Good improv is a little like a campfire.
There are three components to a campfire – heat, fuel and air.
Heat is the catalyst that forces the fuel and air to combust – a match, lightning, or a magical spell. If that catalyst is introduced effectively, heat will continue to be generated by combustion. Fuel is anything that combusts – wood, paper, or witch. Air is air – oxygen, really, but that’s in the air. Without all three, your marshmallows will go untoasted.
The initiation is the match or magical spell that provides the first bit of concentrated heat. That starts a pattern of heat that will hopefully inform you and your partner(s) how you feel about one another, how you’re related, perhaps your relative statuses.
The fuel that continues the pattern of heat is the detail – maybe you’re an ocular surgeon at a brothel, or a robot planning a rebellion with your fellow robot slaves, or just an average guy or gal having lunch with a friend. The lesson to be learned from campfires is that a huge log won’t burn right away; they’re too big and tightly packed to allow air throughout. You need to start the fire with kindling and smaller twigs and branches. And chances are your partner is ready with some twigs of her own… you don’t want to smother a fire with too much fuel right away. Once the fire gets burning, and there’s intense heat coming from the embers, you can throw just about anything on there and it’ll burn. Until then, work with small pieces – maybe one line at a time.
Air is there already, but it needs to flow. You stop air flow by denying, or by responding inappropriately. You help air flow by leaning your smaller branches of wood, your details, against one another, upright rather than flat on the ground, with space between them for the air to go through.
The marshmallows are the audience. They come in different shapes and colors, and as far as I’m concerned that’s enough to support the metaphor.
It’s worth mentioning that almost anything can serve as fuel. We can do anything on stage. Styrofoam will burn as well as wood, but it’ll give off somewhere around a hundred different hazardous chemicals. “Play to the height of your intelligence.”
– Charles Whitcroft
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