Committing one of the Seven Deadly Sins of Improv can kill the momentum of a scene. These sins occur quickly and easily, often out of fear, nerves, laziness, or by not being fully present. Temptation is high and, let’s admit, sinning is fun. But until you have a strong grasp on how to sin with comedic flair, avoiding these seven improv sins will produce engaging scenes with more playable moments that are fun for you and your audience.
When strangers interact with each other, they may be awkward or polite, sharing vague information to keep the other at arm’s length. But friends? Loud. Loving. Brutally honest. Why create a character from the depths of your soul only to play them with their guard up? Have a bestie to admire. An ex to desire. A pirate to exact revenge upon. When characters share a history, any scene will be enriched by their relationship. Know each other.
Do you love buying cars? Visiting dealerships? Negotiating? If so, great—remind me to take you shopping when my lease is up—but nobody wants to watch a transaction scene. A transaction is an obstacle in the path of a character’s desire. Plus, such scenes risk a forced ending once the transaction is complete. If your idea involves a luxury sports car and you’re faced with a purchase, have unlimited funds to bypass the barrier, get in the vehicle and make your idea happen. Have what you need.
When a character explains how to do something and the other character does what they’re told, it becomes a game of Follow the Leader. These one-sided tutorials stop the action and prevent both players from moving forward. If someone says, “Wait, show me how to do this,” I guarantee that whatever comes next will be more tiresome and less informative than any instructional video on YouTube. To participate in your improv scenes, never play incompetence. Be knowledgeable.
Asking your scene partner a broad question is like asking them to do your thinking (in addition to their thinking). Fielding questions adds unnecessary stress for an improviser, forcing them to do double the work. Don’t make your scene partner answer something on-the-spot, give them something to react to in the moment. Share strong opinions or express your emotions. Make declarative statements.
Improvised arguments are not fun to play, and they’re uncomfortable to watch. Conflict must be handled with care and losing to your scene partner can be oh-so-fun. Confess why your opponent deserves the win. “You must accept the award. I don’t have space for another trophy.” Instead of jumping into defense mode, own up to accusations and justify the offense. “No, I didn’t take out the garbage. I’m using it to design trashy outfits.” Take accountability.
When you and your scene partner step into characters, they immediately have our attention. We want to know who they are and see what they do. Talking about a character who isn’t in the scene is like telling the audience, “Don’t look at us, imagine this other more interesting person, instead!” Keep the focus on the characters you actively portray. Play someone who others gossip about. Keep it about those present.
Similar to Gossiping, Planning is when you stand around talking about something you are going to do later. Planning a heist is significantly less interesting than performing an active robbery where the stakes are high. If someone says, “I can’t wait for the dance tonight,” you can break character and shout, “Cut to the dance,” and time-jump to the action. Make active choices.