Scene templates can be very useful for improv scenes. It’s good to have a simple game plan or strategy to help start a scene. And it’s good to practice those strategies over and over so that they become second nature. There is no single right template. Just like there are lots of good ways to begin a chess game or lots of different successful plays in football or basketball, there are lots of good ways to begin a scene.
Here is one that I like.
Enter the stage at the same time. Choose some spot on the stage to be and go there. No need to preplan any emotion or character or situation. Just enter, notice your scene partner and stop.
Look at your scene partner
Take a few moments to just look at your scene partner. You don’t need to turn your whole body to them, but look at them for at least five or six seconds.
Make a ‘You Statement’
One of you, make an observation about the other person’s behavior or emotions. Keep it simple. Don’t invent anything, just look at them and say what you see. For example:
“You are annoyed with me.”
“You have a mischievous smile on your face.
“You are radient.”
“You’re in a good mood.”
Yes-and the observation
If your scene partner says you look suspicious, be that. If they think you look happy, be that. Respond and behave in whatever way they have observed.
Talk about that behavior
For the next few lines, just talk about that behavior. Don’t worry about the circumstances of the scene. They will tumble out when you are ready. If the first observation is that one character looks depressed, both players should talk about the player who is depressed for a few lines. Eventually you will realize who you are and what you are doing.
Obviously, this covers just the first 20 or 30 seconds of the scene and there are lots of ways to go from here. But that simple act of observing your scene partner and caring enough to call out their behavior instantly connects the two players. The audience is drawn into moments like this. It’s always interesting. Nothing clever is needed, because humans are fascinated with human behavior.
As you get better at this, you can probably shorten the amount of time you wait before you say something. Eventually you may want to force yourself to make the observation quickly instead of waiting.
At Upstairs Gallery
5219 N Clark
A Workshop with Kevin Mullaney
Behavior is a Game
This is a four hour workshop with CIF Artistic Director Kevin Mullaney.
Observe your scene partner, call out their behavior, respond impulsively and let the circumstances tumble out to make a game.
Some of the most fun games to play in a scene come from the emotional interplay of the characters. One player’s behavior inspires an impulsive response in their partner. Patterns of behavior emerge and help form behavior-based games. Justifications bubble up from your unconscious to make sense of what’s happening which leads to more ideas of how to play the game.
A couple years ago, when I first moved back to Chicago, I started a Meetup group for actors and improvisers to get together and practice their craft. We had some good practice sessions, but I shelved the project when things started to get busy for me in other areas. However, I recently decided to rekindle the project and refocus it just on improvisation. It’s now called the Chicago Improv Practice Group.
I anticipate setting up and running two types of events. One event will be open practice sessions with experienced coaches, like myself. These events will cost between $10 and $20 and last 2-3 hours. I’m going to start with setting up one event a month and we will grow it from there depending on the demand. Perhaps we will eventually have some weekly ones which will act like an inexpensive drop in class. The first of these will be on May 18th and cost $10.
The other major type of event will be in conjunction with Improv To Go, a new web site and app that I’ll be plugging soon. In those sessions, we’ll be inviting improvisers to a get together where we will be trying out exercises that we publish on the new app.
Second, I’m looking for musical acts for Hump Night. If you are interested in submitting your self or your group, check out that posting in Craigslist and respond to it.
Third, over the next few shows, the improv hour will begin to feature house teams formed from some of my recent students. Richard and the Kids is the first one featuring: Richard Scruggs, Jude Tedmori, Kyle Reinhard, Alex Hanpeter, Bethanie John, Matt Pina, and Matt Visconage. Others will be added in May.
If you haven’t checked out the lineup for this week’s Hump Night, it’s going to be really great. Mullaney Chain will feature John Hildreth, Lori McClain, Nicky Margolis and Tim Paul. Hope to see you there.
Perhaps you’ve been a part of something like this. It’s time to edit a scene on stage. One player starts to make a sweep edit, and everyone else hesitates before joining them. Finally someone joins from behind at about the same time that the first player waves for someone else to join them. Now there are three people in the scene. They each make fumbled initiations. and the scene continues to stumble forward as they try to make it work.
Or perhaps you’ve done this. You walk on stage and start doing some activity. You say nothing. No one joins for a really long time, perhaps because they can’t make sense of what you are doing. Finally someone does come on stage and immediately says something that contradicts what you have created. You freeze up because you are not sure if you should drop your initiation or say something that clarifies what you were doing and hope your scene partner can make sense of it. You are both extremely frustrated with each other, defensive at notes and begin to plot how you can get the other one kicked off the team.
You’ve probably heard that if you react or behave in a particular way in an improvised scene, you should continue to behave or react in that way throughout the scene. That’s good advice. It’s no fun to see a character react to something in a specific way and then drop it for the rest of the scene. If your scene partner does something and you react suspiciously, you should probably react to other things suspiciously too. That’s how you create a game1 for yourself.
The key though is to let yourself be provoked into these reactions by your scene partner. You shouldn’t have to invent things in the scene to treat suspiciously. It’s far better to be provoked by your scene partners actions instead. You could notice the bookcase and the copy of the Bible, pull it out and glower suspiciously at it. But it would be far more interesting if your scene partner said, I want to show you something and pulled out a book from the bookcase and then you became suspicious.
In rare cases, your scene partner may not be doing anything at all and then you have to actually discover things on your own to provoke you. But most of the time, once you have a template for how this character reacts, you should focus your attention on your scene partner and when your gut tells you “React!” go for it.
Hump Night returns after our sellout show last week with a post Chicago Improv Festival night full of delicious comedy.
7:30 – The Improv Hour
featuring two groups:
Dinosaur with Lauren Gilbert and Aaron Burns
& Barrel Roll with Kate Anderson, Shaun Clayton, Fuzzy Gerdes, Jose Gonzalez, Shaun Himmerick, Greg Inda, Erica Reid
8:30 – The Variety Hour
with a story by J. W. Basilo, standup by Will Meinen and Lane Pieschel, sketch by Princess Palace, and more sketch by Bethanie John
9:45 – Mullaney Chain
with guest improvisors Susan Messing, Lauren Dowden, plus two more to be named
Come see WILDCARD and Mullaney Chain on Wednesday night. The show is going to be at Strawdog Theater in the usual time and place for Hump Night. Check out the details here. The lineup for Mullaney Chain is going to be awesome. Can’t wait to play with my old coach and friend Craig Cackowski.