“Since real props cannot be transformed, they become a burden: when actual physical props are sitting around on stage, they limit the improvised creation of other props.”Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.125
I think I might have been a little late to the scene painting party in terms of my own personal improvisational journey! My early training was primarily through short-form games and the particular tradition under consideration strikes me as more common amongst Chicago-style long-form practitioners. I’m also inclined to add theatrical elements when I’m able in my own devised pieces; but there is undeniably something wondrously freeing about a purely imaginary approach to creating your improv worlds.
Scene Painting literally allows anything to manifest on stage through the illustrative narrative efforts of the company (as opposed to an initially mimetic “space object” creative approach.) The way in which such moves are delivered varies from project to project. Ensemble members might pause the action to briefly describe a physical detail such as a noteworthy prop or facet of the environment. This is relatively common in Harold-esque structures where players routinely assume both character and editorial functions. In other cases, scene painting can serve as a dramatic preamble of sorts, initially establishing the given circumstances and then giving way to more traditional embodied action: this is the basic premise of the short-form game Prologue. Formats with built-in narrators, directors or sidecoaches – such as Gorilla Theatre performances or the scenic game Typewriter – might combine these first two approaches with an outside eye offering up helpful scenic embellishments when and where they’re needed. In my own work I’ve also used this device as an overtly theatrical choral function in a long-form Greek tragedy where members of the chorus poetically described the scenic elements throughout the action. And it’s become a defining feature of a current undertaking, Lights Up: The Improvised Rock Opera, where company members alternate into narrating epic contexts and stage effects for a show with no real props or costume pieces. Needless to say, scene painting can add a lot of detail to your improv under a wide variety of circumstances and with minimal expense!
Three players (A, B and C) assume various positions in a line across the stage adopting the personae of dreary subway passengers…
A few beats into the scene an offstage player, D, strategically enters the space (or perhaps speaks from the lip of the stage) to further describe the action as the performers gently pause…
Player D: “The florescent lights flicker on and off as the subway car lurches clumsily forward…”
As the three subway improvisers place themselves, a teammate or director narrates an introduction…
Player D: “It was much later than Casey preferred to ride the subway home, and so as the cabin shuddered over the rickety track he clung extra tightly to his freshly finished manuscript…”
One at a time the chorus of players pontificates on their surroundings…
Player A: “Oh, slow-moving A train, sleepily carrying your last impatient haul of the day…”
Player B: “Dim shadows of impersonal buildings flick past your grey dusty windows, slowly becoming sparser as the dense metropolis gives way to suburban sprawl…”
Player C: “Your wary cast of regulars busy themselves with idle distractions – a cell phone, newspaper, earbud music – avoiding eye contact or communication, until the arrival of the stranger…”
Players slowly populate a dimmed stage as an offstage voice sets the scene…
Player D: “Sharp beams of light punctuate the darkness. Eerie train clicks undulate through the auditorium as several lonely figures can be seen in the brief flashes of stage light. From the orchestra pit, the drummer joins the rhythmic cacophony as the subway travelers slowly start to pulse to the loudening beat…”
Pigments of Your Imagination
1.) Get in and out quickly. Unless the intent is to create epic narratives, scene painting generally aims to augment the action quickly rather than grind it to a halt. You’ll want to be careful about voluminous or clumsy additions that awkwardly interrupt the flow of the story or impede the characters from building and sustaining momentum. “Chicago style” improv is particularly well-suited to this stealthy approach with its bank of improvisers usually lurking on the back wall or sides of the stage with quick access to the action as needed when inspiration hits. More often than not I’ve seen such moments delivered essentially through the fourth wall with direct address to the audience, perhaps with some directional gestures to indicate specific placements and the like. Such a style deliberately contrasts clearly with the more representational delivery of the characters within the world of the scene (which also prevents any confusion as to the intent behind the addition.) When in doubt, follow the common adage that “less is more” and strive to deliver your offer as concisely as you can. I’ve seen a succession of scene painting contributions become the game of the scene, and this is certainly a fun and playful use of the dynamic, but more often than not these metatheatrical additions serve better as gentle nudges rather than riveting opuses in their own right (unless that’s the goal of course!)
2.) Create rather than repeat. By design, scene painting offers should add new elements or circumstances rather than merely reiterate what has already been clearly established. There’s no need, for example, to say that a young passenger stands beside the subway train door if this is a reality that has been clearly embodied and that the audience has already seen. The innate value of scene painting is that it can be utilized to introduce or heighten choices that might feel a little clumsy or resemble cartooning coming from the characters themselves. In this manner such narrative inserts can jumpstart a scene that might be floundering a little in its balance, or provide (or draw attention to) a promising spice or texture that the onstage characters will find appetizing and invigorating. What environmental influence or addition might intensify the scenic energy, or warrant further investigation, or appeal to the improvisers imaginations in a way that can spark new adventures and relationships? As scene painting can become a little addictive – it is such an enticing way to contextualize and shape the stage action – it’s helpful to keep in mind why you’re contributing to the scene to minimize your chances of overwhelming the players. If you’re heightening a game, will your “move” further this dynamic or merely postpone the story arc? Are you surprising your fellow improvisers in ways that open new doorways, or has the device become a form of gagging or pimping for your own pleasure and amusement?
3.) Consider your tone and delivery #1. Quick-hit scene painting tends to assume a metatheatrical tone as opposed to coming through the voice of a character. Most companies that commonly use this tool have developed a clear approach to avoid creating onstage confusion and it’s a relatively simple matter for the audience to quickly learn these cues – whether it’s a specific staging choice or tone of voice. There is certainly plenty to be mined from enjoying this juxtaposition to the spoken dialogue within the scene proper. Furthermore, there’s a wonderful opportunity to introduce rich idiosyncrasies when describing props and scenic elements. What makes this particular train a little out of the ordinary? How does this evening differ from all the other evenings for the passengers? What does this character do or wear or carry that makes them stand out a little from the crowd? Embracing poetic or nuanced language can craft inspiring and original offers that will jolt a scene out of the everyday and mundane. Scene painting is a theatrical conceit in and of itself so enjoy this opportunity to utilize less pedestrian language and energies.
4.) Consider your tone and delivery #2. While scene painting often serves more traditional “realistic” scene work by providing a touch of presentational finesse, in more stylistic pieces this impetus can become filtered through the lens of character as a way of adding to the overall tone or feel of the piece. I’ve attempted to give a little taste of this in my third example above where the train passengers evoke the grandeur of a mythic chorus narrating the entrance of their protagonist. This particular approach might not serve your own needs or tastes, but there are many ways to exploit the potentials of this descriptive device. Whether it’s folded into the narrative of a film noir detective, incorporated into the poetic musings of a Shakespearean prologue, or becomes adeptly woven into the expositional dialogue of your first act, the conceits of scene painting can bear many fruitful gifts when it comes to establishing the greater world of your play. If you’re inclined to explore narrative long-form modalities, it’s well worth your time considering how you might incorporate this tool to serve your greater goals.
5.) Take full advantage of all your senses. Lastly, I’d offer that while it’s fair game to provide character-based details (moods, motivations, staging) one of the greatest gifts of scene painting is that it can materialize scenic elements that the onstage players can’t easily tend to themselves such as sounds, smells and epic sights. Enjoy the opportunity to use all of your senses while also expanding the boundaries of the stage itself. In addition to telling us what a character may be wearing or holding, scene painting can describe the greater surroundings in a way that contextualizes and elevates the current action. What is happening in the room next door that might encroach upon our story? Are there weather or environmental forces at play? If you’re working in a venue with limited technical abilities can you paint features of the soundscape such as busy streets, rowdy crowds or hectic construction sites? In Lights Up we’ve also developed the successful custom of using this device to define and describe the audience in a way that invites them to join the conceit of the show: are they discerning critics, boisterous high-schoolers, or rabid super fans ravenously consuming their favorite show? When it’s worked well it adds an almost Rocky Horror dynamic to the show that empowers the audience to assume their own personae in the greater event.
Scene painting provides a helpful reminder for those of us who tend towards a more language-based style of play that there are so many physical facets of our improv worlds worthy of exploring. If your available venues are modest in terms of their technical abilities these techniques will truly explode any perceived limitations as, ultimately, space can become anything if the company simply invests the creativity to make it so.
Connected Game: Typewriter (drops Friday EST)