It’s a scary word, but I’ve recently come to realize its multiple meanings in the improv world.
Before anything gets declared in a scene, an improv show might as well take place in a void. Since “anything is possible,” the audience — however consciously — sees nothing on stage until you, the performer, tell them what to see. This is where the idea of responsibility first appears: you are responsible for shepherding the audience through this scene/show/evening. They have nothing else to guide them. It’s up to you.
Like I said, kind of scary. At the very least, it doesn’t sound fun. Nobody wants more responsibility, really, unless they’re a kid who says he wants to mow the lawn. And really, he doesn’t want the responsibility of mowing the lawn. He wants to push the mower and drive the lawn tractor. But it’s the truth. The audience has come, and put some semblance of trust in you. Live up to it.
And use it. This is where the fun part of improv responsibility comes in. By the simple virtue of being a designated performer, the audience trusts you (at least at the beginning; that trust is yours to squander however you see fit). They believe you. They want to. They want someone to tell them what’s going on. They also will infer a million things from you in ways that you might not realize. You’re a man or a woman, you stand a certain way, you’re wearing a collared shirt or sweat pants or cowboy boots or a derby hat or a beard or all sorts of information you give off by simply existing. Just by showing up, you’re giving these people something to latch onto in the void.
This is a good thing. Use it. You don’t have to come up with the craziest thing in the world EVERY time you perform. Your simple act of existing is enough of a start. Use the suggestion. Establish a few things (persons, places, things, etc.). Use what you have going for you. If you really are wearing a cowboy hat, everyone can see it*.
I once did a show with my old Chicago group (Mr. Fancypants) where all 8 of us carried unlit cigarettes through the entire show, yet never mentioned smoking. We just had them. We talked with them stuck in our lips, we gestured with them, punctuated lines with them, tossed them at each other. It was great fun, but I realize now the power of that choice comes from giving the audience something solid to hold on to: THESE PEOPLE HAVE CIGARETTES. It’s not a monumental thing, but it’s something, and when you’re faced with the choice of something versus the void, something wins.
THE POINT is, by carrying the responsibility that is the audience’s trust, know that your very existence can serve as something. Using that comes with responsibility. Your posture says something about yourself to the audience. I don’t mean to put anyone in his head, but the sooner you control your body and yourself on stage, the sooner you command the responsibility and power of your shows.
*I’d imagine that’s the reason you wore it in the first place, eh, Tex?**
**Please don’t wear a cowboy hat in a show just to get attention. That drives me crazy. Same with any kind of “costuming,” which includes “hilarious” T-Shirts and short skirts. It just looks shoddy and lazy and a desperate attempt for attention. I’ll never forget seeing an improviser perform while wearing a Han-Solo-style vest. Call me judgmental, but I don’t remember a thing from his show. The only thing I remember thinking was, “That guy is not a professional. He just wants me to realize he likes ‘Star Wars.’”