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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 1980s 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 90s 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 1990s… 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 18 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 2000s 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.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Looking for the ImprovDr “Game Library”? Then go here.

Or looking for the ImprovDr “A to Z of Improv”? Then go here.

If you want to learn more about my improv path, you can listen to the RebelRebel podcast here.

And read my recent co-authored article in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism here.

“P” is for “Postmortem”

“He listens well who takes notes.”

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Definition

Due to the unpredictable and ever-evolving nature of an improvisational production it is common practice to conduct detailed note sessions or Postmortems after each performance (unlike our counterparts on the scripted stage.) This has been the case with all of my professional and collegiate companies although the look of these debriefs changes a little from venue to venue. When there’s a resident director or you’re working in an educational setting, it’s common for postmortems to be more unidirectional – with feedback moving primarily from the artistic team to the improvisers. In professional settings this can also be the case or note sessions can prove a little more multivocal with responses moving between players perhaps facilitated by the evening’s host or a senior member of the troupe. When this post show ritual is handled well and with finesse it can further unite the players in a common mission; when it is fraught or needlessly divisive it can do more harm than good. There is certainly no guaranteed approach to unpacking the soaring successes and fumbling fractures of a performance, but I’ve found that a commitment to listening and learning from our struggles and mistakes stands as a crucial element of a thriving improvisational environment.

Here are some pointers on the two equally important functions of both giving and receiving thoughtful analysis in your improv debrief sessions:

Thoughts on Giving Notes

1.) Seek conciseness. Focus on what will benefit the company and individuals moving forward, patterns that need elevating or breaking, and adjustments that will serve the greater vision or mission. It can prove disheartening for all involved when undue attention is given to a misstep that was so situational that it will likely never happen again. In most cases improvisers have already mentally given themselves the note when such fumbles occur so don’t needlessly dwell on these struggles but rather briefly acknowledge them if it’s necessary to offer up future prescient strategies. (If they’re truly oblivious or in meltdown, this is better addressed in a one-on-one anyway.) Also be wary of lengthy musings as to what you would have done in that situation – offer a tool rather than an after-the-fact personalized and ultimately inapplicable blueprint.

2.) Seek balance. Strive to find balance between constructive and positive notes. (It’s a shame that most artists experience this binary when well-articulated suggestions are also acts of appreciation and support.) I’ve noticed that there can be a tendency to over-emphasize the former category, especially if time is tight, but players are generally more receptive to critique when they also feel adequately and sincerely celebrated. Admittedly this can add volume to the postmortem session so also consider after-the-fact ways of helpfully continuing the conversation. In some of my devised pieces I have explored distributing written notes and just sharing the high points in person (although this certainly adds a time burden on the company director.) With my on-campus troupe we’ll utilize social media platforms to allow players to give supportive shout outs and personal musings as well.

3.) Seek empathy. Especially if you are leading a note session (or are a senior player or more regular participant) keep front of mind how challenging these endeavors can be and don’t focus on unhelpful minutiae. Be careful of your tone or preambles that will make the listener defensive or on edge, such as a foreboding “This note is for you…,” “I’ve noticed that you always…,” or “If there’s one thing I hate it’s…” It can be easy to forget how impossible it is to improvise and balance so many competing needs at once. It’s also important to practice empathy during moments of discord or when a fellow player shares feeling marginalized or hurt by a choice. Sometimes it can prove helpful to simply offer the note from a more personal (rather than high status) place in these moments: “I’ve experienced a similarly difficult moment. While I couldn’t find a path at the time, afterwards I thought about…”

4. Seek joy. Read the room and set a tone accordingly. If it’s been a bit of a challenging show and the company is clearly beating themselves up a little, this might be a good time to emphasize growth and lean into the successes. After a performance where company members are riding high, this might provide an opportunity to consider some more nuanced or granular issues that can open up even new heights for the future (although be wary that you don’t cast an unnecessarily large shadow over the glow of success.) I believe it’s important to acknowledge the dominant mood: if everyone knows the show was rocky it will feel disingenuous and ultimately unhelpful to doggedly insist otherwise. But it’s also probably not a good time to heavily lay on feedback that will be perceived as negative. Failure is inherently part of improv and it’s healthy to find ways to laugh in the face of our struggles. Joyful notes can go a long way towards building up a troupe’s tolerance and acceptance of risk and fumbles.

Thoughts on Receiving Notes

1.) Take the note… even if you have a pressing justification or reason for your choice. As improvisers most of us can quickly come up with a string of great justifications for why we did what we did, but at the end of the day a note is responding to how we did what we did landed or the way it was received by our partners or the audience. Be open to the reality that your choice may have had an unintended consequence despite your efforts to the contrary.

2.) Take the note… even if you don’t agree with it. If you don’t understand the observation, seek a moment with the director or company member after the session (or perhaps sit with it for a night and then approach them if it’s still pertinent.) Ask for clarity in the note session only if it’ll benefit everyone present. I can struggle with keeping notes contained as a director; assuming a “thank you” approach as a player can go a long way in this regard. Those providing feedback are just as fallible as those receiving it, and sometimes an offering will be opaque (or kindhearted but not particularly apt) just as is the case on the stage.

3.) Take the note… even if you have to pass up a great opportunity to show how much you know, or who you’ve studied with, or why you should be appreciated more… When postmortems become status battles you’ve headed off the map into dangerous territory. There are certainly appropriate places to muse on the greater philosophical ramifications of our craft – in my circle this is typically at a bar after the show – but strive to avoid intellectual flights of fancy during the postmortem itself. If you make a one-upping move in a company of improvisers, someone is more than likely to quickly join the game – perhaps without even consciously choosing to do so – while the minutes will continue to tick away.

4.) Take the note… literally consider taking the note and writing it down so you can review it later, especially if you are working on a new or complex piece. In addition to being a mark of respect for the creative team – “I value your feedback enough to record it to look at again later” – it also allows you to self diagnose trends that you might not immediately catch when you are no longer in the heat of the moment. Are you constantly being praised for certain choices or behavior that you can now lean into? Are there skillsets, games or structural components that keep tripping you up that might warrant more training or a conversation with your director or mentor?

Final Thought

I’ve reflected on the import of well facilitated postmortems here when it comes to dealing with ruptures in how we treat and represent each other on stage. As I continue to grey I am increasingly of the opinion that complex interpersonal and habitual performance issues rarely find fruitful solutions in a public or community note session. Regardless of the sensitivity of the facilitator such moments invariably can feel shaming or become mired by other well-meaning improvisers either trying to kindly dull or less kindly sharpen the message – some conversations are just best handled one-on-one. In my experience, postmortems infused with respect, playful professionalism and, dare I say love, can actually capture some of the creative joy and comraderie that hopefully defines our onstage successes as well. If your note sessions routinely feel angsty or cynical this may, in fact, suggest more systemic issues in your company.

Related Entries: Acting, Commandment #10, Consent, Ensemble, Rehearsal Etiquette Antonyms: Check In Synonyms: Debrief, Feedback, Notes

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Best and Worst Goes live on Friday (EST)

Game Library: “Rashomon”

This improv format is inspired by the classic 1950s Japanese movie of the same name that looks at one event from multiple character Points of View. I know Rashomon as a short-form replay game but, as the source material amply illustrates, the concept certainly has the legs to be expanded into a fuller-length improvisational piece as well.

The Basics

Players improvise a “base scene” prompted by an audience suggestion, such as an important event, dramatic location or pivotal relationship. This first scene, while considered “neutral,” actually provides the basic frame and details for everything that follows. At the completion of the scene, the players then replay this action but now filter it through the point of view of one specified character at a time. While the general “beats” of the scene should remain the same – as is the case for most replay formats – the details are now adjusted to augment and reflect the chosen character’s experience. Time permitting, the scene may then be replayed from the perspective of some (or ideally all) of the original featured characters.

Example

Player A, as an addled parent, escapes into the lobby bar of an urban hotel. Player B and C are two unattached and unencumbered singles, flirting casually over their over-priced drinks. The bartender, Player D, idly pushes their cloth back and forth on the bar as much to pass the time as to actually clean. As Player A collapses onto a stool, Player D notices their dishevelment.

Player D: “You look like you could use a drink…”

Player A: “That’s just one thing on a long list of what I need!”

The Focus

The logistics of this game can be a little tricky to wrap your mind around if you haven’t explored the basic premise and helpful strategies beforehand (which I strongly advise.) Rashomon provides an excellent lesson in crafting clear and strong points of view as the game demands that characters are not merely floating aimlessly through the base scene. This notion of shifting the narrative focus also resonates with several performance strategies in the healing arts which points to the potentials of this frame to enrich a wide range of venues and improv modalities.

Traps and Tips

1.) Plant the seeds. If you don’t establish at least the inkling of an interesting character point of view or attitude in the base scene the resulting replays can become quite the struggle. This isn’t a good scene to play casually with low stakes and minimal attack (mind you, few scenes do well with this deadpan approach.) As I’ve demonstrated in the example above, characters should hit the stage hot with some energy or potential deal, even if this changes considerably as it combines with the ideas of other teammates. In addition to having some sense of your own deal – “I’m an overworked parent who craves the simpler days of my youth” – make sure you also keep an eye out for the deals of others as this is equally important for the later replays. Early scenic choices should exude emotional intensity while keeping specifics largely in the subtext rather than text. If you are too explicit in the first iteration there will often be nowhere new to go down the road. This might go without saying but just in case it doesn’t, players who don’t appear in the base scene can’t easily contribute in the reenactments, so if you elect to remain in the wings make sure your teammates have built a promising improv edifice that doesn’t need you. If you do pop in for a brief Canadian Cross or nudge, also be aware that it’s in the spirit of the game for your perspective to become the focus of a replay too, so have something in your pocket.

2.) Don’t get caught in the weeds. Part of the delightful contract of replay games is that the foundational elements of the scene should generally remain intact. If Player A enters the bar, is served by the bartender, interacts with the young couple B and C, receives a phone call from their babysitter, and then orders a double to drown their sorrows, these basic pointers should frame everything that follows. That is not to say the nuances, dialogue and action might not change considerably – and in fact one hopes that they will – but keep your foundational parameters in mind as you play, deviating from them out of strength rather than from a fuzzy recollection. Extremely verbose scenes can prove challenging for this reason: consider action that is rich with emotion instead. As players scroll through the new replays it’s important that they work to a common end. If the bartender’s original subtext was that they are overworked and everyone takes them for granted, try to establish this game quickly and clearly in their reenactment so that everyone can elevate this particular point of view. Perhaps Player A originally responds with “I’d like a gin and tonic” but now this becomes “I’d like you to solve all my problems but I won’t tip you well.” If your character is featured early in the scene it helps the whole team if you make a brave move that others can then mirror (hence the import of paying close attention to the first scene so you have a sense of what others might have been pitching.)

3.) Water others’ gardens. One of my favorite features of this format is that it requires players to heighten the points of view of their teammates in order for the replays to flourish. Improvisational philosophies often stress tending to our own deals, at least initially, and this structure palpably reminds us that games only thrive when we all play them together. When you cycle through the replays the heavy lifting generally falls on the shoulders of the characters and players who aren’t in focus as they are responsible for selling the narrative shift. In many ways the featured player primarily serves as the “straight” character responding honestly to others’ choices while maintaining the established trajectory of the original template. While I recommend hitting this shift in perspective quickly and clearly, don’t drown the new protagonist in a tsunami of well-intended suggestions but rather build and complicate the story one patient step at a time. The replays specifically benefit from making sure the focused character has sufficient time to receive and process each new move, hence the import of not creating a needlessly frenetic baseline. If in doubt it proves helpful to ask yourself “how does the featured character perceive me or my actions” as you adjust the tonality and delivery of your dialogue. Player B and C who may have been just mildly annoying originally with their youthful entitlement, now might feel their passions are being brutally extinguished by those who have no place in a hip hotel bar when we experience the world through their eyes.

4.) Pick the ripest crops. Every character needn’t have a turn in the focus hot seat although this can become the expectation depending on the way your introduce the game and the rhythms of your particular performance. Admittedly, there is certainly something innately satisfying about getting to glimpse into everyone’s head at least for a moment. If you’re new to this game or the base scene feels a little underdeveloped, grab an easier character as your first focal point so that you (and the audience) have a chance to warm into the central dynamic. (Deploying a caller can also steer the selections based on what they feel was landing well and takes a little pressure off the cast to make split second decisions when they may not have a good sense of the bigger picture yet.) If a character feels marginal either in terms of their scenic function or, frankly, their ability to land a definitive point of view, you could either skip them or strategically place them in the middle of the replay pack. I’d just advise not leaving them until last in case there really isn’t much to harvest: you don’t want a stumbling reenactment as the final taste of the scene for the audience. Characters that are occupying similar or parallel functions, as is the potentially the case with the younger bar goers above, can also combine into one replay, especially if time is a consideration. Ideally keep a character whose implied game has the strongest potential for your curtain call as it can be a little off-putting when the replays burn brightly initially only to fizzle when the game finally reaches the finish line. Often it can prove delightful to save the most featured character – likely Player A in our bar scene – until this last position for this reason, although I will confess that I’ve also seen strong teams slay by putting the most minor character into this final slot as well.

In Performance

Rashomon has sadly fallen out of my own rotation a little as it requires some focused rehearsal time to get a grasp on the logistics at play, and the game (as is the case with most replay formats) requires sufficient room to expand which makes it difficult to program when strict time constraints exist. However, I value this game as much for what it teaches about subtext, points of view, active listening and elevating the choices of others as I do for the results it can garner on the stage. Don’t become disheartened if you feel a little stumped or clumsy in your first efforts as the mechanics of the game can put you in your head initially. Perspectives (an earlier Game Library entry you can find here) can serve as a helpful prequel if you’re looking for a user-friendly way to warm-up your improv brain for this particular challenge.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Point of View

“P” is for “Point of View”

“…the on-the-spot improvisation is truly the most ephemeral of the work we do. It’s very rare that you get something that, in addition to being funny and displaying virtuosity, also makes some kind of a statement, has some point of view.”

Roger Bowen quoted in Jeffry Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away. 1996. New York: Limelight Editions, 1978. p.36

Definition

It’s common improv parlance – at least in my current circles – to talk about filtering the events of a scene through your character’s Point of View. This phrasing refers to the specific way your personae approach the world, their primary attitude or “deal” if you will. In our quest for content, a strong point of view can open the floodgates for generative material as choices become largely responsive – and perhaps even effortless. A character needs only to react with some thread of consistency based on their earlier behaviors rather than frantically search for a unique contribution. If you’ve ever found yourself floundering in a scene without an anchor, it’s likely that you hadn’t locked in a strong attitude or, perhaps, let it go prematurely. Finding a dynamic character perspective can at times prove easier said than done, however, so here are a few potential keys for unlocking this powerful scenic doorway…

Example

A group of characters have been waiting on an exposed elevated train platform for the last train of the evening. They have been engaging in small talk to pass the time. The booth improviser offers cloud rumbles and it starts to rain…

Find Your Point of View By…

1.) Wanting something. Characters devoid of objectives typically become characters devoid of energy and action. If you don’t want something specific, after all, you can coast through a scene with very little at stake. Theatre explores winners and losers, those who obtain their dreams and those who are punished for striving to do so. In long-form explorations there may be some considerable time to test and adjust your greater goal for the dramatic arc; in short-form scenes, the action might culminate before you’ve managed to articulate your character’s goal if you’re not careful. It’s helpful to grab something – large or small – even if you revise it multiple times throughout your journey. This may be as simple as allying yourself with another significant character, pitting yourself against a common foe, or pursuing a deep desire that may never explicitly surface in the dominant story arc. It matters less whether or not you achieve this goal than that you have a goal at all.

Player A has established that they are going to an important late night job interview – an opportunity to finally prove themselves to their overbearing parent and enter the world as an adult. As the rain starts to fall, this need to make a professional first impression necessitates that they ask a fellow traveler if they can share an umbrella.

2.) Feeling something. Another pathway to an immediate point of view is assuming and deepening an emotional energy or climate. There are many ways to formalize this: your character might have a mantra, ethos or words that they live by such as “there’s no day like today.” Digging into a deep emotion or quality can also get the improv ball rolling: perhaps you are overly-sensitive, or extremely introverted, or you feel an underlying sense of envy for how others always seem to have an easier life than you. Strong feelings activate games, encourage the development of dynamic backstories, and provide onstage relationships with energy and interest. Feeling a strong emotion doesn’t dictate that this energy must remain static, unnuanced or monotonous in its execution. Just as a strong objective should be explored through a vast array of tactics, so too can an emotional center find expression through a multitude of shades. And a sudden and earnt shift can provide a breathtaking climax or tilt especially when it changes or challenges the core of a character we have come to know and love.

Player B has spent the earlier phase of the scene exploring a wide-eyed optimistic energy that finds the good in everything and everyone. As the weather takes a turn for the worse, they kick of their sandals and start to dance in the puddles, laughing all the while.

3.) Loving something. Loving something or someone adds another potentially profound level to an emotional point of view. Many emotional cores can prove self-serving, introverted or even isolating. This is not necessarily unhelpful – a relentlessly paranoid character that feels the world is out to get them could certainly add some power to a scene. Choosing to honestly and earnestly love something or someone, however, adds a whole new level of vulnerability and stakes. There are many kinds of love and this need not necessarily be romantic in nature, although theatre is filled with these kinds of stories for a good reason. Characters might embody parental devotion, or profound loyalty to a friend, or passion for a workplace, occupation or sports team. As I discuss here, this powerful ingredient is often absent or poorly approximated on the improv stage and yet when it appears, it can elevate the most mundane premise into something quite astounding. Loving someone also tends to push you into the scene in actionable ways as opposed to retreating into your imagination.

Player C and D have been gently cooing for the duration of the scene, clearly sharing a literal or metaphorical lovers’ honeymoon. When the rain appears, Player C, without hesitating, lifts their jacket so that it covers both of their heads. It’s just another excuse for holding each other tight.

4.) Believing something. An additional source for a strong POV can reside in a powerful conviction or belief. If you’re leaning towards a more comedic tone, these may be quirky or slightly odd in nature: a character might have a deep-seated fear of stepping on any cracks in the train platform having taken to heart too seriously the chant that such behavior might result in their mother suffering bodily injury. If you’re exploring more complex hues, character beliefs could embody some of the more complex societal issues of the day: a bystander might be silently protesting the plight of working class citizens who struggle to pay for the train to get to and from their minimum wage jobs that don’t meet actual living expenses in an industrialized city. Bowen, in the quote above, recognizes that improvisation’s ability to question or mock the world as we know it as a unique (although unfortunately, in his opinion, rarely executed) quality of the form. I ardently believe that we needn’t silence astute critiques when we play. Sometimes such a stance is viewed as being “political” but, in reality, when we avoid such stances we are also being political, just in the service of the status quo. Even in more whimsical performance modes, portraying characters that believe something important can encourage valuable discourse through satire or parody.

Player E, who has revealed themselves to be an environmentalist to the nth degree, has perched beside the train benches. When they hear the rain approaching they produce a small drinking canister which they use to discretely collect the rain water.

5.) Bringing something. Finally, a point of view can become quickly established by bringing something with you to the stage. While I’m not really meaning grabbing a prop or costume piece as you enter, this actually can jumpstart the process too. Rather, I would advocate for using what you have at your disposal. In most cases this will be our own real world experiences and histories. Perhaps you have worked a late night shift in a particular job and can bring this reality (and its physical remnants) to the scene, or you’re always leaving your umbrella at home when there’s an unexpected rainstorm, or you’ve had some less-than-pleasant experiences using big city mass transportation systems. In long-form pieces, also be sure to bring the performed history of your character to the scene if this moment occurs later in the arc, along with any pre-established point of view elements such as a want, feeling, love or belief. Your character might begin as someone quite different from you, but even a small commonality can connect us to our work in profound and helpful ways. Don’t be afraid to use what you know by bringing your “obvious” to the work.

Player F, a regular elevated train rider in their real life, has a visceral image of the train platform and its sights, sounds and smells. Almost unconsciously they grab a free real estate paper from a nearby stand and hold it above their head when they sense the rain is about to fall.

Final Thought

Investing quickly in a clear point of view will soon pay improv dividends. There isn’t one correct pathway to finding your scenic filter, but the longer you wait to make a definitive choice, the more likely that you’ll find yourself wandering a little as an improv passenger. Whether you grab an objective, mood, passion, conviction or part of your own life story, this vantage point can add flavor and flair to your character work. And to Bowen’s point, as artists we should be mindful that our character point of views can also serve a greater socio-political perspective that can meaningfully serve our communities.

Related Entries: Comedy, Emotional Truth, Game of the Scene, Love, Objective, You Antonyms: Passenger, Passivity Synonyms: Deal, Perspective, POV

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Rashomon

Game Library: “Furniture”

Furniture affords an opportunity for focused physical play on the part of the titular role. As one player spends the scene quite literally in the hands of their teammates, it can also invite Pimping when not approached with attentiveness and care. Beware!

The Basics

One willing player volunteers to serve as the physical embodiment of all the props and furniture pieces needed for the scene. Other players carefully deploy their teammate as the scene unfolds, using and reusing featured stage props to help color and inform the story. The furniture performer may use their whole body to represent larger objects, or just a limb or similar for smaller items, especially when more than one object is currently in use. As is the case with stage combat methodologies, the furniture should primarily remain in control of their own choices and movement.

Example

Player A volunteers to serves as the “Furniture” and the location of an antique store is acquired from the audience. As the lights rise, Player B is standing behind what will become a counter.

Player B: (under their breath) “Another slow shift. Time to close up for the day.”

Player A uses their body to create a counter in front of B and offers up their hand to serve as a rag. Player B gently accepts this offer and begins to (carefully) dust the counter. Player C and D, a married couple, stand at the edge of the stage and C taps on an unseen door.

Player C: “I’m not sure if they’re still open, honey.”

Player D: “I think I can see someone in there.”

As Player B leaves the counter to move to the door, Player A drops their prior position and quickly moves to create this entranceway with their body. Player C is now gently tapping on Player A’s back.

Player C: “Is anyone there?”

Player B: “Yes, sorry, I’m coming.”

Player B fidgets to find their keys which become Player A’s hand which is then used to unlock A’s body/door that laboriously swings open.

Player D: “We’re so sorry if you were closing up, but this is our last day in town and we’ve been eyeing that beautiful grandfather clock in your window all week…”

Player B: “No problem at all.”

Player C: “Everyone here is just so pleasant and accommodating!”

Player B leads the couple over to the shop “window” as Player A quickly assumes the guise of the aforementioned clock, swinging their arm in a predictable rhythm before them.

Player B: “You certainly have excellent taste. You just don’t see this kind of craftmanship anymore…”

The Focus

There is much fun to be had from the playful interaction between the furniture performer and the other characters in the scene. Keep an eye on the stage geography, remembering where key items have been created and stowed, and don’t neglect to also create interesting relationships and a dynamic story. The furniture gimmick is just that and won’t carry the scene on its own.

Traps and Tips

1.) Keep the furniture safe. I still have a very visceral memory from one of the first times I watched this game over thirty years ago. The scene took place in an abattoir (or butchery) and the furniture actor took on the role of a hanging carcass. A playful actor came up and cut off one leg, which the furniture actor lifted up in response. After a moment of playful contemplation, the actor decided to cut off the second leg that was now holding all of the furniture actor’s weight. The second player bravely (?) then lifted up their second leg and thumped down onto the stage on their knees. A small part of me as an observer was impressed by this level of complete acceptance and commitment; a much larger part of me was deeply concerned that I had just watched an improviser terribly injure themselves. (Luckily, they had not.) The moral of the story: don’t put the furniture into jeopardy. Look to challenge and inspire the player assuming this role, but always keep their safety front of mind. They shouldn’t be faced with either maintaining the integrity of the scenic reality or preventing themselves from getting injured. This tension, in essence, is the crisis at the center of pimping.

2.) Don’t needlessly list. It’s important that scenes don’t exist in a nowhere land; subsequently, it’s helpful to get a promising location (or prop-heavy occupation) as the prompt. While players should strive to keep their furniture teammate suitably occupied, sometimes this intent can manifest itself in a proclivity to suddenly list all manner of objects within the space whether or not they are of any immediate use or interest. Such an approach rarely adds anything of value, as it just sends the furniture careening from one ill-defined pose to another. (There is a potential exception to this rule noted below.) Allow sufficient time for each new item to become fully realized and detailed. So much of the charm of the game is seeing how a human body might become that counter, or door, or clock, or purse… Throwing out too many objects, especially at the top of the scene, typically stifles the creation of nuance and the little embellishments that can then fuel the story needs of the scene. Does the grandfather clock’s pendulum swing erratically calling into question it’s accuracy? Is the door to the store overly cumbersome and decrepit in a way that reflects the store in general?

3.) Furniture should follow and lead. Traditionally this game tends to cast the furniture largely in a responsive role, waiting for other improvisers to declare or describe their needs before stepping in to creatively address these offers. The furniture, subsequently, becomes the exclusive target of the playful torture, very much at the whim of their scene partners. This isn’t necessarily problematic, especially if there is excellent rapport between the players and a clear sense that challenges are being pitched and received with graceful abandon. If endowments move into pimping territory, however, it can quickly feel a little icky and this discomfort can increase further if there are perceived power or status inequities between the performers. (Be extra careful not to actually push the furniture around the stage trying to get them to be one thing after another as well – rather change your line of focus and let them move freely of their own volition.) It’s really important that the furniture player is clearly excited and equipped to assume this role so that it doesn’t feel coercive in any way. It can delightfully even the scales if the furniture also clearly leads some (if not many) choices. They should feel empowered to just create a new item in the space that now others must utilize and justify, or breathe unexpected details or malfunctions into their prompted physical creations.

4.) Reuse and recycle. Avoid cluttering the location with a needlessly voluminous array of inconsequential objects. As the scene matures, however, there is a great deal to be mined from strategically returning to prior creations at opportune moments. If the couple finally elects to purchase the grandfather clock, do we now see this wheeled over to the counter, and then finally through the previously established front door with each sequential step requiring the furniture performer to reprise their earlier roles? There is by no means a perfect number of props for the scene, but once you start dancing into the double digits you are probaby reducing the likelihood that everything can be clearly remembered and reused (hence the trap of listing props randomly as the scene begins.) Returning to prior furniture pieces as the scene progresses prevents this clutter and has the added advantage of allowing the featured player to really lock into their physical choices and endowments while building upon any discovered games. So if you’re a “regular” character, don’t feel the need to make every line of dialogue about a new prop. Let these emerge and reappear as the story dictates.

In Performance

It can prove helpful to think of the furniture player as the celebrated “star” of the scene as opposed to the hapless victim. This player needn’t necessarily possess gymnastic abilities, but the game is certainly served by featuring someone who finds excitement in expressing themselves through movement. Make sure endowments balance safety, silliness and story, veering from anything that the furniture (or audience) might view as pimping or painful – as recalled above, you don’t want to figuratively or literally pull the legs out from under another improviser. If in doubt, apply the golden rule of improv which is not so much “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” but rather “do unto others as you know they would prefer to have done unto them.”

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Pimping

“P” is for “Pimping”

“One of the big no-no’s in improv. A typical pimp would be saying to your partner, ‘Say, why don’t you do that little dance you used to do!’ Since it would be un-improv-like to deny your line, your partner is then trapped into doing what you tell her to do. Pimping is never good.”

Rob Kozlowski, The Art of Chicago Improv: Shortcuts to Long-Form Improvisation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002. p.155

Definition

Pimping is a rather unflattering name for an equally unflattering improvisational habit. When this energy infuses your scenic choices, you are likely selling out your improv partner for an easy laugh at their expense. While the concept is related to that of offers and endowing in general, it is primarily this self-serving or scene-sapping spirit that makes all the difference. Offers provide constructive story building blocks, endowments joyfully define your fellow players in welcome ways, but pimping adds little of value to the work. Instead, such moves corrode trust and put teammates in the squirmy position of either declining your idea (and perhaps looking like a poor sport in the process) or taking it on only to feel diminished or demeaned. (Shivving is another related term that I address in a later post.)

Example

Player A and B, assuming the roles of a teenage dating couple, begin the scene both sitting on Player A’s family couch.

Player A: “You’d better be going soon. Dad will be getting home any minute now.”

Player B: “I really wish you’d tell him about me.”

The sound improviser provides the cue of a car pulling in.

Player B: “Are you embarrassed by me… by us?”

Player A: “No, not at all. You’ll see. My father always brings his work home with him. He works at a strip club and treats the front door as if it’s his stage. It’s the tear away clothes that really make me uncomfortable, but he has to do it every single time he comes home. Quick, hide behind the couch.”

Player C stands behind the offstage door, contemplating whether or not to even enter.

Do this instead…

If you think the choice you’re about to make might be heading into this unsavory terrain, or you fear you might be carelessly pushing another improviser outside of their incredibly appropriate comfort zone, do this instead…

1.) Take a moment and assess. Just because you’ve had a thought – and perhaps this thought has tickled your funny bone – doesn’t mean that you need to contribute it to the scene. Some delightfully silly or outrageous thoughts best serve us when they remain as delightfully silly or outrageous thoughts. You can share it with your troupe backstage after the show and every one can chuckle with relief that you had the wherewithal not to scuttle a scene to serve your whimsy (especially the person who was about to be sentenced to wear your creativity.) If the only reason you are making an offer is to get a laugh and you know that your scene partner is the butt of the joke, then don’t say or do that thing. No one laugh is worth causing irreparable damage to your creative relationships. Improvisation should not become synonymous with a scorched earth approach to interpersonal creativity.

2.) Test the waters. It’s certainly foreseeable that a well-intended offer might inadvertently stray into the domain of a pimp despite your intent to helpfully add dynamism or specificity to the scene. In cases where you feel you might be dancing around this line, do less. Part of the damage of a pimping offer is that it strips away the agency of the recipient: they can do the pitched action and feel nasty, or they can push it away and risk looking like a bad improviser. In the above example, Player A has pretty much mandated a rather explicit choice, especially by using language such as every single time. If the intent is to provide an unexpected or jarring parental energy, there are many ways to do this while allowing Player C to fill in the details. “My Dad isn’t like all these other suburban dads,” “I’m really anxious about what you’ll think about my father,” or “You have to promise you won’t tell anyone at school about my Dad” all set up a dynamic tilt, but now Player C can make a choice that honors your need and retains their dignity and agency as a collaborator.

3.) Redirect the offer. If you’re unsure whether or not your intended gift is in fact an actual gift and not a curse or improvisational albatross, don’t send that choice to someone else. Rather, if you feel your idea has the potential to really serve the scene, step into the fray yourself and take on the endowment that you know another might not find joyful. I’m not sure why this might be the case, but if Player A really believes that this dating scene will be served by some dancing, then they should take on this character trait or task. Player C might then decide to enter and establish that dancing is in the family DNA by embracing this choice as well, but now they have the option to heighten, shift or provide a complement to your idea. I’d add that if your choice is clearly tacky, tone deaf or punching down rather than up this approach might still provide a problematic outcome, so it’s not an invitation to just embody all the most tasteless tropes you can conjure.

Final Thought

But what should you do if you’re on the receiving end of a pimp? There aren’t a large assortment of helpful responses hence the pernicious nature of such choices. In short I’d advise saying no as creatively as you can and then addressing this moment with the initiator and the company during the postmortem. Ultimately you shouldn’t feel obliged to take on any old nonsense that another improviser throws at you especially if you find it problematic or mean-spirited. If you are Player C in the above example, you could acknowledge what has been said about your dancing entrances, but choose that today is significantly different and mark it as such by not performing your typical celebratory dance. Perhaps you’ve lost your job, or found out something concerning about your teenage child. You could also use Player A’s words to define them rather than you – making a mundane entrance as an accountant with a briefcase – suggesting that Player A doesn’t want their romantic partner to know anything real about them. Or, you could just say no and do something else completely and figure it out later. There can be a temptation to try to spin or turn a pimp on itself and have it land back on the initiator – “Come and join me in our traditional Daddy’s home dance!” – but I’m not a big fan of meeting problematic improv with more problematic improv, and this can often have the unwanted side effect of encouraging more of this behavior, especially if it results in the audience reaction that the instigator craves.

If the proffered idea is playful and you don’t mind embracing it I would contend you’ve moved out of the domain of the pimp and into shivving territory which is defined by this sense of welcome mischief rather than dreaded obligation.

Related Entries: Commandment #4, Gagging, Shivving Antonyms: Endowing, Offer Synonyms: Selling Out

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Furniture

Game Library: “Animal Kingdom”

I’ve written a little about this handle in my Game of the Scene entry here, but Animal Kingdom offers a multi-layered approach to Physicality and relationships that warrants its own featured consideration. I’ve frequently seen players whose standard mode of operation is to just stand and talk really open up and own the stage when playing this animalistic game.

The Basics

This scene is often framed as a party but there’s no reason you couldn’t apply the conceit to a broader array of scenarios. Prior to the scene each player obtains a different animal from the audience. This is generally done with all players present as there is a value in everyone knowing each other’s suggestion. Players construct a scene in which they utilize the physical, verbal and motivational qualities of their assigned creatures as the basis of their unique characterizations and relationships.

Example

Player A, who has been assigned a “sloth,” and Player B, who has the suggestion of a “hummingbird,” begin the birthday party scene. Player B is preparing the space while Player A stands in the corner.

Player A: (frenetically) “The room is starting to come together. Have you hung up the ‘Happy Birthday’ sign yet, Nick?”

Player A flutters over to Player B who is fumbling with the sign in the corner of the room.

Player B: (painfully slowly) “I keep getting my fingers stuck on the tape. I need some help.”

Player A: (irritated) “I can hang it up. I can do it.”

Player A grabs the banner and has zipped away before Player B can even protest.

Player B: (painfully slowly) “Oh, okay. Thank you, Rina. Your brother is going to love this party!”

Player A has finished hanging the banner by the time Player B has finished their sentence.

Player A: “Let me get you some punch. It’s very very sweet. Just the way I like it!

Player B: (painfully slowly) “You’ve done so much. I can get my own.”

Player B arduously makes their way over to the punch bowl one excruciatingly slow step after another while Player A sets up the rest of the room…

The Focus

Mine the animals for every possible ounce of inspiration! While characters should ideally still read as “human,” the various animals should be readily recognizable through their actions and energies.

Traps and Tips

1.) Seek animal variety. I’m intrigued about the possibility of exploring this scene as one class of animal, such as four different kinds of big cats (lion, tiger, snow leopard, cheetah…) but generally the game benefits enormously from animal diversity. I find it helpful to build this into the structure of the ask-for, so perhaps the first player gets a mammal, the second a bird, the third an insect, and the fourth something from the sea or ocean. It’s certainly fun to incorporate less expected critters but if no-one has any sense of the animal’s behavior then you’re probably not setting the corresponding player up for success. It can also be effective to get one apparent spoiler in the mix, such as a fictional or mythical beast, as this will often set up the team for a strong surprise or final entrance.

2.) Mirror your approach. If you consider a scale from one to ten with one being completely human and ten being completely animalistic, this game tends to thrive in the mid range. If the application of the animal essence is so subtle that the audience struggles to recall the source of inspiration, you’re probably under-delivering on the charge; if characters are essentially animals without the ability to speak or communicate then it’s unlikely you’ll be able to craft a scene of any nuance. It’s a helpful anthropomorphic approach to consider “if this animal were a person then how would they move, talk or behave?” Similarly, if one player is working at a four on the scale noted above, and then their scene partner enters as a nine or ten (perhaps they are a dolphin and flop around on the floor making clicking sounds) the scene typically gets irrevocably wonky. Although, I will note, that under the right circumstances this might be a rather wonderful button or climax! Usually, however, the scene benefits from everyone attacking their animals to a similar degree.

3.) Prioritize the relationships. This game tends to garner a lot of pleasure so players will instinctively want to rush the stage to get in on the scene. Try to resist this temptation in favor of pacing your entrances and generously sharing the stage. Much of the reward of the dynamic comes from clearly seeing the animals in various combinations. Our sloth and hummingbird seemed to have a friendly relationship even if Player A was annoyed by B’s inactivity. What happens if a more predatory animal enters the mix? Or a potential mate or rival? A loose Entrances and Exits approach works well, namely assuming that the scene will typically have two characters on stage at a time. (If you’re not familiar with this game, you can read about it here.) Smaller scenic units also give the audience a better chance to really process how you’re utilizing the animal energies. And when you pace your entrances you can also strategically hold onto particularly interesting or explosive combinations.

4.) Set each other up. Essence work can put you into your head a little if you’re not careful which doesn’t create the most ideal improv conditions. Once you feel you have a good handle on your own character point of view and function make sure you’re also actively looking for ways to help your teammates shine. (Note that this requires that everyone actually remembers the various animals informing the scene work!) Yes, Player B as the sloth can probably find their own games for the duration of the scene, but it’s even sweeter when others pitch thoughtful offers and obstacles that allow the “slothiness” to emerge. Well placed endowments and activities can greatly enhance the charm and playfulness of the scene and when improvisers are able to look beyond their own character deal the story can truly crackle.

In Performance

To return briefly to my arbitrary anthropomorphic scale above, applying varying degrees of essences to a character can prove surprisingly useful and resilient. When played with characters at a level of five or six, you’ll likely craft a physically robust short-form game with an array of uniquely peculiar personalities. A one or two would subtly infuse a character with intriguing behaviors suited to a more dramatic or realistic enterprise. Pushing the scale to a nine or ten opens the door to dance-like explorations with little or no language. Such an approach could inspire a non-realistic fever dream, epic ballet (serious or whimsical) or serve as a developmental exercise to encourage heady players to boldly communicate nonverbally.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Physicality

“P” is for “Physicality”

“…improvisation, if it does extend knowing, does so because it unblocks inhibitions and prejudices, encourages participation and learning to take responsibility, enhances observation and body awareness, and develops verbal, tactile and other physical skills – it makes use of the whole body as a resource of channels of sensitivity and response, intelligence and insight, expression and articulation.”

Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow. Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.163

Definition

There are many rich and historical movement practices that provide highly physical examples of performed spontaneity, such as contact improv, mime and the wide array of clowning traditions that have appeared across multiple cultures and time periods. In North America, at least, modern popular improv doesn’t always fully exploit Physicality and, left to its own devices, can become a little intellectual, static or ponderous. Needless-to-say, this is a shame as such heady tendencies undervalue the incredible communicative potentials of the human body. I consider space objects (props) and conjured locations elsewhere, so here I would like to muse on the ways that we can increase our sense of playful physical abandon when it comes to the site of character.

Example

Two nervous soon-to-be adoptive parents (Player A and B) wait anxiously in a small official office. Both players sit, and then sit, and then sit some more…

Tactics for Increasing Your Physical Vocabulary

1.) Mimic or parallel. If you consider yourself a little less equipped or inclined to add physical energy to a scene there is no shame in observing and using the choices of more body-centric players as a source for inspiration. I would offer this as one of my favorite forms of parallel action as it tends to add volume and energy to a scene that might otherwise prove unhelpfully stationary or mundane. If Player A gets up and starts to pace the room out of a sense of nervousness, Player B can certainly stand and perform a similar dynamic in their own character-specific way. If Player B picks up a magazine from a coffee table and starts to idly flip through the pages, Player A can certainly benefit from grabbing a magazine or something else as well – perhaps a brochure, a child’s toy, a box of handkerchiefs… Such choices have the added benefit of defining the location in greater detail while also providing characters ways to reveal their feelings and subtext through behavior as opposed to merely announcing or cartooning these contributions.

2.) Change your center. Some actor traditions deploy the concept of a character “center” or a physical source from which energy or movement emanates. If you typically just stand as some ill-defined version of yourself, changing your physical lead or center will quickly unlock new movement potentials. I’ve explored this concept with or without adding emotional energies and both approaches have clear merit. Player A may process their nervousness predominantly through their finger tips, rolling their fingers on the arm of the chair, constantly adjusting their clothing, or scrolling through screen after screen on their cell phone. Player B could utilize aggressive shoulders that jut them into the space, causing sharp posture adjustments or a tendency to expansively consume the room. If you’re playing in an overtly comedic style, taking on unexpected leads can inspire dynamic relationships or portrayals: how do panicking feet, judging elbows, or lustful nostrils influence the world of the play? In more subtle genres this approach has equal merit although you might elect less overt or peculiar manifestations.

3.) Apply an essence. Another way to jolt yourself out of your habitual movement qualities (or lack of movement altogether) is to assume a physical essence as a foundation for your character. There’s really no limit as to where you might look for inspiration, although animals (fox, eagle, hamster) and environmental qualities (cloud, fire, stream) work uniquely well as they innately suggest ways to move as opposed to items that are inherently more static (brick, book, cup.) Essence work invites both verbal and movement based adjustments as part of the fun is holistically embodying your perception of your inspirational source: what does a fox really want, how might such an animal use their words, where in the room would a fox prefer to wait? If you find greater comfort in your verbal play be wary that your application of an essence doesn’t focus exclusively on the language components – as tempting as this may be – but rather risk exploring the movement qualities as well. Essence work can also quickly create dynamic and unanticipated relationship energies. What might transpire in the scene if Player A has taken on a jaguar essence while their partner Player B explores that of a deer?

4.) Add an idiosyncrasy. In some ways this is just another iteration of the well-worn improv advice to do something specific and then use this as a doorway for future behavior and scenic choices. Characters can tend towards the mundane when we do not create or embrace anything uniquely peculiar about them. These personae peccadillos may be organically discovered (Player A just straightened a magazine so now leans into this choice) or more consciously inserted into the action (Player B continually twirls their wedding ring between their fingers.) It’s possible that such embellishments may remain small and serve primarily to add specificity and color, but if they are heightened or featured they can also provide the first move of more significant games or story elements. Is Player A worried that their need for organizational perfection will cause issues with a new child in the house? Does Player B’s fidgeting eventually reveal that they raced somewhat reluctantly into this marriage in order to increase their attractiveness as potential adoptive parents?

Final Thought

Thoughtful movement can do much to increase the vibrancy of our stage work and characters. What may start as a rather obligatory effort to add some staging or character flair can quickly evolve into a more central or formative element of the scene if it is given sufficient love and space to grow. For those of us who are movement hesitant, sometimes it is really as simple as challenging ourselves to make one out-of-the-box physical choice as an improvisational leap of faith and trusting that this will lead to others and greater comfort overall.

If you’re intrigued about other helpful strategies for enriching your character movement toolbelt consider reading the entry on Character linked below.

Related Entries: Character, CROW, Game of the Scene, Verbal Skills, Where Antonyms: Talking Heads, Telling Synonyms: Movement, Showing

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Animal Kingdom

Game Library: “Double Speak”

I’ve known this game by many names – most of which haven’t stood up well to the tests of time – and the word-at-a-time dynamic it showcases also serves as the central device of many related short-form games and warm-ups. Double Speak demands that improvisers are truly present and connected, and as such provides a fitting exercise for addressing both Bulldozer and Passenger performer patterns.

The Basics

Two players self-nominate to work closely together as one character for the duration of the scene, alternating words in their dialogue in a word-at-a-time fashion. Other players perform without any verbal or physical restrictions and should address this featured character as a singular entity.

Example

Player A and B decide to form the featured character and wrap arms around each others’ waists. They receive the occupation of “plumber” as the initiation and as the scene starts Player C (as an individual character) invites A/B into their house...

Player C: (in a panic) “Thank you so much for coming on such short notice…”

Player A and B talk as one character, quickly alternating words…

Player A: “You…”

Player B: “did…”

Player A: “the…”

Player B: “right…”

Player A: “thing…”

Player B: “calling…”

Player A: “me.”

Player A extends their right (free) hand to shake Player C’s as Player B holds an imaginary tool box.

Player A and B (continuing to provide one word each in sequence) “I’m… Victoria… of… Victoria’s… Plumbing… Now… show… me… the… source… of… the… problem.”

Player C: “It’s my kitchen sink. Water is just gushing everywhere!”

The Focus

In some ways the mark of a successful Double Speak game is that everyone just attacked the action as if it were any other unimpeded scene. There is obviously an added challenge for the word-at-a-time character, and these improvisers should be given a little extra love and support as they navigate the verbal and physical hurdles that the game will invariably throw at them. It’s also generally poor form to name or point at the explicit game too much: the more other players or characters inelegantly call out the odd behavior of the “Double Speaker,” for example, the more likely it is for the energy of the scene to become tepid.

Traps and Tips

1.) Verbal pointers for the Double Speaker. Some little things first: make sure you consistently talk about yourself as an “I” rather than a “we” as the premise is that both improvisers are embodying the one character who just happens to have two contributing minds. It’s helpful to have a designated first speaker so that when you are beginning new sentences you don’t have to continually negotiate who will go first – constant sentence false starts just add hesitancy which is the enemy of the game. Be mindful of needless air between your words or searching for the “perfect” contribution: it’s better to say your immediate thought, no matter how clumsy it is, and trust that others in the scene can justify it later if need be. Stalling or excruciatingly plodding speech will quickly make the game rather unwatchable. On a more macro level, just attack the language and work to infuse it with subtext, nuance, emotion and inflection. Don’t allow yourself to become robotic or so measured in your speech that you’ve lost the risk of surprising yourself and your scene partner. This is most definitely a “leap before you look” type of situation.

2.) Physical pointers for the Double Speaker. Find a way to comfortably but strongly connect to your partner so that you can move through the scene as one: this might be arms around each others’ shoulders or waists, linking arms, or holding hands depending on need, pandemic conditions, and comfort levels. Remember that this game has both the verbal restriction of word-at-a-time as well as the physical restriction of two characters connecting and moving around as if they were one. As players focus in on the verbal communication component it becomes easy to neglect your physical presence within the scene which is a huge loss: make bold gestures, grab specific mimed props, complete multilayered everyday activities. So much fun can be had watching two improvisers trying to coordinate their free hands to complete otherwise mundane actions, such as pouring a cup of coffee, or driving a car, or taking off a raincoat… Keeping a dynamic physical presence also maintains energy for those moments when your scene partners are talking or if you need a second to reset when the words just aren’t coming. To this end, it’s really helpful to get a physical hobby or multilayered action as the scene ask-for so as to encourage full-bodied acting.

3.) Verbal pointers for the other characters. By design the Double Speaker should emerge as the scene’s focus or protagonist so make sure you are making your offers with this reality in mind. Especially at the top of the scene, the pair may need a little extra verbal room to find their flow and groove. Be extra wary of interrupting them as it’s often not a simple matter for them to just pick up where they left off. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re talking more than the featured players you should probably pull back a little, or maybe even find a reason to leave for a while so that they have more stage time to explore and get themselves into and out of trouble. It’s so easy to accidentally use plural pronouns for the Double Speaker as well, so be mindful of how you address them or introduce them to others in the scene.

4.) Physical pointers for the other players. This strikes me as an oft under-utilized component of the scene that can add a great deal of dynamism (and a little bit of playful torture!) Lean heavily into the physical reality that the Double Speaker is one character. If you offer them a seat, offer them one seat so that they need to negotiate that obstacle. When fellow players overly accommodate the physical restrictions (which is always done with the best of intent) the team and audience are robbed of watching players solve unexpected challenges in real time. Stumbled upon physical connections – a handshake, high five or hug (with consent) – frequently add mischievous delight to the scene. As always, you’ll want to be careful that the action doesn’t solely become one pitched torture after another: give the scene room to find its footing and earnest direction. But unencumbered players should be sure to capitalize on the inherent gifts of the physical world and endeavor to enrich this component of the scene as best they can.

In performance

Word-at-a-time games are essentially a sub-genre of improvisational short-form and so there are numerous variations that build upon this base such as Epistolaries, Word at a Time Crime and several Experts frames. (Word at a Time Story can serve as an obvious warm-up to these games, which you can read about here.) In terms of this particular game there are two additions that can up the heat a little once players feel comfortable with the basics. Double Double Speak incorporates two characters that consist of two players each engaging in the verbal restriction. This requires additional attack as you no longer have “regular” speaking actors who can more readily justify or weave glorious mistakes into the greater narrative. Double Blind Double Speak adds yet another level of risk (and perhaps a little danger.) Not for the faint of heart this iteration has one half of each character combo close their eyes for the duration of the scene so that now, on top of crafting dialogue one word at a time, they are making their physical choices in the dark, relying on their partner to keep them safe while incorporating these moves into the mix. This requires a heightened level of trust and abandon and those who are performing with their eyes open must keep everyone safe for the duration of the scene above all else.

I pretty strictly play these games with the word-at-a-time handle but there are equivalent scenes that use a “one voice” dynamic where the partnered players must sound out each word together as they are formed. (Epistolaries, in fact, usually has one letter writing couple use word-at-a-time while the other speaks in one voice.) For the purposes of exploring issues of bulldozing and passengering, however, I strongly prefer the approach discussed above. Word-at-a-time requires aggressive players to release the illusion of control as every second word is coming from elsewhere, while more timid players have to contribute each time the sentence winds back around to them and make a quick and connected choice. One voice versions can help in this regard as well but my experience has been that when players are left to their own devices passengers will tend to defer to a strong lead and bulldozers will happily steer whole sentences or more to get to their intended destination. In this way, one voice variants can almost seem to reward these bad habits as they provide a quicker path to “successful” dialogue than the clumsy initial process that should occur with the two players negotiating almost every word and sound together in the crucible of the here and now.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Passenger

“P” is for “Passenger”

“…the women [in the all-woman improv team Jane] soon learned that constant deference or passivity in improv was just as damaging to the ensemble as bulldozing and that sometimes the best way to support the scene or the troupe is to lead.”

Amy E. Seham, Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City. Jackson, Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 2001.p.71

Definition

While Bulldozing is often a misplaced manifestation of excitement or a desire for taking control, assuming the role of a passive scenic Passenger embodies the opposite energy of relentless giving that can prove equally unhelpful. The mark of a bulldozer is an inclination to over-participate at the expense of their teammates; passengers have a tendency to shirk their responsibility to contribute meaningfully to the action thereby shifting all the weight of scene building to others. This is not to suggest that scenes require everyone to equally participate at all moments in the same ways in order to achieve improv magic. There are certainly times when accepting a support or background function (or not entering at all) stands firmly as an act of generosity as it allows other collaborators sufficient space and focus to craft compelling journeys. Most plays, after all, have designated leading roles, supporting roles, and ensemble members as these distinctions allow the skillful construction of engaging story arcs. But, donning the hat consistently of a scenic passenger is another matter entirely as it places the burden of creativity solely on the shoulders of others, denying our fellow players and audience the chance to experience and enjoy energy and ideas from all members of the ensemble. So while it’s desirable for us all to hang out in the back seat of the improv car on occasion quietly enjoying the view, it’s problematic if this becomes our standard mode of operation, especially if we’re working alongside others with similar scenic inclinations.

Example

Player A and B are crafting a scene based on the suggestion of “burglars.” As the lights rise, Player A is carefully cracking open a window to an estate while Player B waits behind them.

Player A: (whispering) “I think I’ve managed to bypass the security system. If we don’t hear anything in the next five seconds, we should be in the clear.”

Both players wait, with varying degrees of trepidation. After a pause to see if Player B is going to make a choice, Player A continues…

Player A: “Alright, hand me the tool kit and I’ll spray the room to make sure there aren’t any infrared detectors.”

Player B: (nonchalantly) “Here you go.”

Player A: “Now you’re positive that the famous ‘Jewel of the Euphrates’ is being kept in the study safe?”

Player A meticulously sprays the aerosol into the room and then begins to move Catherine Zeta-Jones style between imagined beams. Player B follows but without any of this physical commitment or finesse.

Player B: “That’s what I read.”

Player A: “We’re lucky my contacts knew the owners were going to be travelling this week and that’d we’d finally have a chance.” (They suddenly change their posture as if they’ve heard something.) “You didn’t tell me they had a dog!!

Player B: “I didn’t know…”

Some Additional Analysis

It’s conceivable that Player B is doing no harm in the above example: they are, after all, allowing the story to move forward. While it’s difficult to capture performance energies in a written approximation, it would seem, however, that Player A is making several moves that are actively inviting (if not craving) B’s contribution. A failure to contribute consistently in such circumstances makes Player A unduly have to conjure one new detail after another with little support. There are certainly more aggressively destructive habits than being a passenger – such as negating or contradicting established elements – but Player A is largely being robbed of B’s energy and inspiration which will quickly start to impede the joyfulness of the story if this dynamic continues unabated.

Ways to Jump Into the Driver’s Seat

The antidote to playing as a scenic passenger is by no means becoming a dictatorial driver but if you’re inclined to let others make the formative choices time and again, there are lessons to be gleaned from placing yourself more squarely in the thick of the action. So if you’ve found yourself falling into passive roles and choices, consider challenging yourself to do one or more of the following on a more regular basis:

1.) Assume a higher status position. I more often see players falling into the role of a passenger when they self-select low status roles and relationships as a default so it can prove helpful to break this cycle by adopting the guise of someone higher up the status ladder. While there are many ways to play high status – and status needn’t be exerted by barking orders – when status is played well, lower characters should defer to their superiors when it comes to making final decisions. It follows that if you happily assume a higher status you will feel more empowered and encouraged to make strong assertions and contributions. In the burglary scenario, if Player B takes on the stance of an experienced robber then it would follow that they will need to offer up more substantial elements of the plan. Assuming the function of Player A’s sidekick, to the contrary, allows B to spend most of the scene hiding unproductively in the shadows. Similarly choosing to be a neophyte – “this is my first time robbing a house” – discourages bold character choices as you can now ask your partner to lead pretty much every major moment.

2.) Offer yourself as the protagonist. Passengers tend to thrive in the role of the best friend, lackey or underling as these functions cast the spotlight on another character. If the scene above continues along its current path, Player A will surely emerge as the leading character as they are more fully and clearly invested in the action. Without becoming needlessly selfish or dismissive of other players, Player B can reduce the likelihood of insignificance by making their fate critical to the action. In the scripted realm it’s not uncommon for actors to analyze a text exclusively from their own character’s perspective in such a way that imagines themselves as the star (even if from a structural perspective they are obviously a supporting player.) This attitude alone can prove helpful. If B’s burglar pitched this heist due to their own extreme financial situation, their investment in the action will increase exponentially, as will their desire to make contributions that will maximize the chances for success.

3.) Increase your verbal presence and contributions. This is a generalization but I’ve found that passengers are often more comfortable physically and emotionally on the stage rather than verbally. Obviously, rich and fully articulated physical and emotional offers can add amazing things to the scene and may be more than enough to keep the story building and developing. There are times in the action, however, that a specific choice with an energized verbal component may be the next offer required to push the scene forward. Player A, for example, made several strong offers that could have readily benefitted from a good old fashioned verbal “yes, and…” What specific tools were they using? What was so important about the ‘Jewel of the Euphrates?'” Who were the owners and why were they out of town? Player B’s minimal responses do little to add more colors and textures to the emerging painting. If you can fall into this pattern of verbally absent characters, take the risk of exploring more verbose characterizations, or at least make sure your responses transcend the most basic of agreements by providing new details and additions. “I believe they have five blood-thirsty guard dogs that they deliberately keep hungry while they’re out of town…”

4.) Find the self-love. I’ve noted the importance for bulldozers to find the love in their scene work as this tends to reduce belligerence and increase human interactions that organically invite generosity and connection. For passengers I’d advise a more robust sense of self-love and appreciation for your own ideas and instincts. Passengers can tend to under-value their own voices, privileging those of their teammates who appear more confident and spontaneous. It’s difficult to take up stage space when we are prejudging the success of our offers before they have even left our mouths. Just as we are charged with treating our scene partners as if they are geniuses – full throatedly embracing anything and everything that they might contribute – so too must we apply this attitude of audacious acceptance to our own musings and reactions. There is no expectation that every improv offer will emerge as a fully constructed masterpiece. Bring your individual detail or brick trusting that the ensemble will find how best to use it.

5.) Be the first to the stage. Lastly, passengers can find disproportionate comfort waiting all-too-patiently in the wings. Break this routine by grabbing your fair share of scene starts. It’s probably not wise to rush to the stage from a place of fear or obligation, especially if this is going to put you firmly in your head as the lights rise. But when you have that seed of inspiration, don’t be afraid to inform your fellow players that you want to step up. There’s also no need to be alone for these scenic initiations – by all means designate a scene partner to join you – but take the risk of making that first defining choice. On a purely technical level this can firmly set you up to apply some of the strategies above as you can establish your status, centrality or verbal confidence. On a structural level, this puts you in the driver’s seat right from the get go, even if you are inclined to rideshare and happily pass the wheel shortly after your first few retorts.

Final Thought

Supporting and supportive players are critical to the art of improvisation and few performances will benefit from overly-competitive performers aggressively fighting for scenic supremacy. Just as bulldozers benefit greatly from learning how to cede control so as to raise the voices and journeys of others in the ensemble, so too can passengers gain from finding ways to bring their own stories and suggestions to the forefront with unapologetic confidence. Ideally, improvisers shouldn’t bullishly lead with obliviousness nor sheepishly follow from fear, but rather share the responsibility and joy of collectively creating a vast array of stories.

Related Entries: Commandment #3, Commandment #8, Take Antonyms: Bulldozing, Steamrolling Synonyms: Passivity, Wimping

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Double Speak

Game Library: “Diamond Dance”

On the spectrum between parlor game entertainment and nuanced improvised scene, Diamond Dance surely sits squarely in the former category. While my own aesthetic and instincts would tend to steer me away from such sports, it undeniably offers a palpable boost of energy in a short-form evening, especially if your company can tend towards a less physically impressive style of performance. This whimsical enterprise also provides a beautiful demonstration of the power and joy of Parallel Actions when they are assumed with absolute cheerfulness and attack.

The Basics

This game benefits greatly from the addition of an audience volunteer, although you’ll want to be very upfront in the ask that they’ll be expected to dance for the duration of the scene. Four players (including the volunteer) form a diamond with the player at the downstage apex serving as the games’ first “lead.” The booth provides fittingly uptempo dance music to inspire the movement, with the lead player creating original dance moves that those behind them must mirror to the best of their ability. At a caller’s discretion the diamond rotates around in the specified clockwise or counterclockwise direction.(When we play this in Gorilla Theatre this would be the director, but it could also be the emcee or a member of another team.) This places a new player into the downstage apex and they, subsequently, become the new dance lead, providing joyful movements for their fellow players to mimic. The Diamond Dance continues through several leadership changes until it culminates on a suitably impressive finesse (or the players collapse to the stage in exhaustion!)

Example

Player A, once the game has been announced, addresses the audience:

Player A: “Okay, for this next game we’re going to need an audience volunteer who likes to dance and doesn’t mind joining us up on the stage…”

After a willing and suitable volunteer has been selected (Player B), they join members of the team (C, D and E) in a rear position as the foursome stands in a diamond shape. Player A signals the booth to start the music and serves as the facilitator. They kneel down in front of the stage in full view of the improvisers.

As the music starts, Player C, who has taken the downstage position, begins to dance while their teammates and the volunteer replicate their moves as best they can. After about fifteen to twenty seconds Player A interjects…

Player A: (making a clear gesture to their left) “And switch…”

The onstage players rotate in a clockwise direction as the music changes from the booth and Player D now leads the dance…

The Focus

This game is undeniably a charm offensive and thrives or withers based on the commitment and playfulness of the participants. While it is highly unlikely that anything resembling a story will emerge, the game should still have an arc by pacing the switches carefully and building to a finessed climax.

Traps and Tips

1.) For the caller. First and foremost, keep your players and volunteer safe. I’d advise against slating this game if you’re not confident that the team enjoys the physical challenge and that members are free from any injuries or limitations that might make it a less than pleasurable experience for them and, by extension, the paying audience. Pace the rotations to heighten the arc and according to player need – if someone is clearly struggling, don’t leave them in the hot seat too long, or if someone has a more limited dance vocabulary feature them more as the leader earlier in the piece. It’s generally a wise strategy to start with the audience member in the rear upstage position so that they’ll have a few rotations before they’re asked to lead the dance. This gives them some time to get comfortable with the general staging and conceit, and build up a little confidence as well. Furthermore, if you’re able to switch the soundtrack between each dancer (which adds a lot to the game) make sure you’re clearly communicating with the audio technician so they have clear cues. Aim to signal these changes where it makes sense in the music too – the end of verse, chorus or a hook. (While you could use live musicians the use of instantly familiar songs going full throttle adds a lot of performance value.)

2.) For the dancers. Commit, commit, and then commit a little more. Know your limits, but don’t undersell your mirroring. Perform the routines to the best of your ability and with a air of playfulness (and perhaps humility if you have limited skill.) If you are an able mover or dancer, by all means bring this expertise to the game, but also be mindful that you might be playing with folks less skilled than yourself, so it might not be the most kind gesture to make your first dance salvo as the leader the most complex routine in your repertoire. (If you’re playing with an audience member it is particularly important to pace your contributions as it’s poor form to bring them to the stage and then not set them up for success.) There is an undeniable skill in telescoping your choices so that others have a fair shot at replicating your moves along with the music. As the game begins, a little repetition and predictability can go a long way so that the team looks in sync, even if this quickly dissolves! On a simple level, just avoid giving up at all costs: if the audience senses you’re not having fun, then they’ll quickly question why they’re being asked to watch the dance in the first place.

3.) For the booth. Depending on your technical setup, this game might require a little extra preparation and the gathering of a good selection of suitable tracks that you can easily move between at the caller’s discretion. It can prove helpful to have a few solid standards in your pocket – something that is very much of the musical moment or instantly recognizable – so that you have an escape cord if the game needs a merciful out. As best as your technical juggling act affords, keep an eye on the dancers as you may be able to set them up for success: if someone is less adept, pitching them a slower or more kitsch number will likely raise their spirits. As noted above, you’ll also want to have a strong line of sight with the caller so that you can preempt the song changes as lags here can quickly drain the energy from the room.

4.) For the volunteer. I’ve seen and played this game without a volunteer and it just doesn’t land as well as there’s something about the audience seeing one of their own on the stage that just adds immediate sympathy and appeal. It’s really important to set the volunteer up for joy; ideally, in fact, I’d say that you really want to set them up as the star of the whole endeavor. If they’re bringing it to the game, culminating with the volunteer as the final leader will almost always bring the house down, especially if they are outmaneuvering the rest of the dance team. If they’re struggling a little or perhaps breaking under the pressure, get them into and then out of the hot seat kindly, typically rotating after they’ve landed something of note. Fellow dancers can also do a lot to make the volunteer look good by pitching to their strengths and adjusting their own choreography accordingly. Finally, make sure the volunteer is suitably acknowledged and applauded at the end of the game… and perhaps offered a bottled water!

In Performance

As I continue to age I find myself enjoying watching this game more than participating in it, but its raw playfulness viscerally reminds me of the gift of playing as a team dedicated to lifting each other up. Loosened from this particular frame, the diamond mirroring device can also add a little pizazz into any spontaneous musical dance numbers that might frequent your other short- or long-form scenic work. In this iteration you don’t need to rotate and can just place a more fearless or adept player as the downstage lead, but it unquestionably does add to the fun and finesse to cycle through various teammates.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Parallel Action