“When I began teaching, it was very natural for me to reverse everything my own teachers had done […] It was like having a whole tradition of improvisation teaching behind me. In a normal education everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it.”Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979. New York: Routledge, 1992. p.14-15
Teaching Scenes (much like transactional and stranger exchanges) are widely discouraged in most improv circles. The basic dynamic – that one character has all the knowledge and agency and must tell the other what to do – is rife with pitfalls while also inviting players to wander into other problematic habits, such as asking questions, conflating text and subtext, and becoming reduced to talking heads where you ponderously discuss action rather than engage in it. It’s also challenging to find interest in what can become a fait accompli – the student will either follow the prescribed steps and blandly succeed, or (more often) they will prove inept and thwart the instructor. And yet, improvisers frequently find themselves falling into these potentially unproductive onstage relationships. As it’s unlikely (and perhaps ultimately unhelpful) to completely eradicate such scenarios from your improv repertoire, it’s wise to have some strategies in your pocket to make teaching scenes more than what immediately meets the eye.
Based on the audience suggestion of “oil change,” Player A assumes the role of a parent and gestures for their teenage child, B, to join them at the car.
Player A: “OK, this is a long overdue. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t walked you through this yet.”
Player B: “I’m here and I’m all ears.”
Player A: “So, what’s the first step…?”
Player B: “Listening closely to you!”
Player A: “Not what I was expecting, but I can’t fault you that. We need to jack the car up so we can get underneath it.”
Player B: (reluctantly) “Well, that sounds needlessly complicated and dirty.”
Player A: “Here, take the car jack…”
Lessons Designed for Teaching Scenes
1.) Invert. Part of the innate ineffectiveness of teaching scenes is that they are often so obvious and predictable. It becomes difficult to sustain the interest of the audience (and probably the players, too) with these vignettes unless those in attendance are in desperate need of the lesson themselves. If you quickly invert or subvert expectations, there’s a good chance this will enrich the core relationship and unlock some potential charm or spontaneity. If it becomes clear that Player B knows a great deal about car maintenance – much more than their parent – but only gently amends A’s coaching as they know this is an important albeit unnecessary act of parental love, our simple teaching scene will become much more. This concept of inverting where the know-how resides can also apply to the audience when a team bravely attempts to model a process that the audience (but not the players) know intimately. Explored fearlessly, this tension provides joyful play and is, in many ways, the central conceit behind endowment games where an unknowing improviser has to fumble their way to knowledge that the audience already happily possesses.
2.) Disrupt. When you’re a few steps (or, less ideally, minutes) into a teaching scene, another option to shock everyone out of uncreative patterns is to deploy a “fit-for-most-occasions” CAD. Well-timed revelations will quickly jolt a scene out of its complacency and provide new pathways for exploration. Perhaps Player B confesses that they have secretly been getting the neighbor – their parent’s rival no less – to help them with their oil changes. Or the teenager accuses their parent of favoritism as all their siblings got this lesson when they were much younger. Or, as one of our characters slides under the chassis, they discover an angry swarm of wasps has made their home there. If the teaching element of the scene continues (and in many instances, I’d actually recommend this so that there is still some physical activity) it will now take on a very different tone through these sharpened stakes.
3.) Reframe. Fully accepting an emotionally powerful CAD will typically change the context of the scene for the better but this strategy of reframing the parameters of the action can also helpfully occur in the more incremental building blocks of story construction, particularly in the foundational CROW elements. If the teenager is actually a mechanic or the parent is a clueless intellectual character, we’ve made a move into less overwrought territory. This may be the parent’s monthly weekend with their child after a messy divorce, which sheds new light on the status quo of the relationship. The backstory could include that B’s last car was totaled due to a lack of basic maintenance, which would infuse both players’ objectives in interesting ways. And changing the where to the family’s auto repair shop, the parking lot of a police station, or a dimly lit roadside after the car has unexpectedly broken down at midnight adds exciting new potentials as well that – fully embraced – should make the scene about something greater than merely the visible teaching component.
4.) Map. And the reframing could be deliberately taken even further to exploit irony, satire, and juxtaposition. Mapping is a riveting way to use the tropes and language of one situation to implicitly or explicitly reveal dynamics hidden in another (usually unrelated) scenario. Applying a mapping methodology, our bland oil change scene becomes a vehicle for revealing comedic truths and tensions elsewhere in the human experience. So even though the words will remain car-specific – this is a crucial component of the gimmick – the meaning of these words changes dramatically. Now, Player A’s efforts may metaphorically reflect their own strained relationship with their teenager, with each car part substituting in for a facet of their lives together. The scene could be infused with the urgency and danger of a bomb disposal with the car standing in for an explosive device just moments away from detonation. Or the parent’s language will become ripe with new overtones if this conversation is actually a long overdue attempt to explain love and the birds and the bees… You can read a little more about this concept (mapping that is!) here.
If you find yourself in a teaching scene the best advice is to make sure it’s not just a teaching scene. Consciously altering just one or two constituent ingredients and then leaning into these specifics should provide ample opportunities for everyone to learn something new and unanticipated alongside the more mundane surface lesson.
Related Entries: CAD, CROW, Game of the Scene, Strangers, Talking Heads, Transaction Scene Antonyms: Subtext
Cheers, David Charles.
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