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Welcome to ImprovDr.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers, David Charles.
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Game Library: “Da Doo Ron Ron”

Based on the 1960’s song of the same name made famous by The Crystals, Da Doo Ron Ron provides a worthy example of an energized Decider that I’d particularly recommend if your ensemble contains strong and confident singers.

The Basics

Players form a line on the edge of the stage or its equivalent. An audience member’s name (or really any word can suffice) is obtained that will serve as the inspiration and target rhyme for the song that follows. Ideally, a musician plays a lead in, although you could use a track or sing a cappella. Starting with the player positioned most stage right, improvisers take turns offering a new original rhyme in the rhythm of the song, with the third player providing three quick rhymes in a row during the song’s faster section. Each new verse continues the same AAAAA rhyme scheme until a player stalls, stumbles, repeats a prior offering or doesn’t manage a rhyme at all, at which point the audience eliminates them with a game show buzzer sound or similar. After each elimination a new name is obtained and the process continues until a single winner (or winning team) remains.

If you’re unfamiliar with the song you can check it out here on YouTube.

Example

Players receive the name “Pete” to inspire the song. The music starts…

Player A:

“I met him on a Monday and his name was Pete.”

All:

“Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron”

Player B:

“He was so suave he knocked me off my feet.”

All:

“Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron. Yeah!”

Player C:

“He kissed so sweet.

All:

“Yeah”

Player C:

“He dressed so neat.”

All:

“Yeah!”

Player C:

“He was so discrete.”

All:

“Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron.”

The song continues to the next verse…

Player D:

“Standing by Pete’s side I felt so complete…”

All:

“Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron…”

The Focus

In addition to serving as a melodic decider, this game offers opportunities to hone rhyming, charm and story-telling skills.

Traps and Tips

1.) Clearly set the rhyme. As players (or the host) elicit new names to inspire each re-start, be sure to clearly set the rhyming expectation. In early verses it’s fine (and perhaps advisable) to shorten a more complex name (Peter to Pete) to set players up for more initial success. The first singer of the verse should clearly set this expectation with the first line of the song and end their improvised phrase with the adjusted name or nickname. As the game moves into later rounds, it can prove a playful challenge to accept multi-syllabic names, especially if you need to start eliminating players more quickly. In my current venue we’ll often use a tough name for the penultimate round and then return to a one syllable offer for the final two players so that there’s a greater chance to get a more finessed final battle!

2.) Watch the rhythm and articulation. If you are rhythmically challenged you’ll want to spend some time drilling the tempos and timing of the underlying song as this game will quickly go off the rails if players are inconsistent. Nervousness can tend to make you rush through your offer or push to the shared “Da Doo Ron Ron” refrains in a way that upends the rhythm: rely on those more musically inclined in your ensemble (and hopefully the musician if you have one) to clearly set and maintain these elements. If you struggle with the timing, err on the side of fewer words as attempting to cram effusive meanderings into the allotted time will usually spell disaster. Fewer words will also encourage stronger articulation which is another key element. Punch that final rhyme word: you’ll want to make sure the audience and fellow players can hear it to enable both enjoyment and eliminations. There can be an understandable inclination to retreat into your head a little in this game as you search for an unused rhyme, so make sure you’re giving full attention to the line endings of your fellow ensemble members too.

3.) Relish the “third person” struggle. While you could certainly break up the faster section of the song into three consecutive singers, this moment of intense challenge elevates the playfulness and danger of the game. When you land in this position, enjoy that undeniable panic. The audience will love you if you make it through with some sense of grace, and applaud you if you ultimately succumb after a valiant effort. As players are eliminated, strive to rotate who will land in this position in the next round. If I’m facilitating this game, I’ll tend to restart the song with the player in the line immediately after the person who just went out, but sometimes I’ll deliberately mix that up especially if someone keeps landing in this more difficult position or one team is over-featured in terms of remaining players.

4.) Honor the frame of the game. Audiences can prove reluctant to initially eliminate players, especially if they are particularly charming or playful, so you may need to encourage this from the stage. A player who deviously gets away with a slant rhyme, homonym or repeated word can add some spice if it happens once, but remember that the game is designed to eliminate players so ultimately you want to give the audience permission to do so. To this end, make sure you clearly set up the pertinent list of infractions when you introduce the game: stalling, stumbling, not rhyming, repeating a rhyme or getting out of rhythm are my standards. If players are delightfully but frustratingly excelling, that’s when you can also add additional rules such as no slant rhymes. Accepting eliminations with great exuberance and good will also goes a long way to empowering your audience to play along.

5.) You can play this as a non-elimination game too. I don’t see this done as often as I’d like as Da Doo Ron Ron makes a charming stand-alone musical game as well. It’s typically four verses that chart how a couple in the audience met. The game is set up with a brief interview of a willing couple where you elicit both people’s names, where or how they met, and perhaps a couple of words about each of them. Their story is then retold through song. The first verse talks about the first audience member, typically using their name or nickname as the AAAAA rhyme. The second verse follows the second person and uses their name in a BBBBB rhyme. For the third verse you construct a CCCCC verse (often using their meet location or similar as the rhyme), and you end with a DDDDD verse ruminating on their future together, ideally culminating in an apropos target rhyme set up by the first singer. If you’re playing on a four-person team, you can split up that challenging position so that the fourth player takes the third rhyme in the faster section or just let the first position rotate through the team as it will.

In performance

As players become increasingly comfortable and successful with this game you’ll want to crank up the challenge by increasing the song tempo each round (this is the down side of using a track which will make this adjustment unlikely). It also adds an exciting level of impressiveness when each rhyme also further develops a common story thread. If you’re playing this a cappella I’d strongly recommend that you put your stronger singers at the front of the line so you can start off on a firm footing, and eliminated singers should probably continue to sing the unison sections from the wings to give the song more gusto.

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

Connected Concept: Decider

“D” is for “Decider”

“Subordinate to fun, competition intensifies both fun and cooperation, but when distorted by extraneous rewards for winning, competition tends to create the reverse of all positive potential value.”

Neva Leona Boyd, Play and Game Theory in Group Work: A Collection of Papers. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971. p.123

Definition

The Decider is a traditional element of most short-form competitive formats that typically occurs after some sort of introduction and warm-up and before the main course of the games. It stands as a mainstay of franchises such as Theatresports, Gorilla Theatre and Comedysportz, providing a means to determine the order of play as the show begins, or in the event of a draw between the teams, as a tiebreaker at the end of the night. There are a wide array of options, from line games, to scenic battles, competitive songs or endowments. Many will include a host serving in a facilitating or judging capacity, most will encourage audience interaction, and all – if executed well – should leave everyone clambering for more.

Example

Host: “And now that you’ve met the teams and know the rules, it’s time to determine who earns the distinct advantage of playing first tonight…”

Decidedly Detailed Decider Dynamics

While the decider can feel a little perfunctory, when wielded with precision this component of the show can serve multiple important functions.

1.) Modeling good improv tenants. It can seem unfathomable for those of us who have committed decades to the field of improv that anyone hasn’t seen this form of art, and yet if you’re performing in a commercial venue you’re still likely to encounter some (if not many) first-timers in the house. A good decider offers an opportunity to model the basic tenants and nature of improv, from its sense of playfulness and irreverence to its collaborative spirit and elevation of good sportsmanship. I am personally disinclined towards deciders that I would categorize as “parlor games” for this reason as they don’t tend to put improv technique at the forefront of the event.

2.) Warming up the audience and players. While a self-proclaimed warm-up often precedes the decider, this latter element of the show should continue the task of preparing the players and audience alike for the action that follows. When the audience directly participates in the process of eliminations, or serves as a continued source for ask-fors, their energy, excitement and receptiveness will likely build. Seeking a decider that pushes the performers in their skill set will also (hopefully) sharpen their listening, attack and abandon for the following performance. There can be a fine line between pushing the players and overwhelming them and it’s important that the decider models some finesse or impressiveness (alongside some delightful struggle): I might think twice as an audience member about staying for a show if the company can’t make it through an initial game with some grace. For this reason, I’m not a fan of deciders that reveal inherent skill deficits among the majority of the company. If the teams are not populated by strong singers, then don’t sing; if you’re not good at word-play then avoid punchline games…

3.) Introducing the players and frame. As noted above, many short-form shows involve a competitive frame and the decider provides an important opportunity to establish this conceit. Some playful heat between the teams can color the action if this is your penchant, and players can further develop their individual and team personae (the underdogs, the braggarts, the newbies, the challengers…). You can also sow the seeds of a greater shape of show: will the winning team continue their impressive feats of skill or face a comeuppance? As Boyd offers above, true competition and improv strike me as odd bedfellows, but there is ample room here to playfully wink at the overarching “battle” through exaggeration, lampooning and unbridled whimsy.

4.) Building momentum and connection. Lastly, unless serving as a show-closer, deciders should also raise the energy and dynamism of the performance, making the audience want more. (Arguably, even as a tiebreaker at night’s end this is true as you want to encourage the audience to stay for the following show or spill out into the street raving about the experience.) Meandering deciders that display little attack or finesse can do more harm than good. Some of my favorite deciders, such as Story, Story Die, I’ll only slate if I have three or four players in the mix as it takes a lot of strength to keep a story artfully building over multiple rounds – you may be stacking the odds against yourself if you start with a luxurious bank of eight or nine. Furthermore, while I must admit that I can personally show reluctance in throwing a decider (I feel that the audience usually senses this choice and so it undermines the conceit) there are times that someone just needs to go out to keep the greater game alive. At the end of the day we have to be wary that the company isn’t having more (often inexplicable) fun than the audience they should be entertaining. If the audience routinely grows listless or bored, you’re doing something wrong.

Final Thought

In experienced and focused hands, a lot can occur in the seemingly simple moment of the show decider. Make sure you’re not throwing away this opening element that is so ripe with potential and power.

Related Entries: Caller, Host Synonyms: Warm-up, Tie-Breaker

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

Connected Game: Da Doo Ron Ron

Game Library: “Should’ve Said”

I imagine this short-form game might be in the running for the title of “Game Known By the Most Different Names.” I’ve been playing it for many years now as Should’ve Said so that’s my preferred nomenclature. It’s typically an audience favorite and provides a helpful mechanism for quickly making unfiltered choices or pitching Curve Balls under pressure.

The Basics

My standard way for introducing this game is to note that someone is going to be gifted a “bell of second chances” which allows them to briefly rewind the scene to allow players a second crack at making a new choice – wouldn’t that be lovely in real life! This function is usually taken on by the host or a caller from an opposing team. A scene is then performed punctuated by bell rings that prompt players to quickly offer an alternative to their prior line of dialogue.

Example

A scene begins in a pizza kitchen as Player A and B are hurriedly working their stations.

Player A: “Brad should have predicted this rush what with the big game tonight!”

Player B: (putting yet another pizza into the oven) “And yet, he’s conveniently not in the store tonight.”

Player A: (rolling out some more dough) “That’s soooo Brad.”

Player B: “Well, at least we don’t have him barking orders at us all night…”

The Caller rings the bell

Player B: (flirting) “Well, at least I’m here with you…”

Player A: (with an eye roll) “Alright now, we’ve talked about this…”

Player B: “I’m just saying I enjoy your company.”

Player A: “I know what you’re saying…”

The Caller rings the bell

Player A: “I recognize that look…”

The Caller rings the bell

Player A: “I know where Brad keeps his secret stash of liquor…”

The Focus

In addition to encouraging players to take risks and embrace surprise, Should’ve Said can also help push characters to action and out of bland scenic patterns or ruts.

Traps and Tips

1.) Use the bells for good. The game certainly benefits from the appearance that the caller is torturing the players with their bells, but as I’ve discussed here strive to deploy the bell device in a way that builds and elevates the scene rather than rushes it towards improv oblivion. An attuned caller can mess with the players while also serving as a sidecoach, gently and playfully nudging players away from blocking or inactivity. Bells should ultimately heighten the joy and assist in the story telling efforts of the team. Specifically, don’t erase a strong scenic choice if you know leaving it in play will help the players in the long run.

2.) Pace the interruptions. Most games benefit from some iteration of the advice “play the scene first and the game second.” Ringing the bell multiple times in a row right as the scene begins doesn’t really let you build the dynamic later and may undermine a sound CROW and foundation. Give the players room to establish the central premise. Not every fun offer needs a bell: I’d argue the audience can quite enjoy seeing the caller weighing the option to bell and ultimately deciding to let the choice stand. It’s likely (and preferable) that you’ll be ringing the bell more at the end of the scene than the beginning so it’s helpful to begin a little sparsely.

3.) Embrace the change. As a player within the scene be cautious of wimping when you are cued to change your line. This often takes the form of essentially repeating your prior choice (so “I love you” becomes “I love you so much”) or paraphrasing it in such a way that the meaning doesn’t really change (so “I love you” become “You are just so perfect for me”). If I’m operating the bell, I will nearly always cue another change when I see these moves as they don’t really honor the contract of the game. Player A does this a little in the example above when they only mildly change “I know what you’re saying” to the quite similar “I recognize that look.” Using some parallel structure, on the other hand, can prove quite appealing: “I know what you’re saying” morphs two bells later into “I know where Brad keeps his secret stash of liquor…” Players can sometimes fall into a pattern of explicit opposites as well (“I love you” becomes “I hate you”). This honors the general spirit of the challenge but can feel uninspired or predictable if it becomes a crutch. In these instances a curve ball may be in order!

4.) Track the live choices. As the content of the scene can change radically from moment to moment, tracking current choices stands as a unique challenge of Should’ve Said. Avoid referencing or reincorporating offers that didn’t survive the gauntlet of the caller’s bell. This may happen inadvertently and can certainly add to the fun of the game, especially if the caller plays along and bells in a correction. While there are exceptions to every rule, generally trying to deliberately pull back prior dismissed choices feels a little against the spirit of the game although I must admit I’ve seen this work on occasion when it feels like a player is joyously fighting back with the caller and if everyone involved is on the same playful page.

5.) Risk. Ultimately, take the risk to just blurt out the next thing that is top of mind trusting that the caller will serve as a safety net if it’s needed. The clumsily constructed choice assembled in the furnace of the moment will often land more strongly than the carefully constructed and delayed response. Let the audience see and delight in the struggle. Offer that seemingly random curve ball that will require some clever justifying further down the road. On a related note, be cautious of appearing to “cue” a bell as a player within the scene. If it looks like you’re setting yourself up for the bell, then you’re stealing the caller’s agency in a way that undermines the inherent risk at play.

In performance

No matter what you may call this game, there’s a reason it is such a perennial short-form favorite: the audience experiences the unfiltered joy of immediate reactivity and creation as players scramble to assemble a coherent story from a muddle of possibilities.

Keep an eye out for an upcoming Game Library entry on New Choice which takes this same conceit up a level.

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

Connected Concept: Curve Ball

“C” is for “Curve Ball”

“The first character of the creative act is its spontaneity, the second character is a feeling of surprise, of the unexpected.”

Jacob Levy Moreno, The Theatre of Spontaneity. 2nd Edition. New York: Beacon House, 1973 [1947] p.42

Definition

While I had been familiar with the general tactic for a while, it was not until I read Mick Napier’s Improvise. Scene From the Inside Out that I came across the name Curve Ball. The concept connects several others, such as surprise, shelving and randomness, and refers to the idea of strategically including some unpredictable elements in your scene work that do not initially seem pertinent to the current given circumstances. In this way, you’re shelving potential choices that don’t (yet) have an obvious meaning or thematic correlation, trusting that such a connection will emerge organically further down the scenic road. Throwing such a curve ball is a delightful example of being deliberately mischievous and raising the challenge of the collaborative play. It requires trust (in yourself and your partners), patience and playfulness, and serves as a helpful approach if you find your scenes losing that sense of “danger” that is the trademark of most great improv.

Example

Married couple (Player A and B) enter their apartment kitchen with laden bags of groceries balanced precariously in their hands.

Player A: “…it just seems that the basics go up in price every time we shop.”

Player B: (starting to unpack) “I’m not disagreeing, it’s just that the chili recipe is the chili recipe so there’s no point in complaining to the cashier…”

Player A: “Did that make you uncomfortable?”

Player B: (playfully and without malice) “No, I’m used to it by now!”

Player A: (gently and lovingly nudging “B”) “I know I need to let it go. But ground beef just shouldn’t cost that much…”

Player B: (getting out the “big” pot) “I’m not disagreeing…”

Player A: (glancing absently out the kitchen window) “That moving truck is still parked on the corner…”

Player B: “This chili isn’t going to make itself.”

Player A: “Go easy on the peppers this time…”

Pitching Your Curve Balls

1.) A little goes a long way. All improv rules are made to be questioned and broken, but I’d recommend that you don’t overwhelm your scenic work with a flood of unrelated curve ball offers (as much fun as that sounds!) Yes, that certainly could be the game of the scene, but often judicious curve balling will serve you better. It generally suffices to place one or two significant and memorable ideas upon the improv “shelf” awaiting greater context and use further down the line. If you overload the proverbial improv shelf, each unexpected choice becomes ultimately less impactful and perhaps even less likely to be remembered and reincorporated. While a curve ball is a great way to keep a scene exciting and alive, it gains its value by being an exceptional choice.

2.) Pitch from strength. I’d advise giving your initial attention to the basics (or CROW) of the scene and making sure these are dynamic and clear before throwing in an unexpected ingredient. If a scene is wrestling to find its footing or the characters aren’t firmly connected to each other, giving your attention to the deployment of a curve ball might not be the best use of your focus and time. Once the scene is up and running, and the players (and audience) know the “rules of the world,” then a unexpected twist is a delightful way to forebode further adventures and keep everyone on their toes. If your scene feels like a delicate glass house struggling to find its way, this probably isn’t the time to start throwing stones haphazardly.

3.) Add a new color. My preference is for a curve ball to clearly add a new color or energy that noticeably differs from the prior established mood as this “marks” the choice as rich in spite of its apparent inexplicability. In the chili example, a food or cooking related choice is more likely to feel like a CAD (Confession, Accusation or Discovery) than a curve ball as it grows from the facts that have already clearly been established. This sense of clear connection serves a CAD or revelation well, but is somewhat anathema to the spirit of a curve ball which is marked by its initial lack of connection. In this case, the moving truck portends something but at this stage of the action, it really could be anything: a stake out of the couple, an in-law preparing to move in, an escape plan in its early stages… The choice in and of itself has no obligation to even vaguely hint at a specific meaning at this point; in fact, this would weaken it’s very gift which is considerably more long-term in nature.

4.) Don’t needlessly point at it. Similarly, an intended curve ball loses its dangerous future agency if it is quickly woven into the current action or hastily justified in an effort to have it make sense in the current scheme of things. It can be tempting to immediately contextualize an unexpected choice – “Oh, that’s just the Johnsons. Their daughter is moving back from college.” I’m not good at sporting metaphors, but this feels like bunting the ball rather than patiently waiting until the time is right and then expertly hitting it out of the park. It is certainly critical that all the players hear and process the choice that has been made, but avoid the temptation to shift the focus to this new idea or carelessly comment on it – “Why are you talking about a moving truck?” As is evidenced in my vignette above, my preference would actually be to just let the choice sit and then continue without making it seem too unusual. If the choice is embraced without fanfare or question, it becomes an accepted part of the world ripe for exploring when the moment feels right.

5.) Honor the contract. By definition, a curve ball tends to be memorable and subsequently there is an expectation that such a choice won’t be left sitting on the shelf unutilized when the improv scene or show draws to a close. If the moving truck doesn’t find it’s way back into the story on some level, this earlier reference will feel unwarranted and unhelpful. As is the case with the related technique of callbacks, I think there is something to be said for deliberately prolonging the time between the idea’s first mention and its later reappearance during a fitting moment: such patience can certainly add to the sense of tension, surprise and (hopefully) joy when it’s successfully justified. This patience is harder to achieve if you’re striving to weave multiple seemingly random elements into the scenic climax, hence the advice to show some restraint when pitching such choices early in the scene.

Final Thought

I am certainly an advocate for being obvious in your scenic work and letting an organic path emerge based on your innate reactions as a player and character. The concept of a curve ball provides a nice counterpoint to this approach, encouraging strategic risk and whimsy. If you have a tendency to plan ahead, or find yourself circling over painfully familiar improv terrain again and again, or perhaps even burning through material too quickly and running out of steam, this technique can reinvigorate your play, just make sure you don’t start to “solve” or “unwrap” the random gift prematurely.

“Curve Ball” marks the last “C” in my “A” to “Z” of Improv series! You can check them all out here.

Related Entries: CAD, CROW, Justification, Reincorporation, Shelving Antonyms: Obvious Synonyms: Mischief, Randomness, Surprise

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

Connected Game: Should’ve Said

Game Library: “Angel and Devil”

Angel and Devil shares a lot with the similar subtext-focused game Conscience, but here the internal voices are literally pulled onstage in dramatic fashion. The resulting playful tension offers a uniquely dynamic pathway to unlock and encourage Culpability and risk-taking.

The Basics

A team of four is optimal for this game with two players serving as “regular” onstage characters and the others embodying the angel and devil respectively. These latter personae should loiter behind either shoulder of the scene’s protagonist for the duration of the action, each spurring them on to either laudable or dubious behavior. Other characters should not hear this internal debate. Often the scene will culminate in the protagonist clearly overcoming or succumbing to a temptation.

Example

The scene is set in a jewelry store. Player A assumes the role of a soon-to-be engaged shopper, with B as the store clerk, and C and D serving as A’s Angel and Devil respectively.

Player B: (pulling out a tray of rings) “…and then this is our premium line of rings for those who want their love to go that extra mile.”

Player A: (equally as impressed as sticker shocked) “These are truly beautiful.”

Angel: (to A) “Now these truly represent your love! Worth every penny!”

Devil: (to A) “This is a big commitment… just for one person…”

Player A: “May I have a closer look at that ring in the middle?”

Player B: “I see you have excellent taste. This is a custom setting unique to our store.”

Devil: (to A) “Custom means pricey. Flirt a little with the clerk. You might get a discount.”

Angel: (to A and Devil) “Don’t soil this poetic moment with haggling!”

Player A: (awkwardly) “It’s almost as unique as you are…”

Player B conspicuously flashes their own wedding band…

The Focus

This games allows you to bring a character’s internal struggle to the forefront of the action. The resulting tensions can theatrically infuse familiar premises and tropes with new life and possibilities.

Traps and Tips

1.) Seek balance. It’s easy for one element of this game to dominate if you’re not particularly aware and generous. By design, focus will heavily swirl around the protagonist and you’ll need to give them sufficient time to hear, process and then act upon their internal thoughts. The angel and devil should seek to balance their suggestions with the greater scenic needs. In the example above I’ve modeled a pretty heavy use of the subtextual device to give a sense of the logistics, but this rhythm might be better suited to a little later in the scene. By the culmination of the game, it’s not uncommon for the internal voices to full out argue with each other, but seek restraint initially so that you have somewhere to build. Supporting characters, such as our jewelry store clerk, benefit from some extra awareness and kind focus gives from their teammates in order to make sure they don’t completely become passengers to the scene.

2.) Seek build. The concept of an internal “devil” can potentially push players into dark content quickly so it’s helpful to think of this voice as pointedly mischievous or cheeky as opposed to outright evil. There’s probably no where to build, for example, if the devil’s first prod is to kill the store clerk upon learning the price of the rings. Similarly, the angel should leave some ambiguity or cracks in their argument or, at the very least, allow the devil sufficient room to maneuver. Playful devilish coaxing into trouble will go a long way in juxtaposition to the angel’s efforts to remain unstained and virtuous. The more reasonable the nudges to naughtiness seem, the more likely it is that the protagonist will deploy these tactics in the scene which ultimately should serve as a primary goal of the devil.

3.) Seek action. I’ve partnered this game with the concept of culpability as the scene lights up when the protagonist allows themselves to explore a wide array of tactics and choices, some of which are clearly “good” and others which are less so. While there is certainly a theatrical value in the verbal sparring of the inner voices alone, this dynamism becomes magnified when the central character embodies these tensions. If the angel always wins with their morally sound advice, the scene will likely march on to a rather predictable outcome. While the devil need not win all the time, at least strategic victories are likely to throw the character and scene off its equilibrium in delightful ways. Offering concrete next steps (as opposed to purely theoretical musings) serves as a central way for the inner voices to heighten and privilege the action.

4.) Seek a clear objective. Explore a strong objective as the central character as this will activate and inspire the internal struggle. A possible objective for the above example could be “To secure the best possible ring at a price that isn’t going to break the bank.” With this goal in mind, the protagonist and their consciences now have a clear aim even if the angel and devil are focusing on different parts of the need: the angel desiring “the best possible ring” while the devil endeavors to secure “the least painful price.” Knowing your greater want also helps the protagonist assess the choices being pitched by their thoughts. Holding onto your objective will also typically provide a clear ending when we learn if the protagonist was successful or not in their pursuit.

In performance

The central conceit of Angel and Devil can push familiar characters and conceits to new heights. The dynamic also has a delightful resilience and ability to organically evolve. I’ve seen angels and devils abandon their initial “subject” in disgust or dismay, exchange roles halfway through a scene, or move to the shoulders of another character deemed more amenable. Be wary of entering the scene with the intent of pushing one of these dynamics to the forefront as it will tend to read as forced, but remain vigilant for ways the central tensions may evolve or morph. This premise also works well as an interesting scenic handle in a long-form piece if you’re open to styles beyond run-of-the-mill realism.

In Gorilla Theatre we’ve explored a related version of this game where the two internal voices move to microphones at the side of the stage and adjust the scenic parameters through scene painting and endowments in their efforts to sway a character’s behavior. Either the devil or angel will be voiced by the director (depending on their specific theme or frame). This iteration has shown great promise as well.

This week marks the one year anniversary of ImprovDr.com! If you’re a newer reader and want to catch up on some of the most popular blog posts, check out my “Top Reads” here.

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

Connected Concept: Culpability

Top Reads

In celebration of the first ImprovDr.com anniversary I’ve reached back into the ever-growing archive of blog posts and identified the ten entries with the widest reach. Perhaps predictably, many of these are earlier entries that have been around a little longer to attract attention. Handy hyperlinks included for your convenience!

And for good measure, here’s the top read “A” and “C” from my current series:

As always, you can go here for the Game Library, or here for the “A” to “Z” index of improv terms and concepts, or here to search the data base.

And just for fun, here’s a cool map from WordPress that shows where readers from the last year live and connect!!!

Here’s looking forward to another year of improv and spontaneous musings!! Thank you for your readership and support.

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

“C” is for “Culpability”

“…the clown is happy to appear stupid. He doesn’t mind. He is not afraid of making a fool of himself. He is vulnerable, and happy to be so. His face is a disarming icon of happy stupidity.”

Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.67

Definition

As we advance in our craft as improvisers I would rank few skills as more critical than that of embracing Culpability. Perhaps most simply and eloquently defined as the condition of “good people doing bad or regrettable things,” culpability closely allies with the central improvisational philosophy of change. To embrace culpability is to fully accept rich but possibly unflattering endowments, take on responsibility for morally ambiguous actions, and savor opportunities to uncover complex character contradictions. Highly sought after change on the macro or scenic level is often heavily dependent upon culpability (and vulnerability) on the micro and personal level. In addition to helping action transform in new and dynamic ways, most audiences care more about a seemingly “good” and relatable character that finds themselves making a dubious choice than an overtly villainous persona replicating predictable depictions of right and wrong. Bringing an air of culpability to our work can serve as a powerful example of heightened and brave accepting, especially if it’s connected to revelatory accusations or CADs.

Example

A nun, Player A, sits behind her desk as a nervous-looking novice, Player B, enters.

Player A: “I appreciate you coming to see me, Sister. I’m sure there has been some confusion.”

Player B: (nervously) “Of course. However can I help?”

Player A: “As I said, I’m sure she must have been mistaken – you’ve always been such an honest and moral woman – but another novice reported that she saw you taking some money out of the collection plate…”

Player B pauses for a moment and lowers her head.

Player A: (gently) “Sister?”

Player A: “I’m afraid what you’ve heard is the truth. I cannot deny that I took the money…”

The Gains of Culpability

1.) Less advising, more doing. If advising scenes plague your work or relationships on stage, you may be falling into the trap of discussing dynamic or problematic choices rather than jumping right into the beautiful mess they will create. When we’re asked to give advice on stage it can be a very human instinct to give good advice thereby pushing our scene partner away from a rich confrontation or discovery. Similarly, when we’re receiving advice we can tend to talk through all the options – especially bad options – that would be much more interesting to actually see. I teach a lot of improv on a college campus and a perennial scenario is getting dating advice or instruction on how to approach that appealing fellow student. It’s very rare that such a scene amounts to much of anything (or much of anything new). Risk jumping into the inadvisable or unpredictable choice: ask the most popular student on campus out who doesn’t even know your name, propose to your love interest on the third date, surprise your significant other with a visit from you and your parents (and grandparents… and three children from a prior undisclosed relationship…) So often the playful choice can be diffused or disarmed when we seek advice prior to its implementation.

2.) Less stagnation, more dynamism. When you or your characters are disinclined towards culpability you may often find yourself stagnating or trapped in a rut in your scene work. A lack of assuming responsibility keeps our characters “safely” away from change and growth. If the novice in the above example resists the charge of theft (or, perhaps worse, just assumes that she couldn’t possibly have done it) then it’s unlikely that the scene or greater story arc will continue forward with creative abandon. Instead, we’re more likely to be faced with characters stubbornly maintaining what they have established as their initial energy or essence. This, in turn, is unlikely to inspire dynamic work on stage. When we allow for the fact that our characters and their motives are truly a work in progress, open to transform and morph through the gifts of our partners and the given circumstances, it is much more likely that they will face excitingly unpredictable pathways. If you’ve found yourself stuck playing a limited cast of characters – ingenues can be particularly challenging in this regard – this may actually be caused or compounded by an inability to see and embrace “bad” gifts that can facilitate compelling interruptions and shifts in your characters’ point of view.

3.) Less moralizing, more embodying. I particularly enjoy theme-based improv that actively pursues an exploration of the human condition in all its chaotic wonder. An acceptance of culpability is central to such work. Without this mentality scenes can easily fall into the trap of unnuanced “good” versus “bad” clichés, offering little that is truly new or engaging for the audience and players. If we’re less concerned with espousing a particular viewpoint – most of us would agree that theft is generally a bad thing – and more interested in exploring the myriad of specific factors that might result in morally questionable or complex behavior, then our improv will come to life in rewarding ways. A scene about a “terrible” thief thieving yet again is innately less fascinating (to me at least) than a nun who has found herself in such a position that this was deemed desirable or even necessary. I have found that newer improvisers, in particular, can be hesitant to assume positions or philosophies that they deem “wrong” for fear that an audience might mistake their character’s behavior or attitudes as being synonymous with their own. This type of theatrical bravery is certainly something worth encouraging and developing, and it comes with the added advantage of building empathy as we assume positions and experience circumstances different than our lived truths.

4.) Less consistency, more ambiguity. Humans are innately contradictory and inconsistent: a deeply loving friend can become hate-filled given cause, a shy co-worker can assert bold fearlessness if pushed, a highly intelligent family member can prove surprisingly dim-witted when faced with unfamiliar circumstances. When we seek misplaced consistency, especially at the expense of pushing away choices that at first blush don’t feel “like” the character we’re embodying, we will be “rewarded” by highly predictable and potentially monotonous dramatic actions. I would offer it’s easier for an audience to dismiss antisocial or morally suspect character traits when they are present in clearly “evil” portrayals. When we embrace ambiguity, on the other hand, and see moral corruption in characters we have come to love and identify with, the dramatic and social effects are greatly enhanced. Most of us would like to consider ourselves as innately good people; subsequently, seeing similarly good people do bad things pulls us into the action as observers in entertaining and profound ways.

Final Thought

Characters and stories that remain in stasis will rarely reflect real life experiences and conflicts. Personae that are virtuous beyond reproach don’t demand much stage time and frequently lack agency or interest: villains who have an absence of any redeeming qualities or actions will quickly become one dimensional and stuck. Playing in the endless possibility between these two polar opposites by inviting change, surprise, inconsistency and culpability, reinvigorates our work and relationships.

Related Entries: Ambiguity, Commandment #5, Emotional Truth, Vulnerability Antonyms: Bulletproof Synonyms: Change

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

Connected Game: Angel and Devil

Game Library: “Conducted Freeze Tag”

Freeze Tag is a ubiquitous improv warmup and exercise, and it’s likely that you’ve played it on multiple occasions if you’ve been improvising for any length of time. Conducted Freeze Tag provides a nice variation that can refresh the basic concept, and when paired with the concept of CROW this iteration also offers a fast-paced way to rehearse the process of effectively establishing these core scenic components.

The Basics

Players form a line with their backs to the performance space. A caller situates themselves to the side of the stage where they can readily see the action. Two players begin, inspired by an audience prompt, and improvise the beginning of a dynamic scene. When players are in an interesting physical position, the caller announces “Freeze” and calls in or out players by name. Those entering the playing field should assume the exact stance of the player they are replacing. Once in position, a completely new scene begins that justifies the current poses in a new and interesting fashion. Players who have been tagged out return to the back line awaiting the caller to bring them into the action once more.

Example

With their teammates standing behind them, Player A and B assume the field and begin a scene prompted by the suggestion of “birthday present”.

Player A begins by leaping out of a box…

Player A: “Surprise!!!”

Player B: (shocked and in disbelief) “Chris!? But you said…”

Player A: “I know, I know. I just wanted you to think I had to be out of town. I couldn’t miss my girlfriend’s 30th birthday could I?”

Player B: (taking A’s hands) “I can’t believe you! I would have cleaned up our apartment a little if I’d have known…”

Player A: (reaching back into the box) “Not on your birthday! And there’s more…”

Player B: “A puppy..!”

Caller: “Freeze. Player C in for Player A.”

Player C turns around and runs to replace Player A who is holding up the “puppy.” Upon being tagged out, Player A quickly moves to join the line and turns around.

Player C: (in a panic) “Doctor, my hands just won’t stop trembling…”

Player B: (unfreezing) “I can’t believe I’m actually seeing my first case of this rare skin allergy. My colleagues won’t believe this…”

The Focus

Concentrate on players successfully executing a clear CROW in the first few lines of their scene work. If a scene struggles to define these elements, let it breathe a little until it does. While I’m framing this game through the conceit of CROW, I would offer that this is a good philosophy for calling Conducted Freeze Tag in general as it privileges clear story telling and initiations rather than just hitting a laugh line.

Traps and Tips

1.) Some traditional strategies… Typical Freeze Tag norms apply, such as encouraging strong and vibrant physical choices to inspire new freezes and scenes, avoiding vignettes that are too similar in their primary ingredients especially if they are back to back, and giving the incoming player first crack at establishing the new premise. Players can have a tendency to “smudge” their physicality which decreases the challenge and finesse of the game, so make sure everyone does their best to assume the exact position of their surrogate as the tag occurs, and that these positions aren’t immediately dropped or ignored as the new scene starts up. It’s certainly okay to squirm a little before the new scene ignites (this is part of the fun after all), although I’ll warn players that if they wait too long they’re allowing the audience to come up with their own ideas which isn’t ideal as now your eventual choice is competing with others’ imaginations. If you’re looking for an additional challenge, it’s a rare occasion that a “twister scene,” dance or yoga lesson, or some sort of super glue accident doesn’t make it into the mix, so do your best to avoid stale tropes such as these!

2.) Some caller finesses… It’s helpful to start the game with a series of two-player scenes where only one player is substituted with each “Freeze” call. This allows everyone a little time to warm up and offers a clear focus as to who is likely to initiate the next vignette. Once a strong rhythm has been established other possibilities include replacing both players at once with two new members from the awaiting line or increasing (and decreasing) the cast size by selecting new players to join the frozen scene – “Player D in for Player A and Player E join the scene…” The more participants, the greater the likelihood for confusion which can certainly be part of the charm and struggle of escalating the dynamic in this fashion. It’s good form for the caller to try to give players roughly equal performing time if this is viable, although there can definitely be value in leaving a particularly playful or successful improviser in the hot seat for multiple vignettes in a row.

3.) Some player pitfalls… One of my favorite features of this variant is that players are unable to observe the prior scenes which, at least in theory, doesn’t allow them to predetermine how they’ll start the next scene. Similarly, when players are able to call their own freezes and entrances they can have a tendency to wait until they feel they’ve solved the game’s “riddle” of what should come next or perhaps just avoid the danger of the whole affair altogether by remaining silent in the back row. Conducted Freeze Tag prevents these tactics and keeps the risk of the exercise high – it’s important not to undermine this with needlessly meandering or glacial entrances from the actor bank. Physical ability willing, players should turn around quickly as soon as they’re named and dash onto the playing field, taking just a brief moment to assess any gestural or facial nuances before tagging out their target. Encourage this sense of rush as it has the added performative advantage of letting the audience experience the true surprise (or panic) of each entering player. Incoming players can also feel an undue pressure of having to pitch the entirety of the new premise when, in reality, they just need to offer a starting point – one facet of CROW, for example – that is informed by a justification of their discovered pose. Don’t under-estimate the potential contributions of the awaiting teammates.

In performance

While you could drop the stated necessity of clearly establishing CROW before freezing scenes when playing Conducted Freeze Tag in front of an audience, I’d offer that these parameters tend to help the game in general. Yes, an inspired quick run of one-liner scenes utilizing and justifying a similar pose can heighten the fun, but there is also a clear opportunity to stretch our scenic muscles built into the DNA of the structure which would be a shame to waste, especially if you’re using the game as a company warm-up. I also think it’s preferable that the audience wishes that scenes could continue because they were so rich with potential rather than feels relief when each clumsy and ill-defined scenario is mercifully edited so something new can begin!

If you’re looking for another fun variant on this theme, check out Environmental Freeze Tag here.

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

Connected Concept: CROW

“C” is for “CROW”

“A process of defining offers at the beginning of a scene so that all involved in the scene have some basic information to base the scene on. CROW stands for Character, Relationship, Objective and Where. These are the essentials of a scene. The process involves including as much information about these in the first five lines of the scene. As soon as the players of the scene know who they are, where they are and what is happening they can improvise the story”

Lynda Belt and Rebecca Stockley. Acting Through Improv: Improv Through Theatresports. New Revised Edition. Seattle, Washington: Thespis Productions, 1995. p.200

Definition

The elements of CROW (Character, Relationship, Objective and Where) are extraordinarily helpful focal points for our craft as performers whether we are working in scripted or improvisational modes. Each element is sufficiently important and dynamic to warrant its own detailed consideration, so here I’d like to explore these concepts from a higher altitude.

I was introduced to this nomenclature through my initial studies of Theatresports, but Spolin’s work with WWW (Who, What, Where) covers largely similar terrain. Our personae, desires and environments can serve as a strong and empowering foundation for our creative work on the stage. When these components of our play are strongly established in a timely fashion, miscommunications and vagaries are less likely to become compounded and hinder the forward trajectory of our stories and games. Belt and Stockley offer a specific challenge of landing such choices within the first five lines of the scene, which is certainly a worthy and admirable goal, although we should also tend to how such material emerges and not needlessly rush ill-formed ideas to the stage (which these authors are certainly not advocating either). Generally more nuanced choices will offer richer pathways than hasty announcements that feel more like commenting than connected acting.

Example

Player A enters the space carrying a (mimed) large box that they carefully position on the floor and open. With clear affection they pull one delicate object after another from the box, gently assembling them in a row on the floor in front of them.

Player B enters a few moments later carrying a large tray. They look lovingly at Player A and the activity that so consumes them. They place the tray down on a nearby footstool and retrieve two cups, offering one to Player A.

Player B: “I can’t believe it’s our first Christmas together in our own house!”

Player A pauses from their work for a moment to take one of the cups…

Player A: “Hot chocolate! You were listening to all those stories!”

Player B: “Not sure it’s the best beverage for Florida, but my wife gets what she wants!”

Player B picks up one of A’s carefully stowed objects…

Player B: “These are beautiful. Can I put the first one on our tree?”

Player A: “I actually have a bit of a system… No, sorry, what am I thinking? This is going to be our ritual now…”

Building Your CROW Foundation

1.) Split the “work.” There can be a tendency to strive to get the CROW “over with” as quickly as possible, often with one player hitting the stage and almost reciting their idea rather than building it gracefully and gradually with their scene partners. (Such a panicked approach often embodies the pitfall of cartooning addressed elsewhere). Don’t rush your choices. Savor what your partner is creating, and let each idea have it’s moment so that it can bloom and grow. I appreciate the gift of having a more fully formed idea in your pocket as the lights rise on a scene, but it’s exciting to offer one small part at a time so that there is truly room for your partner to process your idea and then add one of their own (good old fashioned “Yes, anding…”). Creating the CROW can feel like a burden if you needlessly take it all on alone. Alternatively, when you craft one aspect and trust that others will fill in the gaps, it’s easier to find the joy and surprise in the process.

2.) Use all your tools as an improviser. Exposition and the given circumstances can be tricky to establish under the best conditions – scripted playwrights often struggle to elegantly define these elements as well. Be sure to deploy all your verbal and physical skills. It is asking a lot of ourselves to lay down great foundational choices with our words alone. If we place the Where more dynamically in our bodies, in particular, our choices are more likely to go the distance than when we merely declare our location. As is so often the mantra of the improviser, strive to show rather than tell your audience and scene partner. For example, in the vignette above, the word “wife” might be almost unnecessary to define the relationship if we have clearly used our physical connection and staging to tell this story (and ultimately, the unique embodied energy of the relationship will probably serve you much better than just a descriptive title anyway).

3.) Specificity and import start here. Look to make your own and your partner’s choices detailed and important. A cup of hot chocolate is innately more interesting and likely to inspire than just some unnamed beverage. If I am assuming the role of Player A, it will add so much to the scene if I have particular images and choices in mind for each holiday ornament that comes out of the box rather than creating just one generic metallic Christmas ball after another. If you are inclined to rush through these first moments of creativity, you are less likely to find the unexpected small choice that excites you and unlocks a new potential as a performer. So take your time with each discovered object and element to increase the likelihood that you’ll find those lovely little extra details.

4.) Define your ingredients. Connected to the above, take the risk to make a definitive choice (or many) about the CROW components of the scene. There are some recurring traps that you should strive to avoid: nondescript friends, or two characters that just “sort of” know each other, is often just a smudge away from strangers in terms of the dim spark it brings to the stage. Assume relationships that matter and demand passion and commitment. Imprecise actions are similarly problematic. If you’re mopping the floor in big general movements without giving attention to where the bucket rests at any given moment, the weight and resistance of the mop, or what you’re cleaning around (or cleaning up), the activity will quickly cease to have any additive value and will just become empty background movement. “Nowhere” scenes can’t offer much in terms of staging either. Put something of note in the space, or endow a more common feature with a peculiar characteristic. If you initially find yourself in a featureless hallway or street and neglect to quickly add a specific (furniture piece, weather condition, configuration…), it will become increasingly likely that the location will remain featureless (and unhelpful) for the duration of your action.

5.) Hide the magic. If the creation of the CROW becomes a chore on any level it can potentially take away as much as it gives. Relish the challenge of breathing new life into crafting these foundational elements. Sure, you may have played a scene with a spouse before, but there’s no reason this relationship needs to be the same as any other you’ve embodied thus far. Explore ways to deploy subtlety and inference without sacrificing clarity and communication. The audience will quickly sense if scenes start to just hit the paces of naming the basic assumptions; seek finesse so that they are unaware that your scene work is tending to these needs at first. Improvisers can become needlessly self-conscious when it comes to unambiguously defining the given circumstances, but scenes rarely benefit from discarding this commitment to firmly establishing a clear starting point.

Final Thought

Some improv philosophies revel in a more luxurious or patient approach to scene starts, encouraging players to find comfort in the unknown as the lights come up on the stage. It’s not uncommon for the subsequent scenes to gently unfold with CROW ingredients remaining vague or disregarded, perhaps staying this way even as the lights come down. There is certainly not one way to frame the improv endeavor, and on the simplest level, it can be refreshing for all involved to break up the pattern of a show or series of scenes by varying the energy or dynamism of the launch. That being said, I have certainly seen many more cases of a scene struggling through the lack of a mutually agreed upon CROW than scenes thriving from the explicit absence of these ingredients. It’s not uncommon for a scene to prioritize or excel in the crafting of one or two elements while others may recede into the background with less import (in my experience the Where often seems to suffer this fate). Ignoring CROW altogether, however, strikes me as inviting unnecessary chaos and confusion.

Consider exploring the constituent elements of CROW for a deeper dive into how to maximize the creative potentials of each dynamic.

Related Entries: Character, Objective, Relationship, Where Antonym: Cartooning, Vagueness Synonyms: Given Circumstances,, Initiation, WWW

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

Connected Game: Conducted Freeze Tag

Game Library: “Laugh and Go”

Laugh and Go serves as a rather metatheatrical game as the audience gets to see the increasing chaos of various players trading in and out of roles. Some level of Corpsing (or breaking) looms as almost inevitable although a performance absent of this quality can prove quite breathtaking. I first encountered this game at Sak Comedy Lab and it has since become a regular offering in our Gorilla Theatre shows.

The Basics

A suggestion that (at least seemingly) leans towards a more serious topic serves as the inspiration for the scene. The game is often playfully introduced as an exercise in dramatic acting, and the audience is notified that if any of the players should elicit a laugh during the performance they will be immediately replaced by another member of the company. The scene begins and, as promised, any significant laughter cues an actor swap with someone entering from the wings who then immediately picks up the action from exactly where it left off. As the scene continues, and the onstage cast grows, swaps may occur between onstage players as is deemed necessary and enjoyable.

Example

Inspired by “bullying,” Player A and B begin a scene as parent and teenage child. Player A enters the family living room to begin, masking their face.

Player B: “You’re home a little late, Alex.”

Player A: (sheepishly) “I’m just going to go up to my room.”

Player B gets off the couch and approaches…

Player B: “Is there something wrong? Let me see your face…”

Player A pulls away abruptly, garnering an unanticipated laugh from the audience.

Caller: (announcing) “Alex.”

Player A leaves the stage and their exact position is then assumed by incoming Player C.

Player C: “It’s nothing. I don’t want you to make a big deal about it…”

Player B: (insistently) “Let me see it, Alex.”

Player C slowly turns to reveal their face and B recoils a little too dramatically in horror. The audience laughs…

Caller: (announcing) “Alex’s parent.”

Player B is quickly tagged out by Player D…

The Focus

Much of the joy of this game comes from the collective struggle of trying to hold it together: keeping track of the story details and character mannerisms, playfully honoring the seriousness of the context, knowing which player is embodying each character at any given moment, and struggling to retain personal composure in the face of it all.

Traps and Tips

1.) A caller is your best friend. My experience with this game would suggest that an attentive caller can make a world of difference in terms of how the scene builds and lands. From the stage it can be challenging to distinguish an isolated giggle from a more pointed audience response, or perhaps identify which player was the primary source of the pertinent reaction. A dedicated caller can quickly pause or assess the action and make these decisions in real time, unequivocally naming the offending player as in the example above. As the scene launches the caller can also judiciously choose to ignore individual audience chuckles or insincere guffaws. The inherent stops and starts of the game may cause focus challenges and this helpful steering hand can go a long way to maintaining a satisfying scenic trajectory. Onstage improvisers can assist in this regard too: once a call is made, it’s important to immediately honor and execute it (even if you’re inclined to throw a little shade as you slink to the side of the stage).

2.) Start with sincerity. Although it is almost a given that the sincere or serious suggestion will likely have collapsed in on itself by the scene’s completion, it shouldn’t become a fait accompli. As the scene begins, earnestly dig into your acting reserves and strive to perform without a comedic wink or expectation. Arguably, this is how you should really play the whole scene, but it is of particular import as the scene makes its first steps as you need to establish and honor the central conceit and give the story a solid foundation for the madness that will likely follow. Invariably the audience will laugh, and typically at something minor and unexpected. Allow this first prompt to occur in its own time and way. If you look for or crave the laughter, the scene will suffer for it.

3.) Give the scene room to grow. While there will always be earnt exceptions, this game works really well when you start with two characters on stage (or one player soon joined by a second). The tight focus of one staged relationship makes it easier to establish some strong personality traits that others can pick up and mirror later, and generally allows a more solid scenic foundation. Tag outs during this early phase should be crisp and clean so the audience can easily grasp the logistics involved. Once you have three or four characters on stage this will usually necessitate players to switch with each other (as opposed to trading out with someone waiting in the wings). This dynamic is definitely bracing and exciting, but if you get there too quickly the game of the scene may have nowhere to go.

4.) Try to hold it together. If (when) corpsing does occur, it lands more effectively if players have done everything in their power to keep their act together. Almost all the elements of this game conspire against the players maintaining their composure, between the stark contrast of material and staging, and the sudden casting changes and audience interruptions. If players become inclined or tempted to almost cue the audience’s laughter, the game’s conceit and integrity will degrade in the process. (For example, while it’s helpful to have clearly distinctive characters to make them easier to track, overly broad or gimmicky choices can unnecessarily serve as spoilers.) As the scene reaches its typically chaotic climax, you may have little ability to keep it together, but the audience will certainly relish your efforts to do so!

In performance

If you’re working in an overtly comedic short-form tradition, the “now we’re going to perform a serious scene” construct of Laugh and Go can add a delightful new hue to the night while simultaneously garnering you some big laughs and full throated audience involvement. The format also works equally well as a team or all-play game. Don’t rush to the perceived finish line though but rather savor each silly slip and chuckle along the way.

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

Connected Concept: Corpsing