3D.1 – Being Tertiary

Pop quiz, hotshot. When do you add on to a two person scene in progress?
A. When you have a funny idea
B. When the scene needs to be saved
C. When there are holes in the information on stage
D. When you want to get in on the fun
E. When you can heighten the game in play

Think about it. Now realize the question is flawed because its answers are not mutually exclusive.

Here is the proper pop quiz: When do you add on to a two person scene in progress?
A. To serve yourself
B. To serve the show

Hopefully now the answer is more obvious.

Entering a two person scene in progress, you are a tertiary player. The scene’s not about you and you shouldn’t make it about you.

If your funny idea serves the show – triggering a reaction, capping a sequence or inciting a satisfying edit – bring it on. If it gets you a laugh and at best gives nothing and at worst takes momentum or focus, save it for the bar’s “I was thinking…” session post show. Improv is a great hobby for people who like to talk over drinks about what they could have done.

If you can drive focus toward a potentially meaty aspect of a scene that’s flailing, get out there and remind the two players of the great idea they already have at their disposal. But beware the impulse to “save” the scene. Too typically an improviser executes on this impulse by inserting a new element – to the rescue! But for players who are already treading water on stage, this is like being thrown an anchor instead of a life preserver. Players 1 and 2 think, “I don’t know how to react to what we’ve established. How am I supposed to react to this?” You become just one more thing to figure out in an already belabored scene. Players treading water can also panic and drag down and drown any “helping” hand. Don’t try and save the scene with new information. If the scene really needs your help, focus the players on information they’ve already established.

The impulse to fill the “holes” in information can be similarly derailing and/or burdensome. Describing to the audience that the players on stage – who are bemoaning a tragic accident wherein a car packed with their friends was crushed by a Mack truck – are wearing clown costumes, could help establish and heighten a funny dynamic. Entering a scene where a loving couple is enjoying a sunset through mixed metaphors to establish that they’re on a cruise ship will likely require that the couple divert or dilute their fun to incorporate your tangential detail.

A scene that you are watching go well is going well without you in it. Don’t enter a two person scene to divide the fun into thirds; enter a scene if you can all share three times the fun. A scene – wherein Player 1 is embarrassed to learn from Player 2 that the office knows it’s her birthday – could probably use Player 3 as another congratulatory coworker. But a pair of children mapping the divide between rich and poor across their sandbox constructions probably doesn’t need your insertion of a childish representation of the middle class.

So if there is an answer to the first pop quiz posed, it’s E) When you can heighten the game in play. In entering as a tertiary player into a scene in progress, we serve the show by heightening the game at play. The move must play to what the players on stage have already established.

Likewise, the players on stage must commit to heightening what they had in play, and not dropping the reactions and sequences that the additional player’s move is targeting. If a Player 3 enters your two person scene, assume he’s trying to elicit a reaction he’s already seen you produce, just more of it. If nothing else react emotionally. Especially if your scene is flailing, don’t drag down things more by focusing on figuring Player 3 out.

An improv team should agree to this Tertiary Player Good Faith Mantra: I will only enter a scene in progress to serve what has already been established. And I will react to those who enter my scene in progress on the assumption they seek to heighten what has already been established.

Now,…what do you do? What do you do?

TERTIARY MOVES AT YOUR SERVICE

Embodying the Environmentwe can be set pieces; we can be crowds. Player 3 can physicalize the scene’s referenced ottoman, addressed grandfather clock, or admired Empire State Building. This works nicely when the physicalized object is called for by the players on stage and especially nicely when Player 3 plays a mute object, because both conditions minimize the chances that the scene will become “about” Player 3. You’re a tertiary character; the scene’s not about you. This is also why one should be careful when fleshing out the scene with other human characters. If Players 1 and 2 are at a dance, by all means the scene needs background dancers. But a waiter isn’t necessary in every scene wherein a couple is eating dinner. The tangents created when acknowledging filler players can hamper heightening. Executed with deference to the games at play, embodying environment can add help focus while expanding the scene.

Scene Painting/ “We See” we can come in from offstage to describe (and physicalize) a previously unseen “visual” aspect of the scene. For example, a pompous character is painted with a monocle, “#1 Boss” button, etc. For another example, a scene with a child bemoaning having to do his/her chores is painted with a window showing a beautiful day outside, an Everest of dishes to clean, etc. This type of move is typically executed by a player entering the scene, not as a character, but, with a verbal aside directed at the audience. “These people are in clown costumes.” “We see this man has a hole through his torso.” These are Detail moves, but they work best when they are delivered emotionally and when they connect with a character’s emotional behavior. Sometimes, while contributing his verbal add-on, Player 3 will wave his hand generally over or toward the area of stage he’s referring to; but a better Player 3 will often define what he’s describing in mime as well as words. In conjunction with “We see this man has a beard,” this Player 3 shows how big and bushy the beard is by cupping and fluffing it with his hands before exiting the scene.

Walk-onswe can enter a two player scene in progress as another character, offering a move that contributes to the progression of the game(s) at play. Two high school boys are feeling self conscious in the hallway so Player 3 enters as a mean girl to point out their foibles. Two players are arguing over the value of the movie they just left, so Player 3 enters to agree with one of them and rile the other. If there is one tertiary move an improviser knows, it’s the Walk-on. Unfortunately, too few improvisers know to Walk Off. You’re a tertiary character; the scene’s not about you. A Walk-on should only be used to heighten/sharpen a game already at play. An entering character must acquiesce to those already on stage and strive not to be the focus of the scene.

“Cut-to” (aka “Show me,” flashback, flash-forward, etc.)when players doing a scene refer to a particular moment or event (from the past, present or future), we can take the scene there with a Cut-to. Like the “We see,” this move is typically executed with a verbal aside to the audience. Player 1 is proving his masculinity to Player 2 by boasting that he will climb a mountain; “Cut to the mountain.” Players on a first date awkwardly walk out of a theater; “Show the movie.” A comfortable ensemble can perform the “Cut-to” without telegraphing the move by shouting “Cut to.” Players wonder what their boss does with all those profits; show me what their boss does with all those profits. You don’t have to say, “show me what their boss does with all those profits;” a sweep in from upstage – not across downstage – should be ample sign to a twosome alert to the potential “Cut-to” moments they’re prompting to recognize a “Cut-to” is cutting into their scene. As with Walk-ons, though, a Cut-to should be followed by a “Cut back.” It’s a tertiary move; the scene’s not about “it.” If Player 3’s “Cut to the mountain” exposes that Player 1 was not nearly as masculine as he claimed to be, then we will want to cut back and forth between the mountain and his boasts to Player 2. But still Player 3 seeks to serve the game at play. Don’t know what Player 3 expects from you with his “Cut to…”? Doesn’t matter – React; Move; Change posture; Do something; Do anything. If Player 3 says, “Cut to five hours later,” and you and Player 2 just stand there, the audience may laugh, but they are laughing at you, not with you. Leverage the power of immediate enthusiastic acceptance embodied in a quick reaction and/or movement following a Cut-to.

Tag outwhen one character from the scene in progress begs to be seen juxtaposed next to a third character, we can be that third character. The inspiration for execution is similar to that which should inspire the “Cut-to.” Take the mountain scene for example. Instead of “Cut to the mountain,” Player 3 can tap Player 2 on the shoulder – indicating to Player 2 that she is being replaced on stage and should go to the wings, and indicating to Player 1 that he is now in a different space or time – perhaps saying, “Dude, we’re only ten meters high and you need oxygen?” An in-sync group can signal a Tag-out with a wave instead of a tap, or an articulate initiation making it clear who should go and how whom remains should react. As a tertiary move, the scene should avoid becoming about the Tag-out. And s/he who is replaced should be ready on the wings to perform a Tag-back-in.

BUT…

Maybe Player 3’s Tag-out serves the scene by inspiring a string of Tag-outs all heightening the same emotional behavior of Player 1, perhaps utilizing Help Desk game mechanics.

Maybe Player 3’s Tag-out serves the scene by inspiring a series of laddered Tag-outs each heightening the scenic game dynamic (like a progression of bosses) established by the initial two players.

And maybe Player 3’s Tag-out serves the progression of scenes by tying in a character, object, event, theme or reaction that the audience saw three scenes back.

A tertiary move should be made to serve the show. Sometimes the focus should be on serving what’s been established in the scene of the moment. Sometimes the focus should be on serving what’s been established in the show up to the moment.

SERVING THE SCENE OF THE MOMENT

The two players already on stage are working – if pursuing improv as improv does best – on building patterns of emotional behavior. If you are going to enter stage, it should be to aid them in their pursuit.

The two players already on stage are working to establish and heighten their personal and scenic games and the pattern(s) connecting those games. Enter stage as a tertiary addition to heighten a game by triggering a player’s or players’ reaction(s). Enter the stage to facilitate the pattern building between games by providing a catalyst for capping and resetting a sequence.

Players 1 and 2 are at the zoo. Player 1, a child, imitates the chimps they’re watching, laughing at how stupid they are. Player 2, a mother, is consumed by thinking of whom it is that a chimp reminds her. When Player 1 pulls on Player 2’s dress hem and hollers, Player 2 dutifully gives the child a bit of food.

What can a Player 3 do?

Player 3 could become a crazy funny chimp, running around center stage and hollering, taking full focus as the trigger for the personal games of both Players 1 and 2. And maybe this Player 3 is hilarious. She better be; she just stole the scene.

So, the better question is: How can tertiary players deploy moves in service of the personal and scenic games established?

Player 3 could embody the environment. She could be a never acknowledged background extra enjoying the zoo. She could stand beside the chimpish child as a well-behaved child to heighten Player 1’s personal game. A zookeeper and a chimp could perform a feeding ritual that echoes Player 2’s feeding of the child. Players 3 through 7 could all become caged chimps. The more any of these tertiary embodiments remains mute, the better a chance the scene stands of remaining about the initial two players. Sadly, there are too few improvisers who know how and when to keep their mouths shut.

We can be verbal tertiary characters. We can be tertiary characters that actively affect the progression of the scene. Just remember – as we emphasized in our Group Game work – the more “stuff” on stage, the harder it is to keep the scene tight. If we are simply embodying the environment, we can just be on stage. But the more active we are as tertiary players in scenes the more important it is for our active additions to align with the progression of the scene.


Player 1 – (aping the chimps) “Stupid monkey, acting so…stupid.”
Player 2 – (scratching her head) “Is it George? No. Who does that chimp remind me of?”
Player 3 – “We see the boy has long arms and hairy knuckles.”


Player 1 – (aping the chimps) “Stupid monkey, acting so…stupid.”
Player 2 – (scratching her head) “Is it George? No. Who does that chimp remind me of?”
Player 3 walks on as snobby teenage girl.
Player 1 – “Mom! I’m HUN-gryyyyyy.” (pulling on her skirt)
Player 2 – “Yes, little man.” (pulls snack from purse) “Calm…now catch!”
Player 3 – “Yo. Totes gross.” (walks off)


Player 1 – (aping the chimps) “Stupid monkey, acting so…stupid.”
Player 2 – (scratching her head) “Is it George? No. Who does that chimp remind me of?”
Player 1 – “Mom! I’m HUN-gryyyyyy.” (pulling on her skirt)
Player 2 – “Yes, little man.” (pulls snack from purse) “Calm…now catch!”
Player 1 – (aggressively chewing while talking at chimps) “Look at you. Idiots.”
Player 2 – “Tom? No.” (scratching the back left side of her head with her right arm; her elbow raised high) “Who is it?”
Player 3 – “Cut to them at their house.”
Player 4 – “Honey, I’m…” (beats his chest) “hoo-oo-oo-oo-oo-ome.”
Players 1 and 2 run happily around the room banging on things.

The tertiary player in these instances entered when inspired, served the scene, and – like a Boy Scout – left the scene better for her having been there. The player’s content plays clearly to what’s been established so that the initial players have no excuse not to roll right along. And – at least in the “We see” and Walk-on example – the tertiary moves heighten the games of the initial players without re-railing the established progression.

Now, in all of these examples, the tertiary move could be a one-off. Propelled along established rails by the “We see” and Walk-on example moves, Players 1 and 2 could continue to invest in their games without the need to see the boy’s pronounced brow or the snobby girl’s return. The Cut-to scene example could certainly be edited at this point.

But there is fun to be had working the rhythm of tertiary moves into the rhythm of the scene.

BUT, the more “stuff,” the more important tight patterns become.

So how can we continue serving this scene’s games with our tertiary moves?

First card played is trump. The “We see the boy has long arms and hairy knuckles” and the snobby teenage girl both serve to heighten the chimpish child, but they do not heighten off each other. Both can coexist in the scene, and a tight pattern could incorporate both “We see” and Walk-on elements moving forward, but it’s an unnecessary complication when right off the bat we could heighten the progression of tertiary moves. First card played is trump” should be our group’s default. If “We see the boy has long arms and hairy knuckles” beats snobby teenage girl to stage, snobby girl should let her idea go and instead figure out how to heighten the “We see” game.

Work to Set the sequence established by the tertiary Offer. Why did any of the Player 3s in the given examples enter the scene? Because they were inspired in that moment to heighten a game. In order for a Player 4 to heighten the tertiary game, the question he needs to be able to answer is “When did Player 3 enter the scene?” We could bombard the scene with We-sees directly on the heels of the first, but in doing so we aren’t leveraging the power of pattern. Better then to play the triggers and caps of the tertiary game, getting the players and audience engaged in the pattern sequence to maximize the effect of moves.


Player 1 – (aping the chimps) “Stupid monkey, acting so…stupid.”
Player 2 – (scratching her head) “Is it George? No. Who does that chimp remind me of?”
Player 3 – “We see the boy has long arms and hairy knuckles.”
Player 1 – “Mom! I’m HUN-gryyyyyy.” (pulling on her skirt)
Player 2 – “Yes, little man.” (pulls snack from purse) “Calm…now catch!”
Player 1 – (aggressively chewing while talking at chimps) “Look at you. Idiots.”
Player 2 – “Tom? No. Who is it?”
Player 4 – “We see the boy wears special shoes to accommodate his opposable toes.”


Player 1 – (aping the chimps) “Stupid monkey, acting so…stupid.”
Player 2 – (scratching her head) “Is it George? No. Who does that chimp remind me of?”
Player 3 walks on as snobby teenage girl.
Player 1 – “Mom! I’m HUN-gryyyyyy.” (pulling on her skirt)
Player 2 – “Yes, little man.” (pulls snack from purse) “Calm…now catch!”
Player 3 – “Yo. Totes gross.” (walks off)
Player 1 – (aggressively chewing while talking at chimps) “Look at you. Idiots.”
Player 2 – “Tom? No. Who is it?”
Player 4 walks on as a stogy gentleman holding a monocle in place.
Player 1 – “Oo-oo-Mom. Hungry, hungry, hungry.” (pulling on her skirt)
Player 2 – “Okay, Coco.” (pulls snack from purse) “Siiiit…now catch!”
Player 4 – “Well I never. Positively primitive.” (walks off)

When there are 2 there should probably be a 3rd. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a solid default. Especially when the Set move clearly clarifies the pattern sequence, the audience is primed to react strongly to the third iteration of a move; to not do it is to leave laughs on the table. Remember, the second move may not garner as strong an audience reaction as the first or third, but it serves both. Also, remember, once you reach the third move the scene doesn’t have to end there either; with a solid rhythm we can go all night.

Follow the flow, carrying everything behind us with us. Wherever your scene is in the moment is the “right” place. Whatever moves led to that moment are moves we embrace. Your scenes don’t have to play as tightly tied to the pattern as the given examples. And pattern moves that you think are abundantly clear, may not be as clear to your fellow player. But if we are each working to heighten what we see as established, we make progress together. In the Cut-to take on the chimp scene, the scene could oscillate between the zoo and home with Cut-tos and Cut-backs, heightening Player 2’s continued confusion and what is crystal clear to the audience. Or the home scene could be given more breathing room at which point Player 4 is revealed as Tarzan, who never shared his history with his wife. With subsequent Cut-tos we could transplant the Tarzan family to all manner of places where manners matter. What we’ll never do is reach the point where we feel we have nothing left and have to invent new premises through “Look,” “Listen,” or “I mean…” Trust what’s established and lead forward by following.

And what’s true in any given scene is doubly true for the show as a whole.

SERVING THE SHOW UP TO THE MOMENT

A long-form set can take many forms. For the sake of finishing up this section on Being Tertiary, let’s envision a long-form based on a string of two person scenes. Two players start and build a scene that may or may not involve tertiary moves. When that scene is edited, another two players start and build a scene that may or may not involve tertiary moves.

We know when and how to be tertiary when looking at each scene individually. On top of this knowledge, there are a couple guidelines that will help us to know when and how to be tertiary with an eye toward the whole of the show up to the moment.

Variance. This applies to content and pacing. If the last two person scene was besieged by Walk-ons, it might be better to let this two person scene breathe – without Walk-ons and maybe without any tertiary additions at all. Let the demand of Variance break your group out of its go-to tertiary moves. Improvisers love Tag-outs and We-sees, but they can love them to death. An emphasis on variance can help ensure that when a Tag-out run injects itself into a two person scene it’s special, not the default.

Callback. Having a character from several scenes before appear in a Tag-out run during the current scene can be a lot of fun. When the first scene of a long-form involves a world reeling from a nuclear strike and the current scene involves a couple prepping for their wedding, it can be fun to “Cut to the wedding day” only to find it ruined by that nuclear bomb. Tertiary moves can help players weave in threads that help connect the piece as a whole. And Callbacks earn a rich laugh from an audience who are made to feel “in on” the joke. BUT Callbacks can’t serve the show as a whole at the expense of the scene of the moment. Don’t force a Callback and then require the two players on stage to deal with your presence just because you thought it would be funny to see your wacky monkey character again. You want the current scene to inspire the callback; don’t stand on the wings looking for your chance to return to your bit. Now, the tertiary move can be outside the progression of the current scene if the players on stage are able to ignore it. For example, “We see [X object from previous scene] in the corner” can connect two scenes, while not requiring that players acknowledge that object. A Walk-on followed quickly by a Walk-off can similarly connect the show without derailing the scene. But use caution – if a tertiary move does derail the scene in progress, it wasn’t worth it.

That’s enough on Being Tertiary. But it’s not the end of our exploration of the third dimension…

NEXT: 3D.2 SUBSEQUENT BEATS