“…if you can’t find an ending, look at your opening.”Bernard Sahlins, Days and Nights at the Second City. A Memoir, with Notes on Staging Review Theatre. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. p.171
Looking Backwards is a common improv mantra and strategy. I tend to think of Keith Johnstone’s teachings when I stumble back into this notion as this was where I first encountered the concept (I’ve quoted his paradigmatic passage on the subject here.) The thought of shaping the future path of an improv scene can truly feel overwhelming as there are almost endless possibilities. When one considers past actions and events, however, the next scenic move frequently appears without this same sense of panic or strained effort. This theory of looking backwards also resonates with what we are often told about human behavior in general; namely, that the best predicter of someone’s actions is what they are known to have done in the past. It would follow, then, that what characters have already done can shed considerable light on what they could do next when the scenic path ahead feels dark and unsure.
Three players have begun their scene by standing in line to get their books signed at a Barnes and Noble. Player A is hugging their well-worn copy of the book in question as if it were their child; Player B appears to be more interested in their cell phone and scrolls through screen after screen; Player C seems jittery which may or may not be explained by the coffee cup they are nervously clutching. Player D, a store employee, stands somewhat dispassionately at the front of the line that ends at a currently-empty table.
Player D: “One more minute…”
1.) Look backwards… at what you’ve just done. Sometimes the most interesting choices are instinctual moves that we may have contributed almost unconsciously. As players consider what to do next, they should not neglect the small things that they have already created. Often a strong next choice is merely repeating or amplifying what is already happening: Player A can heighten their parental relationship to their book; Player B might adjust their physical position in an effort to get better cell phone reception; Player C could take one more gulp of coffee and experience the hyper-caffeinated results. I’d add that even if your actions are subtle you should commit to them with attack and specificity. It’s difficult to build energy and interest (for you, your fellow players and the audience) if you are blasé about your own first choices.
2.) Look backwards… at what your partners have done. It’s certainly good form to build upon your own game or dynamic, but even greater joy can be found in enabling the journeys of other players and characters. It’s not uncommon for an improviser to miss the richness of their own accidental “move,” and in such instances it’s an act of improv generosity to give fellow teammates a playful nudge. I’ve also found that a game or trajectory is more likely to build when players join each others’ game rather than only play their own. Be mindful not to name the game or explode it by jumping ahead multiple steps – Player B announces to A “Your book’s on fire!” as opposed to simply eyeing the treasured tome with disconcerting curiosity. A gentle echo can be enough to start – Player A pulls out their own cell phone and joins B’s efforts to connect to the store Wi-Fi thereby making everyone’s connection slower…
3.) Look backwards… at what’s been shelved. Clearly this isn’t typically applicable to the formative moments of the scene, but as the action continues to unfold consider what elements have been well-established and then set aside. In some performance situations this tactic might also apply to what has occurred in seemingly unrelated scenes or games that occurred much earlier in the evening. As is the case with the approaches above, this strategy (essentially a callback) is highly contingent upon players creating and remembering specific choices. Perhaps Player C sits their coffee cup down on the author’s table early in the scene and it eventually is knocked all over Player A’s beloved book, or Player B’s omnipresent phone, or the esteemed author once they finally arrive. It could also be as simple as Player D continuing to punctuate the scene with unenthusiastic time updates, “One minute late…”
4.) Look backwards… at your contract with the audience. This is another thought for later in the scene, but the philosophy of looking backwards should also apply to any contracts that have been explicitly or implicitly made with the audience. In the short-form tradition it can feel anticlimactic if the audience suggestion used to inspire the scene doesn’t actually materialize or connect with the action (not to say that we have to shoe-horn ask-fors into every scene and can’t use them more metaphorically or tangentially to inspire our choices.) Your scene or play may have received its launch from a title which can likewise serve as a compass setting when the path ahead becomes obscured. Improv games will generally come with a set of expectations as well – someone needs to die in Death in a Minute – while similar expectations may emerge from more open scenic forms. Whether you fully honor these contracts (the author arrives and everyone gets their books signed) or playfully subvert and thwart them (the super fans have lined up at the wrong store) remembering and acknowledging foundational conceits can powerfully enable your next move.
5.) Look backwards… at how this all started. Lastly, as Sahlins recommends in the opening quote – which I invite you to look back at now – if you feel the scene has lost it’s thread, sense of direction, or is struggling to find a button, consider how your story started. Often there is still something vibrant in the story’s residue that you can resuscitate or simply parallel. Does Player A now clutch their signed copy of the book even more closely; is Player B desperate to get cell reception so they can post their selfie with the author; does an over-caffeinated Player C vibrate at an even higher frequency? While one would hope that at least one of our protagonists ultimately changes as a result of their adventures and conflicts, this doesn’t mean that they have lost the idiosyncrasies that make them unique. And, frankly, audiences are often tickled when they recognize the return of pre-established behaviors or patterns.
Look at your opening if you can’t find an ending… (I’m taking my own advice!)
Connected Game: Word at a Time Story