beware of an opposite reaction as well: being caught up in your partner’s talent. At some point we all find ourselves performing with someone who is . . . amazing. Our reaction might be to feel as if we need to be just as good. We might fear that this expert will find us boring or become frustrated with our lack of equal genius, so we scramble to keep pace or be clever. Funny how those knee-jerk reactions take over, huh? Know this: if you’re performing with a highly talented improvisor – they are not judging you. They, in fact, delight in everything you do, because they have learned how to receive all gifts.
This is law because it always exists. Like breathing, if you stop the exchange, you die. Can a scene be resuscitated? Always. Whatever we receive or perceive from our partner automatically generates a response. If we fight against that response, then we are not working with the Law of Giving and Receiving. If we allow the Law to be, then we will all succeed.