“Johnstone abandons the notion of content, and concentrates instead on structure – the key to which is reincorporation […] Free association takes care of invention and development; reincorporation takes care of structure.”Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.135
Reincorporation, the practice of reusing previously established story elements and facts, provides a critical improvisational tool for constructing coherent and cogent stories. There are several important related terms and strategies connected to the current subject of discussion, the first and foremost being shelving which consists of creating details and momentarily setting them aside. Two other similar ideas deserve quick mention as well: callbacks generally display great patience before weaving shelved elements optimally back into the mix; while connections often display a greater sense of the whole by adding to an overarching design or underlying motif. The skill of reincorporation undeniably enables both of these practices, but here, for the purposes of leaning into the distinctions rather than the similarities of these improv tools, I will consider the more foundational aspects of this broader term; namely, the simple (at least in theory) process of seeing or hearing something and then keeping this offer alive and in the flow of the scene. Reincorporating, in this wholistic sense, can be viewed as the act of conscious and deliberate repetition.
A nervous Player A enters a formal office for their crucial job interview. They mime removing a rain-drenched coat and hanging it inelegantly on a coat stand in the corner of the room. As they approach their seat at the edge of the ominous boss’s desk, they place their equally drenched briefcase on their lap, awkwardly fumble with the locking mechanism, and then eventually pull out a copy of their curriculum vitae, all as Player B (the boss) patiently watches on from the comfort of their oversized plush chair.
Player A: (extending their right hand to shake and their left hand with their résumé) “It’s such an honor to meet you, Ms. Kojic. I’m Joseph Shoemaker…”
Repeat After Me…
1.) Repeat it. To repeat a choice – either your own or, even better, someone else’s – exponentially increases the likelihood that it will helpfully stay in the scenic mix for future use and reference. Improvised names, in particular, can tend to quickly evaporate if they are not deliberately and frequently echoed. Such a failure can particularly cause problems down the road in more substantial long-form pieces. Just as one would in a social situation meeting a new colleague for the first time, it’s good form to keep newly proffered names (or any detail for that matter) alive and well through the simple act of repetition…
Player B: (happily taking the résumé) “I’ve been greatly looking forward to finally meeting you in person, Mr. Shoemaker…”
2.) Use it. Reincorporations are obviously not limited to the verbal components of a scene, and similar repetitions can be utilized when it comes to physical offers and creations. Player A has crafted several rich choices in their first scenic salvo – the coat rack, the briefcase, the résumé – all of which singularly or combined can provide exciting next steps and possibilities. Ignoring these potentials for too long will, once again, increase the chances that they may be forgotten (or misplaced in the case of mimed space objects.) Even if you don’t draw attention to your move, honoring the nuances of physical gifts keeps them in play even if you place them temporarily on the improv shelf for later use.
Player B: (gingerly taking the now soggy résumé) “I’ll just let this dry out a little before giving it a closer inspection…”
3.) Mirror it. More global or environmental choices – the time of day, temperature, outside influences – are also rich sites for recycling and reincorporation. A seemingly throw away choice, such as noting that the interview is happening on a weekend, may open up interesting pathways especially if you find yourself in a familiar scenic trope or dynamic. If a scene partner offers up a contextualizing choice, honor it by taking it fully on board and reflecting it back. This also applies to any “stage geography” that emerges – the placement of the office door, the location of the coat rack, the size of the boss’s desk. The sooner your character also utilizes these elements, the more likely they will remain credible and creatively useful.
Player B: (stepping out from behind their grand desk and going over to a window on the “fourth wall,” pulling it firmly closed as they shudder from the cold) “Sorry you had to come out in this terrible weather. I got drenched as well coming into the office earlier today.”
4.) Frame it. When it comes to character or object behaviors and quirks, another potent strategy is reincorporating an idea by setting up the conditions for its reappearance as opposed to just repeating the detail yourself. Player A has provided a lot of specific behavior with their entrance, offering up inclement weather, a rather drenched exterior (and probably equally nervous interior) as well as a wet résumé and idiosyncratic briefcase. Rather than replicating or commenting on these ideas, an observant scene partner can provide a choice that invites the reappearance of a previously established dynamic. In many ways this could serve as the second move of a “game.”
Player B: (with a gesture towards the now-locked brief case) “You wouldn’t happen to have another copy of your C.V. in there for my assistant who’ll be joining us shortly, would you?”
5.) Elevate it. Lastly, a reincorporation mindset can be used to elevate a prior choice by making it special or memorable. Arguably, all of the above approaches could or should include a little of this ingredient as repeating an offer, by the very act of selection, indicates that the recipient has deemed it potentially worthy of some extra improv love and attention. A creative embellishment, however, can take something that may have seemed everyday or mundane at first glance, and move it powerfully front and center. In many instances this is even more delightful and impactful when the initiator was not particularly intending their contribution as a significant move.
Player B: (gesturing to the apparent storm outside the window) “This frightful weather really is a reminder of how critical the work is we want to do here at the Environmental Initiative…”
To reiterate, this entry considers the simplest and most foundational subset of reincorporation: callbacks and connections embody the utility of a more patient or calculated approach. Immediate reincorporation does start to resemble basic “yes, anding” in its form and function which is, by all means, a laudable improv attitude in its own right. However, if you start to feel like an inelegant parrot, waiting a few beats to recycle a choice again serves the same purpose in a slightly less obvious fashion. Weaving your partner’s name into the dialogue, referencing the wet résumé, or crossing over to the established coat rack to get your keys a minute or two into the scene will equally assist the creative endeavor, especially if you’re working in a more expansive or leisurely style of performance.
When we improvise we never know where the interest or creativity will come from; we increase the chances that these energies will emerge when we carefully use what has already been crafted (rather than fish for that “perfect” something that isn’t actually there.) In this sense, to reincorporate is to trust that, in most cases, the great choices you are looking for have probably already happened, they just need us all to pay appropriate attention to recognize them.
Connected Game: Word Association Reincorporation Story