“Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by entering or cutting), what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.”Del Close, Del Close Resource: On the Harold. Del Close Resource. 28 Oct. 2000.
I’m unsure why this improv strategy has been coined a Canadian Cross but that’s the term that has been attributed to a style of performing where improvisers make a transitory offer intended to embellish, heighten or provide context to the scene already in progress. By definition, a Canadian Cross moves through the space without the intent to stay or take focus for any length of time. It’s a tactic that is equally useful in the long- or short-form tradition, and is really a subset of the larger improv strategy of offering side support.
Player A and B have started a heated encounter in a supermarket. They perform the first few lines standing toe-to-toe, almost in a talking heads fashion.
Player A: “I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t shop here anymore so we didn’t have to see each other.”
Player B: “I think you agreed to that. This supermarket is a lot closer to my new apartment, so there’s that.”
Player A: “Oh I see, as always you’re just going to change the agreement to suit yourself.”
Player B: “And I see, as always, that you’re making agreements without actually listening to anything I say.”
Player C, gently acknowledging the awkward conversation, slowly pushes a supermarket trolley in the background of the scene, and exits.
Player B: (starting to move) “If this is just going to be another argument, I don’t need it today…”
Player A: (aware that they are being observed and reaching for a box on the shelf) “I just can’t get the gluten-free crackers I like anywhere else…”
Some Additional Analysis
Player C in the above example has opted to make a quick walk through of the scene in order to support the established given circumstances. It’s important that such a move does not needlessly steal focus, slow the action, or draw undue attention to itself as these moves will diminish the effectiveness of the choice which is essentially to support rather than to compete. It’s also important not to get caught onstage for a protracted period of time as this will increase the likelihood of split focus or may imply to the featured players that you are waiting to make a more substantial offer to the scene. Effective Canadian Crosses are generally a light scenic touch rather than a dramatic turning point or revelation. They are frequently performed in silence, but if dialogue is offered it should be concise and not pull the featured players away from their current dynamic. Also, an adept contribution should strive to match the tone of the scene: a overly-energized cross in a calm and grounded sincere scene is likely to do more harm than good.
Moments Ripe for a Canadian Cross
1.) The scene is set in a nowhere land (or no-one land). There is a lot to establish at the top of an improv scene and it is not uncommon for players to favor one element (relationship) over another (environment). During such moments a Canadian Cross can be a generous technique to help materialize a location that has only been implied or briefly mentioned. In the example above, the supermarket had been discussed but it wasn’t yet a vibrant part of the scene. A gentle cross can bring this part of the world to life while also opening up new potentials for action and activity for those already onstage. It’s also possible that the initial players have crafted a dynamic and detailed location but perhaps neglected character, relationship or another given circumstance such as the time of day, weather or season. A gentle endowment from a Canadian Cross could certainly assist in these moments as well.
2.) The staging is stagnant or uninteresting. It is a frequent improv trap to just end up standing and talking in our scenes. Even after a supermarket has been gifted it’s possible for the scene to continue to occur largely as an act of motionless dialogue as opposed to physical action. This is not to say that there may not be dynamic choices at play, but unless you’re performing in the most intimate of spaces theatre demands a heightened presence and movement in order to fully communicate nuances to the back row of the audience. A well-timed Canadian Cross can offer up new ways to integrate the location into our action or ways to orientate our bodies in the space. In this manner, our fellow shopper above could establish a display of carefully displayed imported limes that can become a (sour) focal point for later action between our quibbling couple.
3.) The game or stakes could be heightened. Making the terse encounter in the supermarket markedly more public adds new layers of awkwardness and tension to the unfolding scene. The scenario could certainly take place in a more private locale, but the given environment offers up potentials to make this uncomfortable exchange even more uneasy. Once such a game has been introduced it’s incumbent upon those providing support to exercise great patience and self control as an over abundance or poorly rushed chain of entrances will likely prematurely arc the scene and possibly “name the game” in a way that kills the dominant energy. When entering in an effort to expand upon a dynamic it’s important to leave sufficient room between each Canadian Cross to let the scene react, adjust and make it’s next logical step before nudging the game up another level if it’s needed.
4.) The emotional weight of the scene could be deepened. Related to the above strategy, a Canadian Cross can also be used to highlight or intensify the emotional journeys of the initial characters. There are manifold ways this could be achieved, but to offer two helpful examples you can think in terms of a parallel or complementary choice or energy. A parallel choice would reflect and expand upon the energies already established. To return to our supermarket, we might see that other couples are similarly avoiding each other in the aisles as this shop is just that good that no-one wants to loose it in the break up. Alternatively, a complementary choice would contrast the established mood. In this situation another couple might be cooing over each other while blissfully shopping together in perfect harmony. In either case, it’s generally advisable to deepen the emotionalism of the original dynamic with choices that are building in one particular direction rather than an unrelated clutter of competing trajectories (so if the first cross established a parallel subsequent crosses will typically prove more helpful if they also explore a parallel idea but in a new or elevated way).
5.) There is an opportunity to add playfulness or whimsy. I offer this last scenario with some hesitation as I think this can become the most frequent justification for a Canadian Cross while, at it’s core, it may be the most problematic in terms of embracing the fundamental intent of this technique. An effective Canadian Cross should strive to keep the attention on the central characters, but there are certainly moments when a playful game can contextualize the scene in a dynamic way that momentarily shares the focus or adds new and helpful material. A passing shopper may start to discretely video the encounter on their cell phone, suggesting that this may be a celebrity sighting, and this game may then be echoed by others crossing in turn. Or a series of shoppers might keep awkwardly needing the grocery item that is right between our protagonists no matter where in the store they go. (And perhaps each named item is also a commentary on their current relationship status: bread-for-one, a bunch of sour grapes, a large box of wine…) Or a succession of shoppers might keep flirtatiously slipping one of the arguers their phone numbers in a way that elevates the emotional intensity of the scene. Some of these examples (and oh so many others) might appropriately invite a quick line of dialogue from the transitory player, but these need to be timed judiciously and with an eye to what the primary relationship ultimately needs to thrive.
There are some common traps with Canadian Crosses that deserve at least brief mention here. Don’t think of these supporting moments as necessarily laugh lines or comedic bits. This certainly can be the case, but there are so many other gifts that can be delivered through this technique and we shouldn’t think of these iterations as any less successful if they added something other than humor. Ideally, supporting players are elevating and framing choices that have organically emerged rather than offering up shtick concocted independently in the wings. It is also a trap to get caught on stage or overstay your welcome. Make sure you enter with the intention of quickly leaving or it is much likelier that you will find yourself struggling to find your exit. If you are inclined to speak, this should be concise and you should assume that you’ll get one line or so before you’ve served your purpose. The exception to the “get out quickly” rule may occur in the closing moments of the scene when a cascade or gathering of Canadian Crosses may help push the scene to its climax and offer up the potential for a dynamic group stage picture. But in general the larger purpose of these crosses is to make a generous choice or endowment that will serve those who are doing the heavy lifting of the scene. Perhaps think twice about entering with a gift that is really intended for yourself in the form of audience laughter and appreciation!
Connected Game: Environmental Freeze Tag