Another Improv Lesson for Radio Performers: Always Say Yes
by Tracy Johnson
NOTE: Fred McCausland is a highly successful and even more talented morning air personality on FOX 105.3 in Fredricton, New Brunswick. I met him at a seminar where he was helping air talent learn to be better on-air responders by teaching them Improvisation skills. He has an amazing gift for applying his background in improv on the air. He’s now a regular contributor on the site. I know you’re going to love it. Oh, and I owe him 30 minutes! Tracy Johnson
Did you see what Stephen Colbert told a graduating class in his commencement address?
Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.
What are we saying “YES” to?
What are offers?
Offers are all around us
It’s hard to say YES when we don’t notice the offers!
You Improvise All Day, Every Day
Every morning we wake up, and the day begins. We start another journey into making shit up as we go along. Oh sure, we try to carefully formulate a script with details and plans as to how the day will unfold. That’s great, but that script is bound to change because other actors start showing up, each of them with scripts of their own.
It can be very frustrating when other actors mess around with your script. They almost always do.
Let’s face it. We spend a lot of time preparing for events that never happen, then not knowing how to react to things that do.
It’s like the first time I met Tracy, and how I ended up saying “YES” to a monthly article about Improv on this site, sharing all my wonderful “pearls of wisdom,”. And here I am, a former improv actor turned morning radio personality.
Throw Away the Script: And Say Yes
Last summer, a bunch of us “on air” types, were being herded (I love that word) out of town to one of Tracy’s talks. My Ops Manager knew about my improv background, and the next thing I know, I was asked to share an hour of improv/radio stuff with my peers at the conference. Just like my radio show, my life is much more exciting and interesting when I say YES. So that’s what I did.
So we show up. Tracy starts doing his thing, and I know the last hour is mine.
If there’s one thing improv teaches, it’s to be a hyper-listener, which will be explained in upcoming articles.
I had never met Tracy to that point. He had the first 2 hours, and I was scheduled to go for the last hour. It would have been easy to let my attention drift ahead to “my hour”, and away from what Tracy was presenting. I knew that.
I was consciously reminding myself to stay focused here and NOW. Be present. I pretty much hung on every word of Tracy’s as if he were my co-hosts on the air, or fellow actors in an improv scene. I managed to stay “present”, or “in the moment” for a full 2 hours.
Besides, I was good to go. I had prepared. I had thought and sifted and sorted and rejected and accepted and filtered and added and subtracted, and gone over all the lessons that I was going to share in MY HOUR.
It was the perfect improv session. I had exercises planned. There were cute little cue cards with audio ready to go. One would take 5 minutes. This one should take about 10. There should be room for questions, so that’ll be another 10 minutes. The plan was brilliant! Okay. MY SCRIPT is ready.
When The Script Changes: Always Say Yes
That day, somebody had a different script.
My time had arrived. 4 O’Clock. Tracy was still doing his thing. 20 minutes passed.10 more minutes go by. All all of the sudden, my SCRIPT, my PLAN, my IDEAS, are pretty much out the window. After a few minutes, somebody remembered that the morning guy from Fredericton was supposed to do some improv.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Everybody just forgot. Probably because what was being presented was great and why stop the momentum, right? All good. Shit happens.
The script changed.
The Improv Guy Improvises
So now I’m in front of the group. I had less than half an hour. What was I going to do?
I just started talking. I went to the improv well and pulled out one of the most powerful tools you can have as an improviser, radio host, or human being, quite frankly. Being present. Aware. In the NOW. I had to say yes to change and respond.
I had listened so intently (hyper listening) to what was being presented during the previous 2 hours, I was able to reference back what was being offered in Tracy’s presentation, re-introduce those ideas, and show how improv relates to some of the things he had talked about. Even better, because I was prepared, it was easy to incorporate a couple of the things I had planned, but in a much better context.
It sounds bizarre, but the more you prep, the easier it is to ad-lib and improvise.
Had I not been present, in the moment, listening, and focused, I would have probably tried to cram in all my original ideas, which would not have worked as well because I would be denying the reality of the situation (blocking) and pushing MY agenda forward.
In improv, the term Blocking is essentially the opposite of yes. NO.
If you are familiar with the concept of saying “YES” when it comes to improv, you already know the power of “yes and”. If you’d like a refresher on that and more, there are some great reads here.
The Difference Between Improv and Radio
It takes awhile to really get it. Not the similarities between improv and radio. Those, I had a pretty good grasp of. Offering, accepting, advancing, re-incorporating, upping the stakes, endings, and beginnings, and everything in between.
From my experience, however, radio folks have a much different challenge when performing, compared to an improv comedian. So, before I get into all the ways improv comedy and radio relate, let’s start with the biggest DIFFERENCE.
In any improv scene at any time, an actor could be a cop, a teacher, a bank robber, a poet, a love sick cowboy, or a radio consultant. It’s fun. (Even that last one)
In improv, if you commit to the character; their quirks, wants, needs, flaws, fears, strengths, weaknesses, passions, likes, dislikes, etc, half the time it didn’t matter what is said, because the character is as interesting and exciting as you make him or her.
You Are The Difference-Maker
The strength of the character makes the scene. The flaws, vulnerabilities, temperament, beliefs and opinions are those of the character’s. Not the actor.
Ask any actor who would the hardest person to portray. More often than not, the answer will always be: “Myself”.
The most difficult acting role you could ever get, is one where you’ve been cast in the role of YOU.
Welcome to radio. That’s what you do.
I struggled for a long time with this. Heck, I became an actor, so I could be anybody. Except me.
Bridge The Gap Between Improv and Radio
So what is an air personality to do? Stop acting.
I had to stop playing the “role” of the Morning DJ. He was a fun character, but he wasn’t ME. The only proof you need is when some well-meaning listener asks you to say something in your “radio voice”. How many times have you heard, “You sound nothing like your radio voice!”? Thanks? They are right.
Character is so important on stage. It’s just as important on the radio.
You are the main character. How interesting and exciting are you? How transparent are you willing to be? Can you say yes to being vulnerable? To being flawed? Are you willing to say yes to the mistakes you’ve made?
Will you accept and say yes to the reality of who you are? What if you’re uptight? Own it! Are you insecure? Be it! Don’t deny it. Are you cranky? Be cranky! Stop faking happy.
To get to that next level, and start making true connections with listeners and co-hosts, I had to say YES to the best improv tool I’ve got.
I had to say YES…to ME. I’ll share how to do that next time.
I’m looking forward to getting more detailed in the coming months with some examples of how the rules of improvisation can help your show. (and your life, for that matter)
Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.