I’ve been reading the TJ and Dave book “Improvising at the Speed of Life” and it’s gotten me thinking about the use of discovery and invention used during an improv scene.
In brief, discovery is when information is revealed to the players through each of their offers and invention is when manufactured details are brought into a scene that weren’t present in previous offers. TJ and Dave’s book really celebrates the idea of discovery, using it as the pair’s modus operandi (I will be doing my best to include latin in future blogs as it makes me seem smarter).
When invention is mentioned in note sessions, it’s usually in terms of being a symptom of not listening and ignoring partners offers during an improv scene. This is a fair cop (I will be doing my best to include slang in future blogs as it makes me seem more relatable) in certain circumstances but I do also believe that invention can make an improv scene pop when used well.
Discovery puts the focus on the information contained in each of the offers given by the improvisers on stage. The information contained in each improviser’s offer allows us to discover more about the respective characters, the dynamic between them and the world that they inhabit. The philosophy of discovery is that the whole scene (and by extension the show) lies within the other players, you don’t need to bring in anything apart from giving them your undivided attention (which is actually really hard).
When thinking in terms of discovery It’s useful to think of yourself as a detective, look at the available information you have and draw logical conclusions from them. My friend Sandy generously donated an initiation for me to dissect:
“Sorry mate, I’ve just booked a doctors appointment for then.”
Even keeping in mind we can’t sense tone particularly well with a written line, there’s still loads to unpack here:
- Sandy called my character ‘mate’ so they’re probably familiar with each other. A good chance that they’re friends.
- Sandy’s character has got something he needs to see a doctor about. Feels comfortable sharing this information with my character, furthers the likelihood they’re familiar with each other.
- My character has asked Sandy’s character to do something at a certain time. Whatever that something is probably isn’t as important as Sandy’s character’s appointment.
- Sandy’s character has apologised for not being able to do what my character has asked him to do, whatever tone this is delivered in would speak volumes about the as of yet unnamed subjects and the dynamic between our two characters.
Already in one line, we have a great deal of implied details about both of our characters, the dynamic between them and the world we inhabit. By following these reasonable assumptions we’ve got a packed scene based around discovery.
If you want to practice working on discovery with your group, a good starting point is to come up with a bunch of initiations and as a team have a discussion to unpack any initial discoveries found in the offer.
If discovery is based on information already contained within a scene, invention is when we bring in details that are not found within the scene.
Let’s go back to Sandy’s initiation to see this play out:
Sandy: Sorry mate, I’ve just booked a doctors appointment for then.
Liam: You always do this! We’ll never win The Great British Bake Off with that attitude!
Second lines like this are common. It’s an offer to go straight towards action, as well as filling in a lot of details that have yet to be set in stone. In fairness it’s an offer that gives both of the players something to play with but at the same time I’ve not particularly followed up on Sandy’s offer.
- We might still be familiar with each other but I’ve invented a conflict that wasn’t there in Sandy’s initiation.
- As opposed to exploring and discovering information about the doctor appointment, I’ve made it less important than the rich comic potential of The Great British Bake Off. Again, I’m not particularly working off Sandy’s initiation.
- I am at least following up on the fact that my character has asked Sandy’s character to do something at a certain time. Through my reply, I’ve created an unusual character that views The Great British Bake Off as more important than a health concern. In this sense it doesn’t feel like that bad a move, we’re two lines in and we have a very playable scene. However it does come at the expense of discovery and ignores a lot of rich detail to be found in Sandy’s offer. It’s an expensive trade off.
- The reply doesn’t particularly take onboard that Sandy’s character is apologising. Once again we could tie this into a pig-headed unusual character response but we once again end up with a neglected offer, an expensive trade off.
It’s usually this kind of invention that we get noted on during our improv scenes, essentially selling our partners offer short for an immediate and/or playable idea. In frankness this can work out fine but as the scene goes on we will start paying the cost of dropping offers back in full. Our once immediately playable idea becomes harder to play due to diminishing returns and the lack of flexibility and depth within our scene.
In defence of Invention
Wow, that seemed to get very personal very quickly. Sorry invention! I actually think invention is great, as long as it isn’t at the expense of your partner’s offers. An odd or new detail can add a spark of fun and extra layer to a scene once the actors are playing well together.
One example comes from a two person scene I was in during a Will Hines workshop (haven’t mentioned him in a few weeks so obviously I have to). As the scene went on, my partner and I discovered that we were travelling together and my character didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with the other character, instead using them as a means to an end. Will stopped the scene and told us that now we had an established dynamic and character game to play, we could add a fun detail such as a location to the scene. We resumed play and my scene partner revealed that we were on a Trans-Siberian railway, getting a big laugh from the audience.
In essence my partner invented an offer but it was a strong move. As well as getting a big laugh she made the scene even more fun and easier to play:
- The invented offer didn’t come at the expense of any previous offer we’d made.
- The invented offer heightened the dynamic between us while remaining true to it.
- The invented offer gave us more room to play. Now we know we’re specifically on a Trans-Siberian railway, we’ve got a fun location to continue playing our relationship.
Another way of playing with inventions is talked about in Mick Napier’s book Improvise, which he terms curve-balls. This involves throwing out a random detail before weaving it into the pre-established details within the scene, also known as jump and justify.
To practice this idea in your group, start by doing a bunch of two person scenes. In the middle of each of the scenes, one of the players will reach out in front of them and grab an object before naming what it is. The object shouldn’t be immediately related to the scene but justified into it all the same.
For an example, let’s go back to the Trans-Siberian rail scene. As the scene continues from where we left off, my partner can reach and a grab a baseball bat from in front of them. To weave it back into the scene, we can say that the bat is there because we are professional baseball players. This feeds back into our scene as professional sports teams should have some degree of teamwork between each other and this gives us another avenue to explore in our now icy relationship.
The amount of invention you do on stage is very much dependant on your taste and playstyle but I love it when it’s done well. It opens up new depths of play, keeps things spontaneous and can make for some incredible scenes. As long as it’s not at the expense of the promising scene you already have!
Always feel free to message your semper fidelis mucker at: LiamBrennanImprov[at]gmail.com