A therapist welcomes her patient into her office and asks him to tell her about his week. He tells her how he argued with his teenage child about a curfew. She tells him about her own truculent child. He tells her how he is frustrated with his spouse in the bedroom. The therapist sympathizes with him and complains about how her spouse refuses to sleep with her. The patient admits to getting too drunk at a work party. The therapist admits that she is drunk right now.
This is an example of a scene with a game.
The Game of the Scene is a term we use in improv (and sketch comedy) to describe what is funny and interesting about a particular scene. In order to describe the Game of a Scene, you typically need to answer three questions:
- What is the basic situation?
- What is the first unusual thing?
- If that, then what?
What is the basic situation?
The basic situation is of a therapist conducting a therapy session with a patient. We need to know the basic situation, because we need to know if any particular detail is either appropriate and expected or inappropriate and surprising.
Most of us have certain expectations about how therapy works, even if we have never been in therapy ourselves. A therapist asks patients questions and tries to get the patient to open up about their emotional life, their relationships and other aspects of their inner life. In some forms of therapy, the therapist virtually never speaks. The patient does all the talking. Also, therapists don’t typically share intimate details of their own lives during a session.
What is the first unusual thing about the scene?
Since it’s probably rare for therapists to share details of their own private life, when she talks about her truculent child, we can treat this as the first unusual thing. It’s not an extremely inappropriate thing to say, but it should strike most people as a bit strange.
If that, then what?
Once the therapist has shared one inappropriate personal detail, she continues to do so. First, the patient brings up his child and so the therapist bring up hers. Next, the patient talks about his spouse, and then the therapist talks about hers. Lastly, the patient talks about his drinking problem, so the therapist brings up hers. There is a heightening of inappropriate behavior. Each time the therapist speaks, she is pushing the boundaries of propriety more. But the doctor is also following a pattern. In this case, the therapist’s intimate details are parallel to her patient’s.
Finding the Game
These questions allow us to zero in and explore comedic premises in our scenes. We can translate them into steps that help us create games. First, start a scene and strive to make it normal and real. Do the things that you would expect to happen in that situation. Once the situation is clearly established, pay attention to anything that is unusual for the situation. Often you might need to call attention to the unusual thing by pointing it out. In the above example, the patient might point out that he didn’t think the therapist was suppose to talk about his personal life during sessions. This can help clarify the game for the improvisors. Then, after it’s clear what the game is, you can start looking for variations. Ask yourself, if the therapist is willing to share details about her relationship with her child, what else is she willing to share? Finally, respect any patterns that develop in the game.
This sounds kind of simple, but it’s quite hard to do spontaneously, in front of an audience. It usually takes a lot of practice to achieve each step. Often it takes many months after learning how to play games before players can do it onstage with any consistency.
If this example was helpful, let me know and I’ll try to post more like it.
Updated Tuesday, August 30th, 2016: Kevin Mullaney will be teaching a new set of classes beginning in January, 2017 through the Improv Resource Center in Chicago. The classes will take you through the process of discovering and playing games in your scene work. If you want to be the first to hear when these classes are available for registration, go the Improv Resource Center and join the mailing list.