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I caught a Harold at UCBLA last week. Great show, lots of fun. But, something happened that made it clear why teachers always tell you to be careful and to make sure you don’t hurt anyone while improvising.
An improvisor hit their head on the stage. The improvisor was intentionally acting out…
The Genre Montage works like this: The players will perform a montage of scenes, which means a series of unstructured and unrelated scenes based off of one suggestion. (There may be second beats and group games, though that’s not required.) However, each scene will take place within a known and established genre.
A quick note on what it means to play with genre: Play more with the stylistic elements rather than content. If the genre is “Western” then play around with Westerns’ style. Men act very macho and tight-lipped, conflicts are prone to end in gunfights, and there will probably be a gunfight at high noon. Specific content-related references to the obscure plot-points in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly will be lost. Don’t worry if you feel you don’t know too much about the specific genre. Since we’re playing with style and not content, then you can bring whatever you can to the table.
Again, Genre Montages can be used to loosen people up a bit. I also look at them as a fun way of workshopping connections. Improvisors tend to connect scenes narratively, scenes can connect stylistically as well.
Maybe it’s the weather changing—I don’t know—but people have warm-ups on the brain. I’ve had three email exchanges in the past few weeks talking about how to pick the right warm-ups, and how to connect your warm-up to the rest of your rehearsal.
Some General Good Advice for College Improv Troupes
I write the following a few months ago when I visited my old college troupe at SUNY Fredonia. Now that a few them are following this blog, I’d like to republish it so that they can read it.
1) Reach out to the established professional troupes in your area. It can only serve to help you to have a good relationship with experienced performers. One simple trick: Take a field trip to see their shows. It’s easy to get stuck in the small pond of college improv. If there is another improv group on campus, do not posit yourselves as their rivals. This will only hurt you and their potential as your audience. Reach out to them and do your best to become their friends. We know that improv is a community, so go ahead and start early on being a positive member of that community!
2) Advertise! Never in your life again will you have access to so many forms of mass communication. It is exceedingly easy to put an ad in the student paper, or have a friend on the campus radio station talk about you on-air, or plaster a large area with posters when you’re in college! One idea that struck me: Why not do playful Improv-Everywhere-style stunts? A well-done stunt could quickly spread word across a college campus. Considering the ease of which you can advertise, there is no excuse not to.
3) Find a space that is conducive to improv. Odds are the best theaters on campus are reserved for the Theater Program and are off-limits to you. But, really, any space that is relatively small and intimate and has enough chairs can be used for improv. Temporarily convert a classroom, or a dorm lounge, or an all-purpose room in the Student Center. Are there bars or coffee houses off-campus willing to host you? Whatever you use, make sure it’s an intimate space. The College Events Staff will probably set you up as though a speech is being given and will set the chairs 15 feet away from a too-high raised stage in a very large conference room. This will kill your comedy. Bring your audience in close to you and to each other.
4) Be professional. Look for oportunities to present a polished-looking show. If the all-purpose room you got has two entrances, make sure no one uses the door that opens directly onto your playing area (I have seen this happen). Avoid making too much noise or attracting any attention to yourself when not on stage. Sell tickets, or distribute a set-list of what games you’ll play, or wear matching t-shirts. Anything to identify yourselves as a group of people trying to entertain an audience and not just a bunch of kids just messing around.
“I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work. I remember seeing this thing, a documentary about a Los Angeles coach [John Wooden], the guy who coached UCLA to huge wins, so they couldn’t be beat for three seasons. He didn’t make winning speeches. He never made speeches about being winners and being the best…he said that to focus on that, to win, win, win, is worthless. It just has no value. He’d address all his players in his little voice, “If you just listen to me, and you work on your fundamentals and you apply yourself to working on these skills, you’re probably going to be happy with the results.” I think about that all the time.”—Louis CK via The AV Club
If the cast is finding frustration in the perceived rigidity of the Harold, we can run these forms as a remedy. The Pirate and Ninja Harolds are very simple forms: The entire cast plays a Harold as though they are Pirates or Ninjas. As in: if a group of Pirates got together to form an improv group and played a Harold, what would it look like? Every single component, from the opening to the edits, should be influenced by the characters they are taking on.
Here’s what I’ve noticed when I’ve run it. First of all, it’s a much more loose and high energy improv than our players might normally do, but it’s still rather focused. We should play all improv with this amount of freedom and focus. Also, players need to stretch a bit in order to communicate that they are playing particular characters. For example, men may not be able to use their stereotypical female voice to show that they are playing a woman. In this way we stretch, because we learn that there are other ways to play women and other roles beyond the stereotypes.
And here we hope to show that Harold is only and rigid as you make it out to be. It can eat everything.
This simple game is described in detail in Truth in Comedy. Very simply, our cast will take on the roles of some advertising executives. After being given the suggestion of a new product, our executives will create everything for the campaign, from the slogan to the jingle to the spokesperson. The trick is that every idea must be greeted with an enthusiastic “YES!” Whatever the first idea for the spokesperson is will be the last idea - the enthusiastic yes settles the matter.
What we’re hoping to do is train our players to relinquish their agenda. Be on the watch for a player who offers a different replacement idea for one that has already been established. The phrase “Or even better…” is a very subtle way of denying someone else. It treats the other person’s idea as not good enough. Also be on the lookout for one person coming up with every idea while everyone else simply responds “yes!” Everyone should be sharing in the idea generation. Ideally we’ve created a very energetic brainstorming process and have followed ideas to a very ludicrous (though sensible in hindsight) conclusion.
Hey You, Get In Here
Sometimes we want to clearly communicate the idea we’d like to start our Group Game from. This exercise starts exactly how it sounds: a player will step forward and say “Hey you (fill-in-the-blanks), get in here.” The rest of the cast immediately enters as examples of that category. Now the player who started might be another member of that group, he may be their boss, or a customer filing a complaint. He may be any kind of person that might be addressing a larger group. There are a few ways to structure the dynamics of a person addressing a group. He might be the straight man to a group of crazies or, he might be the crazy to a group of straight men. They might all be crazy or they might all be straight men. Play around and see how many you can discover.
The value we are constantly pushing on our players is the one “quickly getting on board.” Hey You doesn’t work if people sheepishly shuffle on to stage. It doesn’t work if everyone decides to be completely different. However, it does work if everyone identifies the major energy and just goes with it. We might not always be able to start a group game with an extremely clear “Hey you” type of statement (see if you can come up with more naturalistic first lines) but we’ll always benefit from a swift, sharp, and unified response.
So you know Steve? He’s this one guy, and he’s really unique, and we’re all gonna do impressions of him. Except we’re not going to say “here’s my impression of Steve,” we’re just going to launch into it. And of course Steve doesn’t exist; we’re going to figure out what he sounds like as we go along. This is the process: Andrew will step forward and deliver an “I statement” line. This statement should communicate a point of view or philosophy or an emotional state. “I’m wearing a blue shirt” is an I statement, but it only communicates a fact. “I’m wearing a blue shirt because I know it looks good on camera” communicates more of a point of view. We do this because we want to latch onto that point of view.
Beth steps forward and says a second I Statement doing her Impression of Steve. She should copy as much of what Andrew did as possible. This includes voice and posture as well as point of view. Christine steps forward and also delivers her impression of Steve, matching the energy established by Andrew and Beth. Now, one by one, the entire cast steps out delivering their impression of Steve. After everyone has gone, we’ll continue with a second or third round of this particular impression, although we’re not locked into any order.
Here’s a metaphor I use to get across what we’re going for. That first I Statement is like a mathematical point. That second statement is another point. Now we have a line segment. Once we get that third point, we have an idea of a slope; we know the pattern by now and we know what vector we want to head in. What’s great here is that anything that lies on this vector is completely valid. Don’t worry about your impression being the funniest thing. Don’t worry about heightening or anything. Just worry about staying true to the impression that’s being developed.
In this example we notice that Steve’s first line is about how he what he’s doing to look good on camera. If this is an impression of Steve, then everything we say is going to be about how he likes to be camera-ready. “I’m holding my chin like this because this is my good side.” “I’m making sure no one’s behind me to do the bunny-ears-fingers joke.” Once we establish that point of view strongly, we can move away from simple I statements. “How many megapixels does that camera have? I’m sorry, I don’t do anything less than 4.”
We’re trying to encourage the value of getting on board with everyone. The skills we develop in identifying and matching energy will be useful in any group game. We’re also exercising the ability to make something fun from a very small and simple starting place.
Very loosely, a Group Game can be any large multi-player and pattern-heavy scene, ususally involving the entire cast. In our standard Harold the Group Games occur after the first three scenes and then again after those scenes’ second beats. The overarching value in Group Games is that the entire team connects with a single, simple, fun, and clear idea. Group Games also have the ability to punctuate our set with high energy.
There are a few common types that we can exercise, but these categories are not definitive or mutually exclusive. Familiarity with these common types will help get us thinking in the right direction. To begin, imagine anything happening, and then imagine it happening again and again. That is essentially a Group Game. This is where our knowledge and skill with shortform may come in handy. Shortform games are based upon simple patterns. Seeing a series of the World’s Worst Doctor or what-have-you is a pattern. The difference is that in a Harold we are organically discovering our pattern instead of following the rules of a beforehand established structure.
Let’s start by exercising our ability to just get on board with things. Players are instructed that they will be given the name of a playground game that every kid knows. That name will be a bunch of gibberish, of course. Together, the players must enthusiastically shout “Let’s play (the name of the game)!!!” Without discussion or the use of recognizable words the players then begin playing that game.
This might take a few tries to get right. The director can sidecoach a little bit - ask players if they noticed certain details. After each playground game, ask the the players what the rules of their game was. Ask pointed questions, like what the object of the game was, how a winner is determined, things like that. Even though no one talked everyone should have some intuitive notion of what the game was.
A few things we might notice: The games that felt the best were the ones in which we dove in without question. Some games will feel simpler and easier to play than others. Complex ideas aren’t impossible, but they’re often extremely difficult to communicate. Simpler ideas are stronger because everyone can easily connect to them.
These are the values we’re going to look for in creating our Group Games: the ability to create and communicate a clear idea, the ability to recognize what the patten of the group game is, and the commitment to do it without hesitation.
I hate warm ups. Oh god, I hate warm ups. Let me explain to you why I hate warm ups.
To be clear, I’m 100% in favor of checking in and connecting with your ensemble before taking the stage. However, ice breakers meant to loosen up a room full of strangers in a classroom setting have for some…
I like warmups and I think they’re important. I think the point is to get you into improv mode— whatever that may be for you and your team.
That doesn’t have to involve moving “away” from something like data entry. It can mean getting silly and playful instead of feeling restrained, or getting sharp and quick-witted instead of unfocused, or getting on the same page with your group.
I don’t think one size fits all, for individuals or teams. I also think that when you have goals going into a show, warmups can help get you into the right frame of mind for those. For instance, if a team tends to be chaotic and not listen, they can do calm, focused warmups.
You used a lot of words like “manic” and “unfocused”; that’s not a problem with warming up, it’s a problem with warming up badly. I’ll throw your Swarm example back at you: they did a grounded warmup and had grounded shows. Warming up worked for them. You said you’re not opposed to running three-line scenes, right? Sounds like you don’t hate warming up— you just hate warming up badly. Me too!
I like really silly warmups like Shay Shay Coolay because they get me into a playful, fun, uninhibited mood, but that’s just me. I agree that the “classics” are best for strangers and new improvisers; my longest-running teams have mostly warmed up spontaneously and barely discussed what kind of warmup to do.
If you can just flick a switch in your head and go straight into improv mode without warming up, that’s amazing and I’m envious. But I think most people can’t do that.
I came late to my last practice and missed the warmups and felt disjointed the entire time. I felt like I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and had to slowly creep towards it during the actual scenes themselves. I said to someone later that not warming up made me realize how much warming up helps.
The following exercises continue working our walk-on skills from both the entrant’s point of view and that of the people already on stage. We’re also going to talk a bit about confusion and denying reality with these exercises.
Fuck With The Scene
This exercise begins with 2 players, Alex and Beth, on stage with a third player, Carl, offstage. Alex and Beth play a scene like usual. Carl’s instruction is to enter with a move as unrelated to what’s happened so far in the scene as possible. It could be a highly distracting and disruptive move, it could be very small and quiet. The only quality it has to have is that it is unrelated. Carl makes no attempt to explain or justify his behavior. It’s Alex and Beth’s job to make sense of what he’s doing.
What we don’t want to see is some kind of compulsory exposition. We don’t want an immediate labeling just for the sake of labeling. What we want to see is an intelligent use of what has already been established. Alex and Beth should have been paying attention to themselves. They should understand their own behavior well enough that they can respond to any new stimulus in line with that behavior. We don’t necessarily need to have the perfect rational justification for the unrelated thing; odds are if we wait long enough our improv brain will come up with that. It’s more important in the moment to stick to your character and deal with the new thing as your character.
Torture Your Teammate
This exercise deals with denying and negating. The scene begins with David and Elaine on stage. However, Elaine has been given the instruction of denying and contradicting everything that David says, even if it directly contradicts something she herself said earlier. No matter what, David is wrong and the reality he is trying to build is knocked down at every line. Elaine should feel free to be as torturous as she wants. David’s job is to treat what Elaine has said as completely real and true even if it directly contradicts everything that has passed before.
When we’re done, we’re going to ask David how he felt. “Overwhelmed” is probably going to be his answer. David most likely did not like being in that scene at all. Here we see the value in saying Yes to your scene partner. It makes the job of building a scene that much easier. And odds are Elaine was running out of ways to mess David up; it’s actually harder to constantly deny a scene partner
We should also notice that we’ll never be maliciously negating reality on stage like we did in the exercises. We’re never trying to fuck up our scene partners. But sometimes our timing is off, a line is worded poorly, or there’s some other moment of miscommunication. Sometimes a mistake is made. But it’s not really a mistake. Because as we’ve seen, Alex, Beth, and David were able to justify, respond to, and roll with every strange thing. And they were able to do this by being patient, listening, sticking to their characters, paying attention to and using what had come in the scene before. These are values that will come in handy in all of our scenes.
The following is a sample Harold I constructed a few weeks ago. This structure is occasionally referred to as the Standard Harold or the Training Wheels Harold. This structure is very simple to use and instills in its players very good habits to carry with them in any longform that they do. It’s a good idea to have many different scenes at the top. It’s a good idea to punctuate the set with a group scene for variety’s sake. It’s a good idea to heighten and seek connections as we move on. Once we feel we’ve mastered this basic structure we can begin pushing and pulling at it to see what else is possible. The Harold eats everything. Any idea you have can fit into a Harold.
On the technical side: Note that 1b continues the story set in motion in 1a. 2b follows the same general idea as 2a, but in a new setting. 3b follows 3a. Each scene is edited and transitioned into the next by the cast itself.
A Member of the Cast: Hi, we’re an improv group. All we need to get started is a suggestion of a word. What’s something that you love very much?
Audience member: POPSICLES!
Cast member: Thank you. That is the only suggestion we’ll need for the rest of the show. We now present to you a show inspired by the word “popsicles.”
A Monologue Opening: A different member of the cast is inspired to step forward and become a monologist. She tells a true story about how when she was growing up they would wait for the ice cream man. They would spend all of their allowance on ice cream. She lists a few of her favorite flavors and says that if she could she would eat ice cream all day. She wonders aloud about what it must be like to work at the popsicle factory.
FIRST BEATS: SETTING THE TENTPOLES
These scenes will be very different from each other.
Scene 1a: Hyperactive children stalk their neighborhood ice cream man. Scene 2a: A parent discusses proper use of allowance with their child. Scene 3a: A trainee experiences her first day at the Popsicle Factory.
Group Game #1: A cast member steps out and says “We’re all very concerned about you, you do nothing but eat ice cream all day.” The cast then steps out and becomes a family having an intervention for a person who has gotten egregiously overweight from eating too many sweets. Everyone reads their intervention letters to the overweight man.
SECOND BEATS: HEIGHTENING THE SITUATION
Now we continue to explore the ideas set up in the first beats. We may follow a character’s story, or put their behavior in a new context, or see analogous behavior by different characters.
Scene 1b: The same hyperactive children have now kidnapped their neighborhood ice cream man. Scene 2b: An investment broker discusses proper use of stocks with a client. Scene 3b: Trainee experiences her first day at the Toy Factory. This trainee jumps around jobs a lot.
Group Game #2: A person steps forward and begins listing their favorite ice cream flavors. The cast joins and attempts to list all 32 Baskin Robbin flavors, getting more and more ludicrous and inedible as they go on.
THIRD BEATS: HEIGHTENING AND MAKING CONNECTIONS
Let’s wow the audience by weaving together the various threads in ways that surprise even us. Connections may be narrative, stylistic, or thematic.
1c: Hyperactive children have kidnapped an ice cream man, a balloon seller, and circus clown. Their parents attempt to have an intervention about how they kidnap people too much. 2c: Hostage negotiators discuss proper use of ransom money with a kidnapper. 3c: Hyperactive children stalk a trainee at a Ponies and Rainbows Factory.
The guy in the tech booth blacks out the show. Approximately 25 minutes have gone by.
A quick note on improv clothing, only because I’ve noticed that this seems to have come up a lot recently. I’m not talking about what you should wear on stage (which should be non-distracting clothes you can easily move around in), I’m talking about how to treat the fictional clothes that your character is fictionally wearing.
First off: The clothes you have on are not necessarily the clothes your character has on. If your character has shown up to defuse a bomb, let’s assume they are wearing proper bomb squad gear, and not the tight pants you decided to wear that day. We’re making this distinction to free ourselves from making too many scenes about how a person is inappropriately dressed. If we treat the clothes a person actually has on as the clothes in their scene, then they very often will be inappropriately dressed.
Secondly, if we need to take clothes off in a scene, make them object work clothes. Mime taking a shirt off, mime removing shoes, mime pulling down pants. We do this for a few reasons. Mostly because we probably don’t want to see you naked. I love you guys, you’re beautiful people, but I don’t know you that well. Also, real clothes are subject to the laws of physics. An object work shirt can be hung on our object work hatrack, draped over our object work bust of Shakespeare, or turned into an object work paraglider as we fly away. A real shirt can only fall down to gravity. Object work in all of our props and costuming gives us freedom.
I coached a group a while back. In the course of a scene, a person took off their shoes. As the scene got sweep-edited, the person had to scoop up their shoes before retreating to the backline. It was a clumsy few seconds and it got in the way of the next scene starting. It also meant that these were seconds during which this player could not improvise; they were out of the game. If the player had taken off improv shoes, then there is no issue. They simply leave the stage when the scene is over.
I can also imagine moments when taking off real clothes can be fun. And part of my aesthetic is also about turning perceived mistakes into the beginnings of fun improv runs. What if that clumsy shoe-grabbing moment became the start of the next scene? We might find ourselves in an unexpected place there and build a truly awesome scene. However, I want people to get into good habits first. That kind of moment can lead to a mad scramble if people aren’t on board with the fundamentals yet. So make your improv clothes object work clothes.
It my sincere belief that every scene is just fine being performed by the people who already there on stage. A good improv scene never needs anyone to add to it. An improv scene is not like a Civil War skirmish in which our sole tactic is to throw additional men into it. Ideally, the people on stage should be creating everything they need on their own. The only thing they need the backline to do is to edit them when they’re done.*
But I Really Like Walk-ons!
Still, walk-ons are fun and, when done well, can really enhance a scene. Let’s identify some places where walk-ons work really well.
1) When a character has been referenced but has not entered yet. (“Your babysitter will be here any minute…”)
2) When it plays along with and supports whatever the existing focus of the scene is.
3) To provide naturalistic population for a scene (e.g. Other dancers on a dance floor) without stealing focus.
4) When they’re quick and followed by a swift exit.
A few don’ts (although if we’re focused on the do’s, then we shouldn’t have to worry about these): Avoid using walk-ons in the belief that you are “saving” the scene. You’re not. Avoid using walk-ons when a scene looks like so much fun that everyone wants to pig-pile on top of it. That scene will quickly cease being fun and will instead become a clusterfuck. Don’t use your walk-on to steer the scene into the direction you want it to go in. It won’t and everyone will resent you.
There are other ways to support the action on stage that don’t involve entrance as a new character. Let’s brainstorm a few possibilities.
1) Dramatic scoring.
2) Atmospheric music, sound effects, and ambient noise.
3) Scene painting (“We see a…”) to indicate environment or other physical details.
4) Embodying objects.
As with all of these, please use sparingly. Like we said, any scene should do just fine being made by the people already onstage. Any walk-on or support move runs the risk of stealing focus and overtaking the scene. After discussing what makes for positive support and walk-on work, let’s work on that skill. Set up a backline and run some scenes off of a suggestion. Each scene needs to have at least one support move or one walk-on in them. After we’re done, note which ones seemed to work best and why.
Let’s Find the Focus
In this exercise we will work on our ability to find the focus of a scene. It will be a two character scene, but those two characters will be played in turn by everybody on stage. Have a handful of people on stage form a backline. 6-7 should do it. Alex and Bert will start a scene based off of a suggestion. Soon, at some point, Cartherine will tag in (by tapping the person on the shoulder) and take over Alex’s character. Catherine’s job is to continue on playing the character that Alex has already set up. Dmitri can tag in and take over either Bert’s character or the Alex/Catherine character. Elaine can tag in to take over any character at all. Now every player is free to move back in and take over playing any character.
What we should watch for is anyone coming in and completely switching the direction of the scene. Every player should do their best to continue on in the direction already established. We’ll also notice that if Catherine tags in too early, then the direction might not be clear enough yet. Our timing is off; we need to wait and see what the scene is about before we run in and take it over. Similarly, with walk-ons, we need to see what the scene is about first. Patience and understanding will make our walk-ons and support moves that much stronger.
*And sometimes they can even do that themselves, but again, let’s make it easy for us.
A Harold starts with an Opening Game. The purpose of the Opening Game is to generate ideas that we can then use throughout the rest of the piece. There’s a lot of different kinds of openings and each one has their tricks on what makes them work well. Plus, some openings will appeal more to the personalities of the people playing them and may play to their strengths better. Feel free to explore and develop your own openings. But no matter what opening we do, there are two things that should always happen.
1) Come up with as many varying ideas as possible. We want to have a few different things to play with.
2) Look for the idea that sparks your interest. Find something in the opening that you want to play with. This happens by paying attention.
I’d like to describe an Opening Game I developed with the group Big Buddha. After the group gets the suggestion, one player steps forward and strikes a character posture. They’re not frozen, they’re just the character existing in a space. They may enter into a simple activity. But to begin, the player strikes a posture wordlessly: they do not talk.
Every other player gathers around them. They are free to describe this character in any way. What clothes they are wearing. What their name is. Where they are standing right now. What might happen to them later.
The other players are also free to say things in the character’s voice that the character might say. They might also say things that the character might hear from other people. A beautiful woman might hear wold whistles. A nebbishy man might hear admonishments from his mother. A teenager at a concert might hear pop music being played.
Words are not the only tools at our disposal. If we endow a man as being very smelly, we may motion “stink lines” with our hands. We may deliver a tray of hot dogs to a competitive eating champion. These are just some possibilities. Whatever a player can contribute that they feel is strongest for them is completely valid.
After we feel we’ve described one person enough, a player may bust out of the cluster and find a new place on stage. There they will strike a completely new character posture and the process repeats. We will do this for a total of three characters.
With this opening we now have many things we can play with. We have dialogue that people have said, sharply defined characters that we can see, and hints at possible relationships. We even have simple activities with which to start a scene. See, it’s my belief that we don’t need huge premises from which to start our scenes. We can start with very small things. If all we pull from the opening is chopping vegetables, that’s a fine enough place to start. Remember, we can say or do anything to start our scenes, even “Flappity Jackety Doo.” It’s the rest of the scene during which we get to figure out why we started there and what is so important about that moment. Don’t worry about having a whole scene mapped out in your mind (in fact, never have a whole scene mapped out in your mind). Worry about one small idea that you can bring to the table.
Every* improv set starts with a suggestion. From short form to long form, suggestions begin everything we do. We get a suggestion not to prove that what we’re doing is made up, but rather to forge a bond with the audience. “See? Everything that happened in this show happened because you were here.”
On a technical note: Using the suggestion does not mean repeating it often throughout the show. Hearing one word over and over can get tiring and feels uncreative. It’s more fun for the performer and the audience to dig deeper into a suggestion, plus it will help sustain us through a longer set.
*Not every. But let’s make it easy on ourselves first.
Let’s talk a bit about Analogous Scenes. Creating Analogous Scenes is a fun way to heighten the comedy of any situation by placing it in a surprising context. Imagine two schoolchildren trading lunches. That is a very normal behavior and there’s nothing particularly funny about it. Now imagine two soldiers in a foxhole trading C-rations in the manner of two schoolchildren trading lunches. That’s a much more interesting situation. This is very similar to a game that you may already know: The Blank Family. In this game we see how a normal family situation might be if everyone were Ninjas or Werewolves. But here we’re going to open up that concept to delve more into the emotional territory. To exercise this, we’re going to do some Mapping.
Have two people get up on stage. Give them a very mundane activity. Then give them a heightened dramatic situation. They will now enact and talk about that mundane activity as though it has the weight of the dramatic situation.
Telling someone you got their lunch order wrong as though you are telling them they were adopted.
Telling someone they’ve won a trip to Bermuda as though you are telling them they have a disease and about to die.
Telling someone you’ve drank the last of the milk as though you are denying you have a substance abuse problem.
Elicit other mundane activities from the group and assign very dramatic situations. What we’ll notice is how weird and silly these scenes are. But it’s important to point out that all scenes should have dramatic stakes. Like our heightened emotions from the other day, scenes work well when things matter. This is a fun and easy way to make scenes matter to the players.
After we’ve done a few straight mapping scenes, we can now play with doing it in our second beats. Have 6 people on stage. They will perform three different 2-person scenes. After the third scene, 2 different people will step forward and perform a beat for the first scene. They will take the behavior that they saw and map it to a totally new situation. We will do this with all of the scenes.
As always, we’ll discuss which ones seemed to work best. Sometimes a new situation doesn’t exactly fit - it’s not very analogous. Also, the first few lines of the analogous scene need to be pretty clear on setting up what the analogy is. After that, it’s all a matter of having paid attention to the original scene in the first place and reenacting their story points in the new context.
A structure known as the La Ronde is useful in figuring out how to follow Character Game. The La Ronde works like this:
Scene 1: Characters Alex and Bert
Scene 2: Characters Bert and Catherine
Scene 3: Characters Catherine and Dmitri
and so on, adjusting for how many players until the final scene is:
Final Scene: Characters Zelda and Alex.
We edit by tapping the player we want to exit on the shoulder and then initiating a new scene with the remaining character. For exercise purposes, we’re going to stay very rigid with the progression. One character per player, and if you’ve gone you have to wait until your turn comes around again.
Before we begin, we’ll point out two important things. One: No scene may be about or discuss what had happened in the immediately previous scene. If Scene #1 features a break-up between Ivan and Jessica, Scene #2 cannot begin with “OMG, Jessica, I can’t believe Ivan broke up with you.” Two: In order to come up with new situations, it is helpful to think that characters exist at home, work, and play. If we see a scene of a young man and his mother, we can then see that mother with her MMA Kickboxing Club. This helps us broaden the world’s of our characters. Remind people of this as the scenes go on.
We’re doing this form because it forces us to create strong characters that can easily exist from situation to situation. A solid first beat, one that is easy to create second beats off of, features strong characters. The La Ronde gets us into that good habit. As we perform longer pieces, our ability to hang on to characters and place them in new situations is going to be extremely useful.
Let’s begin the workshop. First we discuss the kinds of second beats with the group. Then we’ll do a couple of scenes, and after each scene ask everyone what they thought the scene was about. Follow it up by asking people to brainstorm what they might do for a second beat. There are no wrong answers here, we just want people to start thinking about possibilities.
What’s going to help us is drilling our ability to pay attention to and recognize what is most important about a scene. Personally, I feel following Character will always be the strongest choice for creating second beats, though however we choose to structure our second beats we should always be creating strong characters in the first place.
In regards to recognizing what a scene is about we will do an exercise version of Half-Life. We’ll do a scene in one minute, then again in half the time, then again in 15 seconds, and again all the way down to 3 and 1/2 seconds. Get a relationship as the suggestion and have two players act out that relationship.
After running it for a few times, we can debrief the exercise. What we’re looking for here is to figure out the essence of a scene. Each scene has the One Thing that is most important in it, what that scene is about. I’m sure we noticed what things needed to be hit in order to make it clear we were creating an abridged version of the scene. It’s obvious when the shortened version feels different. And when it feels too different, it feels like it was a totally different scene. We’ll use this awareness when trying to figure out what to do with our second beats.
Now let’s do a longer exercise. We begin with two players, playing a scene based off of any suggestion at all. After calling scene, have two new players get up. They will now recreate the scene that they just saw as closely as possible. Now, after that scene is over, have the original two get back up and recreate the scene they just saw. They will recreate the recreation.
As with all exercises, we’ll do them a couple of times to give as many people as possible a chance to try it out. Also, repetition helps drill in the concepts at work.
Like a game of telephone, we’ll see the scene mutate wildly by the time we get to the third iteration. However, if we are paying careful attention to what is important about the scene, then the scenes will feel similar enough to be the same thing. If we latch on to a strong character, maintain their point-of-view, or stay true to the relationship, then we’ll allow for detail here and there to be dropped.
Let’s start by talking about second beats. We begin talking about second beats by first talking about the first beats. The question of what to do in a second beat is answered by what has already happened in the first beat. The stronger our first beats are, the easier it is to figure out what do when it comes back.
I’ve identified three basic types of second beats. They are:
2: Character Game
This list is by no means complete, nor are the three types mutually exclusive. Defining these types is just going to help focus our thinking.
A Time Dash means that there is a gap of time between when the first beat ended and when the second beat begins. It could be a jump forward in time from ten seconds to ten million years. It can also be a jump backward in time from right before the first scene started to years before. Going forward, we can use the Time Dash to show the ramifications and fallout of someone’s actions. Going backward, we might see what past experience led to the original events taking place.
A Character Game follows one or both of the characters from the previous scene and places them in a heightened situation. We use this to explore how a strongly defined character(s) might act. They may be presented with a more extreme version of what they have already faced or they may be placed in an entirely new context. Strong characters are ones that can easily exist anywhere and have something interesting happen.
An Analogous scene takes the situation we have already seen and places it within an entirely new context. We use this one to show how strange and silly behaviors are when removed from a familiar setting. A simple example is this: There may be a first beat scene of two children playing House, imaging what they will be like when they are older. In an Analogous scene, we may see two adults playing Senior Citizen Home, also imagining what it will be like when they are older. Or perhaps two tadpoles play Frog.
The conversation about editing should, ideally, get sprinkled in throughout the rest of workshopping. Because Editing is basically the ending of a scene, we can workshop other things within our scenes while also practicing our editing. When we introduce it, it is useful to discuss the few technical aspects to editing.
The simplest edit is the Sweep Edit. An improvisor jogs across the front of the stage to indicate that the scene on stage is now over. A good sweep edit is like a curtain drop: it is ubiquitous and without character. A Sweep Edit is not an opportunity for a laugh, nor is it an opportunity to comment on the previous scene. (These are good values to have in regards to any edit.) A simple, swift, energetic jog across the stage is all we need for a Sweep. This is the Edit we’ll be using the most for now until we get into some more fun techniques later.
When do I edit?
In general, there are 5 things we can look for when editing.
1) A pattern or Game is hit three times.
2) A huge laugh line is delivered.
3) An emotional change or realization is made.
4) A shift in status occurs.
5) A story beat is hit.
In regards to option (1): This is basic comedy structure we’re talking about here; funny things just seem to come in threes. Naturally, we have to be sure that the funny thing, the pattern, the Game, is valid enough to warrant being used this way and it should be organic as well. No one wants to see a joke hammered three times into a scene just for the sake of making an ending possible.
Some improvisors might ask about option (6) which is “When the scene is sucking so badly that you want to mercy kill it.” I’d be foolish to say that those kinds of scenes don’t happen. I’ll respond by saying that if we remember to do all the good things we’re supposed to do in a scene (reacting with emotion, creating character, yes-anding, etc.) then we will rarely have to worry about option (6). And besides, that’s not Editing’s job. If a scene is sucking so badly, discover a way to give your team options (1) through (5) so that we can feel good about ourselves.
Now that we know these things, we can ask our team to look for them when scenes are in progress. We’ll do a quick run of scenes first to drill edits. Have the improvisors create a backline. Give the group a suggestion for a series of scenes. When anyone on the backline sees one of those four things happen, they are free to sweep edit. The editor is not required to start a new scene (in fact, I prefer that they do not.) After we’re done, ask the group which ones felt right, which ones felt too early or too late. We’ll keep these responses in mind later as we continue practicing our craft.
Moving forward, it may be necessary for a coach to indicate whether or not she is editing the scenes or if the people on stage will self-edit in any particular exercise.
All right, enough exercising. Let’s get into some scene work. However, the first couple of scenes are going to be limited to two people and they will have a premise given to them to start. Feel free to invent your own scenarios as well.
… waiting to go into a job interview for the same job.
… having just finished dinner, decide who pays the check.
… having drinks, and one person has forgotten another’s birthday.
… in a toy store and both have reached for the last most popular toy on the shelf.
… in a car on the side of the road after it has just broken down.
Before we begin each scene, we’ll ask people to not fight in order to get what they want. Instead try any other tactic in the world. After each scene, ask the group “what did we learn about these two people?” Any answer is correct. The important thing to stress is that we got information about the people on stage. It could be any two people waiting for a job interview, that’s pretty broad. But here we know it’s this kind of job, with these kind of people, in this city on Earth. Improv works when we have information, it doesn’t work when characters exist in Vague-Land.
Once we’ve done a few of those we’ll remove the scenario restriction. Now we’re only going to give the improvisors simple suggestions of locations, relationships, or occupations. Each scene will only have two people. Pay careful attention to the concepts we’ve covered today: having an emotion in scenes, playing with status, adding information. However, we don’t need to discuss every single scene unless something unique happens that may require a broader note. (If a scene does happen in Vague-Land, that should be noted. If a scene happens that is truly sexist or homophobic or otherwise offensive, that should be noted. Etc., etc.)
Since this is our first meeting, we can wrap up the session with something fun. Play a game of Freeze Tag or World’s Worst. Something loose and silly that gives people an opportunity to be funny and have fun. In general, I think it’s always a good idea to end with a high note so that everyone can feel good about the day. No one enjoys walking away from improv practice feeling like they totally sucked. Let them crack a joke as they head out the door.
Today we’re assuming that we have a few people in the room who have never done improv before. This is the first practice session for the Improv Society. We need to introduce them to the basic tenets of improv. At the same time, we want to confirm our values and possibly break new ground with our veterans.
Starting Our Scenes
Have the improvisors make two equal lines on each side of the room. This is now lines A and B. The first improvisor from line A will step out into the playing space and say anything at all. The first first improvisor from line B steps out and responds with some kind of emotional response. Happy, angry, sad, lustful, whatever. The exchange will continue for a few lines before calling scene. A will return the end of line B, and B to the end of line A. Repeat.
We’ll point out that the goal is not to be funny, but to just have an emotion. We want to see what huge reactions look like. Also, people from line A will often ask questions as their first line. Although I am not adverse overall to questions (we’ll talk about that later) now’s a good a time as any to get people into the habit of making statements. Gently goad them into answering their own question or somehow turning it into a statement.
Once everyone has gone, we’ll repeat the rules of the exercise. It’s probably a good idea to have people mix up where they are standing just so we can have a variety of scene partners. This time, instead of responding with an emotion, we’ll respond with a sense of Status. Status can be high or low and always exists in relation to the other person. You always view yourself as higher, lower, or equal status to everyone else.
We’ll note how interesting it is when someone of low status is greeted with someone of even lower status, or when an assumedly low status position is imbued with with status. Once we’re done with these, we’ll ask people if any particular ones stood out. There’s no right or wrong answer, we’re just trying to get a sense of aesthetic for the group: what things do we all find interesting. We’ll also ask how they felt from the inside. The answer should be “easy” and the reason is “because it was so clear to know what to do.” This is why we gift ourselves with something at the top of the scene. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s something. There are tons more ways to start scenes, we’ve just given our improvisors two options.
My old college troupe at the Fredonia Improv Society is a very dedicated group of kids who unfortunately exist in the middle of nowhere. They have to teach improv to themselves. Now, I do believe that you can learn improv on your own. You can go off in the wilderness and do scenes for 10 years and come back and know how to do improv. But we don’t have that kind of luxury. So, in lieu of being on a mountainous improv retreat, we create exercises and lessons. I’ve asked the Improv Society if they’d like me to write up some notes for them and they obliged. Looking at the list of things I want these kids to learn I realize I’ve given myself a daunting task. So here we go, barely edited, over the course of the next few weeks, my notes for the college improvisors.
Before We Begin
First, a little bit about my aesthetic. This is important, because it explains why I chose the exercises I’ve chosen and it helps me focus on directorial notes when discussing them. I believe two things that, at first glance, seem completely contradictory. I believe it does not matter what you do at the top of the scene. I also believe that the content of any scene is determined within those first few seconds.
Here’s what I mean: Improv is a lot like a case of Writer’s Block where you are just staring a blank sheet of paper. The cure is to write something, anything, to make it no longer a blank piece of paper just to get yourself stated. You can step on to stage and say “Flappity Jackety Doo!” because you need to do something. Something needs to happen otherwise there’s no scene. Now, however, we’ve made a promise that the rest of the scene will be us figuring out what that beginning meant. “Flappity Jackety Doo” now means something and it is important to the rest of the scene.
The Bat is a longform performed in the dark. Audience and actors are unable to see each other. Every average improv stage show is bound to the normal rules of physics; the Bat lets the cast create flights of fancy and fun soundscapes those rules don’t allow.
Everything is improvised… except what is not. In this mostly improvised show, Amrita and Kevin mix the spontaneous with one scripted scene. Find out what happens when the playwright runs out of words and the characters take over. Which scene was written? Can you tell the difference?
The juxtaposition of improv to scripted, especially in the sense of creating improv so good that the scripted scene is hidden, is very intriguing to me.
Twik performs the Moebius - one of the most challenging and radical forms of improv performed today. The Moebius begins with the last scene, then explores how the characters got into that predicament. You won’t know what’s coming, even though you do.
This is another group whose members I got to meet earlier this year. And I’m a fan of anything that plays with time. It requires the utmost of listening and commitment to character over plot.
Naturally, I’m excited about these young kids because they are the current members of my old college improv troupe. I had the honor of teaching them some longform basics earlier this year, so I’m doubly proud that they’re now playing in DCM. Come check out these young bucks, won’t you?