“Playing It Raw” lesson with exercises

Objective: To play with strong emotional perspectives that evoke strong emotional reactions and drive strong emotional scenes.

“Play it real,” says the improv teacher.  His heart’s in the right place: The audience loves seeing committed, emotional reactions.  And, without scripts defining reactions, improvisers can short-cut the “how should I react” thinking process by leveraging how s/he would react if the situation unfolding on stage occurred in real life.  If your scene partner says, “I ate your dog,” you can contrive a response or you could react “as you.”  Either method could be funny, but, funny or not, the “real” reaction is an emotionally honest surprise that leaves you vulnerable to the moment.  And the audience loves emotionally honest reactions that leave you vulnerable to the moment.

BUT.  How many of us are emotionally honest and vulnerable in-the-moment in real life?  For better or worse, society – and the desire to maintain employment – dictate that we control our emotions in real life.  Do we openly drool over objects of desire in real life?  Do we confront objectionable moments in-the-moment?  Do we say what we’re thinking?

“Hey.” “Hey.” Is an opening line of dialogue from real life.  “I love you.” “Eat a dick, loser.” Is an opening line of dialogue that I want to watch on stage.  We’re not often vulnerable in real life.  In real life, we’re careful with our emotions; we like that girl but we’re afraid to let her know we like her so we keep that emotion contained.  That’s what makes it so much fun to see someone play vulnerably on stage.

Be affected.  Be vulnerable.  This is what that improv teachers want when they say, “Play it real.”  What they often get is an improviser playing with muted emotions.  Let’s not say, “Play it real” ever again.


The audience wants to see you care, and to commit to caring.  Caring about something that you – in real life – don’t care about?  That’s acting.  Making others believe that you care about something that you – in real life – don’t care about?  That’s good acting.

The best actors are not necessarily the best improvisers.  But the best improvisers are more often than not great actors.  The best improviser can be a pirate on the moon and make you believe that she has a honest emotional stake in whether the stars like her or not.  Too many improvisers, though, when met with the same situation, will get caught up in the absurdity of the details and, if they care at all, they’re indicating instead of acting.

I like big, crazy characters that don’t exist in real life.  I want you to play them.  BUT.  I want you to never forget that YOU are a big, crazy character that exists in real life.  You may not always be big or crazy in every moment day to day.  But I bet you’re both with your best friends.  I bet you’ve shared a big emotional reaction online.  And I bet you’re crazy vulnerable in your head.

The following exercises are about playing with raw, exposed nerves.  We’ll start Playing Your Vulnerable Self.  We’ll then Play Your Vulnerable Friend with a little help from Facebook.

Let’s play.  Let’s play it raw.


Personal Vulnerable Self Contained Emotional Statements: What do YOU believe? Share it around a circle in the Self-Contained Emotional Statement style. Do a round of beliefs connected to positive feelings. Do a round connected to negative feelings. Be vulnerable. Share a truth about yourself. If you can’t comfortably share your beliefs with your performance group then you need to find another group (or a psychiatrist).
•  I believe that Mrs. PacMan is the most engaging video game ever made
•  I am  smarter than most because I read more, from more sources, than most
•  I fear that my disdain for my job is really a disdain for all jobs.
•  I’d rather die with potential than live out my failures

•  Strong views strongly stated make an impact. We tend to keep our strong perspectives to ourselves in real life. But the tension created at voicing strong beliefs in mixed company and the enthusiastic agreement evoked in homogeneous communities make for emotional situations. We tend to avoid emotional situations more often than not in real life; we want to create emotional situations more often than not on stage.
•  You have strong beliefs.  Be they confrontational or communal, your beliefs and feelings have made you an individual. Share your individuality. Whether the resultant reaction is one of disagreement or agreement or even confusion, your honesty will provoke a reaction, which is improv gold.
•  Don’t allow defensibility keep you from voicing your belief.  In real life we may hold our tongues for fear of the follow-up question. Rest assured in improv we prioritize reaction over questioning. The audience cares more about your commitment to feeling than about your defense of that feeling. Define yourself with feeling/belief without fear of explaining yourself.


Personally Vulnerable Scenes:  Two people on stage.  The audience provides a suggestion of a location.  The players are charged with “being themselves,” but to share all the feelings and thoughts they might keep to themselves among the general public.  They interact with the space according to how they would feel about objects or situations in that location.  They are to treat their scene partner as the person they are [hopefully they are some semblance of friends, but if they’re not this exercise can be cathartic].  “Playing it raw” doesn’t dictate that these two players wail dramatically or share their deepest secrets, but rather it means that they allow their emotions to flow freely.  In the simplest terms, players are to pretend as if they are in the suggested location together and be honest about their feelings and their reactions to each others feelings.
•  Location: Laundromat
•  Player One initiates, frustrated at having to do laundry, hating that a load costs $1.75 because she’d prefer to spend the 5 quarters elsewhere
•  Player Two laughs, noting that $1.75 is 7 quarters
•  Player One resents being made to look foolish because she always feels teased for her poor math skills and she really lays into Player Two for being mean
•  Player Two relents, explaining that his logical mind makes him bad at painting, which he knows she’s great at, and he’s jealous of her abilities
•  Player One is shocked, touched, and a little embarrassed

Variation: Player One on stage; the other on the wings. Player One (taking pages from Let Me Show You My Room and Build A Room) is instructed to engage in a space that s/he knows intimately.  Before Player Two enters, Player One’s charge is to interact with at least 5 different objects/activities, and with each interaction Player One feels more and more, ultimately reacting to each object/activity more than s/he is simply engaging the object/activity with the feeling.  When Player Two is given the cue from the coach to enter, Player One has the first line and it reflects the “I was just…” exercise.

•  The honesty in our emotions when we actually feel them, as opposed to when we pretend to feel them, is powerful.  Ideally we’d all be great actors who can feel any emotion toward any thing seemingly honestly.  Ideally no improviser would fall to indicating emotion in overwrought voices because they were thinking through rather than feeling through those emotions.  Always remember that the way YOU feel will be fun for the audience to see and watch you experience; expose your raw nerves to them.
•  When we’re confident in our opinions, we add more details than we tear down.  Scene One: “I like Panera.” “Eh, Panera?” “Okay, well, how about China Panda?” “China Panda? Really?”  Scene Two: “I like Panera.” “I hate Panera,” “Who doesn’t like Pick Two?” “I hate bread.” “Three-cheese grilled sandwich and Tuscan French onion soup.  You’re an idiot,” “Gluten kills!”  Both scenes are “about” two characters arguing about where to eat.  But while Scene One showcases two improvisers clinging to emotional perspectives, Scene Two features two characters who are confident in their emotional perspectives.  In Scene One, Player One capitulates at the first sign of conflict because s/he doesn’t care about Panera, while, in Scene Two, Player One commits to the Details behind why s/he likes Panera.  In Scene One, Player Two is established as a contrarian, but s/he doesn’t know why s/he is objecting beyond the game of being a contraian; while, in Scene Two, Player Two confidently exhales why s/he is anti Panera: They’re all about bread/gluten.  Think about a personal perspective you’ve shared in life.  If you were rebuked…  Do you act defensive?  Do you laugh away opposition with evidence of your point-of-view?  Do you shrivel because you doubt your own convictions in the face of a stronger personality?  Do you acquisece because you didn’t really care to begin with?  Answering yes to all but the last question is acceptable.  If you can’t care about what you’re talking about, talk about what you care about.  
•  Your mime and your details are better when you actually see yourself in a space.  Give an improviser the suggestion “bedroom” and ask them to say what’s there; they’ll say, “a bed,” “a dresser,” “etc.”  Put an improviser in their childhood bedroom and ask to say what’s there; they’ll say, “a Lego pirate ship,” “Magic Eye posters,” “my New Kids comforter.”  And if you asked them to they could pick up these objects with confidence their hands know the shapes and weights of all these things that they can see.
•  Listen to hear and, if you don’t hear, feel free to seek clarification.  To avail yourself of your honest reactions, you have to be focused outward on your partner’s contributions.  If you don’t hear what your partner says, though, or you’re so caught up in engaging the environment that you aren’t listening, you can absolutely ask your partner to repeat themselves, or – sometimes better – repeat what you think you heard to provoke clarity from your partner.


Facebook Opinions: A lot of people have no problem loudly asserting their perspectives online.  I’m sure you know someone who fits the bill.  This warmup is about boldly stated opinions.  Stand in a circle.  To start, first have every player channel one of their Facebook “friends” with a Self-Contained Emotional Statement (“This documentary saved my life,” “Dresses over pants makes me furious”).  Once comfortable confidently channeling someone else’s belief, we’re ready to play the Facebook Game.  Still in a circle, one player leads with a bold SCES, then – in no particular order – other players chime in to agree or disagree with their own boldly stated opinions.  When you’re bored with one thread, a player can initiate a new “post” and play continues.
•  (1st “post”) Meat is murder
•  I’ve been a proud vegetarian since I was thirteen
•  Pigs, chickens and cows exist to be in my tummy
•  I’d kill for some barbecue
• (2nd “post”)I love sports!

•  Ignorance leads to aggression. When you don’t believe what you are saying, you are defensive and/or you attack others’ beliefs because you can’t stand by your own.  Commit to caring.  Caring breeds details.
•  Don’t hate for hate’s sake. Don’t think you have to disagree because social media is full of disagreement. If you don’t know how to feel, lean on agreement because it’s easier to build on others’ details. Don’t be the poster who says, “Your feelings are wrong;” be the player who says, “I believe the opposite because of these details…”
•  Talk is cheap; emotions are gold. Standing around a circle we can feel pushed to fill the silence. Take the time to feel the impact of others’ lines and don’t fill the silence with blather.


Story Sharing: One player steps into the center of a circle and begins telling a personal story. Without waiting for the player to reach the story’s end, another player tags out the storyteller and picks up the same story in the initiating player’s voice. The player tagging in heightens the emotion and details and then is tagged out by a third player who does the same. Then a brand new personal story is initiated and play continues.
•  Start honest; go nuts. A grounded beginning to a scene earns players license from the audience to go to bizarre places believably. A player who exhibits honest shock at seeing a baby in a bar is going to be believed when he pivots to being shocked because he’s never seen a baby before at all.
•  Seeing the world as it is makes it easier to see what the world could be. . On an improvised set, we’re building a world up from nothing. It can help to start in reality, miming objects and actions we interact with regularly. Once deliberately defined it’ll be easier to imagine that backpack coming to life and eating your homework.


Let Me Show You My Room: This exercise is about channeling personal memories to evoke details and define mime.  Player One is to show off to Player Two a room from his/her past (childhood bedroom, dorm room, man cave, etc.).  Player One should lead a tour around the space, pointing out and showing off objects and features of the room.  Where applicable, Player One should work to infuse his/her depictions with personal emotional weight (“It’s embarrassing now, but I collected all these Beanie Babies,” “I drank every one of these whiskey bottles all by myself”).  On this tour, Player Two should not be a passive questioner, but rather should strive to offer up personal opinions of his/her own (“I think it’s crazy what people paid for Beanie Babies,” “I was a goodie-goodie and didn’t drink until I was twenty-one”).
•  Share to be known. When we first meet someone or are introduced to a new space, we often do “the polite thing,” carefully asking questions to get to know one another or to get the lay of the land.  But the sooner we get to opinions/perspectives the sooner we allow ourselves to be known.  Whether two people see eye to eye or not, we want to see whether or not early.  Don’t be careful; state honest opinions boldly.
•  Engaging space takes pressure off our tongues, and in that silence scenes get deeper. Standing face-to-face waiting for their turn to talk players stagnate or churn a scene.  Take the time to get lost observing and exploring the space to create scenes that expand with investment.

2 thoughts on ““Playing It Raw” lesson with exercises

  1. Pingback: Be Dynamic: Sharpen Your Vectors | Improv As Improv Does Best

  2. Pingback: Life IS Improv |

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.