did your improv troupe “Precipice” come about?
A: In 1979, I started acting,
directing, teaching, and producing conventional improv shows. They consisted of the standard short improv games and scenes.
After ten years, I was ready for a new challenge. So, I asked myself: Why not improvise an entire play - a play that looks
just like a scripted play, but is improvised, with nothing decided in advance. And not just any play. But a great
play. A play that could be recorded and transcribed and performed as a great scripted piece all over the country. And
I didn't envision that happening only once. Rather, I envisioned directing a theater company that could improvise a completely
different wonderful play at every performance.
this seem incredibly ambitious?
A: Yes. Because even the most experienced playwrights and
screenwriters take months, even years, to write a play or screenplay. How could a group of actors create a good or great
script in an hour-and-a-half, in front of an audience with nothing decided in advance? This project seemed even more daunting
because there was no roadmap to follow. But I was excited by the prospect of taking a journey into uncharted territory.
As a result, I read every published book on screenwriting, playwriting, and improv, and created hundreds of exercises
that I used to teach a Master Class in improvising plays. That was eighteen years ago. The culmination of all my work
is my theater company, Precipice. Now in its 13th year, Precipice creates a completely different comic play at every performance.
Some of the plays Precipice improvises are wonderful. Some are not. So, we are still learning how to make this new art
form work. I expected this to be a multi-decade project. After all, we are learning how to create great art in a completely
Q: What’s the difference in what you’re doing and long form improv?
A: The term "long-form improv" is usually used to describe improvised pieces that last
more than ten minutes. Many long-form improvs consist of short unrelated scenes that are connected in some way.
Others are improvised plays developed from a detailed plot outline and pre-set characters. Precipice's plays
are a radical departure from these two structures. Because Precipice does not use
a plot outline or preset characters. Nothing is decided in advance. And because Precipice's plays follow a single
set of characters for 90 minutes. As a result, Precipice melds the excitement of short form improv - where the
actors discover their characters and the plot at the same time as the audience - with the intense enjoyment of becoming involved
with a well-told story about compelling characters who grow and change in surprising ways.
So, what you’re doing really is new.
A: Yes. To get a feel for the radical nature
of our work, let's breifly review improv history. The history of improv can be divided into three phases. In the first phase,
when improv was new in the United States, in the mid 1950's, actors who were willing to improvise without a detailed plot
outline improvised for a few minutes in front of audiences. In these short bursts, actors could hold the audience's attention
by the sheer bravura of their spontaneity. It didn't matter if the piece meandered or had no structure because it was over
But after a decade or so, some improvisers wanted the improvs to go longer. They needed a structure
to do that; a structure that wouldn't interfere with the intense in-the-moment spontaneity that creates such excitement on
Del Close created such a structure in the 1960's. Called “The Harold,” this form consists of
a series of games and short unrelated scenes. The scenes recur at least three times, and each time the actors connect
the scenes with the other scenes in some way. Because the scenes are short and because the actors are not trying to
follow complex playwriting rules that would diminish their spontaneity, well performed Harolds can be as exciting as short
form improv scenes. And if the actors are inspired, they will forge connections between the scenes in surprising and resonant
Because the Harold satisfied the collective hunger of the improv community to perform longer pieces, it became
very popular and ushered in the second phase in improv history.
Starting in the 1980's, a few improvisers
(such as Michael Gellman of Chicago's Second City theater company and I) imagined a different vision for improvisation. We
wanted to create entire plays improvisationally – plays that retained the excitement of short improv scenes and provided
the satisfaction of a two-hour story. Michael and I and a few others in the United States are at the vanguard of that movement,
a movement that I believe will eventually be recognized as starting the third phase in improv history.
Q: This “third phase in improv history” sounds exciting. How have you gone about implementing
A: Back in 1989, once I decided to work on improvising plays, I began teaching a Master Class
on this subject. I used the Master Class as a laboratory to experiment with many diverse techniques to teach actors to improvise
entire plays. After six years of teaching, Bob Adler and John Daley, two actors I’d known for many years, who had been
in several improv troupes I had directed and had attended my Master Class, dared me to start a theater company that would
perform only improvised plays. Our vision was the same - to create a company that would improvise a completely different high
quality play at every performance, without any plot outlines or pre-set characters (the audience only suggests two contrasting
With Bob and John’s help in 1995, I founded Precipice Improv Theater. The troupe
gives 15-20 performances a year, and true to our original vision, every play is completely different. Our current members
have been together as a group for 5 years and include Bob Adler, Ric Andersen, Daniel Mont, and Michelle James.
Q: What are your classes like?
A: My classes are a blend of playfulness
and rigor. The playfulness comes from my teaching philosophy. I believe that 1) each student is capable of doing great
work, 2) it is my job to find the keys to unlock the creativity in each student, and 3) many of the keys I have discovered
over the past 28 years are simple points of focus that are easy and fun for students to do – and produce riveting scenes.
So, the classes and exercises are fun, and the students don't have to worry about doing well; you know, meeting some imagined
expectation they may have or think I may have of them. I take on the responsibility of their doing well. This allows students
to relax and enjoy the classes and exercises.
The rigor comes from my goal: to teach students to work
together to organize their collective impulses into truthful, coherent, moving, and exciting plays that incorporate the same
type of character development found in good plays and films. To achieve this goal, my classes combine the standard playful
improv games with playwriting techniques disguised as fun exercises, and simple side coaching.
These classes are a radical departure from conventional improv work. Because conventional wisdom
states that the skills it takes to improvise a play - thinking about how the various scenes fit together to produce a coherent
narrative with accelerating intensity - are the opposite of the skills to improvise well - focusing on the present and one's
moment-by-moment, honest emotional responses.
But after wrestling with this conundrum for 18 years, my theatre
company and I developed techniques to meld these seemingly antithetical skills and techniques. When students practice these
techniques, they create wonderful plays of surprising depth and power. As a result, my classes can be tremendously exciting.
Q: What are these techniques?
A: They are all embedded in a
carefully sequenced set of fun and varied games, exercises, and scenes that permit students to learn various dramatic devices
from the inside. Eventually, students learn to create exciting and dramatically coherent pieces lasting long enough for character
development to often occur, one of the touchstones of a great work of art.
For example, a well-known playwriting
principle dictates that there must be some kind of conflict in a scene. This principle is certainly easy to practice when
improvising. All you have to do is tell your scene partner "No," whenever they want something from you. Instant
conflict! But conflict without context is not satisfying to an audience.
So, we practice doing scenes in which
we do not impose a conflict. Instead, we spend a lot of time improvising scenes and performing exercises that focus on two
related skills: becoming aware of and then acting on our honest spontaneous reactions to our scene partners while exploring
how to establish emotional intimacy with our scene partners.
What we discover after improvising dozens of
scenes is that if two people in an emotionally intimate relationship react honestly to each other, conflict will naturally
arise without conscious volition. We don't need to impose conflict from without. It will arise from within if we follow our
honest reactions. So, we learn from the inside, how to generate conflict completely believably in a scene. And by the end
of the semester, these and other acting, directing, and playwriting skills build on each other to allow the students' honest
and spontaneous reactions to generate an entire play without having to think about a lot of playwriting rules.
This sounds like great training for improv actors, but what about actors who prefer to work from scripts?
Since actors who prefer working from scripts can find improv intimidating, especially the improvising of entire plays, I create
a supportive, fun, and no-fail environment in which students feel comfortable taking artistic risks. In the first class, I
quickly get scripted actors feeling comfortable and safe with improvisation, and once students become comfortable with this
kind of spontaneous exploration, they become adept at identifying and acting upon their honest, spontaneous impulses. But
even if I can make scripted actors comfortable with improv, the question is why should the scripted actor learn improv? Well,
it is my belief that improv skills are an essential tool for scripted actors to create great performances, whether it's in
an audition, a rehearsal, or in front of the camera or on stage.
Q: Would you please explain
A: The goal of scripted acting is to create a double illusion: that the actors are characters
different from themselves, and that their words and actions arise spontaneously in response to unfolding events. And while
the first skill is important, any performance will fall flat without the second. Actors learn many techniques to create the
illusion of spontaneity; but audiences and auditioner's can tell the difference between the illusion of spontaneity and real
spontaneity. Only real spontaneity generates the kind of excitement associated with great performances.
The ability to be completely present and to explore one’s honest spontaneous reactions to everything that happens
on the stage or set (within the confines of the script and the blocking) is the essence of improv training. With good improv
training, the scripted actor can learn to inject spontaneity into even the most tightly choreographed scenes.
Would you give an example?
A: Sure. Imagine that your scene partner shouts a line of dialog with
more intensity than you’d worked out in rehearsal. Your real, honest, and spontaneous reaction will be one of surprise.
And, if your character's reaction to that line, worked out in rehearsal, was a combination of fear and anger, you may find
yourself honestly reacting more fearfully and/or more angrily than you did in rehearsal. These are real feelings, generated
spontaneously and without your conscious volition in response to the real and unique circumstances on the set at that moment.
If you ignore those impulses and react as you did during rehearsal, the audience will sense that your reaction is not quite
Since no two performances are ever exactly the same, in the course of the play or film, there will be dozens
of opportunities to react honestly. If these opportunities are missed, the accumulation of these missed opportunities will
result in a performance that falls flat, or at least fails to excite. Because the audience senses at some level that the performance
is not quite honest.
In contrast, great performances use all of those spontaneous reactions, within the context
of the blocking and the script, creating an on-the-edge excitement that is thoroughly captivating. Average performances don't.
Improv classes train the actor to become more aware of these spontaneous reactions and impulses, and to learn how to welcome,
trust, and use those reactions and impulses to create great performances.
Q: I heard you
also teach improv classes for writers. What is that about?
A: I taught a class at the
Bethesda Writer’s Center last Spring called “Improv and the Writer” and I’m teaching it again in the
Fall. The students were writers who wanted to use improv to help them write. Most of them had never acted before, let
alone done improv. We had a great time and they learned a lot. We did scenes more than entire plays, though they did
create a twenty-minute piece once. What they did was amazing – startling in originality. I think the students
were a bit in shock at the end of several classes as to the high quality of scripts they had created improvisationally.
Some writers report, when they talk about their writing, about entering another world – living, seeing, and
feeling it, either observing the characters or being the characters interacting, and part of it becomes almost like taking
down dictation. That ability to so powerfully enter another world, to enter your imagination is part of what the improv exercises
are designed to do. They are designed to give you such a high degree of emotional connection with your material that writing
becomes much less of an effort.
Q: What is your background?
A: I have produced, directed, taught, and acted in improvisational theater for 28 years. My improv
career began in 1979, assisting local improv teacher and director Sylvia Toone in producing, acting in, and directing improv
shows with S.T.A.R improv company. She taught me the basics of improvisation and because she was such a good comic director,
I learned the essentials of comedy writing and directing from her. When she left town in the mid '80s, I stumbled into once
in a lifetime opportunity: I had the chance to apprentice for ten years with Michael Gellman of Chicago's Second City Theater
Company. In my opinion, he is one of the few geniuses in the field of improv. He understands the art of improvisation more
deeply than anyone else I have met. After almost ten years with Sylvia and ten more years with Michael, I felt ready to take
up the challenge in Precipice's ambitious mission: to extend the limits of what is considered possible to do with improvisation.
Q: Why did you choose the name Precipice?
For some reason I was always attracted to improv because it is the most dangerous art form. It is dangerous because the performers
court total failure at every moment since there is nothing to fall back on when you’re improvising. If you’re
having an off night, the script itself will be off. Short form improv mitigates this danger by its very structure because
if one scene or game doesn't work, you can start the next one right away. And even if the earlier game did not go well, often
the next one will. But that option is not available to Precipice since Precipice has chosen to improvise an entire play that
the audience experiences just like a scripted play (without stops and starts for new suggestions from the audience).
In each show, the actors ask the audience for two contrasting locations (such as an oasis and a freight elevator)
and then immediately, without any discussion, start the play, using nothing but the simple audience suggestions and their
imaginations. And just like in a scripted play, the actors on stage continue performing non-stop until the play is over ninety
minutes later, usually when the characters have confronted issues large and small, and achieved some measure of insight or
growth. Our successful plays are exciting, very funny, moving, clever, and perceptive. But because Precipice is a work in
progress, some pieces aren’t, reminding us that the risk of failure is real.
We struggled for several years
to find a word that embodies this palpable sense of danger felt by the actors and our audiences during a performance. After
three years of performing without a name, one of our actors suggested the word “precipice,” which means on the
edge. A more appropriate name I cannot imagine.
Being on a precipice is a very dangerous place to be. But how
does anyone get to be on the edge? None of us is born there. Some of us take the journey there, taking a risk to achieve an
important goal. Every time I hear the word "Precipice" I think of danger, and I also think about the possible rewards
(the discovery of techniques to create good and great scripts 50 times faster than the fastest writer, and the creation of
an unlimited number of wonderful plays).
But mostly, I think of the courageous performers who go out in front
of an audience at every show without a script and without a pre-set character to attempt a nearly impossible task. By all
rights, they should never succeed. The fact that they sometimes do is miraculous.