Game Library: “Expert Double Figures”

If you’re going to find yourself in a typically-to-be-avoided Teaching Scene, Expert Double Figures at least comedically reframes the whole affair.

The Basics

An interviewer conducts a session with an expert whose field of study has been elicited beforehand from the audience. While both characters provide their own voices, their gestures are supplied by fellow teammates (or possibly audience volunteers). Non-talking players stand closely behind their assigned fellow player and insert their arms under the armpits of their talking counterparts whose own arms are tucked away out of sight behind their backs. In this manner, it “appears” as if both players are now forming one character each. Gestures – welcome or otherwise – should be incorporated and justified by the interviewer and expert throughout the scene.

Example

Player A performs as the interviewer, Player B takes on the role of an expert on the subject of railways, and Player C and D assume the arms functions, sliding themselves into the positions described above as the lights transition…

Player A: “And welcome back to On the Right Track! I’m your host, Greg, and let’s get this interview moving…”

Throughout the above, Player C provides peppy gestures culminating in a sweeping outstretched arm towards the guest. Player D, as the expert’s hands, waves to the audience.

Player B: “It’s an honor to share the stage with you again, Greg.”

Player D offers up an extended hand…

Player B: “…and I’ve brought you a little gift. Have you been a good boy this year?”

Player C reaches over to take the proffered object with one hand while dabbing A’s forehead with the other.

Player A: “Well, apparently not, as you seem to have brought me a lump of coal!”

As Player D pats their hands clean…

Player B: “Actually, that’s a sign you’ve been a very good boy as you have nearly unlimited power in your hands right now…”

The Focus

There are pluses and minuses in terms of whether to use fellow players as the arms or one or more audience volunteers. Teammates can often more expertly pace the gestural curve of absurdity, and there’s usually a greater sense of immediate trust. Volunteers are a little more hit or miss and may turn the game unabashedly into a torture scene through the excess or complete absence of movement. The latter of these dynamics can quickly scuttle even the most patient and proficient improvisers. But as is the case with most games that include audience involvement, a volunteer increases the charm factor tenfold and may win over an otherwise tepid auditorium. Whichever approach you prefer, the game requires active, full-bodied listening and skillful justifications.

Traps and Tips

1.) Warm up. Especially if you’re performing with unfamiliar arms, it’s important to take a few beats to determine your rhythm and preferred form of attack. If you’re using a volunteer, the first few lines of dialogue will normally involve teaching them some of the basic rules and techniques, as well as empowering them to take some physical risks. With a fellow teammate, the requisite rapport will (hopefully) come more naturally. In either situation, I’m an advocate for starting with natural and smaller choices that help establish the characters and relationship. This makes the absurdity that’s likely to follow all the sweeter.

2.) For the talkers. Pay attention. It’s surprisingly easy to almost forget that your alien arms are making choices alongside your dialogue. If you inadvertently ignore or overlook early physical offers, you’re not taking full advantage of all your scene partners. It’s particularly impressive when the small gestures (or lack thereof) are suddenly woven into the fabric of the character, so don’t just wait for that big move as such a mindset will disincline you from catching the stream of smaller subtler offers. It’s helpful to occasionally set up your arms for a strong moment, especially if they are being provided by a reluctant or overwhelmed audience member, but make sure this doesn’t become a one-way street (track?) or you’re actually placing the bulk of the justification burden on your obscured scene partner.

3.) For the gesturers. There’s only so much coaching you can do in the moment with an audience member, so these notes are primarily targeted towards improviser arms. Make sure you give yourself room to grow. If you start with the biggest and wackiest thing you can conjure then you’re starting on shaky terrain; hence my preference for leaning into more casually “normal” gestures at first (if not exclusively). There’s also something quite wonderful about selling the illusion so well that when larger choices appear, they become truly surprising for everyone. I’d also strongly advise against pre-setting “bits” – a pair of glasses suddenly appears in the expert’s shirt pocket for you to grab – as cramming such a move into the narrative will nearly always be at the expense of the more organic choice you’ve extinguished in the rush to get to the funny.

4.) For the whole team. Yes, you could just stand and have a relatively static and regular interview or teaching scene. But why would you just stand and have a relatively static and regular interview or teaching scene? The challenging teamwork required to embody the two characters invites action and mischief. Once you’ve warmed up and found your stride, playfully create activities to perform. This game configuration invites the use of demonstrations, ideally that require both characters (and all four performers) to closely collaborate. If you allow the scene to devolve into another talking heads diatribe, you’ve probably missed the boat (train?) a little in terms of really fully exploiting the game’s unique features.

In Performance

A related version of this game is Arms Expert where only the expert has their gestures provided by another person, usually an audience member. The mechanics are obviously the same, although now the focus squarely resides with the expert persona and their unexpected behavior. There are advantages to this slimmed down approach: with one audience member unpredictably pitching moves to two talking improvisers, you now have twice the brain power engaged in the tricky task of justification. With four arms that have their own minds, the challenge unmistakably increases, but so too does the creative potential, which is why I find myself returning in my own work to this four-player iteration.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Teaching Scene

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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