This week I looked at the complex issue of Archetypes on the improv stage, noting that breathing life and nuance into these personas is particularly challenging in the short-form tradition. I offer Genre Rollercoaster with this frame in mind, as the sudden shifts in style and tone offer unique challenges and opportunities for the improviser, especially in terms of character and story.
A list of popular genres is obtained from the audience (some companies use pre-written lists or just call from the top of their heads) along with an initial offer to launch the scene. The action typically begins in a “neutral” style for several beats, in order to allow some time to establish the basic premise. A caller (perhaps the host or a member from another team) then begins to strategically announce various genres that should be immediately accepted by the onstage improvisers and used to shift the context and flavor of the scene. The action continues through multiple genre calls until the scene reaches its conculsion.
The players are given “maze” as inspiration.
Player A and B enter, joyfully, holding hands as they walk in sharp geometric patterns on the stage.
Player A: (a little shyly) “…and I just didn’t think you’d want to come out with me.”
Player B: (joking) “I did have to think about it.” Player B touches A gently on the shoulder. “But not for too long.”
Player A: (gesturing) “My parents used to bring me here all the time, when I was a kid. I hope this isn’t lame.”
Player B: “No, I’m actually surprised at how much I’m enjoying being surrounded by corn!”
Player A: (slyly) “Maybe it’s the company…”
Caller: “Science fiction. Science Fiction.”
Player B: (stopping dead in their tracks and pointing ahead) “Is that normal? All the ears of corn flattened like that?”
Player A: (shuddering) “Oh no, it’s happening again.”
Player B: (leaning in closer to A for safety): “Again?!?!”
Player A: “I haven’t been completely honest with you about tonight…”
Agility applying the various genres is certainly a core component of this game but the scene really excels when the story arc retains some sense of logic and consistency in spite of the ever-changing style. To this end, leaning heavily into the relationship (and any established archetypes) can certainly help, as can laying down as many specifics as possible in the early steps of the scene. Yes, the audience will delight in the wild mood swings of the scene and well-placed nods to emblematic stylistic elements, but if you also skillfully tell a story then the scene takes on a whole new level of impressiveness.
Traps and Tips
1.) Generous calling is key (and an important skill to nurture). There is definitely an art to skillfully calling the switches in a rollercoaster game. It generally adds heat to the scene if it appears to the audience as if the caller is trying to throw off the improvisers with challenging choices, but in reality, the caller should be carefully observing the action for opportunities to enhance and heighten dynamic moments and shifts. Endeavor to provide strong contrast between each call: moving from Mystery to Suspense, for example, might not set the players up for a clear adjustment. It can also be helpful to keep a strong or surprising genre “in your pocket” so you have something strong for the scene to go out on. Some callers prefer to call “Freeze” before each new genre. This has the benefit of pausing the action to get everyone’s undivided attention, but it also has the deficit of pausing the action… I prefer repeating each call twice as an alternative. The first time, the audience and players are primed for the information, and the repeat makes sure the content is heard. This allows the scene to still maintain momentum, or for an improviser to get out those last few words if your call landed accidentally in an awkward moment.
2.) Music and tech adds so much. I actually tend to avoid playing this sort of game if I’m not in an environment where lights, sound and music are readily available to reinforce the story. Your venue may not be arranged in such a way that the caller can let others know what style is coming, but regardless of the stage configuration, everyone should be looking for the cue that a switch is about to happen. This game invites lush soundtracks, stark lighting shifts, and bold Foley effects, remembering, as always, that these contributors are improvisers too and should be encouraged to take big risks and play with abandon.
3.) Establish the given circumstances and hold onto them for dear life. It’s a given that the style layover will change multiple times throughout the scene, so this makes it even more important than usual to have a clear balance or baseline. Take the time to really create a strong relationship and environment, in particular, as these elements can (should?) remain the same throughout all the ensuing madness. The new genres will certainly invite discoveries and nuances, but it is helpful if everyone starts on the same well-defined page as any misunderstandings or unintended vagueness in these opening moments will only become magnified when the styles start flying. When I serve as a caller for this game I’ll tend to wait to offer that first style until I’m confident that everyone knows and agrees upon the basic premise.
4.) Pay attention to sharing focus, especially when new styles are announced. The excitement of each new genre can tend to make improvisers step on each other a little in a scramble to justify what has happened in light of the added layover. Make sure everyone is getting an opportunity to have the first crack at applying the new mood. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you’re following the natural progression of the dialogue. For example, if Player A has just asked Player B a question prior to the caller’s announcement, it would generally make sense for Player B to speak first and answer the question. Entrances are also powerful moves heralding or following a new call but be wary of eclipsing everything that has been established. If you move the focus of the scene too far away from the initial relationship or deal, the scene can quickly hurtle off the tracks.
5.) Consider using some well-placed ambiguity. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, you can read more about it here, but I think it can be extremely useful not to go noun crazy in rollercoaster scenes. If, in the above example, the players point to the sky and explicitly say a U.F.O. is hovering overhead, when the genre changes to “Western” it can create a story rupture that is hard to address. Is there now a U.F.O. in the wild west (it’s possible) or do we have do undertake some verbal gymnastics to redefine this (it’s also possible)? Another alternative would be to clearly endow a U.F.O. hovering in the sky, hopefully with some great music and stage effects, but to use slightly more ambiguous language: “They’ve come again. I’ve seen this sign before.” This gives us a little more wiggle room now if the saucer becomes a posse or similar. I call this specific ambiguity, and there’s a fine line between just being vague and being deliberate but not overly explicit. I’m not advocating this as a universal approach for the game, but I think it allows a little more room for forward momentum if you don’t have to spend all your energy redefining every past choice.
I will admit to having a little bit of a love/hate relationship with rollercoaster games as I find the innate rhythms of the central dynamic can make it challenging to find nuance and subtlety in your story telling and characterization. If new calls come too quickly, the scene can tend to never advance beyond a quick series of punchlines before we hurtle off the tracks again with a different called genre. Playing these games, however, with an eye to carefully defined archetypes can unlock a new potential for grounded story telling, play and finesse.
Connected Concept: Archetype