Improv scene templates: We Need to Talk

Last night I was working with one of the groups that perform at Hump Night. We crafted a template together that was producing some wonderful scenes. The template is a little more complicated than scene templates I’ve written about before. It took us a few steps to get there during the rehearsal. So rather than jumping to the end, I’ll walk through the steps we took.

Last night I was working with one of the groups that perform at Hump Night. We crafted a template together that was producing some wonderful scenes. The template is a little more complicated than scene templates I’ve written about before. It took us a few steps to get there during the rehearsal. So rather than jumping to the end, I’ll walk through the steps we took.

Step 1: One Person Silent

I’ve been working a lot lately with one person silent scenes. This was first explained to me by Jill Bernard from Huge Theater in Minneapolis (IRC Podcast 2010-02-15 Jill Bernard). The exercise is very simple. You do a two person scene where one person doesn’t speak. All they do is listen, and all they have to do is listen.

I’ve merged this with something that Tara DeFrancisco told me about, scenes where one person comes in with an important thing to talk about with the other person (IRC Podcast 2010-03-10 Tara Defrancisco). You know those times where you have something you need to say to a co-worker, a friend or a loved one, the kind of thing that you rehearse in the mirror, in the shower or while you are driving to see them? That’s the kind of thing one person should walk in with.

Some other notes to give beforehand:

  • The person listening will need to do much less than you might think. All they have to do is listen and breath. They will have reactions and they may feel like they need to do something to show how they feel, but they really don’t. One tip is to breath through your mouth and relax your jaw. People tend to clench their jaw and hold their breath when holding in an emotion. If you relax your jaw, and breath through your mouth, your emotional reactions will spill out more easily. It’s certainly harder to conceal them.
  • The person who is speaking should pay attention to how the listener is reacting. They should acknowledge what they see and let that fuel their monolog. For instance if the person is irritated, they could say something like, “I know you find this subject irritating and I’m sorry you feel that way, but it’s important to me.”
  • The speaker should protect the listener by not asking a lot of questions. Listeners can’t respond to the questions, so it puts them in an awkward position. An occasional unanswered question is fine, but just make them rare.

We did a round like this first, where everyone gets to be the listener and everyone gets to be a speaker.

Step 2: Listener May Respond (Minimally)

Next do another round of these type of scenes, but this time the listener may respond. The speaker should start the scene and again have an important thing to discuss with the listener, but this time, after the speaker has said the first 5 or 6 sentences, the listener may say something. It should be brief, maybe just a few words, but they can speak. The scene continues for a few minutes with the original speaker saying 75% to 90% of the dialog.

Step 3: Make it a Scene

After watching a few of the scenes in step 2, we came away both really liking what was happening, but feeling like the scenes could use something. They weren’t quite full scenes and they seemed to get stuck in one place. After discussing it, we decided to add two things.

First, the scene would start with the listener on stage doing something. They should choose an activity and do it throughout the scene. The speaker enters after a moment and starts in with what they want to talk about. Again the listener chimes in, but only after the speaker has said quite a bit and only minimally after that, until…

Finally the listener will take over the scene. They should tell a story and the original speaker now becomes the listener. Some important points:

  • The story should be a fictitious one. Make it up, don’t tell a real story from your life.
  • The story should feel like a non sequitur at first. When you tell it, you should have no idea why you are telling this story or how it ends. As you tell the story, your subconscious will come up with a reason for why this story is relavent to the scene. When it works, it will surprise you, but make perfect sense at the same time.
  • The original speaker should really just listen to the story until it’s finished. Resist the temptation to interrupt the story or yes-and it in the middle. Let the the storyteller get the whole thing out and then respond honestly to it.

The resulting scenes were really great. They had strong stakes. The characters cared about what was happening. The scenes were funny. And the stories at the end were unpredictable. They seemed like scenes right out of a play. I think this template was a particularly strong one, giving you a really complete scene. And I have a few ideas about how to extend it further.

At the end, we talked about how we can apply this more generally. And I think there were many small takeaways from these scenes:

  • It’s ok to be silent in a scene. It’s okay to just let the other person speak for a while and listen to them. Not every scene has to be a ping pong style back and forth dialog. As the speaker it’s nice to really finish your thoughts and follow through with your ideas.
  • Pay close attention to how your scene partner is reacting and use it to fuel what you are doing and saying. The reactions themselves are good, but the scene really comes alive when one person reacts and the other person acknowledges and uses that reaction.
  • Having something important to talk about in the scene is really helpful. It gives the scene stakes.
  • If your scene is getting stuck in a rut, just launch into a story. Don’t worry about how the story ends or how it fits with the scene. You will figure it out. And if your scene partner does this, just listen and let them tell the story.

By the way, inserting stories into scenes like this is something I’ve been playing with since I interviewed Matt Donnelly for the IRC Podcast.
The photo above is by Lisa Padilla.

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