I’m enamored by memories of the Chicago teams “People of Earth” and “American Dream.” Often an audience member remembers a show by the handful of great scenes it produced. These groups of talented improvisers created memorable shows because the scenes built on each other to create a singular experience.
This post aims to provide some guidance to groups that endeavor to perform memorable shows not just memorable scenes.
In a show that has since become improv lore, “People of Earth,” starting from the suggestion of “recess,” opened with every player on stage hanging from monkey bars, afraid to let go lest they be sniped dead by an off stage gunman. In the subsequent first two-person scene, Danny Mora, as a teenager who’d had too much to drink and vomited on his sweater, took off – not his improv sweater, but – his actual sweater. Andy St Clair, Mora’s scene partner, recognizing the importance of an improviser taking off his real clothes, made it, not just not “the game of the scene,” but the game of the show. In every subsequent scene, Mora was forced to stay on stage and, coerced by the individual scene’s need, remove another layer of clothing (ex: I need a tourniquet, give me your shirt.) Luckily for Mora this occurred in Chicago during one of the many cold months. Over the course of many scenes – to include a moment where a camera’s flash interrupted the flow so that St Clair could say, “No. No. If you’re going to take a picture of this we’re all going to pose for it” – Mora was forced to reluctantly shed layers. Down to but long-underwear, Mora desperately traded the layer for the windbreaker worn by a petite female co-improviser (Laurel Coppock). The jacket was not long enough to tie around Mora’s waist so he had to hold it in place with a hand. Now “People of Earth” returned to their first scene – everyone held desperately with both hands to the established monkey bars except Mora who had to devote one hand to holding up the windbreaker strategically stretched across his waist. “Danny, what are you doing?” “If you don’t hold on with both hands you’ll drop and die!” Mora, with a resigned eye roll, released his grasp on the windbreaker. And as his hand went up to the monkey bars, the windbreaker fell, and the lights went out.
At a Del Close Marathon, “American Dream” coached by Joe Bill, came out to announce to the audience that they were to perform their “signature game” of “Party Quirks.” As the short form game dictates, they sent the host out of earshot and assigned the cast “quirks,” to include a man who had vaginas in his armpits. The host, Ben Johnson, returns to stage to host the party as Comedy Sportz would dictate: he welcomed and queried guests as they arrived to guess their assigned quirk. But even with their quirk guessed, the guests didn’t leave, turning the party into a long-form mono-scene around a party of misfits. The guests turned the guessing game on the host, making it echo an intervention to have Ben come to grips with his own quirks.
In other shows I have seen “People of Earth” create each scene around a different train car, setting up players to run though previous scenes as the show progressed.
I have seen “American Dream” create an entire show around their first scene’s impulse to engage in a rap battle.
Now, maybe this is beyond an improviser who is just starting to feel comfortable performing one great scene or a group that’s only barely confident turning one great scene into a string of heightened subsequent beats.
But it’s the next step. Yes, having an audience member say, “Great show; that scene where X happened was awesome,” is an applaudable reaction. But when days, weeks, years after seeing you perform an audience remembers your [Danny Mora getting naked/Party Quirks as long-form/Train car/Rap battle] show that’s when you know you’ve created something in improv that no scripted theater can touch.
So let’s start to explore how you can make that happen.
First step: Get a coach dedicated to and capable of moving you in this direction.
Getting a group of individuals united behind the collaborative building of a single scene can be tough work; getting a group of individuals to align behind an effort to make one collaborative show is tremendous work. The success of the endeavor relies on the ability of a team to support one direction, and to flex with whatever direction the moment dictates.
So…the following walk though of developing an organic format is built off of The Johnsons, a group that I coach, and the format that they’ve been adhering to. With your own group, leverage the learnings related to focusing on a theme that fosters myriad opportunities and using tertiary moves to connect disparate facets of a show into a collective piece.
The Johnsons Forging an Organic Format workshop
Part One: Focusing on Theme –
The Johnsons open with dualogues inspired by the ask-for. They work to explore the suggestion in a wide variety of ways. Example: “Underwater.” Dualogue 1 is about a hotel under the sea. Duologue 2 is about a couple addicted to debt. Dualogue 3 is about an obsession with The Little Mermaid.
Second step: Think about what THEME connects the parts of your Opening other than the suggestion. In this example, the character pairings goaded each other into dumb decisions.
Third step: Initiate your first scene inspired by the connection you make. In this example, two kids daring each other to eat bugs.
Fourth step: Considering the first scene the Offer scene, seek to Set and Cement a progression with the subsequent two scenes. In this example, the second scene is a middle aged set of coworkers encouraging the other to be lax while s/he secretly worked harder. And the third scene is about elderly gentlemen going cold turkey from their meds. *Note: up/down/through one location, through time and across ages are sample standard progressions.
Fifth step: Initiate a Group Game inspired by the THEME that you see between the first three scenes. In this example, “I’ll never get too old for pranks!”
Sixth step: Play with what you have, setting and cementing patterns on patterns on patterns. In this example, a string of scenes exploring childhood, middle age and old age in a third world country… an advanced alien race that loves pranks… a speed dating setup where first and third world denizens meet… and finally a group of fish on the precipice of evolving that decide it’s not worth it and crawl back into the sea.Focus outward. Follow. Offer, Set and Cement a Progression. The same tools that help us establish patterns in scenes enable us to build patterns between scenes. As in any improv, everyone’s playing by their own rules in their head, but if everyone is working toward collaboration then a group direction emerges. Practice weaving scenes into progressing patterns may be stiff at first, but you’ll train your brain to follow the group’s construction however it evolves.
Part Two: Using Tertiary Moves –
How we deploy Edits, Walk-ons, Tag-outs, etc. can create a language for our show that can enhance its cohesiveness. Like in building most patterns, the first time it can be random, but the second time it’s purposeful and the third time it’s expected. Like learning patterns most often, you may have to force it; but forcing it builds the muscles to see the opportunities when presented.
Step one through three: Establish rules of engagement.
First time it’s random: You’re moved to do a certain type of edit, walk-on, tag-out, etc.? Great. Do it.
Now, you all in the wings, what was the move, when was it made, and how was it made? Can you heighten that? Second time it’s purposeful.
Third time it’s expected. Are you compelled to heighten the move further along a progression?
Example #1: From the wings, a player edits the scene in progress by grooving across stage singing a song containing a lyric matching the last line of dialogue. If another player can edit the next scene with another song – and the players on stage could pimp him/her with a lyric – look for it. And if there’s a second there better be a third. (Check out The Johnsons as they pull this off)
It doesn’t have to be heady or verbal.
Example #2: A player on stage says “This is for the birds.” A player from the wings sweeps the stage as a bird. Later edits are done as birds or other animals or other flying things, etc.
Example #3: Without rhyme or reason, a player from the wings sweeps across stage while spinning in circles and saying “bebop buwhop.” Later edits make this move look good. And you don’t have to wait to make it look good; several players editing creatively in unison is improv as improv does best. Trust and follow.
Example #1: Timing matters. Is every called-for walk-on comically late to arrive? How many lines are there between walk-ons, and between entrances and exits?
Example #2: Tempo matters. Do tag-outs always come in groups of three this show? Is it always one person, then two people, then four people?
Example #3: Use matters. Is a walk-on used time and again to establish location? Does a string of players walking on different scenes to count down a doomsday clock evoke a shared world?
Example #4: Who matters. Does the same character enter multiple scenes? Does the same player enter whenever a technical definition is needed?
Remember, as should every Tertiary Move, a Walk-on should be made in service of what’s already established. So those of you who see a way to serve the show that may not service the scene in progress, I caution you. Ideally a move serving the show serves the scene. If following a pattern of a show disrupts a scene’s flow but earns an edit, then okay. But beware improv hubris: We’re all, the audience included, playing by the rules in our heads. If you make a bold leap assuming the majority is at least near your wavelength and you miss? Follow your compulsion as it serves the ensemble; keep your ego in check.
Example #1: Mirror/Heighten relationships. Do several scenes of players at work get tagged back to their domestic lives? Do relationships progress more to the dominate or submissive? Who has twins and/or bigger versions of them?
Example 2: Build worlds. Can disparate scenes each heighten Take Your Daughter To Work Day? Do different scenes’ characters intersect if maybe only for a moment? Could every character at some point be tagged in and out of a
Example 3: Employ triggers. It’s very Family Guy, but can players establish a language to evoke tag-outs, like “That’s just like the time…” Remember to first serve the scene before the show, so don’t kill what’s been established on stage for your little joke. Remember, too, that if all your tag-out consists of is a joke then the original scene can always tag back in.
Please don’t read me as saying that once a tertiary move is made one way it has to be made that way each time. If an edit, walk-on or tag-out is called for by the established scene, by all means bring it – first and foremost serve the scene in play. But force this tertiary move mirroring and progression in practice and your group will train its eyes to see the connections.
And when your group coheres its scenes with its use of tertiary moves – giving the audience a show to remember – then you’ll be hooked.
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