This is my last improv game paired with the “Ten Commandments” of Theatresports that I’ve been unpacking over the last several months. A new series will follow that also includes weekly Game Library additions so fear not if these are your favorite posts! The final commandment invites us to keep a sense of healthy perspective in our craft, and this exercise, Three Sentence Scenes, holds a similar lesson (among others).
I generally have players form a circle with some chairs scattered at the compass points (north, south, east and west) for ease of access. A theme (love) or focus (starting in the middle) may be provided. Players take turns initiating scenes that should typically last no longer than three lines. At the conclusion of each vignette, the active players freeze until they are replaced by a new entering energy from someone waiting on the periphery. This new scene then continues for three sentences with the prior players returning to the circle, and the process continues. Sometimes I’ll utilize a system whereby players clap their hands at the perceived end of the scene to indicate that they will be the next entrance, or players can just enter at whim.
Many companies utilize some version of a “get the bad improv out” exercise or warm-up, and this game can certainly have that goal, reminding players that scenes are fleeting and that the next one is coming right around the bend. There are few art forms more transitory than improvisational theatre, after all. Coupled with a particular stated goal at the outset, this exercise can also be used to introduce or reinforce skills or techniques that might be atrophying. It is certainly a helpful energy builder and can help dust off improv cobwebs if your ensemble has not played together for a while.
Traps and Tips
1.) Share the stage time. Some players are just generally more confident or excited to start scenes than others, so I’ll often set it as a goal for everyone to start at least one scene before the exercise culminates. Similarly, I might just have company members raise their hand if they have been a little under-featured halfway through the exercise. As players initiate new scenes they can then make a concerted effort to invite these less featured improvisers to join them in the middle of the circle. I find it helpful to maintain an awareness of full inclusion during this warm-up so it doesn’t devolve into exclusionary side games.
2.) Resist the downward spiral into wackiness! There can be a trap in setting up this exercise as “getting the bad improv out” as I’ve found this frame can almost become self-fulfilling if we’re not cautious. Yes, there is certainly a value in blowing off some improv steam and having some unbridled fun together that shouldn’t be overlooked or undervalued, but if we set up an expectation that good listening and nuanced improv won’t happen, then it won’t happen. This is where I find the next strategy helpful…
3.) Shake up the goal of the exercise. Especially if you’re using this warm-up frequently, I think it can be helpful to use it to reinforce, review or introduce some foundational concepts that you’ve been working on as a troupe. Whether it’s crafting interesting staging, exploring the moment before, portraying relationships that are not commonplace in your work, or perhaps even just challenging ensemble members to initiate scenes with those in the group with whom they do not typically play, a stated and changing focus can give the exercise freshness and new meaning. Why not put some “good” improv habits front of mind while we’re also expelling some of the “bad” improv for the day?
4.) Really use the three sentences. It’s not particularly helpful to pause the game to discuss whether an utterance or broken speech act counts as a sentence or not, but the limit of dialogue is a gift in this game that will hopefully encourage players not to just waffle (see Commandment #6) or wimp (Commandment #8). With only three lines available, players are encouraged to use emotion, subtext, staging and action to imbue the scene with life and deeper meaning. Sure, some scenes will sneak in an extra line or two, but it’s helpful to challenge players to make every word count. It’s also helpful to stress that these should generally be three sentences as opposed to three long-winded and meandering paragraphs. But there’s no need for the sentences to happen in quick succession without developing nuance or exploring the power of the silences between the words.
5.) Concentrate on two player scenes. With only three sentences available, it will quickly become clear that an over-abundance of side-support, Canadian crosses, or early entrances will drastically reduce the likelihood that the original players can really explore their relationship and initial dynamic. Most improvisers will intuitively want to start calling back prior characters or scenes, and this certainly adds fun and energy, particularly as the exercise nears completion, but once the scenes start to become “all-plays” it’s difficult to get back to softer or more nuanced two-person work. I’d recommend that you try to hold onto that more focused energy and pace as long as you can.
While I might generally provide some big take-aways from the warm-up, resist doing a blow-by-blow account of every vignette as that’s antithetical to the notion that we’re embracing the disposable quality of improv if we then scrutinize every small mis-step. The major gift of this exercise in my opinion is that when played joyfully it fosters a spirit of abandon, reactivity and immediate forgiveness for when things don’t turn out quite the way you were hoping. These are important reminders for us all.
Connected Concept: Commandment #10