Game Library: “Escalating Scene”

As a theatricalized embodiment of the “butterfly effect,” Escalating Scene raises the Stakes to typically catastrophic levels.

The Basics

When played as a skills-building exercise I tend to have teams self select a basic who, what, and where (Spolin style) as well as a minor action and major event that are completely unrelated – such as running out of toothpaste and a global stock market crash. In a performance setting these last two ingredients could be gathered from the audience with the other components being discovered in the opening moments. A scene begins in which we quickly see the first smaller occurrence. Players must then construct a chain of connected events that finally (hopefully) culminates in the second monumental event. Each subsequent step in the rising action should clearly be caused by the former and elevate the overall stakes.


Players are given a “hang nail” and a “statewide electrical blackout” as the two random actions. (I’m outlining several potential steps sans detailed dialogue just to give a sense of the arc, but each vignette should be fully embodied and fleshed out.)

Step one: A frazzled overworked single parent, Player A, prepares breakfast for their teenage children who quickly run out the door to school. As Player A clears away the dishes they inadvertently give themselves a hang nail.

Step two: Too busy to tend to their wound, Player A jumps in their car and picks up their carpooling co-worker who notes how distracted Player A is this morning.

Step three: With bad traffic looming, and the hang nail pain increasing, Player A takes their eyes off the road for a second and gets into a fender bender.

Step four: An irrate driver jumps out of the nudged car and Player A does the same. A heated exchange ensues as traffic builds up around them.

Step five: A’s passenger joins the fray and notices a semi truck hurtling towards them on the bridge, unable to stop. The quarreling duo just manages to leap aside as the truck pushes both cars over the traffic bridge and is now suspended in air with the driver in perile.

Step six: The semi truck continues to shift weight as the bystanders now form a human chain to rescue the driver, with Player A in the front and having to stomach the pain of their hang nail as the driver is brought to safety.

Step seven: With a thunderous explosion the semi truck finally falls off the overpass bridge onto a series of high voltage electrical lines. The city, and presumably then the state, is plunged into darkness. Blackout.

The Focus

Stay in the moment and polish each new contribution as it arrives. Increased energy and presence is more likely to get you to the finish line that solipsistic and fearful planning in the wings.

Traps and Tips

1.) Consider your goal. When it comes to determining your final scenic destination, natural disasters or resolutely non-human events prove problematic. Putting aside the fact that many weather catastrophes these days are likely caused by humanity’s neglect of the environment, it’s difficult to make this causal connection from the first simple action in a three or four minute scene. The exception to this advice would be natural events that commonly have very human ignitions, such as a forest fire or dam bursting. The final event can also be a wonderful occurrence rather than a disaster, such as performing an act of heroism or finally attaining a difficult lifelong dream.

2.) Consider your tactic. The hang nail example above ended up following one character through multiple beats of their day and resulted in them personally having a hand (finger) in the concluding tragedy. There is an advantage to such an approach in that you have one player tracking and ultimately connecting all of the dots. The major alternative consists of using a style mote akin to a Pass-Off or Follow the Leaver frame. Here the focus baton tends to pass from one character to the next with no-one serving as the protagonist for a protracted period of time. So while Player A suffered from the hang nail, their emotion or actions would then spill out onto one of their children or the ridesharing coworker who would then, in turn, similarly rile the next character in the chain. This version offers additional challenges but also potentially more finesseful rewards.

3.) Consider your steps. As the scene begins the looming result can feel a little impossible or oppressive so it’s tempting to want to leap “there” in as few steps as possible. Lean in the opposite improvisational direction, and fuel the small choice currently onstage rather than smother it by blatantly replacing it with that element that you feel needs to get into the story arc now. Player A could have plugged in a faulty appliance in their kitchen and caused the blackout in two moves, but that would be unlikely to provide an engaging journey. When I use the workshop model of this game in my class I deliberately don’t ask to know the target choice as I’m much more interested in discovering the next steps along with the players: the final outcome doesn’t really matter, especially if the arc and stakes continued to rise in an exciting way. When your audience is expecting a particular climax I believe this attitude still has currency as a great unforseen ending is still a great unforseen ending!

4.) Consider your roles. One of the many unique facets of this scenic dynamic is that it typically requires a larger than average cast of characters. Especially if you’re playing the game in a team setting, be ready to turn right back around the second you leave the stage to join the action as someone entirely new. Family members in step one above may then need to immediately recycle into carpool colleagues in the next beat, or fellow gridlocked drivers a moment later. Energized story arcs also tend to scroll through multiple locations in quick succession so you need to be ready to support these transitions as well, moving or embodying furniture and environmental forces as needed. If you’re playing in the Pass-Off style, this is particularly the case for the departing prior baton carrier who will likely need to return much sooner than they anticipate.

In Performance

Fight the manic beast that can lurk just below the surface of this game that tends to feed off the panic instilled by the knowledge of a particular desired outcome looming over the horizon. Enjoy and elevate the process, explore where the current offers can take you, and gently raise the amplitude of the stakes trusting that this energy alone will take you somewhere exciting and worthwhile.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Stakes

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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