Twice a week I go to what is known as an “improv” class.
In the class anything between 10 and 15 of us are given situations to work through and characters to play. Working together or in small groups we have to improvise a scene.
We have no advance idea what our character or situation is going to be – we really do make it up as we go along. No pauses are allowed, and we have to stay true to the situation.
To give one example, this week one of us was the host at a party, while five were guests, each of whom had a secret. The guests revealed their secret through their behaviour (we did not say it overtly), while the host had to try to work out what the secret was.
In the first scene I played in, my secret was that I had brought two cannisters of oxygen to the party. In the second I was a man who had been booked to fit a new kitchen and had turned up on the wrong day.
We get about 10 seconds to think how we’re going to play our part, and then we are on. No pauses, no stopping because one is laughing, and of course we have to respond to what the party host says (so there’s no preparation one can do).
In my “oxygen” scene I kept complaining I was thirsty, and then started asking for hydrogen while saying I had everything else I needed.
In the second I used the minimal props that were on the stage to build a set, climbed underneath so just head and feet were poking out, and at random shouted out, “Turn that xxxx water off!” and “Where’s the X97 wrench?” along with complaints about “working with amateurs”.
It may not read as a hilarious scene, but it did get a lot of laughs.
And why do I mention my secret two-nights-a-week hobby? It is not because I am thinking of going on stage full time (you will be relieved to know). Rather it is basically because I enjoy it, it is different from everything else I do, and because it stimulates my creativity.
In other words, I think this makes me a better writer. Of course I am not using the improvisation scenes when I write advertisements, but the pressure of instant improvisation in front of even a tiny audience forces me to stretch my imagination further and further.
And I get to work with actors who are far better than me at creating new ideas – which in turn helps me write better advertisements.
These days most towns have a local improvisation (known as improv) club. But don’t confuse this with “stand up”. Stand up comedians do their routine, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Improv actors make it up in response to instructions from the audience within a second or two.
I’d recommend that if you have a spare evening you pop along to a local club. And if you do, just think what is happening with improv. Everything is possible, but it has to be done now. It challenges one to think and create immediately, using whatever idea is there.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that actors then use every idea that comes into their heads, any more than you will use every idea you can think of when creating advertising.
But if you are writing your own adverts, doing something like improv helps break down barriers, stops conventional thought, and creates ideas that no one else will have created.
Of course, just as with my “I want two cans of hydrogen”, not every improvisation will work wonderfully. But some will, and those can indeed be evolved into something else.
Improv is not for everyone, of course, but if you are creating your own advertisements I would urge you to think how you are pushing yourself into a frame of mind that allows you to come up with new and interesting ways of getting your readers interested.
It doesn’t mean you have to be funny. But you do have to gather and hold the attention of those to whom you wish to sell. Just like an improviser who is told that her character has mistaken the host of the party for a speaking crocodile. You have five seconds, then you are on.