“A crowd delights in seeing a player pull out a forgotten scenic element just in time to solve a problem – like a chess player suddenly executing a checkmate, apparently out of nowhere.”Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p.74
Shelving is the improvisational act of strategically storing the pertinent details and offers that shape spontaneous stories in meaningful and satisfying ways. This skill innately connects to that of reincorporation and its many variants discussed below. Without potentials planted on the improvisational shelf, the likelihood that anything of substance will grow diminishes considerably. However, to perhaps stretch this creative metaphor to its limit, not all shelving units are built to serve the same scenic ends and there are subtle but important distinctions as to how you can use this storage system to enhance your craft.
Player A sweeps open the imaginary hotel curtains on the fourth wall while calling to their beloved.
Player A: “Darling, you really must see this astonishing view of the Pacific. I’ve never seen such glistening tranquility in all my life…”
Player B: (calling from an offstage bathroom) “You really have outdone yourself! You could fit a family of four inside this hot tub, and there’s a complementary bottle of champagne and cheese board awaiting us on the marble counter.” (They join Player A at the window affectionately) “I don’t think I’ll ever want to go back to the office…”
Stocking the Improv Shelves
As you assemble the raw material of improvisation, consider that shelving can serve several distinct and equally important creative functions.
1.) The lower shelves… When it comes to the foundational elements of improvisation – names, locations, relationships and characterizations – these offers shouldn’t stray too far from arm’s reach. With few exceptions (perhaps a grand identity reveal in a crime show) there is little value in having character names stowed away for protracted periods of time. Doing so will invariably lead to them being forgotten or laboriously reinvented. The same goes with fundamental scenic elements. If a fellow player has established a door on stage, ignoring that door for too long is likely to make it vanish in the memories of the company (although ironically not the minds of the audience who have a knack for picking up on the smallest of inconsistencies.) Moreover, noteworthy character behaviors left unattended will frequently dissipate into the land of lost improv choices. While we typically think of the “improv shelves” as a device for putting choices aside, in these cases important offers should only reside here temporarily if they are providing the raw material for the current scene or story arc. Frequent physical use or verbal repetition will keep such ideas cogent and relevant. In long-form pieces where we might then step away from a premise or character combination for a while, a healthy dose of reincorporation burns in these choices so that when they need to rest on the shelf for a while before their next appearance, they have been polished in helpful ways to make them memorable.
2.) The middle shelves… If we consider the lower shelves as providing easily accessible storage for our immediate and short-term scenic needs, the middle shelves are a great place for peculiar specifics, outliers and idiosyncrasies. In many ways this function takes cares of the creative surplus that marks much of the craft of improvisation. In the moment of creation it is often unclear and uncertain just what will prove critical for the path ahead and significance generally becomes clearer with the benefit of hindsight. The cumbersome locking mechanism on the door that never works on the first try, the unique character foible that grates against the protagonist’s nerves, or the unexpected birthday present that doesn’t suit the mood of the party – such choices are ripe in their own rights but may or may not ultimately prove instantly valuable. This is the domain of callbacks and connections. As the story develops, these shelved options provide grist for the creative mill and allow players to recycle and reuse prior memorable offers to elevate or contextualize the current action. If the proverbial cupboards are bare, these types of moves become challenging or unfeasible. Such moves also require that previous elements were well established – a callback won’t land if no-one recalls the original appearance. So gently keeping these behaviors or ingredients alive during the rising action will typically serve you well. Generic choices – a window that just is – will provide much less spark when recalled than those that have a unique flair – a disproportionately loud laugh that reveals to the protagonist the hideout of their arch nemesis.
3.) The upper shelves… And then some shelving is actually designed to hold onto those items you only rarely use or need. In some genres, such as a mystery or thriller, these shelves may actually hold significant dramaturgical weight as the play develops multiple threads and possibilities knowing that ultimately only one or two will prove “correct.” More commonly this storage houses the seemingly random or throwaway suggestions and those scenic elements that have been introduced and then willfully set aside. Such choices resemble the function of the curve ball, unanticipated or somewhat random offers that at first blush appear out of place but that provide opaque investments for future discoveries and journeys. These offers are marked by their incongruity while other shelved material generally supports the more obvious flow and energies of the work. It’s helpful to note that curve balls, in particular, seek to stand out from the narrative waters and, as such, invite saving for later reuse. Other ingredients benefit from at least occasional reappearances before an intended payoff, but upper shelf additions can become punctured if they reappear too often with more than the most subtle of winks. Doing so can feel like providing multiple decreasingly successful punchlines to the same joke setup. It’s also possible to structurally reserve a key element for a place of honor on the less frequented top shelves, such as the title of your show or a particular audience ask-for that summarizes the dramatic action, especially if you intend to use this information as a featured moment or dynamic button. Though, as I caution here, you’ll want to make sure that this information is familiar enough to your audience for a finessed callback to land.
Each of these imagined shelves serves a related function, but they each benefit from a slightly different tempo and application. Raw base material will likely move on and off the lower shelf with great ease and frequency, while items on the middle shelves are used more sparingly and luxuriously, and those on the highest shelves of all are patiently incorporated with discipline and self-awareness. I imagine it’s rather a common improviser fear that there won’t be enough material for the scene or show and yet it strikes me that careful work will nearly always provide a surplus of potential shelved ideas. Yes, it’s worthwhile to consciously place a few things of note on the improvisational bookcase, but ultimately our work is often better served by simply developing an awareness of what has organically emerged and stored itself for our future attention.
Connected Game: Chapters