Improvising in a Foreign Language – Part 1: Embrace Those Mistakes!

Hi, I’m Utku. As you can tell by my funny name, I’m not a native English speaker. Yet, I have been improvising in English for about 5 years now. This will be a series of short blog posts where we explore what that means. If anything.
One of the things that frustrates me most in a scene is when I don’t know a word. Or I can’t remember a word I want to say. Or when I can’t remember the pronunciation of a word. I just feel so stupid and powerless. It’s embarrassing.
But actually. It’s not. Not at all.
Situations like this goes against a pitfall beginner improvisers fall into: You want your performance to be as smart and slick and flawless as possible. That pursuit of perfection can (and does) get between you and your scene and (more importantly) your fellow improvisers.
Yet, think back on good shows/scenes you have watched. And yes, there will be moments of genius where you said that’s an excellent choice, that’s an excellent joke etc.
But don’t you also have moments where there are pauses? A broken sentence. A misunderstanding.
And you want those kinds of moments. You want that pause. You want that clumsy bit. No. You need them. The scene needs them. Improv needs them.
And those embarrassing moments can be moments like that. Instead of being stumped by them, what if we embrace them? Make them part of the performance. Make it a character quirk. Make it a game. Call back to it. Embrace it, love it, become an overbearing parent to that embarrassing moment so much so that it screams “Mom, you are embarrassing me!”
And those moments then become as funny as the genius moments. And I think this mistake-to-genius conversion should be a skill in every seasoned improvisers’ toolkit.
Because mistakes happen. In improv and in life. And usually they aren’t that bad unless you’re operating a nuclear power plant or something. It’s how we deal with mistakes and niggles that makes us or breaks us.
So embrace your imperfections. Make them your own. Allow them to be the glue that sticks you to your scene partners.
I’ll finish with an anecdote that illustrates exactly this. Suggestion is “Painting”. Scene begins. My scene partner starts painting an oil painting. I go in as the person painted. Scene partner says “Stop fidgeting”. And I chose my character to be a count, so I wouldn’t tolerate such insolence from a lowly, measly artist! So I opened my mouth and here is my thought process in the next half a second:
Hey, I never pronounced the word “count” in my life before. It’s the same as the verb “count”, isn’t that interesting? But also strange. Could that be right? I can’t be sure. Be quick. Speak now. Even the spelling is the same, so surely the pronunciation is the same. Speak up. Now. Say it. Say you are a count. But! Stop! In Turkish, the word is “Kont” and pronounced differently. It’s a foreign word, probably French origin. So probably the English pronunciation is similar to the Turkish one. Stop thinking. Say you are a Count. Fine. Here goes…”
How dare you speak to me like that? I’m a C*NT!”
In my 5 years, that’s the only time I said that word on stage. Everyone in the room died of laughter. And it was good.
Utku Guder


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