Suggestions for working with suggestions

Are you thinking too much about the suggestion? Are you having a hard time knowing what to do with it? Did you forget about it completely?

Working with a suggestion can cause improvisers some undue stress and a lot of times we are putting too much weight on it. You hear a suggestion and then your mind goes blank. Or maybe you have an internal dialogue like this.

“I need an idea!”
“That idea is way too inappropriate.”
“Ugh, we get that suggestion all the time”
“Someone else will have something better.”

Or

“What does that word even mean?”

Or

“Oh sweet, the suggestion is horse. Let’s do a scene about a horse!”

First, quit judging yourself

That internal dialogue above is probably taking you so long that you miss out on a chance for an initiation. Then, because you are in your own head, you miss what someone else initiates and can’t create something with your team. Or worse, you judge the idea of the person who initiated, even though you had nothing and did nothing.

The scene is not about the suggestion. The scene also isn’t going to be successful just because you feel you took a super smart leap from the word you were given. The goal is to be inspired from the word, make an interesting choice quickly, and have the courage to jump out there and initiate without hesitation.

You should never question whether or not your idea is good enough to start a scene or clever enough of an idea created from the suggestion. Fuck clever, just do something. We create scenes together and the idea/premise from the suggestion is just the start. We still have to build a scene with our partners.

Your scene isn’t about the suggestion

Unless you are creating a specific type of show that uses the suggestion to create a theme, it should just be used as a jumping off point and not taken literally. Remember, the suggestion exists to help you generate ideas. You are not being asked to rattle off everything you know about the word that was given. You are doing improv, not writing a research paper through your set.  

We get suggestions to help us generate ideas. The suggestion taken literally is not necessarily the idea itself. The further away we get from the suggestion, the better chance we have of creating something interesting that the audience didn’t think of themselves. When that happens it makes for a better show.

Examples of exploring a suggestion

For the purposes of these examples, our suggestion is banana.

First Initiation Thought
Son
Hey dad, did you buy bananas?
Dad
I didn’t. You are eating too many bananas. Sorry, son.
Son
Bananas are my favorite food!

OK, this scene sucks. We’ve literally said the suggestion three times in three lines. We’ve all been here and done shows where every scene is literally about the suggestion. We can do better. (although that one show where we did 6 scenes about baseball sure did make ME happy.)  This scene became all about bananas and not the father and child. This is not at all grounded in reality (who talks like this?) We can certainly get back on track, but we’ve wasted the first few moments of the scene.

You might be wondering “How do I avoid making the scene about bananas once it has started?” Great question! Make the scene about your relationship.

Son
Hey dad, did you buy bananas?
Dad
Son, you’re an adult now. Don’t you think it is time for you to move out and learn to shop for yourself?

Boom, just like that we have moved away from making the scene about our suggestion and have a strong relationship that can take us in a few different directions.

Second Initiation Thought
Son
Hey dad, I found this monkey outside, can we keep her?

Dad
Keep her? We could charge the neighbors to hang out with her!
Son
Awesome! She can have my room!

We took the idea of banana and that made us think of monkeys. Cool, that’s a nice next leap. The idea of a family finding a monkey and adopting it is outside the realm of possibility, but at least it is an interesting idea. This could absolutely be a fun scene, but it also can easily be insane and leave an audience confused. Not a bad choice, but you might not want to start a set this wild. Pace yourself into the crazy.

Third Initiation Thought
Husband
Sweetheart, you were right, I got sunburned.
Wife
Not again! How many times are you going to pass out on the porch?

With this example, banana made me think of yellow, which made me think of the sun, which made me think of getting sunburned. We have a relationship, a premise, and an interesting jumping off point that is based in reality. Who cares that it isn’t about a banana? We have plenty to work with here to make this a successful scene.

Don’t Say The Word

If you find yourself going straight to the literal meaning of the suggestion, challenge yourself. Don’t say the suggestion at all in your scene, or at least not in the first few lines. It is a small, but effective way to ensure you don’t make the literal choice.

Remember, the word is just a starting point. There isn’t an improv scorecard that an audience fills out after a show. You will never hear “That was a good show, but I didn’t see enough banana scenes. I demand a refund.” If you do hear that, please do not refund that person.

If your group is having issues with this, definitely have focused warm ups that allow you to work on idea generation. I like A to C and simple word free association or the pattern game for this. You can even do a few silent scenes to force using environmental choices to explore the suggestion.

I literally don’t know what the word means

That’s going to happen and it is OK! Don’t worry about it. What does it sound like? How does it make you feel? Does it rhyme with anything? These are all ways to help you still generate ideas off the word without knowing what it is. One time I got the suggestion “baroque” and I totally forgot what it meant. Instead of feeling stupid and not doing anything, I initiated a scene about Barack Obama and we explored something about the white house’s secret rooms.

Don’t judge your partner’s choices

In my above Barack Obama example, my team knew I made that choice because Barack sounds like baroque. They didn’t try to “correct” the scene by making it more about something closer to the definition after I already initiated. That’s called supporting your partner, and it feels great.

Never act like an initiation was below your standards for idea generation off a suggestion. Remember, it is just a starting point. Listen and react to what your partner did or said for their initiation and create something together. Don’t worry about how they arrive at their premise.

You got this

Suggestions allow the audience to be a part of the show and illustrates to them that we are indeed making something up on the spot. Don’t sweat this too hard. Be inspired, not paralyzed by the suggestion and go forth to make something fun and interesting with your team. And if you have to, just eat a damn banana in your scene. Sometimes you truly will have nothing, and it will still wind up being OK if you all work together.

Vincent Migliore