An Opening is the first piece of a long-form performance presented to the audience. Every show has one. Not every show uses one.
Improvisers who don’t like Openings are typically biased against the type of organic Opening usually kicking off Harold shows. They’re done being embarrassed on stage by having to bounce around like monkeys in gibberish or single words. They just want to start the first scene. “Like TJ and Dave.”
TJ and Dave come on stage and…stand on stage while the audience listens to Ike Reilly’s Commie Drives A Nova in its entirety. This is the first piece they present to the audience. In it they project their confidence, their purposefulness and that they’re going to take their sweet time.
The Opening sets the stage. It sets the tone for the show.
Given their god status among us improv nerds, TJ and Dave don’t need set up a tone anymore; we go to their show knowing they’re confident, purposeful and patient. But 99 out of 100 improvisers don’t have that clout. Unknown improvisers performing in front of the improv-uninitiated do themselves a disservice jumping into scenes without a formal Opening.
The Opening invites the audience in, to the show and to the players.
How do you warm up an audience? By asking a lot of them or sharing a lot of you? Sharing yourself, confidently and freely, is the fastest path to a warm audience. The charismatic host warms up the audience by making you like him/her, making you want to spend the evening with him/her. The banter a group allows when asking for a suggestion reveals their sense of play as they react “as themselves” to the audience and one another. The entrance, the introduction and the “thank you” – through all of these moments the audience gets to know and decide if they like the improvisers.
A formal Opening provides a group the opportunity to say something specific about the show and the “yourself” you’re bringing into the show.
My best friend – the fellow college improviser that I moved to Chicago with, saw several countries with and met my wife through – and I did a two person show called Deuce. We wanted the audience to see our dynamic – his brains vs. my emotional dollar coaster, our years of Odd-Couple roommating – so we developed an Opening that functioned much like $100,000 Pyramid. We asked the audience to put words on index cards and then attach them to boards we had set up on stage. At show time, we came out on stage without having seen the cards and sat on stools such that we could see our board of words but not each others. Then, with a timer ticking, we went back and forth trying to get each other to guess our words. We exhibited our personal connection, such as when we got each others clues immediately, maybe even through an obscure, shared reference. We shared our respective ignorances, as sometimes one of us just did not know a word. And generally we presented who we were as people, through banter, chiding, surprise and such emotional reactions to each other. When the timer dinged, we cleared the stage and began scenes inspired by the words, and – thanks to our Opening – when we started those scenes we already had the audience rooting for us.
An Opening can “brand” your show.
Lots of groups do a montage. Distinguish your montage with a creative Opening. Lots of two person shows try to be “like TJ and Dave.” Instead of trying to emulate someone else, differentiate your show with an engaging Opening. Very few improvisers enjoy starting their show with frantic limb waving and guttural noises. Don’t do Openings that you hate; develop an Opening your group has fun doing.
Of course, an Opening also provides a group the opportunity to explore and expand their suggestion.
Exploring the suggestion is often the only value improvisers see in the Opening. In my view, it’s just one of many perks. Though it certainly is a significant perk.
I saw a montage based on the suggestion of “banana” where every scene focused on “banana.” It was exhaustively boring. I’ve seen many shows where each scene was inspired by the scene before it. Some of these are good, some are bad, but – concerned about making the connection between scenes – too many of these shows focused on plot and circumstances over character and emotion, and I don’t think that’s improv as improv does best.
A group doesn’t need to ask for a suggestion, but if it asks for a suggestion it needs to use it. The audience likes seeing their idea become an in-the-moment show; it’s part of the magic. I like to think about that suggestion as the seed from which the rest of the show grows, but – if you’ve read my thoughts on the Beat Structure – you know that I think the best shows narrow their focus in heightening towards their end. So, rather than thinking about the suggestion as one seed that grows, sprouts and becomes vast and scraggly at the end, I like to think about the suggestion as a seed you plant multiples of in the Opening, creating several different sprouts of different shapes that intertwine as the show grows toward its end.
Widen the suggestion up top then drill down to a point. Have the suggestion inspire a series of monologues, each with their own details. Scene paint a triptych of locations to visit in the scenes to come. Heighten the suggestion with a To The Ether game. Collaborate behind a One Person Scene. Or sack up and unite through an Organic Game (do it right and you’ll like it).
Design your own Opening.
Here’re some questions to pressure test your Opening:
1. Does it set the tone for A) the scenes to come, B) the “you” you want the audience to know and/or C) the audience to root for you the improviser?
2. Does it introduce the audience to the “you” you want them to know?
3. Does it invite the audience to root for you the improviser?
4. Does it enable you to explore and expand the suggestion?
5. Does your group enjoy doing it?
Be creative. Here are some examples of Openings I’ve enjoyed –
U’R (2 person show) – “You’re rotten fruit,” “YOU’re maggoty meat,” “Yeah, well, YOU’re infested flesh,” “Yeah, well, you’re what infected me,” “Yeah? Well, you’re an intoxicating host,” “Yeah? Well, you’re the parasite I wanted,” “You’re all that I want,” “You’re all that I need.” Wanting to focus on mirroring each others characters and matching each others emotions, we crafted an Opening that had us start by getting a suggestion of “any noun” from the audience (ex: a bulldozer). Filtering that noun through the emotion evoked from calling the other player that noun, one person would initiate and the other player would adopt that same emotional filter. We would then heighten the emotion and details behind that perspective until we found reason to switch, at which point both players would follow that new emotional perspective to the next change. Repeat until done.
Excuse me, I think we switched bags (2 person show) – “Excuse me, I think we switched bags,” “Yeah, you like Beef-a-rino, huh?”, “Best camping food there is. Your pack doesn’t have any food in it,” “Yep, just snares; if I can’t catch it, I don’t eat it.” We wanted to do a show where our emotional reactions were “the story.” Engaging scenes with endowments is what excited us both about improv and so we developed the “Excuse me; I think we switched bags” Opening that allowed us to pimp endowments onto each other and to establish the location of the scenes to follow. Our suggestion was a type of bag (“Not ‘douche’ or ‘dime’) and allowed that to inform our location and provide the central atom to us pimping each other into details they cared about.
Best Friends Slide Show (3 person show) – “Oh, yeah, I remember this photo. This is one I took of Mic and Jasper during our inaugural winter hill roll. You see Mic hitting that rock there? Yeah, I think that’s the moment he went stupid. We didn’t know that at the time so Jasper’s ‘suck it’ demonstration is only horrible in retrospect.” Leverage short form games for Openings. We wanted to do a show following three characters who were best friends. We asked the audience for a moment they enjoyed with their best friends (ex: Camping, road trips, rolling down hills), and then started with the classic short-form Slide Show game wherein two players would strike frozen poses on stage and one player would go to the wings to provide an explanation of the “snap shot” portrayed on stage. Each player would get a chance in the Opening to describe a picture they had taken that the other two players would portray with frozen poses. This Opening enabled us to establish names, defining characteristics and interpersonal motivations that drove the show.
Chairs (7 person show) – “I’m dead because I couldn’t give those I cared most about enough freedom to be the people they were.” The brilliance behind this Opening belongs to Bina Martin. We seven improvisers were to do a one-act play, remaining seven characters for the entirety. We started playing Musical Chairs to Toploader’s “Dancing In The Moonlight.” The player who lost musical chairs had to go to the seventh chair on the stage’s side and begin a monologue from beyond the grave, explaining how and why they died. The remaining six players paired off in chairs to do duologues, explaining not just their relationship to the dead player but also to each other. The show then could start with solidly defined characters and relationships established through this Opening.