Game Library: “Act Harder”

Admittedly this is a slightly whimsical choice to partner with the concept of Commitment but Act Harder is a joyful short-form game that utilizes the audience to playfully push the company to higher levels of attack. I consider it one of my improv guilty pleasures! Feel free to indulge as well!

The Basics

A scenic premise is obtained and the audience (or a portion thereof) is instructed that they have the power to make the performers “act harder” if they appear to under-sell a choice or moment. As the scene progresses, it is interrupted sporadically by these calls. The actor currently in focus immediately applies this prodding feedback by repeating or embellishing their earlier contribution with added gusto and flare.


Two friends are driving through a heavy snowstorm. Player A is at the steering wheel while Player B wrestles with the GPS system as the scene begins.

Player A: (anxiously) “I can’t see practically anything. Is it still not working?”

Player B: (irritated) “I’m not a GPS expert. It might be the storm messing with the reception.”

Player A: “I really think we should’ve pulled in at that rest stop.”

Player B: “I know. You’ve said that twice already.”

Audience: “Act Harder”

Player B: (pointed) “That’s the THIRD time you’ve told me that. I’m SORRY that I didn’t agree sooner.”

Player A: “The wipers aren’t doing practically anything.”

Player B: “Just keep the car ahead in your sight.”

Player A: “What do you think I’ve been doing, Shannon?!”

Audience: “Act Harder”

Player A: (with exaggeration) “What else could I possibly do in this ridiculous storm, SHANNON?!?!”

Audience: “Act Harder”

Player A: (on the edge of panic) “Don’t you think that I know THAT CAR AHEAD OF US IS OUR LIFE LINE…!”

The Focus

Vanilla or under-sold choices will rarely survive the delightful lambasting that is Act Harder! It can prove invigorating (and challenging) to receive such immediate feedback. Be sure to accept these nudges with cheerful grace and good faith while working to elevate and navigate the central premise. It’s frequently difficult to sustain a strong story amidst the audience cries, so strive to craft a sound foundation and CROW quickly.

Traps and Tips

1.) Coach your audience. A playful audience will honor how you set up the game, so you’ll want to make your expectations clear. I’ve rarely seen the game excel when anyone in the audience is empowered to yell the prompt – especially right from the get-go – as this tends to push the scene quickly to chaos. Alternatively, consider selecting a handful of representatives from various parts of the auditorium so that you’re not immediately hit with a relentless wall of sound screaming “Act Harder!” (Experience would suggest that you’ll always get a few self-nominated callers so err on the side of a smaller number!) When we’ve used this format in Gorilla Theatre, we’ve often had the scene director bring a volunteer to sit beside them at the coaching microphone to make the pertinent calls, which works really well overall. If you have someone in the role of host or facilitator, you can gradually scale up the dynamic beginning with one to two callers at first, and then signaling that others can join as the scene progresses. (Opposing teammates can serve in this prodding role to similar effect as well.) It’s also helpful to instruct any designated audience callers to give the scene some time to get started. This can be done with a signal, “When I raise my hand you can start coaching…” Once the audience discovers the fun and torture of the calls it’s hard to dial them back, so it’s better to start modestly!

2.) Start smaller but connected. There can be a tendency to almost fish for the “Act Harder” calls which I’d consider a trap of the game. Yes, you’ll certainly want to begin the scene in a way that gives you somewhere to go emotionally and dramatically, but avoid deliberately deadpan or under-energized choices, especially at the top of the scene. I ardently believe that most audiences can spot when we’re undermining a stated contract: if we announce we’re giving them control to raise the heat, then we should truly give them that control. Deliberately poorly delivered choices that almost demand an “Act Harder” feel like needless pandering or moves of desperation. There should be something interesting at stake (although, admittedly, a panicked snowstorm drive as described above certainly offers a rather heightened starting point that will require some careful pacing!) Consider starting your journey connected but small, contained but not lackluster in your delivery.

3.) Craft the escalation. These scenes will burn very quickly and brightly if you’re not careful, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem if you’re looking for a quick energy hit, but generally will hamstring you from building anything of substance. The energy of four improvisers all “acting harder” will likely feel climatic, so work up to this configuration or embrace a smaller scene cast size in general. There is also a tendency to adjust your commitment from 10 to 100 in one step if you’re not patient and extremely self-aware. The scene is inevitably heading towards 100 but probably shouldn’t arrive at that station in the first 30 seconds. To this end, challenge yourself to explore different ways to ramp up the dynamic other than merely more volume and chaotic movement: acting harder needn’t be synonymous with just acting louder! Resetting to a more measured emotional baseline after each escalation further helps the cause – you needn’t make where you ended your last salvo the same intensity or tactic as where you start your next scenic contribution. Although, perhaps, don’t slide back too starkly to an uncommitted stance or attitude that doesn’t honor the freshly discovered truth of your scene or character.

4.) Focus is your friend. As a called game, albeit of a slightly different ilk as these calls are (typically) coming from the audience, Act Harder demands strong focus discipline in order to thrive. A great deal of the fun of the game comes from being the recipient of the titular cue: if everyone is scrambling to get their moment in the sun, however, you tend to get rather clumsy scene work. It’s important to diligently move focus between the onstage characters if for no other reason than to clearly know who is the intended recipient of the prompt. Meandering dialogue, crowded scenes, and a tendency to interrupt or talk over each other all conspire against this greater goal. If you are skillfully crafting clear gives and takes, you’re more likely to maintain the story thread through the ensuing chaos while also giving audience callers clearer windows to contribute as well. (It’s always poor form to invite the audience to help direct the action and then make it unnecessarily difficult for them to do so.) Furthermore, don’t overlook the delight and camaraderie of generously setting each other up for moments to play. As is generally the case, when players compete to individually shine, they rarely do so, and the scene invariably dims instead. If you’re using fellow improvisers as your callers, they can aid in this regard by also naming their intended target with each nudge: “Act harder, Shannon…”

In Performance

The results of this game tend to be unabashedly silly, leaning towards the melodramatic in a way that thoroughly wins over the audience. There’s a real value to be found from pursuing this level of abandon, and on a larger level this speaks to the value of giving full commitment to our scene work. I will confess, however, that I’m also intrigued by the potentials Act Harder may hold for a more earnest or sincere style of play with the audience nudges becoming more synonymous with gentle sidecoachings towards truth and honesty rather than magnified intensity (although that would perhaps be called Act Better!) As a recent experience attests, this is more likely when fellow company members are making the calls and you don’t overcrowd the scene. I’ve also seen “act softer,” “act more intense,” or similar variations offered as an alternate cue, and this provides a broader array of colors to help craft the rising action.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Commitment

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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