“A process of defining offers at the beginning of a scene so that all involved in the scene have some basic information to base the scene on. CROW stands for Character, Relationship, Objective and Where. These are the essentials of a scene. The process involves including as much information about these in the first five lines of the scene. As soon as the players of the scene know who they are, where they are and what is happening they can improvise the story”Lynda Belt and Rebecca Stockley. Acting Through Improv: Improv Through Theatresports. New Revised Edition. Seattle, Washington: Thespis Productions, 1995. p.200
The elements of CROW (Character, Relationship, Objective and Where) are extraordinarily helpful focal points for our craft as performers whether we are working in scripted or improvisational modes. Each element is sufficiently important and dynamic to warrant its own detailed consideration, so here I’d like to explore these concepts from a higher altitude.
I was introduced to this nomenclature through my initial studies of Theatresports, but Spolin’s work with WWW (Who, What, Where) covers largely similar terrain. Our personae, desires and environments can serve as a strong and empowering foundation for our creative work on the stage. When these components of our play are strongly established in a timely fashion, miscommunications and vagaries are less likely to become compounded and hinder the forward trajectory of our stories and games. Belt and Stockley offer a specific challenge of landing such choices within the first five lines of the scene – which is certainly a worthy and admirable goal – although we should also tend to how such material emerges and not needlessly rush ill-formed ideas to the stage (which these authors are certainly not advocating either). Generally more nuanced choices will offer richer pathways than hasty announcements that feel more like commenting than connected acting.
Player A enters the space carrying a (mimed) large box that they carefully position on the floor and open. With clear affection they pull one delicate object after another from the box, gently assembling them in a row on the floor in front of them.
Player B enters a few moments later carrying a large tray. They look lovingly at Player A and the activity that so consumes them. They place the tray down on a nearby footstool and retrieve two cups, offering one to Player A.
Player B: “I can’t believe it’s our first Christmas together in our own house!”
Player A pauses from their work for a moment to take one of the cups…
Player A: “Hot chocolate! You were listening to all those stories!”
Player B: “Not sure it’s the best beverage for Florida, but my wife gets what she wants!”
Player B picks up one of A’s carefully stowed objects…
Player B: “These are beautiful. Can I put the first one on our tree?”
Player A: “I actually have a bit of a system… No, sorry, what am I thinking? This is going to be our ritual now…”
Building Your CROW Foundation
1.) Split the “work.” There can be a tendency to strive to get the CROW “over with” as quickly as possible, often with one player hitting the stage and almost reciting their idea rather than building it gracefully and gradually with their scene partners. (Such a panicked approach often embodies the pitfall of cartooning addressed elsewhere). Don’t rush your choices. Savor what your partner is creating, and let each idea have it’s moment so that it can bloom and grow. I appreciate the gift of having a more fully formed idea in your pocket as the lights rise on a scene, but it’s exciting to offer one small part at a time so that there is truly room for your partner to process your idea and then add one of their own (good old fashioned “Yes, anding…”). Creating the CROW can feel like a burden if you needlessly take it all on alone. Alternatively, when you craft one aspect and trust that others will fill in the gaps, it’s easier to find the joy and surprise in the process.
2.) Use all your tools as an improviser. Exposition and the given circumstances can be tricky to establish under the best conditions – scripted playwrights often struggle to elegantly define these elements as well. Be sure to deploy all your verbal and physical skills. It is asking a lot of ourselves to lay down great foundational choices with our words alone. If we place the “where” more dynamically in our bodies, in particular, our choices are more likely to go the distance than when we merely declare our location. As is so often the mantra of the improviser, strive to show rather than tell your audience and scene partner. For example, in the vignette above, the word “wife” might be almost unnecessary to define the relationship if we have clearly used our physical connection and staging to tell this story (and ultimately, the unique embodied energy of the relationship will probably serve you much better than just a descriptive title anyway).
3.) Specificity and import start here. Look to make your own and your partner’s choices detailed and important. A cup of hot chocolate is innately more interesting and likely to inspire than just some unnamed beverage. If I am assuming the role of Player A, it will add so much to the scene if I have particular images and choices in mind for each holiday ornament that comes out of the box rather than creating just one generic metallic Christmas ball after another. If you are inclined to rush through these first moments of creativity, you are less likely to find the unexpected small choice that excites you and unlocks a new potential as a performer. So take your time with each discovered object and element to increase the likelihood that you’ll find those lovely little extra details.
4.) Define your ingredients. Connected to the above, take the risk to make a definitive choice (or many) about the CROW components of the scene. There are some recurring traps that you should strive to avoid: nondescript friends, or two characters that just “sort of” know each other, is often just a smudge away from strangers in terms of the dim spark it brings to the stage. Assume relationships that matter and demand passion and commitment. Imprecise actions are similarly problematic. If you’re mopping the floor in big general movements without giving attention to where the bucket rests at any given moment, the weight and resistance of the mop, or what you’re cleaning around (or cleaning up), the activity will quickly cease to have any additive value and will just become empty background movement. “Nowhere” scenes can’t offer much in terms of staging either. Put something of note in the space, or endow a more common feature with a peculiar characteristic. If you initially find yourself in a featureless hallway or street and neglect to quickly add a specific (furniture piece, weather condition, configuration…), it will become increasingly likely that the location will remain featureless (and unhelpful) for the duration of your action.
5.) Hide the magic. If the creation of the CROW becomes a chore on any level it can potentially take away as much as it gives. Relish the challenge of breathing new life into crafting these foundational elements. Sure, you may have played a scene with a spouse before, but there’s no reason this relationship needs to be the same as any other you’ve embodied thus far. Explore ways to deploy subtlety and inference without sacrificing clarity and communication. The audience will quickly sense if scenes just hit the paces of quickly naming the basic assumptions; seek finesse so that they are unaware that your scene work is tending to these needs first. Emulate the stealthy magician that hides the foundational elements that are actually enabling the magic that follows.
Some improv philosophies revel in a more luxurious or patient approach to scene starts, encouraging players to find comfort in the unknown as the lights come up on the stage. It’s not uncommon for the subsequent scenes to gently unfold with CROW ingredients remaining vague or disregarded, perhaps staying this way even as the lights come down. There is certainly not one way to frame the improv endeavor, and on the simplest level, it can be refreshing for all involved to break up the pattern of a show or series of scenes by varying the energy or dynamism of the launch. That being said, I have certainly seen many more cases of a scene struggling through the lack of a mutually agreed upon CROW than scenes thriving from the explicit absence of these ingredients. It’s not uncommon for a scene to prioritize or excel in the crafting of one or two elements while others may recede into the background with less import (in my experience the Where often seems to suffer this fate). Ignoring CROW altogether, however, strikes me as inviting unnecessary chaos and confusion.
Consider exploring the constituent elements of CROW for a deeper dive into how to maximize the creative potentials of each dynamic.
Connected Game: Conducted Freeze Tag