“Exit, pursued by a bear.”William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale
While energized entrances add power and interest to our scene work, an inability to execute a timely Exit can quickly have the inverse effect. Some improvisers suffer from a condition I call sticky feet where they find themselves standing around in a scene no longer sure of their function or contribution. While there can be true value in adding our presence to climactic or large ensemble scenes, generally a cluttered stage takes away more than it gives. It’s a true gift (and skill) to know when your exit is needed and then having the wherewithal to quickly act accordingly.
A scene well underway struggles under the burden of an over-populated stage…
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
1.) Does your continued presence add energy and volume? A simple question to consider as you’re standing on an improv stage is “does my presence add anything to the current undertaking?” All-too-often I’ll see improvisers just “sort of there,” or even worse, a little bored and under-utilized so they become distracting in the background with destructive rather than constructive games or asides. There are many different ways you may be serving the greater story and earning your presence: you could be providing status or support for another important character on the stage (royalty needs an entourage); your conscious presence could assist in the crafting of a bold stage picture or energy; or your patient ensemble work could put the all-important hubbub into that pivotal crowd scene. If you are knowingly adding to a central dynamic such as these in a way that doesn’t compete for focus then you should probably stay.
2.) Will your exit facilitate clearer and more dynamic focus? There’s no denying that the more players there are on stage the more challenging it can be to effectively move the focus around. Even a seemingly benign third character can prove distracting if their arrival unhelpfully creates split focus and competes for attention. If you find yourself the fifth, sixth or seventh player standing in the limelight, the chances of disturbing the dominant story arc increase exponentially. When there is an over-abundance of characters on stage, players may strive to firmly grab the focus to direct the action, but it is often more helpful to throw the focus to others as you take a strong exit. It can prove much easier to know what a scene is really about when you aren’t directly in the throes of it; if you find yourself primarily observing and suspect that there are other combinations present on stage (or anxiously waiting in the wings) that are more critical than you at this point in time, then it’s a lovely act of improvisational largesse to go.
3.) Is your character important for the current action? And then there are times that you’ll probably serve everyone best by holding your ground. In a short-form scene if you have unmistakably emerged as the protagonist, or you are the teller’s actor in Playback, or playing the role of the oppressed in Forum Theatre, then it’s likely that an exit from a crowded stage may cause more harm than good. Similarly, as long-form pieces enter their last phases and may see multiple characters and stories intersecting and pushing each other to the climax, seek a heightened awareness of what energies have risen to the top of the improvisational pile and adjust accordingly. If all roads lead to your character and this is the moment for your world to crumble or find it’s footing, if you are part of a character combination that the audience has been craving to finally see together (perhaps the protagonist and antagonist, or the romantic leads), or if you are holding onto that one secret or piece of the puzzle that you know must be exploded for the play to reach it’s conclusion, then by all means, please stay.
4.) Does your ongoing presence hinder others from participating? A lesson I’ve learnt and re-learnt multiple times in large-cast large-scale long-forms is that there are some characters who by their very nature may prevent others from speaking freely if your production is honoring social norms and decorum. Often high status characters, especially those at the very top of the pecking order, can inhibit underlings from reaching their full potential if they are not extremely aware of how they use and share their stage time. It’s unlikely that the servant would talk about their personal turmoils in front of the queen, that the temp worker might seek marital advice in the presence of the CEO, or that the uncool kids would have the gumption to plot their revenge while the high school elites lord over the cafeteria. When you are embodying a higher status role (or just a character that has experienced ample time in the action) it can be easy to forget that merely your presence alone could suffocate other interesting dynamics that actually need your absence in order to breathe and flourish. So if you’ve enjoyed some unfettered stage time strutting as the big cat and see others waiting who are unlikely to challenge your right to speak, then let the mice play and go.
5.) Will an exit distract needlessly from the scenic build? It is also a reasonably common occurrence to find yourself loitering in a scene as the action shifts into high gear. Perhaps the company is on the cusp of the final climactic moment, the competing forces are finally squaring off against one another, or there is a softer and earnt vignette that displays vulnerability and emotional finesse. In such moments, even if you have become proverbial furniture in the scene, it is worthwhile to consider whether an exit might do more harm than good. In some instances, such as if you’re working on a smaller stage, it might prove a simple matter to quickly and quietly step into the wings in an unnoticed fashion. In other staging configurations a subtle exit might prove largely impossible: perhaps the only established entrance might require you to pass between or in front of the characters who currently hold focus, or the quieter hues of the scene would be destroyed by any superfluous movement. Yes, such a moment might beckon as a comedic gold mine, but keep in mind any damage you might do in the process if the scene has established a different tone. In these latter instances, even if you feel your continued presence isn’t crucial, the wiser course of action is to minimize any potential competition for focus and to gently stay.
6.) Have you fulfilled your intended function? A final question that in some ways encompasses all of those above is earnestly assessing are you done as a character? If your intent was to make a Canadian Cross or provide some background support, is this environmental painting still serving? Perhaps you were facilitating or building on a game or playful dynamic; is there still any value (comedic, dramatic or otherwise) in perpetuating that pattern further? If you’re playing as a more featured character, are you still actively fighting for what you want or has this scenic unit served its purpose (did you win or lose this moment)? As a supporting character, did you successfully provide your gift, tilt or detail and has it been fully accepted or incorporated by its intended recipient? If we linger too long as characters after completing our goal it’s not uncommon to find yourself a little stuck as others join the fray. So if you know you’re done remember that you can always re-enter later, but for now you’re probably best serving the narrative arc if you go.
Remember that a dynamic exit can serve a scene equally well as an energized entrance. It can sharpen the scenic focus, heighten the rising action, and generously provide others with some time on the improv playground. When improv fires on all cylinders the allure of the stage shines strongly, and it is human nature to want to share in that joyful creativity. When we find ways to give to our scene partners in these moments, offering them up a magnanimous portion of this joy, we all eventually benefit.
Connected Game: Entrances and Exits