“B” is for “Breaking Routines”

Connected Game: Fortunately/Unfortunately

© 2020 David Charles/ImprovDr
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If you want to catch up on missed “A to Z” entries you can find the in-progress index here.

Related Entries: CAD, Commandment #7, Game of the Scene Antonyms: Balance, Platform, Routine Synonyms: Ignition

Final Thought

And so it can be helpful to overturn prior routines, if for no other reason than to allow yourself a chance to see things afresh once more. Routines and patterns are such an integral part of life, and therefore art, but it is often when the balance is upended and the potential of something new is sparked that the power and poignancy of theatre begins.

Some Methods for Shaking Up the Routine

4.) Add significance by asking “What is different about today?” In my improv workshop or class I will often use the language and frames of scripted theatre when it comes to considering the structure and progression of our improvisational work. It would be rare (with the exception of some extreme variants of naturalism) to dramatize a true slice of life in which no notable event or journey occurred. Following this example, if our “play” begins with four friends eating fish and chips at the beach, typically something of import will happen or there will be a given circumstance that elevates this encounter beyond the everyday. (If we are working in a long-form modality, the exception to this rule would be if we are consciously establishing a balance for our play knowing that the routine will be broken in a future vignette.) The answer to “What is different about today?” is almost limitless, and can support a wide range of moods and styles. We could have a gentle and heart-felt scene if this is the last day of summer before the friends depart to various universities. The scene could take on a more absurd or whimsical energy if ravenous seagulls attempt to maneuver their way to the coveted food. Or we could embrace style if we learn that two of the friends are in fact lovers and planning to escape from their overbearing parents that very night. Initially it’s helpful if just one element is different today so as to enable everyone to explore facets of a similar game or story.

3.) Add interest with an inversion or tilt. If the scene is meandering over well-worn routines, exploring an inversion or tilt can provide new life and interest. If the platform would typically mandate a power relationship (a teacher is instructing a student) finding a way to switch the common power dynamic can offer a new pathway (the student has an area of expertise that the teacher does not share). If you enjoy status work, this break in the routine can be viewed as a status breach or struggle: a mechanic is going through a lengthy car repair bill with a seemingly naive customer, only to learn that they are in fact a reporter doing a piece on shady car repair shops. Or the concept of mapping can provide another interesting approach: the perfunctory scene at the breakfast table between family members slowly reveals itself to be anthropomorphized cockroaches preparing for their day.

2.) Add energy by heightening or climbing the curve of absurdity. There are certainly times when the routine itself might be the most promising or charming component of the scene and disrupting it in a way that curtails it might erase this promising direction. In these instances, heightening the routine, adding stakes, urgency, emotion, intensified commitment or all of the above could prove to be a successful strategy for transforming or elevating the routine. Lucille Ball and the conveyor belt of chocolates comes to mind as an example of this approach. While the routine may remain, it builds in such a way that it no longer exists in the realm of the mundane or everyday. If you are familiar with the curve of absurdity, this is an allied concept, with the routine initially beginning in a familiar way, but through patient moves culminates in an often absurd conclusion. I consider this concept more fully in an upcoming entry on the game of the scene.

1.) Add dynamism with a CAD. CAD is an acronym for Confession, Accusation and Discovery and I deal with this concept and it’s constituent elements in other entries at greater length, but allowing your character to make a revelation will typically change the mood and possibly the direction of the scene. Powerful CADs tend to build off what has already been established (relationship, backstory or environment) but perhaps in a slightly unexpected or charged way. By definition, they are disruptive, bringing something that may have only been brewing at the level of inference or subtext to the surface of the scene in a way that demands notice and address. If you are stuck in a loop, a well-placed CAD can be your best improv friend.


A good example of breaking the routine would be inverting a well-established pattern…


As Johnstone notes in the opening quote (below), Breaking Routines is a helpful and liberating tool for generating material and interest in our work. Patterns and routines can provide a sense of familiarity and allow our audiences to connect to the characters and the worlds that we represent on the stage. But often the power of these routines resides in their function as launching pads. While an audience may find enjoyment in the repetition and fidelity of these patterns, it is in fact when the routine is ruptured that it truly takes on significance. If this initial breach occurs for the first time in our improvised play, thereby upending the balance, this moment can be thought of as an ignition that sparks the rise in the dramatic action. However, breaking routines as a strategy is not limited to this particular moment and will likely appear throughout your scenic work, providing interest, energy and momentum to your improvisational play.

“Breaking the routine frees the improviser from the treadmill of always needing a good idea.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers. New York:  Routledge, 1999. p.84

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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