I have very fond memories of my first coaches and mentors skillfully playing Gibberish Scene during my high school improv days. There are certainly many approaches to this particular frame (you could just do an open scene with a traditional prompt, for example) but I appreciate the more biographical approach that gives the game a little more of a narrative long-form feel. This variant also has the added advantage of making it less likely improvisers will fall into the trap of Commenting.
Gibberish Scene generally launches from a brief audience story rather than a single suggestion, and might be prompted by something along the lines of “Who had a pleasant surprise this week,” “Has anyone faced a challenging decision,” or “Who recently celebrated an accomplishment?” A player (or perhaps the host) briefly interviews the selected audience member, ascertaining the basic CROW elements and a general sense of the story arc. If the audience member is willing and your performance space can accommodate, you can bring the audience speaker to the stage, but it also can work well having them remain seated in the audience. At the completion of the interview, the team announces that it will now replay this day or moment but with a twist. The story is then performed, with players substituting English (or your national language) with that of make believe Gibberish.
An audience member shares the story of a high pressure work presentation that nearly went terrible wrong. There was a power outage the night before and so their alarm didn’t go off. They and their partner both overslept, and so they arrived at work just barely presentable and merely moments before the big pitch. When they connected their laptop they discovered that the most up-to-date PowerPoint was actually on their home computer and they hadn’t shared it to the Cloud, so had to present without any of the detailed notes, fighting the urge to vomit the whole time. Ultimately, their coworkers (and more importantly, boss) were really receptive to the pitch for a new HR payroll process, and didn’t notice the shambles around the event (nor that the speaker ducked out of the room discretely to throw up).
The Players thanks the audience member and the lights transition. We see two players (A and B) luxuriously and obliviously sleeping, deeply, accompanied by similarly peaceful music.
Our protagonist’s partner (Player B) is the first to open their eyes. They glance over at the alarm clock to check the time. It’s embodied by another player (C) who uses their fingers in a repetitive flashing motion: there has been a power outage. Player B sits up with a startled fright and utters…
Player B: “Ooo dashka…”
Player B rolls over and shakes Player A awake…
Player A: (muttering) “Kabba noonah shakeelie…”
Player B: (with rising panic) “Dahbeela! Dahbeela…!”
As the audience is “in the know” in terms of the basic story arc, the focus of this game is not so much on what happens as it is on how the details are creatively portrayed. If you obtain a truly epic story it is probably advisable to select your moments carefully, perhaps leaping into the middle of the story arc, especially if you are playing under time restraints.
Traps and Tips
1.) A good interview is critical. Conducting a playful and successful audience interview is a particular skill, so it’s worth spending some time on this part of the game. (If you’re not familiar with Playback Theatre, this tradition relies heavily on this device and is worth a look for pointers.) You’ll want to place the audience member at ease while also framing and guiding their responses. Be sure to seek specifics about important characters, locations and story elements. It can be helpful to repeat back each significant choice as the story is offered: this has the dual benefit of making sure you have understood the gist of their narrative while also giving fellow players and audience members a chance to catch anything they may have missed. I’ve also seen players quickly recap the story as a whole prior to the reenactment (often with some judicious editing) which can discretely offer a perceived starting point or focus. If you’d like players can then invite the audience member to select who they would like to perform their role from the available actor bank. All of this takes time, so this isn’t a good addition to the show if you’re in a crunch. A good interview will often take as long, if not longer, than the resulting scene.
2.) Talk less, act more. It’s a given that it is much harder to effectively communicate through the language of Gibberish, so accept the invitation to embrace greater physicality and emotionalism in the scene. Talking Heads (just standing and uttering fast-paced verbal nonsense at each other) is a particular trap of the scene. Move as much of the story as you can into action. It would ultimately be less successful and theatrical, for example, to merely “talk” about your alarm clock not working than actually seeing this moment unfold on stage. When you are talking remember that, by design, you can no longer expect your language to convey the bulk of your meaning: you have to fully commit to your choices or they are likely to go by unnoticed or misunderstood. Which brings me to…
3.) Explore effective Gibberish. Suffice it to say that Gibberish deserves a full entry all of its own, so here I will just cover some basics. Gibberish in our scenes ceases to be effective or interesting when it is not truly operating as a language and devolves into just an array of random sounds. Speaking in Gibberish should obey the same basic rules for speaking in our native tongues: your character has something that they need to communicate in order to achieve something that they want. Make every Gibberish word count. Infuse it with specific meaning. Etch it with sharpened context. Polish it with heart-felt emotion and body language. It’s improv magic when we fully understand the intent and desires of a character’s dialogue even when we don’t understand a single word of what they’re saying. This game has the considerable added advantage that the audience knows the foundational story, so take a breath and paint with detailed strokes rather than unnecessarily broad or panicked approximations.
4.) Explore dynamic staging. Gibberish Scene (and Gibberish scenes in general) also invite a more aggressive and creative physical style of play. It needn’t become pantomimic per se, but generally scenes will benefit from a more imaginative and patient approach. Invest in each object you grab, imbuing it with interest and dynamism. Honor staging patterns and specifics crafted by your teammates. Challenge yourself to think a little outside the box in terms of what you can be or do. Becoming the alarm clock in the vignette above serves as an example of adding to the scene in a novel and unexpected way. Why not embody inanimate objects, or become the manifestation of an energy, mood or theme? Again, such choices can belong in any of our improv scenes, but they seem particularly well-suited to Gibberish enterprises. (I’ve mentioned Playback Theatre above: it often has a delightfully metaphoric style of play which offers a strong glimpse into the power of a non-literal performance approach.) Short-form shows, in particular, can start to feel very same-ish if every scene is essentially a variant of realism, so why not push the envelope a little?!
If you’re familiar with the game Audience Story you’ll see a lot of similarities in the details and, in fact, this version of Gibberish Scene can be used as a handle to shake up the reenactment. I also love nightmare and dream variations or replaying the audience story with a musical or stylistic layover. Gibberish scenes and dynamics are such a good way to discourage commenting if this habit is undermining your work, largely because commenting in such scenes is generally pretty ineffective! With our language habits interrupted through the incorporation of Gibberish, you really have to fully accept and elevate each others’ choices for the scene to soar.
A Final Consideration: Eliciting full stories from an audience member can be fraught with unexpected challenges. You might get inappropriate material or a story that leans into heavy or challenging subject matter that might trigger someone else in attendance. These tensions are less likely to occur when your typical ask-for tradition is a simple word or phrase. Such issues may prove infrequent in an overtly comically framed event as opposed to modalities that seek or invite more messy human moments, but none-the-less, it’s probably worthwhile considering carefully what parameters you might want to set so that your ensemble is all on the same page.
Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr
Connected Concept: Commenting