It’s tempting to relegate the device of Asides to style-based scenes or formats as it is a less common practice in contemporary (Western) scripted theatre, but this conceit can be deployed to dynamically break the fourth wall in a host of different performance situations. In addition to developing narrative, subtext and staging skills, this performance overlay also playfully connects improvisers to the audience in interesting ways. Furthermore, if you struggle with Mugging, this technique can redirect this inclination to step out of the action to a more productive and aesthetically pleasing end.
Improvisers construct a scene in which one or more players can momentarily pause the action to share their character’s inner thoughts with the audience through the use of an aside. Players may cue this device by either distinctly turning their head away from the action or stepping to the forestage and conversing with the audience directly before returning to the scene. A story develops punctuated and informed by a series of these theatrical interruptions.
Highschool reunion attendees (Player A and B) are sipping punch in their old gymnasium as angsty music plays in the background. It is several – painful – hours into the event…
Player A: “…And that was when I broke up with my third spouse…”
Player B: (kindly, though only just) “You certainly have lived quite the life since graduating twenty years ago.”
Player A: “Nearly graduating – there was that mix-up with my credits, remember? I’ve always meant to go back and fix that…”
Player B: “It’s never too late…!”
Player A: “Tell that to my second husband!”
Player B: (taking a step downstage as A gets a refill: an aside) “Well, I’ve done my part and made the rounds. It looks like Nandeeta didn’t come anyway.”
Player B steps back into the scene and continues…
Player B: “It’s getting late, I really should be heading back to my hotel…”
Player A: (handing B another drink) “You’re not going to make me drink alone! These events are always just one drink away from depressing…”
Player B: “Okay, just this last one.”
Player A: (raising their glass) “To the good old days…”
Player B holds their glass aloft as Player A steps downstage for an aside…
Player A: (aside) “Those really were the best years of my life, even if I don’t have a diploma to show for it…”
Enjoy using the asides to deepen and expand upon the characters’ lives, feelings and objectives. While there are gimmicks that you can fold into the asides, this device can also work well at face value without commenting on its presence. Leaning into the gimmicks will incline the scene towards a broader comedy: prioritizing the subtextual undercurrents and potentials will move you towards more dramatic hues. Obviously both approaches have their merits and place.
Traps and Tips
1.) Establish and maintain a clear aside conceit. It’s helpful to adopt and maintain a particular asides approach within any one performance. A more subtle turn and talk to the audience (perhaps with a hand gesture signifying privacy) can support sincere or contemporary scenarios, while a grandiose step to the proverbial footlights evokes more Shakespearean or commedia dell’arte hues. That being said, inverting these norms can also work extremely well and provide an effective juxtaposition. The key is that performers make a clear signal when they move from the scenic world through the fourth wall and back again so that their fellow players and the audience understand their intent. It’s a well-worn gag to mistake a character’s aside as dialogue (and not one I’m particularly fond of) but if this continues to happen in earnest then it’s likely that players aren’t sharply creating this important distinction and that would be a waste of the game’s inherent promise.
2.) Use deliberate staging to support others’ asides. There are simple and helpful ways to help players during their aside moments that further add to the clarity and theatricality of the scene. It’s generally good form not to look directly at a character as they engage in these transitions and verbal commentaries (or even in their general direction.) This broken eye contact reinforces the notion that these stolen moments are private. Depending on your stylistic preferences, the background scene could essentially freeze as well, although in most cases I’ve found a softer freeze – where characters quietly continue minor stage business – provides a nice sense that the scene has remained active all the while. In both cases, there is fun to be had from players snapping back into prior scenic activities or emotional energies. Player A could step out and back into their toast, for example, with an accompanying shift in tone. If you elect to have asides delivered on the forestage it can prove effective to not use this area as a part of your primary location as well.
3.) Give asides purpose and oomph. Asides provide a great opportunity for mischievousness and general silliness but I’d caution against only using them as a way of exercising your wit and whimsy. These private moments are uniquely able to unlock dynamic elements of the scene, adding urgency and stakes to otherwise run-of-the-mill situations. Consider using this device to explore character backstory, secrets or CADs (confessions, accusations and discoveries.) Asides offer a rare tool for jumpstarting games, heightening tensions and establishing rich given circumstances. The power of these choices can quickly become punctured if strong asides are cheekily echoed or diffused. In this way, while Player B could immediately mention Nandeeta from A’s aside, by patiently shelving this hidden offer it’s potency and import will likely build. Asides, after all, are pitched as secrets rather than everyday dialogue, and improv secrets tend to have more dynamic pay-offs when they are earnt.
4.) Pay extra attention to gives and takes. If you’re using a single character as your aside provider (as might be the case in a film noir detective piece, or a Malcolm in the Middle parody) issues of focus tend to be a little simpler as this player will likely emerge as the protagonist and subsequently serve as the default focus in the scene. When asides can come from any quarter (such as is the convention in the cutaway moments in Modern Family or a Moliere comedy) players need to display extra diligence so as not to step on each other. Generally it’s helpful not to try to “sneak in” asides in these cases but rather wait until your character clearly holds the attention of your scene partners and the audience. It’s also helpful for characters to telescope a little their intent to grab an aside so that others can let them take the needed room to do so. But even better, when characters start to consciously give each other windows for these moments as opposed to hurriedly trying to take them from each other, the scene benefits greatly.
5.) And why not explore a variety of genres and styles. In my introduction I note that Asides shouldn’t only be considered as a way of infusing bold styles into our work: undoubtedly I would love to see this tool deployed more often in everyday contemporary scenes and situations. But the use of asides can also serve as a gateway into a myriad of stylistic options, from dime store novels, to high-school dramedies (think Saved By the Bell) to mockumentaries and a wide array of period-specific theatre parodies. I particularly enjoy this scenic game as it can easily house all of these genres and more, so don’t feel that this tool can only support one type of scene or period. The same holds true in terms of tone.
As a stand-alone short-form game, or as a device woven into the fabric of a long-form homage, Asides provides a dynamic and malleable tool for getting into the minds and motivations of our characters. Not to mention it’s also a theatrical way to establish, intensify and explode powerful secrets.
Connected Concept: Mugging