“C” is for “Callback”

“The improviser has to be like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979. New York: Routledge, 1992. p.116


I find Callbacks and reincorporations one of the guilty pleasures of improvisation in that this seemingly simple device can often elicit the most thunderous audience applause and appreciation. There is something inherently delightful about seeing material or scenic elements once placed to the side of the action suddenly making a return at just the right moment. If you’ve seen or participated in short- or long-form games where an audience member is interviewed about their life or day to provide source material, this device is central to the ensuing fun as the audience, now in the “know,” finds great joy in seeing the cast weave these aforementioned facts into the action.

While the concept of a callback is relatively straightforward – recycle or reuse something that has already been established or shelved – executing this tactic expertly can make all the difference in performance.

Getting the Most Out of Your Callbacks

1.) You can’t have great callbacks without great specifics. The concept of callbacks and reincorporating is partnered with the technique of shelving for good reason: if there are no details established and shelved in your scene work, then there won’t be anything to reference or reclaim later down the road. It’s important to spend sufficient time developing strong and clear given circumstances. Often we’re unsure during the balance or early phase of a scene or longer format what exactly will prove important or of value, so it can be helpful to err on the side of generosity when it comes to crafting details. A little ambiguity can go a long way in this regard too, establishing some clear emotional energies or tensions without feeling the need to explain them away. While I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to overwhelm the proverbial “improv shelves” with an abundance of random minutiae, taking some moments to expand upon interesting elements of the emerging world can make an enormous difference. If characters are looking out a window, what is something specific that they can see outside? If you’re working in an office, what is one unique activity that defines your profession? If your character is engaging in a physical hobby, what is a quirky characteristic of one of the related props?

2.) Generate your world and point of view first. Callbacks can certainly occur almost anywhere within a scene excluding perhaps the very opening moments, but I’d generally advise against them being your focus as the scene begins. Just as we need specifics and shelved ideas to draw from, we also need strong characters with well-defined points of view to populate the action. If your initial focus is on grabbing at callbacks you’re probably not adding much to the scenic inventory for your own later use and that of others. Successful reincorporations also tend to gain nuance and volume when they are in service of our character goals or reveal something dynamic about the relationships being explored. You’re more likely to be able to use the tool of the callback with ease and finesse if you are performing from the comfort of a character that has a strong sense of what they are about.

3.) Callbacks aren’t a substitute for good storytelling. This is perhaps a trap for more novice improvisers but the high of a well-received callback can quickly become a craving that can result in less-than-generous scene work. Be wary of all scrambling for a reincorporation the second it becomes possible or apparent, or racing to be the first one to point at the connection on stage. Ideally, such choices are informing and enriching our storytelling first and foremost. Just because you can make a callback doesn’t mean that you necessarily should. Sometimes when a callback is extremely obvious the audience can actually appreciate when the players just gently wink at it (or perhaps ignore it altogether) and then move on to more fruitful improv pastures. There is something innately generous and community-building about trusting that your audience sees what you see and doesn’t need you to spell out every possible move. Which brings me to my final related thought…

4.) Callback patience is a virtue. This might be an interesting topic for a scientific study, but I believe that often the power and pleasure of a callback can be directly proportionate to the distance between it’s first appearance and it’s later reuse. On the one end of the spectrum, immediately repeating or using an offer that has just been made wouldn’t strike most improvisers as a callback at all as the idea hasn’t spent any time maturing on the “shelf.” This would generally be more akin to an acceptance or repetition. On the other end of the spectrum, a seed that was planted in the opening moments of a scene or show that may have only been gently or discretely watered during the unfolding action but then makes a featured reappearance at the opportune moment as the scene culminates is likely to land well. In a related manner, if the focus of the callback has been repeatedly referenced or perhaps even elevated to a recurring gimmick, it strikes me that at least comically or structurally this may have also transformed from the realm of the callback into that of a game of the scene. In short, my instinct is that less is more when it comes to successful use of this device.

Final Thought

Allow me to share an important lesson I learnt firsthand in terms of positioning a strategic callback as a long-form button. I’m always looking for a way to maximize the chances of a strong “out” especially when I’m working in two-hour long-form pieces as that’s a lot of time for your audience to invest for the show just to fizz away at the last moment. I’ve used a common tactic for two shows, namely saving the title of the show or episode as the target rhyme for the final climactic moment. In The Lost Comedies of William Shakespeare a title was obtained each night and written in full view on a slate that was lowered back to center stage for the final moment. While the title was definitely used to inspire each evening’s journey, we went to great lengths to avoid saying it outright in any obvious way during the rising action. In a more recent piece, Private Lies: Improvised Film Noir, we similarly obtained a title for each “episode” in the form of “The case of the blanky blank.” Again, this title deeply influenced the action but was never mentioned until the very last line of the piece. Now there were undoubtedly a lot of factors in terms of how these two positioned callbacks played, but in the first case the button landed without exception, while in the second it garnered a mixed response at best. In the first case, the slate lowered with a visual reminder of our title; in the second case so much time had passed since it was elicited during the opening that it likely lacked any memorability. The takeaway of this slightly meandering story is that a callback isn’t a callback when no-one can remember it…

Related Entries: Connections, Shelving Synonyms: Looking Backwards, Reincorporation

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Perspectives

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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