1.1 – The Self Contained Emotional Statement


How do you start an improv scene? My answer was forged from the perspective of giants’ shoulders.

Mick Napier, of The Annoyance Theater, says we start with just one thing.

– Assume a posture.
– Grab an object.
– Start a motion.
– Engage your environment.
– Embody a character.
– Emote.

What do you do with that one thing? Expand, says Napier. Discover through “if this
than what” extrapolation. Build that one thing out, or draw a line to another point of the

The direction I believe you should expand to – the scene start structure most conducive to
good improvisation – is the Self-Contained Emotional Statement.

It can be as simple as:

– I love it here.
– I hate the arts.
– I’m uncomfortable.

The Self-Contained Emotional Statement aligns you with an emotional perspective. It’s a solid foundation on which to build the possibilities.

It’s a statement. Not a question shifting the responsibility of providing information to your partner. There’s a period. It’s definitive.

It’s an emotional statement. Emotional reaction is one of our three key tools; let’s get to it. You need to feel and, for the reaction, you need to give that feeling a direction. Give X the power to make you feel Y.

Being self-contained, the statement places you on solid ground without dictating the scene to your partners. Mick Napier urges us each to “take care of yourself” without confining the scene. Allow your partner the choice of whether to mirror you in some fashion or to take on something entirely their own. Being self-contained is increasingly an imperative the larger a group you have on stage.

In the examples employed for following chapters devoted to larger group work, I will use the Self-Contained Emotional Statement in a fairly rigid construction. Of course on stage, the statement’s same content can be born out much more subtly. I can’t act out love in text; I have to write it.

On an improv stage, I think clarity, though, must take priority over subtlety. The world we build around us needs to be clear so others – performers and audience members – can play along.

So don’t skimp on The Details. Give your emotion specific direction.

– I love being a part of this office.
– I hate paper mache.
– All these gosh darn marsupials are making me uncomfortable.

Clarity is about specificity and brevity. If you keep your initiations short and succinct, you will enable your partners to establish a verbal pattern around your contribution.

I initiate with the Self-Contained Emotional Statement because it gives me a defined point in space on which I can stand solidly. And because from that one point, the scene has the flexibility to build in myriad directions.

For example…

Player 1 – I don’t like the way this painting is staring at me.
Player 2 – Oooh, our view is amazing.
P1 – I don’t think I’m going to be able pee all weekend with this fella looking at me from above the toilet.
P2 – I’m so glad we chose the mountain view over the city view.
P1 – He’s old and French and he’s got a mustache.
P2 – I just want to cut out this window and send it as a picture postcard.
P1 – Martha, we’re changing rooms!
P2 – Damnit, Gerald, just sit down to pee!

– – – –

Player 1 – I don’t like the way this painting is staring at me.
Player 2 – I don’t like the way this cereal box is judging me.
Player 3 – I don’t like the way this stamp condemns me with its eyes.
P1 – Are you saying I’ll never be immortalized in a portrait?
P2 – Are you saying I’ll die sooner as a result of your high sugar content?
P3 – Are you saying this bill payment will never arrive on time?
P1 – Stop staring and I’ll buy you.
P2 – Stop judging me and I’ll buy five more boxes.
P3 – Stop condemning me, and let me lick your back.

– – – –

Player 1 – I don’t like the way this painting is staring at me.
Player 2 – I like his expression. It says, “ole.”
Player 3 – I don’t get it. How’d the guy not get gored before the painting was finished?
Player 4 – Daddy, I want a bull.
Player 5 – Exhibit’s closing in five minutes, folks.
P1 – I don’t like that mustache.
P2 – I like his mustache. It says, “I have horns of my own.”
P3 – Seriously. How do you get an angry bull to stand posing instead of goring that guy?
P4 – I’m going to take my bull and I’m going to trample Judith Lynn’s stupid face.
P5 – Um, folks. Did you hear me? I said, five minutes. Less now.
P1 – I don’t like that shit-eating grin.
P2 – I like his shit-eating grin. It says, “I eat shit.”
P3 – Well, I guess this guy, he had to stand still. But they must’ve gone through, like, forty painters.
P4 – She’ll be all, like, “Oh, no, I’m sorry I didn’t invite you to my slumber party.” And I’ll be all, “Too late.” Trampled.
P5 – Ignore me? Oh, hell no. This some bullshit. I got a bar mitzvah to get to.

– – – –

Three different types of scenes stem from one solid point – a Self-Contained Emotional Statement. From the self-contained statement, the scenes grow organically. A group builds something out of nothing, establishing themselves individually so as to move forward together.

It’s this collaborative construction that the audience came to see. Let’s use its magic to wow them.


Starting with one player’s Self-Contained Emotional Statement, our troupe can build two person, three person, four person, five person, any-number-of-persons scenes. We can play along the entire spectrum of scenes driven by emotional patterns and characters. We set the stage for sustainable scenes that are conducive to heightening through callback.

The Self-Contained Emotional Statement is a single point in space among infinite possibilities. With the addition of the second contribution to the scene, we have two points, and with two points we have a line. And with every consecutive point, we continue to define the trajectory of the scene.

As improvisers, we must get good at walking backwards with direction. In an improvised scene, we can’t know where we’re going; we can only keep track of where we’ve been. Make each step based on those preceding it. Only through studying the path we’ve laid down can we determine where we’re going.

And then we must get good at kayaking while facing upriver. While we choose our headings based on charting past coordinates, we also design to go with the scene’s flow. We have to make adjustments – not corrections – to get where we want to go. We have to keep flexible focus, fluidly embracing each new current as part of the new plan.

We learn improvisation as a troupe similarly to how any team learns its sport. The team runs rigid drills focused on navigating a particular aspect of the game, like getting the ball inbounds. The team practices exercises designed around successfully executing a discrete task, like ensuring on offensive player gets open to catch a pass. The team’s individuals collectively learn a book of plays so they can be flexible in-the-moment, reacting fluidly as a unit to changes in-the-moment.

Let’s fill our improvisational toolkit with rigid mechanics that we can bend and flex in developing organic scenes in-the-moment. From a self-contained emotional statement any type of scene is a possibility. If we study the variations, we can learn to confidently follow and manage the scene’s flow wherever it goes.

In this endeavor, we’ll start with large group scenes. The more people on stage, the more clarity each individual needs to bring, and so in group work the steps required to build a successful scene are most discrete.

How do we learn? It takes a village.

NEXT: Collaboration

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