“The first character of the creative act is its spontaneity, the second character is a feeling of surprise, of the unexpected.”Jacob Levy Moreno, The Theatre of Spontaneity. 2nd Edition. New York: Beacon House, 1973  p.42
While I had been familiar with the general tactic for a while, it was not until I read Mick Napier’s Improvise. Scene From the Inside Out that I came across the name Curve Ball. The concept connects several others, such as surprise, shelving and randomness, and refers to the idea of strategically including some unpredictable elements in your scene work that do not initially seem pertinent to the current given circumstances. In this way, you’re shelving potential choices that don’t (yet) have an obvious meaning or thematic correlation, trusting that such a connection will emerge organically further down the scenic road. Throwing such a curve ball is a delightful example of being deliberately mischievous and raising the challenge of the collaborative play. It requires trust (in yourself and your partners), patience and playfulness, and serves as a helpful approach if you find your scenes losing that sense of “danger” that is the trademark of most great improv.
Married couple (Player A and B) enter their apartment kitchen with laden bags of groceries balanced precariously in their hands.
Player A: “…it just seems that the basics go up in price every time we shop.”
Player B: (starting to unpack) “I’m not disagreeing, it’s just that the chili recipe is the chili recipe so there’s no point in complaining to the cashier…”
Player A: “Did that make you uncomfortable?”
Player B: (playfully and without malice) “No, I’m used to it by now!”
Player A: (gently and lovingly nudging “B”) “I know I need to let it go. But ground beef just shouldn’t cost that much…”
Player B: (getting out the “big” pot) “I’m not disagreeing…”
Player A: (glancing absently out the kitchen window) “That moving truck is still parked on the corner…”
Player B: “This chili isn’t going to make itself.”
Player A: “Go easy on the peppers this time…”
Pitching Your Curve Balls
1.) A little goes a long way. All improv rules are made to be questioned and broken, but I’d recommend that you don’t overwhelm your scenic work with a flood of unrelated curve ball offers (as much fun as that sounds!) Yes, that certainly could be the game of the scene, but often judicious curve balling will serve you better. It generally suffices to place one or two significant and memorable ideas upon the improv “shelf” awaiting greater context and use further down the line. If you overload the proverbial improv shelf, each unexpected choice becomes ultimately less impactful and perhaps even less likely to be remembered and reincorporated. While a curve ball is a great way to keep a scene exciting and alive, it gains its value by being an exceptional choice.
2.) Pitch from strength. I’d advise giving your initial attention to the basics (or CROW) of the scene and making sure these are dynamic and clear before throwing in an unexpected ingredient. If a scene is wrestling to find its footing or the characters aren’t firmly connected to each other, giving your attention to the deployment of a curve ball might not be the best use of your focus and time. Once the scene is up and running, and the players (and audience) know the “rules of the world,” then a unexpected twist is a delightful way to forebode further adventures and keep everyone on their toes. If your scene feels like a delicate glass house struggling to find its way, this probably isn’t the time to start throwing stones haphazardly.
3.) Add a new color. My preference is for a curve ball to clearly add a new color or energy that noticeably differs from the prior established mood as this “marks” the choice as rich in spite of its apparent inexplicability. In the chili example, a food or cooking related choice is more likely to feel like a CAD (Confession, Accusation or Discovery) than a curve ball as it grows from the facts that have already clearly been established. This sense of clear connection serves a CAD or revelation well, but is somewhat anathema to the spirit of a curve ball which is marked by its initial lack of connection. In this case, the moving truck portends something but at this stage of the action, it really could be anything: a stake out of the couple, an in-law preparing to move in, an escape plan in its early stages… The choice in and of itself has no obligation to even vaguely hint at a specific meaning at this point; in fact, this would weaken it’s very gift which is considerably more long-term in nature.
4.) Don’t needlessly point at it. Similarly, an intended curve ball loses its dangerous future agency if it is quickly woven into the current action or hastily justified in an effort to have it make sense in the current scheme of things. It can be tempting to immediately contextualize an unexpected choice – “Oh, that’s just the Johnsons. Their daughter is moving back from college.” I’m not good at sporting metaphors, but this feels like bunting the ball rather than patiently waiting until the time is right and then expertly hitting it out of the park. It is certainly critical that all the players hear and process the choice that has been made, but avoid the temptation to shift the focus to this new idea or carelessly comment on it – “Why are you talking about a moving truck?” As is evidenced in my vignette above, my preference would actually be to just let the choice sit and then continue without making it seem too unusual. If the choice is embraced without fanfare or question, it becomes an accepted part of the world ripe for exploring when the moment feels right.
5.) Honor the contract. By definition, a curve ball tends to be memorable and subsequently there is an expectation that such a choice won’t be left sitting on the shelf unutilized when the improv scene or show draws to a close. If the moving truck doesn’t find it’s way back into the story on some level, this earlier reference will feel unwarranted and unhelpful. As is the case with the related technique of callbacks, I think there is something to be said for deliberately prolonging the time between the idea’s first mention and its later reappearance during a fitting moment: such patience can certainly add to the sense of tension, surprise and (hopefully) joy when it’s successfully justified. This patience is harder to achieve if you’re striving to weave multiple seemingly random elements into the scenic climax, hence the advice to show some restraint when pitching such choices early in the scene.
I am certainly an advocate for being obvious in your scenic work and letting an organic path emerge based on your innate reactions as a player and character. The concept of a curve ball provides a nice counterpoint to this approach, encouraging strategic risk and whimsy. If you have a tendency to plan ahead, or find yourself circling over painfully familiar improv terrain again and again, or perhaps even burning through material too quickly and running out of steam, this technique can reinvigorate your play, just make sure you don’t start to “solve” or “unwrap” the random gift prematurely.
“Curve Ball” marks the last “C” in my “A” to “Z” of Improv series! You can check them all out here.
Connected Game: Should’ve Said