I’ve been performing improv comedy for over 25 years and almost 20 at National Comedy Theatre. My other job…the one that pays the bill…is as a film critic/editor for independent film news outlet Film Threat. Simply put, my job is to watch movies and tell you whether you should see them or not, but rather than do what every other critic is doing, I choose to focus on the art of storytelling and how well writers, directors, and actors tell those stories. My time at NCT has been instrumental in the way I approach films. So let’s talk about storytelling.

When I first began performing at NCT in 2002, I would be full of dread and anxiety before hitting the stage. Fear and dry heaving was my regular weekly routine in the green room. My fear was I wouldn’t be funny that night. Before coming to NCT, I suffered the great humiliation of dying on stage more times than I care to guess. I brought that anxiety with me to NCT.

It took me two years of regular performances when my anxiety magically disappeared. The answer suddenly clicked in my head, and I found I could confidently stand on stage and know I would succeed that night and every night since. (Before you ask, yes, I’ve died many horrible deaths since then, but this is a whole other discussion).

The secret to the sauce is good, solid storytelling. The mistake I had been making from the start was this notion that I had to be funny the moment the scene began. I thought every line had to induce a laugh or be a joke. Now add ending the scene with a brilliant punchline. This is the wrong approach.

The first thing I do when a scene begins is set the foundation of a good story. Why? My job…really our job…as improvisers is to connect with the audience, and we have only ten to twenty seconds to do it. How do we connect with an audience? We present a situation that the audience can relate to. This often entails scenes involving friends, family, and work situations. Let’s not forget even lofty ideas like personal dreams and ambitions. Examples of this can be any family fight, asking someone out on a date, a breakup, getting a job, losing a job, disappointing a significant other, parent, or child. These are universal conflicts.

By exploring one of these common conflicts, the audience knows exactly what’s going on because they’ve been in our shoes. Better yet, as actors, it works because though we’re making it all up on the spot, as a team, we’re instantly on the same page in terms of story. We know instantly who our characters are and their individual needs. Now, as improvisers, we can add our flair with the personalities we apply to our characters, the motivations behind our actions, and any potential twists in the scene’s final moments.

Where does the comedy come in? Once we’ve started a relatable story, the comedy comes out in the game played on top of it. This works perfectly in games like Changing Emotions, Replays, Musical, and the ever-popular Blind Line. What kills the comedy is when we try to be too jokeyor too wacky. A good story keeps you, as an audience, engaged and sympathetic to our characters and all that makes for good theater. The game then comes in and turns a relatable situation on its head.

How does this apply to me as a film critic? My job is to understand why I care or don’t care about the story presented in front of me. It doesn’t matter the size of a film’s budget, how famous the actor is, or the country or culture where the story is told. The human experience is universal. It’s something we all share. The difference is the packaging. The best stories are always the ones that we, as an audience, can relate. We engaged and have a vested interest in the final outcome of the story.

In our shows, a story is told on an empty stage, three actors, and two stools. All we have at our disposal to entertain you is the story. Though I may not know you personally, I have an idea how challenging, fun, and weird life can be.

-Alan Ng, Mainstage Cast