“Some offers are richer than others, but there are no bad offers. No longer are players searching for the secret or correct answer that only the teacher knows.”Lyn Pierse, Theatresports Down Under. 2nd ed. Sydney, Australia: Improcorp, 1995. p.88
An Offer is the smallest improvisational unit. It is an idea put into motion, a single move in a game or story, an instigating action or instinctive response, or one proverbial brick given to assist in the creation of the larger improv edifice. Pretty much anything we do on the improv stage (arguably consciously or even accidentally) serves as an offer in the service of the greater collective act of spontaneous storytelling. While Pierse notes that there are no bad offers – a common improv sentiment – it is certainly fair to say that there are certainly problematic ones. Choices that perpetuate harmful stereotypes, needlessly offend (as opposed to astutely satirize) or carelessly puncture or negate the established given circumstances are unquestionably to be avoided. As are offers that put yourself, fellow players or the audience in physical or psychological peril. But to Pierse’s point there is rarely a singular “correct” offer as each player will likely process and react to onstage impetuses in their own uniquely organic way.
As we work to embrace the multitude of ideas that present themselves on the improv stage it’s helpful to remember that there are different types of offers that will serve our scene work and partners in correspondingly different kinds of ways. It can prove helpful as a player to also recognize whether or not you may be leaning towards one type of contribution again and again at the expense of developing comfort in other areas of artistry. To this end, I offer several subsets and tensions that can infuse our play with maximum potential. I am not suggesting that one end of any given spectrum is intrinsically better than the other, but rather that purposefully leaning in one direction or the other may prove more effective in addressing the peculiar needs of any one particular moment or could effectively enhance the prevailing tone of the piece in which you’re working.
Player A steps forward and delivers the first line of a story…
Player A: “Once upon a time there was a wise old woman who lived high in the mountains of Tibet…”
Player B steps forward to contribute…
Surveying the Vast Terrain of Offers
1.) Physical and verbal offers. While this may appear a rather obvious or simplistic distinction, many improvisers find greater ease on one end of this spectrum than the other and so might almost exclusively reside in one preferred sphere. Most choices we make on stage will certainly contain both of these elements to some degree, but it’s not uncommon for players to largely favor one mode of creativity. Just knowing your innate predilection can encourage you to break your own recurring patterns. Leaning into physical choices can go a long way in short-form games or scenes that tend towards verbosity or static stage pictures; prioritizing verbal choices can embellish scenes that have relied heavily on embodied characterization but might now benefit from the specificity and nuance that rich dialogue can provide. (In fairness, the first deficit is much more common in my own improv circles than the second.)
Player B steps forward and silently assumes the role of the wise old woman, meticulously assembling an array of personal items before herself as she prepares for the day. She looks out on the expansive vistas that extend from her home…
Player B: “She was renowned for her kindness and insight, and would greet each stranger that traversed the rocky path outside her abode with a warm smile and equally warm nourishment…”
2.) Emotional and intellectual offers. Emotional offers tend to elevate the import and stakes of our work on stage, connecting our stories to personal human narratives and experiences. Intellectual offers, on the other hand, more frequently appeal to our rational selves and might tease out abstract or cerebral themes. Again, there is no argument that both types of offers (and the myriad of choices that combine these tendencies in complex ways) have an important place on the stage, and clearly work that appeals to both an audience’s heart and head is likely to prove most effective and memorable. If your work is marked by esoteric chatter, however, upping the emotional volition of the scene will add consequence and connection. Similarly, scenes that have inadvertently become self-indulgent or emotionally excessive will benefit from offers that elevate or frame the material from a more aerial or logical stance.
Player B, assuming the role of the wise woman, carries on a small parcel with great care and affection. As she painstakingly moves the earth with her bare hands, she clearly mourns a great loss…
Player B: “Banished from her homeland since she was a child, the woman looked keenly into the distance. Little could escape her piercing view as she counted the days until she could avenge her family.”
3.) Contained and expansive offers. There is a lot of talk in improv circles about making small steps and breathing careful life into the simplest of choices – and this would certainly be akin to a “contained” offer approach that typically polishes an existing idea rather than adding a whole new element. Alternatively, expansive offers, or those that propel the action forward with fresh complications and greater momentum, also hold a crucial place on the improv stage. The former category of choice are great for adding detail and embellishment, raising up minor details and making them important. The latter serves when a story may have become bogged down in minutiae or needs a leap forward in order to reinvigorate the process (and probably the audience’s interest.) If material has become inappropriate, stale, or overly self-referential, an expansive approach can also open up dynamic new potentials. Tightly timed scene work (as one often sees in short-form traditions) benefits from nuanced smaller moves as there is rarely time to chase multiple seemingly unrelated threads. Improv that has more room for luxurious exploration (as one often sees in long-form pieces) also thrives off strategic expansive strokes that provide raw material for the mill that can be fleshed out and connected (much) later as needed.
Player B: “The trek up to the beacon was long and arduous, but it was a task that the wise old woman completed every morning with unwavering regularity.”
Player B: “Below her in the valley, a young boy started his morning chores – corralling a particularly stubborn herd of goats that viewed him more as a nuisance that an owner.”
4.) Advancing and extending offers. Advancing refers to the active elements of the story – the plot features that move our characters from one event to the next. (You can read more about it here.) Extending adds detail and significance to the raw elements of the story, be they characters, places or objects. (You can read more about this concept here.) There is some correlation to the tension above as expansive offers tend to assume an advancing function, leaping the story to a new moment, character or locale, but contained offers can certainly take on an advancing or extending function: you can add a small descriptive detail or a closely connected but minor subsequent action. Effective stories generally contain a dynamic and ever-evolving balance of these two impetuses. If your scene is stuck in a status quo, advancing will likely do the trick to raise the heat. Extending can prove helpful when scenes are racing from generic action to generic action without adding sufficient details to create and sustain interest.
Player B: (assuming the role of the wise old woman, and pushing a boulder before her) “I’ve warned you all before that no-one shall pass this way, and now you’ve given me no choice but to bar the path myself…”
Player B: (continuing the narration) “The blustering wind lashed against her weather-beaten skin. She pulled her ragged cloak around her aging shoulders as a futile gesture to keep warm…”
5.) Presentational and representational offers. Finally, offers can assume various stylistic or theatrical features. Presentational theatre gladly steps in and out of the performance frame, with players often directly addressing the audience (as characters, or themselves, or a Brechtian combination of the two) or playing scenarios with an air of critique or distance. Representational performances more rigorously and deliberately maintain a “fourth wall” separation, often in the pursuit of creating a “realistic” experience replete with verisimilitude. Devices that would appear playful, inclusive and engaging in productions committed to the former style might be viewed as mugging, breaking or commenting in the latter. Players working in modes that embrace a presentational feel might incorporate offers that explicitly connect to or utilize the audience or greater performance space – immersive and interactive modes use these tools to great effect as well. Improvisers in more representational venues typically incorporate factors beyond the fourth wall in more subtle or understated fashions, such as leaning into material that is clearly garnering a favorable response, or adjusting stage pictures so that sightlines are appropriately maintained. Improvising musicians and technicians can similarly lean into drawing attention to the theatricality of the event or work to more subtly support and elevate the mood and focus of the story.
Player B: (as themselves, talking directly to the audience) “Now, who would like to come and join us to play the role of the wise old woman…?”
Player B: (assuming the role of the woman, and mumbling under her breath while preparing for the day) “I’ll never understand why a relentless stream of visitors come and disturb my peace on this mountain. Why can no-one understand that I am happiest when I’m alone?”
I hope these examples amply demonstrate that merely by considering the type or category of offer we are about to contribute we can productively spark our imagination in new and interesting ways. For example, I personally love language-centric improvisation so I’ll often challenge myself to focus more pointedly on my physical offers so as to keep this element of my scene work vibrant and engaging. Building an awareness of both your own habitual choices and the greater stylistic needs of your company and productions also increases the likelihood that you’ll unlock some of the “richer” hues that Pierse references above. For while I agree that nearly any offer can effectively add to the play when met with sufficient joy, love and acceptance, it would also be fair to note that offers informed by the peculiarities and specific needs of the here and now are more likely to memorably elevate and enhance the creative act too.
Connected Game: Stop and Go