Suggest This

You get up onto the stage. You’re raring to go. You’re improvising, or running a jam or hosting a show. You ask for a suggestion. Someone calls back from the audience. You feel grateful someone is saying something. You feel you owe them. But the suggestion is gross. It’s smutty. It’s sexual. It’s unpleasant. It’s about shit or bums or willies or dildos or bondage or brothels. It isn’t the suggestion you want to do, or you want your troupe mates to do, or you want the willing participants at your jam to do.

But you take it because you feel you must.

Perhaps you are operating under the mythology the quickest, loudest audience member is always right. Perhaps you are operating under the mythology you owe this voice for speaking. Perhaps you are operating under the mythology that this character in the crowd must speak for all the others. Perhaps you are operating under the mythology that you, or the people on the stage with you, can turn the suggestion around, weaving it skilfully into comedy gold. You will be heroes! “How did they do it?” people will say. “They’re geniuses!”

But will they? Or will they say you took a shitty suggestion and made it mildly less awful?

I’ve seen this shift attempted time and time again. And on more than one occasion I’ve seen audience members walk out. It’s a big risk. And we’re taking rather a lot of those already.

The truth of the matter is we do get to choose. We don’t have to take the first suggestion. We don’t owe this unfiltered loud-mouth anything. I have watched so many super talented improvisers spiral down in a scene, song or show because they took a shitty suggestion and tried to ‘improv improve’ it. I’ve been in those scenes, those songs, those shows myself. And it has not felt good.

It is easy to forget in the moment that we have agency.

“There are a few schools of thought on how and what suggestion(s) one should get from the audience in order to begin an improv show. Some believe that you should take the very first suggestion you hear to prove to the audience that you’re improvising; you’re not seen to choose and there is very little time to plan. The thing is, after a certain amount of shows, there is only so much inspiration you can glean from “dildo”, “spatula” and “under the sea”. I used to argue that it was important to take the first suggestion and that it was a challenge to do something interesting with it, even if it was “brothel” for the four-hundredth time. The performers being delighted and inspired by the suggestion makes for a better show.”

Katy Schutte, The Improviser’s Way

Why waste your precious efforts trying to crawl up out of a sewer pit, when you could put all that energy into starting out from ground level and reach far greater heights?

When we take a shitty, sleazy, sucky suggestion, we communicate to the audience that we are ok with that. Moreover, we are ok performing for them a shitty, sleazy, sucky show. The non-shitty, sleazy, sucky audience members lose some respect for us and the audience member who made the shitty, sleazy, sucky suggestion receives the message that we approve or we will at the least enable their behaviour.

When learning stand-up, they teach you about how to handle hecklers. These are loud-mouth people in the crowd who will likely be tanked up and trying to impress their friends. Desperate to out-funny the funny person on stage, they want to rail-road things. They want attention. The longing for it propels them to open their mouths and push air out in any obscene way.

We get these in improv too. I was at a show once where an audience member kept yelling the word ‘twat’ for every suggestion. The first time people laughed. The second time was mildly amusing. By the third time, we were all bored. Except for the twat-caller, who not reading the room, just kept going.

In stand-up, there’s a technique for this kind of disruption. When the heckler calls out, ask them to repeat what they said. Chances are the second time it won’t get the reaction it did the first. The element of surprise is gone. You can even ask them to repeat it again because you still didn’t quite hear them. Now they are just a person in the crowd repeating a shitty, sleazy, sucky remark that no one is laughing at anymore. There’s no medicine quite like having to repeat your own bullshit until you feel like an idiot.

Ain’t that the truth?

Interestingly I saw something similar to this in an improv context recently. The suggestion asked for was related to a flaw and a nationality was called out. The audience reacted with a murmur mixed with grumbles and the suggestion taker asked the person to repeat themselves. The suggester did not restate the suggestion, presumably being influenced then by the reaction of the crowd. I was excited because I thought, yes, this is how it could be done!

It makes sense in the context of what I’ve learned in stand-up, that this moment of opening up to suggestions from the audience will sometimes inevitably lead to the problematic suggestions bolting out like a frenzied beast of burden. We could treat these comments like a sort of nervous expulsion of hot air to be politely swatted away. There is a much better suggestion to come if we ride it out.

A noisy beast of burden making an icky suggestion to draw attention to themselves – “Get down from there; you’re making a scene… bad!”

A suggestion can really set the tone for the whole night. It can have an impact on the stage as a safe space, for ourselves, our fellow improvisers and new people stepping into the improv space. Even the audience members are part of this exchange because they have to sit through whatever we go along with, so how do we get it right?

Sometimes what is a sucky suggestion to me may not be to you so it’s good to talk to the other people involved in your troupe, show or night. Also, consider at an appropriate time chatting to the audience to see what is cool with them. I was at an intensive recently when a brilliant young woman called out from the audience whenever she wanted a suggestion changed. I was so grateful because I didn’t want to see a scene start out with murdered children or people killing bunnies either.

Have a think about how you take suggestions too. It can be the difference between a cringefest and a great show.

Here are some suggestions… for ways to get suggestions.

1. Be discerning about choosing a suggestion – it’s a place to start but ask yourself the question, is it where we want to start? Would we want to see that if we were in the audience? You don’t have to be cavalier about it. The show isn’t about boosting your ego. If the answer is no. Don’t take it. Ask for a couple of other suggestions. Take one of those instead. Remember the wise words of Katy Schutte: “The performers being delighted and inspired by the suggestion makes for a better show.”

2. Be specific about what you are asking for – some shows ask for specific things to minimise the risk of a problematic suggestion. The Showstoppers asks for locations and musicals. The Maydays, in their show Happily Never After, ask for a profession of one of your grandparents. It gives them a suggestion that has the right era vibes to play with their gothic feel show and who’s going to suggest something sleazy about their grandparents? Not I!

3. Use predetermined words/phrases – one way to collect a suggestion is by already having a bank of words or phrases that would be appropriate for your show. Impromptu Shakespeare has lots of Shakespearean themes written on ping pong balls, like ‘twins’, ‘betrayal’ and ‘kiss’. When entering the theatre, the audience members are all given a word branded ping pong ball. The audience is then invited to throw their ping pong ball into the ‘bard’s britches’ as one of the players dances about in stretchy pants. It’s a fun silly start and captured balls are then used as suggestions. Ping pong balls. Just to be clear.

4. Run it through a third party like a suggestion generator – In their show making up musicals, Do the Thing run two suggestions through their musician who merges them to give them the title of a musical for that show. This gives them a chance to get a unique idea but with a level of player control.

5. Collect suggestions in advance – this may be asking the audience to write ideas down. Austentacious collect titles of unseen Austen novels from the audience prior to the start of the show. Of course, I am not privy to what they do with them in the in-between time but they can at least agree as a troupe to throw aside a suggestion that isn’t appropriate… even if that has to happen at the moment of the reveal. I have seen the Maydays do this in their show Confessions where audience members write their misdemeanours on slips of paper and put them in a vessel before the troupe comes onstage. If a suggestion is that problematic crushing it up and casting it aside saves us all.

6. Use something else for a suggestion – you may also consider going down another route entirely for your suggestions. In the raunchy Unbridled, directed by Heather Urquhart, a horse is selected from a chart, by an audience member. I am in a troupe that create a show based on the format Tomes, taught to us and directed by Chris Mead. In this show, an audience member selects a book from our previously not-inspected collection of vintage fantasy novels. We then read the back of the book and look at the cover to generate suggestions for the show.

It’s fun to get creative with suggestions. In rehearsal sometimes we go a bit silly and ask for obscure things. We’ve asked for angles before – like 90 degrees – noises, percentages and a month back it was Cuban leaders. Ok, that was quite a specific week but we did discover how little we knew about Cuban history.

Suggestions can be more than an exercise in engaging the noisiest, least filtered person in the room. They can be a fun way to kick your show off to a flying start. They don’t have to be a drop-kick. Unless you want to do that with the shitty, sleazy, sucky suggestion as you cast it aside.

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