When I worked as a meat clerk at FoodMaxx when I was 18, I wallowed in the misery of the retail inferiority. BUT, I received some advice from my supervisor. He said, “Always pay yourself first.” That always stayed in my mind, and it now becomes my biggest piece of advice to improvisors which is to “Take Care of Yourself First.”
Ultimately, it comes down to identity. If you go into a scene without any idea who you are or how you feel, then you are relying on your partner to help solve that mystery. Obviously, you may receive gifts that give you that identity, but it doesn’t always happen, and you might feel lost in the scene. But if you take care of yourself, it empowers your ability to collaborate with your scene partner. It’s like being a parent on an airplane that is experiencing turbulence and the air masks drop. You might instinctively think, “I’ve got to put a mask on my child first,” which is natural, since I think humans do instinctively want to help. But you are advised to help yourself first, and then help your child. You’ve got to have strength before you can help others, and this relates to improv immensely.
When I first got into improvised narratives (improvising a play or movie on the spot based on a title), boy did I struggle. And it’s because I didn’t think of myself or give myself a role in the story. A lot of times, I would latch onto a character and just follow them around and become their doppelganger with no unique perspective or contribution to the tale. The more I got lost, the more I realized, I’ve got to change. I started to put myself into antagonist roles, and my style started to morph. I came into scenes with a strong philosophy, a unique gait and body movement, and suddenly, improv became easy, because I took care of myself first. Anytime I started a scene with an emotion, a body movement, some object work, or just some choice that I made, I suddenly felt in control of myself and dialogue just flowed. I became a character rather than hoping I would be endowed as a character.
There’s a sense of politeness that needs to be dismissed on stage. Playing coy can cause your character to disappear. At the top of the scene, remember, you are in charge of you. Start a scene with an emotion, a distinct body movement, a specific status, ANYTHING! Define you, so you can define the scene. Take care of yourself.