“The best, most elegant and simplest way for a scene to end is for the lights to come down, ideally accompanied by a burst of music from somewhere—musician or sound improviser. This means that the lighting improviser has a considerable amount of power, not just spotting endings, but actually creating endings.”Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White, The Improv Handbook. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2008. p.314
For such an omnipresent component of our improv scenes, I have surprisingly come across very little written about Buttons, those critical moments that (hopefully) mark the successful and dynamic completion of our game, scene or vignette. I have had the good fortune to improvise predominantly in companies and spaces where there has been strong technical support and attentive technical improvisers who are indeed, as cited above, adept at both acknowledging and creating strong scenic endings. I’m not a huge fan of the sweeping edit as an improv staple for this reason as it just doesn’t feel clean or theatrical if you’re performing on well-equipped stages, although I understand its pragmatic attraction when working in smaller “found” spaces.
The realities of our craft, however, are that we will not always improvise in ideal circumstances and so relying on expert technical support when it comes to crafting endings is likely a problematic approach. And even if we have talented musicians, hosts and technicians in our venues I would offer that it is really the performers’ responsibility to clearly pitch endings rather than meandering through the scene with the hope that someone else will rescue you when it’s time to move onto something new.
Rehearsing buttons can certainly prove challenging as they are unavoidably so dependent upon the unique circumstances of the game or scene which they strive to punctuate. I offer here some potential ideas to perhaps enrich your current stockpile of approaches on the subject as well as a few new ways to think about these pivotal improv moments.
Thoughts on When to Pitch That Button
1.) You’ve satisfied the promise of the game or scene. In the short-form tradition, many games have built in climaxes when the “rules” of the game or the central conceit have clearly been met. In First Line, Last Line, strongly delivering the last line as supplied by the audience offers a clear finale, as does using the letter “Z” to start the last line of dialogue in an Alphabet Game scene. These moments should be leaned into and fully embraced as the very construct of the game is handing us a clear and resolute ending: it is just up to us to honor and celebrate it! This is not always easily done and underselling such moments or losing clear focus on stage as they are offered rank highly on my list of improv pet peeves. More open or long-form scenes will rarely have such a guaranteed out, but the same philosophy can hold true: if we have made a contract or promise, meeting this expectation will suggest that the end of our scene should be in sight. For example, if a one-upping dynamic has emerged as the central device of the scene, when this game has organically reached it’s zenith, players should be actively seeking an ending. Or if we have been gradually building to the revelation of the puppet operator behind the curtain, exposing their identity will likely herald the scene’s conclusion.
2.) The game or reality of the scene is suddenly tilted or inverted. I tend to think of this as almost a “rug pull” dynamic in that something new is suddenly revealed to the audience (and often the players) in such a way that the central premise of the scene no longer holds true. Most improvisers are accustomed to breaking routines in order to add heat and initiate a rising action, and this approach is certainly of a similar ilk as it also breaks or re-frames the established given circumstances but generally in a way that stops the action rather than igniting it. While we are wisely warned against “naming the game” in our improv, this would be an example of when doing so could serve as a doorway to the button. For example, three neophyte fire fighters have proven themselves so incompetent equipping themselves for the call to the fire that eventually their captain enters to announce that they have missed the fire entirely. Or if we wanted to lean into the concept of a tilt, perhaps the captain enters and announces they have failed the drill, or that the fire station was now ablaze due to their inactivity. Successfully executed, this type of reveal as a button generally demands a fast blackout from the booth.
3.) The resolution or moral of the story has been made clear. I consider the concept of a narrative resolution in my Game Library entry describing Four Sentence Story here. Typically, a resolution in this context expands the audience’s focus beyond the plight of the central characters to the greater world as a whole. What did this scene teach the protagonist that they will take with them from now on, or perhaps, what is the greater moral that we can all benefit from learning? In storytelling games this may literally be spoken as a concluding thought or paragraph, while in scenic work it might appear as a statement from a central figure, a physical action that makes the lesson manifest, or a rip-roaring culminating song in your musical! If our protagonist has spent the scene pushing away all their friends, a moment of them now entrapped in their isolation could prove dramatically effective. Or if they have just taken in that “one” stray cat too many, watching them realize that they and can no longer find anywhere to sit in their own home. Softer energies can be challenging as buttons, so don’t be afraid to take that strong exit if need be, or assume a soft freeze staying in the moment until you’re confident the lights are fully out (if you’re lucky to have lights in your venue).
4.) A witticism, observation or punchline landed. In the short-form tradition, a strong laugh line is probably one of the more common doorways to a scenic button. Audiences at competitive shows often expect comedic work and so a particularly well-crafted or surprising punchline that garners a strong response will likely serve the trick. I’ve posited the question in an earlier post “When is a gag not a gag?” and noted that when used judiciously this type of energy can serve to cap a scene. It’s a tricky balance as if you’re reaching clumsily for a punchline out of desperation – perhaps the scene has struggled on for far too long – there might not be a great chance of success. But even a groaner might be welcomed by an audience if the scene has outstayed it’s welcome. I’d caution against pursuing this strategy relentlessly, especially if you’re working in a long-form modality where punchline buttons might actually cause harm to carefully constructed characters and story lines. And even in short-form performances, I think providing variety for our outs is important, as is honoring our function as storytellers. I’ve seen many a scene blacked out poorly on a line that received a burst of laughter when it needed a few more moments to reach its full story or game potential which would have provided a deeper sense of satisfaction for the audience.
5.) A clear moment of finesse has been achieved. This is a little tricky to clearly define but I think most of us in the field of improvisation recognize and appreciate it when we see it. While a punchline might appeal to our funny bones, a finesse is more likely to appeal to our emotions, intellect or artistic tastes as fellow storytellers. A simple example would be ending a narrative game or scene with the title as provided by the audience: if the final words of the scene consist of this elicited phrase (and the audience remembers it!) then there will be little doubt that you’re pitching an ending. Similarly, if you’re working in a genre piece, weaving a closing rhyming couplet (or sonnet) that is delivered with appropriate finality serves well, as would weaving together several plot points with strategic reincorporations or unresolved elements. I’m often struck at how audiences revel in looking for our inconsistencies or plot holes, and smartly winking at or solving these slips can result in an undeniably dynamic button.
Perhaps the most important performance element of a successful scenic button is a delivery that marks it resolutely as such. Whether we build towards bold closing statements, intense emotional epiphanies, whimsical punchlines and inversions, or finesseful connections and wordplay, ultimately a button is a button because we have made it so. We need to give as much care and attention to this facet of our craft as we do to starting scenes. Yes, our fellow technical improvisers can save our necks and often see potentials for scenic ends that may elude us on the stage, but as performers, it is really our responsibility to punctuate our scenes dynamically, with the full range of colors at our disposal: powerful exclamation marks, thought-provoking questions, definitive periods and delightfully intriguing ellipses…
Connected Game: Most Scenes in a Minute