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Welcome to ImprovDr.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you all sanity and safety during these challenging times.

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

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

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

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

“S” is for “Side Support”

“Normal schooling is intensely competitive, and the students are supposed to try and outdo each other. If I explain to a group that they’re to work for the other members, that each individual is to be interested in the progress of the other members, they’re amazed, yet obviously if a group supports its own members strongly, it’ll be a better group to work in.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979.  New York:  Routledge, 1992. p.29

Definition

Effective improvisational Side Support directly embodies this enticing group mentality that Johnstone articulates above. When engaged in these performed acts of support, players strive to elevate, contextualize, and sharpen the journeys of their featured teammates for, as the very name suggests, side support does not seek to claim the spotlight of center stage but rather provide tactical assists from the margins. This is not to imply that such supportive improv moves are inconsequential – insightful side support can easily make the difference between a scene sailing or stalling – but the express intent is to ultimately serve the central players or situation. Any success or focus is typically fleeting as attention is deliberately thrown back to the unfolding action. The rewards garnered for such supporters are less of the moment but rather from the forging of a generous ensemble that will return the improvisational favor when the spontaneous shoe is on the other impromptu foot.

Example

Coworkers and possibly soon-to-be life partners A and B sit nervously at an outdoors café table. While hopeful, neither is certain whether or not this is actually a first date as the focus of the conversation has meandered thus far around a common work project at the car dealership. This small talk has been endearing but the scene feels as if it is searching for its next beat and neither player has this choice quite in reach…

The moment is ripe for some side support…

Putting Side Support Front and Center

Here are some ensemble-building ways to help (rather than overwhelm) the onstage action…

1.) Transitory support. A favored form of side support is the highly effective Canadian Cross that features transitory improvisers delivering a gift and then making a timely exit. (I deal more extensively with this subset of side support and how it can prove most helpful in an earlier entry here.) Such a choice can embellish virtually any facet of the ongoing scene, may or may not include dialogue, and ideally functions as a playful nudge or step in an evolving game or dynamic. As the initiating player will exude an “I’m just popping in” energy, focus should quickly and easily return to the original dynamic after the intended delivery.

Player C: (entering as a member of the waitstaff and interrupting as gently as possible) “Just wanted to check in to see if you’ll be ordering off the regular menu or our special couples offering tonight. The surf and turf is proving extremely popular amongst lovebirds…”

2.) Energizing support. Thoughtful side support can also provide focus and energy to the scene (Canadian Crosses can certainly be used this way too.) On the simplest level, fellow players can model audience behavior by avidly watching the stage action: it’s easy to overlook the value and energy of unflinching attention and one of the most crucial gifts we can give our fellow improvisers is our commitment to their work even when we’re just observing from the wings. In other situations this function of focus or status enhancing may be needed on the stage itself with support now assuming the role of a riled crowd or throng of studious servants for example. A scene might also benefit from more overt but less conventional efforts to raise the temperature or attack…

Player D: (standing over A’s shoulder and assuming the function of their inner voice) “The evening is getting long. If you don’t test the waters soon you’ll still just be awkward coworkers tomorrow…”

3.) Environmental support. There are also ample ways to support your fellow players through enriching the greater environment. These additions may be character-centric – a resident violinist could start to make their way between the café tables while playing sumptuous music. They can also take more metatheatrical or presentational hues especially if these are in keeping with your ensemble’s aesthetic. To this end, players might offer scene painting adjustments, arrange or physically become set pieces and props, or heighten the mood with pertinent sound effects (whether or not this role is typically assigned to an improvising technician.)

Player E: (stepping to the side of the stage and narrating to the audience) “A pair of cooing doves lands in the shadow of the couple’s table. Their necks intertwine in a nurturing gesture…”

The sound technician adds to this choice by providing the sound of gentle cooing…

4.) Functional support. Another important form of side support consists of keeping the players safe or physically supported. This may be triggered by the dramatic twists and turns of the scene or the greater performance parameters. For example, if our café were transported to an orbiting space station, supporting players might assist by enabling props (or perhaps some very game players) to literally float across the stage. Or, if you’re working in a found space or have commandeered an actual café table, players might need to run interference as unforeseen challenges emerge. There can be a tendency to view side support solely through the lens of the characters’ world, but addressing real world needs strikes me as an equally valid and helpful application of this tool as it allows the featured players to concentrate on their reality freed from unhelpful intrusions.

Player F: (in response to the jeering interruptions of a belligerent audience member, as “the manager”) “I’m terribly sorry about the unruly table: they’re just about to leave. Please allow me to comp you a bottle of our sparkling wine…”

Hopefully such a move would then be followed by a member of house management politely escorting the rabble-rouser out of the auditorium…

Final Thought

As side support wanders into more competitive or solipsistic territory I fear it loses much of its generosity and ensemble-raising energy. This distortion echoes the model of “normal” schooling that Johnstone so ardently rejects where players are primarily concerned with their own choices and accolades. I’ve noted elsewhere that there is, of course, a time and place for shining and playful competition on most improv stages; but, when we code choices that explicitly seek to celebrate an individual’s finesse as side support we may be missing the innate collaborative rewards of making our choices solely in the service of our teammates. And, in at least my experience, it is very much this latter dynamic that is frequently wanting in the art.

Related Entries: Canadian Cross, Environment, Heighten, Scene Painting Antonyms: Shining Synonyms: Assists, Second Support

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

Connected Game: From an Object’s Point of View Coming Friday (EST)

Game Library: “Bad Extra”

This tongue-in-cheek parody of a movie set quickly became a mainstay with my Gorilla Theatre company. It has a sketch contest energy and I’ve seen several sitcoms deploy variants of this fish out of water dynamic since I became familiar with the formula. If you’re new to the tradition of Sidecoaching, Bad Extra offers a light-hearted point of entry.

The Basics

Players obtain an original movie title, usually something on the dramatic side. A couple of players serve as the featured stars, another as the hands-on director, and finally a company member assumes the role of the “bad extra.” The director sets the scene and cameras roll as the starring actors dig deep into their dramatic portrayals. Before they have uttered more than a handful of lines, however, the bad extra wanders into shot and engages in some “unintentionally” distracting behavior. The director stops the action, coaches the extra with new instructions and the scene resets. Several such interruptions occur with escalating mischief – each with accompanying directorial intervention – until filming is ultimately abandoned or another fitting conclusion emerges.

Example

The audience suggests “The Long Road” as the movie title.

Player A: (as the director) “Alright everyone, it’s the final day of shooting and we’ve left the juiciest scene for last! Samantha, you’re finally reunited in the retirement home with the love of your life, and you can’t believe fate has brought you together. Places everyone!”

Player B places themselves at a card table with C (Samantha) standing behind them.

Player A: “And… action!”

Player B gently chuckles at the card table. Player C who has been looking away, experiences a profound moment of recognition. She slowly turns…

Player C: “I’ll never forget that laugh. It couldn’t be…”

Player B freezes at the card table upon hearing Samantha’s voice.

Player B: (without turning) “That voice… that voice is the soundtrack of my dreams…”

Player C: (gently placing her trembling hand on B’s shoulder) “I’m not a dream. I’m your Samantha. Turn around my love…”

Just as Player B starts to turn, Player D (the bad extra) loudly enters pushing a trolley.

Player D: “Who wants a cuppa tea?!!”

Player A: (who has been enthralled on the edge of their seat) “Cut! Cut! I’m terribly sorry, but who are you…?”

The Focus

The demands and rewards of each role are quite distinct. Be wary of wandering out of your “lane” or the scene can lose its effectiveness. If in doubt, defer to the director and let their sidecoaching inform or shape the next beat.

Traps and Tips

1.) For the director. This character tends to provide most of the heavy lifting in terms of pacing and momentum. Fight for the director’s want, namely a brilliant piece of cinematic art, but make sure you don’t hold the reins too tightly or there won’t be room for the mischief to take hold. For example, if you’re too controlling or too angry too quickly you may not have much of a character arc. Starting with some good-natured sugar can make the later salt even more effective. Give the bad extra enough room to get into further trouble, but don’t shy away from providing “honest feedback” as to how they’re ruining your work. The more specific ambiguity you deploy in your sidecoaching in terms of adjustments, the more likely you are to inspire the next round of interruptions.

2.) For the bad extra. I wouldn’t be so bold to say there’s one angle for this role that guarantees success but, from experience, the more likeable you are, the more the audience roots for you and enjoys the resulting struggle. Just as the director should seek an arc, so too should the extra avoid hitting the stage with their most abhorrent behavior right out of the gate. An out-of-their-depth quality serves as a promising foundation, whether this manifests itself in blustering over-compensation, cloying niceness, or the unbridled wonderment of an enamored first-timer (amongst countless other possibilities.) The curve of absurdity is the bad extra’s best friend, with initial slightly out-of-the-ordinary choices gradually building into complete ridiculousness in spite of the director’s best efforts to the contrary.

3.) For the stars. These roles assume the “straight” characters to the madness that is usually embodied by the extra and then wrangled – successfully or otherwise – by the director. In many instances, their scenic function resembles a replay format as they’ll tend to dramatically repeat the same few lines again and again each time the director restarts the action (although it’s also a fine choice for the director to skip ahead if they see fit.) There is great fun to be had exploring the contrast between the performers and their film personae; although, as I’ve relearnt on several occasions, you’ll want to be careful that your whimsy doesn’t detract from or upstage the bad extra or the scene can become cluttered and unfocused. At first glance, these roles might seem less joyful but I’ll openly confess I enjoy playing in this capacity most of all as there’s a delightful challenge in trying to hold it all together in the face of the extra’s mayhem.

In Performance

There’s no magic number of bad extra interruptions although less than three doesn’t typically give enough room for the scenic dynamic to organically grow and peak. I’ve had the good fortune to see many improvisers shine in this format although I think it would be fair to say that in my own circles few could orchestrate the fun as effortlessly and successfully as Greg Yates.

This is certainly a performative version of sidecoaching that places this figure more front and center than would prove helpful in more traditional workshop situations. And the game requires true pauses and resets as the coach reshapes expectations which, most would agree, is a more invasive sidecoaching tactic than is typically warranted or helpful. But beneath the whimsy resides many core skills, such as developing a diagnostic eye, offering open possibilities rather than dictating monolithic solutions, and reading the needs and instincts of the onstage players

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

Connected Concept: Sidecoaching

“S” is for “Sidecoaching”

“Side coaching is a guide, a directive, a support, a catalyst, a higher view, an inner voice, an extended hand, you might say, given during the playing of a game to help you stay on focus.”

Viola Spolin, Theatre Games for the Lone Actor: A Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2001. p.7

Definition

Spolin’s words provide an inspirational and comprehensive description of the improv Sidecoach. As spontaneous play is rarely repeated or revisited, real time adjustments can prove essential when seeking to introduce new strategies or while exploring unfamiliar terrain. A quick and astute word provided in the moment will often allow instantaneous adjustments or course corrections unlike traditional theatrical notes which can easily become highly theoretical: what would have happened if you had tried “a” instead of “b?” No one will ever know as it’s highly unlikely that scenario will ever play out again in quite the same way! Expert sidecoaching nudges players out of ruts or perceived traps and gently empowers their latent instincts, thereby keeping the scenic focus and momentum flowing.

I recognize and deeply value the tradition of in-the-moment coaching, but must also candidly share that it is a tool I personally wrestle with a little for a variety of reasons. As I primarily teach and work in a university theatre department and well-established professional company, I’ve found that players in both of these communities are not always well versed nor receptive to this creative paradigm unless it is conducted with great gentleness. When playing Gorilla Theatre, the director role necessarily assumes this function as they “fight” to get their vision to the stage, although I wouldn’t offer this as a typical model for sidecoaching as most would rightly consider the needs of this format as a little more aggressive and director-focused than a more typical sidecoaching relationship. I certainly deploy this tool when workshopping skills that require consistent momentum such as rhyming and musical sessions. Here, a quick word at the right time will assist much more than a lengthy discussion after-the-fact. In my day-to-day instruction I find myself balancing sidecoaching with more traditional postmortem notes, although as I sit down to write this entry I also realize that in-the-moment coaching probably characterizes my style more than I might realize – it just sometimes takes hybrid forms, such as when I wander around the classroom space between various playing groups offering up little words of help or focus realignments.

I present the following observations with this context in mind. These thoughts stem from my own experiences and preferences on both the receiving and coaching side of the equation. Sidecoaching is unquestionably an expression of our personal artistic and pedagogic journeys and aesthetic. Finding your coaching groove is the pursuit of a life in the art and will undoubtedly reflect your own (positive and negative) experiences in the rehearsal hall as well.

Example

Player A and B are lost teenagers on a deserted beach. After several exchanges establishing their CROW they now take their first nervous steps towards a menacing cave entrance. Player A struggles to turn on an unreliable flashlight while B looks on with terror. The sidecoach has patiently remained silent during these opening moments…

Player B: (stopping dead in their tracks) ” I don’t think we should do this…”

Sidecoach: (with gentle excitement) “Do it!”

OR

Sidecoach: (with anticipation) “What was that sound?”

OR

Sidecoach: (egging on Player B) “Why are you so nervous?”

OR

Sidecoach: (with relish) “Lean into that great sense of panic!”

OR

The sidecoach visibly leans forward in their chair with heightened attention and joy, and silently smiles.

Coaching Considerations

1.) Get in and out quickly. By definition, sidecoaching pauses the scenic action to offer up some words of wisdom or encouragement. Lengthy musings decrease the likelihood that the players can maintain the dramatic integrity while listening to and processing the offered adjustment, so it’s important to seek efficient brevity. If you need more than a few words and your advice isn’t critical I’d recommend holding onto the feedback until the scene has finished rather than grinding everything to a halt (unless injury – physical or otherwise – is imminent.) When on the receiving end you can also do a great deal to minimize any negative side effects of these interruptions: assume a soft freeze as the sidecoaching occurs, don’t feel the need to turn to or address the director, and strive to apply the new information through action rather than starting a sidebar discussion. There is also a lot to be said for assuming good faith on the part of the coach: if something strikes you as odd or unexpected, embrace it anyway assuming that the director has observed a potential that escaped your view.

2.) Nudge rather than solve. It’s my strong preference for a sidecoaching insert to encourage the players to uncover a potential pathway rather than explicitly dictating a specific course of action. A gentle exception to this “rule” might be the oft-uttered feedback of “do it!” when improvisers are stalled in a mist of contemplation, but even in this scenario the coach is typically pushing players to do the thing that they themselves have posited rather than an imposed outside idea. This nudging approach snugs nicely with Spolin’s concept of the “catalyst” that adds heat and momentum to the experiment already in progress. It’s also reminiscent of the “teach a person to fish” analogy in that providing solutions will likely create a codependency with the coach rather than strengthen the improvisers’ own abilities to get into and out of playful trouble. Using questions rather than statements can prove a simple mechanism to make sure major offers are emerging from those engaged in the action as it allows the players to retain the agency of finding their own unique responses.

3.) Elevate the players. Asking loaded questions from the sidelines also has the crucial effect of raising up the creativity of the scenic participants rather than inadvertently reflecting and privileging the skill of the sidecoach. Gorilla Theatre, discussed above, offers a unique exception in this regard in that the overarching premise frames each scene as the manifestation of the director’s vision or conceit, but even here in reality effective coaching will very much recognize and encourage dynamics that emanated from the onstage players. Truly puppeteering the action will quickly become tiring for all involved. In simple terms this requires the coach to as boldly commit to a “yes, and…” attitude as any other player in the space, reserving more oppositional direction for the most exceptional of circumstances. When these more potentially jarring course corrections are warranted it can be helpful to exude an air of your own fallibility – “sorry, my last adjustment was clearly so poorly articulated” – rather than judgment of the players – “why are you unable to do what I’ve instructed?” Like any other collaborative scene if it wraps up and you’re left thinking “that was exactly what I wanted or coached” you’ve probably smothered a lot of the creativity and may be entering the realm of the bulldozer.

4.) Support rather than scold. I’ve certainly worked with improvisers who prefer unadorned critique but generally the flower of improvisation blooms most impressively when it’s watered with positivity and encouragement. Most improvisers will quickly become disheartened or stuck in their heads when greeted by a string of feedback that feels like harsh criticism. This is a direct equivalent to working alongside a negating or blocking energy on the stage as a fellow player. Liberally sprinkling sugar with the salt helps maintain a joyful environment. It’s easy to fall into an unintended rut of primarily pushing players to make new or different choices rather than paying equal attention to encouraging and reinforcing successful and helpful dynamics as they play out. While it is unlikely that all critique can be congratulatory, it is possible for corrective adjustments to also be offered with the spirit and tonality of joyful excitement. If players start to associate any sidecoaching interruption as a foreboding signal of negative critique it’s unlikely that they will be open and receptive to the advice that follows. You don’t want players experiencing a negative Pavlovian reaction to your very presence! It’s no small task to develop and maintain this creative rapport so be aware that needlessly aggressive feedback or energies can harm more than just the current scene.

5.) Enable joyful play. Finally, embrace the sidecoach’s role of ally (or the “extended hand” in Spolin’s parlance.) Sometimes it’s not worth interrupting the scene yet again for that clever observation that isn’t really needed. It can be easy to forget that well structured struggle can teach as much if not more as heavily directed “success.” Spolin extols the coach’s duty to facilitate focus; when feedback begins to actively pull the players’ attention further and further from the stage action, the requisite focus on the improvisatory task at hand will quickly diminish. It’s also important to read the room and individual players. I’m sure I’m not alone in encountering improvisers who find nearly any interruption – regardless of its positive tone or content – as off-putting and thwarting. Others bounce back with immediate and good natured resilience. As is the case with all pedagogic instruments, one tool does not work the same way for all students. If sidecoached scenes are routinely resulting in bruises then consider rebalancing your approach and taking some time to explicitly discuss and model the preferred application.

Final Thought

I’ll end this entry with an anecdotal account of a sidecoaching style that I find a little disingenuous. On occasion I’ve encountered a rather bullish energy where the coach regularly stops the action to aggressively push the players to a new action or beat. The instructions are, more-often-than-not, artistically legitimate but presented with an air of authority: “this is the best path forward and you really should have seen it.” At the end of the exchange the players will arrive at an interesting outcome, but often strike me as a little jangled and unnerved, buffeted by the constant tirade of input. The coach will then frequently button the experience with some jovial iteration of the feedback “look at what you just accomplished!” without any shred of irony that to even the most casual observer it has been very clear that the players have, in fact, accomplished very little themselves other than just anxiously following the series of barked directives. I know I’ve fallen into well-intended iterations of this dynamic – I just really want the players to experience some success or break out of deeply entrenched habits that are getting in their way. In reality though, any benefits from such an encounter will be fleeting: effective coaching requires patience, rapport and an ability to subjugate your own desire for quick results to the greater and messier calling of enabling a rich and imperfect process.

Related Entries: Caller, Deviser, Ensemble, Hosting Antonyms: Bulldozing, Judging Synonyms: Directing, Mentoring, Teaching

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

Connected Game: Bad Extra

Game Library: “In A, With A, While A…”

Combining three disparate elements, In A, With A, While A… has somewhat of an improvised “madlibs” feel. It requires hearty justification and a tendency towards Showing as the scene culminates with all three audience ask-fors visually in play.

The Basics

The audience fills in the required blanks providing an in a… [location] with a… [prop or occupation] while a… [situation unfolds]. By the end of the resulting scene, all three of these unrelated ideas should playfully coexist on the stage.

Example

The audience provides “in a… submarine, with an… Elvis impersonator, while an… intervention takes place.” The scene begins with two naval officers in the command room.

Player A: “Nothing peculiar to report from the night shift, Captain. It’s been plain sailing since we entered the artic circle.”

Player B: (clearly a little preoccupied) “Thank you for your excellent and thorough work, as always, Lieutenant.”

Player A: “Permission to speak freely, Captain?”

Player B: (slumping melancholically in their chair) “Of course, Lieutenant Wienstein. We’ve known each other for nearly a decade now.”

Player A: “It’s just the crew and I, well, we’ve all noticed you’ve seemed a little out of sorts…”

Player B: “Permission to speak freely, Lieutenant?”

Player A: “Of course…”

Player B: “I just didn’t expect to be spending my fiftieth birthday out here in the artic circle…”

Player A: (feigning surprise) “Today is your fiftieth birthday, Captain…?”

Several other crew members, one dressed conspicuously in an Elvis costume, quietly slink into the room behind B’s back…

Player B: “I know it’s silly, and I shouldn’t be expecting a big deal or anything…”

The Focus

Earn each suggestion rather than rushing them clumsily to the stage. Developing a coherent story in spite of the randomness of your incongruous ingredients elevates the scene beyond a mere party game.

Traps and Tips

1.) Pursue the logic. In less able hands it’s possible that the three required pieces of the puzzle will just inexplicably “show up.” On rare occasions a charm offensive can sell such an attitude but generally you, the scene, and the audience will be better served by a more patient and deliberate approach. If you can creatively justify or create the need for the peculiar scenic addition beforehand this tends to enable a stronger story arc rather than just throwing in the ingredients to the scenic stew without any sense of a recipe. There’s a fine line between foreboding or gently justifying a new piece of the puzzle and robbing it of any dramatic impact: this is where the concept of showing serves better than telling or telescoping the needed item so that it has no power when it predictably arrives.

2.) Consider the order. There is no explicit rule or expectation that the three suggestions will hit the stage in the order of their elicitation. Whether by design or happenstance, however, this order usually works in your favor. If you don’t start with the location, it can be challenging to effectively move the scene there within a timely fashion, especially if such a move requires a major reset of the stage. So while I’m generally all about not succumbing to the pressure of immediately or obviously using an audience suggestion, quickly establishing the location in this particular game strikes me as a worthwhile exception to such a stylistic rule. The object or occupation, as it’s generally portable, makes for a strong second addition as your story can be focused on why this offer is present rather than solving the less interesting mechanics of how to move it to a later locale. And the event, especially if it’s innately climactic in nature, can prove challenging to sustain for the duration of the whole scene in an interesting fashion, but will usually provide a great spike of energy to go out on.

3.) Share the work. It’s good collaborative form not to place the burden of assembling all of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle on the shoulders of one player (either self-selected in a manner reminiscent of a bulldozer or fearfully put in the hot seat by the rest of a panicking team.) Most scenes benefit from patient entrances rather than an “everyone all at once” launch. If the first imitators establish the basic premise and probably the location, other teammates are well positioned to introduce and hopefully justify the remaining aspects. There is also a calmness and ability to assess the greater whole of the scene that accompanies a generously waiting stance in the wings. And if you find you’re not physically needed as the scene wraps up, that selflessness is an awesome gift for your fellow players too.

4.) Enjoy the contradictions. The inspiring suggestions shouldn’t clearly connect so the scene will invariably move into unfamiliar and probably quirky territory. Commenting on the oddness of it all, or standing cynically or critically apart from the action, will do little to aid your teammates in crossing the obscure finishing line. Such choices are likely to deflate any building momentum as they essentially and unkindly “name the game.” Commit. The more you emotionally invest in the bizarre scenic circumstances, the more delightful the emerging process becomes and the more likely that finally embodying the three elements with gusto will craft an ending worth celebrating. It doesn’t take much to poke thwarting holes in the reality of the topsy-turvy world; bravely shore up any scenic inconsistencies instead.

In Performance

This format can work as an expositional exercise, starting with everything in play only to then develop the rationale for their coexistence. However, through the lens of showing, this variation tends to minimize the potential for action in favor of a more intellectual and cerebral telling energy. For this reason alone, I strongly prefer the approach described above.

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

Connected Concept: Showing

“S” is for “Showing”

Spolin’s definition of desirable Non-acting: “Involving one’s self with a focus; detachment; a working approach to all the problems of the theater; keeping one’s personal feelings private; learning to act through ‘non-acting’; showing, not telling; ‘Stop Acting!’”

Viola Spolin, Theatre Games for the Lone Actor: A Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2001. p.163-164

Definition

Spolin’s opening quote is admittedly a little jumbled as it is really a loose list combining multiple insights worthy of unpacking. Here I’m primarily interested in the final section that addresses the concept of Showing rather than telling – a common improv (and theatrical) adage. To show on stage is to allow ideas and offers to become revealed through behavior and action. Such an approach invites a richer and more nuanced style of play and facilitates discovery. This contrasts with telling which over-relies on language to state or describe scenic contributions. Telling encapsulates a performative instinct that frequently results in cartooning or two-dimensional scene work.

As many improv traditions take full advantage of imaginative and imaginary scenic elements, telling can present a particular temptation in our efforts to clearly define our surroundings and given circumstances. But we need not chose between a false dichotomy of “clear” telling or “opaque” showing as clarity and precision can also be the domain of improvisers who thoughtfully show their choices.

Example

Player A and B begin a scene based on the audience suggestion of a “hot air balloon ride…”

Show Your Choice By…

In the spirit of this advice, my examples come first:

1.) Doing something rather than considering it

Player A extends their arm to B who uses it as leverage to leap over and into the balloon basket. A unties an anchor rope before B returns the favor and they both find themselves gently ascending, laughing all the while.

RATHER THAN

Player A: (standing) “Well, I think we’ve got everything for our hot air balloon ride. Do you want to do one more safety check?”

One definition of theatrical play that whispers in my ear as I write this is that theatre is a sequential list of (generally related and intensifying) actions. Yes, there are undoubtedly branches of the art that also highly prioritize thought and theory – George Bernard Shaw springs to mind with his epic stage direction notes – but there’s a reason we use the verbiage dramatic action to describe the moves in a play. These actions shouldn’t be mistaken for stage business or activity, although they can at times be synonymous, but rather tactics that strive to get characters one step closer to what they want or need.

2.) Experiencing something rather than describing it

As Player A and B feel the balloon slowly rise from its previously tethered perch, they clutch each others’ hand with shear delight. Player A spontaneously dances a little happy jig that adds to B’s amusement as their gaze slowly moves to the scenery around them.

RATHER THAN

Player B: (standing, but now theoretically in a balloon) “Our balloon is taking off. You can see everything gradually getting smaller…”

While there are foreseeable improv situations where some well-timed description may help get everyone on the same page, be cautious when this instinct is used in lieu of committing fully to the current experience. Allowing the audience to witness the characters’ awe and excitement will invariably prove more engaging than merely hearing an all-too-often dispassionate narration or dose of cartooning. Experiencing instead of describing also unlocks the powerful improv tools of silence, subtext, and ambiguity.

3.) Creating something rather than pontificating about it

Player B reaches into a picnic basket that they’d previously secretly stowed in the balloon, revealing a large bottle of champagne and two flutes. They meticulously pop the cork while A’s attention is distracted by controlling the burner. Upon hearing the champagne popping, B turns with a smile and is greeted with a half-filled glass.

RATHER THAN

Player A: (still standing but now apparently in a balloon and a little hungry) “It’s a shame we didn’t pack any food. That would have made this extra special.”

The second example could well result in a bracing scene about our couple becoming stranded without any resources, but more often such language provides an unnecessary distraction from just crafting cogent props and scenic elements that can then add a myriad of nuances and possibilities. Does the popping cork ultimately puncture the balloon, or could the resulting champagne intoxication throw the couple off their predetermined course? Or, frankly, does just the act of sharing the drink simply but beautifully reveal and heighten the love and connection? Creating an array of scenic pieces (and then not talking incessantly about them) can go a long way towards encouraging a “showing” attitude.

4.) Feeling something rather than announcing it

The couple laughs and smiles broadly as they ritualistically interlock their arms to enjoy the champagne toast. Captured in the moment, A throws the now empty champagne flute off the side of the balloon basket. Without skipping a step, Player B mirrors the gesture as their eyes meet. The laughter transforms to passion as they seize each other in a loving embrace.

RATHER THAN

Player B: (standing some more in that balloon basket but now a little hungry and happy, but speaking nonetheless without conviction) “I love balloon rides.”

A tendency to “tell” is often further problematized by an equal tendency to shy away from emotional honesty and earned passion. Yes, our players can say “I love balloon rides” but this will prove vastly inferior to feeling and embodying this choice. This advice holds even more wisdom when it comes to assertions of “I love you.” Announcing our emotions can reveal a performer’s anxiousness or discomfort with assuming the broad range of human experience, but such declarations will frequently call into question the very veracity of the utterance if these powerful words are not accompanied by an earnt connection and heartfelt depth.

Final Thought

An added advantage to adopting a “showing” improvisational stance is that you can essentially double the communicative potentials of your scene work. When our acting and subtextual choices enrich the greater environment and core relationships, our dialogue can now explore other ideas and dynamics or introduce fruitful tensions and contradictions. In this manner, while the behavior of our hot air ballooners expresses affection and adoration to each other, the language could now show disdain for all the rest of humanity and the less fortunate scattered below them as they engage in their luxurious assent – or a myriad of other satiric or whimsical ideas.

See my earlier post on cartooning here for related tips on “Bringing That Third Dimension to Your Scene Work.”

Related Entries: Acting, Ambiguity, Love, Subtext Antonyms: Cartooning, Telling, Wearing Your Character Lightly Synonyms: Emotional Truth

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

Connected Game: In A, With A, While A…

Game Library: “Famous Last Words”

Many of the games and exercises contained in this series represent a Short-Form improv sensibility, so for this companion piece I’ve returned to a classic format from my earliest days as a player: Famous Last Words.

The Basics

In this typically “shorter” short-form game, players obtain a random line of dialogue, slogan or platitude. A timed scene follows – often just a minute – which must culminate with a character dying after uttering this line of dialogue as their famous last words (and as the closing words of the scene as a whole.)

Example

“I can’t believe it’s not butter” provides the scenic inspiration. The lights rise on Player A and B as sweethearts driving in their car.

Player A: “It’s just a little farther ahead. I know you’re going to love it…”

Player B: “To think it’s already been four years together!”

Player A: “The best four years of my life…”

Approximately 50 seconds later, Player A lies reeling on the ground after having a fatal margarine allergy attack…

Player A: “…I can’t believe it’s not butter…”

Blackout.

The Focus

This petite game offers a masterclass in reverse engineering. Make sure the death is fully supported and realized as it’s anticlimactic and unhelpful to quietly die apologetically in the background of the action. I often teach this with the similar game, Death in a Minute (linked here), but it’s important to observe that this frame has a much less flexible outcome in that someone must die at the end of the scene just after saying the specific target line. Death in a Minute is much more porous in how it honors the contract stated in its title.

Traps and Tips

1.) Take a step back. It’s tempting to disarm or quickly bring to stage all the required elements included or inferred in the obtained phrase. Avoid this temptation! If the audience can see the ending coming a mile away the risk of the game is greatly diminished. If the phrase contains the word “oranges” and your first move is to walk onstage selling… oranges… the scene will feel remedial. Avoid accepting an extremely vague phrase as the prompt – there’s little innate challenge in “I’m sorry” or “Thank you.” In addition to deliberately starting away from the end (perhaps with a third thought approach) you can further raise the stakes by also acquiring a location or occupation that doesn’t obviously connect at first blush with the famous last words, especially if the phrase feels a little too manageable as is.

2.) Take an unexpected angle. For those of you attracted to word play and homonyms, this game blossoms when the phrase is deconstructed and reassembled in a novel way. Does “just do it” become the dying request of a high school music teacher, “just duet…” (I acknowledge that this particular kiwi homonym may not strike your ear as a close substitution!) It’s difficult to build to a more nuanced “solution” collaboratively in real time if team members are rushing to just get the obvious elements to the stage as quickly as possible. Make sure you’re giving a little room to fellow players who elect to deploy a more opaque approach. It may seem a little antithetical to the common improv adage of “embracing the obvious” but this is a game that definitely benefits from a quirkier launch and payoff.

3.) Take your swan song. The game necessities a dramatic final moment with a central character reaching towards the light as they utter the line that will become seared into the history books for time immemorial. If you are not this character, exert extra vigilance when the death is looming not to inadvertently create split focus or undermine the likely speaker. The death serves as the scenic climax by design. If you are the featured victim use every second at your disposal to energetically build to your glorious last line. I strongly encourage utilizing a caller to announce strategic time updates for this reason as it further elevates this epic moment. Finally, beware of throw away lines or “additional” buttons after this dynamic moment. The challenge is to make this elicited phrase the powerful epitaph of the character and scene; quickly making a droll statement after-the-fact will usually read as a bit of a cop out or gag.

In Performance

Though this format might not easily house subtler or softer hues due to its brief nature and extreme outcome, there is something enticing about watching players gladly hurtling into the unknown towards certain oblivion. Embrace the final moments, enjoy the tragic fate, and sell those famous last words as if they were the climax to end all climaxes.

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

Connected Concept: Short-Form

“S” is for “Short-Form”

“The most important distinction of short form is that none of the improv games connect in any way whatsoever to any other games.”

Rob Kozlowski, The Art of Chicago Improv: Shortcuts to Long-Form Improvisation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002. p.116

Definition

I’ve tackled the thorny issue of self-designated improv labels in my earlier post here. Kozlowski voices a common distinction that Short-Form tends to consist of stand-alone scenes while long-form weaves together scenic elements in more complex ways to craft greater arcs and connections. There is unquestionably some (albeit simplistic) truth in this definition, but just as long-form has become a term that clumsily describes a vast array of performance styles, short-form deserves similar unpacking and complicating. So, here goes…

Common Short-Form Features

1.) Discrete units. Kozlowski observes that short-form games don’t connect – which can be the case – but I would tweak this definition to note that scenes do not generally require knowledge of previous improv vignettes to be understood and appreciated. Many short-form shows take on the format of a competition or sketch revue, and in these cases a performance will consist of a series of different seemingly unrelated frames. This is the modus operandi of Theatresports, Comedysportz and Spolin Games. Yes, each scene will generally be discrete – inspired by unique parameters, audience suggestions or director prompts – but this does not mean that connections will not emerge between the apparently disparate offerings. Characters or locations may recur, common themes can emerge and deepen, or material from a whimsical Gibberish scene in act one might reappear in the lyrics of a tag-team song in act two. Unlike many long-form performances, however, experiencing these earlier moments may not prove crucial to gaining enjoyment from a later scene (this is frequently not the case in more linear narrative traditions.) So while individual scenes are designed to provide fulfillment in their own right, connections are still possible, pleasurable and privileged nonetheless.

2.) Meta frames. Long-form performances can assume many various organizational frames – deploying thematic, location or relationship based foci, among others. In many cases, these structuring devices resemble other “traditional” theatrical genres and best practices. Short-form shows tend to utilize more meta framing devices that are not explicitly story or character centric. They are improv delivery systems rather than blueprints for creating dramatic meaning. In many cases, as noted above, shows utilize the tropes of professional sports and competitions: which of these great improv teams can ultimately emerge from the battle field victorious by the end of the evening after tackling a series of increasingly difficult improvisational challenges? In other instances, such as Disney’s Comedy Warehouse, individual players might perform in various shuffled combinations in an array of different improv games each set. While some specific scenes may deploy a faux competitive hook – such as Schmeopardy or Conducted Story – such shows don’t heavily rely on the conceit of a declared winner for a pay off. There are exceptions, of course, yet short-form shows rarely utilize more conventional narrative frames to provide a sense of completion or closure but rather exist within an accepted construct that tacitly provides a loose rationale for enabling play.

3.) Player centric. It’s also extremely common for short-form shows to embrace the personae of the performers as part of the overall event. In competitive shows, for example, improvisers will often step in and out of character between the scenes (and sometimes within the scenes as well) becoming themselves or a close approximation thereof as they interact with the audience, gather suggestions, or introduce the next improvisational high wire act about to begin. While this impetus can be seen on occasion in long-form modes – Harold players often line the backwall of the stage watching the action as themselves before donning a character to enter the scene – in short-form traditions the player is frequently elevated as a featured and fundamental component of the performance. The audience enjoys seeing this slippage between character and improviser that the scripted tradition, in particular, usually strives to hide in the service of realism. This impetus can also be seen in service-inclined practices such as Forum and Playback Theatre, although these modalities do not “celebrate” their participants so much as “recognize” their efforts on behalf of a greater community.

4.) Recurring pauses. Most long-form pieces seek an audience suggestion or input in the opening moments of the performance (if at all) but then will happily dance forward without further interruptions. Short-form shows are typically punctuated by multiple moments of rupture where the action pauses while players or a host elicit new ideas from the audience in order to inspire the next playful creation. Such pauses can be overt and inherent to the overall framing device – as is the case with Gorilla Theatre and Micetro – or, in hybrid forms with an avowedly short-form aesthetic, more stealthily woven into the performance event – as is the case with free form improv and some iterations of Life Game (where an audience member’s recollections can inspire a series of varied games.) One could argue that in addition to being player centric – as each pause allows players to reset to their own personae – this stop and start energy also prioritizes the audience in a qualifiedly different way than the majority of long-form pieces. Most short-form improv has little interest in elevating a “suspension of disbelief” but rather deliberately points at the act and conceit of theatrical creation. Which brings me to my final defining feature…

5.) Accessible. I love unwieldly and ornate long-form, especially of the dramaturgical ilk as I opine here, but I also struggle with the reality that a lot of long-form almost demands that our audience has an insider’s knowledge. Whether we’re exploiting the tropes of a niche genre, riffing on the archetypes inspired from a pop culture trend, or exploring the preferred frame variant of our improv training home, the resulting long-form can struggle to appeal to those beyond our immediate improv circles. In contrast, short-form traditions generally embody more avowedly and unapologetically populist ends. Performances provide the tools for enjoyment and teach pertinent framing devices as the event unfolds. New games or elements are defined and modeled as they enter the stream of the evening: “You haven’t seen this particular game before? Don’t worry. We’ll tell you everything you need to know before we play it!” This is not to say that long-form shows don’t seek accessibility; in fact, an inability to find and maintain an audience is a surefire route to closure for an improv show regardless of its long- or short-form trappings. But I think it is telling that if you ask an “average” theatre goer on the street about improv they are more likely to reference a short-form franchise than a long-form piece.

Final Thought

Although I don’t believe it’s always intentional, there can be a tendency to use the defining language of improvisation to create unhelpful performative duchies. Specifically, as a professional practitioner of short-form for over three decades (and long-form a little less) at times it can feel as if the very term short-form is used by fellow improvisers to dismiss or diminish the value and craft of this fruitful branch of the improv tree. I hope this is changing. Understanding the inherent values and gifts of all improvisational modes and practices can only ultimately elevate our own work and better equip our tool belts regardless of the style we currently call home.

Related Entries: Game of the Scene, Improvisation, Long-Form, Shape of Show

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

Connected Game: Famous Last Words

Game Library: “Here They Come”

Shivving, or playful mischief, informs this lighthearted game that also demands active listening, justification and fearless characterization skills. Not to mention it’s a great (albeit whimsical) way to set up a teammate for a truly memorable entrance!

The Basics

The game can gain suitable inspiration from a location, occupation or perhaps a brief list of initial character quirks or qualities. One player (A) volunteers to serve as the featured character and waits backstage accordingly. Other teammates begin the scene, establishing the CROW elements. Soon, the topic of conversation moves to the absent character and onstage teammates playfully endow a variety of character qualities, usually in a “can you believe that…” gossipy fashion. After a hearty but not overwhelming list of facets has been brainstormed (featuring any offers elicited from the audience beforehand) the discussed character makes a grand entrance usually heralded by the titular phrase, “Here they come…” With assistance from the earlier characters the new arrival strives to embody and justify all the previously named qualities.

“Hilarity ensues.”

Example

Two librarians (B and C) have escaped into their break room from the morning rush. They lock eyes in exhausted solidarity. Player A awaits offstage.

Player B: “I just need to get off my feet for a moment! Those children could take away my will to live.”

Player B slumps in a chair as Player C crosses to the break room counter.

Player C: “I hear you! And would it kill them not to leave their books thrown all over the floor?”

Player C holds up an empty coffee pot.

Player C: “Did you drink the last of the coffee?”

Player B: (slightly panicked) No… I put it on but had to get into the shelves before I got a cup… You don’t think that…”

Player C: (with equal terror) “…David?!?!”

Player B: “I didn’t think he was scheduled today. That was his belching I heard in the teen fiction section.”

Player C: “He must have drank the whole pot. Too much caffeine always gives him uncontrollable gas…”

Player B: “And he’ll be talking a mile a minute. He’s so frenetic even without the coffee…”

Player C: “We’ll be lucky if he’s just talking…”

Player B: “Not the show tunes?!?!”

The Focus

Don’t overlook the storytelling potentials of the scene nor neglect the joy of some good old fashioned “yes, anding…” as you build the qualities of the offstage character. It’s tempting to just scattershot the most random attributes you can think of, but close listening and extending will result in a highly stylized character that also has some semblance of an inner truth (in the admittedly loosest sense of that term!) It’s common to make the character an unlaudable figure, but there’s no reason the endowing couldn’t also be highly complementary in nature – this could be a helpful take on the game if you’re concerned about mean-spiritedness sneaking in.

Traps and Tips

1.) There’s a fine, fine line… I’ve used a variation on this concept in several original long-form pieces to provide helpful and more grounded backstory for significant characters that need to go the distance. In this original iteration, however, characterization offers have a shivving quality designed to clearly challenge the target player. It’s important to note that there’s a fine, fine line between playful shivving and oppressive pimping. The entering player shouldn’t feel like their awaiting entrance is an impossibility of contradictory or humiliating traits. If the endowing players are getting into double digits in terms of their pitched ideas, you’re heading into particularly challenging waters. While the spirit of the game is to jovially mess with your teammate, ultimately they should enjoy the process. It’s also easy to wander into icky stereotypes if you’re not mindful as well.

2.) Roll up your own sleeves… When you’re playing in the role of the endower – the workmates setting up the challenges in the illustration above – your work is by no means finished when the featured character arrives. It’s in the spirit of the game to give Player A a little space to check off as many of the named attributes as they can upon entering, but the second wave of fun consists of the original teammates now setting up their guest to embody or use any forgotten or previously named qualities in joyful ways. If Player A (as the character) is known for bursting into Broadway musical numbers, for example, it could prove delightful to pepper your dialogue with lyrics to inspire them (especially if this fact also holds true for the performer!) Generally one of the overarching goals of the scene is to successfully see all the endowments hit the stage, so if you proposed something in the preamble that’s been inadvertently neglected, it’s good form to nudge Player A in this direction in a more traditional endowing fashion.

3.) Take the leap… A lot of good faith and empathy typically walks through the door with the absent player as the audience understands the herculean task that awaits. Accept your fate with gusto and good charm as you will further win over the crowd in the process. I particularly enjoy making this character as likeable as possible as it puts any potential offense back on the endowees – “how dare they poke fun of their happy-go-lucky musical-singing coworker?” In my own company, some of us relish the thought of walking through that door into the madness that awaits, while others find much less pleasure when placed under this particular improvisational pressure. For me personally, my attitude about this role (and, frankly, the game in general) varies greatly depending on what kind of week I’m having. Know yourself and your teammates and make sure the bombardment of this shivving-fest is welcome.

4.) Putting it together… There isn’t one guaranteed stock device for wrapping up the fun. Sometimes if one element was initially forgotten and proves particularly difficult to recall, endow and incorporate, this hard-earned moment of jubilant success can be enough to stick the landing. There can also be a charm in having the featured character leave once they’ve been adequately portrayed and then briefly returning to the status quo created at the top of the scene. Generally, however, the scene plays well when attacked like a more traditional endowment game where the audience wants every feature communicated and incorporated with some finesse. Witnessing Player A simultaneously assuming all or the majority of their quirks provides a fitting climax in this regard.

In Performance

Just as I’m a little torn about the tool of shivving, so too am I a little leery about this particular game. It takes skill to strike the necessary balance between challenge and coercion, silliness and stereotypes, tickling and torture. When I’ve played it in a well-functioning ensemble filled with trust, connection and awareness – I’m thinking of my Gorilla Theatre cast specifically – the process and results have been almost uniformly delightful. I personally wouldn’t be as keen to go on this particular improv journey with a group of players that I don’t know very well yet.

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

Connected Concept: Shivving

“S” is for “Shivving”

“Discouraged in many improv settings, pimping is an accepted part of many ComedySportz games. The audience almost always responds with delight.”

Amy E. Seham, Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City  Jackson, Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 2001. p.112

Definition

The line between an improvisational character and the improviser themselves is often thin and ambiguous, and many traditions delight in the entertainment potentials of watching the players struggle when creating as much as appreciating the theatrical fruits of this strenuous labor. Shivving refers to a variety of meta-theatrical playfulness in which improvisers joyfully mess with each other a little to add some mischief into the mix. A type of offer or endowment, in experienced hands shivving results in heightened energy and whimsy. Used less adeptly, it can quickly resemble the gagging or pimping described above by Seham in its form and function, diminishing the scenic reality for little more than a droll observation or easy laugh. Shivving tends to target the performer under the character’s façade rather than the character or story itself, drawing upon personal knowledge or observations of the player rather than their dramatic construction. As such, this device strikes me as innately less problematic in venues where the improviser is never far from the vantage of the audience as opposed to those improv houses that privilege a more overtly representational or “realistic” approach. In the former setting, shivving can irreverently add to the fun; in the latter, it risks collapsing the dramatic conceit altogether.

Example

Player A, as is their wont, enters the scene with a recently-acquired wig from backstage.

Player B: (upon seeing A in wig) “I see you decided to wear a wig again…, David…”

Minimizing the Risk of Injury When Shivving

As the very phrasing suggests, shivving provides a sharp tool that wielded carelessly may cause unintended injury. If this performative approach calls to you, consider the following elements as you deploy its power…

1.) Rapport. In my personal experience shivving tends to miss the mark when it occurs in environments where deep trust has not already been firmly established. When I’m the target of this style of choice, a cheeky comment from a fellow player that I know well is likely to land much differently than from a new or guest teammate. Arguably, perhaps the source of a shivving retort shouldn’t matter, but in reality teasing can feel quite differently coming from someone inside your circle of trust as opposed to an outsider – just like in real life. For example, an improviser who knows me well might poke fun of my New Zealand-ness, but it often feels cheap or inelegant from an improviser who has just met me moments before if they decide to do the same. It’s similarly important that players have built a clear relationship with the audience and that they understand some spirited misbehavior is part of the contract of the game or overall experience. I tend to avoid shivving in general as it can be challenging to assess these subtle ingredients in real time especially if I’m not working alongside players where the trust is already deep and unshakable.

2.) Tone. Although I’ve seen some well-seasoned improvisers deploy bullish or curmudgeonly personae onstage with surprisingly appealing results, these energies illustrate exceptions rather than the rule and when it comes to shivving, in particular, an overly aggressive tone or style can often make a barbed choice read as mean-spirited or belligerent. Pursuing a more kindhearted or joyous approach generally yields less problematic results. This energy is a little difficult to quantify, but often includes a rather clear “wink” to all those in attendance that your intent is to playfully jab rather than saltily injure. If you’re inclined to deploy shivving to pointedly address actual performance concerns or frustrations (rather than to jovially mock trivialities or patterns) then it’s likely that the audience will pick up on these darker hues and the choice will land accordingly. Consider saving corrective notes and observations for the postmortem backstage rather than lacing them into your scene – or if an adjustment is warranted, utilize the tradition of speaking your truth or calling it onstage which typically retains the POV and façade of your character.

3.) Irreverence. I nod to this facet in my opening definition, but it’s also important to honor the foundational conceits and energies of your specific performance event. Shivving feels more on point when the general environment and style of play is a little tongue-in-cheek and boundary blurring. If the players are never far from sight during the performance, playful breaches are more likely to add some delightful interplay. (Shivving can resemble “heat” in this way as players might taunt each other between the rounds of a short-form match.) On the other hand, if your venue goals are to craft detailed realistic worlds with finely etched characterizations that mask the performers underneath, frequent shivving might starkly interrupt the dramatic action and plunge the audience into some proverbial ice water for little artistic payoff. With the likely exception of the healing arts, improv without some strategic mischief can easily become pretentious or posturing, but in some situations shivving may not prove the most successful tool for accessing this creative playful spirit. So pay some heed to the stylistic conventions that serve as the bedrock of your particular improvisational enterprise.

4.) Timing. And also consider when and why you’re deploying this technique. Shivving often has a tendency to encourage side games where players riff or circle around a singular moment with comedic musings and brainstorming. Many consider these flights of departure as having an innate entertainment value in their own right, but when this occurs in improvisational scene work it often tends to deflate the drive and energy of the parent scene. Loitering in such moments indulgently or detouring the story abruptly at a pivotal moment may result in some great laughs but ultimately degrade the narrative arc beyond repair. Specifically, shivving might cause more harm than good during the crucial opening moments of a scene as you’re establishing the given circumstances, when the story is building steam towards an energized climax, or as a scene reaches for its closing moment or button. In each of these cases a playful metatheatrical departure can sap the momentum and create unnecessary challenges for players when they inevitably strive to reassemble the scattered scenic jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Final Thought

Linking all of the above observations is the underlying need for heightened awareness: are shivving moves being coded and received as playful by the intended recipients? Shivving without considerable charm is rarely pleasing for anyone involved. Does the audience understand that such choices are part of the greater conceit and are they empowered to equally enjoy these moments? If shivving becomes too “insider-y” it’s much more likely that it will alienate rather than engage your guests. Lastly, is this manifestation of mischief serving the desired tone of your venue and project, or is it abruptly undermining other narrative or artistic goals?

This entry probably reveals my general ambivalence towards this improv tradition. In part I think this is because it’s awfully difficult to exercise this multifaceted awareness while simultaneously balancing the long list of other elements required for generative improvisational play. And, to more pointedly speak my own truth, as an improviser who predominantly plays in a country different from my birth nation, I’ve often been on the receiving end of a panicked or neophyte player using my otherness to grab an easy laugh when nothing else came to mind. That quickly feels icky and marginalizing. In my improv kitchen I’d liken shivving to the ground red pepper on my skill spice rack: a little can certainly add some fun flavor or heat to a scenic dish, but it doesn’t take much to make the whole meal inedible. But to continue the metaphor, I’d also acknowledge that some players can handle and relish much more improv spice than I can!

Related Entries: Commandment #4, Commenting, Endowing, Gagging, Offer, Pimping Synonyms: Heat, Mischief

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

Connected Game: Here They Come

Game Library: “Emotional Door”

The inherent structure of Emotional Door provides each team member an opportunity to seize the spotlight a little which can prove extremely useful in addressing Shining (or passenger) tendencies.

The Basics

Prior to the scene each player is publicly assigned a random emotion, and a unifying reason for a party or gathering is obtained (although there’s no reason you couldn’t use a broader array of scenarios too.) The scene begins with one player onstage alone in their preassigned emotional state. When a second player enters they bring their new emotion through the door with them and now both players experience and justify this new feeling. The third player then enters and everyone embodies this new state, as is the case with the fourth character and their specific mood. Once all four characters are onstage the process inverts with the fourth character leaving first, thereby returning the players to the prior (third) emotion. The third player then finds a reason to exit and the scene returns to the second emotion, and finally the second player leaves so that we are once again left with just the original first played who is experiencing their initial emotional state. And, obviously, all of these changes are justified and take place within the greater construct of the scene. The mechanics are similar to Space Jump or Growing/Shrinking Machine just without the leaps in time and context as this story occurs in uninterrupted real time.

Example

Players A, B, C and D obtain the emotions of “guilt,” “excitement,” “confusion” and “anger” respectively and explore the premise of a surprise birthday party. Player A volunteers to begin alone…

Player A: (pacing around the space while preparing) “I’m just not sure if I’ve done enough. Shonda is really such a good friend. She deserves better than this. Why did I think I even had the talent to make handcrafted decorations? She’ll never forgive me if this is a disaster. Who am I kidding? I’ll never forgive myself…”

There’s a knock at the door. Player A nervously approaches it.

Player A: “I should just call the whole thing off…”

Player B bursts through the door bringing “excitement” with them.

Player B: “Wow! Just wow!”

Player A: (their guilt slowly fading) “You really like it?”

Player B: “This all looks so professional! Who did you use?”

Player A: “Well actually, I sort of did this myself…”

Player B: “You are amazing!”

Player A: (now fully excited themselves) “I just can’t believe you’re here, Rina! You’re such a busy person. Shonda will be so happy to see you!”

Player B: “I can’t wait to surprise her! I’m going to hide behind the couch.”

Another knock at the door sends B darting behind the couch with anticipation. Player C enters instead of the guest of honor, bringing on confusion...

Player C: “Oh, I’m so sorry. I must have got the time wrong…”

The Focus

Enjoy the emotions and fully exploit the transitions as you move from one state of being to the next.

Traps and Tips

1.) Plot your course. While emotions will be gathered in a certain order this shouldn’t default to the order of your entrances. Organize your characters and emotions to maximize the scenic arc and avoid placing similar energies or tones back-to-back. Some emotions are tricky to explore alone onstage in the first position, such as jealousy or infatuation, so look to program these later in the mix. Placing the “largest” emotion in the last position also gives the scene a nice crescendo before the characters start peeling away. A little thoughtfulness prior to hitting the stage can help your team avoid unforced errors.

2.) Infect your teammates. It’s traditional for entering players to have their emotional energy already clearly activated; much of the entertainment and challenge arises from the other characters finding a way to switch from their prior condition. Each entrance undeniably affords a moment to appropriately shine, but then make sure teammates have sufficient stage time and focus to justify their own adjustment. Each character needn’t portray each new emotion in the same way – or for the same reason – but it’s important that the audience can see everyone in the current emotional climate before the next entrance or exit occurs.

3.) Honor your premise. The requisite shuffling on and off of characters can make it difficult to hold onto any nuanced story threads. It’s advisable to set up some clear and simple goals in the early less cluttered stages of the scene that can serve as a story north star. Will Shonda arrive and find the party joyful, or will her entrance be accompanied by inexplicable anger?! If there’s a guest of honor, as is the case above, it’s useful to have them either arrive as the final entrance in a climactic fashion (if they show up at all) or begin the process and thereby assuming the role of the protagonist. Your particular assortment of emotions might suggest a different playful choice, but I’ve found these options structurally astute in the past.

4.) Hide your game. Before the action commences I find it beneficial for the players to quickly repeat their assigned emotions so that they are front of mind for their teammates and the audience. This also affords a moment to confer as to a preferred entrance order. Once the game is up and running, however, players should avoid saying or announcing their emotions at all costs. Emotional Door delights when characters show rather than tell their feelings as the latter approach essentially names (and therefore punctures) the game. It’s easy for Player B to enter and just say “I’m excited to be here!” – and, sadly, it’ll probably get a polite chuckle. But the game levels up when everyone commits to embodying and reflecting the emotions in nuanced and surprising ways.

In Performance

Players need to carefully share focus and lean into their own characters in this format that nicely requires balancing responsibility and generosity. Each player should embrace their entrance and emotional contribution, and although the last entrance may get a little less stage time, they are nonetheless critical and routinely provide the most dynamic fireworks.

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Shining