“H” is for “Handle”

“Variety is the soul of pleasure.”

Aphra Behn, playwright


Handles provide an added spice or challenge to a scene and in many cases are largely synonymous with specific short-form games or devices – although their implementation can look quite different from case to case. These additive elements can be discovered organically from the game of the scene (we’re all moving as if we’re in a zero gravity environment so let’s keep doing that) may be imposed from an external host or director once the scene has begun (“Freeze! From this point on Player A has to finish everyone else’s sentences…”) or may be issued up front as an additional challenge or conceit that frames the event or round (“When I ring this bell, the rest of the scene must be performed silently with a musical soundtrack.”) The first approach most typically appears in long-form or more “open” performance traditions, the second in directed work such as Gorilla Theatre or Micetro, and the latter in more traditionally hosted short-form competitions when you have an emcee shaping the flow of the show.

And of course there are hybrid approaches. For example, with my current university troupe, Rollins Improv Players, I’ll often deploy an emcee challenge round where team members begin an open scene (typically as a pair of characters) and once the action and central dynamic are clearly established I’ll pause the players and overlay a short-form game that is in our repertoire that I hope will further add to the fun. I’ve also deployed handles in competitive shows as a way to shake up well-worn and familiar formats so that now a Typewriter might involve all the characters speaking in gibberish, or an Entrances and Exits scene now also includes audience Options. Handles, as a general conceit and philosophy, can provide a playful porousness that allows a new sense of inventiveness with scenarios or structures that have become a little predictable.


Player A and B have begun a scene with the ask-for “flea market” inspiring the action. Player A begins the scene packing up for the day as B enters.

Player B: (with kindness) “Another rough day?”

Player A: “I don’t know what I was thinking quitting my day job for this…”

Player B: “Honey, your art is beautiful – perhaps an acquired taste – but beautiful…”

Player A: (holding up an etching) “No one seems to value original work any more. Everyone looks and says they could find it cheaper online…”

Player B: (gesturing to the piece) “That’s one of my favorites!!!”

Player A: (jokingly) “Wanna buy it? Discounts for spouses!”

A handle is introduced…

Getting a Handle on Handles

Here are some possible types of handles that can enhance your play:

1.) Language handles. If the characters and premise are strong, a verbal overlay can be a nice way of heightening what is working without overly impeding the action. There are a wide array of possibilities that fall under this heading: one or more players could be asked to switch into gibberish; the team might be instructed to continue by scrolling through the letters of the alphabet sequentially as in the Alphabet Game; a language-centric genre could be offered to frame the scene such as a Greek tragedy or Elizabethan comedy; or particularly brave players can be given the challenge of continuing the scene in rhyming couplets…

Player B: “I can’t explain how others see your art;
          For me each brush stroke represents your heart”

Player A: “It seems that no-one else here feels that way…”

Player B: “But should we really care what halfwits say?!”

2.) Character handles. Many handles focus on the ways that characterizations and relationships are developed or presented. If you’ve fallen into an archetypal dynamic that doesn’t have much nuance or spark, a well-chosen handle can reinvigorate the work or perhaps just add some delightful whimsy or panache! Some potentials include: characters could become imbued with an animal or other essence that now informs their mannerisms and traits; everyone might be invited to adjust their speaking style with a “baby talk” challenge or similar; a status arrangement can magnify or upturn an existing dynamic; or a playful game such as one-upping might add some edge or spice…

Player B: “That’s a lovely offer, but you know I prefer my own artistic creations…”

Player A: “There are certainly a lot of them lying around unsold at our house.”

Player B: “It’s just so hard to part with something that has truly captured your vision. I’m sure you know the feeling, or maybe not…”

3.) Physical and staging handles. These additions can prove quite helpful if a scene has become static or a little under-energized by encouraging players to interact with the world around them in a new or perhaps unusual way. Examples of this approach include: players adopt an Entrances and Exits limitation and may now only have two characters present in the scene at any given moment; the stage picture could become embellished with a levels challenge requiring that no two characters can assume the same height; if there is a particularly important activity occurring this might become further heightened with a call that moves the action into slow motion, hopefully with a suitable soundtrack from the booth or musician; or players can be encouraged to explore different ways of interacting with a Contact (or “touch to talk”) add-on that demands that characters must be physically connected with someone else on the stage before they can speak…

Player B: (gently placing their hand on A’s) “This is your dream, and I support you 100%”

Player A: (placing the last etching in a box before collapsing their head on B’s shoulder) “I don’t know. I’m just starting to feel like the reality of this dream is much harder than I thought it would be.”

Player B: (with playful jabs on A’s shoulder that punctuate each word) “Hang… in… there… honey!”

4.) Called handles. A called handle will likely prove a little more intrusive than some of those above as it requires further interruptions or adjustments as the scene continues. That being said, it also allows the caller (or callers) multiple opportunities to course correct or nudge the scene as its central dynamic evolves and becomes clearer to all involved. As is the case with the handles above, there is a wide stock of short-form frames from which to gain inspiration: a Word Ball dynamic offers players an ever-changing number of words that must be featured in each sentence; characters might explore a rollercoaster of emotions offered up from the wings that now flavor their choices; lines of dialogue may be singled out as worthy to turn into spontaneous songs; or perhaps fellow company members are enlisted to serve as stage direction authors providing a series of specific actions to the mix…

Player B: “Here, let me help you with that last box.”

Player D: (from the side of the stage) “They said as they clumsily reached for the box.”

Player B does so and inadvertently drops it on the ground.

Player A: “Well, that just pretty much sums up my day so far.”

Player C: (from the side of the stage) “They said as they clasped their face in disbelief…”

Final Thought

When handles are discovered or pitched from within the scene players are more likely to offer up dynamics that provide a fitting balance of challenge and joy. It’s important when an outside eye or voice offers up an overlay that they also seek this dynamic, allowing the players an opportunity to stretch their improv muscles in a new way while also giving a good faith possibility for playful success. Handles can tend to innately lean into shivving or pimping territory and while the former of these energies can certainly be appropriate if your team or venue values such a mischievous energy, needlessly scuttling a scene rarely lands well for the audience or the players involved. As the examples above testify, a handle can radically change the trajectory of a scene. Therein lies both the value and the cautionary tale of this improvisational tool.

And a closing word of caution. There can be a tendency in improv to chase the new: “if we add together these five short-form improv games or pitch multiple ‘games of the scene’ then that’ll really create interest and dynamism.” Often, this just overwhelms the scenic action is such a way that suffocates the potential for any story or connection of note and substance. No ornate tower of handles will ultimately serve as a substitute for focused play and patient storytelling. While it’s helpful to be on the lookout for when a handle might add to the fun, it’s equally important to hone the skill and discipline to recognize when such a move might take away more than it gives.

Related Entries: Caller, Game of the Scene, Long-Form, Short-Form  Synonyms: Hoop, Overlay

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Oscar-Winning Moments

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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