Game Library: “Pan Left, Pan Right”

With its “four scenes in one” structure, crisp and quick details are a must in Pan Left, Pan Right.

The Basics

Each member of a four-person team obtains a different suggestion to inspire their work, such as an occupation, location, relationship or theme. Players form a square (if this configuration was not used for the ask-for elicitation) with two players clearly assuming the downstage positions. These players are considered “onstage” with the two players behind “offstage.” The downstage left position (typically) is considered the pole position and the premise assigned to the improviser in this spot governs the current action. Throughout the game, a caller rotates the players around one spot by announcing “Pan left,” which moves the players one clockwise position, or “Pan right,” which turns the action counterclockwise. (Directions are from the audience’s perspective.) After each shift the new scene in the pole position begins (or resumes) with the two corresponding players now in the downstage positions. Each vignette continues its own arc – potentially with small or significant leaps in time – until the next shift is announced.


Players A through D receive the following offers respectively: a sailor, operating theatre, aunties, and paranoia. After the suggestions have been repeated, Player A and B are randomly selected to go first with A standing in the downstage left position and B stationed to their right.

Player A: “Look at that amazing view! No one as far as the eye can see!”

Player B: (a little the worse for wear) “I didn’t realize we were going so far out to sea…”

Player A: “You’ll find your sea legs soon enough. Now hand me the compass…”

Player B: “I think I dropped it…”

Caller: (with a clear directorial point) “Pan right”

The team rotates one position in a counterclockwise direction so that now B and C are downstage and B’s “operating theatre” premise activates.

Player C: (stepping back from the table) “Would you like to close?”

Player B: “I’ve been waiting a year for you to ask me that very question!”

Player C: “And I’ve been waiting a year for you to be ready. Is that a yes?”

Player B: “Yes! Sutures. I won’t let you down.”

Player C: “I have faith in you…”

Caller: “Pan right…”

The Focus

Strong choices, actively listening, and landing your gifts quickly and resolutely are all a must for this fast-moving scenic collage.

Traps and Tips

1.) The preparation. The set up for this four-faced game is more complex than many but also offers opportunities to model the playfulness that is to come. I strongly prefer establishing the player square prior to the game so that each player can stand in the pole position when they get their own ask-for. This helps to hard wire the conceit of when each scene goes live for the audience and players alike. The caller can also model the panning instructions to scroll through the players one spot each time. I find it’s helpful to use the audience’s right (counterclockwise) and left (clockwise) when determining your directions. If your company prefers, there’s no reason not to use the downstage right position as the pivotal scene-defining spot; my current venues just tend to default to the left. What is important is consistency as there’s enough going on in the game without everyone becoming unsure whose scene is currently in play. I like getting a four-letter word and then having each player using the next letter to inspire their ask-for – I used “soap” to help direct my own example above. It’s also smart to review the four suggestions, with accompanying gestures and player shifts cued from the caller. If your caller then gets a small random number to click through to get to a starting combination, you’ve had ample chances for everyone to get the mechanics straight.

2.) The conducting. There are many improv games where the caller is a rather decorative embellishment. This is not one of those games! Much of the success and build of the scene rests on the caller’s creative shoulders. If you’re assuming this responsibility make sure you’re actively involved in the set up phase of the game if this isn’t already your venue norm. Large sweeping arm gestures alongside the various “Pan left” and “Pan right” calls are crucial for setting and maintaining the requisite traffic patterns. (A little playful confusion can add to the joy but if the players are consistently unsure where to go, the scenes won’t amount to much.) If the company is really struggling or as a courtesy when the vignettes are being established, the caller can also add gentle content reminders to the calls: “Pan right to the aunties.” The caller also serves as the editor-in-chief, nudging the struggling scene to the wings or giving the crackling scene that extra few seconds to build. Especially if you apply the twist (below) it’s crucial to identify strong phrases or buttons that can facilitate quick segues, exchanges, or runs. Make sure one scene doesn’t accidentally get short shrift: this is more likely to occur if you frequently interchange lefts and rights without being conscious as to the missing combination stuck in the upstage position.

3.) The scene work. My examples for this blog series are typically on the briefer side, but it’s not uncommon for a vignette to only get four or five lines before it’s edited, particularly as the tempo of the game increases which it has a tendency to do during its climactic closing run. Strangers, ill-defined locations, and passive tactics all problematically sap energy and time from the format. With four scenes competing on some level for stage time, vague-prov generally doesn’t fare well especially if other vignettes quickly land their deal. Context provides so much of the challenge and entertainment, so you’ll want to establish your basic CROW as soon as feasibly possible, while also being mindful that your choices or energy isn’t too unhelpfully similar to others already seen. Adopting a “starting in the middle” strategy serves well: you might only get three or four appearances in any given character combination so you don’t want all this time to be spent setting up or alluding to an exciting action that never has time to actually materialize. It’s also considerate to remember that the caller is actively seeking dynamic moments to edit, and you can generously assist in this pursuit, especially if you have added…

4.) The twist. You can take the risk of the transitions up a notch by adding a verbal freeze tag dynamic to the base form. This iteration requires each new scene to launch with a repetition of the last spoken line of the prior vignette. To use the scenario above, the first exchange was edited on the phrase “I think I dropped it,” so this would now need to be the first line of the subsequent operating theatre scene, and “I have faith in you…” would be repeated to start the aunties premise. Once you’ve played the game a few times with this device it can feel a bit sparse or rudimentary without it: there is so much delight to be had from seeing the same line recontextualized in back-to-back scenes, or even pass through several in a well-executed fast-paced run. A little specific ambiguity can help a lot in facilitating these dynamics: if every line in the surgery scene has the word “scalpel” in it, you’re probably making it needlessly tough on the caller and the next scene. Justifying the occasional extremely scene-specific word or term in a radically different context certainly adds an element of impressiveness, but can bog down new scenes that haven’t yet found their footing. Subsequently, I’d recommend at least initially offering up some editing options from the stage that are more user-friendly so that the next scene can quickly pick up some steam.

In Performance

There’s a certain improv magic when all four scenes build and riff off each other with effortless finesse. Trust the caller whose outside eye can recognize and shape games that may not be as easily recognized from within the heat of the action. And avoid languishing in the transitions: literally leaping from one premise to another fuels the spontaneous fire.

While I’ve seen and played this game with just three improvisers and corresponding vignettes in the mix, the fourth player really adds exponential joy and challenge in my opinion.

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

Connected Concept: Strangers

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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