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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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All website and blog material (c) 2020-2022

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.

Game Library: “Replay”

A Replay scene is one of the few exceptional situations where a simple Transaction Scene (or problem/solution scene in the spirit of a Commercial) can actually serve your needs. When crafted as the first “base” vignette, such a predictable dynamic will provide sufficient memorable markers for the more out-of-the-box replays that follow.

The Basics

The basic Replay model offers the foundation for many related structures, several of which are outlined below. The dynamic begins with the creation of a deliberately modest template scene that responds to an audience ask-for. This first action usually lasts around a minute or so and should have a resolute button. You don’t want this offering to be too epic as you’ll be revisiting it several times. At the completion of the first vignette, it’s typical for a member of the team, director, or host to return to the audience and obtain one or more new handles or overlays. Players then restart the initial scene, repeating its major elements, but now through the newly acquired lens. The original scene replays several times in this fashion, often slowly moving further and further from the base model in the process.

Example

The first three lines of a scene are improvised based on the suggestion of “fast food.” (These scenes should go longer, but this is just designed to give a taste of the mechanics.)

Player A and B begin as a picky customer and an “over it” register worker.

Player A: (looking up at the large flashing screens of menu items) “You have so many options. I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for…”

Player B: “There’s a long line of people behind you, so when you’re ready…”

Player A: “Do you have anything that’s fresh and locally sourced?”

The scene continues until it finds its button and the lights fade. Quickly, the host leaps to the stage and asks for a new emotion for the scene and receives “passionate.” The onstage players shuffle into their original starting positions as the lights transition (perhaps with a truncated countdown).

Player A: (absolutely mesmerized by the robustness of the menu) “You have sooo many options. I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for…”

Player B: (with charm and not at all in a rush to move them along) “There’s a long line of people behind you, so when you’re ready…”

Player A: (with a playful wink) “Do you have anything that’s fresh and locally sourced?”

The scene continues as before but in this tone, until it reaches a similar ending and the host steps up once more…

The Focus

Much of the fun of this game consists of reinventing the initial tropes and plot points. Don’t be afraid of a mundane, perhaps even slightly dull, first action. In some ways, if you’re too creative right out of the gate, you can be making the work ahead needlessly daunting.

Traps and Tips

1.) Consider honoring the template. One of the gifts of a shorter base scene with clear beats and dialogue is that you’re more likely to remember the constituent elements. Without recreating the familiar steps of the template you’ll quickly deviate from the stated intent of the game, which, as the title promises, is to replay the scene in new ways. Especially for your first efforts, it’s helpful to maintain as much of the original as is workable. This has the dual benefit of burning these major choices into your mind for future use and giving you a more dynamic arc. In the classic version of Replay, the gimmick can resemble Most Scenes in a Minute (discussed here), but in this latter context players strive to replicate the original vignette as many times as possible in a longer set time (perhaps with the added heat of trying to achieve a target number of scenes). For classic Replay, the pace is a little less manic, and usually consists of a set number of repeats (usually two or three). In both iterations, it’s helpful to have a dedicated facilitator pitching each new handle either from a well-composed audience prompt or as the chief mischief-making director themselves. This “most scenes” version invites a very brief template scene – thirty seconds or less – that tends to get boiled down even further to an essence through subsequent rounds. The facilitating caller can greatly assist the shape of the game by providing a glorious variety of contrasting inspirations: from character quirks, objectives, and occupations to locations, moods, and animal essences.

2.) Consider keeping the text. As you face the first reenactments, strive to reiterate as much of the foundational text and staging as possible. A great deal of the game’s effectiveness resides in how dialogue and action reappear rather than just throwing out the first attempt completely and starting with a blank canvas. Explore how a new objective, subtext, or context can reveal a different meaning that has previously lay dormant in the original choices. As modeled in the fast-food scene, the players needn’t change much of the action at all to suddenly reveal more passionate undertones. Emotional Replay blossoms with this subtextual style of play. Yes, of course it’s fine to tweak words here and there to suit your playful ends – and even deploy more wholesale changes in the final reenactment – but even a tacit commitment to fidelity delightfully raises the challenge. For this replay version, and those that follow, it’s traditional to improvise the first scene and then pause the action while a team member elicits three contrasting choices (emotions in this case) for the replays. Gathering them all at once also allows you to set the order in which they’ll appear so that you can place the largest or richest energy in the final position.

3.) Consider adjusting the text. When the game moves into more overt style or genre-based work, language adjustments will soon rightly follow. It’s still a lovely finesse to approximate the opening text as faithfully as possible, but as you move from modern day vernacular to more poetic or style-specific language games, your dialogue (and movement quality) should delightfully adjust. While the format doesn’t require each replayed scene to end identically, varied outcomes are especially common when you introduce the lens of genre. If our fast-food storyline now becomes a western, our customer might become a rancher confronting a rustler sitting at a hidden campfire who is dining on some stolen stock. Genre Replay invites this retelling approach, encouraging players to maintain the initial dynamic while requiring them to re-envision how stylistic concerns can elucidate unexpected connections and contrasts. Our fast-food template scene probably resulted in Player A finally ordering something on the menu; our western take is probably destined for some form of gun fight or altercation (in slow motion, of course).

4.) Consider maintaining the essence. The further you get from the assumed given circumstances of that first scene (which usually defaults to a here and now aesthetic) the more you’ll want to freely reinterpret the source material while creatively retaining at least a hint of its original flavor. Seek to honor the bigger moves, rhythms, and patterns without getting too caught up in the minutiae. A favorite replay variant is Through the Ages which incorporates three historical periods. This invariably demands highly stylized results inspired by distant times and places. Here, players should ask themselves, “how would the initial scenic assumptions transform in these alien settings?” What would “fast food” even look like in Europe’s dark ages, ancient Egypt, or China’s Han Dynasty? What relationship would most closely resemble a server and customer? A simple transaction scene works extremely well in this replay version as a commonplace routine becomes surprisingly rejuvenated when subjected to some historical “if this is true, what else is also true…?”

5.) Consider all of the above. And if you play a freestyle or mixed replay, then all of the above advice holds true. When your scenic repeats don’t exclusively belong in one overlay column, you’ll want to strategically sequence your options and build your tactics to maximum effect. Often, it’s wise to start close to the source material, mirroring the base scene reasonably closely, and then ratcheting up the changes and attack. Scene Three Ways offers just such an opportunity. I like using the device of getting an audience member’s initials to then inspire three resulting handles: an emotion starting with “D,” a movie genre in the “A” section, and a “C” musical style. (This might garner dejected, action, and country, although you can obviously use any three prompts that best suit your company.) Music will nearly always gift you a strong finale, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have a strong musician and able singers in your midst. But occasionally, a shuffle may be in order, and I’ll tend to slate a really left field ask-for in the middle of the replays to make sure there’s a more accessible option for the climax.

In Performance

Replays tend to need a little extra space to flourish on your roster as even if the base scene is concise, you’re often looking at a performance time of eight to ten minutes once you’ve factored into account the set-up, ask-fors, and transitions. The built-in potential for a grander arc makes games of this ilk will-suited to the final spot in an act or evening. Each variant has a slightly unique gift to offer – from the attack of a timed freestyle Replay, to the subtextual subtleties of Emotional Replay or the broader stylistic strokes of Genre Replay, to the mental gymnastics of Through the Ages or the highwire act that is Scene Three Ways. Also, consider exploring Rashomon (found here) if you want a character-centric take on the same idea.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Transaction Scene

“T” is for “Transaction Scene”

“In both improvisation and sport, what grips the audience is the fact that the outcome is truly in doubt. The players in both have, through arduous training, developed skills with which to deal with the unpredictable; but these skills cannot tame the unpredictable, they can only give the players a better chance of not being routed by it. And in both, the audience’s enthusiasm is a major part of the experience.”

Jeffrey Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Away. 1996. New York: Limelight Editions, 1978. p.xxxix

Definition

Theatre provides an engaging glimpse into human behavior and struggles. With few stylistic exceptions – such as an extreme approach to “slice of life” naturalism – stories and their constituent moments are theatricalized with an eye towards maximizing dynamism and thus audience attention. There’s a reason we don’t see many movies, plays, or (successful) improv scenes where a character sits and watches television uninterrupted for several hours, or the duration of a nice refreshing midday nap despite how ubiquitous (or sought-after) such moments are in our real lives. Theatre edits and enhances lived experiences and, in doing so, sets the stage for enthralling the enthusiastic audience of which Sweet writes above.

And therein lies the innate problem of Transaction Scenes. Yes, buying a cup of coffee in a drive-thru, returning a purchase at a customer service counter, or asking for help finding those perfect shoes in our size are all familiar activities for many, but presented as is they are the mundane life chores that performance traditions rightly ascribe to the cutting room floor. Purchases or mundane negotiations hold little potential for sustained interest as the outcome is largely foreseeable and assured. To make matters worse, these predictable exchanges nearly always occur between strangers, another scenario trap; throw in the need for some help with the product in question and you’ve completed the holy trinity of improv blandness by also making it a teaching scene.

Example

Player A begins the scene by pushing on an imaginary shopping trolley (cart) and casually scanning the supermarket shelves. After a few beats, Player B enters and establishes themselves as a shelf stocker. They turn helpfully…

Player B: “Can I help you find something?”

Player A: “I can’t seem to find the turkey gravy…”

Player B: (pleasantly) “It’s actually in aisle five alongside the stuffing.”

Player A: “That makes sense! Thank you so much.”

A beat… as both contemplate what might be next…

Player B: “… can I help you with something else…?”

Several items later the scene grinds to an awkward end.

Exchange Your Transaction For This…

1.) Action. It’s possible that the above exchange could provide a workable scenic balance for a moment or two but left unignited there’s not much brewing theatricality. When an everyday activity becomes synonymous with the stage action you’re in deep water (or actually very undramatic shallow water!) This is similar to making your text and subtext exactly the same in that it robs the scene of complexity and intrigue that should bubble under the “obvious” surface. While activity provides a helpful staging addition – offering players something to physically do together as the story develops – action is the domain of objectives and tactics, and describes the characters’ efforts to grasp success. At the very least, if you find yourself dancing into the realm of a dispassionate and unimportant transaction, make sure there’s something more vital at stake for your character and their world than the turkey gravy. Ideally, your scene partner is inextricably connected to this need as well. For example, Player A is shopping without the means to pay and is striving to build rapport with Player B in the hopes they will eventually come to their aid.

2.) Power. While a transaction on the textual level will rarely add much to your story, a similar dynamic on the subtextual level holds interesting potentials. Status inversions, in particular, can inspire playful games that maintain the appearance of the lackluster transaction while fueling it with energizing undercurrents. Status battles (such as one-upping ladders and one-downing slides) or unanticipated inversions (a disproportionately high status shelf stocker assisting a low status customer) provide promising potentials that refresh the stale scenic template. When status positions are contested, this adds additional spice. Our customer may, in fact, have been fired from this very store recently and is testing their replacement’s mettle in the hopes of getting their old job back. In this light, each seemingly transactional move is now a subtle power play towards a hidden end. A similar result can be achieved by establishing and exchanging strong emotional states: a carefree employee and anxious shopper might find themselves gradually swapping these climates by the end of the scene as prompted by their mutual choices and discoveries.

3.) Secrets. A strategically selected secret can also spice up dispassionate transactions. By shifting the context of a CROW element, you will jumpstart subtextual tensions and perspectives. If Player A is a secret shopper or an undercover regional manager, this adjustment in character should make today’s exchange at least a little more significant and out of the ordinary. Both characters could actually be passionate newlyweds who can’t stand to be apart, so they hide their relationship in the supermarket and A pretends to need help finding an increasingly odd array of groceries. If Player A’s objective isn’t finding the gravy but rather reconnecting to their estranged child that they left as a baby, bolder energies beckon. Or perhaps both characters are expats in a foreign land – or where – and the turkey gravy is a palpable reminder of a lost home with all its holiday traditions. Placing a secret in any or a combination of these scenic elements will usually do the trick of adding heat.

4.) Style. Another useful way to aid our troubled scene is to shift the context entirely so that our uninspired dialogue takes on new meaning. This is the central dynamic behind mapping (discussed here) but layering on a distinct or contrasting time period, genre, or mood can also work wonders especially if this perspective shift enables irony or a grander metaphor: our turkey gravy now stands in for something more significant or thematically engaging. Played with a Shakespearean overlay, as futuristic androids, or in the style of French expressionism, our meandering scene will at the very least gain an element of comedic estrangement, allowing the audience to witness a recognizable exchange through a jarringly different lens. It strikes me that the charm and audience goodwill earned from such an approach might be relatively short-lived – I still don’t want to watch a commonplace transaction in Shakespearean poetry that never evolves beyond that simple premise for a protracted period of time – so the resulting scenes are likely to benefit from applying one of the above strategies too.

Final Thought

When you find yourself having stumbled into a transactional dynamic – and you will – you’ll be well served by heeding some of the above advice. A commercial transaction offers little of interest as they are so predictable and provide little opportunity for discovery and character-based revelations. The same is not true when the transaction in question focuses on pursuing desires, wrestling control, or exposing hidden truths.

Related Entries: CROW, Objective, Secrets, Strangers, Subtext, Teaching Scene Antonyms: Breaking Routines, Change, Stakes, Urgency Synonyms: Stasis

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

Connected Game: Replay

Game Library: “Bad Rap”

This game title is perhaps a little misleading in that in order to pursue Bad Rap players must actually closely honor the core rhythmic and rhyme scheme tenets of the game while using a Third Thought technique to derail the listeners’ expectations. It’s no small task to be good at being this particular kind of bad!

The Basics

Players form a circle and establish a 4/4 rhythm by clicking their fingers or similar. Everyone chants the choral refrain. “Bad rap… bad rap, bad rap.” (The cadence I use puts the first “bad” on the first beat, and then the two final “raps” on the third and fourth beats respectively.) One player begins by providing the first couplet, setting up a target rhyme in the first line and then truncating the second line so that all but the rhyme word is completed. This final word or phrase is the moment when the couplet is swiftly passed to the next player in the circle to complete “badly.” That is, the next player should finish the pitched sentence logically but not with the intended rhyme. The “bad rap” hook is repeated between each couplet line, and the player who just completed the prior line now constructs their own couplet with a similarly clear target rhyme offer. This all becomes much clearer with the example below…

Example

All:

“Bad rap… bad rap, bad rap
Bad rap… bad rap, bad rap”

Player A:

“I was walking down the street…”

All:

“Bad rap… bad rap, bad rap”

Player A:

“In just ten minutes I had really sore…”

Player B: (maintaining the cadence)

“…legs!”

All:

“Bad rap… bad rap, bad rap”

Player B:

“I finally arrived at the gardening store. “

All:

“Bad rap… bad rap, bad rap”

Player B:

“Bought one bag of dirt, couldn’t carry…”

Player C:

“…enough.”

All:

“Bad rap… bad rap, bad rap”

Player C:

“Dragged that bag all the way home…”

All:

“Bad rap… bad rap, bad rap”

Player C:

“And made a little bed for my garden…”

The Focus

This exercise reinforces a litany of important improv skills but is particularly effective at modeling a third thought process. As the lyric receiver – initially Player B in the above example – your first thought is hearing the pitched word “street,” your second thought is parsing the intended target rhyme through grasping the context of the second half of the couplet which brings you to “feet,” and your third thought is providing a timely subversion that maintains the narrative logic by offering “legs” or any other non-rhyming word instead. Ironically, in the ensemble’s efforts to evade the rhyming couplet, rhyming will probably never feel easier or more organic!

Traps and Tips

1.) The rhythm is going to get you. The exercise has little chance of longevity if the rhythm becomes irregular or adjusts awkwardly to the perceived needs of the individual poets. The current speakers, in particular, can tend to distort the tempo as they construct or exit their lines, especially if they are a little musically challenged. Make sure you cleanly get out of the second couplet, in particular, for your teammate to have enough time to blurt out the last word. Generously use the rest of the ensemble to set and maintain the “bad rap” hook, but make sure your initial chorus isn’t too jaunty as you begin. Once everyone has a good understanding of the mechanics, then you can make the pace a little brisker. If and when fumbles occur, make sure you’ve set a tradition of robustly and sincerely applauding the team’s efforts before restarting.

2.) Target rhyming is a must. There’s a lot going on in this circle exercise, and harried players will occasionally throw out almost anything as their set-up line, especially if the rhythm sneaks up on them. The exercise can survive a little of this but don’t overlook the function of an obvious intended rhyme. If an intention for that last word of the couplet is unclear or possibly even omitted, the following player can’t really engage in an effective third thought process. This is not to suggest on any level that this is easily achieved but refocus or slow the pace if target rhymes disappear entirely. It’s hard to joyfully subvert the goal of each couplet if there was no clear goal established in the first place. The exercise also provides practice in clearly landing those pivotal final rhyme words as you can’t rhyme (or, in this case, not rhyme) with something you didn’t hear or comprehend.

3.) A continuous narrative is helpful. When I first introduce this exercise, I tend to make each couplet discreet so that Player A’s offer of walking doesn’t need to necessarily inspire or relate to B’s subsequent idea. Invariably this additional freedom increases the likelihood of some proficiency although I would posit that most players across the circle are spending the build up to their turn well and truly in their heads coming up with their offering in advance. Once everyone has a more confident sense of the logistics involved, pursuing a connected narrative decreases the trap of pre-planning and increases the risk and abandon. In most instances of shared storytelling, I’d recommend a third-person narrative style, but there’s something on point about a more braggadocious first-person voice for this particular game.

4.) Yes, there is a way to make the game even more challenging. This variation is most definitely not for the faint of heart, and if you or your troupe is only just managing the basic model, perhaps skip over this bullet point completely! But if you’re consistently meeting the challenge head on, you can raise the bar by treating the missed rhyme – “legs” in the first couplet – as the intended rhyme for the next exchange. So now Player B might continue, “I wanted an omelet, so I bought some…,” at which point Player C leaps into the fray and might finish the couplet with “milk,” thereby avoiding the intended “eggs.” Player C would then craft a line that sets up a rhyme for “milk…” This approach essentially reduces the turn around by half (while increasing the chances of stumbles tenfold!) I will be completely transparent and admit that I don’t think I’ve experienced more than a fleeting moment of success with this version especially when playing in a larger group.

In Performance

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed incorporating aspects of this mind-numbing dynamic into various directed scenes: a Tag-Team Song where one or more players are instructed to foil the artful target rhyming efforts of their teammates is a particular guilty pleasure. On the way to “mastering” Bad Rap, you are actually actively honing an array of powerful lyrical and poetic skills.

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

Connected Concept: Third Thought

“T” is for “Third Thought”

“An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfil his contracts”

Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979. New York: Routledge, 1992. p. 88

Definition

What can we do as improvisers when we are faced with similar scenic prompts again and again that invite the same obvious reactions again and again? The state of reactivity that Johnstone extols serves as an enticing exemplar, and most improvisers have experienced at least glimpses of this breathtaking effortlessness where obvious choices reign supreme. This is, simply put, “the zone” we all aspire to achieve. And then there are other times when you’re working on the same structured long-form or style piece night after night, exploring the same relationship onstage with the same teammate yet again, or facing down the barrel of getting that same suggestion from the audience for the umpteenth time as the countdown begins. In cases such as these, your Third Thought (rather than your first) might be the way to go.

To illustrate, if I’m responding to a fellow improviser in a word-association-type dynamic and they say “dog,” my first thought is comprehending their offer “dog,” my second association might be “house,” and then my third thought responding to this new prompt could be “paint.” In this way, while I’m still embracing obvious connections, I’ve “skipped a step” and now utilize this new, more typically tangentially related idea. When improvisers are first exposed to this creative technique it’s not uncommon for them to get in their heads – as it requires a little consideration which we strive to avoid – but as you find more comfort it quickly becomes no more internal than a character finding the most fitting word to express their feelings or desire accurately.

Example

The audience suggests “teacher” for an improv scene.

As they step onto the stage, Player A’s first thought is “teacher,” their second thought is “a rowdy classroom,” and their third thought is “decompressing at a bar.” The scene now begins at a locale tavern…

OR

Player B thinks “teacher,” then their specific “third grade teacher,” then connects it to a vivid memory of the time this teacher shared their lunch when they forgot their own. The scene starts with an anxious child not wanting to go outside for lunch with their classmates…

OR

Player C hears “teacher,” associates “big brother mentor,” and then connects a “latch-key child.” They now initiate a scene from the perspective of a home alone thirteen-year-old sitting on their porch…

Three Thoughts on Third Thoughts

Used carelessly, a third thought approach can become a justification for retreating further into your planning brain, especially if you are prone to a more intellectual style of play to begin with. If every offer is met with this measured reaction, you’re also likely to have a stalling and disconnected story arc. Instead, explore this tool in these moments that are particularly well-suited to this more thoughtful subset of acceptance…

1.) Brainstorming. When you’re warming up your creative juices during your development process, rehearsals, prior to a performance, or as part of the show itself, this technique can add levels and newfound discovery to well-worn association exercises. In my campus troupes, we have several long-form shows that seek to examine and complicate a central theme. A third thought approach to an ensemble warm-up greatly assists in the goal of looking at an issue or idea from a multitude of dynamic angles.

2.) Disrupting. Routines and patterns are essential components of story building, but left unchallenged for too long they can entrench a scene in uninteresting loops. In many cases the power of a pattern is that it dramatically calls attention to the moment when it is broken or interrupted: this is, in fact, a solid definition of an ignition or inciting incident that marks the beginning of the rising action in linear scripted pieces. Deploying a third thought when a scene limps from cliche to cliché disrupts the status quo and reveals new unexplored terrain. Such a redirection will prove particularly useful if the current path is perpetuating problematic biases or lazily reinforcing uniterrogated stereotypes. An “obvious” next move in such instances will likely leave such damaging choices unquestioned.

3.) Curve balling. Looking beyond your first thought also elevates the potential for increased spontaneity and surprise. These dynamics are central to the idea of curve balling (examined here), where a player deliberately seasons the scene with an offer that at first glance feels a little random. Used sparingly, these unexpected choices can add mystery and risk back into the improv equation when it may have otherwise lacked novelty or inspiration. Using a third thought provides a gentler variant of this impetus in that the imitator has made some tacit connection to the source material that can become more explicit as the scene progresses (not that this is strictly necessary on any level). Our child on the porch, for example, might soon be joined by a kindhearted neighbor who has taken to help them with their homework every afternoon. Or not.

Final Thought

While improv advocates trusting your instincts, going with the obvious, and finding an effortlessness in your actions – all admirable and noteworthy goals – in reality, our spontaneity finds shape through thoughtfulness and editing. Some reactive choices are best left unsaid; some stories require empathetic efforts and conscious adjustments in service of our greater goals at building community and pursuing representation. Viewed in this light, exploring your third thought provides a gateway to improvisational choices that push the boundaries and assumptions of the stage and the worlds in which we play.

Related Entries: Abandon, Obvious Antonyms: Over-Originality Synonyms: Care, Surprise

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

Connected Game: Bad Rap

Game Library: “Soundtrack”

By completely removing the potential for speech, Soundtrack serves as the perfect remedy for excessive Telling on the improv stage.

The Basics

I’ve primarily experienced this game with a highly adept technician ably moving from one lush musical score to another, but it can surely work with an equally equipped live musician providing the accompaniment. A fully pantomimed scene occurs with this dynamic underscore changing periodically throughout the action to accentuate major discoveries and narrative tilts.

Example

“Bakery” informs the action. Player A begins alone onstage accompanied by a sleepy melancholic musical strain. With ingrained precision they place their wares in the various display cases until everything is “just so.” With one last look into the store, they approach the front door, unlocking the bolt and flipping the hanging sign to “open.”

The music immediately shifts into an up-tempo industrial feel. Customers, embodying the bustle and rhythm of the soundtrack, rush into the store. Player A retreats to the counter, watching as their cherished loaves and cakes are unceremoniously grabbed and pushed towards the register. One customer after another demands and receives attention. And in another swirl, they are gone.

And the music changes once more as a solitary figure, Player B, stands in silhouette at the baker’s door. The soundtrack is now a sweet ballad full of hope and promise. Player A lovingly straightens the goods around them without losing sight of their beloved who floats between the various shelves displaying a care and appreciation absent from the insatiable hunger of the prior store occupants. And then their eyes meet...

The Focus

Tell a detailed story through experiencing and showing your choices and feelings. In lieu of dialogue, make sure you’re activating your whole body to communicate your character’s hopes and fears.

Traps and Tips

1.) Use the music. Unlike similar formats that expect a more avowedly dance-like quality, Soundtrack doesn’t typically result in epic balletic numbers. But that being said, the music should influence your movement even if this is in more subtle ways. Let the rhythms and tempos infuse your activities and staging. Embrace a more stylized movement vocabulary. One of the advantages of using recorded and familiar stock pieces is that improvisers may be able to predict and subsequently honor significant shifts and builds. And while the base language is mime rather than dance, this doesn’t mean that our baker and their beloved couldn’t have a moment of dance (imagined or real) as part of the rising action.

2.) Use the music. In addition to rhythmic cues, the ever-changing soundtrack should also provide rich subtext gifts. Without the tools of language, the music should fill in this gap for the characters and relationships. (It generally works best not to “pretend” talk but rather just create scenarios in which the characters choose not to communicate with words as their emotions are just that strong.) Let the specific instruments stand in for specific characters and their streams of consciousness. Typically, accompaniment without lyrics is preferable as this permits the beautiful musical equivalent of specific ambiguity. Even if the melody remains similar for a while, listen closely for subtle or not so subtle shifts in the dynamics or instrumentation as it’s truly breathtaking when we can see an honest embodiment of what we are also hearing.

3.) And use the music. Lastly, the musical transitions are a big gift that should be fully exploited. Ideally, the technical or musical improviser will pitch these shifts at opportune moments in the action when the characters are ready to explore a new energy or facet. But even (especially) if the timing catches you off guard, don’t passively cling to your prior tone and choice. Quickly assess the overall mood of your new subtextual accompaniment and risk changing something onstage accordingly. If you’re offstage, a sudden energy shift can inspire and frame truly effective entrances (and exits, too, for that matter if you’ve previously been onstage). You don’t want to throw out what you’ve created – combine rather than replace – but don’t be afraid of some strategic character consistent inconsistency. Try something new, then figure out how to justify it.

In Performance

There are literally only a handful of improv scenes that I can vividly recall seeing from my teenage years. A group of Canadian improvisers toured New Zealand in the late 1980s and placed their technical improviser onstage with a comprehensive array of cued cassette tapes (remember those?) lining several tables. As a Gothic romance occurred on a cliff top, the sound improviser brilliantly shifted from one musical mood to the next without missing a beat, while the other improvisers similarly changed emotions and plot points on a dime (or, allowing for the conversion rate, a twenty-cent piece in the vernacular of my home country!) I think I’ve been chasing that level of physical and technical dexterity ever since.

This format shares a great deal of creative territory with Ballet minus the utilization of a narrator figure. Review this Game Library entry here for additional pertinent insights.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Telling

“T” is for “Telling”

“Theatre is a bridge between the nonverbal and the literary arts.”

Jonathan Fox, Acts of Service. Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala Publishing, 1994. p.190

Definition

In ninety-nine out of a hundred situations Telling on the improv stage will prove inferior to its antitheses showing. To tell announces or describes a choice in lieu of committing to it with all your physical, emotional, and subtextual being. Improvisers who favor telling tend to esteem more intellectual styles of play and might use verbal prowess to maintain distance from their characters and the worlds that they populate. (You can explore more perceived double-edged “benefits” of this tendency in my analysis of commenting here.) Improvisers comfortable with a showing approach contrarily utilize their whole selves more freely, revealing characters and stories through behavior and action as well as words. We all have our own patterns and preferences as performers so it’s no easy task to move from one column to the other, but every journey starts with a step. My earlier musing on Showing provides some pointers to help you put on your walking shoes.

Example

A couple sit on their porch swing. They converse with an unintentional deadpan quality.

Player A: “It’s raining.”

Player B: “That dog is scrounging through the garbage, again.”

Player A: “Someone needs to do something about that.”

Player B: “It makes me livid.”

Player A: “I’m thirsty.”

Player B: “The rain does that to you…”

Tell Me About It

As a completely deadpan and exceptional scene our couple could add delightful variety to a performance. As a stylistic norm, however, frequent appearances of such chill demeanors will cause stakes, momentum, and investment to plummet. Adding at least some showing to your largely telling scene will undoubtedly deepen and sharpen the work. (See my related entry here for examples.)

While most schools of improv elevate showing in general (a stance I also hold) there are moments when telling can get improvisers out of a pickle or enhance the work in other ways. So here are some “one out of a hundred” thoughtful exceptions to a common improv “rule.”

1.) Speaking your truth. Especially if onstage communication has become strained or ineffective – players are talking all over each other or oblivious to the ramifications of their choices – showing can prove ill-equipped to resolve issues in a timely fashion. In reality, fellow players have probably been showing their needs or discomfort for a while, only to have it go unnoticed. In these moments, explicitly telling your teammates what you’re experiencing or require is more than appropriate. This is the rationale behind the tradition of speaking your truth or calling it onstage. If you’re feeling nautious (as the improviser, not the character) and need to make a hasty departure from the stage, telling will get the job done clearly (as opposed to risking showing more than you had intended).

Player A: “In truth, mom, I’ve got to go to my room and I probably won’t be back…”

2.) Carving a path. Immense delight can stem from volleys of initially disparate choices all accidentally hitting the stage at once; and, in fact, many games like Statues and Scene From Music are built on this concept, requiring players to creatively resolve these contradictions in real time much to the joy of the audience. Cumulative justifying that puts random elements together creatively stands as the optimal path, but there are moments where conflicting choices merely compound confusion rather than inspire spontaneity. If you’re many scenes into a narrative long-form and previously widely accepted “facts” are in clumsy peril, or disagreement between the improvisers stalls any potential action between the characters, then telling can become your friend. A kind but unambiguous statement carves a unified way forward by getting everyone on the same page. You do need to be informed and cautious: a misguided player pushing for their perception of the given circumstances in spite of their obliviousness that the rest of the ensemble are in full agreement to the contrary will only worsen chaos by stubbornly asserting an unhelpful inconsistency. This is doubly so as I believe a named reality should take precedence over an implied one: my partner might have intended to be washing dishes but if I (in good faith or even mischievously) see this as operating a photocopier then the scene is now in the office. But if you’re in possession of critical knowledge or a finesseful move that connects the scattered dots, then by all means tell your scene partners.

Player A: “Alright class, just a few moments more putting the finishing touches on your individual projects and then it’s time for our guest speaker and judge…”

3.) Painting the picture. And then telling can be integral to your style or a particular production, often taking the form of narration or scene painting. It’s difficult in many cases to implicitly show unseen environmental elements or give nuance to imagined set pieces that aren’t within reach. Ideally, a little telling under these circumstances will then become supported by subsequently showing the effect and significance of the offered additions. One could argue that if narrated descriptions don’t ultimately influence the mood, style, meaning, or action that these choices have either been blocked or weren’t serving their intended purpose. It’s helpful to keep in mind, then, that an over abundance of described offers – the equivalent to waffling – won’t set teammates up for success in this regard as it decreases the likelihood that the plethora of shelved details will resurface. But especially in “design poor” venues, descriptive telling can truly honor the transformative powers of improv by reinventing the same modest stage again and again.

Player A: (scene painting) “A wall-sized mirror looms in the estate’s grand foyer demanding that all who enter must face their comparative insignificance…”

4.) Sealing the deal. Finally, a little telling can serve as a powerful and successful scenic punctuation. Generally naming the game currently underway is a big improv no-no: “Oh, I see, everyone is making clever puns with different world capitals…” These moves invariably and awkwardly release the air out of the game, thereby suffocating the very dynamic that was providing joy. But there are carefully directed moments when upending, inverting, or exploding the current scenic trajectory can effectively stick the landing. This is the basic idea behind a “rug pull” or surprise button, quick blackout, or edit. Perhaps the characters that have been plotting their big escape suddenly fall limp as the scene climaxes with a child turning on their playroom light, revealing the characters as anthromorphic toys (courtesy of Toy Story). Explicit clarity is critical in these moments if they are to benefit from the advantage of concisely etched surprise. While it’s possible to show such a move in some situations, telling typically prevents any uncertainty or player confusion, which can result in stepping on the intended tilt.

After a board room scene nears its ending that was replete with unexpected and inappropriate behavior amongst the apparently esteemed business leaders, Player A enters…

Player A: “Thanks for being so patient, kids. I can take you back to the play center now where your parents can pick you up…”

Blackout.

Final Thought

As a safety valve, descriptive tool, and dynamic reveal, telling can serve your improv needs successfully. As an evasive tactic to keep you detached and separated from your choices and fellow players, telling will hamstring your journey as an improviser and character.

Related Entries: Talking Heads Antonyms: Emotional Truth, Showing Synonyms: Cartooning, Commenting

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

Connected Game: Soundtrack

Game Library: “Booth Torture”

Booth Torture puts the invaluable Technician more overtly front and center in the improvisatory action.

The Basics

A suggestion is elicited. For the following scene the technician is empowered to season the vignette with random sound effects, music, lighting shifts and any other technical elements at their disposal. The onstage improvisers must work together to justify these offers, weaving them into the greater narrative.

Example

The play stems from the audience suggestion “shuttle.” The technician bathes the stage in a dense red light to start the action.

Player A: (Calling from offstage as they enter) “Captain? Captain! There’s been a breach in the cargo bay. The upper decks are in lockdown…”

Player B: (assuming the role of the captain, and throwing themselves onto the ground) “Something knocked me over the head, Ensign. The autopilot must have engaged.”

They both lurch towards the left as if the shuttle has just conducted a counter measure. The booth adds a whistling wind sound effect.

Player A: “Do you hear that, Captain? The control room may have been compromised.”

Player B: (struggling to stand) “Help me get to the console. I have to implement the override protocols to secure this deck. Where are the others, Ensign?”

Player A: (ominously) “There are no others, Captain…”

The technician slowly dims the light and introduces the sound of chickens…

Player A: (with true terror) “…no other crew members!”

Player B: “The cargo? That was the cause of the breach in the cargo bay? I think I’m beginning to remember what happened…”

The captain lets out an inexplicable cluck of their own. They have been bitten…

The Focus

For the onstage improvisers the game is really a justification fest as the technician punctuates the story with unanticipated contributions. Don’t be afraid to be equally as surprised as the character as you are as the improviser! A moment or two of palpable panic merely reminds the audience of the impossible task at hand.

Traps and Tips

As the tools required for the onstage improvisers are really identical to other justification games – it’s just the source of the torture that has been relocated to the booth – my advice below is primarily designed for the improvising technician.

1.) Start strong. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate that the booth should always make the first scenic move, as I’ve demonstrated in my shuttle example, but it’s helpful to offer up something significant and provocative in the first few moments. Such a choice clearly demonstrates to the audience who is in “control” while also allowing you to set the stage a little for what particular brands of mischief you have at your fingertips. Like any other game, the scene will benefit from a clear foundation, so it’s kind to help build this rather than let the team get something going only to essentially erase it with your first gift. A shivving technician need not be a blocking or pimping technician.

2.) Leave room. This is pretty standard advice for any justification game but make sure you’re not providing such a flood of technical elements that your fellow improvisers don’t have sufficient time to really acknowledge and then creatively utilize any of them. There will be occasions when the team might deliberately or out of necessity shelve an offer – perhaps our shuttle team don’t immediately contextualize the chicken sound so as to let it build suspense – but it’s good practice to wait for the players to use each prior offer before adding even more to the fray. You’ll also want to think twice before introducing elements that truly thwart the overall audience experience, such as blaring sounds that prevent the players from being heard, or prolonged darkness that stalls any physical contributions of note.

3.) Play back. Often many of the larger choices emanate from the booth but this shouldn’t be a relentlessly one-way street. You can still respond to the pitched ideas from the stage: the air leak is a good illustration of this dynamic as it builds off the established conceit in an unexpected but not wholly unhelpful way. (Similarly, players shouldn’t wait for the next big offer to come from the booth but should fearlessly pitch their own strong ideas too.) Not every addition needs to torture to the same degree or in the same way, and a slightly useful choice makes the next bizarre one (chickens) all the more effective. Also remember that you can playfully disrupt with the timing, intensity and repetition of a choice – each offer doesn’t have to top the last in terms of its bizarreness. And think twice about offers that irreversibly impede or kill off characters (or just needlessly violent effects in general).

4.) End strong. Leave yourself somewhere to go. In my current venue we’re able to flood the stage with haze which is probably the coolest effect in our toolbox. Yes, that would make for an impressive first salvo, but if you’ve nothing else of that same ilk available you may be setting yourself up for a difficult curve of absurdity. On some level there is a built-in expectation that things will get “worse” for the onstage players so keep something in your pocket with this in mind. If your technical set up permits, it can be a nice finesse to curtain call (or reintroduce) most of your prior elements, especially if they’re still strongly in play, as this intuitively heralds that the end is in sight. And while you want to provide a “game” climax make sure you’re equally attuned to what the storyline might need to finally land. You might need to hold back a little at the end of the scene for a story button to have the space it needs.

In Performance

We should always play with full-throated acceptance of the choices bestowed by our fellow technical and musical improvisers. This format elevates this critical collaborative truth while providing the technical improviser a chance for a little gentle revenge for all those times onstage players wandered out of their beautiful lights or ignored a rich environmental sound effect!

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
Join my Facebook group here.
Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Technicians

“T” is for “Technicians”

“The mood can swing at the click of a finger, and as much credit for this must be given to the lighting and sound designers as to the actors themselves.”

Hettie Judah review of Lifegame, “Added Twist to This Life.” The Times (London) 19 May 1998.

Definition

If you’ve had the unbridled joy of improvising in a venue with a strong technical set up and a gifted improvising Technician, you will deeply appreciate just how much such astute hands add to the work. From elegant transitions and mood-enhancing washes to rich ambient environments and mischievous sound effects, the stage action transforms under their watch. Hopefully it goes without saying that these unseen members of the team are improvising just as fearlessly as the players on the stage, accepting and pitching offers and ideas to maximize the entertainment and energy. If you primarily work on the stage, as I do, it can be easy to inadvertently forget just how much artistic technical improvising elevates the performance event – it can be difficult to register in the moment the subtle shifts in light or sound that are supporting or inspiring your work and choices. But as you rehearse on the cold theatre boards under fluorescent lighting in the afternoon, the absence couldn’t be more starkly palpable. So in addition to serving as a love note to our technical magicians, this entry also aims to reminds us all of some best practices for collaborating with these fellow improvisers.

Example

Host: “And let’s see that scene based on a rain forest in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….”

The stage lights fade as the host’s voice echoes through the sound system. The countdown reaches its climax, and the stage becomes bathed in vibrant shadows evocative of a dense canopy. A steady storm can be heard pounding in the distance, punctuated by the cries of rambunctious unseen wildlife. As Player A and B emerge, the lights gently swell around them and their body microphones are turned on. Their voices reverberate in the endless forest as they utter their first words…

Honoring Technical Improvisers

1.) Set them up for joy. If your company has the good fortune to work regularly with an improvisational musician it would be odd to routinely craft shows or play sets where they sat idly by for lengthy periods of time, their considerable gifts left untapped. The same holds true for the creative improvising technicians in our midst. Strive to include opportunities to feature their contributions in meaningful and joyous ways. It’s important to have this voice and perspective in the development phase of projects as well as in green room pre-show planning sessions to assist in this endeavor. In a short-form show it can be as simple as folding a game or two regularly in the mix that highlights design improv; in long-form it may involve developing a greater awareness of how to best exploit latent technical potentials. Onstage and offstage improvisers alike thrive when challenged and are not asked to plod through the same routines in the same way time and again.

2.) Embrace their choices. Be wary of viewing spontaneous design choices in a different light than you would a verbal or physical offer from a character. Just as a player might fumble or serve up a good idea in an inelegant or unclear manner, so too can a technician make a good faith call that lands wonkily or experience unknown equipment malfunctions that prevent them from fully realizing the potentials of the scene. The iteration of Gorilla Theatre that I’ve directed includes a tradition of directly addressing all the improvisers in the space, so an opaque choice that pushes against the current director’s intent will generally be verbally addressed in the moment (with the technician often responding in similar kind and tone on the God mic). Generally, however, I’d advocate the same accepting “go with the flow” attitude that applies to any other unanticipated scenic offer, reserving any critique or discussion for the postmortem. Players should justify design offers with the same joyful spirit as any other improv addition.

3.) Communicate expectations. Regardless of the skill and experience level of the improvising technicians in question, it’s good practice to clearly and consistently communicate show expectations. If a planned short-form game or scene requires a special technical treatment or offers unique design opportunities you’re more likely to set your fellow improviser up for success if this isn’t sprung upon them at the last moment, especially if what you’re requiring involves behind the scenes preparation such as accessing specific sound effects or music files. Using pre-show notes to talk through any exciting new games or dynamics provides the technician advanced notice and gives ample time to troubleshoot the specifics or strategize an alternative course of action if this particular idea would be better served by some rehearsal without the presence of an audience.

4.) Know the tools at their disposal. Discussing show possibilities and creative needs also affords a chance for everyone to better understand what tools are – and aren’t – in the technicians’ tool belt. Players who keep walking into that one lighting blind spot expecting a spotlight aren’t making anyone look good, least of all themselves. If you’re fortunate enough to have more advanced programmable consoles and equipment, there may be aspects of the show that aren’t particularly flexible from a technical perspective, or when something goes wrong a manual reset might have unavoidably noticeable onstage repercussions. Many of the most responsive technical improvisers I’ve collaborated with have more than a passing understanding of onstage improv practices. Pursuing some knowledge of the technical aspects of your venue not only allows you to more fully exploit these rich tools in your scene work but also builds empathy and ensemble.

5.) Don’t expect miracles. And finally, just as we wouldn’t expect one preassigned onstage player to single-handedly execute the perfect move to save any struggling improv scene, we shouldn’t have this unrealistic expectation of our technical teammates either. I see this tension most frequently swirl around the issue of scene endings. A well-timed blackout can do an awful lot to save a lethargic game or scene – as can the addition of an appropriately uplifting soundtrack or well-crafted lighting steering our attention to where it’s needed. But technical improvisers cannot create dynamic buttons out of nothing. We are all responsible for “saving” our own scenes, or to be frank, not allowing a scene to become such an unmitigated mess that it needs saving. If our booth colleague misses a panicked editing wave or sweep it’s quite likely the audience might not have experienced the moment in question as a resolute ending either.

Final Thought

I’ve referred to technical improvisers in the third person “they” for clarity in this entry but in many venues “they” are really “us” and “we” as improvisers often wear many hats (sometimes on the same night). One show you might play onstage, the next you take on the role of host, and the following you’re steering the action from the computer or instrumental keyboard. There is great reciprocity in terms of learning, with strategies sharpened in one arena providing lessons and awareness for challenges encountered in another. So even if you’ve found yourself specializing in one area of the craft, there is much to be gleaned from appreciating how fellow improvisers approach their positions as well. As I noted in my earlier entry on material, interesting improvisers are interested improvisers, so be sure to extend this sense of creative fascination to your colleagues as well.

Related Entries: Ensemble, Hosting, Music Synonyms: Lighting Improviser, Scenic Improviser, Sound Improviser, Stage Managing Improviser

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

Connected Game: Booth Torture

Game Library: “Expert Double Figures”

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

The Basics

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

Example

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

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

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

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

Player D offers up an extended hand…

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

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

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

As Player D pats their hands clean…

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

The Focus

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

Traps and Tips

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

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

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

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

In Performance

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

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

Connected Concept: Teaching Scene

“T” is for “Teaching Scene”

“When I began teaching, it was very natural for me to reverse everything my own teachers had done […] It was like having a whole tradition of improvisation teaching behind me. In a normal education everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979.  New York:  Routledge, 1992. p.14-15

Definition

Teaching Scenes (much like transactional and stranger exchanges) are widely discouraged in most improv circles. The basic dynamic – that one character has all the knowledge and agency and must tell the other what to do – is rife with pitfalls while also inviting players to wander into other problematic habits, such as asking questions, conflating text and subtext, and becoming reduced to talking heads where you ponderously discuss action rather than engage in it. It’s also challenging to find interest in what can become a fait accompli – the student will either follow the prescribed steps and blandly succeed, or (more often) they will prove inept and thwart the instructor. And yet, improvisers frequently find themselves falling into these potentially unproductive onstage relationships. As it’s unlikely (and perhaps ultimately unhelpful) to completely eradicate such scenarios from your improv repertoire, it’s wise to have some strategies in your pocket to make teaching scenes more than what immediately meets the eye.

Example

Based on the audience suggestion of “oil change,” Player A assumes the role of a parent and gestures for their teenage child, B, to join them at the car.

Player A: “OK, this is a long overdue. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t walked you through this yet.”

Player B: “I’m here and I’m all ears.”

Player A: “So, what’s the first step…?”

Player B: “Listening closely to you!”

Player A: “Not what I was expecting, but I can’t fault you that. We need to jack the car up so we can get underneath it.”

Player B: (reluctantly) “Well, that sounds needlessly complicated and dirty.”

Player A: “Here, take the car jack…”

Lessons Designed for Teaching Scenes

1.) Invert. Part of the innate ineffectiveness of teaching scenes is that they are often so obvious and predictable. It becomes difficult to sustain the interest of the audience (and probably the players, too) with these vignettes unless those in attendance are in desperate need of the lesson themselves. If you quickly invert or subvert expectations, there’s a good chance this will enrich the core relationship and unlock some potential charm or spontaneity. If it becomes clear that Player B knows a great deal about car maintenance – much more than their parent – but only gently amends A’s coaching as they know this is an important albeit unnecessary act of parental love, our simple teaching scene will become much more. This concept of inverting where the know-how resides can also apply to the audience when a team bravely attempts to model a process that the audience (but not the players) know intimately. Explored fearlessly, this tension provides joyful play and is, in many ways, the central conceit behind endowment games where an unknowing improviser has to fumble their way to knowledge that the audience already happily possesses.

2.) Disrupt. When you’re a few steps (or, less ideally, minutes) into a teaching scene, another option to shock everyone out of uncreative patterns is to deploy a “fit-for-most-occasions” CAD. Well-timed revelations will quickly jolt a scene out of its complacency and provide new pathways for exploration. Perhaps Player B confesses that they have secretly been getting the neighbor – their parent’s rival no less – to help them with their oil changes. Or the teenager accuses their parent of favoritism as all their siblings got this lesson when they were much younger. Or, as one of our characters slides under the chassis, they discover an angry swarm of wasps has made their home there. If the teaching element of the scene continues (and in many instances, I’d actually recommend this so that there is still some physical activity) it will now take on a very different tone through these sharpened stakes.

3.) Reframe. Fully accepting an emotionally powerful CAD will typically change the context of the scene for the better but this strategy of reframing the parameters of the action can also helpfully occur in the more incremental building blocks of story construction, particularly in the foundational CROW elements. If the teenager is actually a mechanic or the parent is a clueless intellectual character, we’ve made a move into less overwrought territory. This may be the parent’s monthly weekend with their child after a messy divorce, which sheds new light on the status quo of the relationship. The backstory could include that B’s last car was totaled due to a lack of basic maintenance, which would infuse both players’ objectives in interesting ways. And changing the where to the family’s auto repair shop, the parking lot of a police station, or a dimly lit roadside after the car has unexpectedly broken down at midnight adds exciting new potentials as well that – fully embraced – should make the scene about something greater than merely the visible teaching component.

4.) Map. And the reframing could be deliberately taken even further to exploit irony, satire, and juxtaposition. Mapping is a riveting way to use the tropes and language of one situation to implicitly or explicitly reveal dynamics hidden in another (usually unrelated) scenario. Applying a mapping methodology, our bland oil change scene becomes a vehicle for revealing comedic truths and tensions elsewhere in the human experience. So even though the words will remain car-specific – this is a crucial component of the gimmick – the meaning of these words changes dramatically. Now, Player A’s efforts may metaphorically reflect their own strained relationship with their teenager, with each car part substituting in for a facet of their lives together. The scene could be infused with the urgency and danger of a bomb disposal with the car standing in for an explosive device just moments away from detonation. Or the parent’s language will become ripe with new overtones if this conversation is actually a long overdue attempt to explain love and the birds and the bees… You can read a little more about this concept (mapping that is!) here.

Final Thought

If you find yourself in a teaching scene the best advice is to make sure it’s not just a teaching scene. Consciously altering just one or two constituent ingredients and then leaning into these specifics should provide ample opportunities for everyone to learn something new and unanticipated alongside the more mundane surface lesson.

Related Entries: CAD, CROW, Game of the Scene, Strangers, Talking Heads, Transaction Scene Antonyms: Subtext

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