Sustainable Set – The Johnsons Cover Coldplay

Learn rigidly. Play loose. Wall Turkey

The Johnsons are the most dyed-in-the-wool Improv As Improv Does Best group there is. Makes sense. I coach them.

They were taught the contents of this website. They learned the mechanics of spontaneous collaboration. But the desire has never been for them to conform to one style of improv as dictated by their lessons. Rather the goal is always providing tools unique improvisers can utilize to enhance their personal approach.

The Johnsons are at their best when they relax into themselves and trust the learnings that have seeped into second-nature reactions. When they play, the rigid rules they’ve learned trace trajectories through loose points. To start a recent practice, The Johnsons discussed their personal preferences for initiating scenes.  Some felt most confident heightening a Personal Game against new details.  Some looked to map a relationship from earlier in the set onto a different world. Some liked following the theme implied by a certain line of dialogue, by juxtaposed details or by status. And the realization was that it didn’t matter what tool felt personally better to use; the group was collectively committed to reaching backward and leveraging established information.

An improviser finds calm in chaos and lulls alike knowing s/he can rely on repetition. If you’re ever lost in an improv woods, go back to where you were.

On January 21st, inspired by the suggestion of “Coldplay,” The Johnsons played loose without ever losing their footing because they always built on where they’d been. Each Opening vignette ran long following heightening ideas but the whole was tight. Each Two Person scene heightened ideas beyond several opportunities to edit and confidently reacted through any dips between peaks.  And each Group Game combined conventions to create an evolving organic structure. The full show is at the end of this post.

But first,…


1st Scene: Number Problems

John and Johnathan each start their scene engaged in their environment.  They quickly establish Personal Games and heighten them with abandon.  Reacting through their filters they explore fun verbal patterns and endow their environment. Focusing outward and reacting in accordance with a character’s established logic earns the edit.

2nd Scene: Remodel Couple

Lauren and Joe start with their characters’ emotions; Lauren’s emotionally engaged in the environment though what is not established while Joe’s emotionally engaged with Lauren though why is not established. And confidently grounded in emotion they make choices, about each other and the environment’s details.  And they build on those choices. The game of “Endowment & Justification” definitely leverages improv’s strengths – the audience loves seeing am improviser committed to feeling strongly about a detail their partner just made up.  It’s Joe’s emotional acceptance of a big choice that earns the edit.

3rd Scene: AhGoy

Alan and Scott bring a lot to the table quickly. Alan has something in front of him he’s engaging in mime. Scott’s got a backstory between them he’s revisiting emotionally. Alan bring pride. Scott agrees admiringly. Alan establishes a word game. And then they heighten all of it. When in doubt, they have an emotional reaction to the detail of the moment. And they discover that the “something” in front of Alan was a towel used by his every student.


The more players on stage, the greater the risk for a confusing mess. To maximize the potential for a Group Game to find its footing and heighten collaboratively, we seek to minimize the amount of stuff on stage and clarify our progressions.  Our main tool for minimizing stuff on stage is Agreement. For clarity, we leverage Repetition. 

We use rubric Group Games to teach mechanics that foster collaborative building through progressing Patterns. We can agree to heighten a shared emotional perspective in One Person Scenes. We craft a progression of emotionally affecting details together in To The Ether games. We can elevate an interaction through a series of relationships in Help Desk games. And we can string together the heights of individual silos by repeating the sequence of contributions in Hey Everybody games

But again the rubric is not the goal. The goal is leveraging the lessons of the rubrics in Organic Games.

More than anything, the audience loves to see us play.

1st Game: The Smell Blindness SymposiumBandshell of Death

“Thanks for coming, you guys, to the Smell Blindness Symposium,” is a Hey Everybody initiation if there ever was one. And the group obliges the call, all entering stage, though…c’mon guys, the Bandshell of Death is not a good look on a group.

But the second line is a character’s simple introduction and no one else in the group jumps on to introduce themselves so a Call & Response relationship with Jonathan as Facilitator interjecting between each introduction.  Heightening what he established, Jonathan greets his fellows with “You look great. You sound great.” He says the same thing three times – that’s a pattern in hard Cement – and if cemented the pattern flips easier and lands with greater impact. The Group Game could have been edited the moment Jonathan skipped to “You sound great” – the audience knew immediately John’s character didn’t “look great” and they loved it.  The Group Game did not end there – though,…c’mon guys, Blackout edit from within – but the group never lost their footing.  The build and finally edit the Group Game by boldly following their trajectories with new reactions and details while always leveraging back what they’d established.

Check it out. The first opportunity to edit comes at 54 seconds.  The game lasted 5 minutes and 7 seconds.

2nd Game: The Big Hand

John initiates to clearly call back his character from earlier that had problems deciphering clocks.  Alan enters stage to support him. Knowing it’s late in the show and a slow build Two Person Scene won’t suffice, Joe enters in full service of the Tertiary Player Mantra – he enters to serve the game at play.  He takes the confused “The big hand is hours,” and elevates it to an almost religious “The Big Hand is Ours.”  He’s also read the book he sees John pouring over. Lauren is quick to support Joe’s move, also asserting that “The Big Hand is Ours,” that she’s read the book and that it was “life changing.”  Lauren’s tight cementing makes Jonathan’s “The Big Hand…Ours,” “I read the Cliff Notes” edition worthy of an edit. But there is no edit.  The game goes on.

Scott enters to follow the progression of the Cliff Notes move; he only says “The Big Hand.”  The team then transitions into more One Person Scene territory, with all of them high-fiving the Big Hand.  And ultimately the group collaborates to create the next big plastic bracelet trend, “TBHIO.”

And there’s a third game, Wall Turkey, I call it. Wherein a tired ensemble forgets to engage their environment or leverage established info in initiating. The create new characters working through the details of a moment in the past. But they find a game and heighten it. Reference something Jonathan’s character ruined, physicalize it, and comment on it. The Rule of 3s in progression through collaboration gets them the lights-dimming end of their show.

Check out the full show. Do your notes differ than mine?  Do you see The Johnsons’ playing loosely with rigidly learned mechanics?

The Johnsons are Scott Beckett, Shawn Hambright, John Hilowitz, Joe Mack, Jonathan Nelson, Lauren Serpa and Alan Vollmer

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