The short-form game Commercial can add a stylistically distinct option to your playlist. As this game generally serves as a succinct “quick hit” I’ve paired it with the concept of Erasure as the format doesn’t have much room for improvisational waste or second guessing. The premise is relatively simple, but the execution poses worthy challenges and opportunities.
The team obtains a product or service which may be absurd (silent smoke detectors) or offer a twist on a more well-known item (a calculator that gives compliments). Players craft an original “slice of life” commercial that shows the need for this given product.
Players are challenged to create a commercial for a pair of scissors that can cut tension. Player A and B begin moodily washing dishes at the family sink.
Player A: (slightly irritated) “I just thought you said you were going to pick up dinner on the way home”
Player B: (equally irritated) “And I clearly sent you a text at lunchtime reminding you that I was picking up the laundry instead.”
Player A: “I can’t help it that my phone is old and running out of memory.”
Player B: “And I can’t help it that my husband is old and running out of memory…”
Player C enters the kitchen holding a mimed over-sized pair of scissors much to their parents’ chagrin…
Player A: “And what exactly do you think you’re going to do with those, Tyler?”
Player C: “Look, I can hear you in my room and neither of you can seem to move past this…”
Tyler mimes closing the scissors between the couple. The mood quickly dissipates…
Player C: “Now, doesn’t that feel better…?”
I generally frame Commercial as a quick one-minute game – probably a hold over from when I first learnt it during my Theatresports days. As the scene seeks compactness, there is really very little room for erasure or the clumsy utilization of others’ choices: there simply isn’t time to create details that aren’t then woven into the fabric of the story. Subsequently, I’ll stress this lens of efficiency noting that the game demands strong listening, accepting and justifications if you and your audience are to feel satisfied as the lights black out at the end.
Traps and Tips
1.) Hire “great actors.” I stress the “slice of life” style of this particular version of Commercial as that moves it away from a more commentator or spokesperson driven model. It can be helpful to think of these as small family or workplace dramas with familiar characters that explore a problem that only this great new product can solve. Assume that the company had gobs of money at their disposal and hired the very best actors they could find. Sliding into the “bad actor” trope will provide initial joy but often makes it needlessly difficult to build the energy and arc of the scene. In some ways it feels like wimping or commenting rather than committing unequivocally to the fictitious world no matter how absurd it might seem. It’s a good strategy to have the product make its way onto the stage (helpful neighbors are a common and useful device) but typically avoid this as the first move for reasons I outline below…
2.) Follow the structure. If you’re not well versed with the Four Sentence Story structure it’s worth reviewing here as that frame is extremely helpful for this scene. I’ll often teach both games in tandem as they support each other so well. The initial players are usually responsible for establishing the world in which the given product will appear (the balance); this will generally heighten and develop into an explicit need perhaps with the entrance of an additional player (the problem); the arrival of the product will typically herald that the scene is moving towards its climax (the solution); and the commercial may culminate with a new equilibrium or boilerplate product disclaimers and details (the resolution). If the scene meanders around or between these elements, it will often lose its sense of direction and purpose.
3.) Develop the balance. Although these scenes are characteristically short, don’t skimp on the balance. Without a clear and specific routine the product’s arrival will often feel anticlimactic or too obvious. It can be a fun approach to start a little obtusely away from where you know the scene will eventually head. When you rush to the problem (which I’ve done a little in my example above) there can be less raw material to draw upon and reincorporate. I was keen to model how the product might make it to the stage, but if the tension scissors vignette was played out in “real time” we could probably sit in and build that tension for several more lines before the arrival of the scissors. Once the scenic problem has been solved there often isn’t much steam left in the game, so don’t rush to this moment without specifics and finesse. If you do find yourself having quickly solved the problem it can prove helpful to have other examples of the problem enter the scene quickly to extend the game: the parents aren’t tense now but a sibling enters in distress having just failed an important exam…
4.) Support the action. It’s easy for a Commercial scene to become a little cluttered so don’t rush the stage or needlessly enter “just so you can be a part of the fun.” If you’re waiting in the wings for your moment consider less high focus ways to contribute. Depending upon your venue’s level of technical support, you might be needed as the music, jingle or sound effects, vocally punctuating the important moments of the scene. It’s a nice touch to close the game with a brief voice-over if the product information (name, price, where you can buy it…) can’t easily be pitched from within the scene. It’s by no means a set device of the game but I’m also fond of using actors as props or the product itself when this feels playfully appropriate. There is something I innately enjoy about the juxtaposition of a really dramatic initial scene suddenly awkwardly housing an improviser’s body trying to figure out the physicality of a pair of scissors!
I’ve seen this general conceit as both a stand alone game and also as a break away component of a larger structure – you’re creating a radio play but now there’s a pause for a word from the sponsor. Don’t be afraid of the misleading simplicity of the structure: lean into the style and story arc. There’s realy no room to “shop for the best idea” – air time is expensive after all – so be sure you’re giving your all to the offers already established and in the mix.
Connected Concept: Erasure