Game Library: “Fantasy Scene”

I’m drawing from my days at the Players Workshop of the Second City again for this frame which has a distinctly sketch-like feel. I imagine Fantasy Scene is more typically utilized for light-hearted results, but I’m offering it as a way to explore Drama as I have seen many memorable workshop performances that pursued a more grounded and sincere energy.

The Basics

I teach this as a Spolin-style exercise in which players are given a brief moment to determine a basic who, what and where prior to the performance (as opposed to a more “on-the-spot” approach where they get an ask-for from the audience and then go). Players perform in pairs. The structure is a little more specific than many short-form frames and you will probably need to slowly walk through the beats. I generally do this before the quick planning sessions so that players understand the goals and potentials of the central dynamic. I’ve woven my traditional example through this section to provide clarity. There are five beats:

Beat One: We see Player A and Player B in the “real” world engaging in their balance. It’s helpful if the given circumstances of the relationship and location are clearly defined and explored in this beat before moving onto the next scenic segment.

Player A and B are two exhausted business people collapsing at a hotel bar after a grueling series of conference presentations on new real estate best practices. They know each other well but almost exclusively from these gatherings. Any remnants of the joy that brought them into this industry are now faint memories, but they try to lift each others’ spirits over drinks.

Beat Two: Either character cues a fantasy from their character’s perspective. Once this signal occurs, the second player instantly joins this new world, assuming whatever role is needed that may or may not be a different version of their initial character from the “real” world.

Player A pointedly alludes to a suppressed dream of being a professional touring musician. Player B transforms into an adoring groupie begging for an autograph as the hotel bar temporarily “vanishes” and becomes a backstage door. Both players continue exploring this new premise.

Beat Three: When the fantasy has served its purpose, either player cues a return to the original reality, snapping back into their former point of view and energy. Both players now continue to develop the original premise in the original location although it is likely informed by what has just happened in the first fantasy (which neither player explicitly references).

In the fantasy world, Player B has become frustrated as the groupie as their idol (A) is pushing them away. Player B takes this energy and shifts their tone into that of their original real estate agent. Player A immediately drops the musician persona and we are now back in the bar.

Beat Four: When the opportunity arises, the second player now launches their own fantasy world. Their partner, once again, enables this scenic detour, embodying the role or energy that will best equip the new journey.

Player B alludes to their abandoned pursuit of remodeling classic cars. Player A leaps into the premise and together they explore this alternate reality with A fawning over an array of beautifully restored automobiles.

Beat Five: The scene ends with a sharp return to the first premise. This beat may consist of just a quick exchange or can take up as much room as is needed to honor the original conceit.

Player A transforms a moment of driving in their car and an accompanying joyfully exclaimed “I can’t believe this!” by repeating the line more ominously thus returning to the gloomier hues of the bar. Player B is now also sitting once more on the bar stool. They finish their drinks, resigned to their lots in life.

The Focus

The conceit and sharp execution of the fantasies are well worth the time to workshop and polish just so that this improv possibility is in your toolkit when it is needed. The format truly shines when players discover an internal logic and connection between the five potentially disparate vignettes. It may take a few more mechanical attempts and observations before this goal feels within reach.

Traps and Tips

1.) Don’t over-plan. If you don’t tend to use a more Spolin-derived brainstorming session prior to scenes the biggest trap of this device is providing too much time to think and plan. Players should agree upon the bare minimum (“We’re two business people, in a bar, escaping a conference”). If players are afforded too much time to consider their premises they invariably start to ponder the how in addition to the who, what and where. This tends to make the improv comparative (“Is this what we agreed upon beforehand?”) as opposed to inspirational (“This is our starting point and it could go anywhere!”) For example, for this game players need not have any preconceived notion as to what the fantasies will be about or which order they will be initiated. I also encourage players to practice good improv practice in these short sessions too, accepting and adding to each others choices rather than judging and discarding them. And it can prove helpful to remind them that the audience doesn’t know what has been pre-determined so it’s still critical to define these elements in the course of the action.

2.) Pitch clear transition cues. The finesse of this structure is also its primary challenge; namely, the transitions need to be clear and dynamic but are most successful when they are discovered in the moment. For the sake of precision it’s more than fine to offer a clear verbal cue such as “Sometimes I just wish I’d pursued my music…” Generally, if either player thinks that a transition has been offered they should commit to the change at 100%. Sharp distinctions between the five beats are crucial. For this reason, while setting the fantasies in this particular hotel bar could work, such a choice is more likely to confuse the audience and your fellow player as you move back and forth. Contrast (in location, mood, energy, physicality, characters…) is your best friend. Often the transitions back into the first reality are more varied and can incorporate most edit traditions. A player might repeat a line of dialogue changing from one premise to the other (or their partner can just respond in the opposing timeline). Characters can also use their current physical position to prompt the change, justifying a pose in a new way. I like this strategy, in general, with players not just dropping prior poses but rather using them to move the companion storyline along in a novel way. The unavoidable key to these moments of transition is that one player bravely offers the shift and their partner, equally bravely, grabs it and runs without questioning their instinct. Deferring or doubting in these critical moments inevitably causes the energy of the scene to dissipate and meander.

3.) Look to fulfill your partner’s needs. This scenic dynamic can unlock a truly lovely style of play when you enter the fantasy realms. Here, the supporting player’s primary goal is to craft a world in which the featured character can go on an interesting journey. The initiating player (for example, Player A and their musician aspirations) might offer up a strong character to assume or just pitch a broader scenario. This brief intent might be all you have so it’s important to jump confidently into the fantasy waters. Assess what dynamic might best serve your partner in real time and remember that the launching character (who remains the same in both worlds) should be the star of these scenic departures. If you decide to maintain your current character and relationship from the base scene, it’s helpful to make sure their tone or energy changes in a sharp and recognizable fashion between each beat otherwise the five sections can all tend to bleed into each other. I’d also advise that it’s preferable to parallel whatever choice was made in the first fantasy in regards to casting with the second; that is, if Player B assumes a new identity for A’s fantasy, Player A does the same for B. This structural repetition is pleasing for the audience.

4.) Explore the greater scenic connections. Once you have a sense of the mechanics (I promise it’s not as difficult to do so as it might appear at first glance) this frame comes to life when played at the top of your intelligence. The fantasies can be just that, whimsical musings divorced of all reality, but when they ultimately provide a commentary on the primary relationship or theme, the scene takes on a whole new power. Consider shaping the second fantasy so that it reflects or distorts concepts and elements explored in the first. Perhaps Player A’s dreams of fame reveal a different but equal kind of loneliness and exhaustion that Player B also explores when it becomes clear that their cars are the only relationships they have managed to maintain. While the game is entitled Fantasy Scene, the fantasies need not begin or end positively and may ultimately prove to be nightmares or revealing distortions. The more these fantastical vignettes reflect upon or complicate the foundational scene and relationship, the better. Do our protagonists ultimately find solace in recognizing that they are in the same boat and forge a deeper friendship, or remain imprisoned in their own bubbles of isolation?

In Performance

The dynamic of exploring flashbacks or alternate realities is a long-form mainstay, but housed in this frame this device provides an opportunity to enrich our characters and content. This game tends to enable sizeable scenes: it’s common for six to eight minutes to zip past somewhat effortlessly. While you could add players to further support and populate the fantasy realms there is something innately elegant about exploring the scene as a two-hander. Frankly, this is the only drawback to the game as it can be challenging to include it in a short-form playlist (or a workshop setting) if you’re trying to spread performance opportunities and time across a larger ensemble.

Looking for more games and exercises? Check out the ever-expanding Game Library here.

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

Connected Concept: Drama

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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