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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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“G” is for “Game of the Scene”

“…a situation set up imaginatively and defined by rules which together with the prescribed roles, is accepted by the players.”

Neva Leona Boyd, Play and Game Theory in Group Work: A Collection of Papers. Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 1971. p.47

Definition

The Game of the Scene tends to be an explicit concept more pervasively used in long-form traditions. In short-form shows, scenic games or dynamics are often prescribed and governed by the inherited rules: in They Said, They Said two onstage players will provide dialogue while their offstage counterparts will offer verbalized stage directions which the onstage characters must carry out. In long-form settings, the game of the scene is typically discovered organically as the result of players making moves or choices and others recognizing the potential of leaning into these energies. This is not to say that a short-form game might not also include an additional unique game that is the product of the moment, or, for that matter, that long-form shows may not also utilize set games co-opted from the short-form canon. And on an even more meta level, improv involves foundational games and techniques (accepting, justifying, connecting…) that provide a common language and approach that enables both prescribed and discovered games to thrive. Ultimately, regardless of the improv style at hand, players should always seek to recognize and join novel games as they bubble up in the scene. In some instances such games might explicitly serve the narrative arc; in others, they might add equally valuable dynamism and joy.

Especially when you are taking your first steps as an improviser, the idea of intuitively finding games in the raw material of an improv scene can feel overwhelming: my experience with the Harold would suggest that most players are more quickly able to wrap their heads around the recurring trio of scenes than that “other thing” that happens between the rounds. It is both liberating and terrifying that the game of the scene can truly be almost anything if the players bravely make it so. Here I’d like to offer a non-exhaustive and glaringly incomplete list of some different categories of games a trained eye might notice in the hopes that these examples can help you also recognize other potentials in the sea of seemingly endless possibilities…

Example

Several players have positioned themselves on stage in chairs as Player A enters the movie theatre holding a large tub of popcorn. They look for a suitable chair and carefully make their way through the auditorium trying not to disturb the silence…

A Non-Exhaustive and Glaringly Incomplete List of Some Different Categories of Games

1.) Curve of Absurdity. Often a discovered game will begin firmly planted in our known reality or everyday world. As the scene continues and the game is recognized by others and subsequently heightened, the moves or behavior become increasingly exaggerated and more absurd or distant from our daily experience. The curve of absurdity is a helpful shorthand for this arc of escalation. For the 17% of improvisers who also enjoy math, think of the x axis as time and the progression of the scene and the y axis as representing reality at the point of origin and an increasing departure from this reality as it extends upwards. Scenes that follow this approach would be drawn as a parabola. The more firmly the scene is originally grounded in our observable world and the more patient the build, the steeper the final destination can stretch the conceit without breaking it. Ideally, each new move or step should connect explicitly to the former as the team climbs the arc together. Many discovered and canonical improv scenes benefit and find structure from some variant of this approach, such as Inappropriate Behavior.

As Player A takes their seat it omits a small squeak that is quickly shushed by the other movie patrons. Player A then tries to quietly chew their very crunchy popcorn, but each bite is surprisingly loud. Again, more disdainful shushing. Then Player A’s blaring cell phone goes off… Then an ex-lover storms into the theatre and begins a loud argument… Then a secret service detail arrives to protect Player A from their lover by loudly securing the theatre…

2.) Mapping. This is a popular scenic dynamic where one scenario is critiqued or heightened by using the tropes and clichés of another familiar situation. For example, parents might have an intervention with their teenager after discovering they have been dabbling in drama but frame the scene with the stakes and intensity of having discovered that their child has been dabbling in drugs: “Look, we know that it looks fun and all the other kids are doing it, but this can only ruin your life in the long run…” Strong mapping scenes tend to overlay a more dramatic or intense situation on top of a rather mundane occasion, and they generally thrive when you deploy careful specific ambiguity. If you explicitly say “drugs” instead of “drama” (or for that matter keep saying “drama” when you are overlaying the idea of “drugs”) the dynamic becomes punctured and less effective. The same is true with any other words that would spell out the game rather than imply it. Mapping works best when everyone is playing with the same juxtaposition – you don’t have one parent exploring the “drug” connection while the other is playing at cross purposes with “dating.” When mapping scenes emerge organically they require a great deal of active listening and trust as it only takes a small misstep to explode the game prematurely. Mapping can also be pitched as a scenic game in its own right which is something we do with joyful regularity in our Gorilla Theatre show.

Mission Impossible music comes from the booth as Player A engages in increasingly acrobatic moves in an effort to silently make it to their seat. They skillfully avoid laser sensors, the gaze and flashlight of an over-anxious movie usher, hazy smoke pouring out of the glitchy A/C unit, and “enemy” patrons who try to stop them with overly carbonated beverages and skittle attacks…

3.) Competition. Another subset of organic games are competitive dynamics. These may or may not also include a conscious curve of absurdity (or mapping element for that matter) but tend to have characters that are trying to gain the upper hand. One-upping is an excellent example of this tendency (or one-downing if you prefer.) In this scenic game players each try to gently outdo each other by being the best, the bravest, the wealthiest, the most popular or practically any other trait that is deemed valuable as the scene unfolds. As with most improv games, while characters should appear as if they are fighting to win at any cost, players should focus squarely on the build of the game allowing opportunities for their partner to progress and win points as well. When players are also focused on the win, the resulting scene tends to lack the subtlety and nuance that makes it feel human and recognizable. If a one-upping energy bubbles up, be wary of leaping ahead several moves: “This is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted” probably shouldn’t be followed by “I just bought all the remaining coffee beans in the world, so enjoy that cup while it lasts!”

Once Player A has finally settled in, a second Player (B) enters with a larger bag of popcorn and makes their way in a similar fashion to a more luxurious seat in the premium seating area. Player A notices that their smaller popcorn is a little bland and pulls out a flavoring sachet that they sprinkle on the contents. It is now clearly delicious. Player B finds their own popcorn unsatisfactory so eventually signals a theatre worker who drags in the hot butter dispenser…

4.) Character behavior. Character behavior, in general, opens promising doorways into a game for the scene. Mirroring, reflecting and heightening moves and patterns can provide scenic energy and discoveries. In many cases an improviser might have inadvertently made a seemingly unimportant or innocuous choice that, with some love and attention, can evolve into the core of the scene. Again, these behavioral games could then assume an absurd, mapping or competitive nature, but they can also thrive in the land of parallel actions or “doing the same thing but in a different way.” Language-based dynamics or those that invite word play or stylistic overlays provide strong examples of this instinct, as do Character Quirks and contagious scenes where mannerisms are recognized, cherished and given space to develop.

Stealthily Player A looks around before surreptitiously pulling out their cell phone to record the movie. Another patron, Player B, similarly checks that the coast is clear before pulling out a hip flask and spiking their movie soda. The game of contagious bad behavior continues with Player C slowly assembling a meal they have hidden on their person…

5.) Physicality and environment. Related to the above concept are more overtly physical and environmental dynamics. Perhaps the location conspires against (or assists) the characters in unexpected ways, characters explore unique but connected ways of entering or moving through the space, or the configuration of the “set pieces” necessitates that characters avoid or incorporate a complex assortment of obstacles. If your improv tends to float in a location-less world these types of games are unlikely to appear as they require a physically rich and detailed style of play. Animal Kingdom and games of its ilk explore this general approach, with characters using a varied array of animal essences to inspire their physical and interpersonal dynamics.

Player A finally manages to situate themselves and with a peculiar dog-like quality circles around their chair before finally coming to a rest. Slowly this animalistic quality spreads to others in the auditorium: Player B sits up with a start any time there is a sudden noise; Player C starts to lap at their drink with an audible pant; Player D develops an itch in a place that they can’t quite reach…

6.) Referential. My first steps as an improviser were in the short-form tradition so I will gladly admit that I tend to view the game of the scene through this lens a little. As the above examples suggest, often (though by no means always) discovered games in a long-form setting tend to have at least loose equivalents in the short-form canon and I think it’s wholly appropriate to tap into these latter reserves explicitly. I would caution that forcing a short-form handle clumsily into a scene will prove woefully less effective than discovering that it is appearing of its own accord or recognizing that the scene’s given circumstances invite the connection in a fruitful way. I also would contend that an audience will sense the difference between an enlightened choice and the desperate repetition and re-creation of inorganic shtick. As we deepen our knowledge of scenic structures and dynamics from a wide cross section of improv traditions, and share these discoveries in our improv communities, it becomes more likely that we’ll make that inspired connection when the moment presents itself. A more recent addition to my own lexicon, Can I Talk to You for a Minute?, provides a good example of what might delightfully offer a next step in our movie theatre example.

As the scene unfolds, Player B who has been irritated by A’s late entrance, approaches their character and whispers “Can I talk to you for a minute?” in a high-pitched resonance and pulls them to the aisle for a passive-aggressive scolding. A few beats after both of them have returned to their seats, Player C, who has been sitting with B, feels the need to call them out on their snoopiness and repeats the dynamic whispering “Can I talk to you a minute?” Throughout the scene, players continue to pull each other aside for not-so-private exchanges of critique and discussion while using the emblematic phrase…

Final Thought

The game of the scene begins with one move that is noticed and built upon. All it requires to flourish is a specific choice, whether it is deliberate and intentional or subtle and accidental. Any one initiation that is given focus and attention opens up multiple possible paths and outcomes. There isn’t one right game of the scene waiting to be unlocked, but a game is less likely to emerge and thrive if players are not fully present, enveloped in the given circumstances and generously listening to and observing their teammates. A game is also less likely to take hold if it is only pitched and played by the same improviser: as is the case in real life, most games become dynamic when others notice them and join in their own unique way. Exploring a scenic game is the definition of process as it is not about leaping to a predetermined destination, but rather about experiencing a journey in lockstep together and arriving somewhere eventually together.

Related Entries: Accepting, Active Listening, Ambiguity, Handles, Heighten, Physicality, Verbal Skills Synonyms: The Deal

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

Connected Game: Bus Stop

Game Library: “World’s Worst”

While word play, quirky characterizations and punning aren’t always examples of Gagging, these tendencies certainly all draw from the same bag of tricks. World’s Worst offers a way to train and tame these comedic habits without potentially stepping on the grounded scene work of your teammates.

The Basics

In this line game a caller (or fellow member of the ensemble) periodically elicits a new occupation for the awaiting players who stand against the upstage wall. When inspiration hits, improvisers step forward and embody an example of the world’s worst… [insert job or role here.] Improvisers scroll through several rounds with the game typically ending on a particular high (or low) note.

Example

The audience suggests “best man.”

Player A: (stepping forward in a flustered and disheveled fashion) “I’d just like to apologize again to the happy couple for over-sleeping this morning… and for missing the actual ceremony… and for losing the ring…”

Player B: (assuming a rather cynical air) “So we all know mathematically that there’s a good chance we’ll be back here in a few years doing this again, so I’ll keep it short…”

Player C: (clearly inebriated) “Well, I for one will admit that I never thought I’d see this day: Rob’s criminal record alone – which I promised not to mention – should have been a deal breaker…”

The Focus

This game benefits from attack and finding both jokes (one-liners) and humor (ironic behaviors) through strategically exploring characters from unexpected angles.

Traps and Tips

1.) Seek contrast. As the very game title suggests, much of the fun comes from seeing a variety of clearly ill-suited characters step into the named job or function. As much as a great zinger can land, there’s usually a lot to mine from simply exploring behavior. Think opposites and contradictions: if the role usually requires reliability, empathy and discretion, what would the inverse of one or more of these qualities look like? Or, put another way, who is the last person you would like to meet in this job (or perhaps have encountered in this job?)

2.) Inhabit the role. Quick hits certainly belong as part of the mix, but I find it helpful to consider each example as a small vignette in its own right. Snap into the character point of view and don’t rush to the punchline haphazardly. The way you embody the character will often create as much joy – if not more – than the joke they are enabling or embodying. Well-crafted characters also increase the likelihood of callbacks, runs and echoes which add depth to an otherwise simple game. Perhaps our over-sleeping best man returns later in his day job as an ill-equipped surgeon, explosives expert, or time management consultant…

3.) Seize your moment. Line games live or die based on their level of attack. If the row of improvisers all loiter fearfully against the theatre’s back wall, rehearsing and then dismissing possibilities in their heads in search of comedy gold, the game can quickly stall and feel lethargic. Step forward – even if you only have the seed of an idea. If fellow players are becoming tentative such an approach guarantees that the game doesn’t lose momentum. A brave and charming choice will usually land well, and even if it’s a little shaky, your generosity will buy your teammates a few extra seconds to find their own footing.

4.) Celebrate the effort. An astute caller – either standing aside from the action or playing beside everyone else – can help set everyone up for abandon. I quite like just the simple device of ringing a bell or verbally announcing a button once each character has had sufficient time to play out their angle. (You can also encourage the audience to clap, laugh or groan so that efforts aren’t met with suffocating silence.) This editing device also offers a safety valve if an improviser had something but can’t quite find it now they’re standing in front of the audience. When the caller (and the ensemble in general) really communicates a sense of joy, this does a lot to reduce the sting of a “less than stellar” attempt. Furthermore, keep an eye out for when an energy drop or home run invites a new suggestion or calling the game as a whole.

In Performance

Line games tend to privilege individual wit and a more gag-infused style of play. Although these facts hold true for World’s Worst, the frame also encourages and rewards more character-centric choices and develops a taste for irony, inconsistency and contradiction. These are all improv tools that will serve you well across multiple games and formats.

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

Connected Concept: Gagging

“G” is for “Gagging”

“A gag is a laugh that you get by attacking the story.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers. New York:  Routledge, 1999. p.125

Definition

To gag or not to gag, that could be the question although in most instances the answer would be a resolute “not!” Gagging generally throws the proverbial wrench into the scenic works, stalling or diminishing the reality of the scene in order to grab at a joke or witticism. Most modern improvisational traditions favor (at least in theory) humor that evolves organically from the narrative and characters. Gagging tends to stand in opposition to this approach with its self conscious and potentially destructive energy that usually expresses the performer’s point of view or observation rather than that of the character they’re (in this case, lightly) assuming. A performance that succumbs to our gagging instincts might garner considerable laughter but will rarely thrive as a well developed scene. More often than not, any deeper connections, observations or emotions will have been cast aside in the quest for that immediate fix of audience approval.

Example

Any scene in the history of modern improvisation…

Player A: (generally smiling at the audience) “That’s what she said!”

When is a Gag Not a Gag?

Assuaging the ravenous gagging beast that lurks inside most if not all of us serves as the important subject for my earlier entry on gagging in my “Ten Commandments” series here. I think one of the challenging mixed messages that particularly short-form sends in terms of gagging is that there are clearly moments when the ability to wittily assemble a zinger is lauded and applauded. These notable exceptions deserve some thoughtful exploration and so I give you four circumstances that come to mind for when is a gag not a gag…

1.) When it’s the game. Most franchises have games in the rotation that are essentially gag fests: “99 Jokes,” “World’s Worst,” “There’s a Blank in my Soup…” and their ilk essentially demand the ability to quickly construct a punchline or groaner. As these are also stand alone moments (as opposed to beats within a singular scene) each gag essentially serves as its own vignette and does not degrade or diminish the overall arc of a more significant journey. In addition to rewarding clever word play, these line games also encourage throwing any idea up against the wall in the hope that some will stick, and this sense of bravery is certainly a quality worth developing and emulating. A significant trap of such games is that players can tend to form “rolodexes” of gags-gone-by (“We’re fungis…”) which diminishes the risk and creativity. While most improvisers would confess to recycling material at times, avoid making this your stock approach.

2.) When it’s a character. When we think of parental figures making endless “bad Dad jokes” or Michael Scott-esque workmates desperately trying to forge bonds through terrible puns, we see recognizable human behavior that certainly has a place onstage. Here the gags may become the game of the scene or the point of view of the character as opposed to the external and removed observations of the player. Care is needed when executing this type of persona as there is a thin and elusive line between using the device of gagging to enrich the character and merely using the guise of a character to indulge your gagging proclivities. As is the case when assuming a high status character, a character prone to bad joke riffing should exert extra generosity in terms of sharing focus so that the greater story can grow and evolve. A little of this character type goes a long way.

3.) When it’s the style. In the long-form tradition, gagging salvos can emerge as the “game of the scene” or may be woven into a larger comedic structure to serve a particular end. In the two-act long-form Murder We Wrote: The Improvised Whodunit, the murder weapon was always revealed with great import in the second act. The character who discovered the object would bring it to the stage with the charge to craft a (typically delightfully bad) pun to add humor and significance to the moment. It was a guilty pleasure that some improvisers delighted in more than others, but here a gagging energy served the greater purpose of the show. Shakespearean pieces might similarly deploy bawdy word play as part of the fun. Whether its structural or discovered, it’s generally wise to make sure these stylistic moments are self-contained so that a gagging tone doesn’t begin to pervade the work as a whole unless the work is defined by this tone, although I must admit I wonder how long such a work could last without caving in on itself.

4.) When it’s a button. I’m not sure if this is a universal position, but particularly in the short-form tradition I find that closing lines that have a gag-ish quality can often provide clear outs to a scene, especially if the story has been stagnating or struggling and is looking for a little energy boost to go out on. As gags often undermine the credibility of a scene, they strike me as particularly dangerous in the foundational moments; as a scene looks to finish, a “rug pull” or sudden perspective shift or tilt is less likely to undermine the action going forward, especially if this world lives and dies in that one scene. I wouldn’t recommend this as a standard device, but I have seen experienced improvisers rally a faltering scene with such a move.

Final Thought

To be crystal clear as I write about when to execute gags in an entry that rightfully condones the practice of gagging in general, when we discourage gagging as a scenic choice we must also acknowledge that joke telling is a special skill that some games demand. As is the case with all the improvisational tropes and guidelines that we hold dear, context and self-awareness are everything. Relying on gags because you don’t know what else to say, or you’re scared the audience hasn’t laughed in a while, or you’re uncomfortable bringing your real self to the stage are all fear-based scenarios that will lead to shallow and anemic performances – especially if you’re working in a style that privileges story. Using a carefully selected moment of whimsy to add spice to a scene or evening might, on the other hand, provide just the right playful finesse.

Related Entries: Commandment #4, Pimping, Shivving Antonyms: Endowing, Offer Synonyms: ?

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

Connected Game: World’s Worst

Game Library: “Game Lab”

While this is currently a seldom-played offering at Sak Comedy Lab where I spend most weekends improvising, the inventive conceit behind Game Lab very much thrives in our Gorilla Theatre show where players have a penchant for taking familiar short-form offerings and retooling them with a new focus or finesse. I first encountered this conceit during my high school improv days but can’t for the life of me can’t recall what we called it back then! If you’re struggling to maintain an air of Freshness in your work, Game Lab offers a loose frame to break away from the grind of over-played standards.

The Basics

I’ve primarily experienced this game as a dueling dynamic between two teams but there is no reason it couldn’t be gently repurposed to serve as a stand-alone game. In the competitive version the “captains” of each team serve as the facilitators and definers. Captain A obtains an original non-existent game title from the audience, such as “People in Transit.” This captain, perhaps with some brainstorming assistance from their teammates, then improvises the basic rules of the named game: “In People in Transit the team must provide a scene in which characters must always be in or on some form of public transportation…” Team B is now charged with playing this unique improv game for the first time while honoring the boundaries as they have been outlined. The process is then typically repeated with Captain B now returning the “favor” and acquiring a new game title that inspires an accompanying improvised definition.

Example

These two game examples are drawn from two performances I actually still faintly remember many years later...

“Rambo meets Rapunzel” was defined as a fish out of water type scene where the team acquires a well-known fairy tale and a character from a different world entirely that wouldn’t appear in that story or timeline. The team must then craft an original scene that brings these two disparate worlds together. This format had such a unique conceit that I sometimes include it in my Improv I class as as an exercise in constructing narrative and breaking routines.

“Three Bears in the Woods” requires my slippery New Zealand dialect for its definition as in kiwi English “bear,” “beer” and “bare” are all essentially homonyms. The rules of the scene mandated that by the end of the scene three conditions had to be met: one character had to be attacked by a “bear,” another needed to be drinking a “beer,” and the third needed to be naked or “bare.” And all of this needed to transpire, as per the title, in the woods. This resulted in a joyfully silly scene, but perhaps predictably has not been added to my repertoire!

The Focus

There is an extremely unpredictable hit/miss ratio with the games constructed in this manner, and this really is the focus. There are no “guaranteed” bits that have been inherited, or experiences in rehearsal to tap into. Players must truly just attack the scenes as scenes and determine the best path forward as a team. This, in fact, should be how we approach all our work as improvisers, but if you’re playing similar games, scenes or tropes again and again, night after night, this sense of true danger may well have subsided.

Traps and Tips

As essentially any game or dynamic can emerge from this prompt, I’ll focus my coaching on the role of the captain or game “definer” as this is a slightly peculiar function that will make or break the experience.

1.) Honor the title. Enjoy the word association component of the game and really use the audience elicited title as your launching point. (To this end it can be fun to get two or three random words from different audience members so that the resulting game title is truly original.) It’s joyful to see the author’s thought process, so don’t be afraid to voice some possibilities before cementing your final parameters. I’ve seen this process framed as “Oh, yes, I know that game…” which adds a fun energy as well, as if the captain is actually recalling a game from deep within the improv archives. The process of coming up with the definition can often be as entertaining and exciting as the game that follows, so don’t under utilize this part of the premise.

2.) Use what you know. If the thought of coming up with a completely original game overwhelms you, it can prove helpful to initially draw upon a short-form game or handle that is within your lexicon. People in Transit might recall a “move to talk” dynamic, for example, that you can then shake up. The second part of that statement – “that you ca shake up” – is critical as you don’t want to just assign the new title to an old game as that throws away the risk and the promise. But also freely draw upon what you know as a starting point, especially what is jolted front of mind when you heard the new game title for the first time. Our definitions can certainly benefit from accepting obvious connections and inspirations just as we would within our onstage scenes.

3.) Use what the team knows. Give the team a sound base from which to play. Generally, a definition that allows room for scenic exploration will prove more flexible and “solvable” than a series of instructions that thwart or prevent characters in action: “Each character must face a different direction and is not allowed to talk to or reference anyone else on stage…” As is the case with caller functions, while it appears the captain is providing insurmountable odds, in reality they should be offering delightful challenges and enticing obstacles. Throwing in a musical component for a team that loves singing, for example, will add value in a way that it wouldn’t for a team that struggles to hold a tune on top of all the other restrictions.

4.) And one more thing… Invariably there will be a moment in the definition that the captain will be tempted to add just one more hoop. Almost without exception this final addition tends to overwhelm and stifle any chance of “success.” If you’ve crafted two or three guidelines or facets, that’s typically more than enough. Hastily added “last thoughts,” in my experience, nearly always have a pimping energy or provide the final straw that will break the improvising camel’s back: “And one more thing… everyone has to spend the whole scene crawling on the floor,” “…there are no humans in the scene,” or “…the entire scene happens in reverse.” It’s certainly the spirit of the game to provide rules with an air of mischievousness, but a weighty final adjustment that isn’t in keeping with the tone of the prior elements often scuttles the fledgling scene.

In performance

Few games are more likely to shock your out of your improv rut than Game Lab! So much rides on the definition so it’s worth your time to practice this particular skill before making this a public experiment.

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

Connected Concept: Freshness

“F” is for “Freshness”

“Spontaneity is, above all, an attitude of mind, a commitment to thinking things afresh.”

Adam Blatner, Foundations of Psychodrama, History, Theory, and Practice. 4th Edition. New York: Springer Pub. Co., 2000. p.87

Definition

Most of my professional work for the last two decades has taken place at Sak Comedy Lab where our shows are largely short-form structures with some hard-earned long-form scattered across the season. I have therefore played Moving Bodies (Puppets in the original Theatresports parlance) a lot. Too many times to count. We have great hosts that work hard to rotate games into the mix, but the reality is that some games are just audience pleasers or fill a specific show need, such as bringing audience members up on the stage. Moving Bodies is one of these perfect storms for me in that it includes this sought after audience involvement as volunteers manipulate the improvisers’ actions, and the results rarely garner anything but a perfect score regardless of execution. I’m not sure if I could even estimate how many times I’ve played the game as a result and I will confess to having to stifle a groan some nights when it’s announced in the lineup. I will also confess that it makes me laugh a little when students in my campus troupe will complain that they’ve had to play a game two or three times in a semester although I appreciate their desire to play something new. In reality, however, whether it’s hundreds of times or just a handful, the question remains how do we keep well-worn formats or games Fresh? I’m using Moving Bodies as my primary example as it’s my personal kryptonite, but I’m sure for many of you another game immediately jumps to mind.

A quick sidebar: When we talk about keeping it fresh, that should go for us as performers as well, so always be sure to arrive clean and pleasant-smelling to rehearsals and performances.

Keeping It Fresh

I’m writing this entry primarily with short-form in mind although I’m sure some of these approaches apply to those of you engaged in open-ended long-form productions. Generally my own long-form experiences have been set runs or shows that only play once or twice a month, so I’m always excited to get back to them, while on busy months I might play 15-20 short-form sets (down from 15-20 a week in my pre-parenting heyday.)

If you’re losing your improv mojo here are seven suggestions for reigniting that spontaneous spark…

1.) Keep your attitude in check and your spirits high. Going into any artistic endeavor with a foreboding sense of anguish nearly always proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this regard, while we may have played a particular game or premise multiple times, in most situations the majority of our audience is experiencing it for the first time (or may in fact be relishing the prospect of seeing something a little familiar.) In the scripted realm we often seek this illusion of the first time in our performances, and it’s an equally important factor in our improvisational work too; most would argue it’s the defining feature of our discipline. No one pays to see a performer begrudgingly going through the paces or snidely commenting on how something has become stale or everyday. Also, in most communities, we shouldn’t take for granted that there are far fewer performance opportunities than people keen to perform, so an attitude of gratitude can go a long way.

2.) Challenge yourself before the performance. This is a tradition that I bring to a lot of my projects as I like how it bonds the company and let’s us see where everyone is at in terms of their energies and focus for the night. The challenge can be broad: “I want to make sure I’m setting up my partners for joy and success.” Or, it can be more narrow, especially if there’s a game on the playlist that you know might be a stumbling block: “I want to avoid turning Moving Bodies into a yelling commenting fest and really connect to my partner instead.” In Spolin terms, this can give you a different point of concentration for the scene or evening, opening you up to more discovery and nuance. It also has the added bonus of giving you something to then consider post-show. Were you meeting you personal challenge, helping others to do the same, and did this open anything new up for you that you want to remember for future work?

3.) Look for ways to change it up. If you’re in a less-than-helpful groove with an improv game or show, look for ways to jolt yourself out of old habits and dynamics. To return to Moving Bodies, if you always tend to start the scene, position yourself to be a third entrance, or vice versa. If you always lean heavily into the physical activity of the scene, try instead to focus on the nuanced details of the relationship. If the scene always tends to be played in a modern context, throw some style or a genre onto the premise to open up a new approach. Some nights it might be as simple as having one audience puppeteer moving all the actors instead of the more typical two volunteers. This is one of my favorite things about how we play Gorilla Theatre at Sak Comedy Lab: we might re-visit some stock games but they nearly always have a new frame, premise or handle that makes them delightfully unfamiliar. There’s no reason not to take that same approach to other short-form performances and franchises.

4.) Launch yourself in a new way. Most short-form companies inspire scenes with an audience ask-for before the lights go down, and yet many of us can get into predictable patterns in either how we solicit this material – “Can I have an outdoor activity that two people might do on the weekend” – or the way that we use this information to inspire the scene that follows. Mick Napier writes about not every “Dentist” ask-for need result in a scene in the dentist’s office, and yet that’s where we so often go first. It follows that if we’re being predictable with our ask-fors and how we apply them, that the resulting work may often become predictable and uninspiring for us as improvisers too. I’d love to see a Moving Bodies based on a difficult family conversation or an emotionally vulnerable confession as that would push the game out of familiar territory quickly.

5.) Throw away the bits and stock devices. This is a particular pet-peeve when I watch short-form. Often teams or companies will lean heavily on tried and tested (usually comedic) devices that have historically worked in a game. Get your expert to create lists in your One-Voice Scene, have your guest name a variety of countries for your Universal Sign Language interpreter to pantomime (this one is problematic on multiple levels) or incessantly talk about how you can’t see your partner in Moving Bodies to prompt your puppeteer to change your line of vision. I am sure I have done all of these, for the record. Yes, such devices can work, but if a game is feeling stale and you’re relying on these devices, you are truly becoming your own worst enemy and risk merely moving through the paces of a scene without finding what is unique about the story in that particular moment. You can always go back to well-worn devices as the scene culminates if it needs a hail Mary to get you off the stage with some semblance of dignity, but if this is where you start your journey, it’s really unlikely you’re in store for a unique experience.

6.) Concentrate on story and connection. This builds from the prior point that if you’re concentrating on the gimmick of the scene you are less likely to organically uncover the original story that quietly awaits. Build slowly and deliberately. Listen deeply and with care. Pursue the paths of highest interest. Exploit the novel and unexpected as they gently emerge. Don’t rush or push to the anticipated pay-off. When I trained into Comedysportz I remember that the manual they provided listed a series of comedic bits for many of the games, such as put a wig into a Slide Show and then have the narrator comment on “How did that fluff get into the projector?” before blowing it away. I understand the intent behind providing new players with some game strategies, but underneath all the gags most of us still just want to experience a good story well told. Every game is a scene; every scene is a story; and every story is constructed of small beats. I’m sure I’ve picked that wisdom up from someone but it is now so ingrained that I couldn’t tell you who or where.

7.) Don’t expect any one show or format to scratch all of your improv itches. When I play a short-form show (or any improv show for that matter) I know that there will be artistic compromises that are likely to be made in order to meet the specific expectations of our audience and venue. I love narrative long-form, and exploring new improv concepts and structures. Generally, my short-form work doesn’t fulfill all of these particular personal artistic needs. But short-form creates an amazing connection to an audience, sharpens my skill-set as a story-teller when I only get three or four minutes on average to get to the point, forges creative and lasting bonds with my fellow performers, and serves as an amazing opportunity to play, something that can be increasingly rare as you start to move through the decades. Even Moving Bodies can do all of these things on a good night, although it probably is an awful lot to ask of one rather silly improv parlor game. And that’s my broader point: keep a sense of perspective and look to have multiple projects going if you can if that’s what you need to keep yourself challenged and satisfied as a player. It’s not fair to ask any one game (or perhaps company for that matter) to satiate all your act hunger and artistic cravings.

Final Thought

I’m hesitant to give my last suggestion an official bullet point so I’m sneaking it in here, but sometimes it’s also important to just take a break. If the thought of playing a certain game or working with a certain person is giving you undue stress, perhaps that’s a signal that you need to step away for a while to recharge and find that passion again. Most of us have had that choice dropped upon us over the last year with mandated social distancing, and perhaps there is a small silver lining in that even Moving Bodies will be a delight when I’m able to finally stand on a stage with audience members again.

I’ve outed one of the improv games that can make my eyes roll a little when I’m not careful. Do you have a Moving Bodies of your own, a game that you’ve played too many times to keep count? If so, drop it in the comments here or join the discussion on Facebook.

Related Entries: Abandon, Commitment, Presence Antonyms: Fatigue, Staleness Synonyms: Excitement, Joy

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

Connected Game: Game Lab

Game Library: “Two Scenes”

Two Scenes is another of those scenic exercises where the title almost says it all, but this dynamic helpfully illustrates and polishes how to craft and move Focus around the stage.

The Basics

Two pairs of players populate the stage and work on half of the performance area each. Both sides are assigned a location or premise: these may be related, such as two adjoining rooms in a house; or, may feel more random, such as a subway station and a garden gazebo. A scene is improvised in which focus moves from one part of the stage to the other through careful gives and takes from the players. Each vignette should be given sufficient time to develop and explore before returning the focus once more to its counterpart.

Example

Player A and B are assigned a library as the stage right location and Player C and D have a dorm room. As the scene begins only A and B are present, scanning the shelves…

Player A: “You’re sure we’re in the right section, Anneliese? I can’t seem to find anything on our list…”

Player B: (checking the notes on their phone) “I’m still not sure why we can’t just use digital resources. The professor is so needlessly old school.”

Player A: (pulling a book) “I think we’ve left this too late. This section has been picked bare.”

Player C has quietly entered the stage left area and sat on a dorm bed.

Player B: “Maybe we should split up. I saw some of our classmates loitering around here as well.”

Player A: “OK. You take the high 800s and I’ll take the low. And we can meet back here with what we’ve found.”

Player B: “Sounds like a plan.”

Player A exits in one direction with B darting off in the opposite. As they do so, Player D joins C in the dorm room.

Player D: “Hey, I’m sorry if they hurt your feelings. My teammates can just be dull sometimes.”

Player C: (clearly upset) “No, it’s fine really. It was nice of you to invite me to the mixer.”

Player D: “I really wanted to – I just forgot how different my worlds can be at times!”

Player C: “I didn’t need you to make excuses for me…”

Player D: “I’m sorry, that definitely wasn’t my intent. I just thought that you might not know all our inside jargon…”

Player C: “I come to your games all the time. I’m not completely clueless.”

Player D: (apologetically) “No, you’re right. My bad.”

Player A has reappeared from behind the shelves…

Player A: (whispering) “Anneliese… Anneliese…?”

Player C: “I just want to listen to my music, ok?”

Player C puts in their earbuds and rolls over on the bed while D looks on. Player A continues to lurk and whisper and is finally rejoined by B.

Player A: “Anneliese!”

Player B: “I’m not finding anything. I think we’re going to have to take this up a notch…”

The Focus

This dynamic requires thoughtful focus exchanges as now players must share the work with their immediate scene partner as well as the pair of improvisers across the divide (while hopefully also maintaining an awareness of the audience and the greater story arc as well.) Careless or clumsy gives and takes can quickly decay the tempo and dynamism of the work.

Traps and Tips

1.) Err on the side of generosity. A standard observation that applies to most if not all improv scenes is to allow the start of the scene a little room to breathe and find its footing. If you immediately start fighting for the focus – and pulling it back and forward – neither of the two scenes will likely have a grounded balance or routine. Especially in the first “round” don’t overwhelm the stage; it can be helpful for one side of the stage to remain unpopulated initially to this end so it is abundantly clear which pairing is making the first move. Dynamic focus moves may feel dramatically sharp and sudden, but it shouldn’t feel as if the players are anxiously competing with each other.

2.) Justify and sell the silences. An unavoidable component and challenge of this scene is the silence: if players are sharing the stage time equitably their half of the stage will need to clearly and quietly give focus for half of the scene. Effective and interesting ways to achieve this sharing will generally emerge from the playing itself but improvisers need to actively explore and apply justifications that help this conceit “make sense.” I typically advocate “soft freezes” when you are not in focus which just means that you keep the action going but without any dialogue or sudden movements that are likely to steal the audience’s attention. Other helpful strategies include sporadically leaving your location or engaging in an activity that requires your concentration, such as thumbing through a library book or listening to your music. As scenes become more heated it is almost a necessity that gives and takes increase in tempo as it will strain credulity if characters hold intense emotions for artificially long periods of time without dialogue.

3.) Experiment with the focus shifts. In addition to playing with the silent element of the scene, bravely explore how to move the focus in general. Most edit functions (explored here) can work well in this setting: from verbal tags and repeats, to physical entrances and exits, to purposeful gives and takes. As modeled in the written example above, I find gentle entrances a helpful indication to your partners across the divide that you are preparing for the focus exchange. Similarly, announcing a pending exit or foreboding a move to quiet activity allows the second scene to confidently pick up steam. Trailing sentences with the feeling of an ellipses can also serve well as long as the speaker telescopes their intent: “I just don’t know if I can…” It’s likely that transitions will and should pick up as the scenes approach their climaxes; hopefully players will have built rapport and a sense of the scenic flow by this stage of the action so that focus exchanges can occur with brave resoluteness.

4.) Sharpen your awareness. The scenes will tend to stumble and interrupt each other if players do not actively pursue a heightened awareness that values the successes and needs of both scenes equally (after all, they are really just fragments of the one larger story arc.) If the “other side” needs a little more time to develop an important plot point or build an emotion, it is in everyone’s interests that you don’t offer an edit unexpectedly out of an excitement to get back to your own storyline. Instead, deploy edits strategically to best serve both vignettes, pulling focus when your partners have reached a plateau or need a re-set, and then offering up the focus with a line, energy or gesture that they can use within the context of their premise. It’s human nature I imagine to focus a little more on our side of the scenic line, but this game offers an embodied opportunity to recognize the import and contributions of the whole team. Also strive to make sure everyone has a chance to lead and follow (and give and take) as the scene unfolds. If one player on either side of the stage tends to always facilitate the take (perhaps in a manner reminiscent of a bulldozer) it’s likely that their scene partner might not have as much room to contribute their voice.

In performance

Once the scaffolding of the game is learnt and understood there are many possible adjustments and additions to ramp the exercise up yet another level. Content, themes and even characters can now move from one world to the other in either subtle or explicit ways. You can also adjust the physical positions of the two scenes, perhaps one is now downstage while the other is upstage. I’m also intrigued to play the game with two locations that essentially overlap each other on the stage, but perhaps that’s a challenge for another day!

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

Connected Concept: Focus

“F” is for “Focus”

“Del [Close] said to us, when you are onstage at Second City, you can always get all the attention, you can always steal the focus and be the funny one.  Just stick your finger in your nose and you can get focus. But to equal the other people on stage—to give them their moment and then take yours and go back and forth—that was the much more difficult and greater thing. To really have a game of catch with somebody is the true excitement of improvisation, and it’s so much more rewarding.”

Gilda Radner quoted in Jeffry Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away. 1996. New York: Limelight
Editions, 1978. p.367

Definition

Gilda Radner’s recollection paints such an inspirational image of generous focus on the improv stage. Her preferred dynamic invites a greater awareness of how and when the focus is moving, and a deliberateness in making sure there is a clear back and forth that allows room for everyone to play. I’m discussing the specifics of giving and taking focus elsewhere so here would like to consider the concept of Focus holistically: what staging practices and techniques can we deploy that maximize the potential for elegant “games of catch?”

Oftentimes in my introductory college improv course I’ll assign a scenario (such as spectators at a specific sporting event) and invite smaller groups to quickly and silently construct frozen images. I usually stipulate not to include sports players on the field but rather to concentrate on an image purely in the stands. This will provide a series of tableaux on a common theme that generally provides very different examples of how we create (or obfuscate) focus on stage. Many of the observations below tend to bubble up in the discussion prompted by these brief explorations.

Example

A line of excited movie goers wait in the early sales line for the release of the next sci-fi blockbuster…

For Your Focused Consideration

1.) Levels and composition. This is perhaps the most visual component and thus the most tricky to illustrate and discuss in a written medium. For those familiar with traditional theatrical staging tropes, I would consider these focus choices as largely “stage picture” considerations. Does a character assume a higher level or position on stage? Is someone standing away from the larger group in a way that gives them added attention? Is there a “chorus leader” who others are clearly deferring to in terms of their physical choices? In most instances, this featured character will emerge as the primary focus for that particular moment.

…Player A, a small child, scales their parent and sits atop their shoulders, now towering over the other movie patrons.

2.) Directionality and eye contact. Once the stage picture has been crafted and populated, it is a relatively simple adjustment to transfer the primary source of focus. You might have a wide array of heights and poses, or characters scattered somewhat randomly across the stage, but if players turn or gesture towards a common character there will rarely be any doubt as to where the intended focus is flowing. While it is arguably the simplest focus giving technique, the simple act of looking where you want to throw focus has few substitutes in terms of its effectiveness. Even in the most potentially cluttered stage picture, if everyone resolutely makes eye contact with the same player, the audience will follow.

…the earliest arrival, Player B, suddenly drops the fistful of coins they have been feverishly holding and the rest of the line watches on casually as they scramble on hands and knees to gather them all back up.

3.) Similarity and difference. Another delightfully simple but important method centers on the concept of difference. If everyone in the scene assumes a higher level, or everyone is throwing their attention to a common target, but one character is doing something markedly different (they are crawling or hiding surreptitiously in the shadows) then this outlier, more likely than not, will become the primary focus or at the very least serve as competition. This is an effective tactic when used carefully and deliberately, and a focus challenge when it is a player’s unconscious default. Less experienced players can tend to lack an awareness that their different choice in the land of the same might unduly create split focus. The more players there are on stage, the more problematic this lack of self awareness becomes.

…an aggravated business person, Player C, paces frantically up and down away from the movie line, whispering loudly a litany of complaints into their expensive cell phone.

4.) Contained and dynamic emotion. Regardless of the staging configuration an emotionally bold or intense choice will nearly always reign supreme in the quest for focus. An audience will be drawn into a character whose emotional climate stands apart from those of their teammates or who has an intensity where others feel more contained or subdued. (The opposite also holds true in that if everyone is in full Greek chorus mode in the midst of heightened despair, one villager calmly counting their loaves of bread to the side will draw your eye.) When we talk about presence on stage I think this is also a shorthand for this level of emotional commitment and interest that pulls the audience into the performer’s reality.

…a super fan, Player D, stuck uncomfortably in the middle of the queue, begins to frantically hyper-ventilate as the excitement of the whole affair just simply becomes too much.

Final Thoughts

There are unlikely to be many revelatory surprises in this list of focus shaping techniques, but in many ways that’s the main take away. Most of us have an innate sense of what helps or hinders focus but having this knowledge alone isn’t enough. We need to keep it front of mind in our work and use this “common sense” to help create the poetic focus exchange that Gilda Radner extols. If we retain awareness that a high stage position will likely grab attention, then we will probably exercise caution in striking such a position unless we know it’s an appropriate moment to shine. In scenes that become a little discombobulated, simply shifting our posture and giving strong eye contact can help set a scene partner up for success. Understanding that our quirky little side game will likely steal focus from where it’s needed, or that we need to commit to a more dynamic emotionality when it’s our turn to take the baton, enables us to sculpt focus rather than become subjugated to its whim. There is no inherently correct or incorrect way to move focus around the stage, but there are certainly purposeful exchanges and accidental or careless fumbles.

For a reflection on some focus techniques that prove helpful in larger group scenes go here.

Related Entries: Commandment #2, Give, Take, Sharing Focus, Stage Picture Antonyms: Split Focus Synonyms: Attention

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

Connected Game: Two Scenes

Game Library: “Ballet”

As I consider the concept of “running towards Fear” in our improv it struck me as more than fitting to pair this philosophy with a short-form game that embodies some of my own anxieties as a player. Ballet utilizes the role of a narrator (which I typically love taking on) and the role of dancers (which I’ll often do everything in my power to avoid), and so I’ll use this entry as an opportunity to exorcise (exercise?) some of my own improv angst.

The Basics

One team member takes on the role of a BBC-style commentator (or your national potentially pretentious artsy equivalent) with the remaining players serving as the company of ballet dancers. An inspirational title is obtained: I like getting an animal and terrain feature as a nod to Swan Lake. This also leaps you into a non-human world which encourages a different physical vocabulary than just being people doing busy work in an office building. With the heavy assistance of an improvising musician, or perhaps a fast-fingered technician with a strong stock of suitable classical musical excerpts at the ready, the company dances a balletic masterpiece. Throughout, the commentator provides story descriptions and guidance as well as potential laudatory critique and pertinent background information.

Example

Player A: (as the narrator) “…And the music swells as we return to the second act of Duck Road. The dancers have been in rare form tonight, especially Kuznetzov, and I for one am anxiously awaiting the climactic number ahead.”

The lights rise on Player B who assumes the role of the “duck” as the music shifts.

Player A: “And here is our melancholic hero, the duck, once again stuck on the wrong side of the road…”

With small wing flutters, the “duck” assumes a tragic pose, reaching forward only to be pushed back. Other team members join the fray rushing in front of the nervous animal.

Player A: “The smoky traffic whirls around and around, suffocating the duck with its dense and odorous fumes…”

Player C, as one of the vehicles, starts to physically menace and challenge the duck with sharp and angry movements. The duck retreats at first, but then starts to find some courage. The music shifts again.

Player A: “But today the duck will not lie down and take this. As the delivery truck looms once more, the duck stands its ground in a powerful pas de deux, the ‘dance of defiance’…”

The Focus

As is the case with most formats that are parodies or homages at heart, endeavor to honor the emblematic tropes of ballet – as best you understand them – giving the performance a grander than typical sense of style and passionate exaggeration. Ballet offers rich storytelling opportunities in both verbal and physical mediums so be sure not to throw away the chance to craft a dynamic arc fit for the ages.

Traps and Tips

1.) For the narrator… While there’s no reason that your narrator couldn’t assume a more “of the people” tone and approach, I like leaning into a high status (perhaps even snobby) commentator as this elevates the style of the game even further. This role can easily slide into pimping or a narrative that can feel like it’s at expense of the dancers rather than in awe of them – “…Well, that was a thoroughly mediocre dance…” Consider erring on the side of serving as a super fan, armed with a slew of interesting and random factoids that can contextualize and add value to the action. Do you know other artistic works of the composer or choreographer? Have you been following the careers of the lead dancers with great interest? A device I’ll often use is breaking up the action into various movements or “numbers.” Even if your knowledge of the field is sparse, you can name some key features to help the ensemble: “Now we watch the dance of reconciliation,” or “the dance of anguish,” or “the dance of celebration.” Such titles can quickly and clearly shift the energy and stop the scene from just meandering with generic movement. The narrator can have a tendency to lead much of the scene as they are the only player able to express themselves through language, so also make sure you are following and accepting the bold choices of the dancing improvisers and musician. Embracing longer silences during the larger dance segments helps in this regard: don’t feel the need to narrate absolutely every second of the piece.

2.) For the musician and technician… It is incredibly helpful for the flow of the scene if the musician (or technician) provides a strong variety of accompaniment rather than one continuous unbroken and consistent sound. Character entrances and exits provide a great opportunity to quickly shift the look and feel of the music and lights, especially if this is further enhanced through the narrative and with the announcement of specifically named dances or balletic features. There are so many inherent opportunities to embellish and enrich the action: individual characters can have musical motifs that weave in and out of the greater soundscape; the accompaniment can reference and reinvent familiar classical (and modern) sources; each new entrance can cause a stark shift in musical (and lighting) tone and tempo. Music truly becomes a character in these scenes and provides a vehicle for revealing the characters’ inner thoughts, moods and turmoils. As the dancers can’t speak, the music and technical effects are critical for communicating intent and subtext.

3.) For the ballet dancers… The game Ballet loses a lot of its charm and potential when improvisers sort of dance in an apologetic fashion. Yes, it’s unlikely that many or any of your ensemble have ballet training, but treating the style and scene with a playful earnestness and seriousness of intent goes a long way. The audience is already impressed that you are willing to attempt such a feat, especially if it’s clear that this is not your strong suit, so displaying a level of commitment and conviction generally lands much better than shuffling around the stage commenting or mugging about your plight. Give the audience permission to relish your struggle. It is certainly important to know your limits – as I quickly approach another birthday milestone there are certainly moves I shouldn’t make now that I would have gamely attempted in my twenties – and no audience reaction is worth risking injury for you or a teammate. But endeavor to move to the fullest degree of your ability and do so confidently. Even if you have a limited range of movement or physical vocabulary, keep your choices specific and intentional: Be the duck or the delivery truck. Don’t just repeat the same ineffectual physical choice again and again. These notes almost assume that you can’t dance, but if you have expertise obviously bring it to the stage with gusto. Just be wary to pace yourself so you and the scene have somewhere to go, and not to inadvertently become focused on finesse rather than connection and story. Doing the same three moves extremely well every time you play Ballet might not really be challenging your improv chops any more than a dancer with limited ability always doing their same three moves poorly.

4.) For the story elements… All of the improvisers above should ultimately unite in the service of the greater story. The lack of dialogue promotes epic or paradigmatic characters, qualities and tensions: ballets aren’t generally about small kitchen-sink family issues although that would certainly prove a delightful challenge. Even if you’re performing a relatively abridged scene (this game will easily expand to provide a longer offering if you have the time and stamina) Ballet invites the exploration of a grand journey. Look for powerful and interesting character combinations and get them to dance together. If you’re familiar with the terms, I’ve found that the dances are excellent places to extend the action, with characters exploring and enriching the emotional stakes and energies, while the commentator can advance the story through the narrative, shifting the action from one significant plot point to the next (or acknowledging verbally when a dancer makes the choice to do so). The simple Four Sentence Story model discussed here offers a helpful frame that readily provides structural beats to assist in this endeavor as well.

In Performance

I’ve partnered this game with a consideration of fear and I fundamentally believe it’s critical for our growth and success as improvisers not to shy away from a challenge when we feel we might not immediately excel. On a personal level, I’ve taken some dance but I’m certainly not the most graceful of movers, yet I should be willing to happily enter the fray as needed. My stumbles may, in turn, elevate the audience’s appreciation for the excellent dancer moving beside me and there is a beautiful gift in enabling a fellow improviser’s ability to shine. Compete, if that’s innately in your nature, for the most improved award, or the most supportive award, or the best background dancer award…

I do also think it’s important to pitch to strength when we are playing in front of a paying audience and if there is an equipped dancer in our midst it just makes good sense to put them front and center in the same way that sometimes the ensemble will be best served by a strong storyteller stepping into the narrator role. As we make these choices in our improv work, however, it pays to be cognizant of what is pushing us in a certain direction and if it is a fear of not being the “best” or looking a little silly perhaps that is worthy of some self reflection and course correction.

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

Connected Concept: Fear

“F” is for “Fear”

“Fear of spontaneity is common. There is safety in old familiar feelings and actions. Spontaneity asks that we enter an unknown territory—ourselves!”

Viola Spolin, Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1985. p.11

Definition

I make no claim to coining the improv adage “run towards fear” and if I had to pay a royalty for every time I uttered these words someone would have a nice chunk of change in their pocket! I find that this advice has become central to my training philosophy as little of value will transpire on the improv stage (and one could argue in life in general) if we allow our Fear to get the better of us. I’ve written in a previous entry on blocking here about some of the more prevalent sources of this anxiety and how an inability to break through these barriers is antithetical to the improvisational spirit of play.

All artistic enterprises likely include some wrestling with our inner creative demons, but as the improv process is so public, this battle typically stands front and center for improvisational practitioners. If there is to be joy, abandon and attack in our work, running towards fear becomes not only a mantra but almost a requirement. Without taming this debilitating beast we may spend much of our time as improvisers lurking in the wings or backstage (or even worse, on the stage itself) musing on what we might, could or should have done in the scene that meanwhile passes us by.

Example

Carefree improv is happening, and then suddenly it isn’t…

When to Run Towards Fear

Here are some particularly important moments to prod yourself to action:

1.) If you’re a good kind of uncomfortable. It’s amply foreseeable that improv will push us outside of our comfort zones and I would contend that we need to identify and minimize this type of fear when it infringes on our work. Trying a game that you’ve never played before, stepping up and into a featured role that requires artistic stamina, or attacking material that might feel alien or challenging to you all strike me as signs that you’re heading towards growth and discovery. As I have become more experienced as a player and deviser I find myself actually seeking these dynamics as the opposite of this type of fear can prove to be complacency.

2.) If you’re unsure where the scene is going. Again, this is a rather boilerplate scenario that could (should) describe most if not all improvisational undertakings, but fear can none-the-less creep into the work especially if we thought we knew where a scene was heading and now it suddenly takes a sharp turn. When uncertainty beckons it can be human nature to recoil or lean backwards but as improvisers we must fight this survival instinct and instead lean into this glorious unknown. Fear in these moments feels synonymous with losing or ceding control. Take one step forward trusting that your teammates will then do the same.

3.) If you’re required to assume an unfamiliar stance. Another moment to just “jump” is when the scene necessitates that we fill a role or function with which we may not have much or any prior experience. In the real world I couldn’t fix a computer if my life depended on it, but on stage my I.T. worker should exude a confidence and surety that belies my true incompetence. I also have a pretty pronounced political and spiritual point of view, but should step resolutely into the shoes of different positions as the action dictates. I would contextualize this advice by noting that a fear of misrepresenting others is legitimate and warranted, and demands that we seek empathy in our portrayals and an intellectual curiosity to research and educate ourselves when problematic blindnesses reveal themselves. Fearless improv should not become a cover for thoughtless improv. Consider exploring my earlier thoughts on archetypes here.

When to Apply the Breaks

There are also valid moments when your “fear” might be a voice you need to listen to and honor:

1.) If you are putting yourself at unnecessary physical, emotional or psychological risk. Trust your instincts, honor your own personal boundaries, and retain your agency in a way that keeps you safe.

2.) If you are putting your scene partner at unnecessary physical, emotional or psychological risk. Make sure you are consciously and empathetically checking in with your scene partners as the scene develops and adjusting as needed.

3.) If you are putting your audience at unnecessary physical, emotional or psychological risk. Also display care in how your choices are landing with the audience. There is a marked difference between challenging an audience to reconsider deeply held beliefs and triggering or insulting them obliviously.

Final Thought

With the exception of the three circumstances listed directly above, I would posit that “fear” can often serve as evidence that we’re doing something right on the improv stage. If we don’t allow it to short circuit our creativity or make us retreat into our heads or the wings, fear can remind us of the awesome challenge of spontaneous performance. I wonder if seasoned improvisers ever truly tame fear or if, rather, they have found a workable truce in which they acknowledge the daunting nature of the work at hand and choose to transform the whispering voice of fear into bold action and energy.

Related Entries: Blocking Antonyms: Abandon, Courage, Playfulness Synonyms: Inaction, Stasis

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

Connected Game: Ballet

Game Library: “Advance/Extend Stories”

When introduced to the concepts of advancing and Extending many improvisers and storytellers will find these dynamics deeply familiar – even if they previously did not have names for them – as they are so ingrained in our shared narrative traditions. Advance/Extend Stories provides a low-risk opportunity to consciously explore and define these techniques so that they may be more deliberately deployed in future work.

The Basics

Players work in pairs. One player (A) serves as the first coach, while Player B acts as the first narrator. I have a deck of well-loved flashcards that I use as prompts for this game with each coach receiving a random location, occupation and object, but you can also just provide players with a title or similar inspiration. Player B begins telling a fictitious story based on this title or one of the flashcards, striving to create an interesting and dynamic action. As the narration develops, Player A in their role as coach can offer two forms of quick verbal feedback. They can say “advance” thus signaling that as a listener they are ready for the next step in the rising action, or they can offer “extend” at which point the narrator should flesh out and provide more details about the current element. If you’re using flashcards, the coach can use these as visual prompts (revealing them one at a time as they see fit) in addition to using the two verbal prompts. The exercise continues in this fashion until the story concludes. Players then switch roles and receive a new title or set of flash cards.

Example

Player B uses “The Old House” as inspiration for their story.

Player B: “It was a particularly cold night during a winter of particularly cold nights. Just stepping out onto your porch would result in visible puffs of breath painting patterns in the air. Icicles clung precipitously off the roof eaves, and it seemed that all of nature was in hibernation…”

Player A: “Advance.”

Player B: “Amir wrapped his heavy jacket around him as he continued up the winding path. He checked his cell phone once more. It’s low battery light was blinking but it confirmed that he was heading in the right direction: up. The old house suddenly loomed on the horizon…”

Player A: “Extend on the house”

Player B: “Paint was chipping off the exterior walls and it felt at times as if the wind might knock it off its perch atop the hill…”

The Focus

Primarily narrators are striving to craft interesting and dynamic stories that are generously shaped by their fellow player and coach. Given the freedom and encouragement to do so, storytellers should explore their own styles and narrative proclivities.

Traps and Tips

1.) Coach with love. It’s important that the coaches value the success and joy of the narrator as their utmost goal. If their suggestions take on a more “gotcha” energy you will likely undermine the story and its teller. Offer the nudges of “advance” and “extend” when you honestly feel they will help the story and maintain or elevate your interest as an audience member. Avoid needless loops or diversions: sure, you could ask them to extend on every facet of the old house on the hill but after a while this will stall the action and bog down the story with minutiae. Coaches should, instead, just trust their honest instincts to help shape a story that appeals to them and maintains their attention.

2.) Explore focused extensions. While the prompt of “advance” contains a consistent message of “I’m ready for something to happen now,” an “extend” can be wielded with a little more precision and finesse. Narrators might stumble across a scenic element, prop or character that has been left largely undefined. Offering the specific target of your “extend” in these situations proves helpful by asking “extend… on the large tree” or “…on the face in the window.” In this way you can gently shift the emphasis of the narrative and possibly unlock a new potential that the storyteller might not have otherwise polished. This is much more useful than just randomly offering “extend” without identifying any particular facet of interest: you don’t want the author to have to guess what you might have in mind.

3.) Don’t overdo it. When serving as the coach it can feel as if you have to keep providing feedback to the storyteller. If the narrator is on a roll there may be no need to do anything other than enjoy the story for large swathes of time – and that’s okay! Remember that the coach’s primary aim is to set the narrator up for success. Often players will find that merely having these terms brought to their attention encourages them to instinctively advance and extend without verbal encouragement. If the narrator is in the zone, an unexpected or unnecessary adjustment from the coach is likely to do more harm than good, so know that as is the case with all improv, sometimes your active presence and listening is the greatest gift the scene needs.

4.) Take narrative risks. This exercise can prove effective with almost any content or style of narrative so enjoy this open playing field when you rotate into the author position. Tell the type of story that you like to read or hear; create characters that represent your own experiences or passions; explore journeys that appeal to your individual sense of adventure and wonder. Don’t aim too low or simple with your narrative voice especially if you have a strong sense of the tools in play. As we investigate paradigmatic devices that often frame or structure stories as we’ve inherited them, we can simultaneously push and question these very traditions and assumptions.

In Performance

While players may have moments of struggle in terms of a few mechanics or plot stalls, I’ve found that in the vast majority of cases this exercise routinely enables energetic and enjoyable stories. The central premise of balancing action with details clearly applies to all improvisational scenic construction and raising awareness of these techniques will offer an accessible tool for quickly addressing or acknowledging missed opportunities.

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

I don’t typically comment on the accompanying image but this is taken from It’s All Greek to Me, a fully improvised Greek tragedy. A standard feature of the piece was the use of odes created by a chorus of ten improvisers where, more often than not, the content heavily rested on the ability to deeply extend. This poetic and descriptive function was very much in keeping with choral odes as they have survived in the extant plays.

Connected Concept: Extending