Some Notes and Tips for Monoscenes

What is a monoscene?

It’s an improv form–a structure for an improvised performance like the Harold or La Ronde.

Often in a play, a series of scenes are set in one location, all in a row with no break in time. For instance, the structure of Chekhov’s most famous plays are all pretty similar. They consist of four acts, and each act happens in a different setting. Characters enter and exit many times during the act and each time the combination of characters on stage changes, a new scene is formed. These are called French scenes.

French scenes are the building blocks of monoscenes. You start with 1-3 characters on stage doing a scene. Eventually one (or more) characters exits or enters and a new French scene occurs with the new combination of characters. There are no sweep edits or tag outs. Entering or exiting is the only way to “edit” within a monoscene. A monoscene can be 10 minutes or an hour. It’s up to you.

The term monoscene was first coined when I was working with the Swarm for their show, Slow Waltz Around Rage Mountain.
The term monoscene was first coined when I was working with the Swarm for their show, Slow Waltz Around Rage Mountain.

Think of it as a series of beats

Each beat is probably around the length of a scene, between 30 seconds and 3 minutes. The lengths should vary, but most beats should be at least a minute long. If you are getting a lot of 30 second beats, you need to focus on making beats longer and holding off longer before you enter or exit.

Within a beat the characters should mostly be talking about one thing. One beat can end, and a new one can start when:
Continue reading “Some Notes and Tips for Monoscenes”

Under The Gun Theater Interns

I’m about to start a new class on Tuesday and we are just about full, but I have a couple of slots still open for the class. I’m hoping I can find a couple of interns who would like to take the class in exchange for working at the theater.

In order to be an intern, you’d need to be available on Fridays or Saturdays for 8 weeks. Your duties would vary, but would likely include some box office duties, ushering, cleaning, etc. We may also ask you to do things like take photos or video of shows, and to post on our social media before and during performances. Lastly, your duties might include stage managing for some shows (lights and sound).

Perks for being an intern would include 1 free admission to every show (when you are working, you could give a free comp ticket to a friend), and free tuition for the current Tuesday night class or a future class.

If you are interested, use the form below to email us. Thanks!

UPDATE: The Tuesday night class has started, but we still need interns. We will be offering new classes starting in January, so you could intern now and bank a class or two for the new year.

New Theater Diary: 4 Days To Go

4 days to go before we enter the space that will be our new theater. Angie and I are working every day and there is barely enough time to update this diary, but I’m going to do my best.

Every day seems to bring a new package of things we need for the theater. We got a cash register delivered on Tuesday for our bar and brackets to mount the speakers the day before. Lots of little things trickling in from Amazon. What a pain it would be actually be driving around getting all these things. Our big shopping day will be tomorrow.

A significant chunk of my responsibilities is to work on the website. I decided to re-write the code for the site from scratch and implement a lot of features that I felt would be nice to have but would be hard or impossible to implement in WordPress. I think that as our audience and students interact with the site, it will become more and more useful over time.

We’ve put up some new classes, a few one day workshops on different topics and an improv performance class for advanced students.

Finally, with the help of the ensemble, I’ve come up with names for the two improv shows that will be opening in October:

  • #trending is the name of our improv show which uses a panel discussion about the week’s viral internet content as it’s inspiration for scenes.
  • Based on a True Story is our version of shows like Armando and ASSSSCAT, but an interview with invited guests will stand in for the monologist.


New Theater Diary: 7 Days To Go

Help us build a new theater!So a week from today, we will be beginning our build out of the new Under The Gun Theater. The space is a 1500 square room on the second floor of a building in Wrigleyville. It’s currently set up as a theater. It used to be the home of the Links Hall dance company and for the last year or so has been the space used by One Group Mind.

We plan on investing a lot into the space right away. We are building a platform stage with some soundproofing built in. We are buying a new set of lights and lighting board. We are carving out a space for a bar. Our bottle cooler should be arriving next week. Right now we are ordering various things that can be delivered to our homes like brackets to mount speakers to the wall and a cash register for the bar.

Our rehearsals are going well. I’m very excited to be working with so many funny and talented people. It’s definitely the fun part that makes all the work worthwhile.

Today, I’m off to get a few personal things done before things start getting really crazy. I’ll try to do a short update everyday for those of you who are curious about the process.

Building a New Theater

Help us build a new theater!About a year ago, Angie McMahon and I started a new theater company in Chicago. It’s called Under The Gun Theater. Angie had just left Chemically Imbalanced Comedy a non-profit theater company that she had founded, and I had begun to produce shows here in Chicago, primarily a variety show called Hump Night. We had worked together on a couple of projects and realized that our skill sets and goals were quite similar.

We wanted to run a theater which welcomed and combined all kinds of performers, not just improvisors. We wanted a theater that focused on comedy. And we wanted a place where we could both create and direct shows.

Last year, we produced a number of shows including a weekly variety show called Hump Night, an improv tournament, an improvised (and scripted) one act play series and Snubfest, a long running comedy festival that Angie founded. We produced those shows at other theaters. This year we are taking it to the next level. We are opening a theater of our own in Wrigleyville, just down the street from Wrigley field at the corner of Clark, Sheffield and Newport.


Last month we cast an ensemble of nearly 40 people and we began rehearsing 5 shows that we plan on opening in our new space this October. In one week, we take over the rooms in Links Hall and begin building a new stage and bar. We hope to be open by mid October, but that will depend on city inspectors and other factors.

We hope it’s going to be a great new addition to the landscape of Chicago comedy and improv theater. We will be a short walk from The Public House Theater, The Playground, The Annoyance and Comedy Sportz. Comedy Sportz also just moved into some rehearsal spaces in the same building.

We are having a Grand Opening Fund Drive this month over on our website. Instead of using Kickstarter or Indiegogo, we created a promotions section on our website, so you can contribute to us directly. Please check them out. You can buy tickets to shows, t-shirt, hoodies, books, coaching sessions and more. You can even buy a homecooked brunch by yours truly.

Game of the Scene – Examples in TV Sketch Comedy – Portlandia

I’m finishing up a Game of the Scene class through Under the Gun Theater this week and I have often found myself using examples of sketches from TV sketch comedy shows. Once you know what to look for, the Game of the Scene is easy to spot.

This Portlandia sketch has an extremely simple game: two characters ask each other over and over if the other has read something, to which the answer is always yes. What’s unusual or funny about this? For me, it’s satirizing the idea that being the best read is a competition. They don’t bother to actually discuss any of the articles, underlining that they are only mentioning the articles to score points, to find that one thing that they have read, but the other has not.

The “if that, then what” is very straightforward. They pile on the examples, heightening the absurdity by generally making each subsequent article more obscure, and by speeding up the tempo so fast that they can barely hear what the article is before they claim to have read it. There is some nice misdirection twice where Armisen almost sounds like he is going to say that he didn’t read the article, but instead says, “I did not… like the end of it.”

Finally they exhaust the questions part of the game and then add a few variations, first by Maggie bringing in a new copy of Portland Monthly that neither of them have read yet. They attack the magazine like animals in order to prevent the other from reading it and pulling ahead in the competition. This leads to them devouring newspapers on the street and getting run over by cars on the way to ripping apart of phone book across the street. The final tag is just a voice of someone on the street saying, “Hey, it says, ‘Don’t Walk.’ Can’t you read?”

Once again, it’s a very simple game, hard to miss. But they pack in a lot of heightening in a very short amount of time. Improvisors might look at this and think that this is too simple. But in order to play more subtle, nuanced and/or complicated games, you have to be capable of executing the simpler ones first.

Hump Night Interns

We have 6 more Hump Night shows before we take a break for the summer and I’d love to find a couple of interns to help out with the show. I’m looking for people to help by taking photos, posting to our social media and looking for ways to improve the overall experience for our audience. We only have 6 shows left, so it’s not a long commitment. If you’d like to also take the upcoming Game of the Scene class or summer Improv Boot Camp for free that can be arranged or just do it to help out with the show. We can use the help! Just fill in the form below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can (answering the question is optional).

Please share this with your friends if you know of someone who might be interested.

Why Improv Boot Camp?

This summer I’m trying something quite different from what I’ve done in the past. I’m going to be teaching a new kind of intensive improv class. It’s an Improv Boot Camp, a training program designed to work specific skills, develop a powerful set of tools, and to practice them many times in different ways over a four week period.

2016 Improv Boot Camps are registering now
2016 Improv Boot Camps are registering now

Most summer intensive improv programs have a fairly broad spectrum of topics that they try to cover. If you are just starting out in improv and you are looking to get exposed to a lot of different ideas and try many exercises in a short period of time, you should look at those programs. Those programs can be quite stimulating. But they can also be overwhelming. So many great ideas, but far too few chances to practice them. Often the classes are too large, and you might only do an exercise once, on one day, never to try it again.

My program is for the improvisor who has some experience. They know the basics. They already have a notebook full of ideas and concepts. They enjoy improv, and they want to be great at it. What they need is practice, not another 20 exercises that they’ll only do once. Continue reading “Why Improv Boot Camp?”

Questions, Arguments, and Trying to be Funny

In your first few improv classes you often get very broad guidelines of how to create good improv scenes. For instance, you are taught things like “Always yes-and your scene partner!” or “Never ask questions!” or “Don’t try to be funny!” These rules are often useful, but improvisors tend to hold on to them too long. They judge their scene work against these rules when the rules don’t apply. And these rules get in the way of learning new things.

For instance when I teach people how to discover games in their scenes, I encourage them to ask questions and to disagree with the other character. We talk openly about trying to make the scene more funny, and this frustrates some improvisors. Sometimes it frustrates them so much that they reject the concept of the Game of the Scene altogether, and that is a shame.


Why do we tell students to avoid questions? Continue reading “Questions, Arguments, and Trying to be Funny”

No Gap Dialog

A lot of improv dialog tends to settle into a regular rhythm, a ping pong back and forth that we encourage in new students. I say something, you listen, pause briefly to consider what I have said and respond. Then I pause briefly to consider what you’ve said and respond to you. This is one way to build a scene, but if this rhythm continues throughout the scene, it can be deadly boring—one polite line of dialog after another with a short polite pause in between each one.

Instead, try something I call No Gap Dialog. Here is a good template to try:

  • Two players enter and start a scene silently.
  • The players can take some time in the beginning of the scene to take each other in without speaking, 5 to 10 seconds of silence up top is good.
  • Then once one player speaks, both players must speak to each other without any pauses at all. They should almost be cutting each other off and finishing each other’s sentences.
  • Have someone side coaching you. They should snap their fingers if you are pausing between lines. And they should try to keep you going without gaps for about 60-90 seconds.

Do a round of this and see how it feels. What do you notice? Continue reading “No Gap Dialog”