“C” is for “Cartooning”

“…improvisation is about order, and about adaptation, and about truthfully responding to changing circumstances, and about generating meaning out of contextual accidents.”

Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.3


I’m unsure how widely this term is applied in improv circles but I’ve come to use Cartooning as a way to describe unnuanced or overly didactic onstage offers that describe rather than embody our choices. This tendency primarily emerges when improvisers wrestle with the seemingly competing needs of crafting clear choices while also communicating these ideas in a way that feels natural and theatrically honest. It feels related to the similar ill of commenting although, in my experience, a cartooning improviser often believes that their additions are helpful to the scenic arc and may not always recognize that there is a problematic lack of subtlety in their execution. Despite the difference in intent the results are largely the same: we end up preventing the reality and emotions of our scene work from truly moving us as characters and players.


Player A and B are given “siblings” to inspire their scene. Player enters the space and immediately starts talking with little or no emotion…

Player A: “Wow, little sister, here we are back again in our childhood home in Michigan that neither of us have seen since we were pre-teens, and the place hasn’t changed a bit, except, of course, for all the snow on the ground because it’s the middle of winter. I sure hope the current owners will let us back into the backyard so we can see if that time capsule is still there that we buried on your fifth birthday…”

Player B: “Yes, and…”

Some Further Analysis

Now, arguably, there are a lot of interesting choices in this rant (likely, way too many), but delivering this information as a stream of consciousness such as this will rarely provide any emotional depth or truth. This overly-intellectual approach tends to appear more frequently at the top of scenes: Player A in this example is probably keen to heed their improv instructor’s advice of clearly establishing the who, what and where as quickly as possible. As noted above, I’ve found that cartooning is typically well-intended, but you none-the-less end up with something that feels like a summary or precis of a scene rather than a patient starting point rich with emotion, subtext and detail.

Bringing That Third Dimension to Your Scene Work

1.) Increase your physical game and embrace silence. It’s more difficult to fall into the trap of announcing your choices if you lean more heavily into your physical game as an improviser. If you recognize yourself in the above example (I’ve certainly been guilty) privilege your physical work, especially as the scene launches. Rather than talking about how it’s winter, establish this with how you enter the space and your behavior in front of the house. In lieu of prescribing a future activity that your scene partner must obey such as the buried time capsule, allow your physical choices to unlock discovered potentials in the environment. Instead of just pronouncing that your scene partner is your little sister, explore what this might look like physically: are you comfortable in each other’s space, is there a protective or nurturing energy, or perhaps a more sparring and competitive dynamic? There can’t really be a “wrong” choice here but there is a marked difference from making a physical choice that starts to explore a specific type of relationship and merely just stating the title of the relationship in order to tick a box on some imagined list.

2.) Prioritize emotion over facts. Cartooning tends to emerge more frequently amongst those of us who gravitate towards intellectual choices in our performance work, so it can be a similarly helpful approach to prioritize emotions if this is not your current habit or preference. Perhaps you have already formulated the rather complex backstory summarized above in your head as the scene begins; instead of voluminously verbalizing all of this, shift your frame into earnestly considering how does this make you feel? Were there good memories attached to your childhood and this house, or are you glad that those years are now firmly in your rear view mirror? Is this trip something you’ve been excited about, or has it been a cause of stress or dread? Again, it doesn’t matter what specific emotional choice you make, but bringing that energy (rather than just a list of facts) to the stage is much more likely to inspire your scene partners and intrigue or engage your audience.

3.) Share the responsibility of priming the scene. If you’re being more physical and/or relying more robustly on your emotional game this should also open up more room for your scene partner to have a meaningful influence on the opening moments of the action. Cartooning given circumstances may be intended as an act of generously “getting the basics out of the way” but it can also unfortunately minimize the opportunities for your partners to meaningfully contribute. Take the risk of sharing just one facet of that “great” idea you have brewing and then see what your partner does next. The more participatory and invested we all are as players in the opening moments of a new scene the more likely we’ll feel connected to the path that reveals itself one step at a time. Which snugs nicely with the next strategy of…

4.) Bring one brick. This is an oft-quoted adage in improv: everyone should just bring one brick to the endeavor of creativity rather than the whole house. Cartooning can also be a way of exerting control over the action: if I clearly state at the top of the scene what I want it to be about then there is no chance of confusion or it moving in an unexpected direction. In short-form, when the clock is ticking quickly, this is a particular temptation as meandering scene starts can become challenging if they become a company norm. And I’m a fan of hitting the stage with a powerful and rich choice or context. But keep this ubiquitous adage in mind. Sure, bring one or two strong details to the stage, but make sure there’s truly space and opportunity for others to do the same.

5.) Build your subtext muscles. Cartooning is also innately a trust issue: a lack of trust in yourself that you’ll be able to effectively communicate your idea without laboriously spelling it out in every detail; a lack of trust in your teammates and audience to be able to read more subtle or nuanced offers; a lack of trust in the collaborative inner workings of improv to conjure helpful details even if they aren’t precisely what you had in mind initially as an individual. If the vast majority of your improv resides in the land of your text (saying what you mean) rather than your subtext (playing what you feel) then it’s worth your time to focus more resolutely on the latter. In many ways, this is a culmination of all of the above tactics: increasing your physicality, leading with your emotions, releasing yourself of the responsibility of naming all the pertinent details, and leaving room for your scene partners to add rich and exciting details of their own as the scene unfolds.

Final Thought

I think I’ve come to call this short-hand approach to performing cartooning because while such scenes are reminiscent of the human condition they tend to feel two-dimensional: you’ve been told that the characters are siblings but nothing in their behavior reflects that; someone mentioned that it was winter but no one has taken this reality into their physicality… It’s also certainly related to the concepts of showing versus telling (topics for future entries) although I tend to think of cartooning as an embodiment of the telling instinct taken to the nth degree. If you would self diagnose that your improv is rich on detail but poor on connection or vulnerability, then perhaps some of the above strategies can help you make that next move.

Related Entries: Commenting Antonyms: Showing, Truth, Vulnerability Synonyms: Telling

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Stop! Think!

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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