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Welcome to ImprovDr.com

Hello! Let me take a moment to introduce myself and welcome you to ImprovDr.com. I’m David and I’ve been an improvisational practitioner for about 30 years now. I’ve spent the bulk of my professional and academic life writing about, dreaming about, and figuring out different ways to use improv in my teaching, directing and on the stage as a performer.

Take a look around the website to learn a little more about me and my various experiences and projects. I’ve called my blog “The Short and the Long of it” as I’m one of those improvisers who likes to play on both sides on the fence, and as many do, believes that skills learnt in one style truly make you stronger in the other (are there still (m)any folks out there who don’t agree that these are really two parts of the same thing despite any posturing to the contrary?).

A little about my journey: I was introduced to improvisation through Theatresports in my home nation of New Zealand during the late 1980’s and those lessons have deeply shaped my view and approach to the craft. (Shout out to Logan Park High School and Stripy Socks where the passion began – more on that in an upcoming post!) During the early 90’s I came to the United States to study theatre and was a financially poor but artistically enriched student at Roosevelt University in Chicago. While I played with Comedysportz and later studied at the Players Workshop of the Second City, I now kick myself looking back on those days that I didn’t have the time and money to fully take advantage of all the amazing things that were happening at that special time in that dynamic place.

And then, as I often joke, I followed the Mississippi river (loosely) to Western Illinois University in Macomb for my MFA and then to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for my PhD. Because, of course, nothing makes more sense that someone committed to improv leaving Chicago in the mid 1990’s… These new locations, needless-to-say, had much less access to improv, and so like many have done before me and will continue to do so now, I made as many opportunities as I could, creating shows and organizing troupes as there wasn’t anything ready-made, all the while reading up on anything I could get my hands on to further expand my own horizons.

In 2003, my doctorate fresh in hand, I relocated to the Orlando area in Florida to accept a teaching position at Rollins College, where the improv continued and I had the good fortune to quickly connect with SAK Comedy Lab. This venue has been my professional improv home for about 17 years now minus a hiatus of 18 months or so when I was in the company of Walt Disney World’s now sadly defunct Comedy Warehouse. In the early 2000’s there was little in the way of long-form in the area, and I’ve been doing my part to push that envelope whenever and wherever I can: on my home campus of Rollins, at SAK Comedy Lab, and in other Florida venues when they’ve let me onto their stages! This website includes some images and descriptions of the fruits (fresh or otherwise) of these improvisational long-form labors, and you’ll also see that I’ve never strayed far from being an active short-form player at the same time.

So, that’s the short and the long of it (this was probably more on the long side than I intended, but if you become a frequent visitor you’ll quickly learn that I love words and am as verbose on the page as I am on the stage despite my best efforts to the contrary)! I’m going to strive to make weekly posts about games or techniques that I’m currently working with or musing on, and I also welcome you to pose any questions or conundrums that you might have in regards to this art-form that consumes so many of us so wonderfully and so completely. Maybe I’ll have a few thoughts that can help you unlock something in a new way.

Wishing you all sanity and safety during these challenging times. As I write this, I realize this might be the longest I’ve gone without improvising in front of a live audience in about 17 years. What are you doing to satisfy your improv cravings?

Cheers, David Charles.
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Game Library: “Endowment Circle”

I appreciate the simple elegance of Endowment Circle and how it quickly reveals the multi-faceted allure of complex and interesting characters. As the name would suggest, the exercise embodies the core concept of Endowing or how we as improvisers can give each other powerful character-centric gifts.

The Basics

Players form a circle and one improviser (Player A) volunteers to serve as the focus of the game. Player A places themselves in the middle of the circle, often on a chair, and one-at-a-time others enter to perform a brief vignette of approximately three to five lines. By the end of each vignette the entering player should have successfully endowed a new quality, trait or biographical detail for Player A to assume. A series of disparate vignettes unfolds, with new players entering at will. While the scenes may move around a little in time, players should strive to avoid factual contradictions that could not coexist (such as Player A is a five-year-old child and a parent of a five-year-old child).

Example

Player A sits in the middle of the circle. A random player (B) enters and begins.

Player B: “I just know that you’re going to say yes to the next dress.”

Player A: “It’s just such a big choice, Angie! Am I rushing into this?!”

Player B: “That’s crazy talk! I’ve never seen a couple better suited. Ooo, here’s the next one…”

Player A: “It has a lot of ruffles!!”

Player B: “It’s your big day girl! You deserve to have ruffles!!!”

Player B gently exits as a new player (C) enters the circle, holding a mimed clipboard.

Player C: “And you realize you were going 45 in a clearly posted 40 zone?”

Player A: “I must have been distracted officer.”

Player C: “You didn’t use to be so reckless when we were dating…”

Player A: “Look you can’t keep pulling me over, Steve, just cause you want to talk.”

Player C: “Is that an engagement ring on your finger…?!?”

The Focus

Those players who assume the endowing position should work to help make Player A’s new persona as well-rounded, nuanced and interesting as possible. Avoid the over-original or “clever” choice that might needlessly complicate the path for those that follow in lieu of something more relationship-based and honest. It’s difficult to come back from a revelation that the subject is, in fact, an alien wearing a human skin for example!

Traps and Tips

1.) Vignettes needn’t connect. At least as the game is launching there can be a joy in exploring a wide field of different characters and connections. The temptation to connect and hurriedly build story lurks strongly for many improvisers, so try to relax that inclination. (Even in my own example above I couldn’t help but make the two stories at least reference the pending nuptials which isn’t necessary or perhaps even helpful in the opening moves of the exercise.) It’s worth a side coaching adjustment if this tendency immediately starts to dominate as it will make it much more difficult for new character shades and facets to enter the mix which is, in no small part, the purpose of the game. Eventually players will unavoidably start to connect some dots, but don’t rush to this later evolution of the exercise.

2.) Relish consistent inconsistency. Another temptation players may face is a desire to make every choice and energy line up neatly and orderly in a row. This line of thinking would suggest that if Player A is established as “nice” or “competent” or “organized” then they should be “nice” or “competent” or “organized” in every subsequent relationship or situation. In theatrical reality the opposite instinct is nearly always more engaging and lifelike. If our protagonist is a nice co-worker, perhaps they are a belligerent and entitled customer; if they are competent as a parent, they may feel completely overwhelmed when they interact with their own parents; if they have a tidy and organized home, it might follow that their love life is an absolute disaster! I refer to this rich messiness as consistent inconsistency as it doesn’t mean that choices are factually contradictory or random, but rather that our characters do not show the same face to everyone they encounter in their life. Much like the similarly complex concept of specific ambiguity, assuming such an approach to character creates fertile inner dynamics and tensions.

3.) Protagonists should play along. While it’s important that each new entering player initiates their vignette with a clear or loaded offer – “Hi, how are you” and similarly empty choices won’t help much here – it’s equally crucial that the protagonist (Player A) doesn’t merely become a ploddingly passive passenger. This can be a difficult line to walk at times but the exercise tends to prove more playful and revelatory when Player A bravely responds in kind, returning endowments with details of their own once they have a sense of the latent potentials intended in the opening salvo. If Player A is initially unsure as to what they are being pitched, it is certainly in the spirit of the exercise for them to patiently give their scene partner a little grace so that they can re-frame or solidify the original intent. But, the game attains more energy and joy when the protagonist then clarifies endowments and ideas by responding with their own point of view. There can be a tendency for the outer players to deliver a series of mini monologues in their efforts to communicate clearly; ensuring there’s room for the protagonist to play back enables a more bracing use of the vignettes.

4.) Focus on a day. I find it helpful to provide clear boundaries for the game in terms of time and space. When the encounters occur in the span of one day, perhaps jumping back and forth a little, it becomes easier to track and honor previously established choices. If the protagonist leaps from their childhood self to a modern-day adult and back again, players can strain to maintain the thread (although it’s certainly worthwhile to develop an ability to leap around in time as well). The same holds true in terms of the geographic focus or parameters. I’ll introduce the game as a “neighborhood of characters” meaning that these are people who are likely to commonly appear in each others’ daily spheres. There are always exceptions to the guidelines, and a cutaway scene to the home country and grandparents of our protagonist might unlock some really cool nuances, but in general it’s helpful to consider who they might bump into during their day-to-day routines.

In performance

When you’re using this exercise to build skills and a deeper understanding of endowing it’s worth your time to debrief after each protagonist has been fully fleshed out by the ensemble. Were there any glaring contradictions or examples of endowments being misunderstood or clumsily communicated? What rich consistent inconsistencies emerged that would prove exciting to explore further? Were endowments offered with a sense of joy and generosity in a way that set the central character up for playful success? Did the protagonist feel supported by the ensemble while also retaining agency? When the group truly takes care of Player A the experience can prove quite freeing and exciting as their primary responsibility becomes bravely listening and reacting organically.

I love the moral and biographical complexity that routinely emerges from this exploration and can see a great value in building characters and relationships in this manner for use in later performances if you’re so inclined (and perhaps even as a way for giving depth to a cast of scripted characters during a traditional rehearsal process). The exercise encourages us to think of all the different types of relationships and interactions that define us, from the deeply personal to the seemingly more mundane.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo

Connected Concept: Endowing

“E” is for “Endowing”

“The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one.”

Joan Baez

Definition

Endowing refers to the process of imbuing elements of our scenic world with dramatic detail. While this technique can inform and develop the imagined environment, props or costumes (“When did this park bench get so rusty…?”), often this subset of the critical improvisational offer centers around the characters and relationships we build together. To endow, in this context, is to provide your partner with ideas and nuances that help them build and sustain a character: it is a directed gift with an intended recipient. This process serves a critical function in endowment games – where one or more players aren’t “in the know” and their teammates must steer them towards the hidden facts of the scene – typically through the use of skillful complementary actions. However, in traditional scenes endowing serves an equally important role as it quickly allows character qualities, relationship energies and pertinent backstory and given circumstances to enter the flow of the scenic stream. Well executed endowing provides an on-ramp for players to move quickly onto the scenic improvisational highway.

Example

An as-yet undefined Player A enters the scene. Player B rushes over to them…

Player B: “Here, let me get you chair, honey. You’ve been on your feet all day at the restaurant.”

OR

Player B: “Grandma, thank goodness you’re okay. I didn’t realize you weren’t behind us.”

OR

Player B: “And what time do you call this young man? We agreed you’d be home by 10pm sharp.”

OR

Player B: “Kylen, you’ve got to stop following me around like this. I told you it’s over between us…”

Elements of Effective Endowing

1.) Digestible specificity. Some improv schools are a little leery of robust endowments as this tactic can become overwhelming when it is not deployed judiciously. As you would with any other scenic offer, be wary of an avalanche of endowing that provides your intended recipient with half a dozen facets to suddenly juggle and justify rather than a well-chosen one or two specifics that can help get the game going. If I endow my scene partner as my spouse, home from the restaurant, they still have ample room to make a lot of their own decisions based on their preferences, experiences and instincts. What is their particular job at the restaurant and is it a high end affair or a working class franchise? Do they love their work or is it a necessary daily grind? What is the state of our relationship and marriage and is my gesture welcome or irritating? Remember that an endowment is intended as a pleasant addition rather than a restraining list of instructions. Making sure you leave room for your partner’s own ideas and agency is critical in this regard.

2.) Pleasant surprises. I like to use the concept of a gift when discussing endowments as it front loads the idea that we are offering up something that we believe our partner will appreciate and enjoy. Yes, this choice might embody a sense of playful whimsy and mischief – akin to shivving if you know the term – but endowments that push players into uncomfortable or ill-conceived territory would serve as an example of pimping or selling out your teammate in order to gain a quick laugh. It is undoubtedly easier to walk this line in a company where everyone knows each other well and respects each others’ boundaries. When playing with a newer company, it’s important to use pre-show check ins and post-show postmortems to gain a deeper understanding of how choices are landing. In unfamiliar venues it becomes even more important to avoid overloading your partner in one gigantic endowment dump as this also prevents any chance of adjusting your choice based on their reaction on stage. For example, if I’ve endowed a fellow players as my grandmother and then have the cognizance that they have expressed they are always getting cast as older, I can then quickly follow up with making her vibrant and youthful as well.

3.) Emotional connections. There can be a tendency to think of endowments as a factual verbal exchange, merely defining the biographical details of your scene partner. Don’t overlook the emotional and physical connections as well. As I catch my teenage son coming home late am I deeply disappointed in him, or is this a more jovial and loving kind of sparring? Is he excited to tell me of his adventures that evening, or does he feel smothered and trapped by my parenting style? Endowments can as readily be communicated through our staging and physical choices as they can our words alone. If I hand my son a cup of hot chocolate (or a can of beer) when he enters this adds a nuance and tone that is starkly different than if I pull out my handcuffs as an off-duty police officer. Similarly, leaping out of the shadows offers something different than just sitting calmly on the couch awaiting his arrival. As always, pay as much attention to the subtext and how as you do to the words and what. Closely considering the way in which we endow our fellow improvisers has the added advantage of slowing us down a little and leaving that much-needed room for responses and adjustments.

4.) Conscious choices. Endowments also serve as a great opportunity to invert, question or draw attention to assumptions and stereotypes in a critical fashion. Especially as a scene takes its first formative steps, a well-crafted endowment can jolt a scene out of stale or inelegant terrain. Kylen, in the example above, could evolve into a familiar stalking scenario (that was my loose intent when I crafted it) or this offer could enable a tilt into something a little more satirically self aware. Kylen could become a cell phone provider trying to win back a customer, a parent who forgot their child’s birthday yet again, or a best friend whose political insensitivity has finally gone too far. Thoughtful endowments enable provocative and dynamic content, highlighting dramatic (or comedic) contrasts, and encouraging complex relationships and tensions.

Final Thought

Bite-sized, desirable, grounded and aware are qualities that can elevate a simple endowment to the next level. If you are a “type A” improviser, endeavor to accept as many as you pitch as excessive endowing can be a sign of control-seeking bulldozing or waffling. If you can tend to go with the flow a little too much, then it’s probably worthwhile to practice resolute endowments so that you can avoid the companion trap of becoming a scenic passenger.

Related Entries: Assumption, Complementary Action, Initiation, Offer Antonyms: Bulldozing, Pimping, Waffling Synonyms: Shivving

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Endowment Circle

A Peek Inside: ImprOvientation


As noted in my earlier blog here, ImprOvientation is an original long-form designed to welcome first year and transfer students to campus each year at Rollins College. Exploring transitional issues, expectations and stresses inherent in a university setting, the piece seeks a playful but earnest tone and is book-ended with personal narratives and stories reflecting the company’s own experiences that might resonate with those present within the audience. The emblematic phrase of the piece is, “That reminds me of the time,” and this motif reoccurs at regular intervals, particularly in the opening sequence.

Much of the rehearsal process of ImprOvientation involves reconnecting players with their own stories and experiences that thematically echo the intent of this orientation production. If you’re familiar with Kim Howard Johnson’s Truth in Comedy you might know the game Hot Spot where players take turns singing loosely connected songs and replacing each other in the central “hot spot.” The current game under consideration takes some inspiration from this basic model, but focuses on sharing personal narratives rather than popular tunes, and so I call it Story Hot Spot.

Join me for a peek as to how to get the most out of this exercise:

The Basics

Players form a circle and an initial prompt or theme may be offered — such as independence or discovery — or a player may volunteer to go first if they have a particular story or memory in mind. One player enters the circle and begins with the phrase, “That reminds me of the time…” and starts to narrate their story. Once the story has been clearly established, a new player can gently “tag out” the first player by entering the circle and editing the current speaker with the same opening phrase. The original speaker should wrap up their current sentence and return to the perimeter as the new player takes focus. This process of tagging out speakers continues through several rounds, ideally until at least every player has had at least one opportunity to share.

The Details

There are a lot of different gifts you can seek from this exercise, from simply generating material for a rehearsal or performance, to building group awareness and listening, to exploring pace and build and how to craft an energetic crescendo. Perhaps the most important “rules” of the exercise are that stories must be true and have occurred personally to the speaker. This isn’t an exercise to share urban myths or that family story passed down from generation to generation. As with the related Hot Spot game, it is also important (if not critical) that no one speaker is abandoned in the middle of the circle and that the ensemble supports each other with timely and generous edits.

Example

The theme of “The Unknown” is offered.

The first player steps into the circle and begins, “That reminds me of the time that I arrived in the United States to begin my university education in Chicago. I miraculously made my way through the airport and found a taxi. I’d never been in the city before so I was quite nervous as I got in and sat down…”

A second player has begun during this third sentence with “That reminds me of the time I was meeting my girlfriend’s father for the first time. We had taken her car to drive up to Iowa City, and soon we were winding into a lovely little suburban area where each house seemed nicer than the last…”

A third player has tagged in as the second sentence culminates: “That reminds me of the time I sat for an English as a Second Language test…”

Traps and Tips

1.) Make sure tags are acts of love! The tags in this game are almost metaphoric and players need not physically pat each other, but their move into the circle should be clean and resolute so that it clearly communicates to the current speaker (and those waiting on the periphery) that they are taking focus. It will become obvious to the group (hopefully!) if someone is struggling to continue or has run out of material, and it’s important not to leave this person stranded. Players may be tempted to seek “the best story” before entering, but in many ways any story at the right moment will serve much better than the “perfect” story twenty seconds too late.

2.) Finish your thought. Connected to the above, the intent of the game is for players to overlap and edit each other, so don’t be thrown when a new energy enters the space. Be sure to confidently finish your final thought, although perhaps be wary of suddenly trying to cram in three extra sentences as you make your exit. Related to this advice, it’s helpful not to preamble your story too much with generalities and context as you’re likely to be edited before you get into the meat of the narrative. For example, starting with “That reminds me of the time that I learnt a very important lesson as a child. You see, I was always rambunctious and never paid much attention to the rules my parents set. On this one particular Saturday when I was five, I was headed for a comeuppance…” And tag. And we’ll never know what happened!

3.) Defer to new energies. This is my standard advice for most of these types of games, but if two or more players begin to enter the space, it’s a good rule of thumb to defer to the new player or the person who has had a more difficult time finding an “in.” When I’m working with my campus troupe we always have a mix of returning players and those new to the troupe and our exercises: in this case, I’ll always encourage returning players to have an increased awareness that they don’t let their comfort or familiarity with an exercise prevent others from participating. It can take a while for everyone’s internal performance clocks to get in sync so it’s kind to wait that extra second if you’re about to tag in for your third or fourth narrative while others are yet to enter at all.

4.) Explore variety in content and connections. This strategy may be most useful for the way in which I use the game for ImprOvientation and other similarly toned formats, but there can be a tendency to get a string of stories that all connect in a really obvious way if you’re not mindful. Someone offers a story about getting their first pet and then there are suddenly five stories in a row that are all explicitly about pets. As is the case with word association exercises, this can be indicative of players banking an idea and not letting it go or neglecting to actively listen to new threads or details dormant in the current narrative. This isn’t uncommon as new players experience the game, especially with the added risk of offering personal material. A string of similar stories tends to collapse the brainstorming element of the exercise, and so it can be helpful to nudge players to skip the obvious connection. If someone is narrating about their pet and I think of mine, can I then extrapolate at least one remove to the old house we used to live in, for example. (This is the general idea behind the principle of the “third thought.”) If you’re using this game as a material generator, this ability to skip a replicating step so as to maximize variety becomes particularly important.

5.) Honor the momentum and build. Story Hot Spot organically invites you to pick up the pace of the edits. If you’ve played it before, you’ll want to be aware that you don’t prematurely push the tempo in such a way that new players are uncomfortable or don’t have a real opportunity to contribute. But after a handful of stories, it’s typical for the length of each narrative to shorten a little before the next edit. In the example above, players were getting two or three substantial sentences out: this is less likely in the later rounds. Endeavor to avoid editing before the gist of someone’s story is established (hence the import of not offering a rambling preamble). If this happens, the edited player should just take that extra moment to finish their thought in a meaningful way. The group may instinctively drop the mantra, “That reminds me of the time,” as the game builds, and that’s fine too.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve not played with personal narratives in your troupe or process before, I can’t overstate just how much I love this game and its tone. It’s a great way to learn about your fellow company members, build connections, and find material and characters that are grounded in honest experiences. ImprOvientation uses a polished and cleanly staged iteration of this simple dynamic with players in a semi-circle, and even after sixteen years of working with this form I still find myself deeply engaged and surprised by the narratives that emerge. There are certainly many valuable skills that are honed by this game, but don’t underestimate the simple power of just sharing personal stories.

“That reminds me of the time…” we took a peek inside the rehearsal process for ImprOvientation, my first improv Orientation show devised for Rollins College in 2005.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Game Library: “Theme Scenes”

Many years ago I set myself the task of compiling a bunch of potential themes and putting them on card stock. There have probably been few improv-related investments of time that have been of greater and more consistent use, from audition prompts, to quick warm-up focal points, to launches for larger exercises and long-form rehearsals. There is something about focusing on a theme that can inspire players to dig a little deeper or connect a little more fully in their quest for Emotional Truth, and so I give you Theme Scenes as a tried, tested and loved exercise.

The Basics

I use this technique in several different ways – as a quick circle warm-up with a cascade of scenes to “presented” pair work in front of the ensemble. Here I’d like to offer an all-play variant where players work in unobserved randomly assigned duos. This anonymity will often allow players to take larger risks when it comes to the material. Once everyone has found a space to serve as their stage, provide a thematic word as inspiration for the group: pulling from my current stack I have concepts such as stress, understanding, avoidance and rejection. If you don’t want to commit to the labor of crafting your own stockpile, I’ll often just ask for someone’s middle initial and then brainstorm a suitable theme that starts with that letter. Offer players a general time limit and set expectations that scenes should explore the theme from a personal or honest perspective. Pairs perform the scenes and may then offer reactions or feedback at the conclusion of the exploration.

Example

Players are assigned “cruelty” as their inspirational theme. Player A starts and places themselves in a community bathroom, adjusting their “look” in the mirror. Player B has been watching coldly from a distance.

Player B: “That’s a bold choice for your body type…”

Player A: (Taken aback) “I’m sorry?”

Player B: “It’s just that it’s prom, and I would have given a little more thought about hiding my problem areas if I was you…”

The Focus

Scenes can take on a sillier or more whimsical energy – this tends to happen when I play the circle warmup version of the game – but I’d recommend encouraging a more heartfelt approach that, frankly, can often result in comparably silly and whimsical scenes that also have the benefit of being substantially more grounded and earnt.

Traps and Tips

1.) Think broadly. I’ve endeavored to assemble a bank of theme words that are wonderfully opaque and open to interpretation. Avoid any inference that there is a “correct” or “preferred” angle into any given topic. For example, “stress” could evoke vignettes about tensions in a romantic relationship, anxiety around an important exam, or the weight of hikers on a suspension bridge. I also like to offer that considering the opposite of the given theme can also reveal interesting potentials that will still likely represent the topic at hand. (This strategy proves particularly helpful if you are doing the circle version of the game around one given theme.) In this manner, “understanding” could inspire a scene that begins with confusion, “avoidance” might launch an encounter where a character has found a hard won sense of bravery, and “rejection” could see a flustered job seeker finally landing a position. Trust your instinct and don’t feel the need to spell out the connection if it is delightfully honest and ambiguous.

2.) Speak bravely. I’m not sure if this is a pervasive trend elsewhere but I’ve found that when an exercise or game is offered with a more earnest or sincere focus in mind that improvisers can tend to become under-energized. Scenes should still pursue full engagement, light and darker hues, and not indulge in an air of “we are doing real acting now.” Often, this potentially problematic tone manifests as an almost whispered or uncharacteristically soft vocal quality that would have difficulty filling most performance spaces. Also avoid the trappings of a melodramatic style that tends to take itself much too seriously. Yes, pursue characters and dynamics with a sense of integrity and truth, but still embody flesh and blood people that are multi-faceted and nuanced: let the significance of the theme or material emerge organically rather than preemptively pushing for the meaning to appear. In addition to talking with full energy and presence, similarly attack your physical work as these scenes can incline towards talking head dynamics if you’re not mindful. (I consider these traps in more depth in my consideration of drama here.)

3.) Resist shortcuts. A pet peeve in this exercise is when improvisers needlessly announce the theme word within the scene: this feels very much like the self conscious moment in a scripted piece when the title of the play is awkwardly uttered. Sure, you could say the theme to make it abundantly clear, but that’s not really what this exercise promotes; instead, you’ll find more fulfilling journeys when you play with the embedded meanings of the theme and what it suggests to you and your character personally, rather than racing to the finish line with a clumsy announcement designed to remove any doubt as to the scene’s purpose. Relish the messy journey. Risk that while the theme might have inspired your work that the resulting scene might (should?) end up being much more than just that one word or idea. Trust that an audience will find more significance in its meaning if you give them credit for putting together some of the pieces of the puzzle for themselves.

4.) Push boundaries. Once you’ve played and found meaning in the original version of this exercise you can shake up the challenge and journey by adjusting the focus or set up. Players can be invited to leap right to an instinctual response to the prompt in the opening beats of the scene, or encouraged to start far away and then gently make the theme prescient. If your ensemble tends towards the literal, explore scene work that privileges subtle or unexpected applications of the topic. If you are sliding into melodramatic hues, play with a deliberate sense of lightness. I sometimes use this basic model for auditions and in these cases might pair the theme with a given relationship (I have a smaller stack of those cards too!) as I like the out-of-the-box thinking that comes into play when two divergent prompts initiate the action. “Cruelty” will invite very different scenes when played with fellow students than with a parent and child or teacher and pupil.

In performance

Whether or not you are actively assigned a theme to ignite your scene work or show, I find this lens such a powerful way of developing and deepening material. A seemingly stale scenario or relationship will become imbued with new life and promise when you view it from a thematic perspective. This exercise provides a window into this way of thinking and working if this is not already a norm for you when you approach the improv stage.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo

Connected Concept: Emotional Truth

“E” is for “Emotional Truth”

“Play is not merely an outlet for surplus energy, but rather an outlet for those impulses and emotions knit up with the social interplay of group life.”

Neva Leona Boyd, Play and Game Theory in Group Work: A Collection of Papers. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971. p.42

Definition

I’ve described improvisers as emotional super heroes to my students as our craft invites (if not demands) that we allow ourselves to go emotionally to places on stage that the average theatre goer would probably avoid at all costs. Some improv traditions clearly privilege this function, such as Playback Theatre, Forum Theatre and the allied healing arts of socio- and psychodrama. Other styles of play might de-emphasize the emotional aspect of the improviser’s craft, but I would argue that a pursuit of Emotional Truth can only elevate all our endeavors to a higher plane. Spontaneous theatre, after all, is a very human affair and benefits from exploring the full range of our foibles, fears and passions.

Example

Player A sits on their adult child’s bed.

Player A: “I’m really sorry that she didn’t accept your marriage proposal. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now.”

Player B: “She was out of my league anyway…”

OR

Player A, after pausing for a moment at the door to assess the situation, sits on their adult child’s bed and puts an arm cautiously but lovingly around their shoulder.

Player A: (after a long breath to summon the courage to speak) “I’m really sorry that she didn’t accept your marriage proposal. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now.”

Player B: (unable to make eye contact, the tears swelling in their eyes) “She was out of my league anyway…”

Inviting the Emotion In

There is no short-cut to portraying earnest emotions in our scenes – actors literally spend their professional lives pursuing this end – but there are some grounding techniques that can at least open a door to this more vulnerable style of play…

1.) Take some time. When we rush through our scenes, expecting our words to carry all of the meaning, we are much less likely to connect to our character and their situation in a more honest and potentially profound way. Take the risk of really breathing in your scene. This will encourage you to consider more earnestly why you are speaking, and how you might most effectively communicate your wants and needs as a character. (Sometimes this may not be through your words at all but rather your actions or absence of words.) You’ll want to make sure you are not just manufacturing silence for the sake of it – this time should be filled with energy and commitment – but use your breath to connect yourself to your emotional storehouse.

2.) Trust the audience. This may be more of an issue in venues that consider themselves to be more overtly comedic, but most audiences will happily sit and observe a wide array of dynamic energies if they feel earned and honest. So even if our stated intent is comedy, we needn’t fear material or a performance approach that might not result in belly laughs right out of the gate. When we grab at a joke, especially early in a scene, we may get that fix of immediate audience laughter, but it may come at the cost of a more nuanced or complex reaction further down the road. Trust that the audience will follow your exploration if you are committed and present. This is not to say that an emotionally grounded scene should also be divorced of humor or lightness, but if our initial fixation as players is getting a laugh the likelihood of emotional honesty decreases precipitously.

3.) Don’t approximate or push. The mark of melodramatic or amateurish performance is playing emotions artificially, exaggeratedly or insincerely. There are certainly games and characters where such an approach might serve well satirically, but in general emotionally “spending more than is in your wallet” will likely strain the credibility of the scene and the patience of your audience. I would posit that no-one really wants to see someone pretend to cry, for example. I’d rather watch (or play opposite) a smaller and more honest performance than something grandiose but ultimately empty. Especially if you’re approaching deeper or more sensitive material, overly indulging will likely ring untrue. It’s more effective and theatrical to actually fight the swelling emotion rather than to over-eagerly welcome its arrival. (I consider this common pitfall a little more here.)

4.) Bring yourself to the work. I strongly believe that it is our right as artists to maintain a healthy separation between us and our work, and that we have no obligation to bring all of ourselves and our past injuries and failures to the stage. It’s healthy for players to set boundaries, as it is to be skeptical of using our stages as public therapy sessions (unless that is their stated intent). That being said, I fear that it is equally problematic and potentially debilitating if we actively avoid bringing any of ourselves to our scene work. Our performances are unlikely to soar if we withhold our truths, interests and experiences. Konstantin Stanislavski posited the notion of the magic “if” which loosely translates to asking yourself a series of related questions along the lines of “what would I do if I was in this situation”? Allowing this deeper connection to the world of our characters and their plights, with practice, can unlock a great cascade of emotional depth while also building empathy and imagination.

5.) Care more. I deal with the concept of love on the improv stage elsewhere, so suffice it to say that we’re more likely to become emotionally disengaged when we’re pursuing stories and scenes that we do not care about or connect to, so bring the issues and relationships that ignite your passions to the stage. Fight for your character’s happiness and for those that they love. When our onstage relationships become mere facsimiles of real relationships – dare I say unrealationsips – we can more easily stand back and passively observe the work rather than roll up our sleeves and enter the fray. On a simple level, why should our audiences care about our characters and their fates if we don’t?

Final Thought

Even the seemingly silliest of scenes or premises can benefit from a more emotionally grounded performance approach. We can tend to think of the more somber or negative end of the spectrum when we discuss emotional truth on stage, but the lighter hues of the human experience can equally gain depth and meaning with some earnest exploration. Why, after all, should we settle for being whimsical but removed observers when we could soar as emotional super heroes?

Related Entries: Comedy, Commandment #6, Drama Antonyms: Cartooning, Commenting, Talking Heads, Waffling Synonyms: Acting, Culpability, Love, Vulnerability

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Theme Scenes

Game Library: “Verbal Freeze Tag”

Equally useful as an Edit device, warm-up, or structural component of a long-form, Verbal Freeze Tag promotes listening, connections and leaping into the improvisational fray. I’ve woven some variant of this dynamic into many of my own original pieces, such as The Renga, Murder We Wrote and E Pluribus Unum. It’s a helpful dynamic for picking up speed and cutting quickly between action on various parts of the stage.

The Basics

When explored as a warm-up, the ensemble forms a large circle with chairs placed at the “compass points” for easy access during the process. A pair of improvisers (A and B) start a scene, perhaps centered on a prompt such as a theme or relationship. Players should fully commit to the action at hand and not rush through the beats. When any player standing on the perimeter (C) hears an inspiring line and feels that the current scene has had sufficient time to develop, they step into the playing field and repeat or paraphrase the last spoken line as an indication they are starting a new and unrelated scene. Player C should then indicate a scene partner as needed while the original players accept the proffered edit and return to the circle to recycle into the action later (likely as new characters in new situations). Scenes continue to edit each other in this fashion as players improvise a variety of brief vignettes.

Example

Player A and B begin a scene in the middle of the circle based on the suggestion of moving.

Player A: (carrying a large box) “And I think that’s the last of my stuff.”

Player B: (looking around) “The apartment looked a lot bigger before we moved all of our junk into it…”

Player A: “I can’t seem to find the box with the list of what’s in all the boxes…”

Player B: (mildly annoyed but looking anyway) “It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

Player C enters from the sidelines crawling on their hands and knees.

Player C: (panicked) “It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

As Players A and B retreat to the circle, Player D has entered with a mimed flashlight to join the action.

Player D: “You’ve retraced every step back to the parking garage?”

Player C: “I have! I was showing Alexios how shiny the ring was under the lighting here.”

Player D: (pointing the flashlight down) “You don’t think it could have rolled down that storm grate…?”

The Focus

Encourage strong and deliberate focus grabs as the dynamic loses its effectiveness when wimping sneaks in. Even when players only have a raw impulse to enter as opposed to a formed conceit (which I’d posit should actually be the norm) it’s important that they make their edit clean and confident. Depending on the size of the group and what you hope to get out of the exercise, it can also prove helpful to establish some simple goals – such as every player initiating one edit before the game finishes – to encourage bravery and participation.

Traps and Tips

1.) Leap before you look. As I note above, there isn’t a lot of room in this exercise for careful contemplation and consideration. Much like physical freeze tag games, if you attempt to construct the outline of your choice before jumping in to start the scene, the moment where your envisioned idea would best serve has likely already passed into the ether. (If players are repeating lines that were said a few beats ago as their tags this is symptomatic of a pre-planning approach.) It’s more invigorating and dangerous to trust and simply grab at a line that you like as an edit. As you then quickly take the focus you can figure out more details in real time knowing that your scene partner is there to help as well. It’s also in the spirit of the game to gently smudge a word or line – changing the tense or subject – but I’d caution against wholesale adjustments that are intended to make the line of dialogue bend forcefully to an ill-fitting predetermined conceit. This strikes me as an equivalent to tagging someone out in a physical freeze tag game only to completely drop the specifics of their pose when starting the next scene. There is a wonderful inherent disposability in this game as one vignette quickly disappears into the mix after another so embrace the joy of living truly in the moment and risking that some scenes will fizzle a little.

2.) Practice pitching your edit. Edit lines will certainly just emerge randomly from the scene work, and much of the joy comes from delightful verbal stumbles that invite creative or unexpected next moves. That being said, this frame also offers a helpful means to practice offering up edits or buttons to our teammates. When we know that others are dependent on our specific words for their inspiration we can use this knowledge to our advantage. There are some common traps in this regard. Lacing your sentences with needlessly repetitive scene-specific jargon can thwart those waiting to tag you out if they don’t want to follow one scene with another based on similar material or actions. Here a little specific ambiguity can go a long way once everyone is on the same page in terms of the scene’s focus. Replacing “I can’t believe how well you’ve trained your dog” with “I can’t believe how well you’ve trained her” is more likely to open a new door for the next players. Generally any scenic dynamic that circles aimlessly around the same few words will invite a similar challenge. If you’re confident that a strong CROW has been established and your scene has had its moment, offering up a juicy open-ended line serves as a generous focus give.

3.) Select your intended partner. There are numerous ways for the incoming player who has verbally “tagged” the action to find a scene partner and most of these will probably emerge organically given the chance. Strong eye contact across the circle to an intended improviser usually suffices, or gently tapping someone on the back or arm who’s standing beside you to invite them to join. If you tend to use improviser’s real names in your work, this is another clear approach; if you prefer invented names then you’d need to combine it with one of the approaches above. It can also prove exciting to just enter alone, make your need or premise clear, and trust that someone will just randomly self-select and come to your aid. This might result in some three or four player scenes – which I wouldn’t recommend as the norm as pairs enable a cleaner flow of focus – but a few larger cast vignettes can add some nice variety and challenge. I don’t generally play this with improvisers keeping a character from the prior scene in the mix in a “run” or “revolving door” manner, although this is certainly a valid way of working with the frame. In these cases, you’d want to set a clear mechanism for adjusting the current cast, perhaps through strong eye contact with an existing player you’d like to remain and waving off those who are no longer needed.

4.) Take your time with callbacks. If your company loves reincorporations and callbacks, and most companies do, I’d gently recommend that you endeavor to at least begin the game without utilizing these techniques. You are more likely to inspire a broader and more interesting array of material if scenes are initially unrelated, or perhaps just gently connected by a suggested theme or subject. Such a scattershot approach tends to give the exercise more room to grow organically as early callbacks will frequently hasten on the curve of absurdity and unnecessarily shorten the duration of scenes as players race to grab the next obvious connection. I deeply enjoy the generative nature of this exercise when the assumption is that there is no expectation for scenes or characters to reappear. This mindset also results in some wonderfully unexpected non sequiturs. When played in this expansive fashion if an occasional callback does emerge it shines all the brighter and will often provide the button or “out.”

5.) Know your focus. I’ve partnered Verbal Freeze Tag with the concept of Edits as this skill is unquestionably sharpened when playing the game thoughtfully. But this is not to say that there are not many other improvisational techniques that can be placed front and center with similarly strong results. I’ve used the form with strong effect to explore how to unpack a theme in complex ways. It’s similarly helpful if you’re looking for a way to rehearse strong character entrances or scene starts. Other lenses I’ve used include workshopping how to craft dynamic locations, providing an opportunity for a newly formed company to get in rotations with a variety of other players, or getting out the “bad” improv if everyone has been away from the process for a while. Regardless of the focus, it’s generally helpful to make this intent explicitly clear as it not only centers the work but can also provide a freshness to an exercise that players might have played on many occasions.

In performance

Verbal tags would rank amongst my favorite forms of edits as they are elegant, versatile and not dependent upon a heavy level of technical support. In looser long-forms my troupes will often use this technique to signal a split scene (or revolving door) where action is temporarily suspended as a new scene introduces a contrasting or heightening energy. Once both or several scenes have been established we’ll then continue to use the verbal freeze device to move focus back and forth. Often this establishes an awareness and rhythm that can ultimately transcend potentially belabored verbal repeats as scenes begin to comment upon and respond to the dialogue of their counterparts in more delightfully varied ways.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Scott Cook

Connected Concept: Edits

“E” is for “Edits”

“We need to edit as we improvise, deciding in the moment which of all the features we have heard are essential for the story to be told. We must ask ourselves ‘Why this story?  Why here and now?’ in order to feel its inmost meanings.”

Jo Salas, Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala Pub., 1993.  p.23

Definition

Typically the improviser must wear and master many “hats” on the stage: director, playwright, performer, and in most cases also an editor of the action, helping to shape the overall story arc through recognizing (hopefully) when it’s time to move on or that a scene may benefit from an aesthetically apt nudge. In many short-form traditions scenes are routinely edited by a host or technical improviser signaling that a moment is done and then the show essentially re-sets with a new offering. In most long-form styles, however, where the action is more fluid or continuous, ensemble driven Edits and segues are critical to the success and flow of the performance. Companies will often have style preferences but it’s important to understand the foundational principles at play regardless of which genre you tend to call home as these techniques – when executed with finesse – truly enable some of the magic of improvisational theatre.

Example

Player A and B are performing the latter stages of a scene between an accountant (B) and their rattled client (A).

Player A: “And you’re absolutely positive that this isn’t just some clerical error?”

Player B: “Look, I know this is hard to hear, but this kind of money just doesn’t disappear through human error. Someone has been stealing a substantial amount of money from the company.”

Player A: “But so few people would even have access to the books to try to manufacture a cover up. There’s really only me, you and my…”

Player B: “…your daughter…”

The scene awaits an edit…

Editing Options to Enhance Your Play

Here are some of the most commonly used editing possibilities. I’ve loosely ranked these from those requiring the least technical support to those that are a little more dependent upon the bells and whistles of a more traditional theatre space.

1.) Sweeps. A sweep (less commonly known as a strike) involves another member of the ensemble marking the end of a scenic moment by running downstage of the action (in front of the current players) as if they were almost pulling an imaginary curtain. Upon receiving this signal, the players in the prior scene should move quickly to the wings or back of the stage depending on your staging practice. The sweeping player may exclusively embody this editing function and then recycle into the waiting ensemble as well, or may culminate the motion of the sweep by then turning and beginning a new scene (or deploying one of the tactics below to keep an element of a previous vignette in play). I’ll confess that I’m not a huge fan of this device as it can strike attendees who aren’t “in the know” as a peculiar tradition especially if you are working in a more theatrical space; but in “found” or modest performance spaces where you might not have a dedicated lighting operator (or theatrical lights at all) it can serve the purpose efficiently.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player C dashes across the downstage apron in a sweeping motion as Player A and B fade back into the ensemble. As C completes their cross, Players D and E have emerged and begin the next vignette…

Player D: (assuming the rule of a doctor holding a baby) “Congratulations, it’s a girl!”

2.) Clap in/tag out. Another low tech option is the clap in or tag out. If you’ve played the short-form mainstay Freeze Tag you’re probably familiar with the basic premise. An offstage player essentially freezes the current action by clapping their hands (the Clap In) and then quickly enters the stage. This new player has a variety of options once the scene has been halted and it is incumbent upon them to clearly conduct the next moment. As with the above example, they may use this technique to just edit the prior scene and then start one of their own alone or with other new company members (although sweeps are often the more standard approach for enabling this move). They could also just join the scene as a new character and transport it in time or place. More often, though, the entering player will re-set the current configuration in some dynamic way. They might Tag Out a frozen player and have them leave so that a new scene or next step can occur with the remaining character or characters. This scenic adjustment may involve a shift in time or location as well. In more populated scenes, the incoming player may also “wave off” others who are not easily in reach to slim the cast down to just those desired. Another variant is a Revolving Door where typically one current character is physically pivoted to begin a different related scene while the prior vignette (and characters) are essentially paused to be reanimated later. An extended series of quick tag outs or revolves can also build into a Run of edits where you see a sequence of usually quick moments that build an energy or game. This series will often return to the original character or combination that inspired the choice to mark the end of that particular dynamic.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player C claps their hands, freezing the action, and quickly moves into the scene tagging out Player B and assuming the role of the daughter in a new locale.

Player C: “…and I told them that the credit card machine had to be broken because there was no way my card should be declined… Anyway, long story short, I’m going to need an advance on my paycheck this week.”

3.) Focus give. Edits can be prompted by the onstage players with a strong and clear focus give. On the simplest (but arguably most effective) level, this may consist of an unequivocal Exit after pitching a possible next step or vignette. On a slightly more nuanced level, current characters could instigate some of the dynamics above by endowing a new relationship or dynamic, thereby inviting a “clap in” style edit (with or without the clap) where an entering player now shifts the lens of the scene. Another variant on the same theme would take the form of a Cut To… offer where a character explicitly ruminates about a past or future event thereby throwing the action to this named moment. You can also utilize a Verbal Tag set up: here a character offers up a juicy line knowing that it will likely be taken and repeated by an awaiting player to shift the action. Successful focus gives require a little finesse and a common understanding as a company as to what to look for as a scene reaches its zenith, but I like this approach when working with more seasoned and self-aware performers as it is steered by the current players and gives them some control over how and when their scene ends.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player A groans in clear discomfort at the thought.

Player B: (packing their things and exiting) “I’m not telling you what to do, boss, but if I was you, I’d talk to your daughter about this over dinner tonight.”

Player C immediately sets up a family table as Player A turns and now enters their family home…

4.) Focus take. There are also a variety of dynamics that involve a strong focus take while dispensing with the potentially jarring device of the offstage “clap.” (Companies that have developed great comfort and trust, frankly, often deploy tag outs, revolving doors and runs through clear Entrances and intent alone.) Players can execute a physical Cross-fade by entering and establishing their character in a new area of the stage, perhaps walking in front of the current action to make their appearance clear but in nearly all cases avoiding eye contact with the scene in motion so as to avoid being pulled into it. The prior scene should generally wrap up with the scene on deck then starting in earnest either pulling in a prior character or utilizing others from the bench. When this tactic is used more aggressively – by immediately beginning a competing and energized action – this serves more as a swift Focus Grab. You can also make similar edits verbally: repeating or answering a line of dialogue in a new context as you enter the stage serves as a Verbal Tag; beginning your scene with a strong verbal offer from an offstage character provides a clear Verbal Edit; or depending on the style of the work, you could assume the role of a narrator or prologuer, talking on a god microphone or entering the space in a clear (and probably pre-determined) manner so as to Narrate a new moment to explore. (Sometimes a Cut To… leap is facilitated by a quick on- or off-stage narration in this manner as well.) The key to all of these focus takes is confidence, timing and clearly communicating a particular intent.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player C as A’s spouse speaks with great emotion while entering the space prompting Player B to leave and Player A to pivot and join.

Player C: “Your daughter! Your daughter is stealing from us…?!”

5.) Supported edits. If you have access to dedicated technical and musical improvisers, the potentials expand even further, although, in many cases, these dynamics are merely more polished versions of those listed above. Sweeps can now be heralded or replaced with musical play outs or dimming lights. (Music is such a helpful and gentle way to nudge players to get to the next thing!) Clap Ins and Tags can gain support from subtle or sudden lighting adjustments and soundtrack embellishments. Physical Cross-fades and focus shifts now gain dynamism from the booth which can even cue and sculpt these edits as needed. Narrated transitions shine with some technical polish that crafts a clear conceit to guide the audience’s eye. And then there is the not-to-be-overlooked-or-underrated Blackout (hopefully accompanied with a dramatic flourish of music) that allows the players to reset and then deploy a strong entrance or edit from the lists above to jump start the next scene.

Player B: “…your daughter…”

Player A and B pause for a moment as the music swells, and the lights suddenly plummet. Moments later a pool of light shifts focus to a previously unused area of the stage where two new characters are soon seen driving a car on the highway.

Player C: “I don’t think I can go on stealing from the company any more. I think they’re on to me…”

Final Thought

Successful edits have two things in common: they are clear conceits that are quickly understood by the ensemble and creative team (that is, everyone is on the same page that an edit is being offered up); and they are aesthetically pleasing and unambiguous for the audience, regardless of how many times they may have seen your work. Clumsy, inelegant or frantic edits can unfortunately seriously hamper or diminish the effect of otherwise exciting work, so it is certainly worth taking some time to determine and polish which approaches best suit your performance space, improvisational style, audience tastes and technical abilities.

Related Entries: Button, Entrances, Exits, Initiation Synonyms: Blackout, Sweep, Tag

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Verbal Freeze Tag

My First Improv Orientation: ImprOvientation

During my second year as an Assistant Professor at Rollins College – when my improv troupe was still taking its first steps towards finding an identity, style and purpose – the potential for an out-of-the-box collaboration with the Office of Rollins Explorations emerged. This office oversaw programming for incoming and transfer students which included presentations and lectures from various campus constituencies, as well as some events with an eye towards entertainment and helping students start to form connections and friendships. Yvette Kojic was a particularly driven member of our fledgling troupe, Rollins Improv Players. She was active across campus – more connected to various programs than I was at that stage of my teaching career – and quickly proved to be fundamental in starting conversations with Explorations in terms of pursuing a possible partnership. The idea emerged to create an improv show that could entertain while also more stealthily address and consider some of the tensions of college life. Several meetings and conversations ensued that addressed the form and function of this potential collaboration in addition to concerns about the unpredictability of improv, language and content parameters. Doug Little, the head of Explorations, proved to be a generous and open-minded colleague and collaborator, and he bravely green lighted the first endeavor, setting in motion a production that has become a mainstay of my August on campus ever since.

The Basic Premise: Before an audience of first years and transfers, a company of student improvisers weaves together monologues and scenes drawn from audience suggestions targeted towards their feelings, fears and expectations regarding college life. Performers, seeking inspiration from their own experiences as well as the ideas of the audience, craft multiple rounds of scenes that playfully – and perhaps poignantly – embody transitional stresses of starting life on a new campus.

I’ve written elsewhere about my first improv Fringe show, E Pluribus Unum, and this one-act along with its earlier incarnation at Louisiana State University provided this undertaking’s general frame with some notable exceptions. The opening and closing ritual center around the motif, “That reminds me of the time,” with company members sharing true college stories initially, and then reflecting on either their own experiences or those of their fictional characters as each performance culminated. Edits were also handled quite differently from prior experiments with the device of bells pausing the action and company members narrating brief introductions for their fellow improvisers: this has become a stock edit that I think is a little unique to our campus and style. I’ve found this approach encourages tighter vignettes while also training a certain generosity of play as narrators generally pitch ideas for others to explore rather than editing so that they can then enter themselves. It was around this time that I also introduced a set piece between the third and fourth round of scenes, modeled on the short-form game Phonebank (which you can read about here). This feature has proven to be a great way to heighten connections and further explicate the central theme as the show as it begins to culminate. The tradition of bell edits and the omnipresent use of the phrase, “That reminds me of the time,” have become so representative of the troupe that these elements often appear on our company gear and feature prominently in our end-of-year rituals.

At least within the troupe, these start-of-the-year performances have become known as ImprOvientation – a punny title that probably has no meaning or traction with anyone else other than those who have performed in it! While some of the logistics have changed a little from year to year – such as how many shows were performed, the size of each audience and performance space, and how we were scheduled in the overall orientation week – the substance of the show has remained surprisingly consistent. Framed by a large white board or similar, the audience of new students are asked prompts such as “What do you think about when you hear the word college, or Rollins College in particular,” “What are you most excited about as you start this phase of your life,” and “What are some of the things that are causing you stress or anxiety?” While there are always exceptional or unexpected responses, the answers often explore similar terrain, such as nervousness about roommates, dating, parties, communal bathrooms, maintaining relationships back home, finding a place to fit in, and figuring out their major or course schedule. While I assist in this stage of eliciting suggestions (and, in more recent years, some of the scenic introductions) the show becomes primarily peer driven for the duration, which has always been a central part of its design: this is a student performance inspired by students and for students. Typically, I’m the only faculty or staff representative of the college in the space during the shows.

Lessons

Improvisation can be a scary pitch to an administration that is wary of branding and messaging during these formative initial days on campus. As the show has become established, this has become less of an issue (although it tends to re-emerge at least a little as new leadership enters the picture). Great care is taken during the rehearsal process to stress the purpose of this collaboration and that we want to balance the needs of honoring our producing partner (this is not the time to reveal all our least favorite things about our campus) with creating a playful performance atmosphere free from stifling censorship (we don’t want the show to become merely a didactic series of institutional talking points). In practice, this balance has not been particularly difficult to find, especially as the trust between all parties involved has been forged. We also deploy strategies to try to keep the content honest, joyful, and nuanced. This is one of the gifts of the bell introductions and edits, as an outside eye can gently nudge a scene into new territory if it is becoming cliché, problematic, or lacks consequence. We also have a seldom-used but important device built into the form in which any improviser can pause a scene to provide a quick contextualizing personal monologue. For example, if we’re painting Greek life in a bit of a simplistic or negative tone, a company member who is an active member of a sorority or fraternity might pause the action and briefly talk about how this aspect of their college experience has been of significant value or import.


The First (2005) Company:

Kristen Burke
David Charles
Michael Dalto
Eli Green
Yvette Kojic
Claire Kunzman
Stacy Norwood
Zeldagrey Riley
Maddy Rockwell
Seth Stutman
Brad Tehaan
Kylen Wijayasuriya
Ryan Wolf

These are actually members of that original company during one of our rehearsals (as is the cover photo)!

As this project has continued and grown, I think we’ve all learned to trust the inherent value of an improvisational offering in a week of generally more formal and constructed events. Initially, ImprOvientation was framed with accompanying feedback sessions: peer mentors led debriefs with students about what they had just seen and how they could relate to it. Later, we connected the piece with specific alcohol awareness programming and resources. For quite some time now, however, we’ve just allowed the performance event to plant gentle seeds, to invite casual conversations or reactions, and to playfully embody some fears and excitements that are probably more common than individuals might realize as they sit in the darkness of the theatre auditorium. This is in no small part a result of the programming having proven its inherent value to our producing partners.

There have also been some simpler lessons just in terms of scheduling and how to set the company of improvisers up for success. That first year, 2005, we improvised ten hour-long shows over three days for approximately 450 students. More recently, it’s typically been five or six shows for larger houses, albeit crammed into one long day! Our troupe now generally averages sixteen members, with eight or nine performing in any given show and the others taking on supporting technical and directorial positions. I work hard to rotate students in and out of the cast in a way that isn’t too daunting or exhausting. However, the scope of this experience, along with the intense 12-day rehearsals to forge and train a new company combination each year, has become truly central to the identity of the troupe. (This reality was made even clearer when we had to forego the show for the first time since its inception in the fall of 2020 due to COVID restrictions.) There is incredible value in launching into each year with a long-form structure securely in our pockets, a deep sense of trust and connection from all the personal stories we have shared and facilitated, and the seeds of a relationship with a new audience who might have not taken the risk of seeing an improv (or any campus theatrical) show otherwise.

A quick shout out also to Claire Kunzman, an original ImprOvientation company member, who co-wrote a conference paper with me that I’ve drawn upon to refresh my memory a little. Along with Yvette and Doug, she was instrumental in helping this partnership materialize and blossom.

For sixteen years this show has been a well-received welcome to the Rollins campus. It saddens me that we had to take a hiatus in 2020, but the tradition is scheduled to return stronger than ever in 2021. This is probably the single improv show I have directed and re-directed most in my life!

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Go here for a sneak peek inside the project.

You can read more about some of my improv firsts here, check out the Game Library here, or the Index of improv terms and techniques here.

Game Library: “Sequence Game”

The Sequence Game warm-up provides a helpful mechanism for reviewing material or brainstorming potential content. I’ve used it frequently in support of my Dramaturgical Improv projects such as Upton Abbey and Private Lies.

The Basics

Players form a circle…

Phase One: One player (A) volunteers to initiate the first sequence and offers a specific word to another (B) located across the circle. Player B now offers a second word that they associate with the first to a new player (C). This process continues until everyone has been featured once in the circuit and the sequence returns to the original Player A. When used to review material, the “topic” for associating may be provided, such as “law and order in Prohibition America.” If you are using this exercise as a more generic warm-up, the connection between the various offers should organically emerge and (hopefully) become clear as the circuit continues.

Phase Two: Once a complete circuit has been created with each player receiving and then providing a related idea, the group should then “burn in” the sequence by passing it around the circle a few more times with players repeating their original offers and sending them consistently to the same person as they did the last time. In the event that players may have inadvertently repeated the same idea as someone else in the circle, this also provides an opportunity to adjust that mis-step if that suits your purpose. The initial volunteer (Player A in our example) becomes the “owner” of this sequence.

Phase Three: The original “A” sequence is now put on hold for a moment. A new volunteer (Player B) provides a different offer as the first step in a new sequence and sends it across the circle. They should ideally select a recipient that they were not connected to in any previously established circuit (in this case, Player A’s sequence). The Phase One process is replicated generating new material until the circuit is complete with the last player sending their word back to Player B. Once created, it is wise to burn in this sequence too by passing it around the circle several times in the established order.

Phase Four: Pre-established sequences are now passed simultaneously around the group with Player A initiating their chain and Player B doing the same with their own. Each sequence should replicate its original path and content and players should strive to keep the process alive and accurate. Allow the sequences to successfully pass around the circle multiple times until considering moving onto…

Phase Five: Depending on the size and success of the group, additional sequences can be added, each initiated by a new volunteer and focusing on a newly assigned or discovered theme or concept. Establish each new circuit in the same manner as above, with players attempting to avoid passing or receiving words from players they are already connected to in a prior sequence.

Example

Player A points across the circle and nominates Player B:

Player A: “Prohibition”

Player B: (pointing across the circle to nominate C) “The Mob”

Player C: (pointing across the circle to nominate D) “Speakeasies”

Player D: (pointing across the circle to nominate E) “Hooch…”

The Focus

Generally this serves well as a listening, focus and connection game. When adding a dramaturgical lens, the warm-up also helps with information recall, exploring a common mood or style, and brainstorming appropriate content for a specific genre or historical period.

Traps and Tips

1.) Build the layers. Especially if your ensemble is first encountering this warm-up, don’t rush into the later phases. Take your time to craft and secure each sequence before striving to add new ones. As you are burning in circuits, the “owner” (initial volunteer) can also start their sequence more than once so that two or three chains are passing through the circle at the same time. This is a simple way of gently raising the level of challenge and energy without prematurely establishing multiple competing circuits.

2.) Hands up. When you are establishing new sequences it can prove helpful to have everyone raise their hand and lower it once they have been woven into the round. In this manner it’s easier to quickly ascertain who hasn’t been used yet. It can also be helpful before each new round to have everyone quickly point at the two players they have connected with in the prior circuits so as to minimize the risk of repeating combinations from round to round.

3.) Calm within the storm. Avoid giving into the chaos of the game and seek an inner calmness (which is great advice for our improv in general). Players need to seek an awareness of the whole group so that they can sense when they are the intended recipient of the focus. If you have three or four sequences moving around simultaneously, the likelihood that you’ll be tagged twice at the same moment increases exponentially. Breathe through these moments and enjoy them!

4.) Forge connections. Another helpful tactic is to make sure your offers in the various chains are clearly received. If you just throw out your words into the ether without firmly connecting to the intended receiver, you have increased the chance that the ball will get dropped. Direct your voice (although you don’t have to “yell”), seek clear eye contact with your chosen target, and confirm that they have accepted your offer before moving onto the next order of business. This deliberate system of communicating, one could easily argue, serves as an apt paradigm for the improvisational event in general.

In performance

There is a bit of an up-front time investment when a group first learns this dynamic, but once the basics are firmly understood and practiced, it’s possible to effectively get a few sequences going in ten minutes or so. If you’re using source material to help inspire or create the world of your improv, this also really helps to bring that front of mind before you begin your rehearsals or performance.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo

Connected Concept: Dramaturgical Improv

“D” is for “Dramaturgical Improv”

“Improvisation is an art that has to be learned. . . . The art of improvising is not just a gift. It is acquired and perfected by study. . . . And that is why, not just content to have recourse to improvisation as an exercise towards the renovation of classical comedy, we will push the experiment further and try to give re-birth to a genre: the New Improvised Comedy, with modern characters and modern subjects.”

Jacques Copeau quoted in Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p. 25

Definition

I’ve become inclined to use the term Dramaturgical Improv to define a subset of spontaneous play that tends to share certain characteristics beyond the more simplistic labels of long-form or narrative improv (although it tends to be both of these things as well). I’m indebted to Nicolas Zaunbrecher for first uttering the phrase in my presence at a conference where we were both presenting. The promise of the term resonated deeply with me in terms of encompassing a very specific and recurring type of improvisational approach and performance style that I have come to deeply value. The phrase itself warrants a little parsing:

Dramaturgy is a fluid term that can mean different things in different countries and to different companies. If you’re unfamiliar with the role, on a simple level a production dramaturg is often a researcher and creative collaborator who has a particular eye on the fidelity and accuracy of a play and its given circumstances. They are closely allied with the director and creative team, or, in some instances, serve as an audience-development and education resource. Dramaturgs also provide critical resources and critique for playwrights especially when pieces are taking their first steps onto the theatre boards. Or their work spans all of these areas, creating detailed resources for the company, working to fine-tune choices in the rehearsal hall as a “first spectator,” providing historical context for the audience in program notes or displays, and developing educational materials for outreach programs.

And improv means make-em-ups…

Together, these words refer to a body of improvisational work that tends to place itself more consciously in conversation with other historical or stylistic trends and practices. Or perhaps put another way, it is improv built on a robust foundation or body of knowledge.

Qualities of Dramaturgical Improv

As a relatively new term it is a little difficult to definitively define this particular approach to spontaneous theatre, but in general the following tendencies tend to unify dramaturgical improv:

1.) Form and style. Often focused on a particular genre or art product, dramaturgical improv tends to elevate and celebrate the source material that serves as its bedrock and inspiration. While a simple parody or brief short-form scene might happily skate on the surface, dramaturgical work, by definition, strives to paint a more hard-earned picture, incorporating emblematic devices, characters and best practices while simultaneously mirroring key structural or formulaic components. Playful choices are inclined to emerge from a more informed vantage point as players engage in a theatrical homage rather than a hastily or ill-formed crafted pastiche. The resulting work may certainly assume an air of irreverence but this will generally be born from a place of appreciation rather than distaste. (Most improvisers would not commit the necessary time to explore and inhabit a world or genre which they innately disdained.) Showstopper! The Improvised Musical and Free Associates’ Cast on a Hot Tin Roof come to mind as examples of long-form pieces that display this sense of care and affection.

2.) Historicity. While some dramaturgical pieces emphasis a genre or specific art product as the primary source of inspiration, others more overtly privilege a particular historical moment or period. Such works seek to acknowledge or replicate cultural and sociopolitical tensions that would have been in play during the time period in which the improvisational piece is to take place. There may be calls for “authenticity” or seeking informed perspectives and choices based on important historical trends and dynamics. This inclination can fold into a genre-specific piece and support structural and stylistic discoveries, or become the unapologetic raison d’etre of the event with the tools of theatre being repurposed to serve an explicitly pedagogic or edutainment end. In either case such works generally acknowledge and priviledge their historical antecedents and backdrops. Work of this ilk includes living history sites such as Plimoth Plantation that allows visitors to interact with early European settlers and indigenous peoples as they live their seventeenth century lives, and the (sadly now defunct) Astors’ Beechwood which offered visitors a tour of a Newport estate as if they were honored guests in 1891.

3.) Depth and detail. I’ve likened the work behind this style of performance to the image of an iceberg: it’s highly unlikely that on any given night or interaction with the event that you will be exposed to more than the tip of the knowledge, context and research that has been amassed and lies dormant beneath the surface of the artistic creation. And yet practitioners working in this modality tend to believe that this depth of preparation intrinsically elevates and enables the final product. Details and specifics are researched and pursued as they provide both dynamic launching points or scenic potentials, but often also because they form a broad and solid common foundation from which to launch the playing. Some improvisers may find this expected level of commitment off-putting while others enjoy the opportunity for personal enrichment and discovery. Polished improvisational parodies such as Austentatious and Shakespeare Unscripted (to name just two) embody this impetus and approach, and typically require company members to invest consider time on research in order to gain familiarity and ease with the pertinent source material.

4.) Critique. When dramaturgical improv situates itself in a particular historic moment or aesthetic frame, it also tends to offer a critique of the practices it replicates. This may or may not operate at as a primary goal but merely the juxtaposition of a bygone era or cherished form of the past alongside our modern morays is likely to offer some food for thought in skillful hands, and in many cases this satiric or ironic tension is clearly desired and given focus. Whether it is revealing the limitations of gender roles, the blindnesses of powerful institutions, or the disparities faced by various segments of society, carefully etched homages offer a unique and powerful potential to reveal and question resilient societal inequities and contradictions. Such conversations may present themselves playfully, such as in Some Like It Improvised, or overtly, politically and pedagogically, as is the case with Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre.

Final Thought

It is fair to note that some of the companies and productions mentioned above may not wish to choose the moniker of dramaturgical improv to define their own work; I offer these merely as reference points that share certain orientations and inclinations. As has often been the case with theatrical movements, they are most vividly and comprehensively defined well after the moment of their inception. But as we continue to contemplate the shape and scope of the improvisational impetus, I think it is important to make room in the conversation for works that combine spontaneity, structure, research and efficacy in complex and nuanced ways. Such work has the potential to shatter the unscripted and scripted divide while serving and attracting a diverse and dynamic audience.

Related Entries: Deviser, Long-Form, Narrative

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.

Connected Game: Sequence Game