Don't normalize the scene

If improvisers take an oath, it would be the Anti-Hippocratic Oath. “Do harm, or at first, do no cure”.

When something is a little off from normal, your natural instinct is to correct it. You try to get out from being uncomfortable. In improv, you want to keep being off-balance.

There are many improv sayings similar to this. Phrases such as “finding the unusual”, “raising the stakes”, “heightening the game”. But I think my philosophy, “Don’t normalize” is something more general. In my observation, “raising the stakes” implies a very active choice. Too often it stresses players out to think of clever, inventive ways.

“Don’t normalize” allows you to play a more passive role, giving you time to breathe. Just stay where you are and enjoy being uncomfortable. You don’t have to be crazy. You only have to stop making an *automatic* response to balance things. At key points it’s important to fight this dynamic. Often, the game of the scene never forms because players keep making minor corrections to make things normal:

- You start a scene in a weird posture. Resist the urge to go to a neutral standing position. Keep the posture.

- Two bullies are beating up a nerd. A teacher walk-on is normal. Instead, come in as another bully.

- Electronic store scene: A customer asks for an item in gibberish (“Can I have a hffdgnk?”) and the salesman, not understanding what that is, brings different items from the storage. Instead of giving up (that’s “normal”), the salesman should keep bringing items, maybe even bigger items, with more and more effort.

- You’re canoeing into a dangerous area. Your instinct is to go for safety. Don’t go for safety. Stay or go deeper.

- An airport security guard finds a lighter in your suitcase. Instead of pretending it’s a mistake, say “Yes, that’s a lighter.”

At the end of the scene, you can normalize, and the tension is released. You have to cut the scene quickly after. When you normalize, it is best done violently (Electronic store scene: “Microwave oven? Washing machine? Home stereo? … Oh, a USB stick”). That’s a satisfying moment for the scene to end.

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On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.