Quantum Improv – Cause follows Effect

I’m leaping on the neutrino bandwagon, though without the aim of claiming that science has destroyed itself (because I’m not an idiot). My thoughts here come out of a discussion of emotion in improv scenes during one of Klaus Peter Schreiner‘s workshops in Nottingham and some rumination that followed…

How do YOU feel?

Angry, neutral and happy expressions

Emotion is incrediby valuable – people have pesky emotions which drive their behaviour and decisions. In improv we need to make choices which make sense to our audiences and to the players / characters in the scene. Most of us understand (or, more awesomely think we understand) how and why people react in different ways. So it provides a direction for a scene, whether we’re descending into an argument, finding a cool game based around triggering and reducing that emotional response, or generating detail and concepts through an emotional flow of ideas and justifications.

Make me scream

It depends on what you like to see in improv: some folk love emotional scenes, the truth of inter-personal reactions on stage. Others enjoy fine ranting, the weird and absurd made flesh and caused to dance before you. I kinda fall into the second camp. That said I do find emotion an invaluable tool, and I love to see people in misery on stage. It’s a cruel reverse sentimentality and it means that for me emotion is a toy to be played with. It’s really good fun to pimp an emotional state on yourself – especially one that you weren’t expecting.

Debate. Mass debate. Snicker.

The idea Klaus was sharing is that you can throw any emotion into a scene, more or less at any time. And that’s where the debate kicked off. The query: “how do I know why I’m reacting this way?” Again, there are several ways to answer this. One is that the emerging emotion is the natural extension of whatever character you’ve established, so you know why you’re reacting because it’s how you have to react, given what you’ve set up. Of course, this doesn’t really work at the start of a scene as you may just be initiating emotionally with no forethought. And that’s where I’d come down – if you can chuck an emotion in at the beginning, you can do it later. The utter beauty of improv is that the audience, and to a lesser extent your scene partners perceive characters as being consistent and acting “with intent”.

Psycho-babble, but true

In our human interactions we only ever see actions; we absolutely cannot get inside the heads of our friends and colleagues. We assume that we can infer their intentions and thoughts from their behaviour, verbal or physical. The exact same applies in improv. If I react to something angrily, you will assume that I have a good reason. I may not (for all you know I’m an awesome robot with a revolving emotion disc-player which selects random feelings for me). But you assume I do, and when in character so do I. Because you already have the audience on side you now have the freedom to explore what has gone before in the context of your emotional response and with your scene partner develop the scene further.

It’s one of those beautiful cognitive screw ups that we face as humans and you can exploit it endlessly. Even if you do something utterly unexpected it is only unexpected because the audience/partner/you do not know your character inside out. And why would you? How many times does someone in the real world do something that seems “out of character”? We don’t assume they’ve broken out of their scene (alright, reality) – we assume there’s context, subtext, information we didn’t have before. It’s insane really – whatever happens we figure that it must fit somewhere. Improv relies on this – you generate a bunch of detail, with no especial regard for how it fits and yet it does. We assume relevance and then magically fit and retro-fit it back in. Brilliant.

Be emotional. Go on: cry for me.

In summary – do what you like. Just choose something. As long as you do it authentically, without mugging or corpseing, you and the audience will assume it to be a genuine and comprehensible aspect of character and scene. You will find the reason for that behaviour and it will be consistent because humans are amazing at rationalising the most ridiculous nonsense.

Of course if you keep flipping emotions in a scene it’s gonna get harder and harder to justify it… that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do it. The main problem is having to re-rationalise the scene each time and that can make the piece jerky and trash the narrative. Fun to play at though!

Mind the pseudo-science

And that’s the excuse for ‘quantum’ here – cause folllows effect. Of course, if you hear anyone else use the work quantum outside of physics you can cheerfully ignore whatever they say – they will be talking arse.

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2 thoughts on “Quantum Improv – Cause follows Effect

  1. I love this post.

    This is why “emotional lists” scenes work so well. Emotions drive story. Having a new emotion propels the story in a new direction. When I teach I often side coach, “emotion.” I just call that one word out to an actor. It doesn’t matter what emotion the actor chooses because regardless of the choice, the scene partners, the audience, and/or the actor himself will justify why this emotion just surfaced.

    1. Thanks dude. Fun isn’t it? I think it helps to get into the (pop) psychology a bit – it’s so reassuring to know that people will assume you know what you’re doing. It makes you free.

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