Many years ago I set myself the task of compiling a bunch of potential themes and putting them on card stock. There have probably been few improv-related investments of time that have been of greater and more consistent use, from audition prompts, to quick warm-up focal points, to launches for larger exercises and long-form rehearsals. There is something about focusing on a theme that can inspire players to dig a little deeper or connect a little more fully in their quest for Emotional Truth, and so I give you Theme Scenes as a tried, tested and loved exercise.
I use this technique in several different ways – as a quick circle warm-up with a cascade of scenes to “presented” pair work in front of the ensemble. Here I’d like to offer an all-play variant where players work in unobserved randomly assigned duos. This anonymity will often allow players to take larger risks when it comes to the material. Once everyone has found a space to serve as their stage, provide a thematic word as inspiration for the group: pulling from my current stack I have concepts such as stress, understanding, avoidance and rejection. If you don’t want to commit to the labor of crafting your own stockpile, I’ll often just ask for someone’s middle initial and then brainstorm a suitable theme that starts with that letter. Offer players a general time limit and set expectations that scenes should explore the theme from a personal or honest perspective. Pairs perform the scenes and may then offer reactions or feedback at the conclusion of the exploration.
Players are assigned “cruelty” as their inspirational theme. Player A starts and places themselves in a community bathroom, adjusting their “look” in the mirror. Player B has been watching coldly from a distance.
Player B: “That’s a bold choice for your body type…”
Player A: (Taken aback) “I’m sorry?”
Player B: “It’s just that it’s prom, and I would have given a little more thought about hiding my problem areas if I was you…”
Scenes can take on a sillier or more whimsical energy – this tends to happen when I play the circle warmup version of the game – but I’d recommend encouraging a more heartfelt approach that, frankly, can often result in comparably silly and whimsical scenes that also have the benefit of being substantially more grounded and earnt.
Traps and Tips
1.) Think broadly. I’ve endeavored to assemble a bank of theme words that are wonderfully opaque and open to interpretation. Avoid any inference that there is a “correct” or “preferred” angle into any given topic. For example, “stress” could evoke vignettes about tensions in a romantic relationship, anxiety around an important exam, or the weight of hikers on a suspension bridge. I also like to offer that considering the opposite of the given theme can also reveal interesting potentials that will still likely represent the topic at hand. (This strategy proves particularly helpful if you are doing the circle version of the game around one given theme.) In this manner, “understanding” could inspire a scene that begins with confusion, “avoidance” might launch an encounter where a character has found a hard won sense of bravery, and “rejection” could see a flustered job seeker finally landing a position. Trust your instinct and don’t feel the need to spell out the connection if it is delightfully honest and ambiguous.
2.) Speak bravely. I’m not sure if this is a pervasive trend elsewhere but I’ve found that when an exercise or game is offered with a more earnest or sincere focus in mind that improvisers can tend to become under-energized. Scenes should still pursue full engagement, light and darker hues, and not indulge in an air of “we are doing real acting now.” Often, this potentially problematic tone manifests as an almost whispered or uncharacteristically soft vocal quality that would have difficulty filling most performance spaces. Also avoid the trappings of a melodramatic style that tends to take itself much too seriously. Yes, pursue characters and dynamics with a sense of integrity and truth, but still embody flesh and blood people that are multi-faceted and nuanced: let the significance of the theme or material emerge organically rather than preemptively pushing for the meaning to appear. In addition to talking with full energy and presence, similarly attack your physical work as these scenes can incline towards talking head dynamics if you’re not mindful. (I consider these traps in more depth in my consideration of drama here.)
3.) Resist shortcuts. A pet peeve in this exercise is when improvisers needlessly announce the theme word within the scene: this feels very much like the self conscious moment in a scripted piece when the title of the play is awkwardly uttered. Sure, you could say the theme to make it abundantly clear, but that’s not really what this exercise promotes; instead, you’ll find more fulfilling journeys when you play with the embedded meanings of the theme and what it suggests to you and your character personally, rather than racing to the finish line with a clumsy announcement designed to remove any doubt as to the scene’s purpose. Relish the messy journey. Risk that while the theme might have inspired your work that the resulting scene might (should?) end up being much more than just that one word or idea. Trust that an audience will find more significance in its meaning if you give them credit for putting together some of the pieces of the puzzle for themselves.
4.) Push boundaries. Once you’ve played and found meaning in the original version of this exercise you can shake up the challenge and journey by adjusting the focus or set up. Players can be invited to leap right to an instinctual response to the prompt in the opening beats of the scene, or encouraged to start far away and then gently make the theme prescient. If your ensemble tends towards the literal, explore scene work that privileges subtle or unexpected applications of the topic. If you are sliding into melodramatic hues, play with a deliberate sense of lightness. I sometimes use this basic model for auditions and in these cases might pair the theme with a given relationship (I have a smaller stack of those cards too!) as I like the out-of-the-box thinking that comes into play when two divergent prompts initiate the action. “Cruelty” will invite very different scenes when played with fellow students than with a parent and child or teacher and pupil.
Whether or not you are actively assigned a theme to ignite your scene work or show, I find this lens such a powerful way of developing and deepening material. A seemingly stale scenario or relationship will become imbued with new life and promise when you view it from a thematic perspective. This exercise provides a window into this way of thinking and working if this is not already a norm for you when you approach the improv stage.
Connected Concept: Emotional Truth