This scene template is a particularly fun one. It feels a little like a trick, but it can have surprisingly delicious results. It starts very much like the Activity to Point of View scene template that I described on Wednesday. One person enters and starts an activity and another person joins that activity. But when the players speak, it’s completely different.
One person starts a conversation
The first person says 1 or 2 statements about whatever topic they like. They can be describing something that happened to them, their state of mind or sharing their opinion on some topic.
Second person says something which is a non sequitur
The second person listens to what the first person says, but responds by talking about something completely different. Again they should use statements and avoid questions (unless they are rhetorical). If one person wants to talk about their job, the other wants to talk about their heartburn. If one person wants to talk about their sex life, the other wants to talk about Star Trek. They do not even need to verbally acknowledge what the other person says.
Each player continues their topic of conversation
When the first player responds, they again talk about their original topic. And when the second player speaks, they are talking about their topic. It’s as if each person is doing a different monolog and pausing as the other one speaks.
Pick one conversation or merge them
After bouncing back and forth between the two topics of conversation for a few lines, one of the players should switch to talk about the other person’s topic. Or in some cases, the player will realize why these two topics go together and merge them. Don’t force it, wait until a satisfying impulse occurs to you about how to merge them. The scene continues forward at this point like any other scene.
Some things to keep in mind:
When the other person is speaking, you are definitely listening and considering what they are saying, you just decide to return to your topic of conversation when it’s your time to speak.
Although you might expect this to be disjointed, it actually implies a strong connection between the characters. Non sequiturs happen all the time in real conversation, but they usually happen between people who know each other well and have a history.
Force yourself to keep the topics separate for at least 4 lines each when you practice this. And keep each line relatively brief. 1 or 2 full statements are plenty. Play with variations, if one player is saying a lot when it’s their turn, maybe the other person only says a few words when it’s their turn.
Once you have practiced this for a while, you can add non sequiturs to the middle of the scene as well. Let the conversation merge and then a little while later bring up something completely different as abruptly as you can. Resist the temptation to segue smoothly from one topic to another.
Let me know in the comments if this is clear. I am tempted to over explain and add examples, even when they are not necessary. So let me know if it’s needed.
On Monday I posted a template for beginning a scene that I called You Statements. Of course, you statements can be used effectively at nearly any point in a scene. Come to a dead end? Observe your partner and make a you statement. Notice your scene partner having a specific reaction to something? Make a you statement. Feel disconnected from your scene partner? You statement.
But this is not the only good way to start a scene. Here is another one I like.
One person starts an activity
Enter the stage and begin a simple activity. One that implies a specific location is always good. Examples are washing dishes, eating a meal, working on a car, folding laundry, typing at a desk, reading a book.
Second person joins the activity
Enter the space very soon after the first person settles into their activity. And start doing the same activity with them. Don’t just do something complimentary, really do whatever they are doing. If they are sitting and reading a book, do the same. If the first person is painting a picture, set up an easel next to them. Don’t be their teacher or their model. Do the same thing.*
First person stakes out a point of view
This can be about anything, but should not be about the activity at hand. Do one thing and talk about something else. Talk about anything under the sun and state your (character’s) point of view about it.
Yes-and the point of view
The second person should respond as if they agree and then in some small way add to the point of view.
Continue yes-anding the point of view
You don’t have to heighten the hell out of it. Just add some detail. Add some specifics. Build the point of view one step at a time with your scene partner.
From here, the scene can go in lots of directions. Sometimes the point of view will continue to build and eventually become so strange that one character peels off and decides that they don’t feel the same as the first. Sometimes they will share the same point of view throughout the scene. The way to keep this scene fresh is to keep bringing up new things to talk about and see how the point of view applies to these other topics of conversation.
This scene template can also work with you statements. Instead of stating a point of view in step three, say a you statement about your scene partner and yes-and from there. Observing behavior, you statements, stating points of view, emotional responses and yes-anding are all building blocks that you can mix and match to make a great scene.
* I really do mean do the same thing. I’m sure you realize that you can make a perfectly good scene from one person reading the paper and another person sweeping the floor. Or if one person is working on a car, another person can be writing a sonnet nearby. But your first instinct should be to join the activity always. Subtle complimentary activities can work for the exercise however. For instance, if one person is washing the dishes and another person is drying them.
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.