“G” is for “Game of the Scene”

“…a situation set up imaginatively and defined by rules which together with the prescribed roles, is accepted by the players.”

Neva Leona Boyd, Play and Game Theory in Group Work: A Collection of Papers. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971. p.47


The Game of the Scene tends to be an explicit concept more pervasively used in long-form traditions. In short-form shows, scenic games or dynamics are often prescribed and governed by the inherited rules: in They Said, They Said two onstage players will provide dialogue while their offstage counterparts will offer verbalized stage directions which the onstage characters must carry out. In long-form settings, the game of the scene is typically discovered organically as the result of players making moves or choices and others recognizing the potential of leaning into these energies. This is not to say that a short-form game might not also include an additional unique game that is the product of the moment, or, for that matter, that long-form shows may not also utilize set games co-opted from the short-form canon. And on an even more meta level, improv involves foundational games and techniques (accepting, justifying, connecting…) that provide a common language and approach that enables both prescribed and discovered games to thrive. Ultimately, regardless of the improv style at hand, players should always seek to recognize and join novel games as they bubble up in the scene. In some instances such games might explicitly serve the narrative arc; in others, they might add equally valuable dynamism and joy.

Especially when you are taking your first steps as an improviser, the idea of intuitively finding games in the raw material of an improv scene can feel overwhelming: my experience with the Harold would suggest that most players are more quickly able to wrap their heads around the recurring trio of scenes than that “other thing” that happens between the rounds. It is both liberating and terrifying that the game of the scene can truly be almost anything if the players bravely make it so. Here I’d like to offer a non-exhaustive and glaringly incomplete list of some different categories of games a trained eye might notice in the hopes that these examples can help you also recognize other potentials in the sea of seemingly endless possibilities…


Several players have positioned themselves on stage in chairs as Player A enters the movie theatre holding a large tub of popcorn. They look for a suitable chair and carefully make their way through the auditorium trying not to disturb the silence…

A Non-Exhaustive and Glaringly Incomplete List of Some Different Categories of Games

1.) Curve of Absurdity. Often a discovered game will begin firmly planted in our known reality or everyday world. As the scene continues and the game is recognized by others and subsequently heightened, the moves or behavior become increasingly exaggerated and more absurd or distant from our daily experience. The curve of absurdity is a helpful shorthand for this arc of escalation. For the 17% of improvisers who also enjoy math, think of the x axis as time and the progression of the scene and the y axis as representing reality at the point of origin and an increasing departure from this reality as it extends upwards. Scenes that follow this approach would be drawn as a parabola. The more firmly the scene is originally grounded in our observable world and the more patient the build, the steeper the final destination can stretch the conceit without breaking it. Ideally, each new move or step should connect explicitly to the former as the team climbs the arc together. Many discovered and canonical improv scenes benefit and find structure from some variant of this approach, such as Inappropriate Behavior.

As Player A takes their seat it omits a small squeak that is quickly shushed by the other movie patrons. Player A then tries to quietly chew their very crunchy popcorn, but each bite is surprisingly loud. Again, more disdainful shushing. Then Player A’s blaring cell phone goes off… Then an ex-lover storms into the theatre and begins a loud argument… Then a secret service detail arrives to protect Player A from their lover by loudly securing the theatre…

2.) Mapping. This is a popular scenic dynamic where one scenario is critiqued or heightened by using the tropes and clichés of another familiar situation. For example, parents might have an intervention with their teenager after discovering they have been dabbling in drama but frame the scene with the stakes and intensity of having discovered that their child has been dabbling in drugs: “Look, we know that it looks fun and all the other kids are doing it, but this can only ruin your life in the long run…” Strong mapping scenes tend to overlay a more dramatic or intense situation on top of a rather mundane occasion, and they generally thrive when you deploy careful specific ambiguity. If you explicitly say “drugs” instead of “drama” (or for that matter keep saying “drama” when you are overlaying the idea of “drugs”) the dynamic becomes punctured and less effective. The same is true with any other words that would spell out the game rather than imply it. Mapping works best when everyone is playing with the same juxtaposition – you don’t have one parent exploring the “drug” connection while the other is playing at cross purposes with “dating.” When mapping scenes emerge organically they require a great deal of active listening and trust as it only takes a small misstep to explode the game prematurely. Mapping can also be pitched as a scenic game in its own right which is something we do with joyful regularity in our Gorilla Theatre show.

Mission Impossible music comes from the booth as Player A engages in increasingly acrobatic moves in an effort to silently make it to their seat. They skillfully avoid laser sensors, the gaze and flashlight of an over-anxious movie usher, hazy smoke pouring out of the glitchy A/C unit, and “enemy” patrons who try to stop them with overly carbonated beverages and skittle attacks…

3.) Competition. Another subset of organic games are competitive dynamics. These may or may not also include a conscious curve of absurdity (or mapping element for that matter) but tend to have characters that are trying to gain the upper hand. One-upping is an excellent example of this tendency (or one-downing if you prefer.) In this scenic game players each try to gently outdo each other by being the best, the bravest, the wealthiest, the most popular or practically any other trait that is deemed valuable as the scene unfolds. As with most improv games, while characters should appear as if they are fighting to win at any cost, players should focus squarely on the build of the game allowing opportunities for their partner to progress and win points as well. When players are also focused on the win, the resulting scene tends to lack the subtlety and nuance that makes it feel human and recognizable. If a one-upping energy bubbles up, be wary of leaping ahead several moves: “This is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted” probably shouldn’t be followed by “I just bought all the remaining coffee beans in the world, so enjoy that cup while it lasts!”

Once Player A has finally settled in, a second Player (B) enters with a larger bag of popcorn and makes their way in a similar fashion to a more luxurious seat in the premium seating area. Player A notices that their smaller popcorn is a little bland and pulls out a flavoring sachet that they sprinkle on the contents. It is now clearly delicious. Player B finds their own popcorn unsatisfactory so eventually signals a theatre worker who drags in the hot butter dispenser…

4.) Character behavior. Character behavior, in general, opens promising doorways into a game for the scene. Mirroring, reflecting and heightening moves and patterns can provide scenic energy and discoveries. In many cases an improviser might have inadvertently made a seemingly unimportant or innocuous choice that, with some love and attention, can evolve into the core of the scene. Again, these behavioral games could then assume an absurd, mapping or competitive nature, but they can also thrive in the land of parallel actions or “doing the same thing but in a different way.” Language-based dynamics or those that invite word play or stylistic overlays provide strong examples of this instinct, as do Character Quirks and contagious scenes where mannerisms are recognized, cherished and given space to develop.

Stealthily Player A looks around before surreptitiously pulling out their cell phone to record the movie. Another patron, Player B, similarly checks that the coast is clear before pulling out a hip flask and spiking their movie soda. The game of contagious bad behavior continues with Player C slowly assembling a meal they have hidden on their person…

5.) Physicality and environment. Related to the above concept are more overtly physical and environmental dynamics. Perhaps the location conspires against (or assists) the characters in unexpected ways, characters explore unique but connected ways of entering or moving through the space, or the configuration of the “set pieces” necessitates that characters avoid or incorporate a complex assortment of obstacles. If your improv tends to float in a location-less world these types of games are unlikely to appear as they require a physically rich and detailed style of play. Animal Kingdom and games of its ilk explore this general approach, with characters using a varied array of animal essences to inspire their physical and interpersonal dynamics.

Player A finally manages to situate themselves and with a peculiar dog-like quality circles around their chair before finally coming to a rest. Slowly this animalistic quality spreads to others in the auditorium: Player B sits up with a start any time there is a sudden noise; Player C starts to lap at their drink with an audible pant; Player D develops an itch in a place that they can’t quite reach…

6.) Referential. My first steps as an improviser were in the short-form tradition so I will gladly admit that I tend to view the game of the scene through this lens a little. As the above examples suggest, often (though by no means always) discovered games in a long-form setting tend to have at least loose equivalents in the short-form canon and I think it’s wholly appropriate to tap into these latter reserves explicitly. I would caution that forcing a short-form handle clumsily into a scene will prove woefully less effective than discovering that it is appearing of its own accord or recognizing that the scene’s given circumstances invite the connection in a fruitful way. I also would contend that an audience will sense the difference between an enlightened choice and the desperate repetition and re-creation of inorganic shtick. As we deepen our knowledge of scenic structures and dynamics from a wide cross section of improv traditions, and share these discoveries in our improv communities, it becomes more likely that we’ll make that inspired connection when the moment presents itself. A more recent addition to my own lexicon, Can I Talk to You for a Minute?, provides a good example of what might delightfully offer a next step in our movie theatre example.

As the scene unfolds, Player B who has been irritated by A’s late entrance, approaches their character and whispers “Can I talk to you for a minute?” in a high-pitched resonance and pulls them to the aisle for a passive-aggressive scolding. A few beats after both of them have returned to their seats, Player C, who has been sitting with B, feels the need to call them out on their snoopiness and repeats the dynamic whispering “Can I talk to you a minute?” Throughout the scene, players continue to pull each other aside for not-so-private exchanges of critique and discussion while using the emblematic phrase…

Final Thought

The game of the scene begins with one move that is noticed and built upon. All it requires to flourish is a specific choice, whether it is deliberate and intentional or subtle and accidental. Any one initiation that is given focus and attention opens up multiple possible paths and outcomes. There isn’t one right game of the scene waiting to be unlocked, but a game is less likely to emerge and thrive if players are not fully present, enveloped in the given circumstances and generously listening to and observing their teammates. A game is also less likely to take hold if it is only pitched and played by the same improviser: as is the case in real life, most games become dynamic when others notice them and join in their own unique way. Exploring a scenic game is the definition of process as it is not about leaping to a predetermined destination, but rather about experiencing a journey in lockstep together and arriving somewhere eventually together.

Related Entries: Accepting, Active Listening, Ambiguity, Handle, Heighten, Physicality, Verbal Skills Synonyms: The Deal

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Bus Stop

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: