The Del Close Marathon is less than 2 weeks away and I could not be more excited! The DCM is like Improv Christmas for me. One of the best parts is seeing what improv looks like in other parts of the country. The differences can be in form or style or sensibility. I’m going to post a few of the shows I’m looking forward to for one reason or another during the lead-up to DCM.
2 players perform a slow dance together; each with their head on the other`s shoulder. Hence they are not looking at each other. While dancing they perform a 2-3 minute scene.
This seems like a fun way to exercise many different aspects of good improv. Namely: listening, having an activity (and not talking about it), intimacy and relationship, and creating an interesting stage picture. I might have to try this out sometime.
My good friend Asaf Ronen developed this form a few years ago. Asaf, by the way, is the author of a fantastic book I suggest picking up titled “Directing Improv.” But more on that some other time. In this form, the audience can be in control of editing, by shouting “click” when they wish to see a new scene. The word or phrase that was “clicked” on becomes like the suggestion for the next new scene. Now, there is a danger to the form that I experienced firsthand, and that is that the audience will be antagonistic and edit you too quickly, like every ten-to-thirty seconds. Since then, whenever I have performed it, I have placed the edits firmly in the hands of the performers.
The opening is fairly specific, and I have reproduced here Asaf’s description that he emailed me a few months back.
HOST: Welcome to Hyperlinks. We have an improv search engine made up our merry band of improvisers. All we need is a word to enter
HOST: Enter “suggestion”.
[The lights will go down. Host steps onto the thrust stage. Three monologists step out and do just the first two lines of a character monologue.]
HOST: So there we have your search results featuring three “websites” and the first thing we need from you the audience is to pick which one we will follow. Will it be A, B or C?
[Audience shouts out choice. Monologist gets into center spot.]
HOST: Excellent. Now the next thing we are going to need from you the audience. On the count of three please say CLICK.
[Have them do this a couple of times.]
After I click on this link, you the audience will be in full control of what scenes we click into next. Any time you hear a word, or a phrase that piques your interest, you can yell out ‘CLICK’ and will immediately jump to a new scene based on that word or phrase. So say it loudly, say it clearly and use it wisely.
[The monologist starts their monologue from the beginning while the other improvisers create “slides” around them to accompany the monologue. When the audience says click, the monologist steps into the tableau and a scene begins. Though these days, I don’t do the slides. I have the other improvisers just initiate a scene around the monologist.]
J.T.S. Brown was not a form so much as a philosophy of play. It was designed for a large cast (10-14 people), to involve as many players as possible at a time, to have a higher level of theatricality and polish than a typical improv show, and to encourage any move to be made at any time, with the idea that anything that happened was the perfect thing to happen. We didn’t have a set structure, but we had a few rules to abide by:
1. No sweep edits. Every edit was a transformation. Transformations could come from within or without. Even in a 2-person scene, an improvisor could abruptly change character, initiating a new scene with the same partner.
2. No walk-ons. As soon as someone joined the scene, it became a new scene. Anyone in the previous scene should instantly choose to either exit, become a new character, or become some inanimate or expressionistic element in the new scene. If someone knocked at the door to enter a scene, it became a new scene the second the door was opened.
3. No sidelines. Anyone not in the scene was watching from backstage. Anyone the audience could see was in the scene.
4. The playing area was not limited to the stage…the whole space was used.
5. Any scene could recur at any time, so the players were fine with a scene being edited after 10 seconds, knowing they could bring it back whenever they wanted.
6. There were “worlds within worlds”. If, for instance, Scene I tranformed into Scene II into Scene III, it was fun to spiral back out and have III become II and then I again (similar to the shortform game “Spacejump” or “5 to 1” or “7 to 1” or whatever).
7. We had a number of “gimmicks”—devices that we had rehearsed that could be pulled out at any time. They included:
Hemingway: The players narrate their own scene as well as playing it.
EdTV: A scene can return to a pivotal moment at any time, presenting an alternative outcome. Usually done in threes. (This was named after Ed Goodman, not the Ron Howard film).
The Third Degree: The players could come out and ask 3 rapid-fire questions of a character at any time. These were the sort of questions that you might ask while sidecoaching a scene (“How long have you known this person?”, etc.)
Shadows: A character was sometimes “shadowed” by a another improvisor playing their essence, or id, or subtext. The 2 characters’ shadows would then have a scene of sorts in the background, presenting a more representational version of the original scene.
Shapeshifting: Any improvisor could play anyone’s character at any time. Particularly effective in cross-gender scenes. This fostered the idea of group ownership…every character is owned by the group, not necessarily the improvisor who created it. The show began with a shapeshifted character monologue, which allowed the audience to meet the cast members one at a time.
8. There was an emphasis on physicality, sound, and environment. The players were encouraged to be architecture, inanimate objects, animals, weird shit, etc. All this probably sounds crazier than it actually played. We tried to eliminate weirdness for weirdness’ sake. The idea was that the form was crazy, but the content was solid. It was an interesting package for good scenework. We worked hard to emphasize gift-giving and relationships in the scenework. In fact, we tried to, at some point in the middle of the show, have a “spotlight scene”, a 6 or 7-minute 2-person scene that was not fucked with in any way. In the middle of a fast-moving, constantly evolving show, it was a nice to have a little scene oasis and to take a deep breath.
FACE features an instrumental jazz quartet that, from a single audience suggestion, creates an original “score” on the spot while 6 actors weave a 45 minute, fully improvised show of music, motion, comedy, and dramatic theater.
FACE is one of the cooler free-form shows existing in NYC right now. It’s an interesting marriage of music and improv that doesn’t result in a Broadway-musical-esque kind of show.
The Sickest F***ing Stories I Ever Heard is Chicago’s popular, late-night, adult comedy show! Each performance features a rotating cast of comedians and unique storytellers, sharing TRUE tales of sexual misconduct, painful personal injury and bad hygiene, while the cast drinks beer and plays poker, onstage.
I was able to see two performances of this a few years ago in NYC. It’s one of the best unscripted show ideas out there. I would love to put on my own take on this show, but I’d have trouble coming up with a new name. “Sickest F***ing” is just the perfect name for this show. However you can, apparently, license the name of the show if you want to perform it in your town. The show’s creators would prefer that you not use the name or format without their express permission. I learned this during a very awkward email conversation with Fuzzy Gerdes, one of the originators of the show.
Like conventional improv, Neutrino performances begin with troupe members soliciting story ideas from their audience. Once armed with enough raw materials for a film, the cast members join forces with guerrilla camera crews and take to the streets. Using real locations, real props, and even recruiting real extras, the teams shoot an entire movie based on audience input. For the audience, the playback is almost live. It takes about five minutes for crew members to shoot the first scene, rush it back to the theatre, perform minimal edits, and dub in some appropriate music. (A few of the performers stay behind in the meantime, keeping the audience entertained with amusing onstage banter.) But with three or more separate crews at work, a seamless movie follows the initial delay. Neutrino is, in the end, a movie-going experience. But unlike standard cinema, the show’s success hinges on its players’ ability to interact with a live audience.
The Neutrino Project is essentially an improvised-and-filmed-on-the-spot movie, shown immediately to a live audience. This is a particular project I’ve always wanted to try.
This show has an interesting framing device: A woman is trying to teach three strange men about some simple, well-known aspect of human experience. The set up is has a hint of the Twilight Zone about it, as who are these men that are not aware of or cannot comprehend these things that everyone knows. However, in being taught, the men begin to enact situations and scenes that surround the central premise. A single theme is explored deeply by a group of people trying desperately to understand it. The device itself is fascinating enough, and the performers in it are highly skilled fantastic improvisors.
Gravid Water is basically a much more refined, polished version of the game Actor’s Nightmare. One actor does have the script. But it’s memorized and in their head. There’s a set and props. The only thing missing is the other half of the dialogue.
What’s fun is that the scenes swing wildly from working perfectly (because the improvisor has picked up on every nuance and is filling in the scene wonderfully) to being beautiful messes (because the improvisor made their own strong choice and is now working to marry it to whatever the original script is). Either way, it’s tons of fun, helped in no small part by casting a very talented group of improvisors and actors.
In “The Scene”, five veteran improvisers come together as one common mind – the Director. The Director’s mission is to explore the possibilities inherent in an initial improvised scene and to rework that scene until it reaches its natural conclusion. As such, “The Scene” sets out to marry the often juxtaposed concepts of creative process and finished product (and entertain the audience equally with both.)
I would be very curious to see how this works without sucking all the life and fun out of the original scene. Of course, looking at the cast list, I know I’m looking at a list of extremely talented folk. It seems like a challenging form to do.
This was a neat show I got to be in once years ago. Wish there was more of an internet memory of it for me to show you. It was a very simple format; 3-4 improvisors get microphones, an old B-movie gets played, and we crack wise to it. For most of the group, this is the first time ever viewing this movie.
(I cheated when I was in it and watched it once to make note of any patterns. But it still works if it’s the true first time you’re watching it.)
I have not updated this in a long while, mostly due to the fact that it is very hard to think up a completely new thing to say or do with improv every day. Oh, I can easily come up with things to say about improv every day, but it’s probably nothing you haven’t heard before.
Keeping in line with the idea of this blog, that we’ll have a different idea for a show each day, I’m going to spend the next few entries posting links and descriptions to interesting shows that have crossed my purview. These are shows whose structure is unique in some way. These shows push a boundary of what is possible with improv, or use what is already known in a fun way. Any one of these shows would be great to do or experiment with for any troupe out there.
Let the written word beware, for Biblioclast has arrived! Great works of literature, television, and cinema are all fair game, as we put them into a blender, extract the best bits, and construct a new work using the very same words.
What this means is that each scene gets started by a line of text extracted from the named work. However, now free of context, that lines gets to be spun out into whatever new world it gets to create.
Buddy Daddy is the improv duo of Arthur Simone and Robin Goodfellow.
Arthur Simone is an improvisational actor, abstract expressionist artist, and advocate of the culture of spontaneity. His artwork has been shown at galleries such as Chicago’s Echo Gallery and art festivals such as Around the Coyote and the East Austin Studio Tour. Most recently, one of his paintings was named as a finalist for the prestigious 2007 Hunting Art Prize.
A graduate of Oberlin College and a veteran of the Chicago stage with Suspicious Clowns and Moving Dock Theatre, he is currently an ensemble member and instructor with Austin’s ColdTowne and a charter member of New Orleans’ ComedySportz. Arthur has starred in Tempe Entertainment’s Jigsaw and Maverick’s The Evil One as well as A&E’s Faith of My Fathers and 20th Century FOX’s Big Momma’s House 2. In 2007, he won the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships and Austin’s regional Air Guitar Championship.
If our show consists of only one extended scene with no cutaways, edits, or other tricks and occurs more or less over real time, then we are performing a form known as the Monoscene. This form carries with it certain unique challenges, mostly involving the fact that the style of performance you would use in a quick 2-minute scene doesn’t work so well in a longer scene.
You don’t have to reduce all the way down to one; you can reduce to some other small number. The fun part of doing less scenes is that you have more time with the characters in them, which means you can really dive into them and explore them deeply.
I think an interesting challenge would be to turn that expectation on its head. Let’s see how many characters we can push into a monoscene. Each player would be challenged to play multiple characters within a single location. This would serve to flex character creation muscles, and teach players how to effectively communicate distinct characters.
A longform show’s length can vary anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on factors like the venue, the group performing, and who else is on the bill. However, an average show is going to be about a half-hour (at least in NYC). A strict Harold consists of 11 scenes (3 beats of 3 scenes, plus 2 group games), and likewise any half-hour show can comfortably fit that number. (All of these are assumptions based on unremarkable, unmodified Harold forms and scenes.) Like with number of players, there is a range where more scenes doesn’t make much difference. If we are adding scenes to a form, we’re adding a lot and are either compressing the scenes to fit within the allotted time, or expanding the time to accommodate more scenes.
Often times in a regular improv set, we’ll enter a tag-out run. Tag-out runs usually center on a single character and quickly place them in interesting situation after situation. These runs are usually very brief overall and consist of several, even more brief scenes. They’re compressed scenes to fit within an allotted time. A fun challenge would be to perform a show-length character run. This would challenge the central character to be so immersed in their character, while also challenging the supporting players to constantly and quickly come up with fun stuff for the central character to do. Let’s call it the Character Marathon.
At least, that’s how I think you might refer to a group of 38. There’s a theorem that states that you need a minimum of four colors to color any map to ensure that no two colors ever touch. Similarly, any group of at least four improvisors can easily run through any form without any modifications to account for number. The rules that govern a group of four are the same that would govern a group of five or six or ten. Changing group size is a modification you can make, but within a certain range it doesn’t make a difference.
There is a high point where it does make a difference. I don’t know know the exact point, so let’s pretend it’s 38. 38 people can do a Harold, but it won’t work exactly like a regular Harold. The 2-person scene you normally see leaves a lot of people not contributing, but the inverse is too much contribution and becoming a loud, shouty mess. What works best instead? Well, naturalistic crowd scenes now become much easier. If we accept that many players will not have speaking roles, then the more people we add, the more realistic our improv can look. (Of course, why would we want to leave so many players without speaking roles? This is the trade-off we must consider.)
I would love to see a show that takes place in a large crowd. Scenes happen within different parts of the crowd. Focus gets passed the same way it would in a game like Cocktail Party. Since we are looking for natural ways to behave, connections between scenes would be clear. For example: If the crowd is a restaurant, waiters move from table to table. And hopefully we would get to see how individual’s actions affect a larger group of people. A violent outburst, a profession of love, or any big moment as witnessed by a crowd can be very interesting.
Yesterday I mentioned how smaller iterations of groups require more modifications to make other forms still workable. These modifications occur because of the demands being made on the performer; less people means you will be on stage more. Usually these modifications occur on the number of characters a player will play. A player will have to be more characters not only over the course of the entire show, but sometimes within the course of a single scene. This modification allows a player to make many diverse contributions within a show. Or the modifications will be on the number of scenes the group plays. It may be reduced to a more manageable number; it may be reduced all the way down to one. Now a player is able to make a much more focused contribution to the show.
These two modifications are not mutually exclusive. One can play many characters within a single long scene, or one character over the course of many scenes. I’m simply breaking them apart here to highlight them.
The great thing about trio work is the opportunity to shine. Each player has to push themselves to do both great support work and stand-out spotlight-worthy work. Why not push that even further? There are three initial scenes to any Harold. What if we see three solo character scenes in a row, each one played by a different player? Once these three separate characters are established, we can let them meet each other in a single location and see how they interact. In the Spotlight, each player gets a chance to take the stage individually, and then join the team together.
Any format can be modified to accommodate a smaller-than-usual improv group size. Each new smaller iteration carries with it challenges for the performer, but these challenges can easily be overcome with a little bit of hard work.
However, you can also create a form specifically meant for a smaller group. Take two performers; have them improvise in any situation that only involves two people. A date is one example, a tutoring session, a job interview, a quiet evening with a couple at home are other possibilities.
There is the danger of not trusting that two performers can carry an entire show. This precedes the temptation to throw more show elements into the mix in hopes of structuring a stronger improv set. I saw a show a few weeks ago that involved two people playing stock characters on a dressed set in a predetermined situation. I got the impression that this overabundance of pre-set elements removed the joy of discovery, which is the real cool part of improv.
I always suggest keeping it simple. Go ahead and do a show with stock characters. Go ahead and do a show with a dressed set. Go ahead and do a show with a predetermined situation. But remember that those are three different shows.
Another kind of solo show I have seen is one that consists entirely of monologues. The one that I have seen most often is a series of singular unconnected characters each delivering their monologue in turn. While this is entirely valid, I also feel it doesn’t fulfill one of the unique parts of improv: the tendency to see separate strands of thought intertwine and connect more and more rapidly as the show nears its end.
What I think might be interesting is to do what we have been doing: adapt an existing format to monologue storytelling. Once again I return to the Harold and modify to create the Monologue Harold: Let’s see three separate monologues from three separate unrelated characters. Then let’s see a group game where several characters attempt to tell one story. We return to the three original characters and listen to them speak some more. By this point we will have enough information that themes or narrative connections might be apparent. We do the same thing with any other multi-scene form. Replace the scenes with monologues, but follow them in the same order as you would in the form. This will serve to provide an interesting structure upon which to hang your monologues.
Monologues are the toughest thing for me to do as an improvisor. The important thing to remember is that monologues do not exist in a vacuum. They are being delivered to someone, somewhere. The more real that detail is in your mind (even if it is the actual reality of being on a stage) will assist you in creating strong monologues.
An important consideration in solo improv is that of the Invisible Character. If you are playing multi-character scenes, then the other character is still there, in action, in motion, even when you are not playing it. It is helpful to still think of the other character as alive and still react to it. Simple things, like tracking with your eyes, or being physically moved by them, adds to the verisimilitude.
It is possible to play an entire set in which we never see the Invisible Characters. A player can speak their line, wait, react, and respond, all without ever hearing or seeing who they spoke to. There are many difficulties in playing a set this way, such as appearing dead as you “listen” to the other character, or unnatural speech as you try to convey the unheard information. I also feel that physically embodying the other character makes it easier to fathom what they will say or do; not doing so robs you of that gift. But, like anything, being aware of the problems gives you ammunition with which to fight them. An enterprising performer and director can find solutions to these issues that will make the improv strong.
The technique that I prefer using in Solo Improv is to play multi-character scenes (though usually limited to two or three characters). I take the physical place of one character, speak their line, and then move to the other character’s location and respond.
The important thing, I feel, is avoiding any sense of preplanning lines. It is very tempting to think up the next 5 lines or so and just recite them. But the audience can feel the lack of creditability. Although it might be a scarier place to be, it is ultimately more satisfying for the performer and the audience to maintain a sense of surprise at what you’re doing.
It is also important to make every character different and to avoid playing characters with the same energy. When several people play the same character, it’s called matching energies and becomes a brilliant exercise in Group Mind. When one person plays the same character several times, it looks boring, lazy, or uncreative.
This technique is the easiest to use when transferring any existing improv format to a solo show. No structural changes need to be made to a format; the only change is that now one person is doing everything. Although I believe that, even though that part is easy, this is the most challenging brand of solo improv.
Solo improv is, as I’ve discovered, the most challenging kind of improv. I’ve been workshopping solo improv for a long time, and in the past year I’ve gotten serious about performing it regularly. I’ve learned a few things.
1) Be clear. If you are a different character, make sure that is readily apparent. Change your body, change your voice, do something to show that it is different. If you are doing a new scene, do something to communicate that your scene has changed. There’s no shame in sweep editing yourself if it tells the audience that the scene is over. Not only will the clarity help the audience understand what is going on, it will also assist you. It will keep you from confusing yourself, and characters are easier to call back when they are definitely different from each other.
2) Figure out the kind of improv you love. What really excites you, what opportunities do you look for, what indicates to you that a good show has happened in improv? Identify those things, and you’ll find yourself the basis for your solo show. This is your chance to do the kind of improv you really like. Any format can be reduced to one player.
3) Everything that you should be doing in good team improv you must do in solo improv. You must do object work. You must identify locations. You must explore a relationship. You must avoid transaction scenes. Even if you never feel you’ve mastered solo improv, you will have become a stronger teammate. You will become accustomed to giving gifts to your scene partner.
I dunno. I sorta disagree. If you are playing an obviously male character and someone in the scene calls you Janice, then they aren’t really supporting your “I’m playing a guy” moves and should they be noted on not agreeing with what DID and what you MEANT. You shouldn’t have to expressly say “I am a man”, they know what you are doing, or they should if they are paying attention.
Though, that swings both ways, and if someone calls you Janice and you say “wtf dude, I USED to be janice and now I’m jimmy” it’s the same, you’re not really supporting their idea that you are this really masculine lady. Finding loopholes in your partners idea isn’t what’s fun about improv.
Your teacher or coach should be reminding the other students that everyone can play everything, just because you are a young woman in real life doesn’t mean you can’t play an old man. And just because that guy is an asshole in real life, doesn’t mean he always has to play one. And…
Don’t be ashamed of playing women in scenes.
Ladies and girlfriends can have just as much fun in scenes as dudes and boyfriends in scenes! I don’t keep track of how many girls I play vs. guys. Have fun!!
As I said before, by virtue of being on stage you are a character. Even if you are performing actions the way you would, saying things you would say, you are still in a fictional situation and are therefore a character. Acting like ourselves is usually just a default position for improvisors. However, acting like yourself can be an opportunity to truly attack Truth in Comedy by being completely in touch with your point of view. To get closer to that idea, we want to then remove character. And removing character means stripping as much artifice of the fictional situation away.
There are examples like this that already exist. Any monologist telling true stories is doing this. “Sickest Fucking Stories” is a Chicago-based show that revolves around people telling their true sickest fucking stories while drinking over a game of Poker. “Never Have (I)mprov Ever” from the PIT is basically a staged version of that drinking game. Basically these are variations on a theme: a situation is set up where an improvisor talks and tells stories about themselves. Drinking shows up a lot.
The challenge is in ensuring the entertainment value. Most of us do not behave in an entertaining way 100% of the time (unless you sleep in a really interesting way). The other challenge is providing enough sensory input to propel the show. It’s difficult to just act like yourself in an engaging way in a void. Also, that sensory input should propel the show in a way that makes sense. Of course drinking and Poker is used in Sickest Fucking Stories; all of things go together. Replace drinking and Poker with building a Lego kit and suddenly telling sick stories doesn’t seem to fit so well. Telling your nerdiest stories, however, fits perfectly.
In general, if you’d like to remove character and allow your actors to be completely themselves, then it helps to provide a theme to follow along with an activity to fit that theme.
Inside-out character creation generally works like this: You decide you will be a certain character, and then alter yourself in order to portray that character. It might be very open or very specific, but the point is you choose your outward appearance and actions to communicate the choice made inside your head.
I’d like to see a show in which the entire cast gets the suggestion of a single type of character. “Old men” for example, or “hipster bloggers.” Each member of the cast then plays that kind of character through their own personal filter of what they believe that character to behave like. Ideally, we’ll get several different old men or hipster bloggers in each show. We’ll call this show “The Convention” even though I don’t have any larger structural notes for this show yet.
An example of how this could work can be found in one of my favorite exercises I call “10 Different.” I give a player an occupation and they are tasked with playing ten different characters in that profession, switching to a new one when I say “switch.” Altering that for a larger cast and removing a director from the equation, we might come up with the following: We’ll call it “aptitude,” after those tests you took in high school. An occupation is gotten as a suggestion, and we see X amount of scenes (where X = the cast size). Each player performs a scene where they are featured as that occupation in their workplace. So we might see 5 scenes of a cab driver driving, or 5 scenes of a doctor operating. Each player imagines in their head how *occupation* behaves and plays that in their scene, showing us X different takes on that occupation. Once we establish these different characters, we can then enjoy a run where we link them all up. Easily too, since they’re all in the same profession.
The simplest way to modify your improv is to add a genre. Improv is genre-less in the sense that it can encompass any genre. So instead we can narrow our focus onto one genre and explore all the tropes of it. The danger of identifying tropes is codifying them too much. We still want to have the freedom to go where improv takes us, so we have to be smart about how we use our genre.
I think it’s more fun to dive into the way a story is told, not necessarily what kinds of stories are told. So, Westerns are told certain ways. Everything has an air of tension about it, characters are tight-lipped, shots are panoramic. Using that is more interesting to me than making sure we have a shoot-out by the end of the show.
I developed a show a few years ago called The Comic Book. Although we did use super hero and Archie characters, we focused instead on the visual aspect of comic books. How are stories told visually? How is information conveyed? We discovered that we could create sound effects, captions, editor’s notes, and describe an art style. We pushed it to the Nth degree by also creating tableau after tableau, like comic book panels. Was that too far? Maybe, but it was fun.
If you want to play with genre, remember two things. One: Film Noir has been done already, and to death. Two: Have more fun with the stylistic choices rather than plot conventions. You’ll give yourselves a lot more freedom.
Earlier we talked about changing the quantity of characters and the ratio of players:character. We can also change how those characters come about or what quality those characters will have.
There are innumerable ways to go about creating a character in improv, but they generally fall into two major categories: outside-in and inside-out. Either you change your body and voice and see how that changes your mind (outside-in), or you change your mind and see how that affects you body and voice (inside-out). Now, this isn’t as clear as the Kingdoms of Life; ideally the process vacillates throughout a performance. But we can create a new form by selecting one of the myriad of methods of character creation and codifying it.
We’ll start with an outside-in method. There is one method that I like to refer to as “character painting.” Here, a character is described in physical detail by a player. Those traits are then taken on and performed. A fun way to start a show might be to involve the audience in this process. Instead of a standard suggestion, a few descriptors are taken from the audience and given to each player. So each player gets some strange external quality, and the show then revolves around seeing these characters interact. Given this, it would probably work best as a monoscene form. At risk of excluding all the other methods in the category, we’ll call this show “Outside-In.”
I think it’s tough to play around too much with editing - its general function is to end a scene and there’s not much more to it. It can become a muddy thing if you muck around too much with it. In terms of fulfilling its function, anything that clearly communicates that one scene is over and a new one is starting is valid. And within that, many different techniques have been created. There’s the ubiquitous Sweep Edit. There are Non-verbal Edits. I recently came back from Kansas City, and in their improv out there scenes are usually edited by a clap. A player would clap to indicate that we’ve reached the end of a scene. We could use blackouts or someone could shout “Scene!” Each choice carries with it a certain style that is attached to what the troupe is already doing. A longform troupe might only use blackouts to end the show, a shortform troupe might use them to end every game. If we turn these expectations on their head, we might find ourselves with a new format.
However, we can expand upon the edit and add a function to it. That function could be that the way a scene is edited, or the point on which it is edited becomes a foundation for the next scene. This has been explored already in some very popular organic edits, like the line-to-line edit or the transformation edit. (For the uninitiated: Line-to-line means you repeat the Last Line of the Previous Scene for use in a new context of the Next Scene. Transformation means that the last word or phrase is repeated and allowed to change and morph until it becomes a completely new phrase to start the next scene.) These edits are used heavily in any Organic Improv Form.
So that’s what Edits do. And although I’ve spent most of my time describing what edits already are, I do want leave this entry with a new form idea. Well, often the person who edits a scene is expected to also be starting the new scene. Not always, but often enough. This can lead to a lack of editing if any supporting player is blanking on an idea. So what if the editor is never the new scene starter? In fact, the editor can choose, by pointing or otherwise indicating, who the next new scene starter is. I call it the Reluctant Harold; No scene is ever started by the previous scene’s editor, Every scene is started by a person who didn’t expect to be starting a scene at all.
Earlier, we changed the number of characters per player. We can also change the number of players per character. Generally, that relationship is a 1:1 relationship; each character only has one player. Got it? Yeah man, Math. We can alter it, a character can have multiple players. And depending upon the number of players per show, we can really have some fun. A simple way of doing this is by creating something like a 2 character show that is performed by 5 players.
There’s slightly more complicated ways of doing this. A central character could be established, and each player could have the opportunity to play this character. We could also switch off or rotate through players from scene to scene. The danger is in making something more confusing than artful, so proceed with caution.
There’s a shortform improv game called Mr. Know-it-All or The Oracle that I don’t like very much. In it, 2 or more players speak, one word at a time, to create a single speaker and answer questions posed to it. (I don’t like it because it usually encourages one player messing with the others or deliberate attempts to say something nonsensical.) What if we approached it more scenically and did away with the odd staging associated with it? (players normally sit stiffly shoulder-to-shoulder.) Instead, each scene features a word-at-a-time character that moves freely and responds to their scene partner as naturally as possible. It would be an incredible exercise in Group Mind.
We could also limit the Edits. We could disallow a particular kind of editing, only allow another. I’ll be using the Harold in most of my examples because it has just about every moving part we need that can be modified. So, taking a Harold, let’s disallow sweep edits and only have Swinging Doors lead from scene-to-scene. When we return to second and third beats, it is one of that beats’ player’s responsibility to swing in to see them again. The fun might be in seeing who they’ve swung in with now and how that relates.
A structure like this would hinge on people creating a strong personal character game. That way they’re not dependent on being with the same other character again; they’ll be interesting no matter where they go. It will also work some justification muscles, because the Swinging Doors might go far away from the original character.
And finally, it’ll just be fun to see an entire group of people swing in and out for the Group games.
Here, by limiting our techniques, we’ve created the Swinging Doors Harold. It may or may not be worthy of a show run or a single codified performance. But it would definitely workshop the Swinging Doors technique as well as character and justification skills. So that’s another way we can change Editing in order to create a new form.
Character is a fundamental piece of improv. I believe that by virtue of stepping onto stage, you are a character. It is inseparable from performing. We cannot truly eliminate character from the equation. But we can modify both the qualifiable aspects and the quantifiable aspects of it in order to create a new form.
A very simple change to make is to alter the number of characters that each player plays. Allowing more characters per player seems unnecessary (as a player will most likely play many characters anyway) and at worst muddy the show. So instead we change the quantity by reducing it down to one. Now, usually modifying the number of characters a player plays comes in conjunction with some other modifier. A good example is the Sleepover format. Not only do we limit each player to one character, we also have a very codified way of moving from one character to the next. A Monoscene is also a single-character form, mostly by virtue of taking place in a single location.
We can take any existing improv format and turn it into a mono-character form. What if the Evente was mono-character? Then we might see how many characters lives intertwine throughout time. (It strikes me that this might be incredibly difficult to do and would require a further restructuring of the Evente for simplicity’s sake.)
Going down to one can make things more difficult, but we’re not performing a stunt show here. If you’re going to modify a format to be a mono-character one you should be doing it because of the opportunity to really dive in and explore a single character.
Before I make more new formats and shows (which I have fallen deeply behind on) I thought I’d talk about the things that could be changed or modified in order to define a new show. In general, you can take any aspect of improv and eliminate it, expand it, codify it, or limit it in some way to create a new form. By the end of discussing each of these aspects, I’ll have shown a change that could be made and thus made up a new show idea. Also, by discussing the changeable elements, I hope to make it easier for anyone else hoping to create their new show.
So let’s start with Editing. Editing is the process of communicating that a scene is over and a new scene has begun. So if we change how something is edited, or if it even is edited, then we’ve changed the form. Easy peasy.
Let’s take a Harold, remove the edits yet still maintain the general structure. Well, you’d have two characters on stage who, at roughly two minutes, might switch to talking about something new. Same characters, but playing a new scene with a new Game. They do this three times, then some more characters join them for a bit, and then they leave and we revisit these two characters’ games over again in order. Walk-ons might come and go, and we might focus on someone else for a time, but in general we’ll remain in the same place with the same characters because they haven’t been edited. There we go. So by changing this one thing I’ve created the Un-edited Harold.
This format is fairly simple. It consists of three beats of scenes. However, in the first beat there are only one-person scenes. In the second beat there are only two-person scenes. And in the third beat there are only three-person scenes. In each beat we revisit the character(s) we’ve met so far, and the addition of the new character should somehow heighten the Game or deepen the exploration. So it might look like this:
Beat 1 Scene 1 - Character A Scene 2 - Character B Scene 3 - Character C
Beat 2 Scene 1b - Character A & D Scene 2b - Character B & E Scene 3b - Character C & F
Beat 3 Scene 1c - Character A & D & G Scene 2c - Character B & E & H Scene 3c - Character C & F & I
Then there’s a run through any character we have met so far. Fairly straightforward. Play to blackout.
"It’s Tuesday" is a classic improv exercise. A player gives a rather innocuous scene initiation, like "It’s Tuesday," and the responding player must make a huge emotional choice and justification to go along with it. "It’s Tuesday," would then be followed with something like "My god! The vicar is coming!" (Keith Johnstone described the exercise in his book Impro for Storytellers. I’m following his example. He’s British, hence the reference to vicars.)
This show begins by getting a random, bland line from an audience member. It’s reacted to hugely, and a scene happens. Each scene begins with a bland, open line that is followed by a huge reaction. Those lines are taken from somewhere in the previous scene, but it must be a line that was spoken by the hugely reacting player.
Tag-outs and swinging doors can be used, but they must be begun by an open line spoken previously in the scene.
The Penny Dreadful show is a serialized set of scenario-play improv shows. The shows will follow lurid and sensationalized stories, the kind that might be found in a penny dreadful, over a series of weeks. Gothic thrillers, highwayman exploits, or school stories will fill the bulk of the subect matter.
There will be a continuity of character from week to week, either in continuing stories or brand-new standalone ones. A minimal amount of scenario-play writing is in order to make clear certain plot beats from week to week. In performance, each segment is preceded by a recap of characters and story to catch any new viewers up to speed.
The Staged Reading is designed to look and sound like an actual staged reading, yet it is improvised. Each player may hold a blank binder, or stand behind an empty music stand. Movement is minimal; All action and location specifics are delivered as stage directions. Structurally, the show can end up looking like a simple one-act play or a series of unrelated scenes.
It opens with the getting of a suggestion. Each player then shares their first thought for their first scene move. If the player doesn’t have an idea, they will simply state that as so. The group then launches into one of the scene ideas and begins playing.
At any point, a player can break out of what they’re doing to briefly talk about what they see the scene as being, what they think the other player is doing, or why they just made a particular move. Players can also describe alternate paths of action they may have taken, and we may then see that possible alternate scene.
Players may also discuss anything factual in their lives, the theater, their surroundings, etc. etc., that may be affecting their perforamance in any way that day.
The Morality Play is an improv show based on the genre of the same name. In it, players depict the struggle of Man against the deadly sins. Players are limited to only playing personifications of abstract concepts (Sin, Temptation, Knowledge, etc), an abstracted Everyman, or theological constructs (God, the Devil, Death, Angels, etc).
An audience member is interviewed about a recent hardship, choice, temptation, or struggle that they’ve faced. Their information is then translated into the broad concepts of the morality play. The audience member is transformed into an Everyman, who begins in innocence, is tempted, struggles, falls, and eventually repents.
Beyond that basic throughline, we may also see how the various concepts and figures present in the piece interact among themselves. What happend when Pride meets Lust? The show ends with a moral epilogue provided by one of the characters.