“E” is for “Edits”

“We need to edit as we improvise, deciding in the moment which of all the features we have heard are essential for the story to be told. We must ask ourselves ‘Why this story?  Why here and now?’ in order to feel its inmost meanings.”

Jo Salas, Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala Pub., 1993.  p.23


Typically the improviser must wear and master many “hats” on the stage: director, playwright, performer, and in most cases also an editor of the action, helping to shape the overall story arc through recognizing (hopefully) when it’s time to move on or that a scene may benefit from an aesthetically apt nudge. In many short-form traditions scenes are routinely edited by a host or technical improviser signaling that a moment is done and then the show essentially re-sets with a new offering. In most long-form styles, however, where the action is more fluid or continuous, ensemble driven Edits and segues are critical to the success and flow of the performance. Companies will often have style preferences but it’s important to understand the foundational principles at play regardless of which genre you tend to call home as these techniques – when executed with finesse – truly enable some of the magic of improvisational theatre.


Player A and B are performing the latter stages of a scene between an accountant (B) and their rattled client (A).

Player A: “And you’re absolutely positive that this isn’t just some clerical error?”

Player B: “Look, I know this is hard to hear, but this kind of money just doesn’t disappear through human error. Someone has been stealing a substantial amount of money from the company.”

Player A: “But so few people would even have access to the books to try to manufacture a cover up. There’s really only me, you and my…”

Player B: “…your daughter…”

The scene awaits an edit…

Editing Options to Enhance Your Play

Here are some of the most commonly used editing possibilities. I’ve loosely ranked these from those requiring the least technical support to those that are a little more dependent upon the bells and whistles of a more traditional theatre space.

1.) Sweeps. A sweep (less commonly known as a strike) involves another member of the ensemble marking the end of a scenic moment by running downstage of the action (in front of the current players) as if they were almost pulling an imaginary curtain. Upon receiving this signal, the players in the prior scene should move quickly to the wings or back of the stage depending on your staging practice. The sweeping player may exclusively embody this editing function and then recycle into the waiting ensemble as well, or may culminate the motion of the sweep by then turning and beginning a new scene (or deploying one of the tactics below to keep an element of a previous vignette in play). I’ll confess that I’m not a huge fan of this device as it can strike attendees who aren’t “in the know” as a peculiar tradition especially if you are working in a more theatrical space; but in “found” or modest performance spaces where you might not have a dedicated lighting operator (or theatrical lights at all) it can serve the purpose efficiently.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player C dashes across the downstage apron in a sweeping motion as Player A and B fade back into the ensemble. As C completes their cross, Players D and E have emerged and begin the next vignette…

Player D: (assuming the rule of a doctor holding a baby) “Congratulations, it’s a girl!”

2.) Clap in/tag out. Another low tech option is the clap in or tag out. If you’ve played the short-form mainstay Freeze Tag you’re probably familiar with the basic premise. An offstage player essentially freezes the current action by clapping their hands (the Clap In) and then quickly enters the stage. This new player has a variety of options once the scene has been halted and it is incumbent upon them to clearly conduct the next moment. As with the above example, they may use this technique to just edit the prior scene and then start one of their own alone or with other new company members (although sweeps are often the more standard approach for enabling this move). They could also just join the scene as a new character and transport it in time or place. More often, though, the entering player will re-set the current configuration in some dynamic way. They might Tag Out a frozen player and have them leave so that a new scene or next step can occur with the remaining character or characters. This scenic adjustment may involve a shift in time or location as well. In more populated scenes, the incoming player may also “wave off” others who are not easily in reach to slim the cast down to just those desired. Another variant is a Revolving Door where typically one current character is physically pivoted to begin a different related scene while the prior vignette (and characters) are essentially paused to be reanimated later. An extended series of quick tag outs or revolves can also build into a Run of edits where you see a sequence of usually quick moments that build an energy or game. This series will often return to the original character or combination that inspired the choice to mark the end of that particular dynamic.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player C claps their hands, freezing the action, and quickly moves into the scene tagging out Player B and assuming the role of the daughter in a new locale.

Player C: “…and I told them that the credit card machine had to be broken because there was no way my card should be declined… Anyway, long story short, I’m going to need an advance on my paycheck this week.”

3.) Focus give. Edits can be prompted by the onstage players with a strong and clear focus give. On the simplest (but arguably most effective) level, this may consist of an unequivocal Exit after pitching a possible next step or vignette. On a slightly more nuanced level, current characters could instigate some of the dynamics above by endowing a new relationship or dynamic, thereby inviting a “clap in” style edit (with or without the clap) where an entering player now shifts the lens of the scene. Another variant on the same theme would take the form of a Cut To… offer where a character explicitly ruminates about a past or future event thereby throwing the action to this named moment. You can also utilize a Verbal Tag set up: here a character offers up a juicy line knowing that it will likely be taken and repeated by an awaiting player to shift the action. Successful focus gives require a little finesse and a common understanding as a company as to what to look for as a scene reaches its zenith, but I like this approach when working with more seasoned and self-aware performers as it is steered by the current players and gives them some control over how and when their scene ends.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player A groans in clear discomfort at the thought.

Player B: (packing their things and exiting) “I’m not telling you what to do, boss, but if I was you, I’d talk to your daughter about this over dinner tonight.”

Player C immediately sets up a family table as Player A turns and now enters their family home…

4.) Focus take. There are also a variety of dynamics that involve a strong focus take while dispensing with the potentially jarring device of the offstage “clap.” (Companies that have developed great comfort and trust, frankly, often deploy tag outs, revolving doors and runs through clear Entrances and intent alone.) Players can execute a physical Cross-fade by entering and establishing their character in a new area of the stage, perhaps walking in front of the current action to make their appearance clear but in nearly all cases avoiding eye contact with the scene in motion so as to avoid being pulled into it. The prior scene should generally wrap up with the scene on deck then starting in earnest either pulling in a prior character or utilizing others from the bench. When this tactic is used more aggressively – by immediately beginning a competing and energized action – this serves more as a swift Focus Grab. You can also make similar edits verbally: repeating or answering a line of dialogue in a new context as you enter the stage serves as a Verbal Tag; beginning your scene with a strong verbal offer from an offstage character provides a clear Verbal Edit; or depending on the style of the work, you could assume the role of a narrator or prologuer, talking on a god microphone or entering the space in a clear (and probably pre-determined) manner so as to Narrate a new moment to explore. (Sometimes a Cut To… leap is facilitated by a quick on- or off-stage narration in this manner as well.) The key to all of these focus takes is confidence, timing and clearly communicating a particular intent.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player C as A’s spouse speaks with great emotion while entering the space prompting Player B to leave and Player A to pivot and join.

Player C: “Your daughter! Your daughter is stealing from us…?!”

5.) Supported edits. If you have access to dedicated technical and musical improvisers, the potentials expand even further, although, in many cases, these dynamics are merely more polished versions of those listed above. Sweeps can now be heralded or replaced with musical play outs or dimming lights. (Music is such a helpful and gentle way to nudge players to get to the next thing!) Clap Ins and Tags can gain support from subtle or sudden lighting adjustments and soundtrack embellishments. Physical Cross-fades and focus shifts now gain dynamism from the booth which can even cue and sculpt these edits as needed. Narrated transitions shine with some technical polish that crafts a clear conceit to guide the audience’s eye. And then there is the not-to-be-overlooked-or-underrated Blackout (hopefully accompanied with a dramatic flourish of music) that allows the players to reset and then deploy a strong entrance or edit from the lists above to jump start the next scene.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player A and B pause for a moment as the music swells, and the lights suddenly plummet. Moments later a pool of light shifts focus to a previously unused area of the stage where two new characters are soon seen driving a car on the highway.

Player C: “I don’t think I can go on stealing from the company any more. I think they’re on to me…”

Final Thought

Successful edits have two things in common: they are clear conceits that are quickly understood by the ensemble and creative team (that is, everyone is on the same page that an edit is being offered up); and they are aesthetically pleasing and unambiguous for the audience, regardless of how many times they may have seen your work. Clumsy, inelegant or frantic edits can unfortunately seriously hamper or diminish the effect of otherwise exciting work, so it is certainly worth taking some time to determine and polish which approaches best suit your performance space, improvisational style, audience tastes and technical abilities.

Related Entries: Button, Entrances, Exits, Initiation, Technicians Synonyms: Blackout, Sweep, Tag

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Verbal Freeze Tag

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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