“Don’t initiate! Follow the initiator! Follow the follower.”Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p.xiii
While an Initiation can refer to almost any inspiring offer or move in an improv scene that provides a new piece of information or opportunity, here I’d like to primarily consider some best practices and strategies for the very first moments of an improvised scene, or the initial initiation if you will. Scene starts are ripe with potentials and pitfalls: a grounded and elegant opening will often lead to joyful abandon whereas a clumsily or rushed first salvo can proverbially sink the ship before it’s even set sail. I’ve mused on story and character-based strategies in my CROW entry here so will take this opportunity to discuss some more technical stagecraft practices that can set you up for success as the lights start to fade and you make your way to the stage. While I’m gently assuming a short-form frame for these particular comments – there are a lot of first moves in a short-form show after all – these strategies also hold true with slight adjustments to other improv modalities as well.
The team has received the suggestion of “spelunking” for their scene. The host leads the audience in a countdown as the lights fade and the players ready themselves for the scene ahead…
Strong Scenic Starts
1.) “I’ll start.” Whether it’s literally uttered by a player or gently signaled by a look or established signal, I strongly advocate that a player clearly self selects to begin a scene. In short-form workshops I offer the mantra that the first two words of every scene should be “I’ll start” as I am such a believer in this conceit. This cue, or similar, prevents teammates from all scattering to the wings as no-one should (ideally) move until someone has happily nominated themselves to begin. There are few things more off-putting as an improviser than having the first moment of a scene consisting of your fellow players abandoning you onstage without even a thread of an idea in your pocket. For a scene to start from strength it’s crucial that the first initiation comes from a place of strength and excitement. (In my own long-form work this “I’ll start” has often evolved into a simple gesture – such as a hand over your heart – to let the cast know that you have something brewing.) Once a player has marked themselves to begin, it’s a simple matter for them to quickly select a scene partner (if one is required) with a light tag or look, or to ask fellow players to quickly help them set up a needed element (“Make me a car…”) Such an attitude reduces the likelihood of a scenic false start such as the lights rising on a glaringly empty stage or multiple players obliviously making competing and contradictory initiations. The latter scenario can prove charming occasionally as players now must skillfully combine disparate elements, but I find a cascade of tepid scene starts ultimately does little to aid the spontaneous event.
As the host leads the countdown “3, 2, 1…” Player A mouths “I’ll start” and gestures to Player B to join them downstage…
2.) Place yourself. Whether you’re dashing to the wings as you’re not initially needed or positioning yourself purposefully onstage for the first moment, make sure your first staging choice is deliberate and definitive. If a teammate has bravely offered themselves up to get the ball rolling and you aren’t currently needed, get yourself to the edge of the performance area quickly. Whenever possible you should position yourself in such a way that you are able to see all of the unfolding action without drawing undue attention to yourself or obstructing the view for the audience. I’ll often advocate for crouching downstage of the action if this is feasible and aesthetically pleasing as this posture typically allows for jumping into the fray immediately when you’re needed. If you’re in a more traditional theatre space with a backstage and wings, make sure you are still able to view the action and don’t become needlessly distracted rifling through costumes, props or the like. I’m not a big fan of standing against the “wall” behind the action as this has the double disadvantage of making it difficult to see the more nuanced expressions and gestures of your teammates if they’re appropriately playing to the audience, and it’s easy to distract from the scenes in progress. It can also create confusion as to who is actually actively involved in the scene. (I appreciate in some venues there may not be an obvious alternative.) If you see an opportunity to quickly arrange a few chairs or blocks to support the initial premise – or perhaps even use your body as a set piece depending on your style of play and the tone of the scene – endeavor to have this in place as efficiently as you can. If you volunteered to start, or have been nominated by a teammate to join them, position yourself robustly on stage with an eye to how the stage has been used thus far: if all the scenes have been center stage perhaps change it up and begin near the wings; or if several games have involved players standing and talking then grab a chair or block instead and orient it (and yourself) in an interesting way.
Player C and D, confirming that their teammates are excited to begin, quickly move to either side of the stage, taking a knee at the lip of the performance area. Player B accepts A’s invitation to join them downstage and they both lie on the floor in dynamic positions…
3.) Do something. Whether you’re establishing an activity, making the first contributions to the environment, or defining the core relationship, do something active rather than just talk or call on another player. Part of the gift of embracing an “I’ll start” philosophy is that it empowers players to seize the beginning of a scene without fear that they may be stepping on the ideas of their teammates. It remains good form, however, for the onstage players to then adequately share this task of setting the given circumstances. The self-nominating player – Player A in the above example – will typically also make the first offer which tends to set the tone of the scene that follows. So, as the literal or figurative lights rise on the scene it’s incumbent on the first player to offer up something specific. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that the initiating player has a fully-fleshed concept for the whole scene (most would agree this is actually likely to be more destructive than helpful) but rather that they can offer up the initial spark of inspiration with care and confidence. Many improv schools of thought would recommend that this connect to the CROW (Character, Relationship, Objective or Where) of the premise, but it could also be as simple as a well-crafted mood, emotion or energy: Player A is clearly enamored by their underground adventure, or in the middle of a panic attack, or having an epiphany about how caring their partner has been… If you’re able to make this first choice with your whole body and being (rather than as a cartooning commentary – “I’m loving this spelunking…”) you have already placed yourself on a firm scenic footing, hence my encouragement to do something rather than merely say something. This approach also increases the likelihood that you’ll start to shape the environment which becomes increasingly unlikely if it remains undefined in the opening moments of the scene.
As the lights come up, Player A squeezes themselves through a narrow passageway as Player B crawls closely behind. Both use precise movements, carefully adjusting their physicalities to accommodate the equipment tied to their bodies. Player A can be heard audibly breathing – a mix of exhaustion and excitement…
Player A: “The guide said the cavern should be right around this corner…”
4.) Don’t overthink ask-fors. Whether you’ve just elicited an ask-for from the audience to inspire your play or are reacting to the offers embedded in your ensemble’s prior scenes, trust these impetuses to inspire your work in both obvious and new ways. If you’re using ask-fors to launch your work there is certainly no need to begin with this information: there is undoubtedly a creative value in taking a tangential approach or gently building up to the proffered idea especially if this increases the likelihood of action or activity. (The “I’ll start” approach also affords the first player a little space to develop a more out-of-the-box idea that might not have been front-of-mind for their teammates.) However, there can also be plenty to mine from just grabbing the suggestion head on as this allows you stage time for the offer to morph into a multitude of less linear possibilities. After all, if the audience says spelunking and then immediately sees you spelunking they’re not likely to feel ignored! Just be cautious of taking an exciting offer and then disarming it by crafting a scene where you talk about possibly “doing the thing,” traveling to the site of potential activity, or gathering the necessary equipment. I might feel a little cheated as an audience member if I offered spelunking and then watched a lethargic scene about a couple considering but never actually going into the cave… At the end of the improv day, it matters less how you use or find inspiration from the initial prompt than the intensity of the energy with which you prime the creative furnace.
After one final gymnastic twist, Player A finally emerges into an opening, adjusts the lamp on their helmet and looks around them with a sense of awe and wonder…
5.) Elevate the initiator. Whether you’ve been invited or joined the first player to begin the scene, or join the action later as it unfolds, seek to elevate and polish the choices that clearly hit the stage first. Built into the “I’ll start” philosophy is the gift of providing the first initiator a little room. Generally, this first player wouldn’t have offered themselves up for this function if they didn’t have a glimmer of an idea. It is foreseeable that several company members may become inspired to start the scene, but it’s unlikely to prove fruitful if the opening moments become a confusing competition of cluttered concepts. Accept and elevate the initial choice as best you understand it. Trust that if you have a dynamic idea that it will find it’s way into the scene if that’s what this scene needs. Scenes often struggle under the burden of excess when too many ideas rush the stage and compete rather than connect: this tendency can be particularly destructive during the critical first moments when the story seeks to finds its footing. Spolin’s notion of following the initiator (or follower) feels particularly pertinent during these crucial first steps.
After a few more moments of twisting through the tunnel Player B finally emerges. A moment later their eyes adjust to the space and they are filled with similar wonder. They gently take Player A’s hand…
Player B: “Wow! This really is like a cathedral!”
I will happily confess that I can be a little persnickety when it comes to establishing etiquette for starting scenes – especially with novice improvisers – but those initial seconds as we prepare and begin our scenes have the power to make or break the explorations that follow. If we abandon others onstage who are ill-prepared to start we have eroded trust before the first word has even been uttered. If we dash backstage as the action begins and cannot see the nuances of the first scenic choices we are less likely to be able to contribute knowingly and meaningfully when we’re needed. If we begin a scene in our heads and are oblivious to others’ initiations or scenic intents we may spend much of the scene scrambling to get on the same page as our collaborators. I’ve found that one of the clearest indicators of how well players will connect and communicate within a scene resides in these first opening moments so it’s well worth the time to consider and rehearse how to successfully start the improv ball rolling.
Connected Game: Bell’s Kitchen