The Introspective Improviser

Being an occasional series of exercises and techniques for developing craft when one is alone (or wishes they were)

At the Dentist’s: First of two exercises

I just got back from the dentist. In this time of pandemic, a fraught errand. But: I had a cavity, it needed filling; life goes on, even in pandemic times.

I don’t have a huge phobia around the dentist’s office. Still, the bright light in the eyes, the noises of the equipment, the novocaine—none of these things are particularly pleasant.

As I settled into the chair, I had two main objectives.

I wanted to stay relaxed, to have the visit be as pleasant as possible.

I wanted to be a helpful patient, and to make my partner look good! Important when my partner was working on my mouth, wouldn’t you say?  

I wanted to use the time pleasantly and constructively.

This was obviously a perfect time for some introspective improv. The following exercises fit the bill wonderfully. I was enough in the room to be cooperative, enough out of it to stay relaxed, and I found material to use in improving my improv craft.

Exercise: Old Places, Long Gone

I have been working on my memory for a while now. I am absent minded, and often forget really important things I am supposed to do. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this exercise will help that situation—that’s a different kind of memory. However, it is great for the actor in me.

  1. Get comfortable, take a couple of cleansing breaths, close your eyes.
  2. Choose an old, long gone place from your past. Today in the dentist’s chair I chose my elementary school.
  3. If it is a building, you might start at the walk up to the door…or simply start where your memory tells you to start.

See that place in your mind’s eye. What is the walk or pathway like? Dirt? Concrete? Stone? See it. Take a moment to look up at the building. What’s there? Be open to discovering details… Is it painted? What condition is the paint or other finish? Notice windows, doors, colors, architectural flourishes or lack thereof. (Granite sills on a modern brick building, MAC ARTHUR SCHOOL on a granite rectangle….inset into the brick…above the door? Yes. Bronze colored flashing. Modernist design rectangular side lights.  If this is a place from childhood, consider your vantage point. How tall are you? How big is it? How big would it be today? Fact drifts into view: It is 1962. The school opened just this year…

Go in the door. Stop for a moment. Take a breath. Does this place have a smell? (Licorice-scented floor cleaner, chalk dust, crayon…) Look around.

The floor of the hallway is poured, polished concrete. Embedded stones, shiny.  Every twenty feet or so, horizontal cracks cross the hallway. (My adult observer notes that they didn’t have expansion joints, a design flaw. My five-year old self became frightened, thinking that the school was going to break up and sink into the ground.) Dark, thick rubber floormat. Cinder block walls, painted crème above, pastel green below… farther down the hall, at the point where the upper grades begin, the bottom half becomes tan. Light colored wood door to the Kindergarten classroom, little vertical window in the door, to the right side. The door is propped open with a grey hard rubber wedge. Flag with a wood pole, in a metal holder, projecting from the wall, the blackboards aren’t black—they’re green. Big red cardboard blocks are stacked in the corner. I loved those blocks.

And so it went. I learned so much about that place, way back when, while sitting in the dentist’s chair today! Try it. As you visualize, help uncover the memory by asking open questions—what do you see? Smell? Hear? Be open to both the unexpected discoveries, and to the big blank areas that do not want to give up their secrets. Stay patient and curious.

As you do this exercise, which in fact is a form of mindfulness meditation, you may at times be hit with small or large waves of emotion. (my fear that the school would sink!) Don’t let those emotions scare you: you’re in charge. Note what is going on, what it feels like, and give yourself a break if you want.

If you visit one of these places more than once, you will probably find that each visit will yield more detail, more focus.


In your improv work with others:

The Where

is a rich resource that, especially in the age of online improv, is often sadly left out. If you use some of this detail in your scene work, you and your partner will have a richer experience. The audience may not realize anything is different, but the fact is, they will see you seeing, and the scene will be more rewarding for them as well.

Other details:

While remembering, the names of my elementary school teachers popped up. Mrs. Brewer, Mrs. Wilmot, Mrs. Moore, Mrs. Stalcup, Mrs. LaGamma, Miss Holdsworth, Miss Stratton. The principal, Mr. Gold, first name Ben. Next time I need a name in a scene, maybe my options will be expanded if I keep finding these real names from the past? Sidney Stalcup, Jack Stratton, Doug Holdsworth….

Other applications:

You might want to write about the observations you make, and the discoveries yielded. Maybe these will become stories, or poems, or plays. Or not. You are in charge!

Here and now:

I believe that doing this exercise regularly helps me see more in this environment, now.  I think this makes me a better improviser, and at times helps me enjoy the moment more in the present.

Next: How many Scenes in the scene?

Every moment is full of more offers than we can ever realize fully on stage. This simple exercise is about making yourself aware of the offers in this room, now.

As you go through a particular event in your day, note some of the scene offers that are presented. Here are a few, from my dentist’s office visit.

The Late patient

I was six minutes late, because I misplaced my keys at home. Scene possibilities: Me, trying to leave the house. Dentist and assistant, talking about something else, one notes that Mr. B is five minutes late; Mr. B arrives. What effect will that five minutes have on the day for these characters? Who cares, who doesn’t, what is more important than the lateness? Does it change the emotion in the room?

The Black Cube

Outside the window, on the street, just off the curb, was a black, shiny cube of some sort, possibly something wrapped with a garbage bag? Three of us tried to figure out what it was. When I left, I looked. It was a hassock/pillow, probably fell off a truck. The Dentist’s assistant called me on my phone: What was it? She hoped it might be a puppy for the office. (you can’t make this stuff up…)  This could simply be a scene about people looking out at an unknown object in the street, and their reactions to it. Or the perspective of the object: a piece of furniture, now on the street. What now? Or the story of how it got there…Etc….

The Filling

The doctor casually mentioned that the cavity ran “a bit deeper” than she had thought as she gave me novocaine. Scene about the yawning abyss, full of nasty germies…. Or what-have you. Or one could explore: “A bit deeper?” Id she minimizing the situation ? If so, what else does she minimize through the day, in her life?

The New Doc

My usual dentist’s partner recently retired; the woman working on my tooth today was new to the office. She casually mentioned that, and that she was not new to dentistry, more than once in conversation with her assistant. What scene could result from this set of facts? 

Offers Galore

There were more offers, of course. Any of them could have blossomed into a rewarding scene. Noting them helps me bring the wonderful details of everyday life to my work with improv partners. If I do this regularly, I never need face the moment of “having no ideas” in an improv setting. The mundane details of daily life are treasure. As an improviser, I need to have a video camera going in my head, and I can take the time to examine the countless offers that each mundane moment offers.

So that’s it for today…I hope you enjoy and find use for the ideas written here!