This tongue-in-cheek parody of a movie set quickly became a mainstay with my Gorilla Theatre company. It has a sketch contest energy and I’ve seen several sitcoms deploy variants of this fish out of water dynamic since I became familiar with the formula. If you’re new to the tradition of Sidecoaching, Bad Extra offers a light-hearted point of entry.
Players obtain an original movie title, usually something on the dramatic side. A couple of players serve as the featured stars, another as the hands-on director, and finally a company member assumes the role of the “bad extra.” The director sets the scene and cameras roll as the starring actors dig deep into their dramatic portrayals. Before they have uttered more than a handful of lines, however, the bad extra wanders into shot and engages in some “unintentionally” distracting behavior. The director stops the action, coaches the extra with new instructions and the scene resets. Several such interruptions occur with escalating mischief – each with accompanying directorial intervention – until filming is ultimately abandoned or another fitting conclusion emerges.
The audience suggests “The Long Road” as the movie title.
Player A: (as the director) “Alright everyone, it’s the final day of shooting and we’ve left the juiciest scene for last! Samantha, you’re finally reunited in the retirement home with the love of your life, and you can’t believe fate has brought you together. Places everyone!”
Player B places themselves at a card table with C (Samantha) standing behind them.
Player A: “And… action!”
Player B gently chuckles at the card table. Player C who has been looking away, experiences a profound moment of recognition. She slowly turns…
Player C: “I’ll never forget that laugh. It couldn’t be…”
Player B freezes at the card table upon hearing Samantha’s voice.
Player B: (without turning) “That voice… that voice is the soundtrack of my dreams…”
Player C: (gently placing her trembling hand on B’s shoulder) “I’m not a dream. I’m your Samantha. Turn around my love…”
Just as Player B starts to turn, Player D (the bad extra) loudly enters pushing a trolley.
Player D: “Who wants a cuppa tea?!!”
Player A: (who has been enthralled on the edge of their seat) “Cut! Cut! I’m terribly sorry, but who are you…?”
The demands and rewards of each role are quite distinct. Be wary of wandering out of your “lane” or the scene can lose its effectiveness. If in doubt, defer to the director and let their sidecoaching inform or shape the next beat.
Traps and Tips
1.) For the director. This character tends to provide most of the heavy lifting in terms of pacing and momentum. Fight for the director’s want, namely a brilliant piece of cinematic art, but make sure you don’t hold the reins too tightly or there won’t be room for the mischief to take hold. For example, if you’re too controlling or too angry too quickly you may not have much of a character arc. Starting with some good-natured sugar can make the later salt even more effective. Give the bad extra enough room to get into further trouble, but don’t shy away from providing “honest feedback” as to how they’re ruining your work. The more specific ambiguity you deploy in your sidecoaching in terms of adjustments, the more likely you are to inspire the next round of interruptions.
2.) For the bad extra. I wouldn’t be so bold to say there’s one angle for this role that guarantees success but, from experience, the more likeable you are, the more the audience roots for you and enjoys the resulting struggle. Just as the director should seek an arc, so too should the extra avoid hitting the stage with their most abhorrent behavior right out of the gate. An out-of-their-depth quality serves as a promising foundation, whether this manifests itself in blustering over-compensation, cloying niceness, or the unbridled wonderment of an enamored first-timer (amongst countless other possibilities.) The curve of absurdity is the bad extra’s best friend, with initial slightly out-of-the-ordinary choices gradually building into complete ridiculousness in spite of the director’s best efforts to the contrary.
3.) For the stars. These roles assume the “straight” characters to the madness that is usually embodied by the extra and then wrangled – successfully or otherwise – by the director. In many instances, their scenic function resembles a replay format as they’ll tend to dramatically repeat the same few lines again and again each time the director restarts the action (although it’s also a fine choice for the director to skip ahead if they see fit.) There is great fun to be had exploring the contrast between the performers and their film personae; although, as I’ve relearnt on several occasions, you’ll want to be careful that your whimsy doesn’t detract from or upstage the bad extra or the scene can become cluttered and unfocused. At first glance, these roles might seem less joyful but I’ll openly confess I enjoy playing in this capacity most of all as there’s a delightful challenge in trying to hold it all together in the face of the extra’s mayhem.
There’s no magic number of bad extra interruptions although less than three doesn’t typically give enough room for the scenic dynamic to organically grow and peak. I’ve had the good fortune to see many improvisers shine in this format although I think it would be fair to say that in my own circles few could orchestrate the fun as effortlessly and successfully as Greg Yates.
This is certainly a performative version of sidecoaching that places this figure more front and center than would prove helpful in more traditional workshop situations. And the game requires true pauses and resets as the coach reshapes expectations which, most would agree, is a more invasive sidecoaching tactic than is typically warranted or helpful. But beneath the whimsy resides many core skills, such as developing a diagnostic eye, offering open possibilities rather than dictating monolithic solutions, and reading the needs and instincts of the onstage players
Connected Concept: Sidecoaching