Our journey through my dog-eared manual of Theatresports commandments continues with our seventh entry in the series. First encountered in my high-school days in New Zealand during the 1980’s, I’m revisiting these improv gems with a new set of eyes.
The seventh commandment notes:
When in doubt, break the routine
Patterns are an interesting occurrence in theatre and art, often providing a foundation or backdrop for the journey that follows. Whether we call these initial story patterns platforms, routines, given circumstances or the balance of a scene, this commandment offers that there is an innate value in disturbing or upending these initial scenic trends. In the scripted realm, I think of this moment as an ignition, a spark that sets the rising action in motion, although such pattern ruptures are by no means limited to this particular dramatic moment. In the improv realm, there is a tension (perhaps unspoken) between schools of thought that prioritize perpetuation of the pattern in order to elevate a game, and those that recommend breaking these patterns in order to facilitate new story discoveries and directions. In the parlance I’m most comfortable with the former would be in essence an example of parallel action, while the latter prefers complementary action: parallel actions tend to mirror or replicate prior choices, while complementary actions connect in causal, thematic or justifying ways. There are certainly advantages to both approaches. Here are some that jump to mind:
Moments to Uphold the Routine
1.) You don’t know what is going on. If a scene is up and running, the audience is enjoying it, but you’re unsure as to the specifics, a paralleling choice is often your best bet. If your entrance is needed to add energy and dynamism to the scene, mirroring and extending the energies already present will give you some time to “get up to speed” as a fellow player without inadvertently stepping on what has already been created. Obviously this is not an ideal improvisational situation and we should all strive to actively observe the scenes unfolding before us, but there are moments that we can clearly sense that a scene needs our presence from the wings while being equally unsure as to what exactly our presence should add or bring.
2.) A game is building that hasn’t peaked. Being the third chef overwhelmed by the dinner rush, the fourth student ill-prepared for the final looming in the morning, or the fifth clueless home repair specialist looking for the cause of the leak, are all examples of potentially elevating a clear game that is unfolding. In this situation, thinking different or adding a new color or nuance may, in fact, puncture the game or have the effect of “naming” the very dynamic that is creating such joy and energy. These types of game scenes might eventually benefit from a complementary action down the road to help them phase into a second wave or act, but a premature shift in focus can often dissipate the very playfulness that was the hallmark of the work.
3.) There are a lot of characters on stage. I’ve written before about the challenges of retaining and moving focus in large group scenes here, but this strikes me as another particular moment when parallel points of view are extremely helpful. If you’re entering a group scene that is becoming fragmented or difficult to follow, immediately and clearly allying with an existing character, camp, or side can help elevate the choices of others already on stage and help enable more successful focus exchanges. This may be of particular help in the latter portions of a scene or long-form exploration when you might be focusing in on your thesis and antithesis looking for an out or “winner.”
4.) A character or point of view is in need of an ally. There are times that our best intentions as improvisers might lead us into scenarios where we may be inadvertently perpetuating an injury, upholding an archaic stigmatizing belief (without satire or commentary), or placing a character in a role that may trigger the performer or audience. In these hopefully rare cases, I think redistributing the volume of the scene is critical and we can do this by clearly mirroring or sharing the point of view of the character at risk. Paralleling might not be the only viable strategy in these moments, but I can see it having value especially if a more nuanced approach isn’t immediately available.
Moments to Break the Routine
1.) The energy or dynamism of the scene is stalling. It’s not an uncommon feeling to be in a scene and for it to feel as if it’s just stuck. We’re making breakfast, and then we’re making breakfast, and then we’re making breakfast… Someone else enters and… making breakfast at this point probably isn’t likely to put the exploration on firmer footing. I’m a big advocate of complementary actions in these moments. I’ve given a rough and ready definition above, but in some sense a routine break would be providing a new context, rationale or element that is related to but not a duplicate of the action already underway. We’re out of eggs, our breakfast date has arrived early, the gas stove has set the curtains on fire… I sometimes use the albeit strange conceit of “why did the playwright choose to show us this action on this day” as a way of nudging the story forward to the thing that doesn’t always happen, the unique spark that will offset the balance and create momentum.
2.) The scene is meandering over well-worn terrain. Especially in the short-form tradition where it is not unlikely that we might face similar scene ask-fors or initiations, it’s not uncommon to face improv deja vu. If you’re taking the first steps down an improv path that you have been on many times before, I think breaking both the character’s and the improviser’s routine is critical to keep the exploration fresh and playful. We want to be careful of being needlessly “original” (an upcoming commandment), but we should be receptive to opening new doorways and options that may reveal unexplored potentials.
3.) The characters or scene has not been ignited. I think this advice is a little more contingent on a long-form setting as a three-minute scene can get away with remaining in stasis with charm and emotional build. In long-form, however, especially styles that are narrative, linear or character-based, we generally need the world as we know it to become tilted, threatened or at odds. This isn’t to necessarily suggest that the very first scene of the play requires a major break in routine – scripted plays may loiter in the balance for multiple scenes at first. But watching numerous scenes in a row of characters just doing what they always do is unlikely to start to generate energy and interest for you as players or your audience.
4.) Your improv or scene has become complacent or predictable. If we always play the same sorts of roles, or start our favorite games in the same way, or lead scenes into well-worn and previously successful shtick then we’re probably in need of some personal routine breaking. If you are fortunate enough to have a regular and frequent outlet, this is perhaps more likely to occur than those in our community who are playing infrequently, although I think unhelpful trends can certainly happen either way. This is perhaps the most meta interpretation of this commandment that can encompass our craft and tendencies on a more global level. There is a radical potential in improv to push towards change and the new, and we need to be wary of complacency and the expediency of the familiar. So if your scenes are starting to become all-too-familiar, break up your own patterns and routines.
If you’ve explored my website a little, you’ll know that I’m very much into devising complex narrative long-form (sometimes two hours or more in length) and so while I certainly see a value in paralleling others’ choices at times, I generally would fall into the routine breaker column as I’ve found in my own work it is very difficult to stimulate new material and nuances if the company heavily favors “same” over “different”. I think this also reveals my innate preference for teaching improv through the lens of story rather than game, although the older I get the more these two terms seem to be almost interchangeable. Furthermore, there is something enticing about fully embracing this general philosophy of breaking established norms, practices and approaches to our stories and our craft as a community. I think this is both the unique potential and challenge of improvisational theatre: we should always strive towards sharing new stories, including new voices in our casts, and joyfully wresting with new ways to tackle the fears and rewards of the unknown. Otherwise we’re just endlessly perpetuating a routine, which will inevitably become dull and ineffective.
What routines in improv are you striving to break?
If you want to explore some ways to shake up the routine go here.
Connected Game: CAD Bell