While the name of this game reveals its age (and mine!), Demonstration Video still provides a strong example for crafting our comedic improv to a particular end. This short-form game enables a parody of instructional or “how to” videos that are now as likely to populate a YouTube channel as they are to accompany a recently acquired product. (Let alone on a VHS tape!) This format certainly leans heavily towards Comedy, but there is ample room to craft a nuanced target, and I have seen the frame skillfully sharpened towards an insightful political or social end.
Common ask-fors or prompts for this scene include “something you’ve bought that needed instructions,” “an item that you struggled to use,” or “a phobia that you’d like to overcome.” One player typically self-nominates as the scenic narrator, an embodied voice that will take the viewer through the various stages of learning a new skill or life hack. This player will often start the scene with an introduction followed by a series of vignettes (performed by other team members) who demonstrate different strategies – helpful or otherwise! The narrator typically deploys a “remote control” device to stop, pause or rewind the action, to further assist the viewer on their journey towards knowledge.
Arachnophobia serves as the scenic prompt and Player A volunteers to step into the position of narrator. As the scene begins, they step center stage holding an imaginary microphone and addressing the “home audience” directly.
Player A: “You’ve made the first, most difficult choice, and that is admitting you have a problem! Welcome, to ‘Face Your Fears,” an online series of videos designed to make you… the best you. Today we’re looking at spiders – although not literally – at least, not quite yet…”
Player A steps to the side as Player B and C take the stage as characters.
Player B: (with nervousness) “I know it’s going to be in there. I saw it last night when I went to the bathroom…”
Player C: (attempting to calm them) “That was a long time ago, and you can’t tell me that you’re never going to go to the bathroom again because of one little spider.”
Player B: “That is seriously what I’m saying. I don’t know how you can be so calm!”
Player C: “Look, Taylor, I was once as scared as you. But you can’t let an irrational fear rule your life.”
Player B: “There is nothing irrational about this fear…”
Player A steps back into the frame of the scene and with a gesture says…
Player A: “And pause… Do you recognize yourself in this moment? Are you a ‘Taylor’ letting a fear of spiders stop you from being your best possible self? Are you ‘holding it in” for fear of facing your enemy?”
Player B playfully squirms in the background.
Player A: “It looks like it’s time for us to tell this Taylor to ‘Face Your Fears’! It all starts with one small step (in our ten step program), and that is realizing that you’re not alone…”
Player A steps to the side once more with a gesture for the scene to continue…
Player C: “Look, Taylor, I’m right here with you. We can do this together. Just gently push open the bathroom door…”
There are unquestionably a pocketful of tropes and devices you can draw from – when you’re engaged in parody this is part of the contract in fact – but be cautious of only playing the style of the game. There is still ample room within the stylistic gimmicks of narrators, direct address, and stops and starts for developing a story and following one or more characters on a journey. As you would in any other scene, strive to honor each others’ choices so that you can build a coherent narrative that the parody augments rather than eclipses.
Traps and Tips
1.) Balance the work. If you’re new to this game, it’s a common trap for the narrator to take on a lot of the heavy lifting as they have the power to shape and direct the unfolding action. This may be a necessary exploratory phase as the style is examined and polished, but in performance there should be a stronger balance between the narrator and those performing the roles of the demonstration actors. Be wary of an attitude of “waiting” until the narrator tells you what they want, as in most cases they don’t know what they want until it shows up in the scene! If you are playing as the actors, come to the stage with strong given circumstances so that there is something for the narrator to tinker with and shape. If you are playing as the narrator, be sure to leave room for your fellow players to surprise you and drive the action, using your function as the editor judiciously and with care. It’s fine to preamble a vignette so as to offer up something you’d like to see, but it’s inherently more dangerous and delightful to be open to the unexpected so also provide open lead-ins for your team to exploit. It’s the difference between “Now let’s watch Taylor destroy the huge spider with a baseball bat” and “Let’s see what Taylor does next…”
2.) Embrace the style. This is one of those games that has some inherited wisdoms in terms of structure and technique. It’s generally helpful for a narrator to provide the in and the out of the game, establishing the clear given circumstances of the product or service and perhaps the intended consumer. While there is no absolute need to utilize a “remote control” function to adjust the scene or move to new vignettes, it’s certainly a helpful way to quickly forward the scene. Similarly, direct address from the narrator through the “fourth wall” to the viewer at home offers a nice touch. Providing a number of steps that will be covered (even if you only ultimately get to a couple) provides another helpful framing device. At it’s core, this is designed to help you successfully and happily utilize a product or new life strategy. Before creatively messing with or subverting this core function, it’s helpful to workshop and understand its constituent elements.
3.) Attack the acting. I will confess this suggestion might fall under the “personal preference” heading, but I’m not a big fan of deliberately bad or cheesy acting on the part of the demonstrators. This can tend to undermine any scenic potential if everyone wears their choices lightly and predominantly comments on the action rather than actually invests in what’s unfolding. Bad acting will also greatly diminish the power and potential of choices coming from the actor bench, thereby throwing more of the work onto the shoulders of the narrator and causing the imbalance noted above. Instead, I love the stark contrast of moving between highly realistic acting to the more presentational energy of the narrator. If anything, I would encourage the demonstrators to over commit to the offered reality. If they are having trouble operating the photocopier, they are really having trouble to the point they may lose their job. If they don’t know how to use the new coffee maker, they are having the worst day ever and they can’t survive without their caffeine fix now. If they are afraid of spiders, then they are traumatized by even the thought of being in the same room as one. Deadpan characters or nonchalant choices can quickly sap away the playfulness of the scene and leave you nowhere to go.
4.) Unlock the potential. Once you have a strong sense of the stylistic and structural basics, this scene can prove surprisingly flexible and resilient in terms of how you use it. The obvious comedic target is that of parody, mocking the very genre of instructional videos themselves. Exploring truly trivial tasks or phobias can provide joyful results. Through the use of mapping (substituting the language and tropes of one situation for another) or selecting more overtly socio-political topics, the comedy can become more nuanced and perhaps move into the realms of farce or satire. For example, you could craft a Demonstration Video for the dubious goal of suppressing your individuality before starting high school, or how to handle a family dinner when your relatives have radically different political views, or ways to address microaggressions in the workplace… At a surface level, the game may first appear a little simplistic or kitsch, but played at the top of your intelligence, it can provide a robust and familiar frame to help you organize some complex and important issues or tensions.
If you are performing in a short-form modality, Demonstration Video provides an interesting narrative-driven piece to provide some variety in your lineup. There are different lessons and challenges depending on whether you take on the role of the narrator or one of the demonstrator actors, so I’d strongly advise that you experiment in both capacities. Doing so also gives you a greater appreciation for the import of making sure offers are coming freely from all quarters.
Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Scott Cook
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Concept: Comedy