“It is the voice of the director seeing the needs of the overall presentation; at the same time it is the voice of the teacher seeing the individual student-actor’s needs within the group and on the stage. It is the teacher-director working on a problem together with the student as part of the group effort.”Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p.29
Viola Spolin is writing above about the role of the side-coach but these observations hold true for that of the improv caller as well. These collaborators often exist in a liminal position in the improv world, both participating in and standing outside of the improv scene in question. I’ve encountered several approaches when it comes to who assumes this integral role of the caller, a position that is somewhat unique to the short-form tradition but whose essential function can also be seen at play in other allied modalities, such as Playback Theatre’s conductor or Augusto Boal’s Joker figure. The role of the caller may be subsumed into that of the emcee or host of the event, an approach I’ll typically take when working with a campus or emerging troupe. In competitive formats, a member of an opposing team may take on these duties for a scene as they are needed, or if you’re performing in a more cabaret-style format where structural duties are shared amongst the ensemble, players may be assigned to don this hat as the playlist dictates.
While the particular identity of the Caller may change from show to show and venue to venue, the inherent functions remain the same as they lend their offstage voice to help shape, steer and amend the unfolding action according to the specific rules of the particular short-form game in question. A scene can thrive or wither under the eye of the caller. Each format offers unique opportunities and challenges, but there are some basic principles and tensions that will typically remain in play.
Factors to Balance as a Caller
1.) Audience and players. A good caller is working in service of both of these constituencies consistently throughout the scene. On a simple level, to aid this dual function, a caller should be physically placed so that they can clearly see the action, but can also be readily heard by players and audience alike. Often when performing in a proscenium arrangement, an optimal perch is on the lip of the stage or divide between the house and the performance space. It’s generally wise to put your caller on a microphone if this is available so that their suggestions can be more readily heard and quickly applied. Regardless of amplification assistance, it’s imperative that any calls are loud, clearly articulated and concise.
2.) Game and scene. The majority of called games are assigned handles for scenic explorations and it’s important that both components of the action (gimmick and story) receive your attention. Few scenes will do well if they cannot gain any momentum due to overly present calls, and inversely an audience may feel cheated if that “cool dynamic” that was introduced in the setup didn’t really influence the scene in any meaningful way. To assist maintaining the flow of the scene I generally avoid freezing the action before the caller offers their adjustment. Instead, I favor repeating calls twice in a row: once to gain everyone’s attention, and then again to ensure the information was heard. The exception to this rule would be games that require or benefit from more lengthy instructions that can’t be provided in a pithy manner or require interaction with the audience such as Song Cues or Options. Here a call of “Freeze” is largely unavoidable as the caller needs strong focus to shape the next move. Remember that both the scene and game should be equally served and so it generally isn’t helpful to make numerous calls at the top before players have had a chance to establish the foundational elements of their characters, relationships and environment. Many called games will quickly challenge or throw off kilter the direction of the scene, so it’s helpful if a solid base has been crafted first. Callers should also be wary of making adjustments that puncture or diminish scenic choices that are dynamically and helpfully serving the story.
3.) Playful torturer and patient helper. Often short-form games frame the caller as a mischievous or possibly even undermining influence. While it is important to uphold this appearance to retain the integrity of the premise and possibly the competitive frame of the show as a whole, generally the caller also needs to serve the needs of the ensemble and show by enabling strong improvisational play. It’s important to gradually ramp up the mischief making. This helps craft a dynamic rising action for the scene while also allowing the caller to make sure that their adjustments are proving ultimately helpful and surprising while simultaneously encouraging joy and risk-taking. It can easily dishearten a team (and audience) if impossible or seemingly mean-spirited calls prevent the scene from ever finding a steady footing and trajectory. On the other end of the spectrum, appearing too helpful can inadvertently lower the stakes of the affair and reduce the payoff of the built-in challenge. For example, in games such as Should’ve Said, it shouldn’t appear as if the improvisers are setting up or actively want the caller to bell them out of a line of dialogue. If I’m on the bell, I’ll deliberately let these moments pass without a call to retain the integrity of the dynamic. (The exception to this rule would be if a player has gotten themselves into trouble and is clearly asking for a lifeline.)
4.) Diagnoser and challenger. My teacher might be showing here a little, but donning the role of a caller will also often afford you a chance to actively help the onstage improvisers and action. If players are falling into old or unhelpful habits, seize opportunities to nudge them into new or more fruitful territory. If I’m calling New Choice and characters are standing in an uninspired line without any semblance of location, I might call for a “new staging choice.” In an Emotions scene, if a character is struggling with being heard or vocal production, I will likely offer up an extreme emotion to encourage fuller presence. The game Options provides an opportunity to unequivocally throw focus to a character that might have become marginalized or overwhelmed by others onstage by asking an audience member, “What is a big announcement that the flautist in the background is about to make?” Similarly, especially in companies with great trust and familiarity, the caller is empowered to challenge players who may typically excel or have a great deal of comfort in a particular game. If you play a lot of musical style games, for example, it can be tiring if you’re only ever pitched the same handful of styles again and again. The caller can be instrumental in preventing such games from becoming cliched or stale by working to push players out of tiresome patterns.
5.) In the moment and one step ahead. Timing is so important in called scenes and if the caller becomes distracted or misses key plot points or offers they can quickly become a detriment rather than a helping hand. There is no substitute for giving the scene the gift of your attention as, in most cases, the most effective calls will truly emerge from the immediacy of the action. You don’t want to be so busy planning your next move or addition that you miss the infinitely richer opportunity that has just emerged organically. And yet, callers often also need to have some sense of the greater arc so that they can help the scene reach a well-crafted zenith. This particular balancing act undoubtedly becomes a little easier with experience and rotations as you’ll start to have some backup strategies or call variants in your pocket in case something more intuitive doesn’t materialize. There are small things that you can do, however, to help yourself. If you’re working with a list as is the case in games such as Emotions or Genre Rollercoaster, it’s a good idea to quickly identify a strong option or two that you can keep on reserve as the “out” or last call. If you’re making calls on the fly, making sure you start small or simply will similarly allow you room to save your most interesting or challenging idea for that last scenic moment.
Much like an improv host, I think a primary edict for a caller is to first and foremost do no harm. It’s important to provide playfulness and unpredictability, but a caller should always have the best interests of the players and scene at heart. The mischief making function that is foundational to many short-form games that utilize this role certainly invites a little misbehavior or shivving, but we should exert care that we don’t carelessly dance into the domain of gagging and pimping, asking the players to engage in behaviors purely for our own amusement. I’ve also seen such choices alienate an audience who may not feel “in” on the “joke” when a player is asked to do something that the company knows will cause them discomfort. Adept and generous calling can make or break an improv scene. I suspect that most audience members will have no idea just how much such callers have enabled the onstage players to shine, but I think this is also wholly appropriate praise.
Connected Game: Song Cue
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