Game Library: “Actor’s Nightmare”

This short-form game explores the terror-inducing scenario that haunts the dreams of most script-based performers, namely showing up to opening night without any of your lines memorized.

The Basics

There are many variants of this scenic conceit that tweak where the primary tortuous focus resides. In this iteration, one player volunteers to assume the nightmarish position, and a teammate is then provided with a suitable play script or curated excerpt. The scene plays out as if the actor with text in hand has actually learned their lines and simply reads their dialogue in the order it appears. Their scriptless counterpart, however, must now gracefully make their way through the scene while generating responses and offers that fully embrace the established given circumstances.


For copyright purposes, I’m using a public domain text here to create my example, but generally, more contemporary plays work best.

Player A: (reading, as Juliet) “What man art thou that, thus bescreened in night,
So stumblest on my counsel?”

Player B: (improvising) “I did not mean to disturb your slumber or cause offense. I thought my presence would be welcome.”

Player A: (reading) “My ears have yet not drunk a hundred words
Of thy tongue’s uttering, yet I know the sound.
Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?”

Player B: (improvising, but now with at least a sense of the base material) “I am glad I left so memorable an impression…”

Player A: (reading) “How cam’st thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here.”

Player B: “I thank you for your warning. You are right – this is no place for me…”

The Focus

Hold onto the premise that it’s an opening night so that the clueless player must boldly forge ahead, enabling the show to go on. Commenting on the craziness or the actor’s glaring lack of preparation will “name the game” and lower the otherwise delightfully high stakes.

Traps and Tips

1.) For the setup. You can certainly add an additional modest ask-for to add further difficulty, but the specifics of the script itself usually provide ample joyful obstacles, especially if the unmemorized player is not provided the play title or any framing information beforehand. (It can add delight to give the audience some of this information while the hotseat improviser is out of the auditorium, especially if you’re playing to a crowd that isn’t particularly versed in the scripted canon). If you play in a venue committed to always using audience launching points, providing a spectator the opportunity to select one of a number of plays from a fanned deck and perhaps asking them for a page to start on can have a similar inclusive effect. If you opt for the latter option, I suggest avoiding large cast works as the scene will struggle if the onbook improviser isn’t a significant character or only has sporadic dialogue amongst a sea of other voices.

2.) For the “regular” actor. When starting the scene, choose and voice dialogue (at least primarily) from one character. This is more likely to give you a strong objective, perspective, and thread to hold onto as your teammate squirms to join the scenic ride. It’s helpful to appear as if you’re relentlessly following the exact beats of the written scene – this playfully holds your scene partner’s toes to the fire a little. That being said, it’s also in the spirit of the game to gently edit on the fly, omitting unhelpful pronouns, non sequiturs, or missing characters. Be wary of rushing through the scene – it’s important that you leave enough room for the nightmare actor to make significant choices. Also, don’t forget that the scene would likely have lovely, polished staging as well and that your metatheatrical goal is to fool the paying audience into believing nothing is wrong!

3.) For the “nightmare” actor. There are competing wisdoms on this point, but I prefer allowing the onbook character to make the first verbatim choice. They have no ability to sway the scene to a different premise, and the designed torture should flow towards the actor experiencing the nightmare (even though, in reality, everyone should be working to set them up for success). Measured but bold choices are the order of the day. Scour your partner’s lines for clues and context, and bravely play in and heighten this world. Yes, make your own big choices as well (both verbal and physical), but be aware that bulldozing, overloading, and needless originality might puncture the dramatic arc. Again, I’d return to the central conceit that the unmemorized actor’s real goal is to stealthily hide their ineptitude and get the scene safely back to harbor rather than explode the play wide open with fanciful but disconnected flights of fancy. In the example above, Juliet’s use of “Romeo” will hopefully provide their partner with a huge clue as to the premise. It’s fun for Player B to then playfully exploit their recollections of the base material.

4.) For the “supporting” players. I’ve deliberately framed this exercise as essentially a duo scene as I’ve found this tighter dynamic tends to serve the game and story building well. If there are too many “scripted” players populating the stage, it’s easy for the featured player to willingly or accidentally become lost in the fray. Multiple players improvising original dialogue against the foundational text can also muddy the focus and challenge. However, it’s helpful to gently provide side support and environmental choices that frame the given circumstances and offstage players should always be at the ready to assume that unexpectedly named or needed character just as you would in any other improv scene. Just remain vigilant that the dialogue doesn’t stray too far from the reader’s trajectory (as the nightmare actor will already be creating this tension). Similarly, asking the onbook character questions or making specific demands of them won’t likely maintain the scenic flow as they must remain anchored to their script. But, to use the example above, a nurse loitering in the wings reacting to the improvising Romeo’s dialogue could certainly add to the fun.

In Performance

Any time you spend sorting or preparing a handful of helpfully balanced scenes will reap dividends when you bring this game to the stage. Many plays just aren’t designed for this level of disruptive interactivity. Also be aware that some authors will suit some venues better than others – Mamet, for example, with his proclivity for profanity (and unexamined misogyny) won’t set you up for success at your sponsored middle school gig.

New to the InprovDr Game Library? You can find the ever-expanding index here.

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Leesa Brown
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Game Library Expansion Pack I

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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