“S” is for “Side Support”

“Normal schooling is intensely competitive, and the students are supposed to try and outdo each other. If I explain to a group that they’re to work for the other members, that each individual is to be interested in the progress of the other members, they’re amazed, yet obviously if a group supports its own members strongly, it’ll be a better group to work in.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979.  New York:  Routledge, 1992. p.29


Effective improvisational Side Support directly embodies this enticing group mentality that Johnstone articulates above. When engaged in these performed acts of support, players strive to elevate, contextualize, and sharpen the journeys of their featured teammates for, as the very name suggests, side support does not seek to claim the spotlight of center stage but rather provide tactical assists from the margins. This is not to imply that such supportive improv moves are inconsequential – insightful side support can easily make the difference between a scene sailing or stalling – but the express intent is to ultimately serve the central players or situation. Any success or focus is typically fleeting as attention is deliberately thrown back to the unfolding action. The rewards garnered for such supporters are less of the moment but rather from the forging of a generous ensemble that will return the improvisational favor when the spontaneous shoe is on the other impromptu foot.


Coworkers and possibly soon-to-be life partners A and B sit nervously at an outdoors café table. While hopeful, neither is certain whether or not this is actually a first date as the focus of the conversation has meandered thus far around a common work project at the car dealership. This small talk has been endearing but the scene feels as if it is searching for its next beat and neither player has this choice quite in reach…

The moment is ripe for some side support…

Putting Side Support Front and Center

Here are some ensemble-building ways to help (rather than overwhelm) the onstage action…

1.) Transitory support. A favored form of side support is the highly effective Canadian Cross that features transitory improvisers delivering a gift and then making a timely exit. (I deal more extensively with this subset of side support and how it can prove most helpful in an earlier entry here.) Such a choice can embellish virtually any facet of the ongoing scene, may or may not include dialogue, and ideally functions as a playful nudge or step in an evolving game or dynamic. As the initiating player will exude an “I’m just popping in” energy, focus should quickly and easily return to the original dynamic after the intended delivery.

Player C: (entering as a member of the waitstaff and interrupting as gently as possible) “Just wanted to check in to see if you’ll be ordering off the regular menu or our special couples offering tonight. The surf and turf is proving extremely popular amongst lovebirds…”

2.) Energizing support. Thoughtful side support can also provide focus and energy to the scene (Canadian Crosses can certainly be used this way too.) On the simplest level, fellow players can model audience behavior by avidly watching the stage action: it’s easy to overlook the value and energy of unflinching attention and one of the most crucial gifts we can give our fellow improvisers is our commitment to their work even when we’re just observing from the wings. In other situations this function of focus or status enhancing may be needed on the stage itself with support now assuming the role of a riled crowd or throng of studious servants for example. A scene might also benefit from more overt but less conventional efforts to raise the temperature or attack…

Player D: (standing over A’s shoulder and assuming the function of their inner voice) “The evening is getting long. If you don’t test the waters soon you’ll still just be awkward coworkers tomorrow…”

3.) Environmental support. There are also ample ways to support your fellow players through enriching the greater environment. These additions may be character-centric – a resident violinist could start to make their way between the café tables while playing sumptuous music. They can also take more metatheatrical or presentational hues especially if these are in keeping with your ensemble’s aesthetic. To this end, players might offer scene painting adjustments, arrange or physically become set pieces and props, or heighten the mood with pertinent sound effects (whether or not this role is typically assigned to an improvising technician.)

Player E: (stepping to the side of the stage and narrating to the audience) “A pair of cooing doves lands in the shadow of the couple’s table. Their necks intertwine in a nurturing gesture…”

The sound technician adds to this choice by providing the sound of gentle cooing…

4.) Functional support. Another important form of side support consists of keeping the players safe or physically supported. This may be triggered by the dramatic twists and turns of the scene or the greater performance parameters. For example, if our café were transported to an orbiting space station, supporting players might assist by enabling props (or perhaps some very game players) to literally float across the stage. Or, if you’re working in a found space or have commandeered an actual café table, players might need to run interference as unforeseen challenges emerge. There can be a tendency to view side support solely through the lens of the characters’ world, but addressing real world needs strikes me as an equally valid and helpful application of this tool as it allows the featured players to concentrate on their reality freed from unhelpful intrusions.

Player F: (in response to the jeering interruptions of a belligerent audience member, as “the manager”) “I’m terribly sorry about the unruly table: they’re just about to leave. Please allow me to comp you a bottle of our sparkling wine…”

Hopefully such a move would then be followed by a member of house management politely escorting the rabble-rouser out of the auditorium…

Final Thought

As side support wanders into more competitive or solipsistic territory I fear it loses much of its generosity and ensemble-raising energy. This distortion echoes the model of “normal” schooling that Johnstone so ardently rejects where players are primarily concerned with their own choices and accolades. I’ve noted elsewhere that there is, of course, a time and place for shining and playful competition on most improv stages; but, when we code choices that explicitly seek to celebrate an individual’s finesse as side support we may be missing the innate collaborative rewards of making our choices solely in the service of our teammates. And, in at least my experience, it is very much this latter dynamic that is frequently wanting in the art.

Related Entries: Canadian Cross, Environment, Heighten, Scene Painting Antonyms: Shining Synonyms: Assists, Second Support

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: From an Object’s Point of View

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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