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.

Etiquette for starting an improv scene

Whoever makes the first move to edit, should get the first chance to initiate. It doesn’t matter how awesome your idea is. If they were a half second ahead of you, let them start an activity first and let them say the first line.

Perhaps one of these have happened to you in an improv show.

It’s time to edit a scene. One player makes a sweep edit, and everyone else hesitates before joining. Finally someone joins, but the first player doesn’t see them, and waves for someone else to join the scene too. Now there are three people in the scene. They each make fumbled initiations, and the scene stumbles forward as they try to make it work.

Or perhaps you’ve done this. You walk on stage and start doing an activity. You say nothing. No one joins for a really long time, perhaps because they can’t make sense of what you’re doing. Finally someone does come on stage and immediately says something that contradicts what you have created. You freeze because you’re not sure if you should drop your initiation or clarify what you’re doing.

Maybe you have done this. Continue reading “Etiquette for starting an improv scene”

IRC Podcast with Megan Johns

The latest episode of Improv Resource Center Podcast is up. I interview Megan Johns, a teacher at The Annoyance and a member of the New Colony. We talk about improv newbies, hybrid improv classes, and using improv to write plays. Megan’s latest show with the New Colony is 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche which runs through the end of July.

IRC Podcast with Joe Bill

The latest episode of Improv Resource Center Podcast is up. Joe Bill teaches Power Improv workshops in Chicago and around the country. He is one half of BassProv with Mark Sutton and one half of SCRAM with Jill Bernard. He also teaches at iO and has taught at the Annoyance before that.

I first got to know Joe Bill back in the 1990s. He was teacher over at the Annoyance when I was at iO. He coached Georgia Pacific, a very talented team at iO and eventually joined that team. Similarly he joined Inside Vladimir after some of the original members had moved on. I joined not long after that and it was then that we first really got to know each other. It’s always fun talking to him, because he has lots of experience and plenty of passion when it comes to improv.

IRC Podcast with Kurt Braunohler

Yesterday, I uploaded episode #10 of my improv podcast. This week my guest is Kurt Braunohler. I really enjoyed this conversation. We began by talking about how one goes about teaching Harold, but we quickly moved on to other topics like solo improv, image streaming and viewpoints. Finally we talked briefly about Caligula, an exercise that we talked about in the Susan Messing podcast.

Continue reading “IRC Podcast with Kurt Braunohler”

IRC Podcast with Lillian Frances

I uploaded episode #9 of the IRC Podcast yesterday. My guest this week is Lillian Frances who owns and runs the Laugh Out Loud Theater in Schaumburg, IL. She talks about auditions, teaching kids, using your warmups well, and yes-anding life. She performed at iO Theater and with many improv groups in Chicago. She was also a perfomer and assistant director for Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. She directed for Second City National Touring Company, the all women’ improv groups Jane and Sirens, and sketch shows with GayCo and Stir Friday Night.

This interview was a little different than the others, because we ended up talking a lot about what it’s like to run the business of a small improv theater. I really like how Lillie talks about her performers. It’s obvious that she has a lot of respect for her performers and trusts them in ways that not all improv directors do. It’s not surprising that several years after she first held auditions, seventeen of her first hires still work for her.

IRC Podcast with Susan Messing

Episode #8 of the IRC Podcast has just been uploaded. This week’s guest is Susan Messing. She performs regularly at the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, where she teaches level four classes. She created the curriculum for level 2 at iO Theatre and teaches there as well. Among the episodes we discuss are Caligula, Busby Berkeley, and Doublemint Twins.

She can be seen performing every Thursday at 10:30 in Messing with a Friend at the Annoyance.

IRC Podcast with Billy Merritt

Episode #7 of the IRC Podcast has just been uploaded.

This week my guest is Billy Merritt who performs and teaches at the UCB Theatre in LA. We talk about premise based Harolds (Pirate Harolds, Robot Harolds and Ninja Harolds) and his character based performance classes where he has his students to create a single character over eight weeks. We also discuss character wheels, the cube edit and the hawk edit.

IRC Podcast with Tara Defrancisco

Episode #5 of the IRC Podcast has just been uploaded. Tara Defrancisco is a former member of the Second City Touring Company. She performs and teaches for iO Theater and ComedySportz in Chicago. She discusses several exercises she uses in her classes and workshops. We start by talking about "What’s in the Box?" a short form exercise to help people make quick decisions and to yes and those decisions. Next we talk about an exercise where students initiate scenes as if they are expressing an important idea to a real person in their life. Last we discuss a couple of exercises designed to get students to make new and different character choices in their scenes.

Continue reading “IRC Podcast with Tara Defrancisco”

IRC Podcast with Kevin Hines

Episode #4 of the IRC Podcast has just been uploaded. Kevin Hines is a performer and teacher at the UCB Theatre in NYC. We begin by talking about a couple of exercises he uses to get students reacting quicker and more realistically to twists and turns in their scenes. We next talk about The Macroscene, a show that came out of his last performance class. Finally, we discuss an exercise he uses to rehearse third beats for Harolds.

Continue reading “IRC Podcast with Kevin Hines”