Taking responsibility for your scene

This year I attended the Improv Fest Ireland and one of the shows that got me thinking was Neil+1. In it Neil Curran finds an audience member who has never improvised before, preferably someone who has never even seen improv, and makes them his scene partner for a 45 minute show. It’s a daring concept, improvising with a complete newbie in front of large festival audience. And yet it works.

I’ve seen demonstrations like this a couple times before, taking someone from the audience and creating a scene or a show with them on the spot. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but it always seems to work. In part, it may work because the audience lowers their expectation of what the newbie can do, so any good move by them is treated as particularly surprising, but I think something else is going on. I think it tends to work because the experienced player takes on the full responsibility of making the scene work and making their scene partner look good.

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Improv Resource Center Podcast with Amey Goerlich

Amey Goerlich talks to Kevin Mullaney about improv exercises and concepts. Amey is the host of the Indie Cagematch in at UCB East and an independent improv teacher in New York. We talk about Krompf, pummeling, improvising with your eyes closed, bad rap warmups, half ideas, button lines, teaching film to 5 year olds, e-Improv, and bonsai tree houses.

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Status Exercises in Improv

Someone on reddit asked about status exercises. Here is my response.

It’s important to stress that status is much more useful in improv if you look at status as behavior, as opposed to social rank. Status is how you carry yourself, or how you treat the other characters in the scene. You can be a low status president or a high status janitor. And in fact, flipping status from what you might expect because of social rank is a lot of fun.

I have used cards when teaching status for a long time. I don’t have people put them on their foreheads. Instead, I have people pick a card and then instruct them that the card rank corresponds to how they carry themselves and expect to be treated. Or I tell them that the card corresponds to how they should treat the other person. In some cases I give people two cards, one for how they see themselves and one for how they see the other person. This combination can be enlightening. Someone who sees themselves as a 3 and their scene partner as a Jack, is very different than someone who sees themself as a King or Queen and someone else as a Jack.

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Improv Resource Center Podcast with Ric Walker

Ric Walker, Second City instructor and member of the Improvised Shakespeare Company is our guest. We talk about reacting emotionally, clown work, developing shows and more.

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”

Reflecting your scene partner

A few weeks ago, I started trying this exercise with the teams I coach: Whoever speaks second in the scene may only repeat words that the first person says. For instance:

I had a terrible day.
Yeah, I got laid off again.
Exactly! They just hired me back a couple weeks ago.
A couple weeks ago?
Nobody does that. Hires you back, gives you one paycheck and then gives you a pink slip the next day.
Nobody does that.
I think the boss there must be a sadist.

And so on. Notice how easy this is. It’s easy for the player repeating, all they have to do is repeat a few words that the first speaker says. And it’s easy for the speaker too, they just keep elaborating on what they just said.

Are all the questions ok?

Well, there are a lot of questions, and we all know from improv 101 that we don’t ask questions. But the truth is many kinds of questions are useful, not wrong. You probably know that already. In this case, the questions are helping because they focus the players on precisely the part that is most interesting.

Take the following statement, “My only daughter left for college today to study English.” If you were the repeater, your options might be:

  • “Your only daughter?
  • “For college?
  • “Today?”
  • “To study English?”

In each case, you would focus the scene in a particular direction. If you were the speaker, you would naturally elaborate on whatever point that the repeater asks you about. So while it may look like the repeater isn’t doing much, they are actually being extremely useful. They are guiding the speaker to the part of the statement which seems most interesting and could turn into something fun.

How you ask the question is important too. The repeater should be doing more than just repeating the words, they should be repeating them in a way that reveals their point of view. For instance, if they are surprised when they say “Today?”, that might make the speaker realize that the daughter left for school three months early and that she must really want to get away from home. If the repeater says “To study English?” with disdain, the speaker might realize that he had hoped his daughter would study something different.

So just ask questions?

No, the repeater doesn’t always have to ask questions. Sometimes, you should just repeat the part that you agree with. For instance, “Yeah… English” instead of “To study English?” You can also add a word or two like “right”, “yeah”, or “huh?” You don’t need to be super strict about repeating the exact words, as long as you are reflecting back to your scene partner the part that you most want to hear more about.

What should I do if I’m the speaker?

If you are the speaker in this exercise, let the repeater guide you. Respond directly to whatever they repeat back to you. In a way, the repeater is in charge, coaching you to elaborate on the most interesting details. With that in mind, if you are the repeater, and the speaker hasn’t said anything new or interesting in their last statement, just wait. Stay silent for a little bit and let them say another line or two until they say something you really want to hear more about.

Why do this?

Because it’s a lot easier than typical yes-anding. That’s the other improv 101 rule you are breaking by doing this. Technically you are just yesing. You are not adding information. Sometimes the beginning of improv scenes can be so laborious with all the mental gymnastics behind the diligent yes-anding. One person establishes the location, the other yes-ands with a relationship, the first person makes the relationship more specific (and so on). Sometimes that works, sometimes you can see how hard the improvisors are working to agree correctly and it’s just frustrating because each person in turn establishes new details which don’t work very well with what the other person has established.

Another reason to practice repeating, is that it’s a tool you can use anywhere in any scene, even if your scene partner doesn’t know what you are doing. Try it in your next rehearsal, show or class. When you are doing a scene, use this repeating technique for just your first 2 or 3 lines. See what happens. I bet the top of your scene will go very smoothly.

For a variation on this exercise, try this. After a minute or two of one person repeating, the players should flip roles. In the middle of the scene, the repeater should start responding with their own point of view about the topic or situation. When that happens, the speaker flips into repeater mode. A third variation is to have a longer scene and to flip roles several times in the scene. I was amazed how good the scenes were when people flipped back and forth. The players should simply follow these two rules:

  • Repeat something your scene partner said.
  • Or elaborate on whatever your scene partner just reflected back at you.

Finally, this is just an exercise. I’m not saying this is how you should improvise all the time. I’m saying this is a tool that you should add to your tool belt. Sometimes, at the beginning of the scene it’s better to just listen to your scene partner and repeat something. Do it because they said something interesting and you want to hear more about it. Do it because you didn’t quite understand what they just said and you want it clarified. Do it because they just said something a little crazy, and you want to make sure that they own it. But definitely do it.

Improv scene templates: Third Wheel

We tried this template at the end of a rehearsal this week a couple of times. It was a pretty fun one, although I think there is such an inherent game to it, it’s almost short form. It’s a variation on the non sequitur scenes I described a few weeks ago, but this one is for three people:

We tried this template at the end of a rehearsal this week a couple of times. It was a pretty fun one, although I think there is such an inherent game to it, it’s almost short form. It’s a variation on the non sequitur scenes I described a few weeks ago, but this one is for three people:

Three people start a scene
You can have them choose their own activity, but I had them just having lunch or dinner, sitting at a table.
Two people have a conversation
The first two people who talk respond to each other directly and talk about the same topic. The third person just listens to their conversation.
Third person responds with a non sequitur
Eventually, the third person chimes in, but talks about something completely different from the other two.
The first two people continue their conversation
Whenever the first two people talk, they are talking about their original conversation and whenever the third person talks they are talking about their own topic. Everyone should listen to each other and should react honestly to how it feels to have this kind of conversation.

From here, the scene could go in lots of different ways. Perhaps the conversations could merge, or the third wheel could keep trying to merge the conversations and failing. Since we only did it a couple of times, I’m not sure what all the variations could look like.

I’m realizing that a major theme in my improv thinking these days is how important surprises are. The dialog of improv scenes is often way to linear and gets stuck on whatever topic the players start with. Non sequitur is one tool to fight this tendency.

Please let me know in the comments if you try this and what your thoughts are.

Also, please take a look at my other posts on scene templates.

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.

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Improv scene templates: Non Sequitur

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.

This is the third post in a series on scene templates for improv scenes. Check out Part 1 – You Statements and Part 2 – Activity to Point of View.